Today, let's go to war. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Barbara Tuchman's book about
WW-I is called The Guns of August,
because the form of the war was set during its
first few days in August of 1914. The German attack
plan, out of a 19th-century military strategy book,
promised victory in a few weeks. Yet the war
quickly turned into four years of human attrition
along a double line of trenches that ran from Nancy
west to near Paris, and then north to Ostend. By
the time the carnage was over, 8½ million
men had died -- most of them on this 350-mile line.
The generals on both sides tried to fight the war
the way Napoleon would have. They had plenty of
warnings that the new technologies of slaughter
would create a stalemate. But the warnings were
Napoleonic muskets had evolved into rapid-firing
rifles -- like the British Enfield. The machine gun
had matured. These weapons laid down a field of
fire that made open-field attacks impossible. But,
once troops were entrenched, they were practically
immovable. The Civil War had already made it pretty
clear that even the first breech-loading rifles
were going to make a mess of traditional warfare.
European generals weren't about to use America as a
military textbook, but they really should have paid
more attention to their own Battle of Duppel in
1862. 6000 ill-equipped Danes built a 3000-foot
continuous fortified trench and held off 18,000
well-equipped Prussians. The Prussians went at the
Danes the way you're supposed to go after troops in
a conventional masonry fort. Instead of crumbling
under artillery fire, the protective dirt just flew
into the air and fell back down. The Prussians did
finally overrun the Danes, but it took them two
months and far too many lives. Instead of seeing
that the Danish trench was a remarkable new
defensive strategy, the Prussians simply figured
that conventional tactics had taken a little longer
than they should have.
Storm warnings like this kept coming. Open-field
formations were cut to pieces in the
Prussian-Austrian conflict in 1866, and again when
the Russians fought the Turks in 1877.
So WW-I settled into a double row of trenches. 5000
men were killed in a slack week. A half-million
were lost in a pitched assault. But the line hardly
moved. The stalemate was finally broken in 1918,
when the Allies came out with a new weapon -- the
armored tank -- and a set of tactics for using it.
We won the war; but 22 years later, Germany did
much the same thing to the Allies. The French had
developed a kind of super-trench called the Maginot
line that didn't even slow down the German
panzer-tank units. And so, in 1940, this terrible
cycle of technology began its next round.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Robinson, W. B., American Forts: Architectural
Form and Function. Urbana, Ill.: University of
Illinois Press. (Published for the Amon Carter Museum
of Western Art, Fort Worth, TX), 1977.
Tuchman, B. W., The Guns of August. New York:
For more on this idea, see Episode 870.
Image provided by Sims
Stereopticon photo of a WW-1 battlefield: trenches
in the foreground and one of the earliest tanks
ruined in the background. The tank would
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Image provided by Margaret
A typical WW-I machine gun
Episode | Search Episodes |