February 23rd 2019

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COVER STORY Something rotten led to fish-kill: perhaps fishy environmentalism

EDITORIAL Resistance grows to Beijing's soft-power push

CANBERRA OBSERVED Climate change: deadly ... to political leaders

TECHNOLOGY Electric cars: UK taxpayers subsidise rich greenies


CYBER SECURITY Chinese smartphone threat extends way beyond Huawei

SOCIETY Such grandeur of spirit

POLITICS John Hewson should have as sturdy a Constitution

FINANCE Hayne royal commission sets agenda for bank reform

FAMILY RELATIONS Dad: a girl's first and most influential love

COMMENTARY Words gone feral: rights and equality

MEDICINE AND CULTURE Book captures tragedy of falling foul of a fanatic

SOCIETY AND CULTURE A dog's life: reflections of a grey nomad


MUSIC Serialism a killer: Ideas tend to get in the way

CINEMA Cold Pursuit: Revenge served up manic

BOOK REVIEW Why the West and nowhere else

BOOK REVIEW The escalation of horror and atrocity


FAMILY AND SOCIETY The end of Liberalism

SPECIAL EDITORIAL Has Cardinal George Pell been wrongly convicted?

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The escalation of horror and atrocity

News Weekly, February 23, 2019

A HIGHER FORM OF KILLING: Six Weeks in World War I that Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare

by Diana Preston

Bloomsbury Press, Sydney
Hardcover: 288 pages
Price: AUD$38.40

Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel

Mention the horrors of World War I, and most people identify trench warfare, and the sheer number of casualties. Author Diana Preston, an Oxford-educated historian whose previous works include Wilful Murder: the Sinking of the Lusitania (reviewed by this reviewer in News Weekly, October 19, 2002), analyses Germany’s adoption of aerial bombing, the sinking of the Lusitania, and first use of poison gas. All of these actions occurred within six weeks of each other in April and May of 1915 and, as Preston argues, changed the nature of warfare.

Preston begins with a survey of the dev­elopment of just-war theory – which established, among other things, the manner in which nations could morally wage war. In particular, the theory forbids the direct targeting of civilians/non-combatants.

This theory formed the basis for the Hague Conventions of 1898 and 1907 – which Preston analyses early in the book – at which the signatories, who included the major belligerent powers involved in World War I, agreed not to target civilians or use poisonous gas.

After surveying the outbreak and early phases of World War I, Preston then analyses in detail the three actions in the order they first occurred. The first of these was the use of poison gas by the Germans near Ypres on April 22, 1915.

Although German authorities were aware that the use of poison gas was contrary to the Hague Convention – with some senior military figures initially opposing its use – they had been experimenting with it since late 1914. Research led by Fritz Haber determined which gas to use.

Desperate to break the stalemate on the Western Front by achieving a breakthrough, the plan was to use gas in a sector around Ypres, hoping that it would kill and/or disable enough enemy troops to allow a breach of the front line that would result in a breakthrough, and resumption of a more mobile form of warfare.

Although the allied casualties from the first and subsequent releases of gas in the next few days were high, and the Germans gained some territory in the vicinity of Ypres, they not only failed to capture the town, but did not create the much hoped for breach of the Western Front, with the stalemate continuing.

Having been the victims of a gas attack, the British and French soon came to the conclusion that, as Germany had reneged on her agreement not to use this form of warfare, they were no longer bound by the conventions signed. Accordingly, the British first used gas against the Germans in the Battle of Loos in September 1915.

In the remaining years of the war, both sides developed various poisonous gases, and refined their gas masks and deployment strategies. Ironically, one of the last victims of a gas attack was Corporal Adolf Hitler, who was gassed in 1918. Historians believe that for this reason the Germans did not use gas as a weapon in World War II.

The next event examined is that probably known best to readers, namely, the sinking of the Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a German submarine, U-20, off the Irish coast on May 7, 1915. By this stage, Germany no longer required its U-boat commanders to warn crews that they were about to sink vessels – thereby giving the crews the opportunity to evacuate the targeted ship. Instead the Germans attacked without warning.

Germany justified this decision on the basis that the British blockade of Germany was not only depriving it of war materiel, but was also creating hunger and suffering among the civilian population.

Although other British ships had been sunk without warning in the weeks and days before the attack on the Lusitania, it was the first major vessel to be sunk – although it had narrowly avoided being sunk in March 1915.

Its sinking galvanised widespread anger among Americans. This was particularly the case because German authorities placed advertisements in American newspapers on the day of the Lusitania’s departure from New York, reminding them that such vessels were liable to be attacked.

Although the sinking created considerable outrage among Americans, and there was an exchange of protest notes and replies between the German and American governments, it was not sufficient to bring the United States into the war on the side of the allies at this point.

In response to American concerns, Germany suspended its unrestricted warfare. It was only at the start of 1917 after 2½ years of the blockade – when Germany was desperate to end the war – that unrestricted U-boat attacks on shipping was resumed, in the hope that the allies would sue for peace before the U.S. declared war.

The third action the book analyses is that which is probably least remembered, namely the air bombing of London and other British cities. Initially, the Germans used Zeppelin airships, particularly throughout 1915 into 1917.

Although there were earlier raids and attempted raids on British targets, the first bombing of London by a Zeppelin took place on the night of May 31, 1915. These had the advantage of being able to fly at higher altitudes than airplanes, which made attacking them difficult. Furthermore, there was a lack of anti-aircraft batteries in and around London.

The British responses of developing such batteries, as well as airplanes that could fly at similar altitudes to Zeppelins and strike them down with incendiary bullets, forced the Germans to use airplanes rather than Zeppelins.

Although the casualties from Zeppelin and airplane bombing pale into insignificance when compared with those of World War II, such raids succeeded in creating fear and panic. Nonetheless they failed to achieve the collapse of civilian morale the Germans hoped for.

Although, as noted above, poisonous gas was not used as a weapon of war in World War II, Preston notes that U-boat attacks on ships without warning, and airborne bombing of civilian targets – first used in World War I – became common military strategies in World War II.

As with her other works, A Higher Form of Killing is an extremely well-researched book. It is at the same time an engaging book, written for the average reader rather than the professional historian. For this reason, it is highly recommended.

Michael E. Daniel is a Melbourne-based writer.

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