# Technical progress and the Great War : the Belgian front

"When Belgium stemmed the tide"  
Bell Telephone advert, using the example of the Belgian resistance for patriotic purposes, and confirming the company's support for the American war effort. Advertisement from a magazine of the day. Private collection, Nicolas Mignon.  - All rights reserved ©

"When Belgium stemmed the tide" Bell Telephone advert, using the example of the Belgian resistance for patriotic purposes, and confirming the company's support for the American war effort. Advertisement from a magazine of the day. Private collection, Nicolas Mignon. - All rights reserved ©

In late July 2010, a crowd gathers in order to watch planes exercise in the Stockel aviation field – actually the horse racing track used for this occasion. Like their neighbours, the Belgians will develop a passion for these marvellous flying machines and their pilots. Twelve of them have been flying over the Brussels skies since 23 July, as part of this event that will result in records being broken, including for altitude. The initial days already saw a few accidents, but without victims. But on 3 August, the day before the end of the competition, a drama arises: caught in a squall, the aircraft flown by Nicolas Kinet breaks up in mid-flight and crashes, before his wife's eyes. The unfortunate pilot's body is taken to the hospital… in an ambulance drawn by four horses.

The contrast between the two vehicles, i.e. the one resulting in Kinet's death and the one carrying off his body, is a testament to the speed of the technological process occurring in this early part of the 20th century. Society has barely had time to grow accustomed to automobiles, and already planes are setting out to conquer the skies! During an economic conference in Mons in 1905, the future 1909 Nobel Peace Prize winner Auguste Beernaert gives the opening address. At that time, the performances of Kinet and of his colleagues five years later can still not even be imagined. Auguste Beernaert gives his point of view on the technological progress of his time: "Modern times have been marked by a series of extraordinary inventions. The two fairies of steam and electricity were already enough to revolutionize living conditions. But so many other discoveries! The Morse telegraph, telephone, sewing machine, dynamite, electric lighting, new rotary or gas engines, photography, wireless telegraphy, the automobile and I don't know what else. All of this has changed the existence of the world, along with new resources and new needs, new goods and new perils." .

Beernaert was more astute than he knew. Already in 1910, postcards immortalize Kinet as "fallen with honour". He died for science: aviators will soon be dying for their homelands.

Armoured vehicles and cars

The First World War is sadly famous for having led to the creation of new means of destruction. One of them is the assault vehicle. It was originally developed by the English army that provided the codename "tank", a name that has stuck to this day. However, it's the French model of the Renault light tank that provided its contemporary shape: a machine with a mounted turret that can fire in every direction. The Belgian army did not use tanks during the conflict. The Yser front is hardly propitious for the usage of such machines during the position war, but the Belgian command will regret their absence on the Flanders plains, during the second half of the final offensive.

However, starting in 1914, the army deploys several armoured vehicles from the Belgian Minerva brand, that are extensively used for reconnaissance tasks and rearguard combat during the invasion. Once the front has stabilised, these vehicles become useless for the trench war. They are nevertheless once again useful on the less static Russian front, starting in the autumn of 1915: a Belgian expeditionary corps is sent there, that will consist of some 450 men after reinforcements. The unit is famous for having included some future celebrities in its ranks – the future leader of the Belgian communist party Julien Lahaut, the Liège writer Marcel Thiry, world champion wrestler Henri Herd, alias "Constant le Marin" – but also for having been in Kiev at the time of the Russian revolution and having had to return to Belgium by taking the trans-Siberian train to Vladivostok, and then via the United States. In hindsight, this "Belgian Motorized Gun Corps" is primarily interesting as a result of its modern organisation and mobility: not only is its core made up of armoured vehicles, but the support infantry has motorcycles and bicycles, as well as lorries for the quartermaster and ambulances. Logistics are obviously a fundamental part of modern war, and the automobile plays a major role in this regard by completing horses. The Allied superiority in this domain is overwhelming by the end of the war: in 1918, the Germans only have 20,000 lorries on the Western front, while the French alone have five times as many.

In 1918, the Germans only have 20,000 lorries on the Western front, while the French alone have five times as many.


It is frequently read that the first chemical attack in history occurred at Ypres in 1915. This is an error that traces back to the fact that the Western front attracted much more attention than the Eastern front: in reality, the first German use of gases occurred in January 1915 on the Polish front, but it was a failure as a result of the wind and cold weather that minimized the effects of the toxic shells. The German attack north of Ypres on 22 April 1915 was therefore not the first of its type, but clearly more efficient than the previous attack: the blanket of chlorine spreads death and panic in the ranks of the French troops. A breach several kilometres wide opens between the Belgians of the 6th army division and the Canadians of the 2nd British corps, for which the flanks are suddenly left open. Their resistance on these same flanks prevents the German attack from breaking through, but the Allied positions must pulled back and drawn closer to the city.

After the fact, the German general staff was strongly criticized for not taking better advantage of the usage of this secret weapon, and having failed to break through the Allied front. A thoroughly similar reproach is directed at the British command with regard to the first attack involving tanks, in September 1916 on the Somme. Such criticism is interesting because in both cases, it illustrates the somewhat naïve belief in the power of technology in wartime. In fact, it was difficult for the German or English general staffs to know exactly how to use these weapons before they had been tested in actual situations, just as it was impossible to train soldiers in the use of these weapons while maintaining the effect of surprise relative to the enemy. Throughout the war, the newly employed technologies only become genuinely useful after a difficult learning curve that costs many human lives, and despite everything, neither tanks or gases are ever as important as the classical weapon of artillery. After the surprise effect in the spring of 1915, the only great benefit of gas during the Great War is for the fear and inconvenience that it causes amongst the enemy, rather than for any losses that it inflicts, which are negligible on the scale of the conflict.

In addition, the use of gas in 1915 is not without political consequences. The potential of a chemical war had been anticipated before the conflict, and roundly condemned by both Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. The fact that Germany was the first to violate the international regulations in this regard results in its image once again being tarnished in the eyes of international public opinion. But the French and British armies reply with the same weapons a few months later, in the autumn of 1915, and their usage becomes widespread amongst all of the belligerents, including the Belgians. A passage from the memoirs of Jacques Pirenne, describing the start of the final offensive, displays no particular scruples in this regard: "[my superior] ordered me to distribute the toxic shells amongst the cannons. […] With this work done, I quickly washed […] It was a wonderful spectacle to see my section's two cannons firing in the morning mist" .

Individual weaponry, machine guns and the artillery

Just before the war, the question of excessively visible uniforms and of the need to further protect the heads of soldiers were the subject of debates and projects. The conflict simply accelerates an inescapable evolution, that often takes the form of a return to the past: namely relative to the helmet, that the infantry had abandoned in the 16th century, but also the trench knife and grenade, which becomes an indispensable weapon for the infantry. In 1914, soldiers went to war with their only weapon being their rifle and bayonet. In the second half of the conflict, the units are supplied with grenades, sniper rifles, machine guns (like the Americans, the Belgians use the French Chauchat), and occasionally mortars and flamethrowers. The supply of machine guns (only 120 for the entire Belgian army in 1914) increases considerably throughout the conflict. Engineering battalions and balloon companies increase by a factor of three, while telegraph companies increase fourfold. On all sides, T.S.F. (radio) units are created, along with spotlights for the antiaircraft artillery, and pontonier units.

Not only do the equipment and specialisation of the infantry increase, the latter loses its title as "queen of battles". The true tactical and technical progress involved moving from an infantry battle to an equipment battle, with artillery becoming the main weapon. Amongst all of the belligerents, its importance in 1918 was much greater than in 1914. In the Belgian case, the number of artillery regiments tripled. Not only did the number of cannons increase, but the army also starts to use heavy artillery and trench artillery, which did not exist at the start of the war. Despite increasing destructive power of the artillery, aiming it is still necessary. Once again, considerable progress is made: from simple observation using binoculars at the start of the war, the shift is to aerial observation. However, this is handicapped by bad weather or by another innovation from the war, camouflage. Pinpointing methods at night improve with the help of aviation, and the observation of mobile flashes. Especially, at the end of the war, it becomes possible to locate enemy batteries using networks of microphones distributed throughout the front. War has definitively become a matter for technicians.

In the air

Amongst the other technologies that played an important role between 1914 and 1918, aviation deserves special attention. Man had been fighting on land and sea for thousands of years, but it wasn't until the 20th century and especially the Great War before a third front opens up, namely the air. In four years, aircraft will develop remarkably. The power of the aircraft, their autonomy, their weight-bearing capacity and their altitude ceiling all improve.

In Belgium, the development of aviation benefits from the important support of King Albert himself. He is not only the only sovereign to travel frequently to the front, into the trenches themselves, he is also the only one to fly over them on several occasions starting in 1917, even flying above occupied Ostend. Each time, of course, he is accompanied by a fighter escort, that is honoured but stressed by such missions. However, this does not make him invulnerable to attack, nor to antiaircraft artillery, nor especially to technical problems… This is therefore more than simple propaganda, even though the aim is partly to enhance the King's image. He develops a genuine passion for the various types of aircraft and, throughout the war, successively flies in models including the Farman, Sopwith, Morane and Spad. He is fascinated by the British Handley Page heavy bombers and does not hesitate, after a flight aboard one on 5 June 1917, to return two days later in order to repeat the experience, this time in the company of Queen Elisabeth!


The best known image from the air war is certainly that of fighter planes and, in particular, that of the "aces", i.e. pilots who had more than five confirmed kills of enemy aircraft shot down. The spectacle of these "knights of the sky" attract even more interest since they divert attention from combat on the ground, which is less visually attractive. However, one must not be misled by the often excessively sleek image associated with these air battles. Pilots have an extremely short life expectancy and their death is nothing glorious, often burning to death or dying in the crash of their aircraft. Also, air combat is not the most important activity for aircraft during the Great War. Its primary purpose is to protect the two other missions assigned to aviation.

The most fundamental role played by aviation was that of observation and artillery adjustment. Despite the development of aeronautics, victory is decided on the ground. Aviation therefore proves to be most precious by helping armies to manoeuvre: the aim is to identify any potential threat and to gather useful information that could be used to strike the enemy. This mission is notably fulfilled by tethered observation balloons, that allow two observers to watch the front of all times. As the eyes of the artillery, these balloons are very fragile and therefore heavily protected, by antiaircraft weapons and eventually by an escort of fighter planes. Tactically, however, destroying them is so worthwhile that certain pilots specialise in attacking targets of this type. The most famous of them is the Belgian Willy Coppens, who shoots down 35 just in 1918, before a burst of machine gun fire costs him his left leg.

While balloons remained indispensable on the front until the end of the war, the aviation has the advantage of moving as it likes above the trench lines. It is therefore not surprising that reconnaissance tasks are the most important role assigned to the Belgian aviation. Aerial photography is later added to the mix, as it gradually develops. Each parcel of land on the front and behind is photographed. Since artillery is the most important and most deadly weapon, it must absolutely be neutralized: one of the main objectives of reconnaissance is to locate any cannons and directly assist in their neutralization by means of guiding Allied fire, or bombers.

The third role of the aviation, in fact, is direct ground attacks. The results are mixed. The accuracy of aircraft is quite random, especially at night or when facing well-defended targets. The bombarding of enemy cities, over and above its morally problematic character, serves only to increase the desire to resist. On the other hand, attacks on the front, as well as on the roads and railways leading to it are much more efficient, and play a considerable role in the successes and failures of the offensives in 1918.

During the Great War, the very young aerial weapon therefore assumes a number of missions that would hardly have been considered believable in previous years. The progress made by aviation during the war does nothing to conceal the limits of aircraft during that era. The machines are not very reliable, and not very resistant. Crew members are more often victims of accidents and pilot error than they are of enemy action, and the casualty rate is high: the rate of personnel losses (killed, wounded, disappeared and prisoners) is 39% for the French, 50% for the British, and probably even higher for the Germans. The risks are even greater than the ones faced by infantrymen, who watch aerial battles with rapt attention. During the liberating offensive, Englebert Decrop describes an impressive spectacle: " This morning, we watched an unusual airplane battle – more than 30 aircraft pitted against one another: impossible to recognise the nationalities. In three minutes, five planes went down, two in flames. They're like big dead leaves that tumble as they fall. Were the fallen friends or foes? Impossible to know ". The majority of these "dead leaves" are still made of fabric and wood. In this technological domain as in others, the Great War doesn't innovate so much as it does perfect, while also "democratizing": that which yesterday was rare and expensive must now be produced en masse for the army. The case of France speaks volumes: with 141 aircraft when the war began, the French army has 4000 in 1918.

In three minutes, five planes went down, two in flames. They're like big dead leaves that tumble as they fall.

The failure of technology: communications

Brussels, the morning of 3 August 1914. The ultimatum was only delivered to the Belgian government the evening before, and the general headquarters is in turmoil: information from Liège indicates that Visé is already in the hands of German troops. Several high ranking officers lose their composure: one speaks of suicide, others start crying. It's Major Maglinse, head of the 1st section of the general staff, who stems the panic simply by… telephoning the commander's office at the stronghold of Liège. General Leman denies that the Germans have entered Visé, and the pressure on the shoulders of the general staff officers temporarily falls. It's easy to mock certain actors in this episode, while forgetting the terrible tension that they were under, when confronted with such a terrifying situation. In particular, this example is indicative of the crucial importance of communications for the commanders. If the command structure is blind, no superiority in manpower or equipment will matter. However, throughout the Great War, communication-related technology proves to be insufficient.

19th-century generals could overlook almost all battlefields from a good vantage point. The use of black powder covered the battlefield in multiple screens of smoke, but overall, an army commander could, with the help of only a few aides-de-camp, have an overview of the situation and make the necessary decisions. In 1914, however, huge numbers of men are assigned to frontlines covering hundreds of kilometres, well beyond the field of vision of any human being. On its own, Germany deploys seven armies to the western front at the time of the invasion. None of the generals commanding them could, in real time, have a clear view of the situation of the units under their command. This would be even less so the case for their superior, Helmut von Molkte! If he gets too close to one of the armies, he loses sight of the others; if he steps back for a broader view, it takes too much time to receive or send orders. In the end, he makes the poor decision to command solely from Luxembourg while only communicating with his armies via a single of his subordinates, which contributes to the defeat at the Marne.

The only way to communicate in real-time is to use the radio. But first of all, no radio unit from the time is sufficiently easy to handle to be useful on the battlefield: it is therefore not possible to contact troops in the field or to receive reports using this mean. Also, the enemy could intercept communications of this type, which must be encrypted, though there is always a risk that they could be decoded. For a long time, and not without reason, the generals of the 1st and 2nd Russian armies, Rennenkampf and Samsonov, were criticized for having communicated over the radio in plain language, thereby contributing to the German victory at Tannenberg at the end of August 1914. But it should be noted that their German adversaries did exactly the same thing…

Throughout the Great War, communication-related technology proves to be insufficient.

Once the position war is in place, the communication problems barely improve. In the absence of portable radios, communications between command and the front notably use a secure telephone network. This network is vulnerable to bombardment and is therefore frequently cut… at the very moment when it is most necessary. The only medium-term solution is to immediately send teams out to find the break(s) in the wire, during the bombardment, and to perform repairs while being shelled. But the task is almost impossible in case of a large attack: during the battle of Verdun, no less than 150 km of wire is needed to repair the telephone connections cut by German artillery… only on 21 February 1916. Even on the Belgian front, which never experienced such hell on earth, the commanders cannot afford to wait for a hypothetical repair in order to send urgent orders, and to keep abreast of the situation. They must therefore use runners, hoping that they will be quick and will survive going back and forth. In the 19th century, liaison officers performed this task on horseback, but of course this was unthinkable in the trench war. It was therefore necessary to run through enemy fire in a devastated landscape, from openings in the trenches to shell holes, possibly in bad weather or at night, without getting lost or dying. Despite the courage of the soldiers assigned to this task, the information received by the officers is outdated before reaching them, and their own orders often no longer correspond with reality once they reach their recipients. Part of the terrible losses during the Great War can be attributed to this reason.

Sources Click to view the sources


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