The First World War in 100 Objects covers

Book reviews

With the centenary of the First World War upon us, we take a look at a handful of books that focus on engineering and technology’s part in the conflict.

Historical books

The First World War in 100 Objects

The pace of technological progress and automated production in Europe escalated rapidly during the opening decade of the 20th Century, and these dynamics were immediately channelled into the prosecution of the 1914-1918 conflict. As a result, the warring forces soon became dependent on mass-produced military materiel, equipment and ordnance. When hostilities in Europe became bogged-down in strategic stalemate, increasing expectations – and demands – were placed on technology to deliver solutions to the new forms of warfare emerging on land, at sea, and in the air.

Armoured fighting vehicles, attack aircraft, and advanced artillery, which in peacetime might have taken years to be conceived, designed and manufactured in volume, now in some cases went from drawing-board to battlefield in matters of months. War sped-up innovation in electronic communications devices and put telephones and wireless transmitters directly into combat zones.

Many such examples of influential engineering and technology are included in these three similarly-titled books, ‘The First World War in 100 Objects’ by Gary Sheffield (Andre Deutsche, £25, ISBN: 9781780973968), ‘The First World War in 100 Objects’ by Peter Doyle (The History Press, £25, ISBN: 9780752488110), and ‘A History of the First World War in 100 Objects’ by John Hughes-Wilson (consultant Nigel Steel), (Cassell Illustrated, £30, ISBN: 9781844037445).

Each work presents 100 things that have functional, representational or symbolic significance to the great conflict. They range broadly from the quirky to the iconic, the national to the personal. Just about every object has emotional or intellectual resonance, and often serves to explain multiple aspects of the First World War story as it unfolded in its various theatres around the globe.

Several of the objects across the three titles highlight advances in engineering or technology that war (directly or indirectly) brought about, ranging from prosthetic limbs to the Red Baron’s Fokker triplane. All three ‘100 objects’ books are impressively and comprehensively illustrated with a mixture of archive images and specially-commissioned photographs of featured items, some of which, loaned from private collections, are shown for the first time.

Given the similarities in the respective book names and editorial formats, there is less overlap than might be supposed, with surprisingly few objects being included twice or more across these publications – although, as might be expected, more well-known of the objects, such as tanks, fighter aircraft, Zeppelins, U-Boats and combat helmets, plus the various classes of heavy artillery that proved so devastating in the ground war, are the most commonly featured across the titles.

Repetition is minimised because each of the three ‘100 objects’ lists has been informed by subtly different criteria: Peter Doyle’s is perhaps the most eclectic selection, and is biased toward the accoutrements of warfare – the trench coat, the water bottle, the identity disc, badges, and small arms. Several of Gary Sheffield’s choices include artefacts or documents that tell more of the tragic realities on the respective home fronts, and other events connected to – or impacted by – the conflict: memorials and tombs, letters and telegrams, influenza masks and soap.

John Hughes-Wilson’s offering, at nearly 450 pages, is the longest and most expensive of the three books, and produced in association with Imperial War Museum consultant Nigel Steel. Its editorial format endeavours to associate each if its objects with an actual named individual owner or user, and its beefier size also enables it to contain more extensive historical detail and appendix maps.

Both Doyle and Sheffield give commendable coverage to barbed wire – the ‘wicked weed’ or ‘Devil’s rope’ originally invented for cattle enclosures – that arguably became one of the decisive factors in consigning the direct infantry charges, that had hitherto characterised much battlefield strategy, to the latrine of history.

For the average fighting soldier, rifles, pistols, and machine guns were, of course, the primary offensive tools of the First World War, and the most famous names in this area – Vickers, Lee Enfield, Moisin-Nagant, Lebel, Colt, Webley – merit mentions (Doyle has the most of these). Both Sheffield and Hughes-Wilson include the British Lewis light machine gun among their objects; however, two innovative small-arms introduced to the Western Front, the American M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle and the German MP18 sub-machine gun, developed specifically for close-quarter trench fighting, are not included in any of these three surveys - a tad surprising, in that both weapons would prove so influential in the subsequent evolution of hand-held firepower.

James Hayes


Oxford University Press

The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War By Hew Strachan, £25.00, ISBN 978-0-19-966338-5

Until the dawn of the 20th Century the British Isles were virtually immune from invasion. Although at its closest point to mainland Europe, Britain was separated by the merest of slender sea channels, the nation had a strong maritime pedigree and was good at defending itself.

For centuries, Britannia’s wars had been fought either at sea or on foreign soil, and yet, political events during the summer of 1914 meant that all this was about to change, as is ably demonstrated in Hew Strachan’s ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War’. Reissued to coincide with the centenary of the outbreak of the first truly international military event, Strachan’s book is a classic collection of essays that will resonate with every engineer.

Although the exchange of land-based artillery on the continent could sometimes be heard in England, there was a general supposition that the Home Front was safe and secure. But with the development of sophisticated powered flight, aerial achievements quickly became the measure of the greatness of nations in the early 20th Century. Media magnate Lord Northcliffe proclaimed that “England was no longer an island” a decade before the outbreak of what became known as the Great War. Technology meant that we were no longer able to sleep safe in our beds. If there was any remaining doubt, H G Wells’ 1908 ‘The War in the Air’ that was inspired by the Zeppelin flights, removed it completely.

By the end of the war both sides were exhibiting captured aeroplanes to the public. German advertisements from the manufacturer Fokker proudly showed off its synchronised machine gun and propeller systems. Supplementary technologies were developed to detect enemy aircraft with both searchlights and listening devices. Aerial photography became critical to reconnaissance missions. While it was to have nothing like the impact it had on the Second World War, combat flying was now a serious business, and as guns jammed and engines failed, civilian vulnerability from aerial bombardment became a reality.

Engineering supremacy, whether in the air or on the ground, was the key to implementing the political posturing that was to leave three empires in tatters and a fourth on the brink of revolution. Whether it was the development of tanks, improvements in communications and chemicals, torpedoes and artillery, cartography or distribution logistics, technological evolution was one of the fundamental underpinning strategies upon which the war won or lost. Strachan’s collection of two dozen essays at first glance might not be specifically about the role of engineering, but his book will leave you wondering if anything could ever have been achieved without engineers.

You won’t find either of the words ‘engineering’ or ‘technology’ in the index of ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War’, and yet, these are threads that are woven into the fabric of this important re-issue of a classic and indispensible reference work.

Nick Smith


Bradt Travel Guides

World War I Battlefields: A Travel Guide to the Western Front. By John Ruler & Emma Thomson, £6.99, ISBN 978-1841624846

The latest addition to the well-respected and ever-growing family of the invariably reliable and intelligent Bradt travel guides, ‘World War I Battlefields’, was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of history’s bloodiest military conflict. Like all other Bradt titles, this book is not only full of dates, tips, itineraries and fascinating details (including plenty of technological ones), but is extremely well-written, with some panels (such as the one about Kipling’s son Jack, killed in the battle of Loos in 1915 aged just 18) reading like pieces of literature rather than some dry guidebook entries.

As follows from the title, descriptions of the main First World War battles and battlefields (Ypres, Mons, Arras, Somme, Marne, Cambrai and many more) are the guide’s strongest side. It follows the age-long tradition, started by the historic 1919 ‘Michelin Guide to Ypres’, of reflecting an undying public interest to war relics: weapons, combat vehicles, roads, tunnels, fortifications and other engineering objects. I was taken by the fairly little-known story of the IJzer River sluices, deliberately opened in October 1914 to flood the IJzer Plain to prevent German advancement towards French ports and British supply lines. This clever engineering ruse, devised by Karel Clogge, effectively stopped the Germans from occupying the whole of Belgium and stopped their advance towards Calais and Dunkerque. The guide is resplendent with similar stories of bravery and ingenuity. 

John Ruler, author of the popular and frequently reissued ‘Cross Channel France’ Bradt Guide, and Emma Thomson, who had previously penned the recently released Bradt ‘Guide to Flanders’, have jointly produced an extremely timely and handy (in more than one sense) book, which will be welcomed by numerous military history enthusiasts, including those still trying to trace relatives who fought in the conflict.

Vitali Vitaliev


E&T readers can receive an exclusive 40 per cent discount on Bradt’s ‘World War I Battlefields’ by ordering from and entering the discount code IET at the checkout. The offer includes free UK p&p and is valid until 31 July.

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