First World War soldier in the Somme
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How to take the soldier out of war

Image credit: Getty Images

“Excuse me sir, can you tell us why everyone here is wearing these red paper flowers?”

I explained they are remembrance poppies to mark Armistice day on the 11th of November. My answer seemed to satisfy the couple of American tourists passing by the IET’s London HQ. Yet there was so much more I could have said. 

The First World War has passed from living memory but we still hear its echoes a century on. My two great uncles were killed over a century ago, yet I would have known them if they’d lived.

The war didn’t go as people first expected. Nations had the naïve idea that “it would be all over by Christmas” and they still thought of war in terms of swords and cavalry charges. They underestimated the impact of mechanisation, from the machine gun to the tank and from camouflage to the aeroplane. It was a time of enormous technological change and, indeed, disillusionment about what technology meant for society.

A century later we are in another technological shift that’s just as seismic. There has been a growing trend to take humans away from the conflict wherever possible. The Wright Brothers developed the first remote-control planes during the First World War, and by the end of the 20th century a pilot could steer a missile from another continent in what some criticised for being warfare in the style of video games. Yet now remote control is edging towards autonomous hardware in the traditional theatres of war. Tim Fryer looks at the The Whole Story of Future Warfare on land, sea and in the air. Louise Murray discusses how navies are developing shoals of cooperative robots.

More precise weapons that take humans away from the danger zone would at first sight seem to be only a good thing, but autonomous drones raise thorny issues of accountability, reliability and security. Introducing artificial intelligence into military decisions is even more problematic. In recent years, too, we have seen conflict move to a brand new theatre of war: cyberspace, for propaganda or attacks on critical infrastructure.

My grandfather was still at school when war broke out but I learnt recently he worked for a little in the photographic department of an aircraft factory and a few years earlier had helped Samuel Franklin Cody, whose kites appear in our feature on technologies of the First World War

A century on, technology is once again about to revolutionise warfare. Our special coverage marking the Armistice centenary looks at the future as well as the past. 

bar chart of First World War casualties by nation

First World war casualties by nation

Image credit: Graphic News

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