"The machine process pervades the modern life and dominates it in a
mechanical sense. Its dominance is seen in the enforcement of mechanical
measurements and adjustment and the reduction of all manner of things,
purposes, acts, necessities, conveniences and amenities of life to standard
units...the machine gives no insight into questions of good and evil, merit
and demerit...it knows neither manners nor breeding...its scheme of
knowledge and inference is based on the laws of material causation, not
on those of memorial custom, authenticity or enactment."
-Thorsten Veblen, "The Discipline of the Machine" (1904)
"Men and nations alike are dominated by the struggle for existence.
Force is the law of life, and the statesman must shape his course
-Austrian ambassador Conrad von Hötzendorff 1
§ 1. Motors of Conflict
The implicit determinism of Darwin
's theory of evolution
and Henry Ford
were, through the early 1900s, nearly ubiquitous
and commercial discourse
. At the dawn of the 21st century (knowing the ruin and terror of the World Wars) making the intellectual stretch to understand that ethos
of the European mind a century ago can be exceedingly difficult. Understanding the historical mindset of another epoch
is a problematic exercise at best, if only because in order to even approximate the thinking of another time, one needs to have shared experiences, see what they had seen, from their socio-political point of view. This is next to impossible to simulate, that projection back in time, into another era's beliefs and assumptions. Most difficult of all is avoiding anachronism
in using current concepts to interpret a different era. It is a fine balance, to avoid pressing the seal of the present too deeply into a reading of the past. What follows then can be read as only the briefest of circumstantial sketches.
First and foremost to recall, as the twentieth century opened, is that a tightly-knit group of six European imperial powers took an active hand in the governance, commercial activity and military control of more than 85% of the world's nations. This era of extended colonialism
, whatever its underlying motives and eventual meaning (still hotly contested), had led over time to Europe's extension of direct influence to all edges of the globe. On the Empire of England & her Dominions the sun literally never set 2
, just as Germany and France had extensive holdings throughout Africa and Southeast Asia and Russia was emerging as a force in the Far East
and Middle East
, as well as in Eastern Europe. While these holdings abroad furnished the 'mother' nations with nearly inexhaustible wells of exotic materials and vital resources, they were also a recurring source of political and military antagonism
. Intense flashpoints of conflict and unrest between colonial officials and local populations were a constant by the mid 19th century, and continued well into the next, from Cairo
to the Sind
, from Manchuria
. As a result, each nation found an extensive networks of emissaries, spies, soldiers and couriers vital in maintaining the often fragile lifelines of communication, providing constant updates of tactical information.
At the same time as these rumblings were taking place overseas, however, there was still a great deal of underlying philosophical unity among Europeans about the nature of the world and their roles within it. Most felt morally, for lack of a better word, that they were civilizing, through a middle-class reformist sense of noblése obligee
. This assumption of European superiority
was not common only to the reformist and religiously minded. Even between the nation states themselves, there was common ground, stabilized by a finely orchestrated system of high-level diplomacy
, co-operative trade and common cultural exchange and taste. It was quite reasonably felt there was ample world to divide, so even by 1910, as war again spread among the Balkan states, a frequent feeling of complacency
still lingered. None of the major powers had squared off in over half a century and it was oft argued (as is still echoed today) that economic integration
makes war between states an unpalatable
, even ludicrous
After all, the last half of the 19th century had produced wealth, comfort, health and education for unprecedented numbers of people throughout the urbanized West, and done so at remarkable speed, particularly among the classes which governed and helped form or influence policy. True, the fruits of industrialization
and Free Trade commercialism
had not eradicated the city slums of London or Dublin quite so quickly as hoped, had not emancipated the blacks of the Americas, had not made it easy for the rural poor, illiterate or ailing- but still, history was seen to be moving in the right direction, through some Hegelian
sense of Progress
And while moments of dismay at international affairs still weekly flashed ominously across the horizon of headlines - more unrest in Palestine
, the interception of the ghastly 'Krueger Telegram' 4
, the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War or revolt by the Young Turks - still the people of the West remained largely confident and unshaken in their lot.
These events, while troubling, seemed to do little to thwart people's underlying faith
in the skills of science
, the strength of machines or the founding rationalism
of the day - international trade and news were now well established, innovations such as household electricity
, wireless telegraphy
and the 'motion picture
' all seemed to bind the various nations of the globe even closer together. Anything seemed possible as industry refined its processes, broadened its products and called everywhere for new workers. 5
Indeed all the continents of the planet were tied together by wire and cable enabling direct communication
- and the citizens of this newly interconnected world felt somehow safer knowing this. In other words, after the information infrastructure
was put in place, what many failed then (as frequently they fail now) to grasp was long-distance & instantaneous exchange of information will just as often ignite a crisis
as help avert one. By the first decade of the 20th century, wireless telegraphy
and the new telephone
(or 'speaking telegraph' as it was first called) had become commonplace in the offices of Foreign and Colonial Secretaries throughout the realm, so that when bad news befell the Empire, it tended to travel very quickly indeed, often leading to knee-jerk diplomatic decision making. 6
The British, in particular, noticed this information acceleration
, and sought to disarm the situation by frequently cutting the lines of communication in and out of countries in order to allow 'calmer heads to prevail.' 7
A detailed discussion of the myriad factors contributing to the outbreak of the Great War
is clearly beyond the scope of this work, as historical analysis of the subject already occupies thousands of books. Certainly the rise of widespread popular nationalist sentiment (often fuelled by the press) among the belligerent
countries, a race for naval supremacy between Germany and England (and the emergence of the Dreadnought
), continued concern by each Imperial power over maintaining their overseas colonies, the de-stabilization of the Balkans
and the international spread of radical
political movements all had a hand in producing a volatile Europe. This last force in particular provided the spark of the conflict, on a warm June morning in 1914, when a spectacled Serb anarchist 8
walked out of a crowd gathered in Sarajevo
and opened fire as the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand
and his wife in their idling motorcar. The year before Austria had thwarted Serbia
to in its efforts to re-construct a greater Slavic
state by forcing it to relinquish the Albanian territories it had occupied in 1912. Calls for reprisal were immediate and Germany backed Austria in its move to declare war. Russian & France had however, since 1894, formed an alliance of their own in response to German military strength, and they agreed immediately to stop Germany's expansion into the Balkan region. After the assassination
s sped back and forth across the telegraph lines of Europe, then clarifications of intention, then protests against troop mobilization
, but all this communication was in vain. There seemed to be a bottleneck in the flow of so much tactical information, as a series of inadequate responses emerged to calls for clarification as each government scrambled to establish the actions and motives of the other. Scholarship seems to indicate that there was little intention or will on any of the actors behalf to instigate 'total war
', each "believed passionately that it was fighting a war of defence. It was a cycle of fear rather than aggression
Belief or intention regardless, by August 4th, 1914, all the major nations of Europe found themselves suddenly combatants in a single struggle that spanned the globe.
§ 2. The Great War
"In the past the man has been first: in the future the system must be first."
- Frederick Winslow Taylor (1911)
"History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We
want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker's dam
is the history we make today."
- Henry Ford (1916)
The finer historical detail and military events of the two World Wars are, as mentioned above, beyond the scope of this study and it is necessary to approach the period in an anecdotal manner. It would be impossible to cover the ground otherwise, but hopefully the pages above have at least sketched the rough outline of the conflict as it spread around the world to the colonies of each of the nations involved. Hopefully, some of the statistics, images and events which follow will cement the 'information' aspect of the two conflicts together, and not leave the human tragedy of the period underscored for lack of detail. While hindsight
lends us easy wisdom, it should again be noted quite nearly all the men who fought, whether enlisted or conscripted, and their families and leaders, truly believed in the patriotic duty and moral obligation as they marched to war. Parties of all political stripes, from one end of the political spectrum
to the other, supported their governments and armies; with faster ships and trains, and better communication, it was widely asserted the war would surely be the swiftest ever and settlement decisive.
However, communication is always fraught with problems, and problems here began to contribute almost immediately to the stalemate of incremental trench warfare
. To begin with, radio-set communications were still being developed and adapted for military purposes in 1914, and along with wireless telegraphy were felt to be insecure (and in battle, frequently unreliable). Indeed the first Signals Intelligence operations began with British and Americans code-breakers as the war dragged on mercilessly and generals grew increasingly desperate for the interception of any information which might provide a tactical edge to upset the deadlock. However, at the dawn of the Great War
, it was felt far safer to stop communications completely rather than intercept them, it was said after all, 'gentlemen
do not read anothers mail', and it was still in the first few months viewed as a 'gentleman's war'.
Interestingly enough, this precept did not seem to extend the realm of disabling anothers mail, and within hours of the British declaration of war in 1914 (following the German invasion of France through neutral Belgium
), the cableships of the Eastern Telegraph Co.
were ordered by the Royal Navy to do their bit for King and Country. The five cables of the Deutchland Atlantic Telegraphen, along with the German
cable, were immediately dredged from the seafloor and severed. This was not only a logistical foil, as it also ensured Germany would be cut off from any possible American sympathy. Similarly, Germany's Siemens
-built landlines to the Far East
were cut off since both travelled through the enemy territories of Russia or India, and German wireless stations throughout Africa
(at Kamina and Dar-es-Salaam) were also targeted by Allied expeditionary forces. Within weeks of the outbreak of war, most of Germany's cable and wireless voice to the rest of the world was disabled. 10
The 'information front' of the conflict escalated immediately. On Sept. 7th, 1914, flying a French flag, the German cruiser Nürnberg
landed a boat of marines on the beaches of Fanning Island in the Cocoas of the South Pacific, where 26 staff of the British Pacific Cable Board manned the wires linking Suva
. The English stationed on the island had already been warned to expect trouble and had taken the precaution of burying spare equipment. Superintendent Alan Smythe ordered his staff to politely stand aside as the German marines set about burning the telegraph
station and destroying the dynamos and boilers with dynamite. The captain of the German marine unit then apologised at length, saying it was the first time in his military service he had been ordered to 'act the part of a burglar'. The private quarters of the island's staff were left completely untouched and the Nürnberg
then departed. 11
The cable station was up and running again within a month. The failure to disable to Pacific cable (of marginal strategic importance to the war still slowly mounting in Europe) did not pass by German command, and a month later the Emden
under Capt. Von Muller returned to finish the job. 12
This time however, an Australian battleship
, the Sydney
, was on patrol nearby and responded to the stations wireless distress signal and sank the German vessel in the first naval engagement of the war. 13
As the scale of the conflict fully manifested itself however, events quickly took on an less adventurous and chivalrous tone. German military planners (mindful of the fact they were battling Russia to the east and France to the west) had gambled on their troops ability to slice quickly Belgium (which they did), decisively engulf the smaller French armies and secure Paris for immediate surrender. This would then leave only the British, who would not risk an invasion of the Continent, and the Russians who were expected to be slow to mobilize. An excellent bit of strategic planning, so long as it worked - which it didn't. The generals failed to anticipate how exhausted their troops would be as they made their way to France on foot, where they were expected to engage the defending armies on their own turf. Even though rail travel was used extensively for the transport of munition
, most provisions and troops during this period still moved by horse and foot. German forces made early headway, the front-line crept near enough to Paris
to hear the boom of the howitzer
guns, but by the autumn of 1914, the French armies rallied and were pushing the line back to the Belgian border. Networks of trenches, barbed wire and cement pillboxes were hastily constructed on both sides.
By the time a year had passed, with the massive resources mobilized at home and abroad by all the warring states, a grim stalemate on the Western Front
had set in, dispersing any illusion the war would end quickly. By the end of 1915, the French alone had lost 300 000 men, the next year, in the battle of Verdun
alone, they would lose as many again. In Somme
, soon to follow, during the seven month battle there were nearly a million casualties divided equally between the British and German armies. What each nation's generals and politicians had failed to anticipate was how radically the world had been altered by the industrial, communication and information innovations of previous decades. Assembly lines, industrial logistics, streamlined manufacturing, electrically accelerated transport and instantaneous information distribution had all been but dreams during the Napoleonic Wars
(the last major conflict involving all of the European theatre). In other words, each state did not so much underestimate the other's forces, as completely disregard the staggering capacity of a fully Industrialized Europe to produce seemingly endless streams of munitions, ships and men for the frontlines. 14
By 1917, the astronomical loss of life and depletion of resources had taken a terrible toll on all the societies involved. Food shortages were widespread throughout the cities of Europe, transportation of materials became nearly impossible as coal and gasoline reserves vanished, both medicine and men simply began to run out. The brutal Eastern front of the war had obliterated the armies of both Russia and Germany, so that in the October of 1917, as the threat of winter famine descended, revolutionaries ceased control of St. Petersburg
. Vladimir Lenin
, who had been exiled to Switzerland
for opposing the war, returned immediately and upon forming the new government, quickly settled an uneasy peace with Germany
. The French by this point had suffered nearly three million casualties and there was a very real threat of mutiny among the ranks. The British had lost close to a another million men. Only when the Americans entered the war in 1917, in reaction to Germany's desperation move to resume unrestricted submarine warfare against all shipping in the Atlantic, did the conflict move into its last stages and was finally forced to end, after nearly ten million had been killed in direct military action alone. As the British economist John Meynard Keynes
wrote at the Peace Conference in 1918, "We are at the dead season of our fortunes...we have moved beyond endurance...never in the lifetime of men now living has the universal element in the soul of man burnt so dimly." 15
G.P. Gooch, Recent Revelations of European Diplomacy
(London: Longmans, 1940), 272.
, the Cocos Islands
, the Suez
, South Africa
, just to name a few, illustrate her longitudinal spread.
"The obsession of each culture with its uniqueness is the ultimate basis of its decline...there are unmistakable signs that ours is a civilization what partakes in the character of all civilizations, in its belief in its uniqueness and superiority over others...no other people, we are told, has enjoyed our advantages. Democracy
and other blessed words describe our new heaven...freedom of the press has been regarded as the great bulwark of our civilization
and it would be dangerous to say that it has become the great bulwark of monopolies of the press...civilizations have their sacred cows. The Middle Ages
burned its heretic
s and the modern age threatens them with the atom bomb
," from Harold Innis
, 'Industrialism and Cultural Values,' in The Bias of Communication
(Toronto: 1991), 133 & 139
The intereception of a dispatch between South African Dutch and a German Embassy in Europe, discussing the political of future of the Dark Continent
if the perfedious English could only be gotten rid of. After the considerable trouble of the Boer War
in 1899, this did not go over well with British public.
gave way to indignation
in the decades to come, as demonstrated in a speech given by the notable British humanist C.P. Snow
is the only hope
of the poor. I use the word 'hope' in a crude and prosaic
sense. I have not much use for the moral sensibility
of anyone who is too refined to use it so. It is all very well for us, sitting pretty, to think that material standards of living don't matter all that much. It is all very well, for one as a personal choice, to reject industrialization...and if you without much food, see most of your children die in infancy, despise the comforts of literacy
, accept 20 years off your own life, then I respect you for the strength of your aesthetic revulsion
. But I don't respect you in the slightest if, even passively, you try to impose the same choice on others who are not free to choose." C.P. Snow, from Visions of Technology: A Century of Vital Debate about Machines, Systems and the Human World
(NY: Simon and Schuster, 1999), 210.
Not to imply embassies were the only places to find telephones. In the 1880s, the first home telephones appeared in North America
. Curiously, the early Bell
companies had not thought of telephone numbers at this point, a telephone
subscriber simply had a slot on a switchboard
, labelled with name and town, so all calls were physically patched together by a system of wires. The Bell Company had to exert a great deal of pressure on its customers before it could abandon this process (which required an operator
, almost always female) in favour of a direct-calling number system. People seemed quite adamant about their own local operator, who were frequently seen as community figures like a mailman or newspaper boy. In some ways the profession encouraged this, as an early training manual advised the ideal to be held in mind on the job was to be 'nearly as possible a paragon of perfection, a kind of human machine, the exponent of speed and courtesy.' See Helene Martin Hello Central: Gender, Technology & Culture in the formation of telephone systems
was available primarily to English authorities, at least c. 1896, as 87% of the world's submarine communications cable was manufactured and laid by British companies, who had cornered and held the market since its inception. Of the world's 30 cable-laying ships, 24 were operated by English interests. In 1895, as an example, when French forces occupied the capital of Madagascar
, the British held up communiqués out of the country for three days while they planned a response. In 1899, with the outbreak of the Boer War
, all ciphered traffic between South Africa and Europe was halted by the British (who again controlled the cable stations). See Lazlo Solymar, Getting the Message : A History of Telecommunications
(NY: Oxford, 1999), 83.
8 Gavrilo Princip
was a leftist
youth with a literary bent who had flunked out of school and been rejected by the Serb
army during the earlier Balkan Wars on account of his poor physical fitness.
Roland N. Stromberg, History of Western Civilization
(Georgetown, Ontario: Doresy, 1969), 675.
Daniel Headrick, The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications & International Politics, 1851-1945
(NY: Oxford, 1991), 46.
She was later sunk off the Falkland Islands
by H.M.S. Kent
. See Hugh Barty-King, Girdle Round The Earth: the story of Cable & Wireless Telegraphy
(London: Heineman, 1979), 166.
12 Arthur C. Clarke
, How the World was One : Beyond the Global Village
(NY : Bantam, 1992), 92.
Forty German crew managed to escape the sinking ship however, swimming to a nearby island lagoon where they found a sailboat, the Ayesha
, moored by its owner. The Germans then sailed her to Bombay
, seized a British merchant steamship, sailed to Aden
, went overland to Yemen
, then north through the El-lith desert, then by rail to Damascus
and finally arrived in Germany in June 1915, seven months after the failed attack. See H. Von Mugge The Ayesha: A Great Adventure
illustrate the new scale of war, but one must suffice; in 1914, the whole British Empire had 18 000 hospital beds and four years later it had 630 000." See J. M. Roberts The Pelican History of the World
(London: Pelican, 1980), 832.