Today's Reading

Clare inched forward, weighed down by the heavy pack of supplies that all infantrymen were required to carry. These packs, which could weigh as much as sixty pounds, contained everything from ammunition and hand grenades to gas masks, goggles, shovels, and water. Clare negotiated tangles of barbed wire, keeping low to the ground to avoid the shower of bullets flying overhead.

Then, seven hundred yards from the trench, he felt a sharp blow to the side of his face. A single bullet had torn through both his cheeks. Blood cascaded from his mouth and nostrils, soaking the front of his uniform. Clare opened his mouth to scream, but no sound escaped. His face was too badly maimed to even arrange itself into a grimace of pain.

From the moment that the first machine gun rang out over the Western Front, one thing was clear: Europe's military technology had wildly surpassed its medical capabilities. Bullets tore through the air at terrifying speeds. Shells and mortar bombs exploded with a force that flung men around the battlefield like rag dolls. Ammunition containing magnesium fuses ignited when lodged in flesh. And a new threat, in the form of hot chunks of shrapnel, often covered in bacteria-laden mud, wrought terrible injuries on its victims. Bodies were battered, gouged, and hacked, but wounds to the face could be especially traumatic. Noses were blown off, jaws were shattered, tongues were torn out, and eyeballs were dislodged. In some cases, entire faces were obliterated. In the words of one battlefield nurse, "The science of healing stood baffled before the science of destroying."

The nature of trench warfare led to high rates of facial injuries. Many combatants were shot in the face simply because they'd had no idea what to expect. "They seemed to think they could pop their heads up over a trench and move quickly enough to dodge the hail of machine-gun bullets," wrote one surgeon. Others, like Clare, sustained their injuries as they advanced across the battlefield. Men were maimed, burned, and gassed. Some were even kicked in the face by horses. Before the war was over, 280,000 men from France, Germany, and Britain alone would suffer some form of facial trauma. In addition to causing death and dismemberment, the war was also an efficient machine for producing millions of walking wounded.

The loss of life was also greater than in any previous war, due in part to the development of new technologies that enabled slaughter to occur on an industrial scale. Automatic weapons allowed soldiers to fire hundreds of rounds a minute at distant targets. Artillery became so advanced that some long-range weapons required their operators to take the curvature of the earth into consideration in order to remain accurate. The Germans' largest siege cannon, the dreaded "Paris Gun," pummeled the French capital with two hundred pound shells from a distance of seventy-five miles. Infantry weapons had also advanced considerably in the years leading up to the First World War, providing many times the rate of fire of those used in previous wars. The military historian Leo van Bergen notes that this, in combination with advances in artillery, meant that a company of just three hundred men in 1914 could "deploy firepower equivalent to that of the entire 60,000 strong army commanded by the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo." Beyond developments in the traditional hardware of guns, bullets, and shells were two ghastly innovations brought on by scientific advances. The first was the Flammenwerfer, or flamethrower, which produced an appalling shock for the uninitiated. It was first used by the Germans, most notably against the British at Hooge in 1915. The portable device belched forth a stream of burning oil that destroyed everything within range, sending men scurrying from the trenches like mice from burning haystacks. Its jets of liquid fire left victims with severe burns over their entire bodies. One soldier watched in horror as flames seared a fellow comrade: "his face was black and charred like a cinder and the upper part of his body scorched and cooked."

The second and perhaps more psychologically devastating innovation was chemical weapons. The first large-scale lethal gas attack came on April 22, 1915, when members of a special unit of the German army released 160 tons of chlorine gas over the battlefield at Ypres, in Belgium. Within minutes, over one thousand French and Algerian soldiers were killed, and a further four thousand wounded. Most of the survivors fled the battlefield with their lungs burning, leaving a large hole in the trench line. One soldier witnessed the horror from afar: "Then there staggered into our midst French soldiers, blinded, coughing, chests heaving, faces an ugly purple color, lips speechless with agony, and behind them in the gas-soaked trenches, we learned that they had left hundreds of dead and dying comrades." Even as gas masks were rushed to the front, offering varying degrees of protection, these chemical weapons became immediately synonymous with the savagery of World War I. Tanks were also a new addition to the battlefield. First developed by the British, they were given their name in an attempt to conceal their true purpose from the enemy. Under the pretense of their being water tanks, these steel beasts were meant to protect those inside as they advanced their cannons and cargo inexorably toward enemy lines. In reality, they were vulnerable to shell fire, leaving their crews susceptible to all kinds of injuries, including burns from unprotected gas tanks that could ignite when hit.

Like Percy Clare, Captain Jono Wilson fought on the first day at Cambrai. He commanded a division of three tanks. Partway into his advance, Wilson's own tank ran out of fuel. He jumped out of the stalled vehicle, ran to the second tank in the formation, and climbed inside. Suddenly, that tank received a direct hit just as he was tying a message to a carrier pigeon. As the shell exploded, the vehicle toppled over onto its side, and fire erupted within. Before everyone could escape, the tank was hit again. The driver was killed, and Wilson's face was struck by white-hot shrapnel. While blood poured from the ragged crater where his nose had once been, he scrambled out of the tank and took cover in a shell hole, fortifying himself with a swig of rum from his canteen. He was eventually carried off the field by four German prisoners.


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