How tech innovation was used for mass killing during WWI

The conflict's start on July 28, 1914, signaled the beginning of a new era in high-tech warfare, which included fighter aircraft, tanks, chemical weapons, and flamethrowers.

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Germans testing the climbing power of captured British tanks, redecorated in German colors. Getty Images/Hulton Archive

Imagine what it would feel being a ground soldier who'd never heard of tanks and suddenly seeing a massive armored beast rolling over a ridge and heading straight for you. Combatants in World War I confronted that very real and frightening scenario.

"If you were in battle and saw a tank coming over the hill, you'd think 'what on earth is that?'" says Matthew Butson, vice president of Getty Images' Hulton Archive, which houses an extensive WWI archival project. "It's like us watching 'Star Wars,' and saying, 'good god, what the hell is that?'"

Tanks are just one of many tech-focused innovations that were invented during WWI -- a war in which 16 million people died as battle changed from hand-to-hand and cavalry combat to modern warfare. Along with tanks, WWI also saw the first use of fighting planes, chemical weapons, long-range missiles, and more.

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the beginning of WWI, and though thousands of books have been written about the Great War, readily accessible images have been scant. This is changing, however. Global digital media company Getty Images has been working over the past couple of years to preserve, digitize, and put online tens of thousands of WWI images, which can now be seen in its Hulton Archive.

The archive's WWI photos show many aspects of the war, including the most notorious showdowns; civilians on the home front; and life in the trenches. But some of the most fascinating images are of the new innovations that appeared on the battlefields.

"The First World War stuff was just unbelievable," Butson says. "It was an absolute war of extremes as far as how warfare was conducted."

The grainy black-and-white photos show scenes of tiny airplanes locked in spiraling aerial combat; soldiers running through giant white clouds of gas; and flamethrowers shooting blasts of fire and black smoke. One image shows an aircraft flying only a few feet above the surface of the water and dropping a torpedo as a way to launch it.

"Torpedoes couldn't be launched from ships because they couldn't figure out how to propel them," Butson says, "so they dropped them from aircraft."

Along with the high-tech photos, the Hulton Archive also has images of the rudimentary side of the war. Pictures show soldiers with gas masks that aren't much more than nose plugs, and suits of armor that look like something out of the movie "Mad Max." One picture shows a small army of soldiers lined up in the woods ready to head into battle on bicycles.

Tech innovation during WWI surely increased casualties with bombs; long-range and mechanized firepower; and enhanced communications strategies. But the way generals orchestrated the war was also key to the staggering body count, says Butson, with waves of soldiers being sent "over the top" of the trenches only to be gunned down. Though weaponry was cutting-edge, strategy hadn't caught up -- with horrifying consequences.

The massive Hulton Archive now has 85 million images within 1,500 collections -- a handful of which include WWI images -- yet, less than 1 percent of the archive has been digitized. With its digitization push, Getty Images hopes to capture history and make sure these images are saved and preserved.

"It tells a story, it's documentary evidence of a time or an event," Butson says. "Even if the image is rubbish, it's amazing it's survived for a century. We can learn more about history by revisiting history."

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About the author

Dara Kerr is a staff writer for CNET focused on the sharing economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado where she developed an affinity for collecting fool's gold and spirit animals.

 

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