A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I That Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare

A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I That Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare

Between April 22 and May 30, 1915, Western civilization was shocked. World War I was already appalling in its brutality, but it had until then been fought on the battlefield and by rules long agreed by convention. Suddenly those rules were abandoned when Germany forever altered the way war would be fought. On April 22, at Ypres, German canisters spewed poison gas at French...

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Title:A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I That Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare
Author:Diana Preston
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A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I That Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare Reviews

  • Diana

    Thoroughly researched and well written. I’m not a history buff by any means, but this author’s writing style really turned this into a page turner.

  • Matt

    - Francis Lieber, author of General Order No. 100, known as the Lieber Code, dictating the conduct of Union Soldiers in the American Civil War (1863)

    - Francis Lieber, author of General Order No. 100, known as the Lieber Code, dictating the conduct of Union Soldiers in the American Civil War (1863)

    - Diana Preston,

    Diana Preston’s

    covers six eventful weeks of World War I, between April 22 and May 31, 1915. First, the Germans unleashed chlorine gas against French and Canadian soldiers in their trenches at Ypres, adding a new layer of horror to the horrendous slaughter of the Western Front. Just over a fortnight later, the German submarine U-20 drove a torpedo into the side of the unarmed steamship

    , killing 1,198 passengers and crew. Finally, at the end of May, the Germans began nighttime zeppelin raids on London, ushering in an age of indiscriminate terror bombings against civilian population centers.

    Despite this book’s subtitle, these six weeks did not really change the nature of warfare. As Preston herself notes in the first chapter, humans had long dabbled at the edges of acceptable practices in warfare. From the times of antiquity, towns were razed, women and children were taken as slaves, and crude forms of biological and chemical warfare were attempted. There is even a chapter in the Book of Deuteronomy that attempts to codify some “laws” of armed conflict.

    In the 19th and 20th centuries, there were several attempts to create a system of international rules to outlaw various weapons and ensure humane treatment of prisoners and noncombatants. Some of these conventions resulted in basic agreements, especially regarding POWs. But in the main, these codes were doomed to fail, because all the major powers were wary of weakening themselves by foreclosing military options. Thus, when the Germans (and no, the Germans don’t come out looking very good here) tripled down on mass destruction, it should not have been a tremendous surprise. To the contrary, it seems more like the inevitable intersection of war and technology. That is, the only thing that seems to have held back the human race's willingness to engage in wholesale annihilation was the proper tools in which to bring about death on an industrial scale.

    To her credit, Preston does not really push the notion that the thirty-nine days between the gas at Ypres and the zeppelins over London forever altered the ways wars were fought. She also does not spend a great deal of time trying to link these disparate events in any but a chronological fashion. Gas did not lead inevitably to the

    , thereby causing the zeppelin raids. Rather, their timing was coincidental.

    Instead, what Preston does – and does well – is give us three detailed and well-written vignettes of three momentous events of the First World War.

    The first ninety-three pages are devoted mostly to setting the context. Preston covers the efforts of peace advocates (the founding of the Red Cross, the Hague Convention, the Geneva Convention) alongside the progress of military technology (the submarine, the torpedo, the airship, and Fritz Haber’s work on poison gas). After that, she takes each event in turn, devoting multiple chapters to the gassing at Ypres, the sinking of the

    , and the air raids over England.

    In my opinion, the sections covering the

    are the strongest. Preston is an expert on the sinking, having published

    back in 2002. (At the time, she went so far as to commission an expert to look into the infamous secondary explosion that helped destroy the ship in less than twenty minutes). It has been awhile since I read Preston’s

    book, so I can’t really tell how much her presentation has changed. Regardless, her handling of the material is extremely strong.

    The loss of the

    , unlike the sinking of her spiritual cousin, the

    , was a murderously brief affair. When the torpedo struck, it almost immediately knocked out steering and electricity. Instead of stopping, the

    kept plunging ahead, while simultaneously taking on a severe list that swung the starboard lifeboats away from the deck, while putting the portside boats almost flush to the hull. The

    took two hours and forty minutes to disappear, in what amounted to an Edwardian passion play. The

    was gone in eighteen minutes. In writing about the sinking of the ferry

    , William Langewiesche noted how a “pitiless clock was running,” as social organization “crumpled apart.” “Love,” he wrote, “only slowed people down.” And I thought about that as Preston narrates the confused, panicked attempts to escape a moving, listing, rapidly sinking vessel. There was no “Birkenhead Drill,” no women and children first. Several witnesses saw millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt handing out lifejackets, but despite such efforts, ninety-four out of one-hundred-and-twenty-four children died. Even a century later, it is hard to read the notices that were placed around Queenstown (now Cobh) as families looked for kids who had disappeared:

    (Try to picture that toddling child on the angled decks of the

    , as the foaming sea rushes up to meet her. Then try to stop picturing it).

    Part of the problem with having the

    in the center of the book is that the emotional pitch is extremely high, making it hard to continue to the next subject. There is, admittedly, a bit of a lull after the sinking is over. However, Preston does a commendable job with the bombing of London. The fear and revulsion felt by the people on the ground, getting randomly bombed by some lumbering blimp, will not come as a surprise. Preston, though, also evokes the unique dangers faced by the crews of these airships:

    concludes with a chapter providing an overview of the use of poison gas, torpedoes, and aerial bombing following World War I. In a relatively short book (two-hundred-and-eighty-seven pages of text, if you include the appendix), this is necessarily brief. Preston’s conclusion is that international law and public opinion is all well and good, but that humanity will always be faced with the belief that the best way to shorten a war is to make it too awful to bear for the other side. This despite the fact that humanity has shown the ability to bear quite a lot.

    Major General Berthold von Deimling was the officer tasked with superintending the release of gas at Ypres. He later claimed to be shocked by the order, though he carried it out without hesitation. “War is self-defense and knows no law,” he wrote. “That will always be so as long as war exists.”

    And that’s the truth of it, really. As long as we accept war, then we should also accept that its path of destruction will be wide, its fury unbridled.

    , William Sherman said.

    The only way to wage war with humanity is not to wage war at all. Unfortunately, that is the view that is commonly held by the wild-eyed dreamers who don’t have any power; meanwhile, the realists and the pragmatists making the decisions are busy conjuring up the weapons of the future, which will undoubtedly be designed to kill in a socially-condoned manner.

  • Jill Hutchinson

    This book deeply moved me and raised questions as to what is allowable in war and what is not.....it was a conundrum raised by the Geneva Convention and that body put forth certain rules which were bound to be ignored......and they were. "War" and "rules" are an oxymoron.

    This book spotlights three events that happened within a six weeks time period of WWI (April 16 to May 30, 1915).....events, as the sub-title says "that forever changed the nature of warfare". They are as follows:

    *The first use

    This book deeply moved me and raised questions as to what is allowable in war and what is not.....it was a conundrum raised by the Geneva Convention and that body put forth certain rules which were bound to be ignored......and they were. "War" and "rules" are an oxymoron.

    This book spotlights three events that happened within a six weeks time period of WWI (April 16 to May 30, 1915).....events, as the sub-title says "that forever changed the nature of warfare". They are as follows:

    *The first use of poisonous gas on a large scale. French and Canadians troops at Ypres were the victims. The author provides an in-depth description of the process and the results on those who suffered and died

    * The sinking, without warning, of the passenger liner

    by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland. The loss of life was horrendous and totaled 1,198 including Americans of the then neutral United States.

    * The bombing of London from the air, something that is often overshadowed by the Blitz of WWII. The Zeppelin was the deliverer of the bombs and much damage was done even though the airships didn't have the necessary equipment to identify their targets except by sight. The Zeppelins had total freedom of the air since aircraft of the UK were not capable of reaching the altitudes at which the Zeppelins traveled.

    Frankly, I was mesmerized by this book and the author's research/source material was impeccable. I also learned a few new facts that added to my WWI memory bank. I highly recommend this excellent history of WWI which defines the initial use of "weapons of mass destruction".

  • Jerome

    In this readable, detailed and well-researched volume, Preston covers the three major events of April-May 1915 that were mostly unrelated except in the sense that they heralded the advancement of weaponry up to that point: poison gas at Ypres, the sinking of the

    , and the first zeppelin raid on London, which achieved relatively little physically but had a huge psychological impact.

    The narrative is vivid and well-written, and Preston describes how these events changed views on the condu

    In this readable, detailed and well-researched volume, Preston covers the three major events of April-May 1915 that were mostly unrelated except in the sense that they heralded the advancement of weaponry up to that point: poison gas at Ypres, the sinking of the

    , and the first zeppelin raid on London, which achieved relatively little physically but had a huge psychological impact.

    The narrative is vivid and well-written, and Preston describes how these events changed views on the conduct of war, the implementation of the “rules of war,” and an escalation in “scientific warfare.” Preston describes each episode within the war’s context as well as in relation to each other. She also describes how Germany’s employment of these methods failed to force Britain to sue for peace but succeeded in turning world opinion against her. Some more coverage of the German blockade might have helped, though.

    A concise, informative and interesting work.

  • Phil Smith

    When I first heard of the passenger liner

    , it was the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question. In

    , Diana Preston vividly paints a detailed picture of European countries grappling with changing rules of warfare and the reaction of the world at large to that terrible tragedy. Although Preston provides context for the rules of war that existed from centuries before up to her timeframe of interest, s

    When I first heard of the passenger liner

    , it was the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question. In

    , Diana Preston vividly paints a detailed picture of European countries grappling with changing rules of warfare and the reaction of the world at large to that terrible tragedy. Although Preston provides context for the rules of war that existed from centuries before up to her timeframe of interest, she spends the majority of her book focused on the events surrounding the sinking of the

    , the first use of chlorine gas in warfare, and the bombing of London by Zeppelins. Last Christmas we were reminded that, 100 years ago, the troops on the Western Front held an unofficial “Christmas Truce,” where troops from opposing sides met and exchanged greetings. If that anniversary marks the end of Nineteenth Century Warfare, it is possible that the events 100 years ago this spring set the stage for the Twentieth Century. Preston tells the details of these three attacks using first-hand accounts from survivors, and settling long-controversial issues such as how many torpedoes were used on the

    . As with any book on World War I or II, the focus of the narrative must be a specific time and place, with enough details to draw the reader in and bring the events to life. Preston achieves this goal in spite of the time elapsed, bringing the book to a close by pointing out how events up to the present day were shaped by decisions made during and immediately after WWI.

  • Joseph Spuckler

    by Diane Preston is an account of the changes in traditions of warfare that took place between April and May 1915. Preston is an Oxford educated historian whose career was in print journalism in the UK and the US. She also was a broadcaster for the BBC and CBC. Nearly a decade ago Preston began writing popular history, covering subjects that are compelling, but also relate to the human experience. Her t

    by Diane Preston is an account of the changes in traditions of warfare that took place between April and May 1915. Preston is an Oxford educated historian whose career was in print journalism in the UK and the US. She also was a broadcaster for the BBC and CBC. Nearly a decade ago Preston began writing popular history, covering subjects that are compelling, but also relate to the human experience. Her topics include The Lusitania, the Taj Mahal, Britain in Afghanistan, and pirates.

    If I were asked to name three things that changed warfare in World War I, I would come up with three different answers. My choices would be: the machine gun which killed more men than any other weapon in the war; the tank which helped break the stalemate of trench warfare; and the airplane, which brought a whole new dimension to warfare. My opinions are of someone that served in the military and looks at World War I from a practical warfighting point of view. Preston takes a different look at the war and bases her choices of a civilian perspective.

    On April 22, 1915, near Ypres, Belgium, Germany released chlorine gas from near their trenches and allowed the wind to move it the mostly French defended Allied trenches. The heavy gas settled quickly in the trenches forcing soldiers to either asphyxiate in the trench or climb out into heavy German fire. The Canadian Expeditionary Force (13th Battalion) held the line with improvised masks. It was a day of heavy loss for both the Axis and the Allies. Panic and unforeseen success combined as multipliers adding to the death toll. Preston looks at the history of gas warfare before Ypres and after. It did not take the allies long to develop their own chemical corps. Chemical weapons had a terror effect when used in World War I, however their effectiveness was minimal. The German first use of the weapons added fuel to the propaganda machine vilifying the Germans. It did not take long for the British to counter with Livens Projector. The Livens projector, rather than relying on the wind, lobbed canister of gas at the enemy trenches. The use of canister was a loophole in the treaty that banned poison gas artillery shells. Although it had a shocking effect, and certainly the ability to make headlines, chemical warfare turned out to be more of a hindrance than a vital weapon. It was marginally effective until the troops were protected, then it became only a hindrance. Stockpiles of chemical weapon were available in WWII and never used.

    On May 7, 1915 the Lusitania was sunk by the German submarine U-20. The sinking was carried out without warning as the ship approached the Irish coast. The loss of life is listed at nearly 1,200 people. The sinking was of great use to the allies in bringing the US into the war as one hundred twenty-eight of the dead were Americans. The sinking of the Lusitania is surrounded by stories, claims, and counterclaims. The Germans did provide warning to travelers, it was a British flagged ship, traveling in waters patrolled by a country Britain was at war with. Britain had used tricks like raising an American flag on one of its ships as it entered British waters (a tribute to the American passengers was the official claim). Britain also instructed ship’s captains to turn to and ram submarines if stopped. There was also the Q-Boat program where the British deployed cargo ships to draw out submarines. These ships however were armed and when a submarine attempted to stop and board the ship searching for contraband, the submarine was fired upon. There was a definite escalation to the violence. The Germany attempted to blockade England with submarines in the same way England had blockaded Germany with surface ships.

    There is also the British investigation of the sinking of the Lusitania. The German submarine fired only one torpedo, but there were two explosions. The British government in the process of their investigation said the German sub fired two torpedoes. Any surviving passenger that said only one torpedo was fired was left out of the investigation. The cause of the second explosion has remained a topic for discussion ever since. In the tragedy of the sinking the German government made made the following truthful claims: The sinking occurred in a declared war zone; the Lusitania carried 4.2 million rounds of rifle ammunition, empty artillery shells, and fuses (all listed in her manifest); the Lusitania was officially listed by the British government as an auxiliary cruiser. Germany claimed it was in it’s right to sink the Lusitania without warning. Allied media and propaganda said otherwise.

    The third event was the bombing of London from the air. Germany tried unsuccessfully to bomb England from zeppelins several times in the spring of 1915. Germans attempted to hit military targets, but conditions, gun sites, and practical matters made precision bombing impossible. The raids caused damage and killed 557 people in England in the course of fifty-one missions and 5,000 bombs. The raids, more than anything else, created a feeling of terror. London and other cities blacked-out at night. The British planes were nearly useless against the zeppelins, either they were incapable of reaching the altitude or by the time they did the zeppelins were gone. Fear helped the recruitment effort and caused violence for some unfortunate immigrants with “German sounding” accents. What the bombing raids did accomplish was opening military targets in cities to attack. In World War II bombing of cities became common place.

    Preston does not limit herself the six weeks in 1915 for her information. She goes back and covers the arms limitation treaties before the war and puts each of her three events into historical context. While perhaps not the three biggest military events or innovations of World War I, her choices fit well with public concerns during the war. Chemical warfare is still something the modern military prepares for as evidenced in the two Gulf Wars. It is now relegated as a hinderance to a modern army rather than a source of massive casualties. Bombing of cities and military targets in and around them is now commonplace. One has to look no farther than the “Shock and Awe” of the Gulf War. Guidance systems and technology make the bombing much more accurate, but there are still civilian casualties. The submarine perhaps has changed the most. It is primarily used as a weapons platform for ICBMs rather than an anti-shipping weapon. In the second half of the twentieth century, only one ship has been sunk by a submarine -- HMS Conqueror sank the General Belgrano in the 1982 Falkland Island War. These choices made a change in how warfare is fought from the eyes of those watching. These three events probably had the biggest effect on the civilian populations during the course of the war. Machine guns and tanks had little effect on the general population of England, while the thought of a zeppelin dropping poison gas on London not only created fear, it was now a possibility. Preston gives World War I a look from a different perspective. Instead of the battlefield view many historians write, Preston seems to capture on what civilians would have read and learned of the war through the media. A very interesting perspective and well worth the read.

  • Ron

    Diana Preston takes three seemingly unrelated events of 1915 to weave a tale that is a thrilling, informative, and interesting history. Generally the first use of poison gas, the sinking of the Lusitania, and the bombing of London by Zeppelins are examined as singular events, but Preston demonstrates how these events were catalysts in overturning long-held views on the conduct of war, a flouting of the Hague Conventions rules of war, and an escalation of scientific warfare that continues to reso

    Diana Preston takes three seemingly unrelated events of 1915 to weave a tale that is a thrilling, informative, and interesting history. Generally the first use of poison gas, the sinking of the Lusitania, and the bombing of London by Zeppelins are examined as singular events, but Preston demonstrates how these events were catalysts in overturning long-held views on the conduct of war, a flouting of the Hague Conventions rules of war, and an escalation of scientific warfare that continues to resonate today.

    In

    , each episode is examined in the context of the war and in relation to the other two episodes. The main characters are introduced, the science behind the weapons is examined and then a recounting of the event using first person perspectives when and where available. Finally, the author looks at the lasting effects each event had on the rest of the war and on future wars and conflicts.

    Preston manages to balance her look at the three separate events by combining these acts of German aggression into an examination of how the world thinks of weapon systems before, during, and after the First World War. Read

    and make up your mind regarding her thesis.

  • Michele

    Early in World War One between April and May in 1915 there were three major events using weapons never used before in the history of warfare.

    First, at Ypres, was the use by Germany of poison gas on Canadian and French troops. The description in the book of Germans transporting the gas canisters to the front line trenches and digging the holes to plant them while waiting for the wind to blow in the right direction and the results is horrifying.

    Second, was the submarine U-20 sinking the Lusitania

    Early in World War One between April and May in 1915 there were three major events using weapons never used before in the history of warfare.

    First, at Ypres, was the use by Germany of poison gas on Canadian and French troops. The description in the book of Germans transporting the gas canisters to the front line trenches and digging the holes to plant them while waiting for the wind to blow in the right direction and the results is horrifying.

    Second, was the submarine U-20 sinking the Lusitania on May 7th killing 1,198. This proved the submarine to be an effective machine of war.

    Thirdly, on May 31, 1915 London was bombed by a German Zeppelin. Although the damage done was insignificant compared to the use of gas and submarines the Zeppelin attacks had a great psychological impact on the British civilian population. This was the first time that civilians were targeted in war time.

  • Frank Harris

    The attention to detail - especially in such a close focus on very specific aspects of World War One - is really very impressive. That's a bit of the issue, as well, though; sometimes there are just so many quotations and references to minute detail that it's hard not to get bogged down while reading. Nonetheless, if this is a subject you're interested in, this would be a great book to read.

  • Nick Lloyd

    The book is... ok. The research on the three events (German use of gas at Ypres, U-boat sinking of the Lusitania, and Zeppelin bombing of London) is fairly strong, but I'm not sure what her thesis is. The claim that these events fundamentally changed warfare fails to land. Technology is constantly changing warfare, but few would describe it as "fundamental". Napoleon's popular conscription policy, or the effect of industrialization, or even T.E. Lawrence's ideas on guerrilla campaigns, could per

    The book is... ok. The research on the three events (German use of gas at Ypres, U-boat sinking of the Lusitania, and Zeppelin bombing of London) is fairly strong, but I'm not sure what her thesis is. The claim that these events fundamentally changed warfare fails to land. Technology is constantly changing warfare, but few would describe it as "fundamental". Napoleon's popular conscription policy, or the effect of industrialization, or even T.E. Lawrence's ideas on guerrilla campaigns, could perhaps be said to have fundamentally changed the way wars are fought. The decision by Germany to utilize their technological advantage in order to make up for other shortcomings does not fall into that category.

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