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Science and the First World War

By Siobhan Pipa, on 9 July 2014

German scientist Fritz Haber

German scientist Fritz Haber

The relationship between science, technology and warfare is a topic I find incredibly intriguing – partially kick-started from taking a module in Science, Warfare and Peace back when I was an undergraduate in UCL Science & Technology Studies.

So, with high hopes I headed down to The Guardian offices to watch the final instalment of UCL’s Lunch Hour Lectures on Tour – given by Professor Jon Agar (UCL Science & Technology Studies), titled Science and the First World War.

Opening with the haunting image of ‘We are making a new world’ by Paul Nash, Professor Agar points out that there is frequently no force so associated with the making of a new world as science.

If there’s one thing I took away from my undergraduate degree, it’s that science, like nearly every other topic in the world, is not an isolated endeavour – there are always outside influences at play.

And there is probably no bigger outside influence than the First World War. Often considered the first ‘total war’, science was driven and transformed by the events of a hundred years ago.

Along with shaping the path science took during this period, the First World War also raised a number of profound and troubling questions about the very nature of science.

Is science a force for construction? Or is it a force of destruction? Does science transcend international boundaries or should science be recruited to further a country’s cause? How should scientists be used during warfare and is there a way to organise science in the most efficient way?

Using some of the most prominent scientists of the First World War, Professor Agar proceeded to examine these themes at a much more personal and intimate level.

Henry Moseley

The life of Henry Gwyn Jeffreys Moseley, an outstanding young physicist, really emphasises the problem of how scientists should be used in times of war.

Graduating just four years before the start of WWI, Moseley began to work with Ernest Rutherford in Manchester. This period of the 20th Century was a hugely exciting time for physics, with some of the most remarkable science of the century taking place in Manchester.

Moseley’s greatest contribution to science was Moseley’s law – an empirical law relating to the x-rays emitted by atoms. This helped to establish atomic number as a measurable quantity and justify the use of the periodic system.

At the outbreak of WWI Moseley, like a number of others, rallied to the patriotic cause and volunteered with the British Army. In 1915 he was killed in action, shot by a Turkish sniper.

The physicist, Robert Millikan, described Moseley’s death as: “one of the most hideous and irreparable crimes in history”.

His death highlighted debate around the neglect of science. Effectively, putting Moseley’s brain in the line of fire for a Turkish bullet meant he was not being deployed most effectively.

This may be an insensitive way of viewing a young man’s death but it was a very important consideration for wartime science.

The role scientists played is not best defined with acts of personal sacrifice or even the contribution of individual genius, as with all things considered vital in ‘total warfare’ science needed to be mobilised.

Fritz Haber

In Germany the mobilisation of science for war was also an important topic. The life of chemist Fritz Haber really highlights the strains and stresses of science during war time.

Haber is best known for two of his developments – the creation of the Haber process of ammonia production and the development of poison gases, which earned him the dubious title of “the father of chemical warfare”.

Haber’s goals were pretty conventional – to prosper, solve problems and to serve his country. But, these goals led down a twisting path towards destruction and towards his epithet as the father of chemical warfare.

Chemical warfare and poison gas gave us some of the most defining images of the First World War, soldiers walking in a guided line with their eyes covered, blinded from gas attacks.

Haber began working full time in chemistry, which as Professor Agar points out was quite a significant choice. Chemistry was the foundation of Imperial Germany’s strength in both science and industry.

He was one of the scientists to sign The Manifesto of the Ninety-Three – a proclamation signed by 93 scientists, scholars and artists, declaring their unequivocal support of German military actions in the early period of World War I.

The manifesto caused a major rift in the scientific community, which continued beyond the end of the war. It ruptured the international nature of science and never before had a war disrupted cultural co-operation.

Incidentally, Albert Einstein, Haber’s long-time friend and staunch pacifist, signed a counter manifesto called the Manifesto to the Europeans – which called for a move towards international co-operation and peace.

As the war entered a stalemate in the trenches, research moved towards gases. After seeing a demonstration of tear gas, Haber shifted his focus towards chemical warfare.

The use of chemical warfare in WWI was devastating, some reports estimate that there were up to 88, 500 fatalities and over a million non-fatal injuries.

The effects were also seen closer to home for Haber. His wife Clara committed suicide using his service revolver, probably after an argument about Haber personally overseeing the first successful use of chlorine gas in the Second Battle of Ypres.

Both sides during the First World War mobilised science for national gain, particularly chemistry. It was utilised not just for the development of poisonous gas but also in the creation of more effective explosives.

This mobilisation of science during war raises even more important questions about the very nature of science itself. Not just to what extent was science to blame for the form the war took but was science to blame for the war itself?

Scientists on both sides of the war were swept up in the waves of patriotism, militarism and nationalism but all made contributions to the war – some sadly brief and others devastatingly effective.

There is no doubt that the First World War altered the path of science far beyond 11 November 1918. Whether it was a symbol of inhumanity or an internationalist project capable of healing wounds is still very much up for debate.

Watch the full lecture below:

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