Otto Hahn cherished the day the Kaiser came to visit. The official dedication of the first two Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes, one for chemistry, one for physical chemistry, on October 23, 1912—Bohr in Copenhagen was approaching his quantized atom—was a wet day in the suburb of Dahlem southwest of Berlin.292, 293 The Kaiser, Wilhelm II, Victoria’s eldest grandson, wore a raincloak to protect his uniform, the dark collar of his greatcoat turned out over the lighter shawl of the cloak. The officials who walked the requisite paces behind him, his scholarly friend Adolf von Harnack and the distinguished chemist Emil Fischer foremost among them, made do with dark coats and top hats; those farther back in the procession who carried umbrellas kept them furled. Schoolboys, caps in hand, lined the curbs of the shining street like soldiers on parade. They stood at childish attention, awe dazing their dreamy faces, as this corpulent middle-aged man with upturned dark mustaches who believed he ruled them by divine right passed in review. They were thirteen, perhaps fourteen years old. They would be soldiers soon enough.
Officials in the Ministry of Culture had encouraged His Imperial Majesty to support German science. He responded by donating land for a research center on what had been a royal farm. Industry and government then lavishly endowed a science foundation, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, to operate the proposed institutes, of which there would be seven by 1914.294
The society began its official life early in 1911 with von Harnack, a theologian who was the son of a chemist, as its first president. The imperial architect, Ernst von Ihne, went briskly to work. The Kaiser came to Dahlem to dedicate the first two finished buildings, and the Institute for Chemistry especially must have pleased him. It was set back on a broad lawn at the corner of Thielallee and Faradayweg: three stories of cut stone filigreed with six-paned windows, a steep, gabled slate roof and at the roofline high above the entrance a classical pediment supported by four Doric columns. A wing angled off paralleling the cross street. Fitted between the main building and the wing like a hinge, a round tower rose up dramatically four stories high. Von Ihne had surmounted the tower with a dome. Apparently the dome was meant to flatter the Kaiser’s taste. A sense of humor was not one of Wilhelm II’s strong points and no doubt it did. The dome took the form of a giant Pickelhaube, the comic-opera spiked helmet that the Kaiser and his soldiers wore.
Leaving Ernest Rutherford in Montreal in 1906 Hahn had moved to Berlin to work with Emil Fischer at the university. Fischer was an organic chemist who knew little about radioactivity, but he understood that the field was opening to importance and that Hahn was a first-rate man. He made room for Hahn in a wood shop in the basement of his laboratories and arranged Hahn’s appointment as a Privatdozent, which stirred less forward-looking chemists on the faculty to wonder aloud at the deplorable decline in standards. A chemist who claimed to identify new elements with a gold-foil electroscope must be at least an embarrassment, if not in fact a fraud.295
Hahn found the university’s physicists more congenial than its chemists and regularly attended the physics colloquia. At one colloquium at the beginning of the autumn term in 1907 he met an Austrian woman, Lise Meitner, who had just arrived from Vienna.296Meitner was twenty-nine, one year older than Hahn. She had earned her Ph.D. at the University of Vienna and had already published two papers on alpha and beta radiation. Max Planck’s lectures in theoretical physics had drawn her to Berlin for postgraduate study.
Hahn was a gymnast, a skier and a mountain climber, boyishly goodlooking, fond of beer and cigars, with a Rhineland drawl and a warm, selfdeprecating sense of humor. He admired attractive women, went out of his way to cultivate them and stayed friends with a number of them throughout his happily married life. Meitner was petite, dark and pretty, if also morbidly shy. Hahn befriended her. When she found she had free time she decided to experiment. She needed a collaborator. So did Hahn. A physicist and a radiochemist, they would make a productive team.
They required a laboratory. Fischer agreed that Meitner could share the wood shop on condition that she never show her face in the laboratory upstairs where the students, all male, worked.297 For two years she observed the condition strictly; then, with the liberalization of the university, Fischer relented, allowed women into his classes and Meitner above the basement. Vienna had been only a little more enlightened. Meitner’s father, an attorney—the Meitners were assimilated Austrian Jews, baptized all around—had insisted that she acquire a teacher’s diploma in French before beginning to study physics so that she would always be able to support herself. Only then could she prepare for university work. With the diploma out of the way Meitner crammed eight years ofGymnasium preparation into two. She was the second woman ever to earn a Ph.D at Vienna. Her father subsidized her research in Berlin until at least 1912, when Max Planck, by now a warm supporter, appointed her to an assistantship. “The German Madame Curie,” Einstein would call her, characteristically lumping the Germanic peoples together and forgetting her Austrian birth.
“There was no question,” says Hahn, “of any closer relationship between us outside the laboratory. Lise Meitner had had a strict, lady-like upbringing and was very reserved, even shy.” They never ate lunch together, never went for a walk, met only in colloquia and in the wood shop. “And yet we were really close friends.”298 She whistled Brahms and Schumann to him to pass the long hours taking timed readings of radioactivity to establish identifying half-lives, and when Rutherford came through Berlin in 1908 on his way back from the Nobel Prize ceremonies she selflessly accompanied Mary Rutherford shopping while the two men indulged themselves in long talks.
The close friends moved together to the new institute in 1912 and worked to prepare an exhibit for the Kaiser. In his first venture into radiochemistry, in London before he went to Montreal, Hahn had spied out what he took to be a new element, radiothorium, that was one hundred thousand times as radioactive as its modest namesake. At McGill he found a third substance intermediate between the other two; he named it “meso thorium” and it was later identified as an isotope of radium. Mesothorium compounds glow in the dark at a different level of faint illumination from radiothorium compounds. Hahn thought the difference might amuse his sovereign. On a velvet cushion in a little box he mounted an unshielded sample of mesothorium equivalent in radiation intensity to 300 milligrams of radium. He presented his potent offering to the Kaiser and asked him to compare it to “an emanating sample of radiothorium that produced in the dark very nice luminous moving shapes on [a] screen.”299 No one warned His Majesty of the radiation hazard because no safety standards for radiation exposure had yet been set. “If I did the same thing today,” Hahn said fifty years later, “I should find myself in prison.”300
The mesothorium caused no obvious harm. The Kaiser passed on to the second institute, half a block up Faradayweg northwest beyond the angled wing. Two senior chemists managed the Chemistry Institute where Hahn and Meitner worked, but the Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry, to give it its full name, was established specifically for the man who was its first director, a difficult, inventive German-Jewish chemist from Breslau named Fritz Haber. It was a reward of sorts. A German industrial foundation paid for it and endowed it because in 1909 Haber had succeeded in developing a practical method of extracting nitrogen from the air to make ammonia. The ammonia would serve for artificial fertilizer, replacing Germany’s and the world’s principal natural source, sodium nitrate dug from the bone-dry northern desert of Chile, an expensive and insecure supply. More strategically, the Haber process would be invaluable in time of war to produce nitrates for explosives; Germany had no nitrates of its own.
Kaiser Wilhelm enlarged at the dedication on the dangers of firedamp, the explosive mixture of methane and other gases that accumulates in mines. He urged his chemists to find some early means of detection. That was a task, he said, “worthy of the sweat of noble brows.”301 Haber, noble brow—he shaved his bullet head, wore round horn-rimmed glasses and a toothbrush mustache, dressed well, wined and dined in elegance but suffered bitter marital discord—set out to invent a firedamp whistle that would sound a different pitch when dangerous gases were present. With a fine modern laboratory uncontaminated by old radioactivity Hahn and Meitner went to work at radiochemistry and the new field of nuclear physics. The Kaiser returned from Dahlem to his palace in Berlin, happy to have lent his name to yet another organ of burgeoning German power.
* * *
In the summer of 1913 Niels Bohr sailed with his young wife to England. He followed the second and third parts of his epochal paper, which he had sent ahead by mail to Rutherford; he wanted to discuss them before releasing them for publication. In Manchester he met his friend George de Hevesy again and some of the other research men. One he met, probably for the first time, was Henry Gwyn Jeffreys Moseley, called Harry, an Eton boy and an Oxford man who had worked for Rutherford as a demonstrator, teaching undergraduates, since 1910.302 Harry Moseley at twenty-six was poised for great accomplishment. He needed only the catalyst of Bohr’s visit to set him off.
Moseley was a loner, “so reserved,” says A. S. Russell, “that I could neither like him nor not like him,” but with the unfortunate habit of allowing no loose statement of fact to pass unchallenged.303 When he stopped work long enough to take tea at the laboratory he even managed to inhibit Ernest Rutherford. Rutherford’s other “boys” called him “Papa.” Moseley respected the boisterous laureate but certainly never honored him with any such intimacy; he rather thought Rutherford played the stage colonial.
Harry came from a distinguished line of scientists. His great-grandfather had operated a lunatic asylum with healing enthusiasm but without benefit of medical license, but his grandfather was chaplain and professor of natural philosophy and astronomy at King’s College and his father had sailed as a biologist on the three-year voyage of H.M.S. Challenger that produced a fifty-volume pioneering study of the world ocean. Henry Moseley—Harry had his father’s first name—won the friendly praise of Charles Darwin for his one-volume popular account, Notes by a Naturalist on the ‘Challenger’; Harry in his turn would work with Darwin’s physicist grandson Charles G. Darwin at Manchester.
If he was reserved to the point of stuffiness he was also indefatigable at experiment. He would go all out for fifteen hours, well into the night, until he was exhausted, eat a spartan meal of cheese sometime before dawn, find a few hours for sleep and breakfast at noon on fruit salad. He was trim, carefully dressed and conservative, fond of his sisters and his widowed mother, to whom he regularly wrote chatty and warmly devoted letters. Hay fever threw off his final honors examinations at Oxford; he despised teaching the Manchester undergraduates—many were foreigners, “Hindoos, Burmese, Jap, Egyptian and other vile forms of Indian,” and he recoiled from their “scented dirtiness.”304 But finally, in the autumn of 1912, Harry found his great subject.
“Some Germans have recently got wonderful results by passing X rays through crystals and then photographing them,” he wrote his mother on October 10.305 The Germans, at Munich, were directed by Max von Laue. Von Laue had found that the orderly, repetitive atomic structure of a crystal produces monochromatic interference patterns from X rays just as the mirroring, slightly separated inner and outer surfaces of a soap bubble produce interference patterns of color from white light. X-ray crystallography was the discovery that would win von Laue the Nobel Prize. Moseley and C. G. Darwin set out with a will to explore the new field. They acquired the necessary equipment and worked through the winter. By May 1913 they had advanced to using crystals as spectroscopes and were finishing up a first solid piece of work. X rays are energetic light of extremely short wavelength. The atomic lattices of crystals spread out their spectra much as a prism does visible light. “We find,” Moseley wrote his mother on May 18, “that an X ray bulb with a platinum target gives out a sharp line spectrum of five wavelengths. . . . Tomorrow we search for the spectra of other elements. There is here a whole new branch of spectroscopy, which is sure to tell one much about the nature of the atom.”306
Then Bohr arrived and the question they discussed was Bohr’s old insight that the order of the elements in the periodic table ought to follow the atomic number rather than, as chemists thought, the atomic weight. (The atomic number of uranium, for example, is 92; the atomic weight of the commonest isotope of uranium is 238; a rarer isotope of uranium has an atomic weight of 235 and the same atomic number.) Harry could look for regular shifts in the wavelengths of X-ray line spectra and prove Bohr’s contention. Atomic number would make a place in the periodic table for all the variant physical forms that had been discovered and that would soon be named isotopes; atomic number, emphasizing the charge on the nucleus as the determiner of the number of electrons and hence of the chemistry, would strongly confirm Rutherford’s nuclear model of the atom; the X-ray spectral lines would further document Bohr’s quantized electron orbits. The work would be Moseley’s alone; Darwin by then had withdrawn to pursue other interests.
Bohr and the patient Margrethe went on to Cambridge to vacation and polish Bohr’s paper. Rutherford left near the end of July with Mary on an expedition to the idyllic mountains of the Tyrol. Moseley stayed in “unbearably hot and stuffy” Manchester, blowing glass. “Even now near midnight,” he wrote his mother two days after Rutherford’s departure, “I discard coat and waistcoat and work with windows and door open to try to get some air. I will come to you as soon as I can get my apparatus to work before ever I start measurements.”307 On August 13 he was still at it. He wrote his married sister Margery to explain what he was after:
I want in this way to find the wave-lengths of the X ray spectra of as many elements as possible, as I believe they will prove much more important and fundamental than the ordinary light spectra. The method of finding the wavelengths is to reflect the X rays which come from a target of the element investigated [when such a target is bombarded with cathode rays]. . . . I have then merely to find at which angles the rays are reflected, and that gives the wavelengths. I aim at an accuracy of at least one in a thousand.308
The Bohrs returned to Copenhagen, the Rutherfords from the Tyrol, and now it was September and time for the annual meeting of the British Association, this year in Birmingham. Bohr had not planned to attend, especially after lingering overlong in Cambridge, but Rutherford thought he should: his quantized atom with its stunning spectral predictions would be the talk of the conference. Bohr relented and rushed over. Birmingham’s hotels were booked tight. He slept the first night on a billiard table.309 Then the resourceful de Hevesy found him a berth in a girls’ college. “And that was very, very practical and wonderful,” Bohr remembered afterward, adding quickly that “the girls were away.”310
Sir Oliver Lodge, president of the British Association, mentioned Bohr’s work in his opening address. Rutherford touted it in meetings. James Jeans, the Cambridge mathematical physicist, allowed wittily that “the only justification at present put forward for these assumptions is the very weighty one of success.”311 A Cavendish physicist, Francis W. Aston, announced that he had succeeded in separating two different weights of neon by tediously diffusing a large sample over and over again several thousand times through pipe clay—“a definite proof,” de Hevesy noted, “that elements of different atomic weight can have the same chemical properties.”312 Marie Curie came across from France, “shy,” says A. S. Eve, “retiring, self-possessed and noble.”313 She fended off the bulldog British press by praising Rutherford: “great developments,” she predicted, were “likely to transpire” from his work. He was “the one man living who promises to confer some inestimable boon on mankind.”314
Harald Bohr reported to his brother that autumn that the younger men at Gottingen “do not dare to believe that [your paper] can be objectively right; they find the assumptions too ‘bold’ and ‘fantastic.’ ”315 Against the continuing skepticism of many European physicists Bohr heard from de Hevesy that Einstein himself, encountered at a conference in Vienna, had been deeply impressed. De Hevesy passed along a similar tale to Rutherford:
Speaking with Einstein on different topics we came to speak on Bohr’s theory, he told me that he had once similar ideas but he did not dare to publish them. “Should Bohr’s theory be right, it is of the greatest importance.” When I told him about the [recent discovery of spectral lines where Bohr’s theory had predicted they should appear] the big eyes of Einstein looked still bigger and he told me “Then it is one of the greatest discoveries.”316
I felt very happy hearing Einstein saying so.
So did Bohr.
Moseley labored on. He had trouble at first making sharp photographs of his X-ray spectra, but once he got the hang of it the results were outstanding. The important spectral lines shifted with absolute regularity as he went up the periodic table, one step at a time. He devised a little staircase of strips of film by matching up the lines. He wrote to Bohr on November 16: “During the last fortnight or so I have been getting results which will interest you. . . . So far I have dealt with the K [spectral line] series from Calcium to Zinc. . . . The results are exceedingly simple and largely what you would expect. . . . K = N − 1, very exactly, N being the atomic number.” He had calcium at 20, scandium at 21, titanium at 22, vanadium at 23, chromium at 24 and so on up to zinc at 30. He concludes that his results “lend great weight to the general principles which you use, and I am delighted that this is so, as your theory is having a splendid effect on Physics.”317 Harry Moseley’s crisp work gave experimental confirmation of the Bohr-Rutherford atom that was far more solidly acceptable than Marsden’s and Geiger’s alpha-scattering experiments. “Because you see,” Bohr said in his last interview, “actually the Rutherford work was not taken seriously. We cannot understand today, but it was not taken seriously at all. . . . The great change came from Moseley.”318
* * *
Otto Hahn was called upon once more to demonstrate his radioactive preparations. In the early spring of 1914 the Bayer Dye Works at Leverkusen, near Cologne in the Rhineland, gave a reception to celebrate the opening of a large lecture hall.319 Germany’s chemical industry led the world and Bayer was the largest chemical company in Germany, with more than ten thousand employees. It manufactured some two thousand different dyestuffs, large tonnages of inorganic chemicals, a range of pharmaceuticals. The firm’s managing director, Carl Duisberg, a chemist who preferred industrial management along American lines, had invited the Oberpräsident of the Rhineland to attend the reception; he then invited Hahn to add a glow to the proceedings.
Hahn lectured to the dignitaries on radioactivity. Near the beginning of the lecture he wrote Duisberg’s name on a sealed photographic plate with a small glass tube filled with strong mesothorium. Technicians developed the plate while he spoke; at the end Hahn projected the radiographic signature onto a screen to appreciative applause.
The high point of the celebration at the vast 900-acre chemical complex came in the evening. “In the evening there was a banquet,” Hahn remembered with nostalgia; “everything was exquisite. On each of the little tables there was a beautiful orchid, brought from Holland by air.” Orchids delivered by swift biplane might be adequate symbols of German prosperity and power in 1914, but the managing director wanted to demonstrate German technological superiority as well, and found exotic statement: “At many of the tables,” says Hahn, evoking an unrecognizably futuristic past, “the wine was cooled by means of liquid air in thermos vessels.”320
* * *
When war broke out Niels and Harald Bohr were hiking in the Austrian Alps, covering as much as twenty-two miles a day. “It is impossible to describe how amazing and wonderful it is,” Niels had written to Margrethe along the way, “when the fog on the mountains suddenly comes driving down from all the peaks, initially as quite small clouds, finally to fill the whole valley.”321 The brothers had planned to return home August 6; the war suddenly came driving down like the mountain fog and they rushed across Germany before the frontiers closed. In October Bohr would sail with his wife from neutral Denmark to teach for two years at Manchester. Rutherford, his boys off to war work, needed help.
Harry Moseley was in Australia with his mother at the beginning of August, attending the 1914 British Association meeting, in his spare time searching out the duck-billed platypus and picturesque silver mines. The patriotism of the Australians, who immediately began mobilizing, triggered his own Etonian spirit of loyalty to King and country. He sailed for England as soon as he could book passage. By late October he had gingered up a reluctant recruiting officer to arrange his commission as a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers ahead of the waiting list.
* * *
Chaim Weizmann, the tall, sturdy, Russian-born Jewish biochemist who was Ernest Rutherford’s good friend at Manchester, was a passionate Zionist at a time when many, including many influential British Jews, believed Zionism to be at least visionary and naive if not wrongheaded, fanatic, even a menace. But if Weizmann was a Zionist he was also deeply admiring of British democracy, and one of his first acts after the beginning of the war was to cut himself off from the international Zionist organization because it proposed to remain neutral. Its European leaders hated Czarist Russia, England’s ally, and so did Weizmann, but unlike them he did not believe that Germany in cultural and technological superiority would win the war. He believed that the Western democracies would emerge victorious and that Jewish destiny lay with them.
He, his wife and his young son had been en route to a holiday in Switzerland at the outbreak of the war. They worked their way back to Paris, where he visited the elderly Baron Edmond de Rothschild, financial mainstay of the pioneering Jewish agricultural settlements in Palestine. To Weizmann’s astonishment Rothschild shared his optimism about the eventual outcome of the war and its possibilities for Jewry. Though Weizmann had no official position in the Zionist movement, Rothschild urged him to seek out and talk to British leaders.
That matched his own inclinations. His hope of British influence had deep roots. He was the third child among fifteen of a timber merchant who assembled rafts of logs and floated them down the Vistula to Danzig for milling and export. The Weizmanns lived in that impoverished western region of Russia cordoned off for the Jews known as the Pale of Settlement. When Chaim was only eleven he had written a letter that prefigured his work in the war. “The eleven-year-old boy,” reports his biographer Isaiah Berlin, “says that the kings and nations of the world are plainly set upon the ruin of the Jewish nation; the Jews must not let themselves be destroyed; England alone may help them to return and rise again in their ancient land of Palestine.”322
Young Weizmann’s conviction drove him inexorably west. At eighteen he floated on one of his father’s rafts to West Prussia, worked his way to Berlin and studied at the Technische Hochschule. In 1899 he took his Ph.D. at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, then sold a patent to Bayer that considerably improved his finances. He moved to England in 1904, a move he thought “a deliberate and desperate step. . . . I was in danger of degenerating into a Luftmensch [literally, an “air-man”], one of those well-meaning, undisciplined and frustrated ‘eternal students.’ ”323 Chemical research would save him from that fate; he settled in Manchester under the sponsorship of William Henry Perkin, Jr., the head of the chemistry department there, whose father had established the British coal-tar dye industry by isolating aniline blue, the purple dye after which the Mauve Decade was named.
Returning to Manchester from France in late August 1914, Weizmann found a circular on his desk from the British War Office “inviting every scientist in possession of any discovery of military value to report it.” He possessed such a discovery and forthwith offered it to the War Office “without remuneration.”324 The War Office chose not to reply. Weizmann went on with his research. At the same time he began the approach to British leaders that he and Rothschild had discussed that would elaborate into some two thousand interviews before the end of the war.
Weizmann’s discovery was a bacillus and a process. The bacillus was Clostridium acetobutylicum Weizmann, informally called B-Y (“bacillus-Weizmann”), an anerobic organism that decomposes starch. He was trying to develop a process for making synthetic rubber when he found it, on an ear of corn. He thought he could make synthetic rubber from isoamyl alcohol, which is a minor byproduct of alcoholic fermentation. He went looking for a bacillus—millions of species and subspecies live in the soil and on plants—that converted starch to isoamyl alcohol more efficiently than known strains. “In the course of this investigation I found a bacterium which produced considerable amounts of a liquid smelling very much like isoamyl alcohol.325 But when I distilled it, it turned out to be a mixture of acetone and butyl alcohol in very pure form. Professor Perkins advised me to pour the stuff down the sink, but I retorted that no pure chemical is useless or ought to be thrown away.”
That creature of serendipity was B-Y. Mixed with a mash of cooked corn it fermented the mash into a solution of water and three solvents—one part ethyl alcohol, three parts acetone, six parts butyl alcohol (butanol). The three solvents could then be separated by straightforward distillation. Weizmann tried developing a process for making synthetic rubber from butanol and succeeded. In the meantime, in the years just prior to the beginning of the war, the price of natural rubber fell and the clamor for synthetic rubber stilled.
Pursuing his efforts toward a Jewish homeland, Weizmann acquired in Manchester a loyal and influential friend, C. P. Scott, the tall, elderly, liberal editor of the Manchester Guardian. Among his many connections, Scott was David Lloyd George’s most intimate political adviser. Weizmann found himself having breakfast one Friday morning in January 1915 with the vigorous little Welshman who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer and who would become Prime Minister in the middle of the war.326 Lloyd George had been raised on the Bible. He respected the idea of a Jewish return to Palestine, especially when Weizmann eloquently compared rocky, mountainous, diminutive Palestine with rocky, mountainous, diminutive Wales. Besides Lloyd George, Weizmann was surprised to find interest in Zionism among such men as Arthur Balfour, the former Prime Minister who would serve as Foreign Secretary in Lloyd George’s cabinet, and Jan Christiaan Smuts, the highly respected Boer who joined the British War Cabinet in 1917 after serving behind the scenes previously. “Really messianic times are upon us,” Weizmann wrote his wife during this period of early hope.327
Weizmann had cultured B-Y primarily for its butanol. He happened one day to tell the chief research chemist of the Scottish branch of the Nobel explosives company about his fermentation research. The man was impressed. “You know,” he said to Weizmann, “you may have the key to a very important situation in your hands.”328 A major industrial explosion prevented Nobel from developing the process, but the company let the British government know.
“So it came about,” writes Weizmann, “that one day in March , I returned from a visit to Paris to find waiting for me a summons to the British Admiralty.”329 The Admiralty, of which Winston Churchill, at fortyone exactly Weizmann’s age, was First Lord, faced a severe shortage of acetone. That acrid solvent was a crucial ingredient in the manufacture of cordite, a propellant used in heavy artillery, including naval guns, that takes its name from the cordlike form in which it is usually extruded. The explosive material that hurled the heavy shells of the British Navy’s big guns from ship to ship and ship to shore across miles of intervening water was a mixture of 64 parts nitrocellulose and 30.2 parts nitroglycerin stabilized with 5 parts petroleum jelly and softened—gelatinized—with 0.8 percent acetone. Cordite could not be manufactured without acetone, and without cordite the guns would need to be extensively rebuilt to accommodate hotter propellants that would otherwise quickly erode their barrels.
Weizmann agreed to see what he could do. Shortly he was brought into the presence of the First Lord. As Weizmann remembered the experience of meeting the “brisk, fascinating, charming and energetic” Winston Churchill:330
Almost his first words were: “Well, Dr. Weizmann, we need thirty thousand tons of acetone. Can you make it?” I was so terrified by this lordly request that I almost turned tail. I answered: “So far I have succeeded in making a few hundred cubic centimeters of acetone at a time by the fermentation process. I do my work in a laboratory. I am not a technician, I am only a research chemist. But, if I were somehow able to produce a ton of acetone, I would be able to multiply that by any factor you chose.” . . . I was given carte blanche by Mr. Churchill and the department, and I took upon myself a task which was to tax all my energies for the next two years.
That was part one of Weizmann’s acetone experience. Part two came in early June. The British War Cabinet had been shuffled in May because of the enlarging disaster of the Dardanelles campaign at Gallipoli; Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister, had required Churchill’s resignation as First Lord of the Admiralty and replaced him with Arthur Balfour; Lloyd George had moved from Chancellor of the Exchequer to Minister of Munitions. Lloyd George thus immediately inherited the acetone problem in the wider context of Army as well as Navy needs. Scott of the Manchester Guardian alerted him to Weizmann’s work and the two men met on June 7. Weizmann told him what he had told Churchill previously. Lloyd George was impressed and gave him larger carte blanche to scale up his fermentation process.
In six months of experiments at the Nicholson gin factory in Bow, Weizmann achieved half-ton scale. The process proved efficient. It fermented 37 tons of solvents—about 11 tons of acetone—from 100 tons of grain. Weizmann began training industrial chemists while the government took over six English, Scottish and Irish distilleries to accommodate them. A shortage of American corn—German submarines strangled British shipping in the First War as in the Second—threatened to shut down the operations. “Horse-chestnuts were plentiful,” notes Lloyd George in his War Memoirs, “and a national collection of them was organised for the purpose of using their starch content as a substitute for maize.”331 Eventually acetone production was shifted to Canada and the United States and back to corn.
“When our difficulties were solved through Dr. Weizmann’s genius,” continues Lloyd George, “I said to him: ‘You have rendered great service to the State, and I should like to ask the Prime Minister to recommend you to His Majesty for some honour.’ He said, ‘There is nothing I want for myself.’ ‘But is there nothing we can do as a recognition of your valuable assistance to the country?’ I asked. He replied: ‘Yes, I would like you to do something for my people.’ . . . That was the fount and origin of the famous declaration about the National Home for Jews in Palestine.”332
The “famous declaration” came to be called the Balfour Declaration, a commitment by the British government in the form of a letter from Arthur Balfour to Baron Edmond de Rothschild to “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” and to “use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.”333 That document originated far more complexly than in simple payment for Weizmann’s biochemical services. Other spokesmen and statesmen were at work as well and Weizmann’s two thousand interviews need to be counted in. Smuts identified the relationship long after the war when he said that Weizmann’s “outstanding war work as a scientist had made him known and famous in high Allied circles, and his voice carried so much the greater weight in pleading for the Jewish National Home.”334
But despite these necessary qualifications, Lloyd George’s version of the story deserves better than the condescension historians usually accord it. A letter of one hundred eighteen words signed by the Foreign Secretary committing His Majesty’s government to a Jewish homeland in Palestine at some indefinite future time, “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”335 can hardly be counted an unseemly reward for saving the guns of the British Army and Navy from premature senility. Chaim Weizmann’s experience was an early and instructive example of the power of science in time of war. Government took note. So did science.
* * *
A heavy German artillery bombardment preceded the second battle of Ypres that began on April 22, 1915. Ypres was (or had been: it hardly existed anymore) a modest market town in southeastern Belgium about eight miles north of the French border and less than thirty miles inland from the French port of Dunkirk. Around Ypres spread shell-cratered, soggy downland dominated by unpromising low hills—the highest of them, Hill 60 on the military maps, volcanically contested, only 180 feet elevation. A line of Allied and, parallel northeastward, of German trenches curved through the area, emplaced since the previous November.
Before then, the German attacking and the British defending, the two armies had run a race to the sea. The Germans had hoped to win the race to turn the flank of the Allies. Not yet fully mobilized for war, they even threw in Ersatz Corps of ill-trained high school and university students to bolster their numbers and took 135,000 casualties in what the German people came to call the Kindermord, the murder of the children. But at the price of 50,000 lives the British held the narrow flank. The war that was supposed to be surgically brief—a quick march through Belgium, France’s capitulation, home by Christmas—turned to a stagnant war of opposing trenches, in the Ypres salient as everywhere along the battle line from the Channel to the Alps.
The April 22 bombardment, the beginning of a concerted German attempt at breakthrough, had driven the Canadians and French Africans holding the line at Ypres deep into their trenches. At sunset it lifted. German troops moved back from the front line along perpendicular communication trenches, leaving behind only newly trained Pioniere—combat engineers. A German rocket signal went up.336 The Pioniere set to work opening valves. A greenish-yellow cloud hissed from nozzles and drifted on the wind across no-man’s-land. It blanketed the ground, flowed into craters, over the rotting bodies of the dead, through wide brambles of barbed wire, drifted then across the sandbagged Allied parapets and down the trench walls past the firesteps, filled the trenches, found dugouts and deep shelters: and men who breathed it screamed in pain and choked. It was chlorine gas, caustic and asphyxiating. It smelled as chlorine smells and burned as chlorine burns.
Masses of Africans and Canadians stumbled back in retreat. Other masses, surprised and utterly uncomprehending, staggered out of their trenches into no-man’s-land. Men clawed at their throats, stuffed their mouths with shirttails or scarves, tore the dirt with their bare hands and buried their faces in the earth. They writhed in agony, ten thousand of them, serious casualties; and five thousand others died. Entire divisions abandoned the line.
Germany achieved perfect surprise. All the belligerents had agreed under the Hague Declaration of 1899 Concerning Asphyxiating Gases “to abstain from the use of projectiles the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases.”337None seemed to think tear gas covered by this declaration, though tear gases are more toxic than chlorine in sufficient concentration. The French used tear gas in the form of rifle grenades as early as August 1914; the Germans used it in artillery shells fired against the Russians at Bolimow at the end of January 1915 and on the Western Front first against the British at Nieuport in March. But the chlorine attack at Ypres was the first major and deliberate poison-gas attack of the war.
As later with other weapons of unfamiliar effect, the chlorine terrorized and bewildered. Men threw down their rifles and decamped. Medical officers at aid stations were suddenly overwhelmed with casualties the cause of whose injuries was unknown. Chemists among the men who survived the attack recognized chlorine quickly enough, however, and knew how easy it was to neutralize; within a week the women of London had sewn 300,000 pads of muslin-wrapped cotton for soaking in hyposulfite—the first crude gas masks.338
Even though the German High Command allowed the use of gas at Ypres, it apparently doubted its tactical value. It had massed no reserve troops behind the lines to follow up. Allied divisions quickly closed the gap. Nothing came of the attack except agony.
Otto Hahn, a lieutenant in the infantry reserve, helped install the gas cylinders, 5,730 of them containing 168 tons of chlorine, originally at a different place in the line.339, 340 Shovel crews dug them into the forward walls of the trenches at firestep level and sandbagged them thickly to protect them from shellfire. To work them you connected lead pipe to their valves, ran the pipe over the parapet into no-man’s-land, waited for a rocket to signal a start and opened the valves for a predetermined time. Chlorine boils at—28.5° F unpressurized; it boiled out eagerly when released. But the prevailing winds had been wrong where Hahn’s team of Pioniere first installed the chlorine cylinders. By the time the High Command decided to remove them to Ypres along a four-mile front where the wind blew more favorably, Hahn had been sent off to investigate gas-attack conditions in the Champagne.
In January he was ordered to German-occupied Brussels to see Fritz Haber. Haber had just been promoted from reserve sergeant major to captain, an unprecedented leap in rank in the aristocratic Germany Army. He needed the rank, he told Hahn, to accomplish his new work. “Haber informed me that his job was to set up a special unit for gas-warfare.”341 It seems that Hahn was shocked. Haber offered reasons. They were reasons that would be heard again in time of war:
He explained to me that the Western fronts, which were all bogged down, could be got moving again only by means of new weapons. One of the weapons contemplated was poison gas. . . . When I objected that this was a mode of warfare violating the Hague Convention he said that the French had already started it—though not to much effect—by using rifle-ammunition filled with gas. Besides, it was a way of saving countless lives, if it meant that the war could be brought to an end sooner.
Hahn followed Haber to work on gas warfare. So did the physicist James Franck, head of the physics department at Haber’s institute, who, like Haber and Hahn, would later win the Nobel Prize.342 So did a crowd of industrial chemists employed by I.G. Farben, a cartel of eight chemical companies assembled in wartime by the energetic Carl Duisberg of Bayer.343 The plant at Leverkusen with the new lecture hall turned up hundreds of known toxic substances, many of them dye precursors and intermediates, and sent them off to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry for study. Berlin acquired depots for gas storage and a school where Hahn instructed in gas defense.
He also directed gas attacks. In Galicia on the Eastern Front in mid-June 1915, “the wind was favourable and we discharged a very poisonous gas, a mixture of chlorine and phosgene, against the [Russian] enemy lines. . . .344 Not a single shot was fired. . . . The attack was a complete success.”345
Because of its massive chemical industry, which supplied the world before the war, Germany was far ahead of the Allies in the production of chemicals for gas warfare. Early in the war the British had even been reduced to buying German dyestuffs (not for gas, for dyeing) through neutral countries; when the Germans discovered the subterfuge they proposed, with what compounding of cynicism and labored Teutonic humor the record does not reveal, to trade dyestuffs for scarce rubber and cotton.346 But France and Britain went immediately to work. By the end of the war at least 200,000 tons of chemical warfare agents had been manufactured and used, half by Germany, half by the several Allies together.
Abrogating the Hague Convention opened an array of new ecological niches, so to speak, in weaponry. Types of gas and means of delivery then proceeded to diversify like Darwin’s finches. Germany introduced phosgene next after chlorine, mixing it with chlorine for cloud-gas attacks like Hahn’s because of its slow rate of evaporation.347 The French retaliated in early 1916 with phosgene artillery shells. Phosgene then became a staple of the war, dispensed from cylinders, artillery shells, trench mortars, canisters fired from mortarlike “projectors” and bombs. It smelled like new-mown hay but it was by far the most toxic gas used, ten times as toxic as chlorine, fatal in ten minutes at a concentration of half a milligram per liter of air. At higher concentrations one or two breaths killed in a matter of hours. Phosgene—carbonyl chloride—hydrolyzed to hydrochloric acid in contact with water; that was its action in the water-saturated air deep in the delicate bubbled tissue of the human lung. It caused more than 80 percent of the war’s gas fatalities.
Chlorpicrin—the British called it vomiting gas, the Germans called it Klop—a vicious compound of picric acid and bleaching powder, came along next.348 German engineers used it against Russian soldiers in August 1916. Its special virtue was its chemical inertness. It did not react with the several neutralizing chemicals packed in gas-mask canisters; only the modest layer of activated charcoal in the canisters removed it from the air by adsorption. So a high concentration could saturate the charcoal and get through. It worked like tear gas but induced nausea, vomiting and diarrhea as well. Men raised their masks to vomit; if the Klop had been mixed with phosgene, as it frequently was, they might then be lethally exposed. Chlorpicrin’s other advantage was that it was simple and cheap to make.
The most horrible gas of the war, the gas that started a previously complacent United States developing a chemical-warfare capacity of its own, was dichlorethyl sulfide, known for its horseradish- or mustard-like smell as mustard gas.349 The Germans first used it on the night of July 17, 1917, in an artillery bombardment against the British at Ypres. The attack came as a complete surprise and caused thousands of casualties. Defense in the form of effective masks and efficient gas discipline had caught up with offense by the summer of 1917; Germany introduced mustard gas to break the deadlock, just as it had introduced chlorine before. Shells marked with yellow crosses rained down on the men at Ypres. At first they experienced not much more than sneezing and many put away their masks. Then they began vomiting. Their skin reddened and began to blister. Their eyelids inflamed and swelled shut. They had to be led away blinded to aid stations, more than fourteen thousand of them over the next three weeks.
Though the gas smelled like mustard in dense concentrations, in low concentrations, still extremely toxic, it was hardly noticeable. It persisted for days and even weeks in the field. A gas mask alone was no longer sufficient protection. Mustard dissolved rubber and leather; it soaked through multiple layers of cloth. One man might bring enough back to a dugout on the sole of his boot to blind temporarily an entire nest of his mates. Its odor could also be disguised with other gases. The Germans sometimes chose to disguise mustard with xylyl bromide, a tear gas that smells like lilac, and so it came to pass in the wartime spring that men ran in terror from a breeze scented with blossoming lilac shrubs.
These are not nearly all the gases and poisons developed in the boisterous, vicious laboratory of the Great War. There were sneezing gases and arsenic powders and a dozen tear gases and every combination. The French loaded artillery shells with cyanide—to no point except hatred, as it turned out, because the resulting vapors were lighter than air and immediately lofted away. By 1918 a typical artillery barrage locomoting east or west over the front lines counted nearly as many gas shells as high-explosive.350 Germany, always logical at war to the point of inhumanity, blamed the French and courted a succession of increasingly desperate breakthroughs. The chemists, like bargain hunters, imagined they were spending a pittance of tens of thousands of lives to save a purseful more. Britain reacted with moral outrage but capitulated in the name of parity.
It was more than Fritz Haber’s wife could bear. Clara Immerwahr had been Haber’s childhood sweetheart. She was the first woman to win a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Breslau. After she married Haber and bore him a son, a neglected housewife with a child to raise, she withdrew progressively from science and into depression. Her husband’s work with poison gas triggered even more desperate melancholy. “She began to regard poison gas not only as a perversion of science but also as a sign of barbarism,” a Haber biographer explains. “It brought back the tortures men said they had forgotten long ago. It degraded and corrupted the discipline [i.e., chemistry] which had opened new vistas of life.”351 She asked, argued, finally adamantly demanded that her husband abandon gas work. Haber told her what he had told Hahn, adding for good measure, patriot that he was, that a scientist belongs to the world in times of peace but to his country in times of war.352 Then he stormed out to supervise a gas attack on the Eastern Front. Dr. Clara Immerwahr Haber committed suicide the same night.
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The Allied campaign at Gallipoli began on April 25, 1915. The rough, southward-descending Gallipoli Peninsula looked westward toward the Aegean; eastward, across the narrow strait known as the Dardanelles—to the ancients and to Lord Byron, the Hellespont—it faced Turkish Asia. Capture the peninsula; control the Dardanelles, then the Sea of Marmara above, then the narrow Bosporus Strait that divides Europe from Asia, then Constantinople, and you might control the Black Sea, into which the Danube drains—a vast flanking movement against the Central Powers. Such were the ambitions of the War Cabinet, chivvied by Winston Churchill, for the Dardanelles campaign. The Turks, whose land it was, backed by the Germans, opposed the operation with machine guns and howitzers.
One Australian, one New Zealand, one French colonial and two British divisions landed at Gallipoli to establish narrow beachheads. The water of one beachhead bay churned as white at first as a rapid, the Turks pouring down ten thousand rounds a minute from the steep cliffs above; then it bloomed thick and red with blood. Geography, error and six Turkish divisions under a skillful German commander forestalled any effective advance. By early May, when a British Gurkha and a French division arrived to replace the Allied depletions, both sides had chiseled trenches in the stony ground.
The standoff persisted into summer. Sir Ian Hamilton, the Allied commander, Corfu-born, literary, with a Boer-stiffened right arm and the best of intentions, appealed for reinforcements. The War Cabinet had reorganized itself and expelled Churchill; it assented with reluctance to Hamilton’s appeal and shipped out five divisions more.
Harry Moseley shipped out among them. He was a signaling officer now, 38th Brigade, 13th Infantry Division, one of Lord Kitchener’s New Army batches made up of dedicated but inexperienced civilian volunteers. At Gibraltar on June 20 he signaled his mother “Our destination no longer in doubt.”353 At Alexandria on June 27 he made his will, leaving everything, which was £2,200, to the Royal Society strictly “to be applied to the furtherance of experimental research in Pathology Physics Physiology Chemistry or other branches of science but not in pure mathematics astronomy or any branch of science which aims merely at describing cataloguing or systematizing.”354
Alexandria was “full of heat flies native troops and Australians” and after a week they sailed on to Cape Helles on the southern extremity of the Gallipoli Peninsula, a relatively secure bay behind the trench lines.355 There they could ease into combat in the form of artillery shells lobbed over the Dardanelles to Europe, as it were, from Turkish batteries in Asia. If men were bathing in the bay a lookout on the heights blew a trumpet blast to announce a round coming in. Centipedes and sand, Harry dispensing chlorodyne to his men to cure them of the grim amebic dysentery everyone caught from the beaches, Harry in silk pajamas sharing out the glorious Tiptree blackberry jam his mother sent. “The one real interest in life is the flies,” he wrote her. “No mosquitoes, but flies by day and flies by night, flies in the water, flies in the food.”356
Toward the end of July the divisions crossed to Lemnos to stage for the reinforcing invasion. That was to divide the peninsula, gain the heights and outflank the Turkish lines toward Helles. Hamilton secreted twenty thousand men by the dark of the moon into the crowded trenches at a beach called Anzac halfway up the peninsula and the Turks were none the wiser. The remainder, some seventeen thousand New Army men, came ashore on the night of August 6, 1915, at Sulva Bay north of Anzac, to very little opposition.
When the Turks learned of the invasion they moved new divisions down the peninsula by forced march. The objective of the 38th Brigade, what was left of it toward the end, after days and nights of continuous marching and fighting, was an 850-foot hill, Chanuk Bair, inland a mile and a half from Anzac. To the west of Chanuk Bair and lower down was another hill with a patch of cultivated ground: the Farm. Moseley’s column, commanded by Brigadier A. H. Baldwin, struggling up an imprisoning defile a yard wide and six hundred feet deep, found its way blocked by a descending train of mules loaded with ammunition. That was scabby passage and the brigadier in a fury of frustration led off north toward the Farm “over ghastly country in the pitch dark,” says the brigade machine gunner, the men “falling headlong down holes and climbing up steep and slippery inclines.”357 But they reached the Farm.
Baldwin’s force then held the far left flank of the line of five thousand British, Australians and New Zealanders precariously dug into the slopes below the heights of Chanuk Bair, which the Turks still commanded from trenches.
The Turkish reinforcements arrived at night and crowded into the Chanuk trenches, thirty thousand strong. They launched their assault at dawn on August 10 with the sun breaking blindingly at their backs. John Masefield, the British poet, was there and lived to report: “They came on in a monstrous mass, packed shoulder to shoulder, in some places eight deep, in others three or four deep.” On the left flank “the Turks got fairly in among our men with a weight which bore all before it, and what followed was a long succession of British rallies to a tussle body to body, with knives and stones and teeth, a fight of wild beasts in the ruined cornfields of The Farm.”358 Harry Moseley, in the front line, lost that fight.
When he heard of Moseley’s death, the American physicist Robert A. Millikan wrote in public eulogy that his loss alone made the war “one of the most hideous and most irreparable crimes in history.”359
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Six miles below Dover down the chalk southeastern coast of England the old resort and harbor town of Folkestone fills a small valley which opens steeply to the strait.360 Hills shelter the town to the north; the chalk cliff west sustains a broad municipal promenade of lawns and flower beds. The harbor, where Allied soldiers embarked in great numbers for France, offers the refuge of a deep-water pier a third of a mile long with berths for eight steamers. The town remembers William Harvey, the seventeenth-century physician who discovered the circulation of the blood, as its most distinguished native son.
At Folkestone on a sunny, warm Friday afternoon, May 25, 1917, housewives came out in crowds to shop for the Whitsun weekend. A few miles away at Shorncliffe camp, Canadian troops mustered on the parade ground. There was bustle and enthusiasm in town and camp alike. It was payday.
Without warning the shops and streets exploded. A line of waiting housewives crumpled outside a greengrocer’s. A wine merchant returned to the front of his shop to find his only customer decapitated. Blast felled passersby in a narrow passage between two old buildings. Horses slumped dead between the shafts of carriages. Finely shattered glass suddenly iced a section of street, a conservatory shed its windows, a crater obliterated a tennis court. Fires bloomed from damaged stores.
Only after the first explosions did the people of Folkestone notice the sound of engines beating the air. They hardly understood what they heard. They screamed “Zepps! Zepps!” for until then Zeppelin dirigibles had been the only mechanism of air attack they knew. “I saw two aeroplanes,” a clergyman remembered who ran outside amid the clamor, “not Zeppelins, emerging from the disc of the sun almost overhead. Then four more, or five, in a line and others, all light bright silver insects hovering against the blue of the sky. . . . There was about a score in all, and we were charmed with the beauty of the sight.”361 Charmed because aircraft of any kind were new to the British sky and these were white and large. The results were less charming: 95 killed, 195 injured. The parade ground at Shorncliffe camp was damaged but no one was hurt.
Folkestone was the little Guernica of the Great War. German Gotha bombers—oversized biplanes—had attacked England for the first time, bringing with them the burgeoning concept of strategic bombing. The England Squadron had been headed for London but had met a solid wall of clouds inland from Gravesend. Twenty-one aircraft turned south then and searched for alternative targets. Folkestone and its nearby army camp answered the need.
A Zeppelin bombed Antwerp early in the war as the Germans pushed through Belgium. Churchill sent Navy fighters to bomb Zeppelin hangars at Düsseldorf. Gothas bombed Salonika and a British squadron bombed the fortress town of Maidos in the Dardanelles during the campaign for Gallipoli. But the Gothas that attacked Folkestone in 1917 began the first effective and sustained campaign of strategic civilian bombardment. It fitted Prussian military strategist Karl von Clausewitz’s doctrine of total war in much the same way that submarine attack did, carrying fear and horror directly to the enemy to weaken his will to resist. “You must not suppose that we set out to kill women and children,” a captured Zeppelin commander told the British authorities, another rationalization that would echo.362 “We have higher military aims. You would not find one officer in the German Army or Navy who would go to war to kill women and children. Such things happen accidentally in war.”
At first the Kaiser, thinking of royal relatives and historic buildings, kept London off the bombing list. His naval staff pressed him to relent, which he did by stages, first allowing the docks to be bombed from naval airships, then reluctantly enlarging permission westward across the city. But the hydrogen-filled airships of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin were vulnerable to incendiary bullets; when British pilots learned to fire them the stage was set for the bombers.
They came on in irregular numbers, dependent in those later years of the war not only on the vagaries of weather but also on the vagaries, enforced by the British blockade, of substandard engine parts and inferior fuel. A squadron flew against London by daylight on June 13, nineteen days after Folkestone, dropped almost 10,000 pounds of bombs and caused the most numerous civilian bombing casualties of the war, 432 injured and 162 killed, including sixteen horribly mangled children in the basement of a nursery school. London was nearly defenseless and at first the military saw no reason to change that naked condition; the War Minister, the Earl of Derby, told the House of Lords that the bombing was without military significance because not a single soldier had been killed.
So the Gothas continued their attacks. They crossed the Channel from bases in Belgium three times in July, twice in August, and averaged two raids a month through the autumn and winter and spring for a total of twenty-seven in all, first by day and then increasingly, as the British improved their home defenses, by night. They dropped almost a quarter of a million pounds of bombs, killing 835 people, injuring 1,972 more.
Lloyd George, by then Prime Minister, appealed to the brilliant, reliable Smuts to develop an air program, including a system of home defense. Early-warning mechanisms were devised: oversized binaural gramophone horns connected by stethoscope to keen blind listeners; sound-focusing cavities carved into sea cliffs that could pick up the wong-wong of Gotha engines twenty miles out to sea. Barrage balloons raised aprons of steel cable that girdled London’s airspace; enormous white arrows mounted on the ground on pivots guided the radioless defenders in their Sopwith Camels and Pups toward the invading German bombers. The completed defense system around London was primitive but effective and it needed only technological improvement to ready it for the next war.
At the same time the Germans explored strategic offense. They extended the range of their Gothas with extra fuel tanks. When daylight bombing became too risky they learned to fly and bomb at night, navigating by the stars. They produced a behemoth new four-engine bomber, the Giant, a biplane with a wingspan of 138 feet, unmatched until the advent of the American B-29 Superfortress more than two decades later. Its effective range approached 300 miles. A Giant dropped the largest bomb of the war on London on February 16, 1918, a 2,000-pounder that was thirteen feet long; it exploded on the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. As they came to understand strategic bombing, the Germans turned from high explosives to incendiaries, reasoning presciently that fires might cause more damage by spreading and coalescing than any amount of explosives alone. By 1918 they had developed a ten-pound incendiary bomb of almost pure magnesium, the Elektron, that burned at between 2000° and 3000° and that water could not dowse. Only hope of a negotiated peace restrained Germany from attempting major incendiary raids on London in the final months of the war.
The Germans bombed to establish “a basis for peace” by destroying “the morale of the English people” and paralyzing their “will to fight.”363 They succeeded in making the British mad enough to think strategic bombing through. “The day may not be far off,” Smuts wrote in his report to Lloyd George, “when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale may become the principal operations of the war, to which the older forms of military and naval operations may become secondary and subordinate.”364
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The United States Army was slow to respond to gas warfare because it assumed that masks would adequately protect U.S. troops. The civilian Department of the Interior, which had experience dealing with poison gases in mines, therefore took the lead in chemical warfare studies. The Army quickly changed its mind when the Germans introduced mustard gas in July 1917. Research contracts for poison-gas development went out to Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Yale and other universities.365With what a British observer could now call “the great importance attached in America to this branch of warfare,” Army Ordnance began construction in November 1917 of a vast war-gas arsenal at Edgewood, Maryland, on waste and marshy land.366, 367
The plant, which cost $35.5 million—a complex of 15 miles of roads, 36 miles of railroad track, waterworks and power plants and 550 buildings for the manufacture of chlorine, phosgene, chlorpicrin, sulfur chloride and mustard gas—was completed in less than a year. Ten thousand military and civilian workers staffed it. By the end of the war it was capable of filling 1.1 million 75-mm gas shells a month as well as several million other sizes and types of shells, grenades, mortar bombs and projector drums. “Had the war lasted longer,” the British observer notes, “there can be no doubt that this centre of production would have represented one of the most important contributions by America to the world war.”368
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Gas in any case was far less efficient at maiming and killing men than were artillery and machine-gun fire. Of a total of some 21 million battle casualties gas caused perhaps 5 percent, about 1 million. It killed at least 30,000 men, but at least 9 million died overall. Gas may have evoked special horror because it was unfamiliar and chemical rather than familiar and mechanical in its effects.
The machine gun forced the opposing armies into trenches; artillery carried the violence over the parapets once they were there. So the general staffs learned to calculate that they would lose 500,000 men in a six-month offensive or 300,000 men in six months of “ordinary” trench warfare.369 The British alone fired off more than 170 million artillery rounds, more than 5 million tons, in the course of the war.370 The shells, if they were not loaded with shrapnel in the first place, were designed to fragment when they exploded on impact; they produced by far the most horrible mutilations and dismemberings of the war, faces torn away, genitals torn away, a flying debris of arms and legs and heads, human flesh so pulped into the earth that the filling of sandbags with that earth was a repulsive punishment. Men cried out against the monstrousness on all sides.
The machine gun was less mutilating but far more efficient, the basic slaughtering tool of the war. “Concentrated essence of infantry,” a military theorist daintily labeled it.371 Against the criminally stubborn conviction of the professional officer corps that courage, élan and naked steel must carry the day the machine gun was the ultimate argument. “I go forward,” a British soldier writes of his experience in an attacking line of troops, “ . . . up and down across ground like a huge ruined honeycomb, and my wave melts away, and the second wave comes up, and also melts away, and then the third wave merges into the ruins of the first and second, and after a while the fourth blunders into the remnants of the others.”372 He was describing the Battle of the Somme, on July 1, 1916, when at least 21,000 men died in the first hour, possibly in the first few minutes, and 60,000 the first day.373
Americans invented the machine gun: Hiram Stevens Maxim, a Yankee from Maine; Colonel Isaac Lewis, a West Pointer, director of the U.S. Army coast artillery school; William J. Browning, a gunmaker and businessman; and their predecessor Richard Jordan Gatling, who correctly located the machine gun among automated systems. “It bears the same relation to other firearms,” Gatling noted, “that McCormack’s Reaper does to the sickle, or the sewing machine to the common needle.”374 The military historian John Keegan writes:
For the most important thing about a machine-gun is that it is a machine, and one of quite an advanced type, similar in some respects to a high-precision lathe, in others to an automatic press. Like a lathe, it requires to be set up, so that it will operate within desired and predetermined limits; this was done on the Maxim gun . . . by adjusting the angle of the barrel relative to its fixed firing platform, and tightening or loosening its traversing screw. Then, like an automatic press, it would, when actuated by a simple trigger, begin and continue to perform its functions with a minimum of human attention, supplying its own power and only requiring a steady supply of raw material and a little routine maintenance to operate efficiently throughout a working shift.375
The machine gun mechanized war. Artillery and gas mechanized war. They were the hardware of the war, the tools. But they were only proximately the mechanism of the slaughter. The ultimate mechanism was a method of organization—anachronistically speaking, a software package.376 “The basic lever,” the writer Gil Elliot comments, “was the conscription law, which made vast numbers of men available for military service.377 The civil machinery which ensured the carrying out of this law, and the military organization which turned numbers of men into battalions and divisions, were each founded on a bureaucracy. The production of resources, in particular guns and ammunition, was a matter for civil organization. The movement of men and resources to the front, and the trench system of defence, were military concerns.” Each interlocking system was logical in itself and each system could be rationalized by those who worked it and moved through it. Thus, Elliot demonstrates, “It is reasonable to obey the law, it is good to organize well, it is ingenious to devise guns of high technical capacity, it is sensible to shelter human beings against massive firepower by putting them in protective trenches.”
What was the purpose of this complex organization? Officially it was supposed to save civilization, protect the rights of small democracies, demonstrate the superiority of Teutonic culture, beat the dirty Hun, beat the arrogant British, what have you. But the men caught in the middle came to glimpse a darker truth. “The War had become undisguisedly mechanical and inhuman,” Siegfried Sassoon allows a fictional infantry officer to see. “What in earlier days had been drafts of volunteers were now droves of victims.”378Men on every front independently discovered their victimization. Awareness intensified as the war dragged on. In Russia it exploded in revolution. In Germany it motivated desertions and surrenders. Among the French it led to mutinies in the front lines. Among the British it fostered malingering.
Whatever its ostensible purpose, the end result of the complex organization that was the efficient software of the Great War was the manufacture of corpses. This essentially industrial operation was fantasized by the generals as a “strategy of attrition.” The British tried to kill Germans, the Germans tried to kill British and French and so on, a “strategy” so familiar by now that it almost sounds normal. It was not normal in Europe before 1914 and no one in authority expected it to evolve, despite the pioneering lessons of the American Civil War. Once the trenches were in place, the long grave already dug (John Masefield’s bitterly ironic phrase), then the war stalemated and death-making overwhelmed any rational response.379 “The war machine,” concludes Elliot, “rooted in law, organization, production, movement, science, technical ingenuity, with its product of six thousand deaths a day over a period of 1,500 days, was the permanent and realistic factor, impervious to fantasy, only slightly altered by human variation.”380
No human institution, Elliot stresses, was sufficiently strong to resist the death machine.381 A new mechanism, the tank, ended the stalemate. An old mechanism, the blockade, choked off the German supply of food and matériel. The increasing rebelliousness of the foot soldiers threatened the security of the bureaucrats. Or the death machine worked too well, as against France, and began to run out of raw material. The Yanks came over with their sleeves rolled up, an untrenched continent behind them where the trees were not hung with entrails. The war putrified to a close.
But the death machine had only sampled a vast new source of raw material: the civilians behind the lines. It had not yet evolved equipment efficient to process them, only big guns and clumsy biplane bombers. It had not yet evolved the necessary rationale that old people and women and children are combatants equally with armed and uniformed young men. That is why, despite its sickening squalor and brutality, the Great War looks so innocent to modern eyes.