The Lethal Munitions of World War I

In an editorial published in the New York Times of May 27, 1915 following the tragic sinking of the RMS Lusitania, the British social critic H. G. Wells wrote “if the human intelligence is applied continuously to the mechanism of war it will steadily develop destructive powers, but that it will fail to develop any corresponding power of decision and settlement, because the development of the former is easy and obvious in comparison with the development of the latter.” The World War, already underway for nine months did nothing to dispel his admonition. New technology in the form of high explosives, rapid fire guns, submarines, and aircraft had radically altered the battlefield and the scope of war and provided a lethality magnitudes greater than the wars of the previous century. On the battlefield itself, two major changes in tactics were generated by the rapid-fire machine gun and the prodigious use of artillery, primed with high explosives that could shatter projectiles into hundreds of spinning, streaking fragments of metal any one of which could tear the human frame apart.

The inventor Hiram Maxim (1840-1916) might have been acknowledged as the discoverer of the electric light were it not for several patent disputes with the now famous Thomas Edison. However, Maxim’s method of hardening carbon filaments allowed “fully twice as much light for the power consumed as Edison’s original lamps”[1]. In the meantime, a fascination with guns drew him away from electricity and into the realm of rapid-fire weapons. By using the recoil energy of a round, he was able to devise a mechanism for loading another round in the chamber and “automatically” firing it. His first model fired 666 rounds per minute at a range of 1000 meters.  He was encouraged to focus on his gun rather than electricity. In Vienna, a comrade told him “Hang your chemistry and electricity! If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other’s’ throats with greater facility.”[2]  Before the turn of the century, Maxim’s gun had become immensely popular in Britain, France, Germany, and Austria. At the start of the Great War in 1914 all combatants were equipped with Maxim’s machine gun.

The Great War also saw a dramatic change in the technology of artillery. Rifled, breech loading guns allowed for more precise and faster delivery of shells. More importantly, the fillers (“bursters”) of the projectiles changed from gunpowder to high explosives such as picric acid and subsequently trinitrotoluene (easier handling properties) with a detonation velocity of 6900 m/sec. The impact of this amount of energy and dissemination of shrapnel or fragmentation of casing could produce devastating human damage meters from impact. Bodies were literally ripped apart. In survivors, traumatic amputations, deep-seated soft tissue tearing, avulsion, and contusion, and comminuted (fragmented) bony injuries provided vast niduses for anaerobic bacterial infection from manured battlefields that, unless widely cleaned, often led to life-threatening gangrenous infections.[3]


[1] Hiram S. Maxim, My Life (London: Methuen & Co., 1915), 141

[2] Malcolm W. Browne, “100 Years of Maxim’s Killing Machine” New York Times, November 26, 1985, 1

[3] See Brown, D.K. “Ammunition Explosions in World War I” Warship International 38 (2001): 58-69

On The Great War and the Birth of Modern Medicine

The Great War of 1914-1918 exploded on the European scene with unimaginable violence. Troops of all countries began the conflict using tactics and strategy of a bygone era. However, technology had produced weapons of war far advanced from the simple firearms of the last century. Infantry were cut down in heaps, and injuries to survivors were magnitudes more dangerous than before. Physicians and scientists quickly mobilized to employ laboratory methods to clinical medicine and surgery to address the horrible suffering of those mutilated boys and men struck down in the fields of France. Surgeons moved to near the front lines to deliver life- and limb-sparing treatment. For the first time, blood loss was treated by blood replacement. Bacteriology finally shed light on the threats of gas gangrene. Measures were taken to shield against the dangers of toxic gas attacks, and simple splints were employed to immobilize deadly fractures of the leg. Behind the front, innovative surgical techniques rescued countless victims of brain trauma, and skillful reconstructive surgeons rebuilt otherwise disfiguring facial injuries. And in those many veterans of the war so hobbled mentally by the trauma they had witnessed, doctors beneficently and slowly helped untangle the ravages of “shell shock”, what we now know as post-traumatic stress syndrome. To add insult to injury, a plague of influenza swept over armies of both sides and felled almost as many as bullets had. This is a book about tragedy but also about ingenuity, perseverance, and the collaborative efforts of governments, industries, and science to advance medicine into the Twentieth Century and beyond.

On The Agony of Heroes

Can you imagine the courage mustered by doctors and nurses in these gravest of circumstances? Surrounded by the enemy, under deadly gunfire, and without the certainty of rescue, these formerly civilian men and women rose to the occasion to deliver their expert care to the maimed and forlorn of their entrusted patient. For some it seemed a looming fate that they would not escape, that their future was dim and prospects of returning to loved ones as dark as those many nights they hunkered in their foxholes and dugouts awaiting the next explosion or burst of automatic weapons. It was here that bravery was every bit as palpable as the soldiers and Marines fighting beside them. It was here that their suffering mingled with the agonies of the men locked in battle with an enemy within sight and sound and who was likely to give no quarter should capitulation be the only recourse. I was stunned by the equipoise of these young men and women who did not break stride but ran to the injured, bent over their broken bodies, and relentlessly labored, oblivious to the sights and sounds that might, at any minute, spell their own demise. Step back in time with me and put yourself in their place, and feel the fear that they all felt and wonder, as I did, from what deep source they managed to pull fort the spiritual fortitude to complete their task. Heroes they all were: those who sought mercy and those who delivered it.

On Desperate Surgery in the Pacific War

Even as a kid I was intrigued by the Second World War. My Dad had served in the infantry in the South Pacific but had little to say about his experiences. It only triggered in me an insatiable curiosity about those times. I was a voracious reader of Samuel Eliot Morison’s landmark series of Navy history in World War II, and eagerly awaited each released volume. It was such a righteous war, I guess, more or less good guys against bad guys and all the might and technology that industrialized countries could muster to bring Earth to the brink of Armageddon. Yet it still was battle fought by individual soldiers, sailors, and Marines. The infantryman and the seaman were the final common element in victory or defeat. The rifle, bayonet, and turreted gun ruled land and sea and spelled the difference in conquest or capitulation. Even in the air, planes were extensions of the pilot’s hands, still fought within sight of the enemy and maneuvering as if engaged in fighting mano-a mano. And into that melee was thrown surgeon and nurse, men and women naïve to the rigors of combat but dedicated to the irrevocable mission of saving life and limb under the direst of circumstances. It was irresistible drama and, in the Pacific Theater, provided the most compelling stories of heroism and sacrifice. In telling these tales, I cared not so much about organization or hierarchy but instead my focus was the harrowing experiences and circumstances that doctors encountered and the magical feats they still were able to perform on men brutalized beyond description in jungles and atolls and iron ships miles from the conveniences of modern medicine. It was truly a war fought by the Greatest of Generations.