Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

A Higher Form of Killing
reviewed by David F. Beer

A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I That Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare
by Diana Preston
Bloomsbury Press, 2015

Zeppelin Bomber

In 1835 the poet Tennyson wrote in "Locksley Hall" how he had

Heard the heavens fill with shouting, 
 And there rain'd a ghastly dew 
 From the nations' airy navies 
 Grappling in the central blue. . .,

and just over a century later a perceptive Archbishop of Canterbury, referring to the aerial bombardment of Guernica in 1937, coined a phrase we are all only too familiar with today:

Who can think at this present time without a sickening of the heart of the appalling slaughter, the suffering, the manifold misery brought by war to Spain..? Who can think without horror of what another widespread war would mean, waged as it would be with all the new weapons of mass destruction?

Weapons of mass destruction. We rarely think of them as originating in the First World War, yet, as Diana Preston convincingly argues in her impressive A Higher Form of Killing, such weapons ominously made their first significant appearances in a brief six-week period in 1915. These six weeks were to see the appearance of poison gas, the sinking of ships (including passenger ships) by submarines, and the beginning of mass aerial bombing — first by zeppelins and then by bombers. Preston chronicles the development and employment of the first use of each of these means of destruction in WWI. She is a master of detailed description. We learn much about the technology of each of these means of warfare and also much about the people involved in creating, using, and suffering from them. Prominent leaders are cited, as are soldiers in the trenches and civilians in the streets. Throughout the book, American involvement is not neglected.

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Although we may be familiar with a lot of what the author deals with, there are also plenty of surprises — at least there were for me. I had very little knowledge, for example, of the international movements before the war that dealt with, as the author calls it, "Humanising War." In the initial chapters Preston gives a lively account of the history, planning, philosophizing, ethical questioning, and politics leading up to the Hague Conferences of May 1899 and June 1907. These were as fascinating and busy (and ultimately disappointing) as the Versailles gathering of 1919. In the light of eventual experience, we can only wish the conferences had been attended by delegates who were less cynical and more well intentioned. As it turned out, Germany was to be the first to violate the protocols that did emerge from the conferences.

In the accounts of poisonous gas development and use we frequently meet the ultimately tragic figure of Fritz Haber, the German-Jewish patriot and "father" of poison gas weapons. As a chemist and head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute he worked on various projects in support of Germany's war effort and created increasingly dreadful types of poisonous gas. He oversaw the release of chlorine gas at Ypres in 1915 and developed cyanide and mustard gas. After the first gas attack, the Times informed its readers that

. . .the wholesale employment of asphyxiating gases against the French is a fresh indication of the temper in which the Germans are now waging war. It is to the use of these gases in a manner forbidden by the Hague Convention, which Germany signed, that the retirement of the French on Thursday is attributed (p. 116).

Depiction of the First Gas Attack on the Western Front

This was all too much for Haber's wife, who committed suicide on 1 May. But her death was not enough to prevent her husband from making a trip within hours to Russia to supervise the deployment of gas against Russian troops near Warsaw (and missing her funeral). Ironically, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1919. Haber's sad later years are also described by Preston, and we end up with a full picture of this now almost forgotten figure.

The background and operation of Britain's blockade and Germany's U-boat war are as fully treated in these pages as are gas and bombing. No one, sailor or civilian, is immune to the submarine and its torpedoes. Starvation is the basic goal of both sides — Germany's to sink enough British tonnage to starve the nation to submission while Britain's aim is to prevent as much food and other supplies as possible from getting to Germany. Introductory to this saga is the "wilful and wholesale murder" perpetrated on 1198 people aboard the Lusitania and the political and moral questions that inevitably arise in both Britain and America. Preston's discussion of this, plus a riveting description of the ship's end, maintain the overall quality of her book.

When Preston turns to aerial warfare she is as thorough and captivating as she is in the rest of this volume. From the structure of the zeppelins to their various payloads and the strains placed on their crews, the author provides numerous details. Her description of these "sausages" over London and elsewhere are eerily graphic. Air warfare develops even further with the appearance of bombers, especially the Gothas, and the damage to life and property, especially in London, eventually totals considerably more than many of us realize. The terrible vision of Tennyson has come true, as we hear in the words of the American reporter William G. Shepherd:

Suddenly you realize that the biggest city in the world has become the night battlefield on which seven million harmless men, women and children live. Here is war at the very heart of civilization, threatening all the millions of things that human hearts and human minds have created in past centuries. (p. 211)

U-boat Sinking a Sailing Ship

As we read A Higher Form of Killing, we come to see the dreadful irony behind the title the author has chosen. Moreover, no matter how much we know about the Great War, this book gives us a lot of information that is not particularly well known. It also provides some refreshingly new insights and ways of looking at the historical facts. As a bonus, we find that the clear and breezy style in which the author presents her material adds to the appeal of an informative and thought-provoking read.

David F. Beer


  1. Haber's Nobel Prize was for the Haber-Bosch process for synthesizing ammonia, which Haber achieved in 1909, before his poison gas work. The Haber-Bosch Process was critically important to the First World War because it enabled Germany to produce virtually unlimited quantities of both explosives and fertilizer. For better or worse, today over half of the food grown in the world relies on chemical fertilizer.

  2. Which makes Haber one of the most astonishing figures of the 20th century.

    Great review, David. Looking forward to this.

  3. Excellent. Preston shows that no matter how civilized humans get they still make war in the same ghastly way as they did in the 30 Years War. I look forward to exploring this work. Cheers