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

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Environmental Histories of the First World War

Edited by R. Tucker, T. Keller, R. McNeil, & M. Schmid
Cambridge Univ. Press, 2018
Jim Gallen, Reviewer

The Great War had many effects on the world. Environmental Histories of the First World War consists of 14 essays highlighting various ways that the war shaped the environment. I was expecting to read about lead runoff polluting streams and the devastation of isolated species of fauna and flora, but the authors have examined events that set into motion more indirect influences.

"We Are Making a New World,"  Paul Nash, 1918 (IWM)

The editors have divided the book into four parts: "Europe and North America: Battle Zones and Support Systems;" "War's Global Reach: Extracting Natural Resources;" "The Middle East and Africa: Ecosystems, Refugees, and Famine;" and "The Long Aftermath: Environmentalism and Memory." As I find food and famine to run through essays in multiple parts, I will associate the essays by their primary focus rather than in the sequence presented by the editors.

The first essay is a survey of the issues discussed in more detail in subsequent essays. The fourth essay, "The Chemist's War," examines both how gas attacks contaminated the ground and how munitions plants affected the environments around them by using the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland as a case study. The fifth essay, "'The Mineral Sanction: The Great War and the Strategic Role of Natural Resources," highlights the importance of obtaining access and denying access to enemies of raw materials from coal to rare earth minerals. Blockade, purchasing, and threats against supplier nations were all methods employed to achieve victory.

The seventh essay, "The First World War and the Beginning of Over-Fishing in the North Sea," presents an example of unintended consequences of the war. While limitations on fishing gave stocks a chance to recover, the naval trawlers and their crews that were dedicated to sweeping for mines and other defensive measures were easily converted to fishing trawlers with the advent of peace, thereby increasing pressures on fish stocks. Demand was further increased as shortages in other foodstuffs forced German acceptance of fish into the diet. Essay number eight, "Environments, Systems Building and the Japanese Empire" deals with the expansion of Japanese control in East Asia and the Pacific made possible by the war, and the resulting environmental changes in the area affected.

I was impressed by two major themes presented in the essays. The sixth essay, "Something New Under the Fog of War: The First World War and the Debut of Oil on the Global Stage" is a narrative of how the war accelerated the transition from coal to oil power in marine vessels and changed the nature of energy usage. This forced the adoption by the West of strategies to ensure a steady supply of oil to its war machines while restricting the flow to adversaries. These are policies that would become crucial during World War II, both in Europe and in the Pacific, and continue to influence national policies to the present.

The most persistent theme in this tome is the role of food as a weapon of war. "Beans are bullets, potatoes are powder." A reasonable understanding of both the Great War and World War II includes the German effort to starve Britain into submission, and a little deeper analysis includes the Allied attempts and successes in employing hunger to bring the Central Powers to their knees. Industrialized countries, including Britain and Germany, relied on imports to supply their food needs, a vulnerability during wartime. Food supplies were jeopardized by disruption of trade patterns as well as naval blockade. Mars's claims on agricultural production competed with the need for food. Farmers became soldiers. Nitrogen that could be used for fertilizer and fats that fed people were also necessary for explosives. As hogs were slaughtered the supply of manure decreased with predictable impact on crop yields.

The second essay posits that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was brought down by the failure of its internal food production and distribution arrangements, exacerbated by dissention between the Austrian and Hungarian portions of the empire. Essays deal with the utilization of food and famine to destabilize the southern portions of the Ottoman Empire, particularly Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. An infestation of locusts in the Levant worsened starvation, encouraged Lebanese emigration to the United States and gave Lebanon the distinction of having the highest per capita losses during the war of any nation. The eleventh essay is a study of the economic consequences of the interruption of Moslem pilgrims to Mecca and other factors that caused starvation in Ethiopia and neighboring regions.

The authors and editors have supplemented the text with charts, maps, and photos that aid in the understanding of the issues involved. The necessity of food aid, such as the virtual American feeding of Belgium and continued postwar aid is a sometimes overlooked story. The role of Herbert Hoover in organizing American aid for the Belgians and others encourages me to read more about him. Only a serious student of the economic and environmental factors and consequences of the Great War will derive maximum benefit from this book. Although only 312 pages including the index, a more general reader such as myself must process much verbiage for the grains of interesting facts. That being recognized I did gain a greater cognizance of the multi-faceted nature of the Great War as total war and the changes it left in its wake. At times while reading I questioned whether it was worth the effort, but as I reflected after completion, I concluded that it was.

Jim Gallen

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