Last year marked the 100th anniversary of World War I. This war is looked over in history class and most people only know about it after seeing the movie War Horse. I finished an extremely arduous book, The Fourth Horsemen: One Man’s Secret Campaign to Fight the Great War in America by Robert Koenig, which details the German sabotage that took place during WWI. More specifically, it follows the life of Anton Dilger, a German physician originally born in America, who took up biological warfare against horses during the war. He was hired by Germany to grow anthrax and other bacteria to infect horses being bred in America for use by the Allies. This was quite an undertaking because he set up his own germ factory in the basement of a Washington D.C. house. The germs were bottled and given to paid saboteurs who spread them among war horses. They did this by putting germs in the food, water, noses, or blood stream (through injection) of the innocent animals. The hope was that the germs would spread throughout the congregated horses and cause mass death. The success of this sabotage is not completely understood but it is known that thousands on horses did die from disease during the war. Anton would eventually move to Spain to continue his sabotage but died ironically in 1918 from the Spanish Flu.
WWI is a war that stood at the intersection of 19th and 20th century technology. At the beginning of the war, horse cavalries were still used and many were massacred by the newly invented machine gun. I think every little boy has watched a movie of the American Revolution and thought, “…man if only I could go back in time and give them a machine gun or a plane!” That is pretty much how WWI was fought in its very first months. Additionally, animals like horses, mules, pigeons, elephants, and dogs were used regularly in battles to move clunky machinery or relay messages. The tank, airplane, and automobile were relatively new in 1914, so animals were still valuable because they provided more reliability and functionality. Chemical warfare was also in its infancy and many times allies would release toxic gas only to have the wind blow it right back in their faces. Germ theory only came about in the mid 1800’s and WWI was the first time that germs were grown for biological warfare. We should study WWI for its insights on how to prevent the misuse of technology. What technology will the wars of the future hold? We are in yet another transition of technology from human-controlled weapons to robotic-controlled weapons. Will artificial intelligence read up on WWI and see the advantages it has over us-think Terminator? I will continue to learn more about WWI because it was a war that not only helps me understand the 20th century but also the future of this century.
What do you know about WWI? What can we learn from war that can prevent future wars? What is your favorite war to learn about?