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Which War Wore It Better?
Above is a stack of rocket projectiles collected as scrap in the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest, which has been shelled and rocketed since February. Below is a dump of spent ammunition casings from the heavy guns of a British divisional artillery unit.
Artillery wars are resource-intensive, consuming roughly half the logistical capacity of an army. We might even think of the detritus as material culture, a midden-heap as meaningful as any archaeology.
A so-called “shell crisis” began in October 1914, roughly six weeks into the war, when all the combatants were running short almost at the same time. None of them had stockpiled ammunition in anticipation of a longer war. Failure to feed the guns led directly to the demise of one British PM in 1916 and indirectly to the end of one Russian Tsar in 1917, challenging every power at war.
Even today, western powers generally do not maintain enough stocks to fight more than a few weeks, or have the slack capacity to meet demand. The war in Ukraine has them re-thinking peacetime standards of preparedness.
Above is a trench at Bakhmut, where Russian artillery has shattered or incinerated the entire ladscape. Below is a trench in Flanders in 1918. Trench walls erode over time, the bottoms flood at the first raindrop, and the best efforts to improve them will succumb to entropy.
Spoil from digging forms a parapet that settles, washing into the trench with the rain, from where it must be dredged and restored to the parapet. One shell strike will undo the work. Smart engineers know how to use the root structures of the splintered trees.
Urban artillery aesthetics differ slightly between 1918 and 2022 because of reinforced concrete. However, the landscape effects are the same. Constant shelling strips everything above the ground except the grass, which thrives in the twisted trash and wire obstacles, stretching towards the now wide-open sky.
Above is a blasted landscape at Bakhmut. Below is Gommecourt Chateau, a town that changed hands several times during the First World War, getting pounded into dust and ashes. Many of these French landscapes became “red zones” after the war and remain unreclaimed to this day, toxic from the chemical contamination and thick with unexploded ordnance.
Before the war, the contested regions of France had been some of the most economically productive. With peace, cleanup was deemed more trouble and expense than it was worth. Ukrainians are quick to repair things, but this war will still leave permanent marks.
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