Secret Warriors

Written by Taylor Downing
Review by Alan Cassady-Bishop

The Great War has always been known for its industrialised killing – it’s considered to be the first “modern” war, where technology such as aeroplanes, gas and machine guns balanced the dreadful stalemate of trench warfare. Behind all of this, however, was a scientific struggle – the struggle of one country against another but also the struggle of pure science against the Old Guard of the military, whose qualifications came from horse charges, the muzzle-loading salvo from bright-coated infantry and sabre-wielding officers.

Taylor Downing offers us a well-written account of the war effort of Britain (and, to lesser extent, of Germany and other countries) which was kept quiet. Chemical production methods, the involvement of moving pictures, advances in psychology in the treatment of shell shock, the development of better engines for aircraft – we are given a fair and clear account of the very real fight between the patriotic scientist and the crusty military duffer who, from the comfort of his club, couldn’t begin to conceive of the losses involved in a single signature on a piece of paper.