On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the guns of the Western Front fell silent after more than four years of continuous warfare. Engineers were involved in the conflict at every level, both at home and abroad. The First World War arguably represents the largest seismic shift of the twentieth century both culturally, politically, geographically and technologically. 100 years on and its ramifications are still being felt in all these areas. War dead estimates run between 10-16 million but the true human cost is unknown, it includes civilians and those who died post-war of injuries or illness. Unlike previous conflicts the loss of life and its associated impact was felt globally: Madagascar suffered 2,500 military deaths; Zambia suffered 3,000 military deaths; India suffered 74,187 military deaths; Austria suffered 25,000 civilian deaths; and Russia suffered 1,500,000 civilian deaths.*
A new collaborative exhibit between the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Civil Engineers and the Institution of Engineering and Technology explores the roles engineers played in defence, infrastructure and on the home front. The exhibition content is based on material in the archives of all three, bought together to tell stories of innovations and inventions. We also look at some personal stories for example, that of Harry Stephenson Ellis who served with No. 3 Signals Section of the Durham Royal Engineers Volunteer Home Force.
The necessity of war bought with it huge advances in all sectors of engineering: from the development of the tank to the creation of communication lines to the front. Engineering also contributed on the home front: from the development of artificial limbs to manufacturing munitions. The three main engineering institutions all sent men to the front and had members working on new technologies and behind the scenes; mechanical, civil and electrical engineers all applied their expertise to the war effort. Our timeline gives an overview of major events of the conflict.
Advancements in battlefield and airborne technologies were crucial to national defence. At land, sea and in the air engineers worked to develop new, and improve existing, methods of defence. Crucial to this was the development of weaponry. We tell the story of new weapons such as paravanes which were employed to destroy marine mines, and also look at how existing technology was reinvented for the conflict for example, airships.
From tunnelling to communication lines, engineers developed methods to provide infrastructure to the battlefield. Infrastructure aided telecommunications and allowed for the movement of troops and weaponry. How were guns and troops moved? How did the Admiralty/Royal Navy respond to conflict needs?
The three largest engineering Institutions worked at home to aid the war effort. Women entered factories and engineering workplaces to create items required for the War. Engineers worked to enhance the quality of life of returning injured soldiers. We look at what some individuals were doing on the home front, Harry Stephenson Ellis the volunteer and chemical engineer CV Burton and electrical engineer Oliver Heaviside.
Guest organisations will provide a greater insight to their specialist areas, with new guests every 6 months. The first tells the story of the Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield whose archive is with the Royal Armouries.
We have been working to indentify all our First World War archive materials and digitise them; all images are available on the site (as are materials from ICE and IET). They include: the memorial service held in 1919 between the Institutions (and the Naval Architects); designs for a gun mounting for Vickers; Hopkins bridge photos and designs; and links to other resources such as honour rolls.
*Estimates for war dead, military and civilian, vary wildly. Our civilian figures include non-direct deaths eg due to famine.