The Great War and British Science: The Scientists' Outlook

Robinson M. Yost

In August 1938 Robert John Strutt, son of eminent physicist Lord Rayleigh, delivered the presidential address for the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Reflecting on the First World War he remarked, "During the great war . . . few scientific men in any country doubted that it was their duty to do what they could to apply their specialized knowledge to the purposes of war." His assessement was essentially correct, particularly within the British scientific community. With few exceptions, they supported the war effort in both word and deed. British scientists and engineers sought to defeat Germany by applying what Strutt had called "specialized knowledge." In fact, the First World War has frequently been called a war of "science and invention" or a war of "chemists and engineers."

With regard to science, however, the bloody conflict reflected much more than developments of poison gas, aircraft, tanks or zeppelins. Just as science and engineering transformed warfare, the war altered the outlook of the British scientific community. After the summer of 1914, British scientists expressed conflicting attitudes towards their enemy. Long-established admiration for Germany clashed with nationalistic sentiment and patriotic duty. While scientists berated the enemy, many wished to emulate aspects of Germany's scientific successes in government, industry and education. As a result, the scientific community pushed not merely for military triumph against Germany, but broader victories for science within British society.

During much of the 19th century, scholars from Great Britain and elsewhere flocked to Germany for the best available scientific training, particularly in chemistry. At universities like Giessen, Heidelberg and Leipzig they performed original research and earned specialized doctoral degrees under eminent German chemists including Liebig, Bunsen and Wöhler. Furthermore, German secondary education, technical schools (Technische Hochschulen) and science-based industries were commonly seen as exemplars of scientific organization. From the latter 19th century onward German scientific accomplishments remained a source of both inspiration and apprehension.

The 19th century also saw many warning of Britain's neglect of science, often comparing it unfavorably with French or German achievements. Charles Babbage, David Brewster, T. H. Huxley, Norman Lockyer and others made the case for science in Britain. Just prior to the war, new voices reiterated similar sentiments. The Times reported in July 1912 that science "has become, or is fast becoming, the dominant factor in human affairs; it will determine who shall hold the supremacy among nations." A scientific Germany had grown into a leading industrial nation in the 1880s; many believed Britain was falling behind. In April 1913, astronomer and editor of Nature, R. A. Gregory wrote that British education was weak compared with German and claimed that "the future of every modern State depends upon the work of its men of science and engineers." Several months later, chemist Arthur Smithells noted that Germany had "plenty of men sufficiently well trained to keep the country eminent in science and pre-eminent in the application of scientific knowledge to the welfare of the State." Others agreed. Science was the key to national success and Germany was the epitome of scientific accomplishment.

Comparisons of Britain and Germany were not limited to the scienfific community. In October 1913, Lord Chancellor, Richard Haldane commented on great strides being made in American and German universities to connect pure and applied science. He warned,

Unless we wake up fully about this matter of education, and particularly higher education, I am a little nervous as to what the state of things with regard to our industrial supremacy will be fifteen or twenty years hence.

In January 1914, classicist Sir James Donaldson noted that German universities were of "infinite benefit to the State" and, along with secondary schools, were the most important element in Germany's intellectual influence and building up of a great empire. German scientific organization was widely respected intellectually, economically, industrially and, soon enough, militarily.

In early August 1914 well-established respect and close ties to Germany tempered initial reactions. However, as the war began, British admiration quickly turned to reproach as clearly illustrated in the case of chemist Sir William Ramsay. On August 1, 1914, the German-educated Ramsay and eight other scholars signed a peace manifesto protesting the violation of Belgian neutrality. The document commented:

We regard Germany as a nation leading the way in the Arts and Sciences, and we have all learnt and are learning from German scholars. War upon her . . .will be a sin against civilization.

A mere two months later, Ramsay professed that the Teutonic character had caused Prussian rulers to infect "practically all Germans" with the goal of securing "world supremacy for their race." He concluded:

The greatest advances in scientific thought have not been made by members of the German race; nor have the earlier applications of science had Germany for their origin. So far as we can see at present, the restriction of the Teutons will relieve the world from a deluge of mediocrity.

Others repeated comparable judgements. The enemy, said electrical engineer J. A. Fleming, had failed to recognize "truth, honour, faith-keeping, and justice as the foundations of national greatness." Astronomer Norman Lockyer claimed that the Prussian military caste would "ride roughshod over Europe . . . all conventions set aside, all honour thrown to the winds, all laws of war and even humanity disregarded." The journal Engineering said that German science had "in the main been parasitic on the thought of other countries" while Electrical Review believed that Germany was now "degraded in the eyes of the world." Germany and its scientists were now viewed as immoral and unoriginal in British eyes.

In November 1914, president of the Royal Society Sir William Crookes explained that recent actions of German scientists were symptomatic of a wider "national insanity." For instance, a German newspaper attributed the following statement to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Philipp Lenard:

Down, then, with all considerations for England's so-called culture. The central nest and supreme academy for all hypocrisy in the world, which is on the Thames, must be destroyed if the work is to be done thoroughly. No respect for the tombstones of Shakespeare, Newton, and Faraday!

Further evidence, Crookes said, included a "monstrous utterance" signed by 93 German intellectuals in October 1914. Entitled "To the Civilized World!", this manifesto categorically denied German war guilt and equated German militarism with German civilization. Twenty-two scientists had signed the document including Emil Fischer, Max Planck and Fritz Haber.

The British response to this outrage blamed the military system, but others continued the assault on German science. Nature reported in January 1915 that:

Prof. Karl Pearson, Prof. Sayce, and Sir E. Ray Lankester have shown that Germany has played only a small part in inception of scientific truths, although by organisation she has greatly extended their application . . .the inventive faculty has not been their strong point.

Mechanical engineer Dugald Clerk told the Royal Society of Arts that German scientists were "hard-working and plodding, but with little foresight or brilliancy." He contended that:

The German brain is . . .deductive, while the English brain is inductive. All German philosophers have invariably been of the deductive type. . . The deductive brain, allied to stupidity and a curious irrelevance, is characteristically German, and often produces absurd results.

In January 1915, William Ramsay claimed that the entire German nation had been "infected by the microbe of dishonour and dishonesty." Later that year Ramsay’s metaphor took on a literal meaning. Germany had reverted to barbarism, he asserted, due to the high incidence of syphilis (a medical colleague had told him it was 85%!). Ramsay concluded in a private letter:

While syphilitics often keep going and retain energy, they appear almost always to have a mental twist; they become abnormal in one way or another. So it comes to this: this is a war against syphilis. Extermination appears to me the only remedy; but impossible to apply.

Few shared in such wild speculations, yet they continued characterizing enemy scientists as immoral and imitative.

Even if true, Germany had immediate, undeniable advantages. Superiority was readily apparent in the aniline dye industry. In 1913, British industry had purchased over three-quarters of its dyes from Germany. Despite British successes in the 1850s-60s, Germany came to dominate aniline dyes and many other industries by the turn of the century. Pharmaceuticals, laboratory apparatus, optical glass, magnetos and pure chemicals also had German origins. With the coming of war, Britain was in short supply of vital imported goods. In December 1914, Lord Moulton reported to the Royal Society of Arts that dependence on German goods was cause for great sadness and national humiliation. Neglect, said Moulton, stemmed from faults in the British national character. Recognizing the urgency, many pushed for action. Science Progress reported in mid-1915 that, of all the societies, the British Science Guild had been

the most active, not only in endeavouring to obtain more adequate remuneration and a better status for scientific workers themselves, but in striving to foster the manufacture of British scientific instruments in place of . . . German-made goods.

Scientists constantly complained that their services were neither taken advantage of nor appreciated. Whether blame lay with national character, government, education or industry, it was an often-heard criticism that Britain had neglected science.

The Great War brought new urgency to the 19th-century issue of neglect. In March 1915, chemist Henry Armstrong complained, "Science is [a] losing caste in the country_ this, too, at a time when we realize . . .that our national success in the future is dependent upon the proper application of scientific method." Armstrong found Parliament lamentably ignorant in scientific matters and concluded that Britain had no public use for science. Neglect and ignorance were, for many, the root of the problem. In October 1915, J. A. Fleming remarked:

We require, therefore, in the first place an entirely altered attitude of mind. . . towards scientific work, research, and teaching. We want a far greater appreciation of [science's] supreme importance and of the . . . cultivation of it under the guidance of expert leaders.

That same month pathologist Ernest Glynn said: "We do not sufficiently appreciate the extraordinary importance of . . . scientific research to commerce, to industry, to war, and to every department of life." Others agreed, Britain needed an improved attitude towards scientific endeavours.

Despite the professionalization of science during the latter 19th century, the amateur spirit lingered in England. German success remained a foil for British failure. In March 1915, Nature noted that Germany was "the land of experts" guided by theory, contrasted with England- "the land of amateurs" guided by tradition and instinct. In November 1915, Sir William Crookes said the nation still clung to the belief that science was a hobby performed by a certain class. This attitude, he explained, sprang from aspects engrained in the British character such as mental inertia, conservatism and contempt for outside criticism. Crookes concluded:

The attitude of the Government and the public towards science has been mistaken . . .

We must make all education more scientific. It is admitted we have much to learn from our adversaries; we must bring scientific methods to the front.

Oxford zoologist Edward Poulton noted that continued ignorance of science was aiding the enemy and prolonging the war. According to Poulton the neglect of science and the predominant spirit of the lawyer-politician were the chief mistakes in the conduct of the war. A government, woefully ignorant of science, continued maladministering the war. Physician and Nobel-Prize winner Sir Ronald Ross wrote in early 1916:

It is idle to disguise the fact that recent events have filled most educated persons with a sense of extreme resentment against the administration of this country. . . . It is felt by many (and I am one of them) that we live under the rule of the invertebrates.

In February 1916, a memorandum entitled "The Neglect of Science" appeared in the Times complaining again of widespread ignorance of science "nearly universal in the House of Commons [and] shared by the general public, including a large proportion of those engaged in industrial and commercial enterprise." This statement led to a meeting in May that resolved to make sciences a "integral part" of all education and part of the entrance examinations for all universities. Again and again, similar pleas were heard: Britain needed more science incorporated into all arenas of national policy. Lack of government action would allow an immoral yet organized Germany to win on all fronts.

The latter stages of the war witnessed similar patterns. Scientists continued complaining of the neglect of science and it their voices were seemingly heard. In July 1916, Nature stated, "The Empire is awake to the need for a policy which will correlate education, science, and industrialism for the benefit of all classes." Chemist G. G. Henderson remarked in September 1916 that nothing less than the war:

would have sufficed to arouse the British nation from the state of apathy towards science. . . . Now, however, the sleeper has at least stirred in his slumber. . . even the politicians have begun to perceive the dangers . . . of their former attitude

In November 1917, president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh John Horne said that the war had "at last, aroused the Government and the practical Briton to realize that success in war and prosperity in peace . . . depend upon the application of scientific methods." Others in the British scientific community frequently reiterated Horne's opinion through the end of the war and afterwards. Due to the long war, the role of science had indeed changed in British society.

What can we conclude about the outlook of the British scientists? With the coming of war long-time admiration for Germany quickly dwindled. Enemy scientists were characterized as immoral, plodding and unoriginal. As a result, the international scientific community ostracized many German scientists in the post war years. Dutch astronomer, Jacobus Kapteyn assessed the situation in 1919, saying science had divided "for the first time and for an indefinite period, into hostile political camps." Within such an atmosphere, German science could not regain its former prestige. During the Great War, nevertheless, Germany was organized, efficient and scientific in many British eyes. German government, industry, commerce and education were all amenable to science. In contrast, Britain remained unorganized, apathetic and unscientific.

Many perceived the First World War as a turning point for the fortunes of British science, particularly with regard to State involvement. Over its course the government established various committees, councils and departments in which scientists played active roles. Britain, it seemed, had been jolted from its former complacence. In 1919 biometrician Karl Pearson claimed that during the war in almost every field the "scientific laymen [had] come to the aid of executive ignorance" In 1922 The Morning Post reflected: "One of the results of the War, in which the scientific brains of this country were mobilised to such good purpose, is an appreciable increase of public interest in the achievements of science, whether theoretical or practical." These indeed are clear reflections of the importance placed on the role of science. The British scientific community had not only contributed to the triumph over Germany, they had fought and seemingly won wider victories for science within British society.