A medieval war?

Brewster body armor
One-man "tank" Trench catapult

Trench catapult

During World War I technologies that were considered obsolete made their return on the battlefield. Popularization magazines, always eager for curious news and willing to describe war as a place where anything can happen, were happy to describe the new life of old technologies.

Among these the most important was undoubtedly the metal helmet, used by all soldiers after the first year of the war as a protection against shrapnel fragments. The success of the helmet lead to the experimentation of different kinds of metal armor that could repel small calibre projectiles. 

The weight of the armors meant they could not be used while moving. Soldiers wearing armor had to be scarcely visibile and stationary - as it was the case for snipers and sappers. An attempt to solve this problem is showed in the covers of Popular Mechanics and Scientific American: small wheeled armored carts that were sporadically used to go across no man's land and cut the enemy barbed wire. The mud between the trenches - probably the single most important environmental factor in trench warfare on the Western front - made the carts very difficult to steer and an easy target for the enemy fire.

Airplane pilot in full armor Italian soldiers cutting barbed wire Tank and knight Modern and ancient armors

Modern mass warfare made the single soldier part of a mechanism, a “factory of war” as it was called by historian Antonio Gibelli, that nullified his individuality. The individual heroic action had no meaning in a war made of numbers and materials; the glorious death of the hero was replaced by an anonymous slaying, perpetrated from a distance with artillery, gas or an invisible sniper.

Maybe for this reason, and despite an imagery that celebrated modern technology, the war was often described through themes taken from the chivalric, medieval tradition. The soldier was often represented (in general interest magazines, postcards, theatrical plays and propaganda posters, especially in Europe) as a medieval knight, fighting a “crusade” for civilization. The battlefield was often represented as a bucolic landscape and death as the heroic sacrifice of a gallant warrior. Newspaper articles and illustrations could represent the war without mentioning modern technology. The battle became a struggle in dexterity, strength and individual and national will.

As shown by these images even publications that explained and celebrated technology could embrace a chivalrous imagination. As mentioned the popularization magazines often highlighted the use of traditional weapons in modern war as part of their description of the trenches as a place of wonders and adventures. The fascination with aviation, to cite just one example, was not linked exclusively to the novelty of flight. Pilots were modern knights (sometimes literally) and were among the few soldiers whose face and name could be known by the civilian population. The sky offers a new “imaginative topography”, a glorious counterbalance to the misery of millions of men forced to live underground; in the sky the ideal of battle as a struggle of ability and will gained new life.