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'WWI: The First Modern War' review: What made 'The Great War' so terrible

"WWI: The First Modern War" Saturday at 8

"WWI: The First Modern War" Saturday at 8 p.m. on History Credit: History Channel

THE DOCUMENTARY "WWI: The First Modern War"

WHEN | WHERE Saturday at 8 p.m. on History

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The First World War began a hundred years ago -- absent a name or some of the tools that would wage this fast-spreading and brutal conflict. But those tools would come soon enough.

This four-part documentary focuses on four lethal inventions. First up Saturday is "Armored Beasts," about the proto-tanks that would soon crawl over the battlefields in northern France. The other episodes look at "giant airships" (9 p.m.), poison gas (10 p.m.); and submarines (11 p.m.).

Tanks, which the British pioneered, were the battlefield's first innovation. Inspired by a type of farm tractor, the first metal beasts unleashed on the German lines (at the battle of the Somme) broke down or tumbled into trenches. That failing was subsequently solved by the least technological innovation perhaps of the entire war, the "fascine," or a huge bundle of sticks and brushwood mounted on the tank roof that was dropped into the trench. The British threw hundreds of tanks against the Hindenburg line during the battle of Cambrai in 1917. "All one could say was, 'poor old Fritz,'" wrote a soldier. Of course, the outcome of the battle would not be quite so simple.

MY SAY I watched the first and fourth hours, but those were more than enough to confirm what will immediately be apparent to you as well. "WWI" serves as another one of those vivid and bleak reminders of man's inhumanity to man, along with man's ingenious ways of abetting this with technology. Viewed dispassionately, it's all an axiomatic demonstration of how necessity breeds invention. The Germans wanted to break through the Royal Navy's blockade in the North Sea without sacrificing the precious ships of the Kaiser's navy. So the U-boat was deployed, and deployed brutally.

But good luck viewing this dispassionately, even though the program does. The carnage is too vast, the stupidity too extreme, the inventions too depraved. History is history. It happened. But what's so frightening, even terrifying, about the program is that the only technological lesson learned from this long-ago epic disaster was how to make more lethal weapons.

BOTTOM LINE For history buffs and for those who want to understand what made "The Great War" so terrible.


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