Although every available technological advance was deployed on the Somme in 1916, modern technology has transformed the military environment.
The first day of the Somme was the bloodiest day in British military history. Over 57,000 British troops became casualties, including 19,240 deaths. Thanks to the work of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and its predecessors, if the battle was fought again today our casualties would be a fraction of those in 1916. This would be achieved by a combination of radical improvements in military technology and huge advances in medical science.
The start of the Somme was heralded by a 7-day artillery barrage of unprecedented ferocity. It was widely thought that this would smash the German front line positions paving the way for a decisive victory. Unfortunately around 30% of the shells failed to explode, strongpoints were left unscathed and the wire was not destroyed.
It would be a very different story today. The mechanical timers of 1916 were unreliable and shells often exploded too high or whilst underground, rendering them ineffective when it came to destroying the wire or bunkers. Today we have electronic fuses that can be set to explode at precise heights or after penetrating hardened positions. Dstl has also developed laser guidance technologies that allow bunkers and other fortified positions to be destroyed using one round. This is in stark contrast to the hundreds of thousands used in barrages during 1916.
Great strides have also been taken in respect of personal protective equipment. At the Somme the infantry wore a steel helmet that was heavy and only provided rudimentary protection from shrapnel and fragments. Today British troops benefit from lightweight protective materials, researched and tested by Dstl, that provide world class levels of protection, and have been incorporated into advanced body armour, helmets and eye protection that protects against shrapnel, fragments, blunt impacts and bullets. The latest generation of personal protective equipment, Virtus, is in the process of being rolled-out across the armed forces.
Uncontrolled blood loss is still the major cause of death on the battlefield. That is why Dstl is funding work at Strathclyde University to develop a portable device that allows blood lost to be directly returned to the bloodstream. The device, named Hemosep, is being refined for a clinical trial. Like many of the technological solutions developed or funded by Dstl this has clear non-defence related applications that directly benefit the public. Badly injured people can also lose the ability to form effective blood clots, just when they need it most. Pre-clinical research conducted at Dstl shows that giving blood products before seriously injured patients reach hospital improves their ability to form blood clots. This provides the evidence base for first response vehicles to carry blood supplies. If these innovations had been used in 1916 the lives of many wounded soldiers would have been saved.
Jonathan Lyle, Dstl’s Chief Executive said:
Since the establishment of the War Department Experimental Ground at Porton Down in 1916, our scientists and engineers have played a pivotal role in ensuring that the armed forces benefit from the latest technological developments to protect them from the threats that they face. In an era where our potential adversaries are increasing in technical sophistication, Dstl’s ability to harness both new technology and analytical evidence is as vital as it ever was.
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Published: 29 June 2016