6 historical details you might have missed in the Battlefield 1 beta

The Sinai Desert map draws heavily from the real conditions of battle that soldiers experienced there a hundred years ago.

DICE promises that Battlefield 1 will show players a new side of World War I -- a dynamic, global conflict that goes far beyond the trenches of France.  Last week we got our first hands-on experience of that vision with the game’s open beta, transporting us to a sand-swept desert reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia. The gameplay speaks for itself, but there’s much more going on under the surface. DICE used small details and design decisions to weave an astonishing amount of historical detail into the Sinai Desert map.

War in the Desert

During the war, people in Europe regarded Middle Eastern operations as an expensive and unimportant sideshow -- but they were wrong. World War I was a globalized conflict, where an engagement in an Egyptian backwater could have a cascading effect on the battlefields of France. And what happened in the Sinai, Palestine, and Mesopotamia would end up shaping the 20th century Middle East.

Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula possessed a major strategic asset: the Suez Canal. Despite technically being in Ottoman territory, the British-held canal allowed the Allies to bring colonial manpower and material to bear on the European front. Troops from as far as Australia and India deployed to the fields of France, and imperial resources kept the war machine running.

In 1915, the Ottoman Empire, with support from its German allies, attacked the Suez Canal in an attempt to seize or disable it. The Ottoman raid failed, but it opened up a new front. Though originally a defensive conflict, after the Battle of Romani in 1916 the Sinai and Palestine Campaign became a fast-moving war of raiding, troop movement, and aerial bombardment. The harsh terrain and open deserts called for a greater reliance on cavalry, automobiles and rail lines, and both sides courted local tribes as allies in guerrilla warfare. The war in the desert would be one of raid and counter-raid.

Battlefield 1’s Sinai Desert map aims to replicate this maneuver warfare. Open stretches force the player to make use of vehicles, and the terrain provides ample opportunities for ambushes and lightning attacks. The large number of planes -- which naturally target the villages -- recreate the retaliatory bombing raids British and German pilots carried out on each other’s bases.

The conflict would shape modern politics. As the desert war dragged on, focus shifted from securing the Suez Canal to securing oil fields in Mesopotamia. Six weeks before the war, Winston Churchill had convinced the British government to buy a controlling stake in the Anglo-Persian Oil Co. (now known as BP). Churchill had recently switched the British Navy’s primary fuel from coal to oil, and since the UK had no oil reserves, he needed to ensure that any surrender agreement gave Britain unimpeded access to fuel. Britain secretly entered into an agreement known as the Sykes-Picot pact, that agreed to divide former Ottoman territory in the Middle East between Britain and France.

Therefore, as the war dragged on past 1916, the focus became locking down the most valuable territory in the region. The scramble for oil fields went so far that Britain actually strained relations with France by capturing territory further north than the two originally agreed. After the war, the League of Nations partitioned Ottoman territory among the victorious Allies, handing France the mandate for Syria and Lebanon, while Britain received Palestine and Iraq.

This division of territory -- often without regard for history, ethnicity, or religious group -- initiated the modern Middle East, from the eventual founding of Israel to displacement of Kurdish minorities.

Consider this: when the so-called Islamic State announced that it had “founded” a new country encompassing Iraq and Syria, it cited the Sykes-Picot partition as justification for its actions.

A Clash of Empires

With Battlefield 1, DICE is making an effort to focus on not just the lesser-known battles of the war, but lesser-known troops as well.

We can see this in action in the Sinai Desert map, where the vast majority of British character models are people of color. The Medic and Assault classes appear to be South Asian, while the Scout character could either represent a Black Briton or a citizen of the West Indies.

This isn’t diversity for the sake of it -- it’s an accurate representation of British Empire forces in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign. It’s important to remember that Great Britain was a major imperial power during the Great War, and its multiethnic and multi-religious armies reflected that. Troops from every corner of the Empire joined the war effort, from Nepalese Gurkhas, to East Africans, Canadians, and ANZACs. Around 1.3 million Indians fought for the British Empire, including in many of the most famous battles such as Ypres. Over 1,000 Indians died during Gallipoli and 700,000 fought in the Mesopotamian Campaign.

In fact, British troops in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign -- the troops depicted in Sinai Desert -- included a particularly high number of imperial soldiers. Over a dozen Indian units (a designation which also included Pakistani, Nepalese, Sri Lankan, and Bangladeshi soldiers) took part in the campaign. Troops from Australia and New Zealand, including the famous Lighthorse Brigades, also served in the region. And as for that Black Scout model -- Afro-Caribbean men from the British West Indies Regiment severed with distinction in Egypt and Palestine, as well as in Europe. Eighty-one members of the BWIR won medals for bravery, with 49 being mentioned in dispatches.

It’s excellent that Battlefield 1 chose to highlight the contributions of these soldiers, though I hope the game offers more accurate uniform options -- I mean, real men go to war in shorts.

Artillery Conquers, Infantry Occupies

Howitzers are my favorite equipment in Battlefield 1. I love how the reload animation provides a tactile sense of the weapon, and the delicious suspense it creates by tearing you away from the gun sights. Plus, they can knock down buildings halfway across the map--which ranks as my all-time favorite way to kill a sniper.

These powerful field guns reinforce the massive role artillery played in the First World War. But if anything, DICE actually minimized the impact big guns had on the conflict.

The vast majority of casualties in WWI came from artillery fire. Around 58% of German combat casualties were due to artillery, while another estimate suggests it caused 75% of casualties in trench warfare. These numbers reflect a powerful truth -- artillery was the weapon of choice for stalemate conflict.

While we think of WWI as the “machine gun war,” technological advancements in artillery played an even greater role. The guns that entered the conflict were fundamentally different than any used in previous European wars. They possessed greater range and accuracy, and the shells had advanced triggering mechanisms that could let shells reliably explode above targets, showering them with shrapnel. Two-part gun barrels allowed stationary artillery to absorb recoil, leading to shorter barrels that were easier to transport and able to handle larger shells. For the first time, men died from guns they couldn’t even see. A “light” artillery bombardment might involve 30 shells landing per minute, while a heavy bombardment would include 60 to 100.

In addition, WWI refined artillery tactics, giving birth to the first wide-scale use of mathematic artillery fire. The British learned how to triangulate out-of-sight guns by their flash and sound, making counter-battery fire more effective. Airplanes and barrage balloons used radios to call in fire. At the beginning of the war, commanders assumed it was enough to pound enemy positions, but by the end, artillerymen used their guns for fire support, providing a “creeping barrage” that moved ahead of the infantry in order to clear barbed wire or keep enemies pinned down. These tactics were crude at first due to faulty shells and training -- the French estimated 10% of their infantry casualties during these attacks came from friendly fire -- but by the close of the war these curtain bombardments could not only advance but also wheel, “walk back” over troops that had emerged from cover, or box in enemy units to cut of reinforcements. This is what Battlefield 1 references with the artillery strikes in Rush, when the defenders lose control of their positions and retreat under a rain of shells. That feature doesn’t seem to be fully implemented as of the beta, but in the final game I’d expect something reminiscent of the orbital strike from Star Wars: Battlefront.

Digging Down

If I told you Battlefield 1 is a vertical game, you might think I’m talking about buildings -- I’m not. Where other games build up, Battlefield 1 digs down. Environmental destruction has more to do with the ground itself. Bombs, howitzers, and tank guns blast huge craters in the earth, transforming the battlefield into a pockmarked wilderness.

This references the “Wasteland” narrative we’ve discussed before, which understood the Western Front as a sort of cratered moonscape antithetical to life. However, it’s best to wait until the game itself is out to discuss this psychological dimension -- for now, we’ll focus on the tactics.

What’s great about these shell holes gameplay-wise, is that they’re ready-made foxholes. If you’re trying to hold an exposed objective -- Dove on Sinai Desert, for instance -- your first move is often to drop a shell right by the flag to give your teammates some cover. They can also serve as a bulwark against tanks, which have to nose down then pitch high to navigate the holes, exposing their vulnerable belly.

This reflects real WWI tactics, where infantry used shell holes as cover during an advance or as impromptu defensive positions, though craters could be an effective barrier for advancing infantry and tanks as well. Indeed, one of the arguments against the creeping barrage was that it created obstacles for the friendly troops following the curtain of fire, delaying them during an operation that only worked due to precise timing. The shell holes weren’t exactly safe, by the way, since the heavier-than-air mustard gas tended to flow down into low places.

The Scouring Storm

Weather played a large role in the First World War, from rainstorms flooding trenches to -- in this case -- the vast sandstorms that swept the Middle East. Poor weather was more than a nuisance to infantrymen, though. In a war where so much equipment, from artillery to aircraft, still relied on visual reference, fog or sand could scrub an entire operation.

Sinai Desert represents this via the sandstorms that occasionally swamp the map, scouring the landscape and blowing airplanes off course. However, though sandstorms can prove difficult, they’re also a great opportunity to approach the enemy unseen or knock out a tank.

Sandstorms played a significant role in the failed attack on the Suez Canal. The Ottomans had planned to cross the canal at night with the aid of three pontoon bridges, but a sandstorm delayed the construction. That meant that the crossings were still going on at dawn, when Indian troops discovered the incursion and drove the raiders back across the canal. The sandstorm gave the Turks an advantage though -- because it limited British aerial reconnaissance, Allied forces overestimated the Ottomans’ strength and chose not to pursue as they slipped away.

Though sandstorms delayed many operations in the Sinai, to find one that actually interrupted a battle we must turn to nearby Iraq and the British effort to take Ramadi.

To set the stage, in March of 1917 Ottoman troops retreated from Fallujah, destroying the Sakhlawiya Dam as they fell back to Ramadi. Though they didn’t pose a threat to Fallujah, the British decided to drive the Ottomans out lest they sabotage efforts to rebuild the dam.

But before the operation began, a heat wave hit Iraq, cranking temperatures up to 160° Fahrenheit. The sand burned soldiers’ feet through their boot soles and made metal equipment too hot to touch. Despite this, the operation went forward, moving at night and using Ford trucks as troop transports -- the first example of motorized warfare in the Mesopotamian Campaign. However, once the British commenced their nighttime assault, things went south. To enter the town, they had to cross 1,000 yards of open ground.

The Turkish garrison opened up with six artillery pieces and two machine guns, halting the British infantry and armored cars. Heat evaporated the water in the British airplane radiators, rendering them useless. Worse, a dust storm rolled in at 8:00 AM, cutting communications and making it impossible to counter-fire on the Turkish batteries. Stranded and unable to withdraw due to the heat, the British were forced to dig in for a day of bombardment under the baking sun. Men died and went mad due to thirst. They took 566 casualties, 321 of them from the heat.

The British learned their lesson. Two months later they made a second attempt, this time with mostly Indian infantry and cavalry regiments more accustomed to extreme heat. A massive fleet of trucks ferried water to the troops as they marched. Despite feinting a frontal attack along the previous route, the Indian regiments instead encircled the Turkish garrison, bottling up their lines of retreat, then pounding them when they attempted to withdraw across a bridge. A fierce attack by the 39th Garhwal Rifles -- who charged directly into Ottoman artillery, taking heavy casualties -- finally forced the garrison’s surrender. It came none too soon.

Shortly after the white flags went up, a sandstorm swept the area, severely reducing visibility. Had the Turks held out a little longer, they could’ve escaped in the chaos.

Armored Trains

Part of Sinai Desert’s Lawrence of Arabia vibe comes from the armored train. After all, what’s more romantic than galloping your horse along the tracks, laying dynamite as bullets zip around you?

It’s a detail I love, so I hate to throw cold water on it. Unfortunately, armored trains weren’t a big part of the First World War, and there’s no record of one in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign.

The British Expeditionary Force employed armored trains during the Battle of Ypres in 1914. One of them even engaged German batteries as a stopgap measure when Allied artillery had to choose between infantry support and suppressing enemy artillery. Russia used multiple armored trains, as did the Austro-Hungarians, and photos indicate that Germany and the Ottoman Empire employed them as well.

However, it bears pointing out that there’s a difference between an armored train -- a locomotive purposely built for war and armed with heavy artillery -- and a standard train that’s merely been reinforced with weapons and plating. Improvised armored trains were far more common than the professional variety, since when trains conveyed troops or precious cargo it was only logical to up-arm them with machine gun nests or other light armaments. However, the presence of the train on Sinai Desert does emphasize the pivotal role of building and utilizing rail lines during the First World War, so we’ll allow it.

The reason that armored trains never really caught on -- well, outside the Communist Bloc that is -- is that it’s far easier to disable them by sabotaging the tracks than attacking them head-on.  (A tactic T.E. Lawrence and Arab irregulars proved adept at, by the way.) After all, imagine how useless the train on Sinai Desert would be if you could drop some dynamite on the rails and cut it off from half the map. While other inventions like the tank and airplane grew to be a staple of warfare, the armored train would forever be a niche weapon, confined to opportunistic militia groups and dictators with a fear of flying.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp