WWI: Technology and the weapons of war
by A. Torrey McLean
Reprinted with permission from Tar Heel Junior Historian, Spring 1993.
Tar Heel Junior Historian Association, NC Museum of History
See also: WWI: Life on the Western Front
One of the saddest facts about World War I is that millions died needlessly because military and civilian leaders were slow to adapt their old-fashioned strategies and tactics to the new weapons of 1914. New technology made war more horrible and more complex than ever before. The United States and other countries felt the effects of the war for years afterwards.
The popular image of World War I is soldiers in muddy trenches and dugouts, living miserably until the next attack. This is basically correct. Technological developments in engineering, metallurgy, chemistry, and optics had produced weapons deadlier than anything known before. The power of defensive weapons made winning the war on the western front all but impossible for either side.
When attacks were ordered, Allied soldiers went “over the top,” climbing out of their trenches and crossing no-man’s-land to reach enemy trenches. They had to cut through belts of barbed wire before they could use rifles, bayonets, pistols, and hand grenades to capture enemy positions. A victory usually meant they had seized only a few hundred yards of shell-torn earth at a terrible cost in lives. Wounded men often lay helpless in the open until they died. Those lucky enough to be rescued still faced horrible sanitary conditions before they could be taken to proper medical facilities. Between attacks,the snipers, artillery, and poison gas caused misery and death.
Airplanes, products of the new technology, were primarily made of canvas, wood, and wire. At first they were used only to observe enemy troops. As their effectiveness became apparent, both sides shot planes down with artillery from the ground and with rifles, pistols, and machine guns from other planes. In 1916, the Germans armed planes with machine guns that could fire forward without shooting off the fighters’ propellers. The Allies soon armed their airplanes the same way, and war in the air became a deadly business. These light, highly maneuverable fighter planes attacked each other in wild air battles called dogfights. Pilots who were shot down often remained trapped in their falling, burning planes, for they had no parachutes. Airmen at the front did not often live long. Germany also used its fleet of huge dirigibles, or zeppelins, and large bomber planes to drop bombs on British and French cities. Britain retaliated by bombing German cities.
Back on the ground, the tank proved to be the answer to stalemate in the trenches. This British invention used American-designed caterpillar tracks to move the armored vehicle equipped with machine guns and sometimes light cannon. Tanks worked effectively on firm, dry ground, in spite of their slow speed, mechanical problems, and vulnerability to artillery. Able to crush barbed wire and cross trenches, tanks moved forward through machine gun fire and often terrified German soldiers with their unstoppable approach.
Chemical warfare first appeared when the Germans used poison gas during a surprise attack in Flanders, Belgium, in 1915. At first, gas was just released from large cylinders and carried by the wind into nearby enemy lines. Later, phosgene and other gases were loaded into artillery shells and shot into enemy trenches. The Germans used this weapon the most, realizing that enemy soldiers wearing gas masks did not fight as well. All sides used gas frequently by 1918. Its use was a frightening development that caused its victims a great deal of suffering, if not death.
Both sides used a variety of big guns on the western front, ranging from huge naval guns mounted on railroad cars to short-range trench mortars. The result was a war in which soldiers near the front were seldom safe from artillery bombardment. The Germans used super–long-range artillery to shell Paris from almost eighty miles away. Artillery shell blasts created vast, cratered, moonlike landscapes where beautiful fields and woods had once stood.
Perhaps the most significant technological advance during World War I was the improvement of the machine gun, a weapon originally developed by an American, Hiram Maxim. The Germans recognized its military potential and had large numbers ready to use in 1914. They also developed air-cooled machine guns for airplanes and improved those used on the ground, making them lighter and easier to move. The weapon’s full potential was demonstrated on the Somme battlefield in July 1916 when German machine guns killed or wounded almost 60,000 British soldiers in only one day.
At sea, submarines attacked ships far from port. In order to locate and sink German U-boats, British scientists developed underwater listening devices and underwater explosives called depth charges. Warships became faster and more powerful than ever before and used newly invented radios to communicate effectively. The British naval blockade of Germany, which was made possible by developments in naval technology, brought a total war to civilians. The blockade caused a famine that finally brought about the collapse of Germany and its allies in late 1918. Starvation and malnutrition continued to take the lives of German adults and children for years after the war.
The firing stopped on November 11, 1918, but modern war technology had changed the course of civilization. Millions had been killed, gassed, maimed, or starved. Famine and disease continued to rage through central Europe, taking countless lives. Because of rapid technological advances in every area, the nature of warfare had changed forever, affecting soldiers, airmen, sailors, and civilians alike.
A. Torrey McLean, a former United States Army officer who served in Vietnam, studied World War I for more than thirty years, personally interviewing a number of World War I veterans.
The Weapons And Technology Of World War One
The Weapons and Technology of World War One
World War One brought about many new weapons and advancements in
technology on both sides. Both took huge steps towards modern
technology and these carried on even after the war had begun. Yet
these weapons could not be of much advantage to one side for very
long, because the other side immediately researched every new weapon
introduced when it was found out. So whilst one side would be
developing something new the other would be playing catch up or
possibly coming in from another angle.
These advancements were made on all sides of the war; the air, the
ground, and the sea, although I shall mainly be looking at the changes
on the ground. Apart from the new weapons, the new defence mechanisms
that were introduced shall be looked at as well: The most profound
being the Gas Mask, which was developed soon after the introduction of
the gas itself in 1915. But also other less well-known defence
equipment such as the Steel helmet will be looked at also.
The weapons brought about during the time of World War One have
completely changed war and fighting forever, but then the defence
brought in as well has blocked some of the advancements from being
used more readily today. The War changed technology drastically but
the technology changed people´s lives even more.
By far the most important invention introduced during the Great War
was the tank. Primitive tanks were introduced for the sole aim of
having protected artillery that could break through the defence line
but as the war progressed the Tank advanced, with larger guns and more
armour. The brains behind it were the caterpillar style wheels, which
could easily manage to move through the muddy, watery fields without
getting stuck. The idea was thought up by a British man in 1916 and
they were first used in battle at of the Somme where forty-nine tanks
were driven into battle unsuccessfully due to the lack of numbers. Yet
in November 1917, 450 tanks rampaged through the enemy line causing
havoc near Cambrai. Soon after that the Germans brought out their
first tank, the "Schwerer Kampfwagen A7V" and instantly the race had
begun to improve them. Here are pictures of the British Mark IV and
the Schwerer Kampfwagen A7V, which were used in Cambrai and the Somme
to blast through the enemy lines, capturing 800 of the enemy and 100
guns in the primary case.
These first tanks had only enough fuel to power them for 8-km due to
the weight and bulk of them but since then they have been improved and
now they can go for well over a hundred miles in one stretch.
The Machine Gun
The Machine Gun has claimed the most lives in World war One although
this is only on hospital counts so the actual amount of people killed
is not certain. However what is certain is that it was...
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