When people imagine the First World War, they imagine the huge death toll, and the tools that brought about such a death toll such as artillery, poison gas, flamethrowers, and even tanks. A reason for this is may be that this was the first war that new technologies such as these played such a significant role in the war. Countries finding ways to break the bloody trench stalemate, all racing to develop the golden bullet to win the war. Entire battles and thousands of lives depended on who had the newest guns, or the better artillery. This was the first real modern war.
While I won’t talk about the changes in tactics that the First War brought about (maybe another post), I will talk about the technologies that followed it, and how soldiers learned the hard way about how truly deadly some of these are.
1) Machine Guns
Probably the first thing people think of when they think of the trenches, is the machine gun. This was a huge leap from the old hand-cranked Gatling Guns. The new guns were water cooled and had a gas action, making them much more reliable and durable, and two men could fire hundreds of rounds a minute,cutting down advancing soldiers like grass. The first Machine gun to be produced was the legendary Maxim gun. It had a very simple design, when fired, the gas produced by the explosion in each cartridge created a recoil which continuously operated the machine gun mechanism. This design would be the basis of most future machine guns and even rifles.
The Germans were equipped with the Maschinengewehr 08. Based heavily on the design of the Maxim gun, it was introduced in 1908, hence the name. It fired 500-600 rounds per minute and was water cooled using a water jacket. This became a standard section automatic weapon in WW1, with over 173,000+ units built and multiple variants such as a model for aircraft and lightened variants for infantry.
The British had the Vickers Machine Gun and the Lewis Gun. the Vickers Machine Gun had a reputation for great solidity and reliability, being able to fire up to a million rounds without breaking, as reported by some soldiers. It fired up to 500 rounds per minute. The guns were used in almost all fronts during the war, however in 1914 there was still a shortage and troops were using old maxim guns. A reason for this may be the high price Vickers was demanding for each gun, until they were threatened with prosecution for war profiteering. Prices then dropped and the gun was issued in huge supplies. In 1916 the Lewis Gun replaced the much heavier and bulky Vickers machine gun (the Lewis being almost 10 kg lighter), the Vickers Guns were reallocated for use by specialist machine-gun units and classified as an heavy machine gun. The Lewis Gun was actually designed by an american, Isaac Newton Lewis in 1911, but was rejected by the US Army. It had a higher rate of fire compared to the Vickers, 600 rounds per minute, could be operated by one man unlike the Vickers which needed three, and was light enough to use as an assault weapon. Both guns had aircraft and armoured car models.
The French were armed with the Chauchat, officially the “Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1915 CSRG”. A grand total of 262,000 Chauchat machine guns were manufactured between during the war, making it the most produced gun in WW1. The Chauchat was designed to be fired without a team and without a heavy bi pod, making it portable, but a powerful automatic weapon. It could even be fired from the hip and while walking or marching. However, as the war dragged past Christmas, it’s flaws begun to show. Manufacturing had been simplified to facilitate mass production, resulting in low quality parts, and frequent breakdowns. It was also limited to a 20 round magazine, unlike the other machine guns of its time which were belt fed or had much larger magazine capacities. It also sported a short effective range (200 m) and low rate of fire (250 rpm). With the multitude of problems, some people even say this was the worst machine gun in history.
2) U-Boats and submarines
WW1 was the first war that submarine warfare played a crucial part. These new ships played a major psychological role in the war, since sailors had no idea when or where a submarine could just appear, torpedo them, and disappear again. This was before the invention of radar or sonar devices. The Germans were probably first to realise this, and the Kaiser ordered the rush into mass production of these U-Boats, while some of the British high command were still sceptical about this new technology, a hesitation that would cost them dearly.
Perhaps where the submarine was most widely used was in the British Isles and in the Mediterranean. Following the British blockade of Germany at the start of the war, Germany announced unrestricted submarine warfare from 1914 to 1917. This meant that any ship flying the enemy flag could be sunk without warning, including merchant ships, hospital ships, and even passenger liners. This resulted in over 5000 merchant ships and 104 warships sunk. The most well known was probably the controversial RMS Lusitania, a passenger ship that was torpedoed without warning. The impacts of this sinking are kind of beyond the scope of this blog, but i recommend you look it up it is very interesting. However the point is that the development and use of these new weapons, that caused the lives of thousands of sailors and civilians, was really accelerated by the outbreak of WW1.
3) Aircraft and Aerial combat
Before the war, aircraft technology was at its infancy; they were slow, could not fly high, had long climb times, and had no weapons or radio of any sorts. To fight, pilots used pistols or threw rocks and bricks at each other in the air, and had to use paper maps and compasses to navigate. Planes mostly had a secondary role as reconnaissance usually. However, necessity is the mother of invention, and by the end of the war, we had planes that could dip and dive, machine guns firing through propellers, and even wireless radio on aircraft, allowing these new flying machines to open a whole new theatre of war, the skies. This lead to a new age of heroes as well, with flying aces such as Manfred von Richthofen (or “Red Baron.”) and Billy Bishop. These flying aces had almost celebrity like status, and were adored by the people of their respective nations.
The warring nations were quick to understand one of the fundamental rules of modern war, whoever rules the skies has a huge advantage on the ground. Hence nations tried ways to improve their aircraft, building faster, quicker, more agile, and with bigger guns. One revolutionary invention that the war produced was the interceptor gear. Before this, pilots had no way of firing their machine guns forward without shredding their own propellers. However, Dutchman Anthony Fokker, aviation pioneer and an aircraft manufacturer, revolutionised the war in the skies with his invention of the interrupter gear. The basic idea was that the machine gun would be timed with the blades of the propeller, firing only when there’s a gap in the spinning propeller, allowing pilots to fire through the arc of its spinning propeller without bullets destroying the blades. So the pilots could aim their machine gun simply by pointing their plane where they wanted to shoot, revolutionising air combat.
Left: Manfred von Richthofen, Red Baron.
Right: Anthony Fokker
Using this technology, the Germans had aerial superiority for large parts of the war, destroying many British and french aircraft. This again shows how science and warfare go hand in hand.
4) Poison Gas
We’re all familiar with the horrors of poison gas in the trenches, how unaware men were suffocated to death with their lungs dissolved from the inside. Today, gas and chemical warfare is banned, and for good reason.
The stalemate on the Western Front through much of the war prompted the heaviest use of chemical weapons in warfare in history. Despite an 1899 treaty that banned the use of poisonous gases, all major nations of the war used them at one point. They all saw it as a possible key to breaking the stalemate, however brutal it may be.
Although everyone thinks it was the Germans who were the first to utilise gas attacks using the infamous greenish yellow chlorine gas, it was in fact, the french who were the first. However, the french used non-lethal tear gas grenades, which proved ineffective. After the first gas attack in 1915, all major nations of the war started frantically producing deadlier, more effective gas. This lead to the French development of phosgene, a gas much more lethal compared to chlorine. Being colourless with only a faint odour, made it a much more effective killing agent as well. It also took 24 hours to take effect, hence unsuspecting soldiers who appeared healthy would find themselves choking and dying out of nowhere. Mustard gas is also another notorious gas used in the war. It was only deadly in high enough doses, but the reason for its reputation was that mustard gas was extremely painful, causing huge yellow blisters, and incapacitated a person only by contact with the skin. This also meant gas masks were useless, and not every soldier had a hazmat suit in 1915. Other gases that were developed included hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulfide and Acrolein. Delivery systems were also improved, with gas artillery shells, grenades and huge gas canisters with a spray pipe.
Once again science is used as a deadly weapon, with a recorded casualty number of 1,230,853, over a million.
|Name||First use||Type||Used by|
|Xylyl bromide||1914||Lachrymatory, toxic||Both|
|Chlorine||1915||Corrosive. Lung Irritant||Both|
|Phosgene||1915||Irritant – Skin and mucous membranes. Corrosive, toxic||Both|
|Benzyl bromide||1915||Lachrymatory||Central Powers|
|Chloromethyl chloroformate||1915||Irritant – Eyes, skin, lungs||Both|
|Trichloromethyl chloroformate||1916||Severe irritant, causes burns||Both|
|Chloropicrin||1916||Irritant, lachrymatory, toxic||Both|
|Stannic chloride||1916||Severe irritant, causes asphyxiating||Allies|
|Ethyl iodoacetate||1916||Lachrymatory, toxic||Allies|
|Monobromomethyl ethyl ketone||1916||Lachrymatory, irritant||Central Powers|
|Acrolein||1916||Lachrymatory, toxic||Central Powers|
|Hydrogen cyanide (Prussic acid)||1916||Toxic, Chemical Asphyxiant||Allies|
|Hydrogen sulphide (Sulphuretted hydrogen)||1916||Irritant, toxic||Allies|
|Diphenylchloroarsine (Diphenyl-chlorasine)||1917||Irritant/Sternutatory (causes sneezing)||Central Powers|
|α-chlorotoluene (Benzyl chloride)||1917||Irritant, lachrymatory||Central Powers|
|Mustard gas(Bis(2-chloroethyl) sulfide)||1917||Vesicant (blistering agent), lung irritant||Both|
|Bis(chloromethyl) ether (Dichloromethyl ether)||1918||Irritant, can blur vision||Central Powers|
|N-Ethylcarbazole 679||1918||Irritant||Central Powers|
Once again, necessity is the mother of invention. In WW1, with the use of machine guns and barbed wire, the war turned into a hugely defensive war. All along the Western Front, hundreds of kilometres of trench lines were dug, and a bloody stalemate formed. While intense artillery bombardments, poison gas, and hundreds of thousands of deaths failed to break the stalemate, one new weapon arguably managed to break through the German trenches, and tipped the balance of power in favour of the Allies. The first use of tanks was the deployment of the British Mark 1 tanks at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, during the Battle of the Somme. While it looks nothing like the image of a tank we have today (it looked more like a giant bow of metal that could move really slowly), it was a revolutionary new weapon. It could drive over barbed wire, cross trenches and was immune to small arms fire. Imagine you’re a soldier in a trench, and a giant rumbling machine with machine guns is rolling straight for you, it was a truly terrifying sight. The first tanks were as much a psychological weapon as much as a physical one. For now, tanks had only a main row of infantry support, they would be used to a much larger scale in later wars.
The tank was mainly pioneered by the British, who had a Landships Committee, established by First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill (maybe a post about his exciting career next time). They developed the first Mark 1 tanks after many trials and presented them to the British high command, and after the approval, were shipped off to France. While the Germans were first to produce their U Boat fleet, the British had the first landship fleet, leaving the Germans hard pressed for an effective counter to this new metallic beast. The Germans began development of their own tanks only in response to the appearance of British tanks on the battlefield, and by the end of the war, only a measly 20 tanks were deployed by Germany.
Although mechanically unreliable and slow, these early tanks were a step towards the future, bringing on a age of mechanised warfare.
To me, all these inventions would not have come about without the First World War, even if they did, it would have been decades later. Science is spurred on by the act of war, on the other hand, war is made deadlier by science, a tragic relationship.