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Technology used in World War I

The technology used in World War I set it apart from previous wars. The course of the war determined the investments of the warring nations into technology and ordnances.

Trench Warfare

  • The Western Front Trench line stretched from the North Sea to the Franco-Swiss frontier

  • Death and disease were omnipresent in the trenches. Sniper’s bullets, rapid artillery fires, and diseases took a heavy toll on the trench soldiers.

  • Over 200,000 soldiers are estimated to have died in the trenches of the Western Front. Though a good number of these died in action, a significant number succumbed to disease and infection too.

  • Diseases included trench fever caused by lice, trench foot caused by the cold and unsanitary living conditions, plague caused by rats, and shell shock.

  • The one striking feature of life in the trenches as narrated by the troops is the stench that assaulted the senses. The reek of decomposing carcasses from the shallow graves, the stench from unhygienic cesspits, the smell of human sweat, and rotting food, all mingled together, making life in the trenches rather unbearable.

Weapons of World War I

  1. Poison Gas:

    • Chemical warfare was an important aspect of the Great War. The poison gas was among the most feared the weapons used in World War I. The soldiers feared the deadly agony and long-drawn suffering caused by poison gasses.

    • Tear gas grenades were initially used in August 1914 by the French. By October 1914, the Germans had come up with their own variations of gas ammunition.

    • In January 1915, Germany became the first country to employ the use of lethal poison gasses such as chlorine. The use of chlorine in Ypres caused significant damage to the Allied lines.

    • Phosgene and mustard were much-feared gasses - phosgene for its deceptively delayed effects and mustard gas for the violent blisters and painful scalds it caused the internal and external organs.

    • It is estimated that about 4 percent of the causalities of World War I can be attributed to poison gas. In the course of the war, some very effective gas masks and protective gear were also fashioned.

      “Gas shock was as frequent as shell shock.” — H. Allen

  2. Tanks:

    • The initial tanks of World War I were devised to counter the frustrating stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front.

    • Tanks were introduced by the British in 1916. Mobility of the tanks through the rough terrains came up as one of the primary issues concerned with the use of tanks. Soon, however, the British developed sophisticated tanks that eliminated the disadvantages of the initial Mark I tanks.

    • The French fielded their indigenous tanks in the Nivelle Offensive of 1917.

    • The Germans produced the A7V but concentrated their efforts in the production of anti-tank guns such as the 13 mm Mauser and Räder-Lafette 1916. Special armor-piercing ammunition was also devised by the Germans to combat the menace of the tanks.

    • Toward the end of World War I the British and French troops scored a significant victory over the Germans in the Western Front due to their advanced tanks.

  3. Guns, Rifles, and Grenades:

    • Machine guns dominated the trench warfare of the Western Front and caused heavy causalities. The Vickers machine gun was the early machine gun used by the British troops. With the United States joining the war the Lewis Gun, developed in 1911 was introduced. Besides being much lighter, the Lewis Gun could be produced more quickly.

    • Through World War I, a number of rifles were manufactured by the warring nations and were the main arms used by the infantry. The following rifles were manufactured and sustained the troops through World War I

    Rifle Country
    Mannlicher-Carcano Austria
    Mauser Gewehr Germany
    Lee Enfield Britain
    Bolt Action Rifle USA
    Lebel M1888 France

    Hand grenades and flamethrowers were used to combat the stalemate of the trench warfare. Flamethrowers could incinerate a target 25 to 40 meters (or about 80 to 130 feet) away but were difficult to mobilize.

Air Warfare

“The sky is about to become another battlefield no less important than the battlefields on land and sea", predicted Giulio Douhet, Italian general in 1909. He did not need to wait long, since World War I was among the earliest battles in history in which air warfare played a significant role.

  • The Farman MF-7 and MF-II were early fighter planes commonly used by the Allies Powers.
  • Voisin III, designed by Gabriel Voisin, was one of the earliest Allied aircrafts to be launched. The Voisin V, by the same designer was probably the bomber craft used most by the Allies.
  • Deflector planes designed and used by Roland Garros in 1915 took the Germans by surprise. Garros was eventually captured and his invention copied by the Germans.
  • In 1915, the infamous Zeppelins raided London, Sunderland, Edinburgh, and the neighboring areas leaving over 550 civilian casualties. Designed by German officer Count Ferdinand Zeppelin, the Zeppelin aircrafts were feared bombers till Britain developed highly successful anti-aircraft guns.
  • The Handley Page four-engined bombers were introduced towards the end of 1916, and were successful in bombing the Ruhr and Saar zones of Germany. The British Royal Air Force put to use over 250 Handley Page crafts in World War I.
  • Hugo Junkers, founder of Lufthansa, is credited with designing and producing Junkers D-1, the first all-metal plane. Together with the Junkers CL-1, the D-1 caused considerable damage to the Allies.

Naval Warfare

  • The launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 made major headway in naval technology. Britain was at an advantage with its large and well-equipped fleet.
  • The Battle of Jutland in 1916 between the Grand Fleet of the British Royal Navy and the High Seas fleet of the Imperial German Navy was the largest battle between the Allied and Central navies in World War I.
  • Germany concentrated on building sophisticated submarines The German U-boats hounded British merchant vessels. The First Battle of the Atlantic recorded this struggle between the German submarine prowess and British efforts to foil them.

The development of arms and ammunition and the growth of telecommunications, railways were major outcomes of World War I. These set the ball rolling for future developments in the postwar years.