The Role of Technology
in World War I
Technology made a huge impact in the fighting of World War I. Blimps dropped bombs, airplanes with propellers in the back radioed gun positions, aces battled in their biplanes, ground troops threw and shot grenades at each other, and heavy machine guns snapped off bullets at each other making a big difference in the course of the war. These tools of war can be divided into two major categories: air advances and ground improvements.
Airplanes were first used in 1911 in a war in Libya, and also in the Mexican revolution. There wasnât much air bombardment in these wars; the planes were used for reconnaissance missions.1 By 1914, however, this technology was being used in European countries. The importance placed on airplanes in the military can be measured by the amount of money each country spent on getting the technology, and building things using the knowledge. By this time France had spent about 22 million dollars on this new field of military technology. Germany had also spent 22 million. America, however, had only spent half a million dollars on its program.2
Another measure of the importance placed on planes by each country is the number of planes it had and when the actual branches of the militaries were formed. By 1912 France had formed its Royal Flying Corps and had 36 planes in it. Later in 1913 Germany formed its Imperial German Air Service. This air force was based on lighter than air vehicles and dirigibles; they had mostly hot air balloons and blimps. Britain, however, had beaten them all: they had not only formed an air force, but just before the war they divided it from just the British Royal Flying Corps into The Royal Naval Air Service and The British Royal Flying Corps.3
By 1915 airplanes were used for many things on the front. Planes often flew behind enemy lines, landed, let a spy get out, then took off again. The parachute had been invented, but military pilots werenât using it.4 Troops were also often supplied by plane. Planes also told guns where to shoot using wing signals, and messages dropped to machine gun operators. Sometimes, but not often, they used radios. 5
At the beginning of the war slow, stable planes that provided a good lookout position was what the military wanted. These planes had seats for the pilot, and an observer. Sometimes a machine gun was mounted behind the seats so the observer could turn around and fire at other aircraft. Faster, smaller one-man fighters were soon developed to destroy the slower planes.6
Soon planes took on more tasks than just reporting army positions. By 1914 both British and German pilots started throwing grenades and gasoline bombs at opposing troops. These first attempts didnât have significant results. Soon planes started attacking each other. The first recorded aerial battle was on August 26th 1914. 3 British planes forced a German plane to land, then burned the plane.7
German dirigibles, also known as Zeppelins, were a major force in the war because they often carried large bombs. They were hard to destroy while airborne, and were often destroyed while inside their sheds. British incendiary bullets were also able to destroy them. Churchill said, âI believed that this enormous bladder of combustible and explosive gas would prove to be easily destructible. ... our incendiary bullets would harry, rout, and burn these gaseous monsters.â8
At first pusher planes were considered the superior single man plane, with the engine and propeller mounted in the back providing the pilot with no risk of hitting the propeller and damaging his own plane.9 However, tractor planes soon outdated pusher planes. Although the propeller and engine were located at the front with the risk of the pilot hitting his own propeller the plane was much faster and more maneuverable.10
Engineers were faced with a problem regarding the machine gun. If the guns were mounted forward the plane would shoot off its own propellers. If mounted on the side of the typical biplane it would likely destroy the struts and braces that braced the wings. One solution was to mount the gun on the top wing of the plane, but this gun was difficult to aim and awkward.11
French, German, and English inventors had all actually solved this problem by synchronizing the gun's fire and the propeller, but these ideas were neglected by officials and never used. However, in early 1915, French pilot Roland Garros developed a crude, simple, but effective system of firing a machine gun through the propeller arc. He attached metal deflector plates to the propellers to deflect the fire. Though this made it possible for the bullets to ricochet back at the pilot or the plane it was a huge improvement. He proved its worth when he downed five German planes in a two-week period, setting the early French standard for being an ace. This did not give the French an edge in the war, however, because a month later Germans captured a plane and stole the technology as well as started using a synchronizing mechanism.12
Technology also had a large influence on land battles in World War I. Before World War I, practically all machine guns used the same caliber ammunition as infantry rifles. After being used in combat, they were divided into types, each especially suited for a particular use. The lighter-weight types were adapted to firing short, concentrated bursts of fire, and the heavier weapons were developed for shooting a continuous stream of machine-gun fire. Machine guns were also developed for mounting in airplanes, and special mounts were developed for employing machine guns in antiaircraft work. The Browning machine gun is a water cooled, tripod-mounted, belt fed machine gun developed by John M. Browning. In May 1917, the heavy Browning machine gun was tested and adopted as standard for the U.S. Army. With improved ammunition, this gun was a great weapon for delivering sustained fire. Browning machine guns were also used, on the ground and mounted on aircraft, during World War II and the Korean War.13 It fired at about 500 rounds a minute. Over 68,000 were made before the war ended. The original design was modified to an air-cooled version and extensively used as an aircraft and tank gun. Another version was also developed as an anti-aircraft weapon in 1919 14
The old fashioned bayonet was also used some during this war. The bayonet was a short sword attached to the muzzle of a rifle. The bayonet had been used since the muzzle-loading muskets of the late 17th century. During World War I, the French used a long needle bayonet, while the Germans adopted a pioneer bayonet with the rear edge formed into a saw. The British used the standard sword bayonet. Although instructors encouraged the use of the bayonet, it was of little use in real life. Of the 142,378 Australians to reach a Field Ambulance with wounds, only 396 had suffered from bayonet wounds. Bayonets accounted for less than 0.3% of all wounds. 15
The flame-thrower was also a new advance of this war. The flame-thrower is a weapon that releases a stream of burning liquid, which can be aimed at enemy troops or strongpoints. The Germans at the Battle of Hooge first used the flame-thrower on July 30, 1915. The weapon consists of a backpack with a reservoir of compressed nitrogen and a tank containing about 10 pints of liquid flame, usually a mixture of coal tar and benzene. A hose ran from the fuel tank to a nozzle, on which was an ignition device. The gas pressure gave the flaming liquid a range of about 45 meters. The flame-thrower was adopted by the British, French and American forces. A terrifying weapon, its operator was always aimed at, because of this devastating weapon, and when assaulting a strongpoint with a flame-thrower, it was necessary to have an extra squad for protection.16
Ground troops also used hand grenades. The hand grenade was a small missile containing an explosive charge that was thrown. Grenades invented in the 15th century, but were not used much. They were rediscovered during the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 and again when the trench warfare of World War I began. The first hand grenades of World War I where empty cans filled with gunpowder and stones, with a fuse. The Australians at Gallipoli used these tin grenades quite often and they were often called Jam Bombs. Eventually these bombs became an officially designed and manufactured weapon for use by the ground forces. Hand grenades were generally fitted with some sort of time fuse that burnt for about 4 seconds: sufficient time for the grenade to reach enemy lines when thrown, but not enough time for the enemy to pick it up and throw it back. The main types of hand grenades were the British Mills bomb, the French pineapple grenade and the German stick grenade. A trained soldier could throw a grenade about 35-40 meters. In addition to explosive grenades, smoke and gas grenades were used, mainly for trench clearing and trench raids. 17
The Mills bomb was an infantry-issue hand grenade developed by William Mills of Birmingham in 1915. It consisted of a cast-iron body filled with explosives and a central tube with a detonator, fuse, and percussion cap. The user held the grenade so that he squeezed the lever and pulled the pin. When the lever came back out the fuse lit, and after four seconds the grenade detonated. The mills grenade remained in British and Australian service until the 1960's. 18
New kinds of machine guns were constantly being developed. The Lewis gun was a new British light machine gun. The Lewis gun was initially designed by Samuel MacLean, and was then developed and perfected by I.N. Lewis of the U.S. Army. The U.S. Army wasnât interested in the weapon, and Lewis took the gun to Belgium. He set up a manufacturing company there in 1913. In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, most of the staff fled to England where they were able to continue manufacturing the gun in the Birmingham Small Arms Company factory. The gun was subsequently used by the British, Belgian and Italian armies in great numbers, both as a ground weapon and as an aircraft gun. The Lewis gun became standard issue to the Australian forces in France, and each platoon had its own Lewis gunner. It was with this weapon that an Australian, Cedric Popkin, of the 24th machine-gun Company, 4th Division might have shot down the Red Baron. 19
The mortar was also first used in this war. In 1915 Sir Wilfris Stokes invented the Stokes mortar. It fired a simple cylindrical bomb. The front of the bomb carried a simple fuse based on the Mills grenade. The bomb was simply dropped down the barrel, to strike a firing pin fixed at the base; this ignited a shotgun cartridge and the explosion of the powder ejected the bomb. The first bombs had a range of about 900 meters. Later bombs were lighter and had a much greater range. The Stokes mortar was the prototype for every mortar since designed. Stokes Mortars supported rifle battalions and Light trench mortar units. They fired up and over trenches, landing down into enemy trenches. They could fire high explosive rounds exploding in the air or ground, and also smoke rounds. Smoke was used to both hide the American Armyâs position from enemy observation and fire and to cover their movements and attacks. They could also lay 'false screens', so that the enemy would believe an attack was coming. These could draw away German troops from the real attacks. 20
Airplanes were used to bomb, scout, and attack other airplanes. Ground weapons were used in attacking the enemy trench. These technological advances played a huge part in World War I and, though many were primitive and inefficient they were still much more effective than previous measures. Without these advances armies would have been lost.Notes
1 Trevor Nevitt Depuy. The War in the Air, (New York, New York: Franklin Watts inc., 1976), 7.
5 R. D Layman, Naval aviation in the First World War (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1996), 53-55.
13 Machine Gun. Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia.
14 Johnston, Arthur. The Weapons of World War I. http://www.iol.com.au/~conway/ww1/weapons.html.
18 Alan Lloyd, The War in the Trenches (New York, New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1976), 46. 48.
Depuy, Trevor Nevitt. The War in the Air. New York, New York: Franklin Watts inc., 1976.
Johnston, Arthur. The Weapons of World War I. http://www.iol.com.au/~conway/ww1/weapons.html.
Lloyd, Alan. The War in the Trenches. New York, New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1976.
Layman, R. D. Naval aviation in the First World War. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1996.
Machine Gun. Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia.
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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.