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World War I saw the application of several new technologies to the battlefield, the most important being that of the internal combustion engine, which permitted the development of the first successful mechanized armored fighting vehicles1. The war was one of the greatest examples of technological advancements and strategic challenges in history, with the introduction of powerful technological inventions.
It saw the advancement of many technological developments of the battlefield which included the aircraft, machine guns, tanks, and poison guns2. Particularly, the aircraft and the tank greatly transformed the battlefield from slow destruction to a decisive end.
This paper looks at technological inventions during World War I and how they were used in the war. The focus is, however, on the tank technology, how it was used in the war, and how it developed over the years since the start of World War I.
Technologies used in World War I
After the battlefield turned to a stalemate on the Western Front in 1915, the French and British armies studied potential technical solutions to overcome German defensive technology. There were three principal threats that had to be addressed and these included barbed wire, trenches, and deadly increase in defensive firepower3.
These three adversaries were a synergistic combination that shifted the technological and tactical balance back to the defense and led to the tactical stalemate experienced during World war I. Barbed wires deprived the attacking side of mobility and left the attacking infantry vulnerable to enemy machine guns.
Trenches provided the defender with the means to protect against attacking firepower and, the enhanced defensive firepower of 1914-18 made the advancing infantry vulnerable at greater ranges than ever before. As infantrymen advanced towards enemy lines, they had to endure artillery fire at longer ranges than previously encountered and then, if they survived that, they had to face the murderous attempts from machine guns and rifle fire.
Although early French efforts to develop technical solutions to this tactical dilemma were ingenious, they often focused on one of the threats rather than on all the three threats highlighted. Armored cars had been adopted by the French cavalry before the war, but these were useless in the trench warfare.
Even though their armor protected crews against machine guns and shell splitters, their narrow wheels created high ground pressure that made them sink into the soft soil leading to slow progression. In general, the primitive automotive suspensions offered no capability to operate in rough terrains.
In 1915, the French army endeavored to improve the cross country mobility of armored cars by building ten armored tractors on filtz agricultural tractors4. These were intended to crush or cut through barbed wire entanglements but, their combat entrance at Verdun in the autumn of 1915 demonstrated their arthritic movement in rough terrains.
A number of similar schemes during the early years of World War I existed including the armored Archer wheeled tractor and the Breton-Pretot wire cutting tractor. Another approach was to use an armored steam roller pioneered by the Rouleau Frot-Laffly design of March 1915. Also present were small remotely controlled tracked vehicles which used electric motors that would send a large explosive charge into the barbed wire entanglements and then blow them up.
These, however, never proved reliable or practical enough to be put into production and led to the development of the most elaborate device to deal with both barbed wire and trenches known as the Boirault device.
The first version of this 30 ton device consisted of a set of hinged frames powered by a motor suspended within the device. Trials in early 1915 failed to convince the French armies of the practicality of the device, so its inventor Louis Boirault developed a second design.
This was a slightly smaller design and had its engine placed within an armored capsule. Trials indicated that this second design was more robust and ingenious. There were, however, concerns about the value of the device due to its size, noise, and vulnerability to German artillery.
The aircraft, machine guns, submarines, tanks, flamethrowers, and poison guns were among the technologies used in World War I. This was besides the use of rifles and grenades. Although airplanes had for a long time been reserved for leisure, they later became critical as nations realized that they could strategically be used in the war.
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Another important development of World War I was the use of submarines which were mainly used to counter any ship and other submarine attacks from opponents. Poison gas on the hand was used to subject the enemy to a slow and painful destruction process. The tanks were invented by the British as a replacement of the trench warfare technology that had been used for quite some time.
It was, however, mechanically unstable and did not deliver results as was expected. The Germans invented the use of flamethrowers which as the name suggests, were used to destabilize the enemy by throwing flames at them. Rifles were generally preferred as infantry weapons.
Although machine guns came in quite handy and played a very important role during the initial days of the World War I, they could easily be affected by mechanical problems that greatly interfered with their effectiveness. Trench motors, built to support the trench warfare, were also used during World War I.
Tank Technology in World War I
The tank technology is considered to be a very significant development of the World War I. Despite being such a great invention on the battlefield, the original tank was imperfect and had a number of shortcomings that had to be dealt with in order to enhance its performance. Later designs of the tank came with many improvements that ensured a higher level of efficiency.
However, despite the fact that the technology was quite primitive, the original tank provided a very strong foundation for advancing the tank technology into the future. Consequently, the tanks used in World War II turned out to be of much superior quality and proved to be quite useful to the military forces during the war.
Even though it was a British invention, the French and German soldiers also had similar vehicles that were used during the World War I. The force behind the tank invention was the desire to replace the trench warfare that was in use at the time. Both the British and German soldiers were dissatisfied by the trench warfare technology and had to seek a better alternative.
Apparently, the tank technology presented the much sought after substitute at the time. With the tank technology, the British army successfully managed to swiftly deal with attacks coming from the German fighters. On their first use, they seemed efficient and proved to be a serious threat to the German army. Shortly later, it turned out that there were more challenges than opportunities that accompanied the use of the tank.
According to Lieber, the impact of tanks on the offense-defense balance is best discussed in a chronological manner. The initial period saw them being used in World War I and the interwar period. Later, they were used in World War II from 1939 through to 1941 and finally, in World War II from the winter of 1942-43 through 19445.
In World War I and the interwar period, the tanks were found to have no discernible effect on the offense-defense balance. In World War II, the most relevant evidence also indicated that tanks did not ultimately shift the balance toward offense. As a result, there were concerns regarding the impact of the tank technology and what needed to be done to them if greater gains were to be realized.
During the World War I, Allies strongly believed that the integration of new military technology such as tanks and airplanes into offensive plans would make operations more efficient and productive6. This led the British to develop the first tank in the year 1916, although its first battlefield appearance during the 1916 Somme offensive was quite unimpressive.
Poorly chosen ground, the use of inexperienced crew, and numerous mechanical breakdowns doomed the experimental use of the initial forty nine vehicles to failure. In November 1917, however, at the battle of Cambrai, the British demonstrated that if used on firm terrain, in sufficient numbers with a properly trained crew, placing tanks at the head of an infantry advance to crush barbed wire and aim machine gun fire at German defenders, a major breakthrough could result.
The success of the tank in penetrating five miles into German lines demonstrated its potential to support an infantry advance. These experiences provided valuable lessons for the Allies in 1918, when tanks would make more regular and effective appearances in battle.
This was one technological advantage that the Allies worked hard to retain through out the war. Later, the Germans developed several tank prototypes that were both too large and cumbersome. This prompted them to instead rely on the captured British tanks to create their own tanks.
There were concerns, however, that the use of tanks in World War I provided very little guidance regarding their eventual impact on warfare or their effect on the offensive-defensive balance. All of the major European armies had experimented with armored fighting vehicles by 1914, but only the British and the French sought to produce large numbers of tanks by 1916.
Originally, the tanks were used in the battle of Somme September 1916, achieved their greatest success at the battle of Cambrai in November 1917, and played a major role in the Amiens offensive in August 1918. In spite of the successes that were realized with the help of the original tanks, the technology did not meet the expectations of many as had been anticipated.
This being the case, fighters resolved to use new infantry tactics, shunning the use of tanks in some instances7. Clearly, the tank technology did not have a decisive impact on the military operations in World War I.
From the discussion presented in this paper, it has emerged that a number of technologies were used during World War I. The desire to be victorious in the war led to great inventions that later transformed the battlefield, speeding up the war.
From the use of one technology to another, fighters realized that they needed to be well prepared and this pushed them to work towards the development of technologies that would grant them an advantage over their enemies.
As already pointed out, the earlier technologies had enough shortcomings and had either to be eliminated or improved in order to increase the level of efficiency. The tanks in World War I, for example, were manned by untrained crews, vulnerable to defensive artillery fire, and prone to mechanical breakdown. According to Dowling8 the characteristics of the tanks are what limited their battlefield effectiveness.
With heavy tank speeds of 4 to 5 miles per hour and light tanks capable of only 8 miles per hour, tanks did not add much speed to operations9. Crews suffered severely from confinement in the hot steel tank bodies which offered little protection against enemy fire. Reliability was so poor that more tanks were lost to mechanical breakdowns than enemy fire, many even before a battle started.
Despite these problems, tanks were accepted as an integral part of any battlefield by the end of World War I. Experience with the new weapon also led to the development of effective tank tactics. By the end of World War I, tanks were an important component of battlefield operations. Although the techniques were developed at this point, the full potential of these weapons was not demonstrated until two decades later in World War II.
Dowling, Timothy. World War 1, Volume 1. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2006.
Hamilton, John. Weapons of World War I. Minnesota: ABDO Publishing Company, 2010.
Jackson, Robert. 101 Great Tanks. New York, NY: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2010.
Keene, Jennifer. World War I. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006.
Lieber, Keir. War and the Engineers: The Primacy of Politics over Technology. New York: Cornell University Press, 2005.
Small, Steven, Westwell, Ian & Westwood, John. History of World War I, Volume 3. Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 2002.
Tucker, Spencer. World War I: A – D., Volume 1. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2005.
Zaloga, Steven. French Tanks of World War I. Long Island City, NY: Osprey Publishing, 2011.
1 Small, Steven, Westwell, Ian & Westwood, John. History of World War I, Volume 3. (Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 2002), 848.
2 Hamilton, John. Weapons of World War I. (Minnesota: ABDO Publishing Company, 2010), 27.
3 Zaloga, Steven. French Tanks of World War I. (Long Island City, NY: Osprey Publishing, 2011), 3.
4 Jackson, Robert. 101 Great Tanks. New York, NY: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2010.
5 Lieber, Keir. War and the Engineers: The Primacy of Politics over Technology (New York: Cornell University Press, 2005), 101.
6 Keene, Jennifer. World War I. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006), 13.
7 Lieber, Keir. War and the Engineers: The Primacy of Politics over Technology. (New York: Cornell University Press, 2005), 101.
8 Dowling, Timothy. World War 1, Volume 1. (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2006), 103.
9 Tucker, Spencer. World War I: A – D., Volume 1. (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2005), 1151.