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 vehicles. The war was one of the greatest examples of technological advancements and strategic challenges in history, with the introduction of powerful technological inventions.
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It saw the progression of many technological developments of the battlefield, which included the aircraft, machine guns, tanks, and poison gas among others. Particularly, the aircraft and the tank greatly transformed the battlefield from slow destruction to a decisive end. This paper looks at different technological innovations and how they changed the face of World War I as the war progressed.
In general, military technology is a very important consideration in the conduct of war. Nevertheless, adversaries rarely understand the implications of changing technology. Typically, leaders study the last war to prepare for the next one. The failure to recognize that warfare has changed, and to adapt to those changes, is especially prevalent among winners of previous wars who end up underrating their opponents while thinking very highly of themselves.
On the contrary, losers are more likely to learn from their past errors while preparing for future war engagements. In some cases, modest technological innovations have a profound impact. An example is the introduction of stirrups in China and later into Europe which enabled mounted warriors to use hand held weapons, especially bows and arrows, without falling off their horses.
Among the most important results of the industrial revolution were the development of railways and steamships, both critical for fighting World War I. Another notable development was the invention of the Bessemer process in 1850 for making steel. Further progress was made possible by the canning of food, introduced by a French chef in 1795 who sought to win a prize offered by Napoleon for anyone who could come up with a way to prevent military food supplies from spoiling.
Canned food made it possible to feed large armies in distant places and to carry on with vigorous campaigns even in winter when fresh food was hard to come by. Although some technological advances in warfare had already been introduced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, their implications for war and politics were not appreciated by the generals and statesmen.
Another technological advancement that dramatically enhanced the defense was the machine gun. Among others operations, the machine gun could be used with deadly effect against masses of infantry and cavalry advancing across open ground. It was invented in 1884 by the American Hiram Maxim and could fire over 5000 rounds a minute. The machine gun itself was made possible by the invention of smokeless gun powder, which was probably invented by a Prussian artillery captain around 1864.
Other technological developments that altered the tactical nature of warfare in ways disadvantageous to an offensive strategy were breech-loaded and rifled guns, which stabilized bullets by spinning them in flight. Although developed earlier, this innovation was widely deployed in the nineteenth century, dramatically increasing the range, accuracy, speed, and quality of fire arms, especially the French artillery.
Few military leaders in 1914 recognized how effective artillery could be used against masses of infantry and cavalry moving across no man’s land or to smash troops, massing behind the lines in preparation for an attack.
“The Great War” Origins
The Great War or World War I, as it was commonly known, acted as a catalyst and speeded up a process which was leading Europe towards democracy. Apparently, this process which was advanced as economic growth greatly changed the existing social structures. Although the question of the origins of the Great War is highly debated, and although this war is considered by many as the beginning of a new stage in history and the real starting point of the twentieth century, it is convenient to attempt to explain its causes.
According to Tortella, the authors of the period blamed nationalism and imperialism for the Great War, and most contemporary historians tend to agree with this argument. However, what needs to be done is to identify the type of nationalism and imperialism in force at that time, since all of the conflicts of the times could be attributed to similar causes.
According to Morrow, discussions of the origins of the Great War should begin with the formation of the state which historians hold responsible for war. In 1871, the Prussian Hohenzollern monarchy’s formidable Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck and his army under the leadership of its Chief of General Staff, created the German Empire.
In the 1860s, Bismarck’s expert diplomacy isolated Prussia’s enemies, enabling the Prussian Army to win three wars quickly. The wars were against Denmark, Austria, and France. The unexpected and rapid appearance of this new industrial and military power in central Europe gave rise to a historical German problem because of its potential for destabilizing the balance of power in Europe.
It is difficult, however, to believe that Serb nationalism or that of the other Balkan countries at odds with Austrian imperialism could unchain a conflict of the proportions achieved by the Great War. The so called Balkan Wars, between the emerging nationalities and the Ottoman Empire, had taken place two years earlier without the conflict expanding. The Great War was without doubt provoked directly by the assassination of the heir to the Austrian crown in Sarajevo by a pro-Serbian nationalist.
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This was certainly an additional episode to the complex escalation of violence which was developing in the Balkans. Such variety of events sometimes leads historians to get lost in the tangle of alliances, diplomatic maneuvers, confrontations, and mobilizations that preceded the eruption of the conflict.
Reading certain narratives, one gets the impression that the summer of 1914 was a comedy of errors which soon turned into a tragedy of horrors. Although there is no doubt that there were errors and miscalculations, just a moment of reflection would enable anyone to realize that, had it not been for Germany’s firm resolve to fight, the war could have been avoided.
Seemingly, Germany’s involvement in a conflict which did not affect it directly converted a local dispute into a world war. It has been said that German made a big mistake in pledging Austria its full support when the latter requested it prior to presenting Serbia with an ultimatum. It is doubtful though, that any error was committed. For years, German had been preparing for war, constructing a navy to rival the British navy, getting its forces ready for battle and planning its campaigns.
Proof of Germany’s intentions lies in the fact that it presumably entered the war to fulfill the diplomatic commitment of providing Austria with assistance, yet it soon assumed control of all operations and took the lead in most initiatives and at all times. In addition, Germany was responsible for spreading the conflict when it declared war on Russia and invaded France and Belgium without a declaration of war.
It was the invasion of Belgium, a neutral country, which led indecisive Britain to intervene in the conflict. Although Germany lost the war in the end, it is alleged that it took part in the war in order to fulfill its ambition to become the hegemonic European power, considering that its ruling classes, headed by the Kaiser, wanted combat and saw victory as theirs.
In addition, Prussian and German history provided an example to follow. The creation of the German nation and the consolidation of the empire under despotic Prussian control had been achieved by means of a series of wars that increased German and Prussian power and prestige, snuffed out internal dissention, and gave cohesion to the emerging nation. After defeating Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866, and France in 1870, Germany had been united as the second empire and had become the second most powerful country in Europe.
In 1914, the path seemed clear, and a fourth victory would convert it into the hegemonic nation of Europe and one of the great powers of the world. However, after what happened in the period between the wars, there is a tendency to forget the responsibility of the German leading classes in spreading the war, if not, strictly speaking, initiating it.
It can not be forgotten, of course, that the war had the popular support of all those involved in it, nor can those other governments be forgotten, Germany’s allies as well as its enemies, which committed serious blunders in the early stages of the confrontation and contributed to the catastrophe. Nevertheless, it is clear that without Germany’s aspirations to become a hegemonic power, it is highly unlikely that the conflict would have spread.
The frequently repeated affirmation that the Great War was an imperialist war is something that has to be clarified and delimited. Contrary to what had been ceaselessly repeated, the war was surely not the unavoidable consequence of clashing interests of capitalists who were trying to divvy up the world at their pleasure. Although it is true that nationalism and imperialism had some economic basis, this was very different from what had been postulated.
The 1915 Stalemate
Towards the end of the year 1914, a state of stagnation had been reached and no force seemed to be progressing. Apparently, many of the warring countries after realizing what was going on started working hard to devise strategies to break the deadlock. To a large extent, the solutions provided by the different parties during the stalemate period were quite diverse.
In preparation, the German sought to build up resources to deal with the unexpected outcomes of a war that was to last for an extended period, and seemed unavoidable. In addition, German armies proceeded to further improve the exiting war technologies in order to assure themselves of victory. In part, this involved the expansion of Germany’s railway operations.
Moreover, Germany had to come up with reliable strategies to provide its armies with the necessary war equipment. To guarantee a steady supply of equipment to the soldiers, Germany had to work extremely hard to make sure that the required raw materials were readily available to the production team.
Ostensibly, no common agreement was reached regarding the stalemate and Western Allies found themselves falling on two opposing sides. On one had was a group that desired to see the offensive on the German continue, while on the other hand, others wanted to see an end to these attacks in consideration of the effect of attrition on the French army.
Furthermore, the French forces did not have the necessary expertise that would enable them bring the trench warfare deadlock to an end. However, the motivation behind the operations of the German and French forces was totally different.
The Great War began like most other wars, when cavalry were employed on horseback and battles were short and sharp. It then passed into a period of stalemate, when infantry and guns burrowed underground and hammered at one another in prolonged trench to trench battles.
In reality, the period of fixed trench warfare was not as long as had been supposed, and the lines were rigid only in 1915 and 1916. During 1917, bomb fighting in the trenches gave way to shell-hole warfare, and in 1918, to open fighting in which tanks and cavalry played a large part.
As noted by Lewis, the strategy of trench warfare required powerful artillery batteries using large volumes of high explosive shells in support of advancing troops. Shortages of artillery on all sides further intensified the stalemate. By the end of 1914, British batteries were rationed to firing six rounds per day, and by early 1915 the Germans, enclosed in a defensive system of perfected trenches, lacked the supplies of shells necessary to deploy infantry against well defended trenches.
In the ensuing stalemate, which witnessed the upgrade of trench systems, the demand for munitions increased enormously. To produce them in the quantities required necessitated an unprecedented increase in the deployment of machine tools in the British engineering industry.
War of Attrition
Despite its triumph in the East, Germany’s military leaders knew that the situation in the west was precarious. The war of attrition had seriously weakened Germany and the prospect of US forces arriving in France was alarming. The war of attrition on the Italian Front lasting three and a half years allowed Italy to acquire the Trentino region and other lands coveted by the politicians.
However, this came at a very heavy cost. In Germany, the war of attrition proved to be quite intractable as it was fought internationally as well as on the domestic front. The German hyperinflation was also experienced as a result of the war of attrition.
The tank and machine gun technologies were used by the French and are discussed below.
France began developing primitive tanks about the same time as the British, but introduced them in combat several months later. The two original French tank designs were seriously flawed and proved to be technical and tactical dead ends. After a false start, General Jean-Baptiste Estienne promoted a more radical idea. Instead of the large and cumbersome tanks then in use with the British and French armies, he proposed building small inexpensive tanks that could overwhelm the Germans with mobility and mass.
The resulting design, the Renault FT, represented the birth of the modern tank and pioneered the classic tank configuration typical of tank designs to this day. It was also the most widely used tank type of World War I, and was the seed for many tank forces after the war including those of the United States and the Soviet Union.
The Great War offered a foundation to display the triumphs of the machine age. The great innovations of this industrial era could serve in so many ways to bring new developments of science to the ancient techniques of warfare. Apparently, the icon of the machine age was the machine gun.
In short bursts, it could sweep away advancing troops at a rate of 400 to 600 rounds a minute. This gave it the firepower of at least 80 men with rifles. Nested together as defensive weapons, the guns could make any assault so murderous that hardly a man was left to actually reach the defenders.
However, the deadly efficiency of this weapon of mass destruction as it was called during the Great War was not easily appreciated in the general headquarters of the high commands. The French had what German soldiers called the Devil Gun. At 75 mm, this canon was slightly smaller than the Stokes mortar in diameter but had a long barrel. It was accurate up to 4 miles. The French military commanders claimed that its Devil Gun won the war.
The aerial, naval, machine gun, tank, and tracer bullets were among the technologies used by the British armies during World War I. These are discussed as follows.
According to Peden, Britain was a major pioneer of air warfare. Radio equipment was first fitted to aircraft in 1914, which facilitated cooperation with artillery, and the development of aerial photography made possible the accurate mapping of the enemy’s position.
The first British aircraft designed as fighters had a pusher engine giving a clear field of fire to the gunner at the front in the case of two-seaters or to a fixed machine gun in the case of the single seat. Like cavalry, aircraft were not effective against fortified positions, but could be used in other ways, as during the retreat of the British Fifth Army in the spring of 1918, and were especially valuable in pursuit of a retreating enemy.
Britain experienced air attacks by Zeppelins, beginning with a raid on East Anglia in 1915. By the standards of later wars, little damage was done, although the smallest Zeppelins could carry 3000 pounds of bombs. Nevertheless, public opinion demanded countermeasures, and anti-aircraft guns, search lights, and aircraft were deployed.
From May 1917, raids by day as well as by night by Gothas, supplemented by some four-engine Staakens with 2,200-pound bomb loads, forced the British to create an elaborate system of air defense for the London area, including sound-detectors, height-finders, and barrage balloons, as well as more powerful searchlights and anti-aircraft guns, and more fighter aircraft.
In 1903, Britain created a North Sea Fleet to keep Tirpitz’s growing navy under observation, and based it at Rosyth on the east coast of Scotland. To match the German technological advancements, the British embarked on new constructions. This led to the launching of a new class of battleship in 1906 referred to as HMS dreadnought.
Dreadnought was the world’s first turbine-driven, all-big gun battleship. It carried no secondary armament, only ten 12-inch guns, which gave it a broadside twice as powerful as that of any battleship afloat. According to Wawro, dreadnought feared nothing, because it’s centrally controlled, electronically targeted guns could fire 1,500-pound armor-piercing shells from well beyond the range of pre-dreadnought battleships and rather easily put them out of commission.
The Maxim gun of 1884, named after American Hiram Maxim, was the first truly automatic machine gun. Development of the metallic cartridge made possible rapid loading. Maxim’s innovation was to use some of the energy of the firing to operate the weapon. Maxim designed a fully automatic rifle fed by a revolving magazine.
He then applied the same principle to a machine gun, which kept firing at the opponent for as long as was necessary. In the Maxim gun, the firing of the cartridge drove back the bolt, compressing a spring that in turn drove the bolt forward again, bringing a new round into position for firing. The Maxim gun was both self-loading and self-ejecting. Maxim demonstrated his prototype machine gun in 1884.
It weighed 60 pounds and was both belt fed and water cooled. It fired a .45-calibre bullet at a rate of 600 rounds per minute and could be operated by a crew of only five men. The gun was fired principally by a single gunner. The others assisted in carrying it and bringing up belts of ammunition for it. Aided by the British firm of Vickers, Maxim had his gun largely perfected before the end of the 1880s.
The British employed the Maxim gun with great success against the Zulus in South Africa and the Dervishes in the Sudan. At 450 to 600 rounds per minute, one machine gun could equal the fire of 40 to 80 riflemen. It also had a greater range than the rifle, enabling indirect fire in support of an attack.
The origins of the British Mark I tank lie in the Land Ship Committee set up by Winston Churchill, First Lord of Admiralty, in February 1915. This led to the development of a prototype tracked vehicle, the No. 1 Lincoln Machine that was later modified into Little Willie, which proved that the tracked concept worked.
On September 1916, fighting tanks went into battle for the very first time and added a new dimension to warfare. Although the first tanks were British, they were soon followed by France, Germany and American tanks. By 1918, when World War I ended, tanks formed a significant part of most of the combatant armies. The Mark I tank had its combat debut on 15 September 1916 near the Fliers and Courcelette villages that were part of the Somme battlefield.
A full size prototype, variously known as His Majesty’s Land Ship Centipede, Big Willie, and Mother was later built. This was demonstrated before numerous dignitaries and accepted for service with 100 vehicles being ordered. The Mark I was just armored enough to withstand small firearms and shell splinters. Four men were required to drive the tank including the commander, driver, and two gear men.
They had the ability to roll over barbed wire and provided strong protection for the soldiers on board. They were powered by a small internal combustion engine that burned diesel or gas and a heavily armored vehicle could advance even in the face of overwhelming small firearms. These tanks were however, slow and quite unreliable.
Tracer bullets, introduced during World War I, were a great aid to the pilot as they enabled him to see the trajectory of his bullet stream and make corrections. Small charges located in the rear of tracer bullets would burn while in use in order to create visibility. Although this feature can be an aid in placing bullets on the target, the benefits can work both ways.
Ordinarily, the pilots of many target aircraft do not realize they are under attack until the first shots are fired. Any tracer that misses the target would get the target pilot’s attention and cause him to maneuver defensively. Without tracers, the attacking pilot would normally get a few extra seconds’ chance at a steady target, greatly increasing the probability of a kill.
The aerial, naval, machine gun and flamethrower technologies were used by the German and are discussed below.
An interrupter gear allowed a fixed machine gun to fire through the arc of a rotating airplane propeller without damaging its blades. A typical World War I propeller rotated at about 1,200 rounds per minute and since the usual rate of fire for a machine was between 400 to 600 rounds per minute, some mechanism was required to ensure that a bullet did not damage the propeller blades. Before the war, several engineers had worked independently on the concept of an interrupter gear.
In July 1913, Franz Schneider, a Swiss national working for the German aircraft manufacturer Luft-Verkehrs-Gessellschaft, patched an idea for an interrupter mechanism but experienced some difficulty in making it work. Notably the first aerial attempt by the German occurred in January 1915, attacking two prominent individuals in England. Other raids inflicted minimal damage or were disrupted when zeppelins experienced mechanical problems.
According to Tucker, Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted to build a powerful German navy. This policy was carried out by State Secretary of the Imperial Naval Office Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. The product of a uniquely German ideology of sea power, the construction of the High Seas Fleet was to serve as a deterrent against Great Britain and as the symbol for Germany’s aspirations to world power.
Tirpitz hoped that German might one day challenge Britain, even Britain and the United States together, for world mastery. He and Wilhelm saw the navy as playing the key role in making Germany the premier world power. Tirpitz placed emphasis on battleships and a decisive battle with the British navy in the North Sea.
This strategy assumed that the Royal Navy would institute a close blockade of the German coast. At the start of the war in August 1914, the High Seas Fleet was the world’s second most powerful, but the naval building program, while sufficient to antagonize Britain and drive it to the side of France, was not large enough to actually wrest control of the seas from the Allies, especially given the fact that the British navy could count on the British and Russian fleets.
German possessed, in service, 15 battleships and 5 battle cruisers as well as 30 pre-dreadnought battleships and coast-defense ships, compared with Britain’s 22 dreadnoughts, 9 battle cruisers, and 40 pre-dreadnought battleships. In contrast to 40 German cruisers of all types and 90 destroyers, the British had 121 cruisers and 221 destroyers. In 1914 the German navy had 31 sub-marines, while the British had 73.
The total naval personnel numbered about 80,000 men. The imperial navy was well equipped and well trained, but it was also seriously under sourced for war against the British navy.
The German did not take to machine guns with the same readiness as the British and French armies. It was not until 1913 that they were issued to infantry regiments.
However, wartime experience soon vindicated the machine gun lobby of the pre-war army, and the number of machine gun companies rose rapidly. In 1914, each infantry regiment included a six machine gun company. During 1915, regiments received supplementary machine gun sections of 30-40 men and three or four machine guns, and by the end of the year, many regiments had two full strength machine gun companies.
In the winter of 1915/16 specialist machine gun units, known as machine gun marksmen were created. For better performance to be realized, the soldiers were subjected to vigorous training sessions on how to effectively use the machine guns. They were first seen at the frontline at Verdun.
By mid 1916, the ad hoc development of machine gun units had left some regiments with as many as 25 machine guns. In August the same year, a new standard organization was adopted, and all machine gun companies were required to operate based a completely new set of rules. The machine gun marksmen companies were grouped into machine gun detachments.
One such detachment was normally attached to each division engaged in active operations at the front. For a period of time, the number of machine gun companies per regiment remained the same despite the fact that there was an increase in the number of German machine gun units. Machine gun companies were equipped with the Maschinen-Gewehr ’08 or MG’08, a modified Maxim gun design. The gun weighed 52 kilograms and was not the most mobile of infantry weapons.
Although the MG ’08 was to exact a fearful toll of Allied infantry men, it was primarily a defensive weapon. Nevertheless, when the German 5th army made its supreme effort at Verdun, in June 1916, attacking regiments put their machine gun companies in the front line. The German army recognized the need for a lighter machine gun in 1915, and work began on a modification of the MG ’08 design.
The projection of fire was familiar to the ancients, Greek fire being the most known incendiary. Fire arrows and flaming pitch were of significance in medieval sieges. A recognizably modern flamethrower was patented by a German inventor Richard Fiedler in 1910. This consisted of a double cylinder containing fuel and compressed gas, which could deliver squirts via a flexible hose.
A similar model was adopted by the Germans in 1912. This backpack type was later referred to as the Klein or small to distinguish it from the much larger ground mounted models also developed in World War I. Flamethrower technology gained popularity and by World War II many nations adopted backpack models.
These were commonly capable of ranges from 20 to 30 yards and could manage about a dozen short squirts before their fuel was exhausted. Flamethrowers are now also used from armored vehicles as well as fixed positions. Tactically, they are most useful in defense or in attacks on fixed positions and bunkers. In the attacking role, they are able to offer a considerable moral advantage. Apart from burning, they can exhaust the oxygen of an enemy in a confined space.
The War to End all Wars
Around five minutes past five on the morning of November 11, 1918, German delegates signed a peace agreement with their Allied conquerors in France. As news of the cease fire spread, people poured into the streets across Europe and America to celebrate the end of more than four years of bitter fighting between the Allies, led by France, Great Britain, and the United States, and the Central Powers, led by Germany.
Waving flags, singing patriotic songs, and pounding on pots and pans, they paraded and danced through the streets of Paris, London, New York, and countless other cities and towns across the globe. The joyful crowds were relieved that the blood-letting which had claimed the lives of an estimated 10 million troops since the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, had finally ended. They were also optimistic that a new era of understanding and harmony among nations was about to begin.
Besides devising a peace settlement for Germany, the Paris negotiators had to contend with a wide range of other territorial, financial, and military questions arising from the Great War. In the process, key stakeholders in the war were also laying the groundwork for separate treaties with each of Berlin’s wartime allies.
Some of the agreements like the Treaty of St. Germain with Austria were completed and approved rather quickly. Others, particularly the Turkish peace settlement, took a great deal more time to conclude. Indeed, the final peace agreement with Turkey would not be signed until July 24, 1923, a little more than four years after the Treaty of Versailles, the first and by far the most famous of the Allied peace treaties, was signed with Germany.
Historians have generally come down hard on the Allied peacemakers for many perceived diplomatic and moral failings. Nearly a century after the end of World War I, the justice and fundamental wisdom of the treaties they devised, particularly the Treaties of Versailles with Germany, are still being debated.
In recent years, however, scholars have become more sympathetic to the plight of the Paris negotiators as they grappled with the complex political, economic, and security dilemmas confronting the world following the most destructive war to date.
The First World War challenged political and military leaders in a way that no other conflict had since the Napoleonic Wars of a century earlier. It was the first truly global conflict between several major powers, ranging across Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia, and hence over the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans.
To many historians, the period of the First World War was one of the most fruitful in terms of technological developments and application. Aviation, developed only just before the war, became a major asset to the warring forces and tens of thousands of aircraft were produced by the major powers.
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- Richard Mansbach and Kirsten Rafferty, Introduction to global politics. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2008), 301.
- Richard Mansbach and Kirsten Rafferty, Introduction to Global Politics. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2008), 299.
- Gabriel Tortella, The Origins of the Twenty First Century. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2010), 146.
- Gabriel Tortella, The Origins of the Twenty First Century. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2010), 147.
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- Spencer Tucker, World War I: A – D., Volume 1. (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2005), 1288.
- Spencer Tucker, World War I: A – D., Volume 1. (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2005), 1289.
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- Louise Slavicek, The Treaty of Versailles. (New York, NY: Infobase Publishing, 2010), 10.
- Peter Simkins, Geoffrey Jukes and Michael Hickey. The First World War: The War to End all Wars. (Long Island City, NY: Osprey Publishing, 2003), 10.