Soldier in a cave in a gas mask

1914: Then Came Armageddon

War and Technology

“From the war the world would have learnt a lesson”

Reality, 1914-1918

A New Age for War

Industrial societies mass produced a variety of new weapons. In 1914, military strategy had not yet fully accounted for advanced, mechanized weaponry. The war’s first few battles forced commanders to adapt to the new technological realities. Weapons such as the machine gun, tank, airplane, submarine, barbed wire, flame-thrower, poison gas, and high-caliber shells fundamentally changed the dynamics of the battlefield, which had remained fairly consistent for the 100 years before WWI. Innovating and producing advanced war technology also provided an opportunity for noncombatants on the home front to take a greater role in the war.       

Interior of a Tank

Second Generation Warfare

World War I created unprecedented devastation across the continent ushered in with the creation of second-generation warfare. Prior to World War I, infantry warfare was dependent on hand-to-hand combat, utilizing rows of soldiers in formal battle formation. Second-generation warfare describes the early modernization in warfare from reloadable weapons through the creation of the machine gun. While tactics were still largely primitive, new technology allowed for mass casualties to occur.

Among the most important inventions was the creation of the tank. Beginning in 1915, the Allies worked to develop a tank to traverse barbed wire-covered land to attack the enemy at a closer range. However, when first used in the Somme offensive in 1916, tanks proved more deadly to its occupants rather than the enemy. Though their range and potential was undeniable, the weapon was redeveloped and by July 1918 tanks were used widely across the war to defeat the enemy. The Germans’ development of tanks lagged largely behind the British, often seizing British and French tanks for research and use on the front, developing only 20 of their own compared to over 3,000 British tanks. While most of the war’s casualties were due to heavy artillery such as tanks traversing the landscape, machine guns proved essential throughout the war. Machine guns were invented by the British initially as the Vickers gun. The Vickers gun was a heavy-caliber machine gun that required a six-man team to operate, but was favorable to the lighter American Lewis gun as it was more reliable in neutralizing a target. Machine guns greatly complimented tanks as it easily flattened lines of soldiers, making movement across No Man’s Land increasingly difficult in addition to mines and barbed wire. Therefore, trench warfare was introduced to try and avoid such immense casualties. Unlike prior European wars, such technology meant winning the war would be achieved through waiting out the war through attrition, rather than territorial gains.

While heavy artillery and weaponry account for most casualties, the state of the war was also influenced extensively through the creation of tactical air support. Following their invention in 1903, airplanes were used alongside balloons and airships throughout the war for reconnaissance missions. These initial planes were successful in this, but proved primitive, leading both sides of the war to race in designing planes that could hold bombs and machine guns, while still being agile, allowing distance killings to be easier. By 1915 with these developments, dogfights in the sky were often sights for ground soldiers. Most memorable within the war, however, was the utilization of poison gas. Poison gas accounted for a small number of deaths within the war, yet was pervasive and devastating for ground troops. First used by the Germans in 1915, gas was largely ineffective as a weapon as the success was largely dependent on the type of gas, sophistication of the delivery, and the weather. It was most effective psychologically, as the anticipation of a seemingly immoral death from the suffocation of poison gas terrified soldiers. Civilians were equally horrified by the use of poison gas, which eventually led to the banning of gas warfare in 1925.

As weaponry was developed to be most abrasive, care for the soldiers was advanced as well. Surgical cotton was replaced by cellucotton — a by-product of sugar cane — which proved to be more accessible, absorbent, and cheaper than its predecessor. These bandages eventually were developed into women’s sanitary products.

Trench Raids

While both sides of the war aimed to preserve their troops through waiting out the war of attrition in the trenches, a stalemate was produced as neither front advanced. At night, trench raids aimed to force entry into the enemy’s territory and trenches to kill defenders, take prisoners, destroy materials, and gain intelligence through notes and maps. These raids were accompanied by close-range weapons such as clubs and brass knuckles. As the war progressed, trench raids became more advanced, featuring cover troops with artillery and occasionally poison gas.

Raids were seen by governments controlling troops to be raising the “offensive spirit” in the war, by creating complex missions. However, for soldiers, raids were incredibly dangerous, and assured brutal retaliation by the enemy. British soldiers recounted their experience in raiding trenches, stating, “they never used to ask for volunteers; they used to say you, you, you and you, and you were in the party. They usually went over in silence at night and you didn’t carry any equipment. All you carried was a rifle and a bayonet, that’s if you were detailed for that… the idea was to crawl through the German wire and try and get underneath and jump into their front line trench, dispose of whoever was holding it by bayonet, if possible, without making any noise or clubbing over the head with the butt… And so we’d go on until we’d cleared the whole trench.”