Technically, trench warfare was not a new thing during the First World War. (It actually started during the American Civil War.) But during WWI trench warfare was the main tactical form of offense and defense on land. Just as a review, trench warfare involved troops living in (usually muddy) trenches, surviving artillery barrages, trying to shoot the enemy across barb wired “no man’s land” and dreading the day when somebody with too many stars on their collar decided it was a good idea for the common soldiers to jump out of the trenches and try to run across the empty fields while getting shot at. Get the idea of trench warfare?
OK, so the soldiers needed some innovative weapons for defense and offense and a number of new technological advancements were made during this conflict. Now, wars – with all their destructive powers – force technology advancement: read on and consider how some of the innovations from WWI battlefields help modern life today.
1. Airplane If fighting on the ground is so hard, how about fighting in the skies? The airplanes of WWI were hard to manage, but daring pilots climbed into the open air cockpits for reconnaissance missions, bombing raids (dropping the bombs by hand) and air to air combat. The mounted machine gun for airplanes was designed with an “interrupter” so the pilots wouldn’t shoot off their own propeller. The mass production of planes and the training of pilots launched the aviation industry which grew rapidly in the following decades, expanding into civilian transportation.
2. Zeppelin The Germans used these large “airships” to glide over London and drop incendiary bombs. The Zeppelins were different from our modern day media blimps – they had a solid interior framework and were then filled with gas.
3. Machine gun Returning to the muddy trenches, we’ll find the machine gun. This new technology allowed hundreds of bullets to be fired from the gun, which had a devastating effect on troops making frontal assaults on the trenches. Machine guns tended to be placed in strategic locations (called nests) and could sweep a wide range of open ground. (Have you seen the old black and white film “Sergeant York” with Gary Cooper? Machine gun nests and their effects are shown in this movie.)
4. Tank OK, so the tanks weren’t really effective in WWI, except as a fear tactic, but these metal monsters with tracks were definitely here to stay and would evolve into effective fighting machines in the years leading up to WWII. During the First World War, however, the tanks tended to get stuck in the mud or were unable to get out of trenches; oh, but they were effective for mowing down the barbed wire so the infantry could follow – sophisticated lawn mower?
5. Gas There were several types of gas used for chemical warfare during WWI. Troops were issued gas masks to help prevent the burns and other excruciating injuries caused by the poison gas. Often, both sides suffered when the gas attacks were made because there was no guarantee that the breeze would consistently blow the gas clouds toward the enemy. Thankfully, chemical warfare has not been widely used since WWI and I can’t think of any positive benefits for society from the technology of this weapon.
6. Flamethrower I was really doubtful when someone listed this weapon in a comment last week, so I researched it a little…and learned something new! Yes, indeed, the modern flamethrower was first used during WWI. It was very primitive, and mostly stationary, but it would evolve into the fearsome weapon of WWII and the Cold War era. Interestingly, some of the technology used on flamethrowers has helped to improve tools like welding sticks.
7. Radio For the first time in warfare, communication was becoming easier. Sure, they still used messengers, telegraph, and carrier pigeons, but with the ability to transmit human voice through wires, communication was on its way to a revolution.
8. Submarines Scientists and inventors toyed with the idea of underwater attacks for centuries, but in WWI the science fiction became reality. Dark vessels ploughed along underwater, surfacing to fire torpedoes at unsuspecting targets, before sinking into the ocean depths again. The Germans had a strong submarine fleet and they practiced unrestricted submarine warfare; they would fire torpedoes at any ship, even neutral civilian vessels. This practice of unrestricted naval warfare alarmed the world and was a key factor to bring the United States into the conflict. (Oops, did I just give away next week’s topic?)
So what were the effects of the new weapons of WWI? Well, to be blunt, more battlefield and civilian deaths in this large scale war. On a more positive note, some of the technology did transfer into the peaceful world, making life safer and easier (ironic, isn’t it?). Ultimately, WWI weaponry changed warfare and these innovations ushered in a new way of fighting that would be further developed in WWII, about three decades later.
Now, wars are fought on land, sea, and air. Communication, revolutionized by radio, continues to improve. Tanks evolved from metal monsters stuck in the mud, to the fast units that speed across deserts today. Submarines, improved and transformed, now stay underwater for years, guarding and patrolling.
The new weapons of WWI brought a new era of warfare which continues to impact our world today.
P.S. Your thoughts?