WWI: Technology and the weapons of war

During World War I, new technology made war more horrible and more complex than ever before. Millions died needlessly because military and civilian leaders were slow to adapt their tactics to the new weapons.

World War I saw soldiers in muddy trenches and dugouts, living miserably until the next attack. 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 an impossibility 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 gained only a few hundred yards of shell-torn earth at a terrible cost in lives. Between attacks, the snipers, artillery, and poison gas caused misery and death.

Airplanes were used to observe enemy troops. Both sides shot planes down with ground artillery and with rifles, pistols, and machine guns from other planes. By 1916, the Germans armed planes with machine guns that could fire forward without shooting off the fighters’ propellers. Air battles became a deadly business as fighter planes attacked each other in “dogfights.” Germany also had a fleet of huge dirigibles, called zeppelins. Both sides bombed enemy cities.

Tanks provided a response 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 could move through barbed wire and cross trenches.

The Germans first introduced chemical warfare when they poison gas during a surprise attack in Belgium. They realized that enemy soldiers wearing gas masks did not fight as well. All sides used gas frequently by 1918.

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 most significant of these was the machine gun.

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. They were used in blockades, which led to famine among the civilian populations.

Modern war technology had changed the nature of warfare forever, affecting soldiers and civilians alike.

Source: WWI: Technology and the weapons of war
by A. Torrey McLean, Reprinted from Tar Heel Junior Historian, Spring 1993.NC Museum of History. Via NCpedia. org

Back to top