First World War’s Major Technical Breakthroughs

The Great War. That’s how the First World War, from July 1914 to November 1918, was called for years, and, among other things, took the life of 9 million combatants from the 65.8 million who participated in the armed conflicts.

These tragic clashes were also matched by an enormous technological activity: the battle wasn’t only decided in the battlefields, but also in the investigation centers where new weapons and new defenses were created so that they could have the advantage in a war that saw important breakthroughs in different fields.

Tanks as the end of trench warfare

One of First World War’s most striking developments was the tank -initially called “landship”-, that resulted as a consequence of the rise of the car some years before and became a powerful way to attack the trench warfare were machine guns were already wreaking havoc.

The Mark I put trench warfare to an end. Source: Wikipedia

The Mark I was built in Great Britain and was the first tank used in combat: it made its debut in the Battle of the Somme on the 15th of September 1916, and after it the French models arrived (the disastrous Schenider CA1 was replaced by the Renault FT-17, which would lay the foundations for the current designs). It wasn’t until later when it was massively used, at the Battle of Cambrai on the 20th of November 1917.

Its results were uneven due to its limited reliability, and although the German didn’t produce any tank for a long time, they did produce anti-tank artillery, among the creation of wider trenches the tanks couldn’t go through. The trench warfare as such came to an end.

Flamethrower and poisonous gases

The flamethrower had been already been used some centuries before, but this concept was first used by the German with a new flamethrower design that would take advantage in the trench warfare: during the last phases of trench attacks, these weapons could eliminate the enemy without causing relevant structural damages to the trenches that could be useful for those who took them.

The use of poisonous gasses was way more dangerous: teargas started to be used in August 1914 by the French Army, but the Germans quickly found a similar solution. However, they became big in January 1915, when the Germans threw 18,000 bombshells with liquid xylyl bromide over Russian positions in the Battle of Bolimov. That attack was a failure: the product froze and it didn’t have the desired effect by the Germans.

Chlorine’s use also didn’t have the desired effect, but after that they increased this gas toxicity with phosgene. The mustard gas ended up being much more effective and deathly, although this chemical war wasn’t that effective, as it also stopped “liberated” positions’ advance because of these weapons’ deployment to the armies that used them.

Tracers and aerial warfare

The machine guns were already a classic element in the battles at this point, but their effectiveness was limited, eat night, as you couldn’t really see where you aimed. Things improved with the tracer bullets’ invention, which sent out a flammable material that left a phosphorescent trail.

The Fokker E.I (Eindecker I, ‘monoplane I’ in German), considered to be the first fighter aircraft ever and the key to Germany’s aerial superiority at the western front in the First World War

Although the first tests were a little failure -the bullets only delivered an erratic 100 meters path -in 1916 the ammunition 303 SPG Mark VIIG appeared, a tracer that besides this function was also perfect to shoot down the German airships that devastated (or at least were trying to do so, those attacks didn’t have many consequences) England.

The artillery was, of course, the reason behind most casualties during World War I, and although there were many relevant breakthroughs -the urge made the first anti aerial weapons to be designed- the revolution in this kind of armory was inferior to that in other fields. But still: the gun machines, heavy and big, evolved to become smaller in size. The Lewis gunor the Browning Automatic Rifle M1918 -that would be much more popular during the Second World War- emerged in this conflict and put an end to tactics with waves of big sized attacks: attacks in smaller groups started being much more relevant.

The use of airplanes also started to be vital in the First World War, but the use of machine guns was limited to the wings and it made this kind of combat somewhat inefficient. It was impossible to place the machine gun at the front as the bullets would impact in the propeller blades, but the Germans created synchronized mechanisms that allowed using machine guns at the front shooting in a synchronized way with the propeller movement. In fact, from 1918 to 1930, the standard armory in the planes was two synchronized machine guns that shot through the propeller’s circle.

How did the Germans manage to create this mechanism? This is a curious historical fact: French pilot Roland Garros and the manufacturer Raymond Saulnier conceived a series of baffles at the propeller blades that allowed using a machine gun directly at the front as they armored these blades.

On the 1st of April 1915 Garros took his first victim: a German Albatros B II was puzzled as normally the pilots would shoot each other with a rifle or a handgun they had with them. He achieved another two aerial wins just before some days later, on the 18th of April, his plane went down by enemy lines. The problem: the Germans not only caught him but also this plane and copied this technique. The famous Anthony Fokker would be the one in charge to develop the definitive synchronization system, and according to the legend the idea was an improvement (an important one, indeed) of Garros and Saulnier’s idea.

Another breakthrough would be important to the beginning of these aerial battles: Radios installation in the airplanes for communication between the pilots or with the land bases. In 1916 the first systems able to send out radiotelegraphs up to 225 km, whereas in 1917 radio communication between an operator on land and a pilot was achieved for the first time in history. The control tower was born.

Airplanes proved to be another key element in these wars, not only in combats and bombings, but also in intelligence missions where the information was collected about enemy positions or supply lines. German airships had an impact in this sense and became far-reaching strategical bombers. Although after the war their popularity was hugely diluted.

HMS Furious with Sopwith Camel on deck. Source: Wikipedia

This was also the first conflict where aircraft carriers came into action -in a very limited way-. The first airplane that took off from a moving carrier was in 1912 (although it had to touch down on land), but the first real aircraft carrier was the HMS Furious, where the first landing of a Sopwith Pup occurred on the 2nd of August 1917.

We can also find a predecessor of the current drones: the first unmanned aircraft that participated in the First World War was developed by US Navy between 1916 and 1917. Created by Elmer Sperry and Peter Hewitt, and conceived as a guided air bomb. That invention was based on the use of gyroscopes and a barometer to determine the height, but it would end up being too imprecise for a massive use and the project was actually abandoned a few years later in 1925. The drones, as we already know, weren’t over.

War also changed overseas

Besides the role of the aircraft carriers, naval warfare had unique players: the submarines. Great Britain’s naval strength was obvious after the construction of HMS Dreadnought in 1906. This revolutionized warship’s construction and British navy’s advantage forced the Germans to abandon their efforts to match their rivals in this field and focus on another less explored field.

One of the fearsome German U-boat, a U-995. Source: Wikipedia

The Germans developed submarines able to attack the British supply lines wreaking havocs, something that made the depth charges evolve, which were just submarine weapons that could be detonated at a certain depth detected thanks to a hydrostatic level that controlled water’s pressure.

But having depth charges wasn’t enough, you also need to know where to throw them, of course. In order to be able to detect submarines, the so-called hydrophones were used, some kind of underwater microphones that allowed to analyze the sound waves produced underwater and so the fearsome German U-boat could be detected. This system had a key repercussion to the British when fighting German submarines.

Medical… and industrial breakthroughs

The addition to these armory breakthroughs took place in the medicine and industrial fields. The huge number of wounded persons made their treatment in the battlefield very limited. A lot of the injuries needed X-ray devices, but back then this kind of machines have a very large size.

Marie Curie was the person responsible for the creation of portable x-ray machines for the French army, and actually some of them were installed in cars and trucks (“Little Curies“) that drove through the front trying to support those medical interventions. American inventor Frederick Jones developed a portable machine even smaller in 1919, when the war was already over, and proved the potential of this solution to be used outside conventional hospitals.

In this respect, the emergence of the sanitary pad was crucial, as it was possible thanks to the use of cellulose and allowed having a bandage much more efficient than the ones until then. Those pads quickly became an essential product for women: that’s how sanitary napkins were born.

The First World War also caused a revolution in war conception for the countries supplying armory or provisions for combatants or civilians. Industrial production had to become faster, and that’s how women’s role was fundamental as they were assembly line workers for weapon construction or ammunition preparation. The “total war” was born and implied not only armies, but also the economies of the countries at war.

This industrial production made the army and materials wear and tear didn’t suffer so much as the German commands, who conceived war of attrition as the war aim. Strangely enough, however, that philosophy ended up being one of the reasons why Germany -with a decisive navy blockade at their ports- ended up losing the war.

Originally published at on July 7, 2015.

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