The First World War was unlike any other: It started as a conventional war, a continuation of the traditional 19th Century forms of combat powered by rifles, cannons and horses, and transformed into the first true mobile motorised conflict, with planes, tanks, and new devastating weapons. This drastic transformation of warfare was borne from the necessity for new ways to break the stalemate caused by trench warfare, and the seemingly inescapable slaughter of the Western Front.
Trench warfare was in and of itself a reaction to the unprecedented advances in firepower made in the decades prior. Machine guns, although pioneered during the American Civil War, were rapidly advancing in terms of their rate of fire and stopping power – by 1914, the new British Vickers gun could count for a whole company of 100 infantrymen. However, at the start of the war, advances in mobility were limited, with horses still being the preferred method of heavy attacks on the enemy. Because of this, after the initial German offensives in September 1914, both sides settled into defensive trenches and a war of attrition commenced, where each side attempted to defeat the other through a prolonged campaign designed to drain the enemy of their resources.
The frustrating lack of strategic opportunities this resulted in meant that throughout the mid years of the war, innovation on the battlefield became common place. Governments from both the Central Powers and the Allies sought to improve their arsenal of weaponry as the stakes of the war became higher and higher. Chlorine gas was one of the first innovations of the war, first used by the Germans in January 1915 against the British, with mustard gas coming into use by 1917. While its use as a military tool was limited compared to conventional means like artillery (gas only killed 90,000 on all fronts), the demoralising effect it had on troops was severe due to the pain they caused, and so the weapon was feared throughout the war.
All the while, engineers and innovators from both sides adapted and pioneered new technologies to bring a bigger advantage on the battlefield. One such development was the increased use and specialisation of warplanes and other aircraft. Even though powered flight only began just over a decade before, the First World War saw the first use of planes as weapons of war. At first, they were tools for reconnaissance, flying deep into enemy territory and marking their positions. To this end, the Royal Flying Corps and Deutsche Luftstreitskräfte were created, and soon became involved in air-to-air fighting.
The attacking power of these new machines gave both sides more of an edge in particular engagements, but their vulnerability and weakness against heavy ground fire, even from a rifleman, meant that a sturdier, more resistant land option was needed to break trench warfare on the ground. Because of this, the Royal Navy started experimenting with armoured vehicles as early as 1915, when Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty formed the Landships Committee. By the Battle of the Somme in 1916, 49 Mark I tanks were used with very limited success due to their unreliability in the mud. However it did mark a turning point in the nature of warfare in the Western Front – as tanks became more and more developed, their role in manufacturing breakthroughs in the trenches became more and more significant such as their role in the Battle of Amiens in 1918, in which 532 tanks spearheaded the final Allied Hundred Day Offensive that won the war.
By that time, tanks had already become specialised for different roles – the French designed lighter, faster Renault F-17 tanks with the first rotating turret, while the Germans produced 10 A7V Heavy tanks with more firepower. All this occurred in the space of less than three years, showing how far people from both sides had to reinvent and revolutionise their tactics in such a short space of time.
With the onset of faster, more destructive means of attack and defence, the need for new infantry tactics arose. For the Germans’ final offensive in Spring 1918, a decisive breakthrough against the onslaught of new tanks was needed to balance the odds. In order to achieve this, the German Army created battalions of Stoßtruppen (Stormtroopers), armed with new MP18 submachine guns designed for in-trench fighting. These troops would go across no-man’s land in small squads, rather than 100-men infantry companies like before, and would target areas of the enemy trench of strategic importance, such as command centres or communication posts. This would in turn make it easier for the rest of the army to advance later.
By the end of the war, the tactics, weaponry and mobility of fighting was almost identical to how wars are fought today. In four years, the Western Front transformed from Victorian-style line-to-line fighting and cavalry charges to a truly modern 20th Century conflict. That said, many archaic artefacts of past wars made their way to the battlefield, such as medieval style body armour, clubs and maces for fighting in the trenches, and crossbows for launching bombs. Any and all methods were used by both sides, in a desperate bid to break the seemingly endless stalemate caused by trench warfare, facilitating a new age of innovation and technological progress on the battlefield.
by Nicholas Pirabaharan