The horror of total war was brought into sharp focus when the first reports of casualties began to trickle in during the opening months of WWII in 1914. Although trench warfare had yet to reveal the true horror of the stalemates that characterized much of the war in Europe it was still apparent that this war would live up to its billing as the ‘Great War’. The devastation of new tactics and new technology would claim the lives of 19 million combatants by 1918 when the armistice was signed – with another 23 million soldiers returning home injured.
What were these innovations – and why did they have such a devastating effect?
The first of these was undoubtedly the entry of heavily armored vehicles onto the battlefield. Tanks made their debut in WWI. Although the first models were ungainly and of limited strategic and tactical value, the technology was quickly refined. The development of the tank was spurred on by the mounting casualties that were part and parcel of trench warfare. Machine guns and accurate rifle fire had made any foray into ‘no-mans land’ an almost suicidal strategy. The first of the tanks to see service was the British Mark I which was active at the Somme by 1916. Both the Germans and the French also fielded tanks – although in lesser numbers than the British.
Trench warfare also saw the rapid development of flamethrowers. The protected and confined spaces, including fortified bunkers of the trenches made what was euphemistically called ‘cleaning out’ those trenches problematic. Grenades could do the job – but those damaged structures which were all to often occupied by the enemy once the trench had changed hands. Germany took the lead in the development of what was to become the modern flamethrower first using them on a battlefield near Verdun in 1915.
One of the most horrific weapons that were employed during WWI was poison gas. Although German forces had tried and failed to use poison gas in attacks on Russian forces it was not until 1915 that they finally achieved success, drenching French Colonial troops with Chlorine Gas near Ypres. The allies soon followed suit employing gas as well. this lead to rapid advances in gas mask technology – and in gases that could beat that technology.
Trench warfare was almost unremitting. Day after day opposing sides hammered entrenched positions – but fighting at night was problematic. Until the tracer bullet was invented there was simply no way to tell where the rounds were going. After much development and some false starts the British had come close to perfecting the tracer rounds – and these were first used in 1916. These rounds left a greenish phosphorescent trail behind them and they would also ignite hydrogen, making them useful in dealing with the Zeppelins that were plaguing England.
There were positive advances as well. Medicine came on in leaps and bounds, as did communication and aviation, to mention only a few. However, the true legacy of WWI would be felt only two decades later when the Second World War broke out – and that legacy would be one of destruction and death.