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World War I - Technology and the War

World War 1 Articles


Both the Allies and the Germans spent a great deal of effort trying to improve current equipment as well as developing new materials and apparatus attempting to win the war. Not only new weapons were developed, but new medical equipment and techniques were discovered.


Armored vehicles were, perhaps, the most significant weaponry developed.

In 1914 Ernest Swinton, a British Army Colonel, and the Imperial Defense Secretary, William Hankey, presented the first idea of a tank, an armored vehicle with belt-like tracks over its wheels. Winston Churchill, then Naval Minister, approved the concept and authorized a prototype.

Known as Little Willie, the prototype was not very successful. Its top speed barely exceeded two miles per hour, slower than a marching soldier. Plus, it got stuck in the trenches.

Improvements were made to the design and tanks began to head toward the front lines. The vehicles were a top-secret project and to keep the real purpose hidden, the story was spread that they were to carry water to the troops. The crates were labeled “tank” which is what they have been called ever since.

General Erich Ludendorff of the German High Command praised the use of tanks by the allied forces as being prominent in Germany’s defeat. Even if the Germans had realized the potential of tank warfare, their industrial complex was too hard-pressed to have been able to manufacture enough. In 1918 they were only able to field 90 tanks but were ineffective in their use. Of the 90, 75 tanks were captured.

Machine Guns and Rapid-Fire Artillery

Around 1884 a British inventor, Hiram Maxim, developed a fully automatic machine gun. The concept of a multiple-round firing weapon had been around for some time, the Gatling Gun being one such weapon. The gun developed by Maxim could fire several hundred rounds per minute with a range of over one thousand yards.

The second weapon to be improved was the French artillery cannon. The new artillery piece was breech loaded and stable when fired. Previous cannon would recoil and require repositioning after each shot. Plus, they were muzzle loaded. The new pieces did not recoil in the same way but maintained their position and did not have to be re-aimed.

Gas Warfare

During the latter part of 1914, the war entered a period of stalemate. Both sides began to literally dig in and trench warfare emerged. The stalemate gave both sides the opportunity to develop newer weapons and to improve on existing weapons. Gas had been used by the French and Spanish in Morocco. It was also used by the Bolsheviks in the Russian revolution to defeat rebels who opposed them. To break the German lines and invade their trenches, the French resorted to using gas.

Before the French used gas, the Germans had foreseen the effectiveness of gas and had started to develop several lethal products which they later deployed. In September 1915 at the Second Battle of Ypres the Germans released the most dangerous gas, chlorine. Several other gases were developed and used, perhaps the deadliest was mustard gas. Mustard gas, in its purest form is colorless. The compound used by the Germans was not pure. It had a yellowish color and smelled somewhat like mustard, hence the name.

Mobile Radiology Laboratries

The French scientist Marie Curie developed mobile radiology units which were used in front line field hospitals. She also visited some of the field hospitals, treating several military and civilian patients.

Though not technical inventions or technical personnel, two other women had a great impact on the war. They were:

Mabel St. Clair Stobart oversaw medical units composed entirely of women that served in the Balkan and Fist World Wars. She was a Major in the United States Army

Aileen Cole Stewart graduated from the Washington, DC, Freedman Hospital School of Nursing in 1918. She was the first African-American woman to serve in the American Army Nursing Corp. She established a field hospital in Cascade, West Virginia to treat wounded soldiers returning from Europe.

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