World War I: Weapons and Technology

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff
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Here's a look at the weapons and technology used during the First World War.

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The combination of 19th-century war tactics, such as an adherence to the Napoleonic principles, which focused on destroying the enemy despite huge losses, and new 20th-century technology, was a major reason for so many casualties in the First World War. However, by the end of the war, both sides were using weapons, technology, and tactics in an attempt that could be used to decrease the number of lives at risk.

Cannons were replaced by machine guns, which were sometimes used as indirect gunfire, a tactic used to draw out an enemy's location. Men carried them on counter-battery missions to spot the enemy. Tanks and armored cars were used to protect soldiers as they travelled across rough, dangerous terrain. Airplanes and submarines were used for the first time, initially to locate the enemy. Field telephones and sound equipment was also used to find the enemy's location. Still, some new weapons and technology used such as chemical warfare, flamethrowers and submarines caused great fear and chaos during World War I.

Trench Warfare

Even with all the new technology being introduced, much of World War I was fought in trenches, especially the Western Front. This meant huge casualties and some of the deadliest battles in history, including Gallipoli, the Marne, Verdun and the Somme. In fact, the situation on the Western Front during the First World War was why the term trench warfare became synonymous with attrition, futile conflict, and stalemate.

Because so much of the war was fought in trenches, trench railways emerged as a way to get food, water, and ammunition to all the soldiers. This proved necessary because the main railways were too slow and the roads were either destroyed or in rough condition. Moreover, any type of fixed location for supplies was a target for the enemy.

Trench Warfare: A Video

Watch this video to understand the significant role trench warfare played in conflicts from 17th century France through World War I.

Planes and Tanks Make Their Debut

Tanks made their first appearance at the Battle of the Somme. The first tank used was nicknamed 'Little Willie' and carried up to three crew members. Little Willie only drove three mph and could not move across the trenches. These tanks were made for use on the Western Front because of the terrain's rough conditions. A more modern tank was developed by the end of the war that could seat up to ten men and reach four mph. Still, most men could run, even walk faster and found the tanks unreliable due to engine failures and frequently missed targets. Tanks were also uncomfortable due to engine fumes as well as extreme heat and noise.

Planes also made their debut in the First World War. In fact, during World War I the word dogfight was first used to describe a battle between two opposing planes. However, planes were first used to spy and deliver bombs. Later in the war, fighter aircraft were introduced. They were armed with machine guns, bombs, even cannons.


Machine guns had been used successfully in wars leading up to the First World War such as the Second Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War. The machine guns available at the start of World War I needed four to six men to operate them. The guns also had to be positioned on a flat service. This type of machine gun had the firepower of a hundred other guns. Large field guns were also used. They had a longer range, but needed a dozen men to operate them.

Even though the U.S. was the first to use railway guns during the American Civil War, Germany was the first to use them in World War I. These guns were mounted to and used from a railway wagon that had been custom designed for the gun.

Introducing Flamethrowers and Submarines

The flamethrower was another weapon used for the first time during the First World War. The Germans introduced it, but it was later used by other forces. The heavy weight of the flamethrower made the weapon's operators easy targets. However, flamethrowers were effective, causing lots of havoc on the battlefield.

Although they had been experimented with before, submarines were widely used for the first time during World War I. Germany began using them after the war began, first to intercept supplies on their way to the British Isles. The Germans were so successful with submarines that the other sides developed and used several weapons in response to them, including blimps, attack submarines, anti-submarine weapons such as missiles or bombs, and hydrophones, a microphone used to record and listen for underwater sounds.

Chemical Warfare

Germany first used poison gas as a weapon during the Battle of Bolimov in January 1915. By the end of the war, both sides had used it. In fact, during World War I, an estimated 1.3 million had died from the use of chemical weapons. During the Battle of Ypres, also in 1915, the Germans used chlorine gas for the first time. Chlorine gas caused suffocation after the victim experiences chest pains and burning in the throat. However, chlorine gas proved tricky to use. The wind had to be moving in the direction of the enemy.

Mustard gas proved more effective. It could be fired into the trenches via shells. It was harder to trace because it was colorless and took hours before the victim could feel the effects, which included internal bleeding, vomiting, and skin blisters. Mustard gas was fatal, but death could take up to five weeks. The use of these chemical weapons violated the 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases and the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare, both strictly prohibiting the use of chemical warfare.

Even though new weapons and technology were available for the First World War, a learning curve was needed to develop and use them properly and effectively. That learning curve along with the strategic use of Napoleonic principles caused many of the deadliest battles in history.

by Jennie Wood
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