Tuesday 20 August 2019

A history of World War One in 10 deadly weapons

The war did not follow expected lines as new technologies ripped up the rule book

Manfred von Richthofen (right) with his brother and fellow pilot Lothar in front of a Fokker DR 1. Imperial War Museum
Manfred von Richthofen (right) with his brother and fellow pilot Lothar in front of a Fokker DR 1. Imperial War Museum
A British poster showing silhouettes of German and British airships and aircraft to help the public identify and report enemy Zeppelins and bombers. Getty Images
A British soldier equipped with gas mask and .303 Lee-Enfield rifle.
A painting of an aerial battle by Horace Davis. Imperial War Museum
A Sopwith Camel on the Italian Front. Imperial War Museum
French troops attack through gaps cut in barbed wire defences on the Western Front in 1916. Hulton Archive/Getty
The German ‘Paris Gun’, also known as ‘Long Max’. Getty
British troops with a Vickers machine gun mounted on a motorcycle at Dieval, France in 1918. Imperial War Museum
A British Q-ship – a merchant vessel with concealed guns.
A German U-boat surrenders at Harwich in 1918. Imperial War Museum
The German submarine UC-31. Imperial War Museum
A German workshop to repair captured British tanks for use by German forces. Imperial War Museum
One of the first tanks, a British Mk I, in action in 1916. Imperial War Museum
A painting of tanks in action by Irish war artist William Orpen. Imperial War Museum

Ronan Abayawickrema

The Great Powers entered World War I expecting to fight it in much the same way as previous recent conflicts. Cavalry and infantry would engage in a few pitch battles, after which the loser would swiftly sue for peace.

Instead, they soon found that recent technological developments had rendered such tactics obsolete, and before long they were mired in a grim stalemate, facing each other in networks of muddy trenches hundreds of miles long. On the home front, submarines and naval blockades threatened to starve whole populations, and civilians were killed in air raids for the first time.

"At the start of the First World War, the major powers had armies steeped in the traditions of the 19th century but (they) were armed with the technology and firepower of the 20th century," says Matt Brosnan, a historian at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London. This resulted in two well-armed, evenly matched sides slugging it out in a gruelling war of attrition, and led to further technological breakthroughs as each sought to gain an edge.

Here we look at 10 of the weapons that defined the nature of the conflict during the Great War, including innovations that would help to break the stalemate on the Western Front.


The standard rifle of the British army during World War I was the Lee-Enfield .303, a variation of a weapon that had been used by the army since 1902. Fed by a magazine that could hold 10 bullets, the bolt-action Lee-Enfield was a robust, reliable rifle well-suited to the harsh conditions of trench warfare. A trained regular soldier could fire 15 rounds per minute with the weapon. In fact, it was so successful that further variants were used throughout World War II and, in some countries, for decades after that.

German infantry, meanwhile, were issued with the Gewehr 98, a rifle with a bolt action designed by the famous Mauser company. The Gewehr was a well-constructed and accurate weapon, but it was ill-suited to the conditions on the Western Front. Longer than the Lee-Enfield, it was unwieldy in a trench and required an extra sight for short-range firing.


Originally devised to corral cattle in the American West, barbed wire became a deadly defensive weapon on the Western Front during the Great War. It snagged on equipment and clothing and slowed attackers, who were often prime targets for snipers as they desperately tried to disentangle themselves. Coupled with the deadly stopping power of the heavy machine gun, barbed wire, often deployed in double rows or in intricate traps, made advancing even short distances over no man's land a nightmarish proposition.


The machine gun was not a new weapon in 1914 – the American Hiram Maxim had invented the gun that bore his name in 1884 – but it was refined and made easier to carry during World War I and used to even deadlier effect across the expanses of no man's land that separated the two sides on the Western Front. Germany's standard heavy machine gun, the Maschinengewehr 08, was derived from the Maxim gun and could fire 400 rounds a minute. The British equivalent was the Vickers machine gun, which could spit between 450-500 bullets a minute.


The majority of casualties on the battlefields of World War I were inflicted by artillery shelling. Artillery barrages to “soften up” enemy lines before an infantry assault could last for weeks – a bombardment of German trenches during the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917 lasted a fortnight, with 4.5 million shells fired from 3,000 guns.

Field guns such as the British Howitzer Mark 1 could fire two rounds of 290lb shells a minute, while in March 1918, the Germans began shelling the French capital with their long-range 'Paris Gun'. Made by Krupps, it had a 118-foot-long barrel and could fire a shell 25 miles into the air, targeting Paris from a site 74 miles away.


Chlorine gas was first used by the Germans at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, killing hundreds of French troops.

The British also deployed chlorine gas, and later developments in the war included the deadlier phosgene and mustard gas, which blinded those it came in contact with. By 1917, poison gas could be delivered with greater precision by chemical shells and mortars, and there were an estimated one million gas casualties on all sides throughout the war.


When the war started, most of the belligerents had a few unarmed, wood-and-canvas aircraft, which they intended to use as aerial scouts. By November 1914, though, pilots were dropping grenades on enemy troops as they flew over them, or carrying pistols to take pot shots at other aircraft. Air warfare took a leap forward the following year with the adoption of the interrupter gear, which allowed a machine gun mounted on a plane to fire without damaging the propeller.

This led to the era of dog fights and fighter aces such as the Germans Manfred von Richthofen, known as the Red Baron, and Max Immelmann, whose skills in their Fokker Eindecker aircraft made them the leading threats in what the British called the "Fokker scourge".

During the Battle of the Somme, German fighters were technically superior to their British counterparts, hence the German nickname "kaltes fleisch" – cold meat – for the British planes. But Britain introduced better fighters such as the SE5 and Sopwith Camel in 1917, and it was the latter which mostly likely claimed the life of the Red Baron when he was shot down in April the following year.


Originally called “land battleships”, then “thingum-a-jigs”, tanks were developed on the orders of Winston Churchill and first deployed on the Somme battlefield in September 1916. The tank was specifically developed to break the trench warfare stalemate – their armour would be impervious to machine gun fire, and their tracks would be able to cross trenches and barbed wire entanglements. But although the tanks at the Somme weakened German morale, they were slow and beset by mechanical problems.

"By 1918 (tanks) were more reliable and were available to British forces in greater numbers," says Mr Brosnan. "It was only during the Hundred Days offensives – from the Battle of Amiens on August 8 until the Armistice on November 11, 1918 – that tanks were used to full effect in combination with sophisticated artillery, advanced infantry tactics, aircraft and well-organised logistical support.


Originally passenger airships, the iconic Zeppelins were commandeered by the German military in 1914, and began bombing missions over Britain at the start of the following year. There were just 20 of these airships in operation at any one time, but as they flew above the reach of British aircraft they bombed almost with impunity, until the introduction of the high-flying Sopwith Camel in 1917.

The Zeppelin raids had a significant psychological effect on Britain, says the IWM's Mr Brosnan, and the British took the threat seriously enough to task engineer Barnes Wallis – who became famous in World War II as the inventor of the 'Dambusters' bouncing bomb – with designing their own airships.


Germany had 33 U-boats, or submarines, in operation in 1914. The German navy saw an opportunity to starve Britain – an island nation dependent on maritime trade – out of the war, but Kaiser Wilhelm insisted on “restricted” U-boat warfare, as he was anxious to avoid antagonising neutral America by sinking its ships.

Such restrictions were lifted in 1916, however, and German submarines were sending some 320,000 tonnes of Allied shipping to the bottom of the ocean by the start of 1917. "(The) effects were particularly seriously felt in 1917," says Mr Brosnan, "with significant losses to British merchant shipping in (the) spring and food queues an increasingly common sight on the home front."

Yet the U-boats were a double-edged sword for the Germans, as US casualties on ships sunk by the submarines significantly contributed to America declaring war on Germany in 1917.


To combat the U-boat menace in the early years of the war, Britain developed the Q-ship – a merchant vessel with concealed guns. Under the Kaiser's restrictions, the U-boats were to surface before attacking merchant ships with their guns. At the last minute, the Q-ship would open fire on the surfaced submarine, destroying it. The Q-ships' effectiveness ended in 1916 when Germany began unrestricted |U-boat warfare, torpedoing merchant ships while submerged. Ultimately, it would be the British tactic of convoys – where warships protected merchant vessels – which defeated the U-boats.

  •  Photographs courtesy The Imperial War Museum


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