World War One saw the most significant change in warfare the world has ever seen. It saw the first air combat and the power of automatic weapons. The designs for some weapons, such as the Colt 1911, became the blueprint for hundreds of descendants. Chemical agents had such a psychological impact that it was later agreed that they would not be used in war again.
Since the advent of gunpowder weapons, the rifle has become the primary weapon for any foot soldier. The three main rifles found on the fields of battle were relatively similar in design, but each had its advantages and disadvantages.
The short magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) Mk III, known affectionately as “Smelly,” was the standard rifle given to all infantry in England and its colonies. Produced in Birmingham, with its designs also given to other factories later in the war, the rifle improved a design used since the end of the 10th century. It would become the predecessor to similar Lee Enfields for decades to come.
The Lee Enfield weighed just under nine pounds and had a barrel length of just over 25 inches. It had a ten-cartridge magazine that used .303-calibre ammunition. They were highly accurate at distances up to two thousand yards and had a remarkably high rate of fire for a bolt-action weapon.
The Lee Enfield was not suited to muddy trench conditions, but the rifle remained the second-most common in battle. The Americans would use the design to create the M1917 Enfield and produce over two million guns for their soldiers before the end of the war. The Lee Enfield would continue to be a weapon of choice throughout World War Two and was only replaced in 1957 with the L1A1 automatic rifle.
Model 1898 Mauser
Also known as the “Gewehr 98”, the Mauser was the most produced and copied rifle in military history until the invention of the AK-47. It used a five-round internal clip of 7.92mm bullets, weighed nine pounds, and could easily be fitted with telescopic sights.
It was far less likely to malfunction than the Lee Enfield and had greater stopping power, but it only held half as many cartridges in a clip and did not have as high a fire rate.
German assault troops also used a shorter, lighter version of the 98 called the “Karabiner 98a”, of which there were over 1.5 million made by the end of the war.
The Mosin–Nagant, M1891, or “Dragoon” rifle, was the weapon of choice for the Russian infantry during WW1 but was also used by US military members when the Russian army could not collect on its final production run.
The Mosin-Nagant was quite similar to the Mauser in design, without only experts able to adequately explain the differences. It had the same five-cartridge internal clip, was slightly lighter than the Mauser, and took a 7.62mm cartridge.
2. Machine Guns and Automatic Rifles
Automatic weapons that could fire hundreds of rounds a minute would permanently change the face of battle.
Each year, the automatic machine gun became lighter and more powerful, and attached to planes and tanks became the difference between gained ground or massacred armies.
The Lewis Gun
The Lewis Automatic Machine Gun was widely used by British troops during WW1, making it the first popular automatic rifle to be regularly used by single troops.
Its magazine held 47 or 97 rounds, sitting in a pan on top of its weighty body – 12.7kg for troops, though fixed-placed versions could be heavier and have a faster fire rate.
The gun would initially be used by a team of seven soldiers, five of whom would exist only to carry the ammunition. The Lewis could fire 12 full magazines before getting too hot to use, and at a rate of 800 rounds a minute, that would take little time.
However, one of the most significant advantages of the Lewis was that it could easily be fitted to both aircraft and tanks, making it one of the most versatile and deadly weapons in the war. Many military strategists consider it the most important rifle in the conflict.
So advanced it was to other weapons, there are recorded instances of German raiding parties who specifically sought out stockpiles of Lewis guns to capture and distribute among their troops.
The large, .303 calibre Vickers Machine Gun was one of the most powerful weapons of World War One. Each belt of cartridges held 250 bullets and could be expended in a mere thirty seconds. Too heavy to move quickly, the fifty-pound gun would require three men simply to shoot.
The Vickers was a brilliant defensive weapon, set up in semi-permanent positions or used attached to tanks or planes.
When the British army eventually had access to the Lewis Gun, they created a new corp specifically for the men who would set up and operate the Vickers and older Maxim machine guns.
At the end of the day, it was a soldier’s side-arm that was always on them.
When the rifle jammed, the enemy got too close, or when it seemed safe to put down the rifle, the pistol was right within reach.
As semi-automatics became more popular, one would change the history of sidearms forever.
At the end of the 19th century, the United States military started a search for the next handgun to be given to their officers.
With the success of semi-automatic rifles, they wanted to move away from the revolvers they had relied on in the past. They insisted on a .45 bullet as they were concerned about the stopping power of smaller calibre guns.
John Browning submitted a Colt Semi-Automatic design that was barely different to the M1911 people purchase today. During a 1910 test, 6000 rounds were fired over a single day without a single failure.
By WW1, nearly 70 thousand M1911 pistols had been produced, but by the war’s end, demand required ten times as many.
Perhaps the greatest advertisement for the M1911 came from the actions of Medal-of-Honor recipient Sergeant Alvin York, one of America’s greatest riflemen. He was part of the 1918 battle of Hill 223 in France, covering his fellow troops with deadly fire.
When German soldiers attempted to stop his sniper fire with a bayonet charge, he pulled out his new Colt pistol and fired six of its seven bullets – killing six. The remaining German soldiers surrendered, unaware of how many bullets he had remaining.
With the surrender, US forces took 132 German troops as prisoners, with more than 30 machine guns and a strategically important position.
The Luger, or Parabellum-Pistole, was the semi-automatic pistol of choice for the German army during WW1. Officially adopted in 1908, it continued to be used with minor design changes well after the second world war.
The Luger took a 9mm bullet (a significant reason why the US military rejected its design), was far more accurate than other semi-automatics, and could be fitted with a stock (or refitted for automatic fire).
So dangerous was the gun, considered as a short-range weapon, that the Treaty of Versailles had a condition stating that the German army was restricted to the number of Lugers they could have in their possession.
Webley Mark VI
The standard issue service pistol for the British Commonwealth for close to a century, the Webley Revolver was among the most powerful handguns in the world at the time.
While most officers entered WW1 with the Mark IV, the Mark VI became the most common revolver held by officers at the peak of the fighting.
The Webley had an advantage over semi-automatics in the muddy conditions of trench warfare, being far easier to clean and less likely to jam. While they took longer to reload, WW1 saw the development of a “speedloader” device that closed the gap between it and other pistols.
The improvised hand grenade may have been around for hundreds of years. Even though specifically designed devices were trialled during the American Civil War, the regular use of handheld explosives was not seen until WW1. The Mills Bomb is considered the first manufactured hand grenade and was used by British forces by 1915, but it was soon followed by the German stick grenade, or “Stielhandgranate”. Almost all known hand grenades since could be said to be improvements on those two designs.
The first modern flamethrower was a German design by Richard Fiedler, but Gábor Szakáts invented the device used in WW1. So devastating was the Hungarian’s device that he was added to the list of war criminals assembled by France after the war.
The “Flammenwerfer” consisted of a single cylinder with pressurised has in the lower section and flammable oil in the upper. A hose connected to the cylinder could fire out the oil, igniting it in a long tongue of flame.
While cumbersome and challenging to operate, the flamethrower was highly effective in trench warfare and clearing tunnels, as well as being psychologically terrifying to see in use. Flamethrowers were deployed around six hundred times during the war,
5. Gas and Other Chemical Warfare
World War One saw a rise in chemical warfare as both sides developed ways to cover an area with gas or liquid that could either kill or seriously maim enemy combatants. The German army first used Chlorine gas in 1915, quickly followed by the French use of the deadlier Phosgene gas.
While the British started the war refusing to use this technique, they soon began stockpiling, and sometimes using, their chlorine.
Mustard gas was the most common chemical agent used by the war’s end. Not actually a gas, but fine droplets of liquid that would leave behind a thin film wherever it spread. These were specifically created compounds that, while less deadly than chlorine or phosgene at first exposure, would cause instantaneous blistering, burning, and pain.
Those who did die from the agent would do so after weeks of agony, and it was still effective if it came in contact with skin even days after it was first released. By the end of the war, the gas would be released with all conventional use of artillery, and it is considered one of the most significant factors in the eventual death count for the war.
It is estimated that chemical warfare accounted for 1.5 million deaths in World War One, and The Geneva Protocol, signed in 1925, would ban the future use of chemical warfare. This, however, did not prevent countries from stockpiling chemical agents, and accounts are made today of their use in modern combat.
The first armored vehicles to be regularly utilized in combat were the tanks of WW1. While history records previous examples of attempts at “tanks”, these were the first fully functional, manufactured vehicles with pre-designed weaponry and successful combat experience.
The first British tanks were assigned to the newly formed Machine Gun Corp and would include Vickers guns. While slower and less impressive than propaganda had made them out to be, the first deployment of tanks helped with the success at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. It took two years for the Germans to develop an anti-tank weapon beyond rushing the vehicles with grenades.
The French Army had their own Renault FT Tanks that were far superior to the British, with an innovative design that still informs today’s tanks. 3700 FTs were created during WW1 and played a significant role in the Hundred Days Offensive.
World War One saw the first use of aircraft in combat. Only a few years early, an international congress discussed banning their use for fear that they would be used to bomb innocent civilians, but the conversation stalled.
The earliest use of planes was as recognizance vehicles to report on enemy troop movements and provide a strategic edge. However, by 1914, early bombing efforts began, with the German army using Zeppelins, with most targets being the sheds where enemy troops had their planes or tanks. By the end of the same year, planes began to be fitted with machine guns, and air-to-air combat began.
The first purpose-designed fighter plane was the Fokker EI, fitted with a Vickers machine gun that was “synchronized” with the propellor. The machine gun could fire through the propellor without worrying about hitting the blades.
By 1917, both sides of the war had combat-designed craft in the air. The fight for air superiority culminated in “Bloody April,” in which 300 planes were downed, two-thirds of which were British. By the war’s end, however, the sheer number of planes England could get into the air gave them complete air superiority over the Germans.
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