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12 Technological Advancements of World War I

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Erik Sass has been covering the events leading up to World War I exactly 100 years after they happened. But today he's here to discuss some inventions of The Great War.

1. Tanks

In 1914, the “war of movement” expected by most European generals settled down into an unexpected, and seemingly unwinnable, war of trenches. With machine guns reinforcing massed rifle fire from the defending trenches, attackers were mowed down by the thousands before they could even get to the other side of “no-man’s-land.”

A solution presented itself, however, in the form of the automobile, which took the world by storm after 1900. Powered by a small internal combustion engine burning diesel or gas, a heavily-armored vehicle could advance even in the face of overwhelming small arms fire. Add some serious guns and replace the wheels with armored treads to handle rough terrain, and the tank was born.

The first tank, the British Mark I, was designed in 1915 and first saw combat at the Somme in September 1916. The French soon followed suit with the Renault FT, which established the classic tank look (turret on top). Despite their later prowess in tank combat in WWII, the Germans never got around to large-scale tank production in WWI, although they did produce 21 tanks in the unwieldy A7V model.

2. Flamethrowers

Although the Byzantines and Chinese used weapons that hurled flaming material in the medieval period, the first design for a modern flamethrower was submitted to the German Army by Richard Fiedler in 1901, and the devices were tested by the Germans with an experimental detachment in 1911. Their true potential was only realized during trench warfare, however. After a massed assault on enemy lines, it wasn’t uncommon for enemy soldiers to hole up in bunkers and dugouts hollowed into the side of the trenches. Unlike grenades, flamethrowers could “neutralize” (i.e. burn alive) enemy soldiers in these confined spaces without inflicting structural damage (the bunkers might come in handy for the new residents). The flamethrower was first used by German troops near Verdun in February 1915.

3. Poison Gas


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Poison gas was used by both sides with devastating results (well, sometimes) during the Great War. The Germans pioneered the large-scale use of chemical weapons with a gas attack on Russian positions on January 31, 1915, during the Battle of Bolimov, but low temperatures froze the poison (xylyl bromide) in the shells. The first successful use of chemical weapons occurred on April 22, 1915, near Ypres, when the Germans sprayed chlorine gas from large cylinders towards trenches held by French colonial troops. The defenders fled, but typically for the First World War, this didn’t yield a decisive result: the Germans were slow to follow up with infantry attacks, the gas dissipated, and the Allied defenses were restored. Before long, of course, the Allies were using poison gas too, and over the course of the war both sides resorted to increasingly insidious compounds to beat gas masks, another new invention; thus the overall result was a huge increase in misery for not much change in the strategic situation (a recurring theme of the war).

4. Tracer Bullets


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While the Great War involved a lot of futile activity, fighting at night was especially unproductive because there was no way to see where you were shooting. Night combat was made somewhat easier by the British invention of tracer bullets—rounds which emitted small amounts of flammable material that left a phosphorescent trail. The first attempt, in 1915, wasn’t actually that useful, as the trail was “erratic” and limited to 100 meters, but the second tracer model developed in 1916, the .303 SPG Mark VIIG, emitted a regular bright green-white trail and was a real hit (get it?). Its popularity was due in part to an unexpected side-benefit: the flammable agent could ignite hydrogen, which made it perfect for “balloon-busting” the German zeppelins then terrorizing England.

5. Interrupter Gear


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Airplanes had been around for just a decade when WWI started, and while they had obvious potential for combat applications as an aerial platform for bombs and machine guns, it wasn’t quite clear how the latter would work, since the propeller blades got in the way. In the first attempt, the U.S. Army basically tied the gun to the plane (pointing towards the ground) with a leather strap, and it was operated by a gunner who sat beside the pilot. This was not ideal for aerial combat and inconvenient because it required two airmen to operate. Another solution was mounting the gun well above the pilot, so the bullets cleared the propeller blades, but this made it hard to aim. After the Swiss engineer Franz Schneider patented his idea for an interrupter gear in 1913, a finished version was presented by Dutch designer Anthony Fokker, whose “synchronizer,” centered on a cam attached to the propeller shaft, allowed a machine gun to fire between the blades of a spinning propeller. The Germans adopted Fokker’s invention in May 1915, and the Allies soon produced their own versions. Schneider later sued Fokker for patent infringement.

6. Air traffic control

In the first days of flight, once a plane left the ground the pilot was pretty much isolated from the terrestrial world, unable to receive any information aside from obvious signals using flags or lamps. This changed thanks to the efforts of the U.S. Army, which installed the first operational two-way radios in planes during the Great War (but prior to U.S. involvement). Development began in 1915 at San Diego, and by 1916 technicians could send a radio telegraph over a distance of 140 miles; radio telegraph messages were also exchanged between planes in flight. Finally, in 1917, for the first time a human voice was transmitted by radio from a plane in flight to an operator on the ground.

7. Depth Charges


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The German U-boat campaign against Allied shipping sank millions of tons of cargo and killed tens of thousands of sailors and civilians, forcing the Allies to figure out a way to combat the submarine menace. The solution was the depth charge, basically an underwater bomb that could be lobbed from the deck of a ship using a catapult or chute. Depth charges were set to go off at a certain depth by a hydrostatic pistol that measured water pressure, insuring the depth charge wouldn’t damage surface vessels, including the launch ship. After the idea was sketched out in 1913, the first practical depth charge, the Type D, was produced by the Royal Navy’s Torpedo and Mine School in January 1916. The first German U-boat sunk by depth charge was the U-68, destroyed on March 22, 1916.

8. Hydrophones

Of course it was a big help if you could actually locate the U-boat using sound waves, which required a microphone that could work underwater, or hydrophone. The first hydrophone was invented by 1914 by Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian inventor who actually started working on the idea as a way to locate icebergs following the Titanic disaster; however, it was of limited use because it couldn’t tell the direction of an underwater object, only the distance. The hydrophone was further improved by the Frenchman Paul Langevin and Russian Constantin Chilowsky, who invented an ultrasound transducer relying on piezoelectricity, or the electric charge held in certain minerals: a thin layer of quartz held between two metal plates responded to tiny changes in water pressure resulting from sound waves, allowing the user to determine both the distance and direction of an underwater object. The hydrophone claimed its first U-boat victim in April 1916. A later version perfected by the Americans could detect U-boats up to 25 miles away.

9. Aircraft Carriers


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The first time an airplane was launched from a moving ship was in May 1912, when commander Charles Rumney Samson piloted a Short S.27 pontoon biplane from a ramp on the deck of the HMS Hibernia in Weymouth Bay. However, the Hibernia wasn’t a true aircraft carrier, since planes couldn’t land on its deck; they had to set down on the water and then be retrieved, slowing the whole process considerably. The first real aircraft carrier was the HMS Furious, which began life as a 786-foot-long battle cruiser equipped with two massive 18-inch guns—until British naval designers figured out that these guns were so large they might shake the ship to pieces. Looking for another use for the vessel, they built a long platform capable of both launching and landing airplanes. To make more room for takeoffs and landings, the airplanes were stored in hangars under the runway, as they still are in modern aircraft carriers. Squadron Commander Edward Dunning became the first person to land a plane on a moving ship when he landed a Sopwith Pup on the Furious on August 2, 1917.

10. Pilotless Drones

The first pilotless drone was developed for the U.S. Navy in 1916 and 1917 by two inventors, Elmer Sperry and Peter Hewitt, who originally designed it as an unmanned aerial bomb—essentially a prototype cruise missile. Measuring just 18.5 feet across, with a 12-horsepower motor, the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Aircraft weighed 175 pounds and was stabilized and directed (“piloted” is too generous) with gyroscopes and a barometer to determine altitude. The first unmanned flight in history occurred on Long Island on March 6, 1918. In the end, the targeting technique—point and fly—was too imprecise for it to be useful against ships during the war. Further development, by attempting to integrate remote radio control, continued for several years after the war, until the Navy lost interest in 1925.

11. Mobile X-Ray Machines

With millions of soldiers suffering grievous, life-threatening injuries, there was obviously a huge need during the Great War for the new wonder weapon of medical diagnostics, the X-ray—but these required very large machines that were both too bulky and too delicate to move. Enter Marie Curie, who set to work creating mobile X-ray stations for the French military immediately after the outbreak of war; by October 1914, she had installed X-ray machines in several cars and small trucks which toured smaller surgical stations at the front. By the end of the war there were 18 of these “radiologic cars” or “Little Curies” in operation. African-American inventor Frederick Jones developed an even smaller portable X-ray machine in 1919 (Jones also invented refrigeration units, air conditioning units, and the self-starting gasoline lawnmower).

12. Sanitary Napkins

Women traditionally improvised all kinds of disposable or washable undergarments to deal with their monthly period, all the way back to softened papyrus in ancient Egypt. But the modern sanitary napkin as we know it was made possible by the introduction of new cellulose bandage material during the First World War; it wasn’t long before French nurses figured out that clean, absorbent cellulose bandages were far superior to any predecessors. British and American nurses picked up on the habit, and corporate America wasn’t far behind: In 1920, Kimberly-Clark introduced the first commercial sanitary napkin, Kotex (that’s “cotton” + “texture”). But it was rough going at first, as no publications would carry advertisements for such a product. It wasn’t until 1926 that Montgomery Ward broke the barrier, carrying Kotex napkins in its popular catalogue.

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Did a Typo Help End World War II?
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When Geoffrey Tandy was summoned to Bletchley Park in 1939, he had no idea what to expect. A volunteer at the Royal Navy Reserves, Tandy wanted to serve Britain however he could as World War II threatened his country’s existence. But as a cryptogamist for the National History Museum, Tandy wasn’t quite sure where he fit in. Cryptogamists studied algae, a skill that wasn’t in high demand when it came to military strategizing.

Tandy was greeted by representatives for the Ministry of Defence, who seemed excited at the prospect of Tandy joining the top-secret efforts at Bletchley—too excited, really, about someone whose expertise was in seaweed.

At some point, it occurred to Tandy that the Ministry may have made a mistake. The exact details are lost to history, but it became clear that someone had mistaken his job of cryptogamist for a cryptogramist—a codebreaker, which is exactly what men like Alan Turing were doing at Bletchley. The mistake led to a moss specialist being deposited into one of the most intense covert operations of the war.

Generally useless to the group, Tandy did nothing for two years. Then something incredible happened.

In 1941, Allied forces torpedoed German U-boats and salvaged some important documents from the wreckages, including papers that instructed users of the German Enigma Machine how to unscramble messages. The problem: The papers were waterlogged, damaged, and in dire need of quick restoration before they could be put to use.

The Ministry needed someone who was an expert in drying out water-damaged, fragile materials. Someone who may have had training in preserving algae in such a manner. They needed someone like Tandy.

Using absorbent materials gathered from a museum, Tandy dried the pages and returned them to legibility. The Bletchley codebreakers were able to use the information to crack German communication, allowing Allied forces to get a glimpse of their strategy. The deciphering likely hastened the end of the war by two to four years, saving millions of lives in the process.

It’s not quite clear how Tandy’s fortunate misplacement occurred. Did a recruiter see a typographical error, with Tandy’s occupation getting the extra “R”? Or did someone simply misread it? Either way, the misunderstanding turned out to be quite fortuitous. Referencing the story in a 2012 speech, British politician William Hague said it demonstrated “just how useful wide expertise can be.”

[h/t: @floschecther]

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WWI Centennial: Operation Mars Fails
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 305th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

After a cataclysmic week beginning with the biggest bombardment in history on March 21, 1918, Germany’s spring offensive Operation Michael—chief strategist Erich Ludendorff’s final gamble to destroy the Allies before American troops arrived in Europe in large numbers—had conquered a large part of northern France but was now in danger of stalling. To the south the massive Eighteenth Army had captured Montdidier but outrun its rail supply lines, and by the end of March faced new threats as French commanders Henri Philippe Petain and Ferdinand Foch moved up the First, Third, and Tenth Armies to plug the gap with the British Expeditionary Force to the north.

WWO Operation Mars
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In the middle of the expanding German salient the Second Army captured Albert but faced supply problems over the wrecked Somme battlefields of 1916, with shell shortages again slowing the offensive. Meanwhile British resistance stiffened as the Third Army under General Byng dug in before Amiens and Arras. Australian troops arrived in emergency troop convoys, once again enabled by the BEF’s fleet of requisitioned London buses. Private Edward Lynch, an Australian soldier, remembered day and night travel along tiny roads leading the battlefield:

"We’re in a long stream of buses; miles of transport, all leading south. Away on the horizon, clouds of dust. We know that the roads are jammed with traffic as all available modes of transport are rushing men, guns, shells, and food south. Village after village flits by as our cloud of dust rolls over them and we are gone. Night is upon us and still the buses move on."

The arrival of Allied reinforcements on all three sides of the German salient made a breakthrough increasingly improbable, as French and British troops fought savagely to reestablish contact and contain the German thrust (below, British troops with barbed wire).

British troops in World War I with barbed wire
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Desperate to restore Operation Michael’s momentum, on March 28, 1918 Ludendorff ordered Operation Mars, a second planned offensive by the German Second and Seventeenth Armies against the British Third Army around Arras. Mars, an attack by 11 German divisions against British defenses along the Scarpe River, was intended to initiate a German pivot northeast, beginning just south of Arras, threatening to envelop the British Expeditionary Force from the rear and cut it off from its sources of supply, the English Channel ports (below, the ruins of the Arras cathedral).

Arras cathedral, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

However, the British Third Army had taken elaborate precautions, beginning with the effective adoption of “defense in depth,” a strategy pioneered by the Germans, in which most troops remained in a reserve zone behind a lightly held “battle zone,” consisting of multiple trenches and strongpoints to break up attacking enemy formations and sap their momentum. Elsewhere Operation Mars called for renewed attacks by the German Eighteenth Army against the French forces guarding Amiens to the south, but here the Germans found the French holding the well-prepared Amiens Line of heavy fortifications, first constructed in 1915.

The result was a complete failure, as the German attack collapsed in less than a day. Fighting continued along the front for another week, until Ludendorff finally called off the offensive on April 5. In his diary entry on March 30, Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, described intense combat as German attacks were brought up short by determined French defenders:

"It’s evening, I’m writing down my impressions of this day, which must have been the nastiest of any blessed day in the whole war, full of many dreadful situations, each one following closely on the one before: At 7:30 our infantry attacked, and by way of reply to that a hail of machine-gun fire comes out of Le Mesnil, worse than I’ve ever known … I bring the battery up behind, and now we’ve got so much shrapnel raining down on us that you can hardly see or hear anything. The machine-gun fire, chattering away at us from only a few hundred meters' distance, keeps on as heavy as ever. All hell has been let loose. The French seem to be transformed; they must have thrown completely fresh, properly rested troops into this sector, and a large number of them too."

Sulzbach and the Germans soon found that the French Army, relatively rested and now recovered from the 1917 mutinies, was beginning to show its teeth again, thanks in part to stockpiled artillery:

"We pull up a steep track on to a plateau … And up there it’s a witch's cauldron, compared with which the business we had before was child’s play: machine-gun fire and small-arms fire so strong that it might have been thousands and thousands of enemy gun-barrels being trained on our one battery. The concentration of fire is so heavy that all we can do is lie on the ground beside the guns, with the infantry hardly 300 meters in front of us … Meanwhile, in spite of the bad weather, enemy planes have been appearing over our lines, flying at a low altitude in heavy swarms of 20 or 30 in a bunch."

On the other side, Ivor Hanson, a British gunner, described seeing French field guns lined up in huge numbers:

“Alongside and behind us are several batteries of French 75mm guns and farther behind are many French batteries of heavier guns and howitzers. I have never seen so many guns massed together. In one place they were lined up, wheel to wheel, resembling a wall of guns.”

And John Hughes, a Canadian officer, described one young soldier’s reaction to the mindboggling bloodshed:

"One lad in the car going to the CCS was very sick. He seemed to be trying to throw his insides out. We asked him where he was wounded. He said he was not wounded, only sick. 'I have killed so many men this day I am sick with the blood I have spilled. They came on in waves,' he said. 'We mowed them down. There was great pile of them in front of our machine guns. We had to fall back and get a new position. Again and again they came on. They died, oh how they died by the hundreds. Oh my God, I will never forget those dead,' and he was sick again."

Fighting raged on for several more days, however, and Lynch, the Australian private, described fighting near Dernancourt, about 10 miles east of Amiens, in his diary on April 2, 1918:

"My head is lying on the parapet now. I feel my body shake to each crushing shell. Dust and clods rain down everywhere. In front, a sea of mad, flaring shell bursts. I watch the railway embankment. A perfect rain of shells is on to it. A black length of railway line leaves the embankment and comes turning and screwing towards us, tossed by the shells. I can hear it humming through the air before it crashes 50 yards ahead. I’m watching the village. Our shells are crashing into it. It’s a mass of dust and collapsing walls. I catch the fleeting glance of forms running from a burning, tottering house … Now I am watching the railway embankment again. Two shells land together. Two black funnels of earth and smoke viciously kick upwards. Something spinning and turning in the dust cloud. A man—with neither head nor arms, flying high above the embankment. Still the barrage keeps on. Still the air is vibrant with the paralyzing roar of the crashing detonations of exploding shells."

To the south the Allies halted the German advance at Villers-Bretonneux, although the Germans came within seven miles of Amiens. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, described crossing the former Somme battlefield on their way to join the German offensive in the south:

"Within a 60-kilometer radius there was hardly a house standing—nothing but rubble and ruins. The fields were covered with overgrown shell-holes. Between them were the crosses of the fallen. If you had not seen it yourself, you would not be able to form a picture of the damage … A bridge led across the river. It had been repaired by German engineers. To the west of the bridge, I could see the first dead English soldiers. From up ahead came the continuous thunder and boom of the artillery. On all our faces you could read a dread of the future. People call us ‘heroes,’ a wonderful name which seldom—and in a manner of speaking, never—reflects reality."

Conditions for ordinary soldiers were awful on both sides, with freezing rain and flooding trenches once again the norm. Hanson recorded their circumstances in his diary on April 4:

"We arrived back to find that our tarpaulin had been commandeered by the officers and that we poor Signallers were again shelterless during a night of torrential rain. Behind the ridge we made a roof of straw which kept off some of the rain, but did not prevent us becoming soaked to the skin … My mother would go insane if I told her about things like this. Hell cannot be much worse than this, for everything contrives to break our spirits. Personally I feel tonight that I don’t care which side wins the war."

By the time Operation Michael ended on April 5, the Eighteenth Army and Second Army had penetrated over 40 miles and captured over 1000 square miles of territory. The offensive caused 240,000 Allied casualties, including 90,000 taken prisoner—but Germany, which couldn’t afford to lose any more manpower, suffered just as much, with 250,000 casualties for the offensive.

Meanwhile the Allies agreed to the appointment of the French general Ferdinand Foch as supreme commander of the Allied forces, to better coordinate the Allied response to this and future offensives, and the top American commander, General Pershing, offered as many American troops as he could muster wherever the British and French needed them—an offer that was immediately accepted.

But Germany’s strength was far from spent. With Michael canceled, Ludendorff turned his attention to the next offensive, Operation Georgette—an attempt to smash the rest of the British Expeditionary Force in front of Ypres, already the scene of three horrific battles. The next blow would fall on April 9, 1918.

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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