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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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Workers in Quebec City Discover Potentially Live Cannonball Dating Back to the French and Indian War
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Quebec City is famous today for its old-world European charm, but a construction crew recently discovered a living relic of the city’s military past: a potentially explosive cannonball, dating all the way back to the French and Indian War.

As Smithsonian reports, workers conducting a building excavation in Old Quebec—the city’s historic center—last week unearthed the 200-pound metal ball at the corner of Hamel and Couillard streets. They posed for pictures before contacting municipal authorities, and archaeologist Serge Rouleau was sent in to collect the goods.

Initially, nobody—including Rouleau—knew that the rusty military artifact still posed a threat to city residents. But after the archaeologist toted the cannonball home in a trailer, he noticed a rusty hole through the center of the shell. This made him fear that the projectile was still loaded with gunpowder.

Rouleau contacted the Canadian military, which deployed bomb disposal specialists to collect the cannonball. They moved it to a secure location, where it will reportedly be either neutralized or destroyed. If the cannonball itself can be saved as a historic relic, it might be displayed in a museum.

“With time, humidity got into its interior and reduced its potential for exploding, but there’s still a danger,” munitions technician Sylvain Trudel told the CBC. “Old munitions like this are hard to predict … You never know to what point the chemicals inside have degraded.”

Experts believe that the cannonball was fired at Quebec City from Lévis, across the St. Lawrence River, during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. This battle occurred on September 13, 1759, during the French and Indian War, when invading British troops defeated French forces in a key battle just outside Quebec City. Ultimately, the clash helped lead to Quebec’s surrender.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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WWI Centennial: Bolshevik Coup Attempt Fails
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Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 282nd installment in the series.

JULY 16-18, 1917: BOLSHEVIK COUP ATTEMPT FAIL

Far from enhancing the prestige of Russia’s Provisional Government as hoped, the disastrous outcome of the Kerensky Offensive in July 1917 put the new regime on the defensive with its own people as well as the enemy. Within weeks, its already fragile authority faced a grave internal threat, as Lenin’s radical Bolsheviks staged their first coup attempt. Although the communist uprising failed, the “July Days” made it clear to all that the Provisional Government was living on borrowed time.

While the moderate socialists who formed the majority of the Petrograd Soviet were content to cooperate with the Provisional Government under the ineffectual idealist Premier Lviv, at least for the time being, Lenin had never concealed his ambition to overthrow the “bourgeois” liberals and seize power for the Soviet—which in reality meant the Bolshevik Central Committee.

The debacle on the Galician front seemed to present an ideal moment for the coup, as military morale plunged to new lows and popular support for the Provisional Government dwindled. An opportunist first and last, Lenin seized on another (supposedly) unexpected event—a military mutiny—to make his bid for power.

Mutinous elements, never far from the surface during this unsettled period, began bubbling again when the Provisional Government ordered a number of units from the Petrograd garrison to the front. The Bolsheviks depended on disaffected soldiers from their ranks as a big part of their power base, and were determined not to lose this leverage: a sudden blitz of propaganda excoriating the “imperialist” Provisional Government helped push troops from one unit, the 1st Machine Gun Regiment, over the edge into open rebellion (it’s unclear exactly how much Lenin knew about the event beforehand, but the fact that he went to Vyborg, Finland, not far from Petrograd, for a “restful holiday” a few days before the mutiny suggests he knew what was coming).

On July 15, two leading Bolsheviks, Lev Bronstein (better known by his nom de guerre, Trotsky) and Anatoly Lunacharsky, addressed thousands of troops from the 1st Machine Gun Regiment, demanding the Provisional Government hand power to the Petrograd Soviet and encouraging the soldiers to refuse to obey any orders until this happened. The next day the regiment heard even more inflammatory speeches by anarchist agitators allied with the Bolsheviks, who openly called for rebellion, and in the afternoon of July 16 the mutiny began as the troops elected a revolutionary committee. One of their first actions was to send representatives to recruit support from rebellious sailors stationed at the naval base of Kronstadt, who quickly convened their own soviet and voted to join the rebellion; they were soon joined by workers from the Putilov factory complex (below Bolsheviks address workers).

With thousands of soldiers and sailors rallying to the banner of revolution, a handful of Bolshevik leaders, including Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, tried to engineer a parliamentary coup in the Petrograd Soviet by calling an emergency meeting of the workers’ section and presenting a resolution calling for the Soviet to seize power and overthrow the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks were opposed by rival socialist parties, including the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, but simply passed the resolution themselves after the latter walked out in protest.

L-R: Trotsky, Lunacharsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev
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By the late evening of July 16 a large crowd of soldiers and factory workers had gathered outside the Tauride Palace where the Soviet met, calling for the delegates to join the Bolshevik coup attempt and overthrow the Provisional Government (which was seemingly unable to intervene to stop these events, revealing how powerless it really was). In another strange twist, the Petrograd Soviet now found itself in the same position as the Provisional Government in March, with power being thrust on it by unruly mobs—practically at gunpoint.

On July 17 the mutinying soldiers in Petrograd were joined by the sailors from Kronstadt, who arrived and helped take over most of the city, using commandeered automobiles and trucks. Alexander Kerensky, the charismatic war minister who had so far managed to keep the Soviet and Provisional Government united (and who would soon replace Lviv as prime minister), was forced to flee the capital, narrowly escaping a kidnapping attempt. Pitrim Sorokin, a moderate socialist member of the Soviet, recalled the scene as chaos spread throughout the city:

“Come as soon as possible,” we were urged, “a new Bolshevist riot has broken out.” Without any delay we started. On Sergievskaia Street all was serene, but as soon as we turned into the Liteiny we saw a number of heavy motor trucks, full of armed soldiers and sailors and fitted with machine guns, being driven furiously in the direction of Tavrichesky Palace. Private automobiles were being stopped and seized by the rioters. We saw a mutinous regiment crossing the Liteiny Bridge and near at hand we head the crack of rifles. Revolution was hungry again and was calling for human sacrifice.

As Sorokin noted, the column of rebellious sailors and civilians came under rifle fire from some unknown assailants, perhaps supporters of the Provisional Government, in the “bourgeois” Liteiny neighborhood of Petrograd, causing them to briefly scatter before resuming their march (top, the column disperses). They joined the 1stMachine Gun Regiment and over ten thousand workers from the Putilov factories in front of the Tauride Palace, where the crowd was growing increasingly threatening to the Soviet—the same Soviet they were supposedly supporting against the Provisional Government—while inside the Bolshevik leaders tried to persuade the other socialist parties to seize power. Later that day Sorokin described the weird situation:

Meanwhile, the crowd outside grew into a dense throng. Bolshevist speakers urged the throng to break down the doors of the palace and to disperse the Soviet. My head bursting with excitement and the close atmosphere of the room, I went out into the yard of the Duma. In the gray twilight of the July night I saw a perfect sea of soldiers, workmen, sailors… Here and there cannon and machine guns pointing at the Palace, and everywhere red banners floating and incessant firing. It was like a madhouse. Here was the mob demanding “All the Power to the Soviets” and at the same time training cannon on the Soviets, threatening it with death and extinction.

The drama was about to take an even more bizarre turn thanks to the Provisional Government’s minister of justice, Pavel Pereverzev, who decided the only way to head off the coup attempt was to discredit the Bolsheviks—specifically by releasing secret police documents indicating that Lenin was in the pay of German intelligence. The gambit worked, as even most radical revolutionaries still loathed the foreign enemy, and viewed any cooperation with them as treason.

As suddenly as it had arisen, the popular support for the Bolshevik coup collapsed, allowing military units loyal to the Soviet to enter the Tauride Palace, rout the Bolsheviks, and free the other members of the Soviet, who had effectively been held hostage by the mob in their own building. Sorokin recalled the moment when an officer leading loyal troops arrived in the chamber to restore order:

The explosion of a bomb could scarcely have produced such an effect. Wild, joyous applause on the one hand, shrieks, groans, maledictions on the other. As for Trotzky, Lunacharsky, Gimmer, Katz, and Zinovieff, as one of my colleagues expressed it, they “shriveled like the devil before holy water.” One of them did make an effort to say something, but was instantly howled down. “Out of here! Away!” shouted the Soviet, and with their partisans at their heels they left.

Discredited by the allegations of German support and sought by the police along with many others of the party’s leaders, Lenin was forced to flee Russia in disguise, clean shaven to look like a Finnish peasant (below, Lenin in August 1917). Many observers understandably assumed that the Bolsheviks were finished. But the Provisional Government neglected to ban the party, and the socialist members of the Soviet remained more sympathetic to their Bolshevik brethren—who in the opinion of many were just overzealous in their advocacy on behalf of the Soviet—than the “bourgeois” Provisional Government, now under the increasingly dictatorial Kerensky.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
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Indeed, the coup had also served several purposes, allowing the Bolshevik leaders to assess both the vulnerability of the Provisional Government and potential support for their program in the Soviet, and above all also acting as a huge publicity stunt for the small, previously obscure party. Rank and file members could continue organizing, and unlike their peers in other parties, they focused on the “big picture,” long-term goal of establishing an independent power base from the Soviet. Eduard Dune, a young Latvian Bolshevik, recalled that even immediately following the failed coup, the situation seemed far from hopeless:

People of all walks of life cursed the Bolsheviks, yet at the same time there was growing interest in us. What did we want? What were we proposing? Delegates from small factories, dozens of kilometers away, visited us at the factory… This was the time when the Bolsheviks were being persecuted, so there was heightened interest in our speakers from all quarters. Political differentiation became noticeable even at our factory. The Mensheviks sweated over purely practical work and agitated against the organization of a Red Guard, which none of them joined. The newspapers spoke of the Bolsheviks losing their influence on the masses, but in fact we noticed that it was growing, at least to judge by the number of those wishing to join the Red Guard detachment.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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