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WWI: Technology and the weapons of war

by A. Torrey McLean
Reprinted with permission from Tar Heel Junior Historian, Spring 1993.
Tar Heel Junior Historian Association, NC Museum of History

See also: WWI: Life on the Western Front

Gas mask used in France during WWIOne of the saddest facts about World War I is that millions died needlessly because military and civilian leaders were slow to adapt their old-fashioned strategies and tactics to the new weapons of 1914. New technology made war more horrible and more complex than ever before. The United States and other countries felt the effects of the war for years afterwards.

The popular image of World War I is soldiers in muddy trenches and dugouts, living miserably until the next attack. This is basically correct. Technological developments in engineering, metallurgy, chemistry, and optics had produced weapons deadlier than anything known before. The power of defensive weapons made winning the war on the western front all but impossible for either side.

When attacks were ordered, Allied soldiers went “over the top,” climbing out of their trenches and crossing no-man’s-land to reach enemy trenches. They had to cut through belts of barbed wire before they could use rifles, bayonets, pistols, and hand grenades to capture enemy positions. A victory usually meant they had seized only a few hundred yards of shell-torn earth at a terrible cost in lives. Wounded men often lay helpless in the open until they died. Those lucky enough to be rescued still faced horrible sanitary conditions before they could be taken to proper medical facilities. Between attacks,the snipers, artillery, and poison gas caused misery and death.

Airplanes, products of the new technology, were primarily made of canvas, wood, and wire. At first they were used only to observe enemy troops. As their effectiveness became apparent, both sides shot planes down with artillery from the ground and with rifles, pistols, and machine guns from other planes. In 1916, the Germans armed planes with machine guns that could fire forward without shooting off the fighters’ propellers. The Allies soon armed their airplanes the same way, and war in the air became a deadly business. These light, highly maneuverable fighter planes attacked each other in wild air battles called dogfights. Pilots who were shot down often remained trapped in their falling, burning planes, for they had no parachutes. Airmen at the front did not often live long. Germany also used its fleet of huge dirigibles, or zeppelins, and large bomber planes to drop bombs on British and French cities. Britain retaliated by bombing German cities.

Back on the ground, the tank proved to be the answer to stalemate in the trenches. This British invention used American-designed caterpillar tracks to move the armored vehicle equipped with machine guns and sometimes light cannon. Tanks worked effectively on firm, dry ground, in spite of their slow speed, mechanical problems, and vulnerability to artillery. Able to crush barbed wire and cross trenches, tanks moved forward through machine gun fire and often terrified German soldiers with their unstoppable approach.

Chemical warfare first appeared when the Germans used poison gas during a surprise attack in Flanders, Belgium, in 1915. At first, gas was just released from large cylinders and carried by the wind into nearby enemy lines. Later, phosgene and other gases were loaded into artillery shells and shot into enemy trenches. The Germans used this weapon the most, realizing that enemy soldiers wearing gas masks did not fight as well. All sides used gas frequently by 1918. Its use was a frightening development that caused its victims a great deal of suffering, if not death.

Both sides used a variety of big guns on the western front, ranging from huge naval guns mounted on railroad cars to short-range trench mortars. The result was a war in which soldiers near the front were seldom safe from artillery bombardment. The Germans used super–long-range artillery to shell Paris from almost eighty miles away. Artillery shell blasts created vast, cratered, moonlike landscapes where beautiful fields and woods had once stood.

Browning machine gun, 1917Perhaps the most significant technological advance during World War I was the improvement of the machine gun, a weapon originally developed by an American, Hiram Maxim. The Germans recognized its military potential and had large numbers ready to use in 1914. They also developed air-cooled machine guns for airplanes and improved those used on the ground, making them lighter and easier to move. The weapon’s full potential was demonstrated on the Somme battlefield in July 1916 when German machine guns killed or wounded almost 60,000 British soldiers in only one day.

At sea, submarines attacked ships far from port. In order to locate and sink German U-boats, British scientists developed underwater listening devices and underwater explosives called depth charges. Warships became faster and more powerful than ever before and used newly invented radios to communicate effectively. The British naval blockade of Germany, which was made possible by developments in naval technology, brought a total war to civilians. The blockade caused a famine that finally brought about the collapse of Germany and its allies in late 1918. Starvation and malnutrition continued to take the lives of German adults and children for years after the war.

The firing stopped on November 11, 1918, but modern war technology had changed the course of civilization. Millions had been killed, gassed, maimed, or starved. Famine and disease continued to rage through central Europe, taking countless lives. Because of rapid technological advances in every area, the nature of warfare had changed forever, affecting soldiers, airmen, sailors, and civilians alike.

A. Torrey McLean, a former United States Army officer who served in Vietnam, studied World War I for more than thirty years, personally interviewing a number of World War I veterans.

Additional resources:

"World War I in Photos." The Atlantic. (accessed April 16, 2015).

Fitzgerald, Gerard J. 2008. "Chemical warfare and medical response during World War I." American Journal of Public Health. April 2008. 98(4): 611-625. Corrected July 2008.

North Carolinians and the Great War. Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries.

Rumerman, Judy. "The U.S. Aircraft Industry Durin World War I." U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. #

"Wildcats never quit: North Carolina in WWI."  State Archives of North Carolina. N.C. Department of Cultural Resources. (accessed September 25, 2013).

"World War I." North Carolina Digital History. Learn NC.

WWI: NC Digital Collections. NC Department of Cultural Resources.

WWI: Old North State and the 'Kaiser Bill.' Online exhibit, State Archives of NC.

Image credits:

"Gas Mask. WWI. Used in France." NC Museum of History. Accession no. H.1999.1.406.

"Browning Machine Gun. Model 1917." 1918. NC Museum of History. Accession No. H.1918.31.9.


Hi Jade,

Thanks for visiting NCpedia and asking for more info on researching weapons history.  I understand your teacher's requirement for facts and sources!  At NCpedia, we like them too!

In order to give you a better answer, I will need to know more about the time period you're interested in -- is it World War I or another time period? And if you're interested in World War I, you may want to start with looking at the "Additional Resources" that we've included below the essay.  They're a really good place to start.

You may also want to consult your school librarian or a librarian at your public library.  They can help you figure out where to find sources that relate directly to your specific topic. 

This reply is also being sent to the email address you provided with your comment.

Please feel free to post back here with additional questions.

Good luck with your project!

Kelly Agan, Government & Heritage Library

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what was the best gun ever used in the world war 1


Different people and sources may have different opinions on what would be considered the "best" gun during WWI, but this article indicates that the machine gun was considered a big technological advance during this time. 

Good luck in your research!

Michelle Underhill
Digital Information Management Program, NC Government & Heritage Library

amazing this is amazing

how effective were the machine guns in World War 2 along with the use of artillery and gas?

Hi Bob,

Thanks for visiting NCpedia and taking time to ask your question.

World War II was a costly and deadly war.  Total casualties globally from all causes for both military and civilian populations have been estimated at upwards of 50 million people.  There were also many advances in military technology from World War I to World War II including vast improvements in the speed and efficiency of automatic weapons and the way war was fought. World War I still used cavalry, i.e. soldiers on horseback. World War II saw the development of the tank and increased use of machine guns.  

I haven't been able to find any specific statistics on the effectiveness of machine guns and gas or by type of weaponry.  However, a recent report from the Congressional Research Service can at least shed some light on the incredible loss of soldier life from battlefield injury:  for all branches of the army in the war, an estimated 405,399 soldiers were killed a nd 670,846 wounded. Of the deaths, 291,557 were battle deaths and the vast majority of these (234,874) were from the Army, which we would typically think of as foot soldiers for the World War II era. (Source: American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics, Anne Leland and Mari-Jana Oboroceanu, Congressional Research Service, February 26, 2010. 

If you haven't already, you may also want to check out the sources we've linked in the References to this article. You may be able to find more information to answer your question.

Thanks for visiting NCpedia!

Kelly Agan, NCpedia Staff 

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It's not that bad but it's not perfect either . It helped me with my history project about World War One . Thank you for your great site.


this is awful I agree

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