Part 4 of 8
The weapon that had the most effect on the conduct of the war was the machine gun.
Machine guns were used previously, but the armies developed tactics that made them the most lethal weapon on the battlefield. Due to rates of fire, interlocking fields of fire and deeply layered and staggered machine gun placements, the advantage moved decisively to the defense. Trench warfare was defensive in nature and almost all offensive actions were suicidal and devastating to the attacking side.
On July 1, 1916, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, England had 60,000 casualties, with more than 19,000 being deaths. On the German machine gun side, casualties were 8,000. The math was simple: a well-trained, elite rifleman might fire 20 times a minute. A machine gunner, after a few hours of training, could fire 600 rounds per minute. Multiplying one machine gunner by a thousand, 600,000 deadly projectiles are being fired at the advancing troops each minute. How could anyone survive?
Gas attacks were done by both sides, too. One of the most painful artworks from World War I is a line of troops all blinded by a gas attack with their hands on the shoulder of the soldier in front stumbling rear-ward for medical assistance.
These shells, usually filled with chlorine, phosgene or mustard gas, were fired into the enemy’s trenches hoping to stun and disorient the enemy, allowing for an advance by the opposing force. Often the gas blew back into the advancing troops, causing havoc and the opposite effect of what was intended.
Hitler was subjected to a few gas attacks and, knowing the effect the gas had, he never used it againt enemy troops during World War II, for fear of Allied retaliation.
Artillery warfare became all the more effective and deadly. It is estimated that 1.5 billion shells were fired just on the Western Front.
At the Battle of the Somme, 650,000 British and French troops were subjected to cannon fire from 1,000 cannons firing 1.5 million shells. The term “shell shocked” said it all. Today, 100 years after the Armistice, there is a rather large area in France that is called the “Red Zone.” There is so much unexploded ordinance, both explosives and gas, that it is almost sure death for anyone to enter this area.
Airplanes came into their own, too, during World War I. At first flimsy, underpowered and always breaking down, they soon turned into deadly war machines.
Initially pilots fired pistols or rifles from their cockpits at the enemy. Then someone fired a machine gun to down an enemy pilot. Machine guns were mounted on fighter aircraft, with the biggest problem being that in the heat of battle pilots would sometimes shoot themselves down by firing into their propeller.
Anton Fokker, a Dutch engineer working for the Germans, developed synchronized firing that allowed the pilot to fire through the gaps in the propeller. Dog fights and aces became heroes. As advances were made, new fighter pilots had a life expectancy of two weeks. Former president Theodore Rosevelt’s son, Quentin, was killed in a “dog fight.” There are pictures of Roosevelt lying in a field next to his shot-down airplane.
Bombers were introduced, with the Germans having a bomber with a wing span of 138 feet — wider than most World War II bombers. This bomber had a crew of seven; two were mechanics. To fire their machine guns, the gunners had to climb out of the plane onto a ladder and walk across a wing to get to the machine gun.
The use of submarines in warfare became devastating. Declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans and the sinking of the passenger cruise ship Lusitania in 1915 by a German U-boat were two reasons why the United States entered the war.
Though the British navy blockaded Germany in the North Sea, the German surface fleet was not particularly effective, but its U-boat fleet almost won the war.
The first large-scale use of tanks occurred in 1917 at the Battle of Cambri by British forces. No one really knew how to use tanks, plus they broke down constantly, and when they did run they got stuck in mud. Tactics on tank warfare were not yet developed.
The tanks worked best in conjunction with infantry, and when there was a breakthrough with tanks, it was never fully exploited. The United States did not have a tank unit nor tanks when it entered the war in 1917, although a U.S. unit was eventually established, with its first officer being future World War II general, George S. Patton.