The First Modern War



New Technology in World War I

World War I began as a clash of 20th-century technology and 19th-century tactics, causing ineffective battles with huge numbers of casualties on both sides.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the specific developments that made World War I different from previous wars

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Technology during World War I reflected a trend toward industrialism and the application of mass-production methods to weapons and to warfare in general.
  • One could characterize the early years of the First World War as a clash of 20th-century technology with 19th-century warfare.
  • On land, only in the final year of the war did the major armies make effective steps to revolutionize command and control,  adapt to the modern battlefield, and harness the myriad new technologies to effective military purposes.
  • Tactical reorganizations (such as shifting the focus of command from the 100+ man company to the 10+ man squad) went hand-in-hand with armored cars, the first submachine guns, and automatic rifles that a single individual soldier could carry and use.
  • Although the use of poison gas was banned by the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, Germany turned to this industry for what it hoped would be a decisive weapon to break the deadlock of trench warfare. Chlorine gas was first used on the battlefield in April 1915 at the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium.
  • Although the concept of the tank had been suggested as early as the 1890s, few authorities showed interest until the trench stalemate of World War I caused serious contemplation of unending war and ever escalating casualties. By 1917, tanks were used by both the British and French armies to terrifying effect.

Key Terms

  • mustard gas: A cytotoxic and vesicant chemical warfare agent with the ability to form large blisters on exposed skin and in the lungs. Within 24 hours of exposure to this agent, victims experience intense itching and skin irritation, which gradually turns into large blisters filled with yellow fluid wherever the agent contacted the skin.
  • Zeppelin: A type of rigid airship named after the German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin who pioneered rigid airship development at the beginning of the 20th century. Zeppelin’s notions were first formulated in 1874 and developed in detail in 1893. During World War I, the German military made extensive used these as bombers and scouts, killing over 500 people in bombing raids in Britain.
  • U-boat: Military submarines operated by Germany, particularly in the First and Second World Wars. Although at times they were efficient fleet weapons against enemy naval warships, they were most effectively used in an economic warfare role (commerce raiding), enforcing a naval blockade against enemy shipping.

World War I began as a clash of 20th-century technology and 19th-century tactics, with large ensuing casualties. By the end of 1917, however, the major armies, now numbering millions of men, had modernized and used telephones, wireless communication, armoured cars, tanks, and aircraft.

Ground Warfare

Infantry formations were reorganized so that 100-man companies were no longer the main unit of maneuver; instead, squads of 10 or so men under the command of a junior NCO were favored.

In 1914, cannons were positioned in the front line and fired directly at their targets. By 1917, indirect fire with guns (as well as mortars and even machine guns) was commonplace, using new techniques for spotting and ranging, notably aircraft and the often-overlooked field telephone. Counter-battery missions became commonplace, and sound detection was used to locate enemy batteries.

Much of the combat involved trench warfare, in which hundreds often died for each meter gained. Many of the deadliest battles in history occurred during World War I, such as Ypres, the Marne, Cambrai, the Somme, Verdun, and Gallipoli. The Germans employed the Haber process of nitrogen fixation to provide forces with a constant supply of gunpowder despite the British naval blockade. Artillery was responsible for the largest number of casualties and consumed vast quantities of explosives. The large number of head wounds caused by exploding shells and fragmentation forced the combatant nations to develop the modern steel helmet, led by the French, who introduced the Adrian helmet in 1915. It was quickly followed by the Brodie helmet, worn by British Imperial and U.S. troops, and in 1916 by the distinctive German Stahlhelm, a design with improvements still in use today.

The widespread use of chemical warfare was a distinguishing feature of the conflict. Gases used included chlorine, mustard gas, and phosgene. Chlorine gas was first used on the battlefield in April 1915 at the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium. The unknown gas appeared to be a simple smoke screen, used to hide attacking soldiers, and Allied troops were ordered to the front trenches to repel the expected attack. The gas had a devastating effect, killing many defenders; however, because attackers were also killed when the wind changed. In the end, relatively few war casualties were caused by gas, as effective countermeasures like gas masks were quickly created. The use of chemical warfare and small-scale strategic bombing were both outlawed by the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, and both proved to be of limited effectiveness though they captured the public imagination.

Australian infantry with gas masks in a trench.

Australian infantry with gas masks, Ypres, 1917.: The use of chemical warfare, such chlorine gas, mustard gas, and phosgene, had devastating effects until the development of effective countermeasures such as the gas mask.

The most powerful land-based weapons were railway guns, weighing dozens of tons apiece. The German ones were nicknamed Big Berthas, even though the namesake was not a railway gun. Germany developed the Paris Gun, able to bombard Paris from over 62 miles, though shells were relatively light at 210 pounds.

Trenches, machine guns, air reconnaissance, barbed wire, and modern artillery with fragmentation shells helped bring the battle lines of World War I to a stalemate. The British and the French sought a solution with the creation of the tank and mechanized warfare. The first British tanks were used during the Battle of the Somme on September 15, 1916. Mechanical reliability was an issue, but the experiment proved its worth. Within a year, the British were fielding tanks by the hundreds, and they showed their potential during the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 by breaking the Hindenburg Line while combined arms teams captured 8,000 enemy soldiers and 100 guns. Meanwhile, the French introduced the first tanks with a rotating turret, the Renault FT, which became a decisive tool of the victory. The conflict also saw the introduction of light automatic weapons and submachine guns, such as the Lewis Gun, the Browning automatic rifle, and the Bergmann MP18.

Photo of soldiers in a trench operating a large machine gun.

British Vickers machine gun crew on the Western Front: The machine gun emerged as one of the decisive technologies during World War I. 

Another new weapon, the flamethrower, was first used by the German army and later adopted by other forces. Although not of high tactical value, the flamethrower was a powerful, demoralising weapon that caused terror on the battlefield.

Trench railways evolved to supply the enormous quantities of food, water, and ammunition required to support large numbers of soldiers in areas where conventional transportation systems had been destroyed. Internal combustion engines and improved traction systems for automobiles and trucks eventually rendered trench railways obsolete.

Naval Developments

Germany deployed U-boats (submarines) after the war began. Alternating between restricted and unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic, the Kaiserliche Marine employed them to deprive the British Isles of vital supplies. The deaths of British merchant sailors and the seeming invulnerability of U-boats led to the development of depth charges (1916), hydrophones (passive sonar, 1917), blimps, hunter-killer submarines (HMS R-1, 1917), forward-throwing anti-submarine weapons, and dipping hydrophones (the latter two abandoned in 1918). To extend their operations, the Germans proposed supply submarines (1916). Most of these would be forgotten in the interwar period until World War II revived the need.

Aviation Advances

Fixed-wing aircraft were first used militarily by the Italians in Libya in October 1911 during the Italo-Turkish War for reconnaissance, soon followed by the dropping of grenades and aerial photography the next year. By 1914, their military utility was obvious. They were initially used for reconnaissance and ground attack. To shoot down enemy planes, anti-aircraft guns and fighter aircraft were developed. Strategic bombers were created, principally by the Germans and British, though the former used Zeppelins as well. Towards the end of the conflict, aircraft carriers were used for the first time, with HMS Furious launching Sopwith Camels in a raid to destroy the Zeppelin hangars at Tondern in 1918.

Recognized for their value as observation platforms, balloons were important targets for enemy aircraft. To defend them against air attack, they were heavily protected by antiaircraft guns and patrolled by friendly aircraft; to attack them, unusual weapons such as air-to-air rockets were even tried. Thus, the reconnaissance value of blimps and balloons contributed to the development of air-to-air combat between all types of aircraft and to the trench stalemate, because it was impossible to move large numbers of troops undetected. The Germans conducted air raids on England during 1915 and 1916 with airships, hoping to damage British morale and cause aircraft to be diverted from the front lines. The resulting panic led to the diversion of several squadrons of fighters from France.

Total War

Almost the whole of Europe and its colonial empires mobilized to wage World War I, directing almost all aspects of life including industry, finance, labor, and food production toward military purposes.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the costs of total war

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Total war, such as World War I and World War II, mobilizes all of the resources of society (industry, finance, labor, etc.) to fight the war.
  • It also expands the targets of war to include any and all civilian-associated resources and infrastructure.
  • World War I mobilized almost all European nations and its colonies into total war with enormous costs, not only to military personnel lost in battle, but to whole societies, dramatically affecting finance, culture, and industry.
  • Civilians back home had to make major adjustments to their lifestyles: women took over for men in industry, food rationing came into effect, and business owners changed or adjusted their products to support the war.
  • One estimate suggests that the Allies spent $147 billion on the war and the Central Powers only $61 billion.

Key Terms

  • conscription: The compulsory enlistment of people in a national service, most often military service.
  • total war: Warfare that includes any and all civilian-associated resources and infrastructure as legitimate military targets, mobilizes all of the resources of society to fight the war, and gives priority to warfare over non-combatant needs.

Total war includes all civilian-associated resources and infrastructure as legitimate military targets, mobilizes all societal resources to fight the war, and gives priority to warfare over non-combatant needs. The American-English Dictionary defines total war as “war that is unrestricted in terms of the weapons used, the territory or combatants involved, or the objectives pursued, especially one in which the laws of war are disregarded.”

In the mid-19th century, scholars identified “total war” as a separate class of warfare. In a total war, to an extent inapplicable to other conflicts, the differentiation between combatants and non-combatants diminishes and even sometimes vanishes entirely as opposing sides consider nearly every human resource, even that of non-combatants, as part of the war effort.

Actions that characterize the post-19th century concept of total war include: blockade and sieging of population centers, as with the Allied blockade of Germany; commerce-raiding tonnage war, and unrestricted submarine warfare, as with privateering and the German U-Boat campaigns.

World War I as Total War

Almost the whole of Europe and its colonial empires mobilized to wage World War I. Young men were removed from production jobs to serve in military roles and were replaced by women. Rationing occurred on the home fronts. Conscription was common in most European countries but controversial in English-speaking countries. About 750,000 lost their lives. Though most deaths were young unmarried men, 160,000 wives lost husbands and 300,000 children lost fathers. In the United States, conscription began in 1917 and was generally well-received, with a few pockets of opposition in isolated rural areas. Bulgaria went so far as to mobilize a quarter of its population or 800,000 people, a greater share than any other country during the war.

In Britain,  government propaganda posters were used to divert all attention to the war on the home front. They influenced public opinion about what to eat and what occupations to pursue, and changed the attitude toward the war effort to one of support. Even the Music Hall was used as propaganda, with songs aimed at recruitment.

After the failure of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, the large British offensive in March 1915, the British Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal John French blamed the lack of progress on insufficient and poor-quality artillery shells. This led to the Shell Crisis of 1915, which brought down both the Liberal government and Premiership of H. H. Asquith. He formed a new coalition government dominated by liberals and appointed David Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions. It was a recognition that the whole economy would have to be geared for war if the Allies were to prevail on the Western Front.

As young men left the farms for the front, domestic food production in Britain and Germany fell. In Britain the response was to import more food, despite the German introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare, and to introduce rationing. The Royal Navy’s blockade of German ports prevented Germany from importing food and hastened German capitulation by creating a food crisis in Germany.

Economics of World War I

All of the powers in 1914 expected a short war; none had made any economic preparations for a long war, such as stockpiling food or critical raw materials. The longer the war went on, the greater the advantages of the Allies, with their larger, deeper, more versatile economies and better access to global supplies. As historians Broadberry and Harrison conclude, once stalemate set in late in 1914:

The greater Allied capacity for taking risks, absorbing the cost of mistakes, replacing losses, and accumulating overwhelming quantitative superiority should eventually have turned the balance against Germany.

The Allies had much more potential wealth they could spend on the war. One estimate (using 1913 U.S. dollars) is that the Allies spent $147 billion on the war and the Central Powers only $61 billion. Among the Allies, Britain and its Empire spent $47 billion and the U.S. $27 billion; among the Central Powers, Germany spent $45 billion.

Total war demanded total mobilization of all the nation’s resources for a common goal. Manpower had to be channeled into the front lines (all the powers except the United States and Britain had large trained reserves designed just for that). Behind the lines labor power had to be redirected away from less necessary activities that were luxuries during a total war. In particular, vast munitions industries were created to provide shells, guns, warships, uniforms, airplanes, and a hundred other weapons both old and new. Agriculture had to be mobilized as well to provide food for both civilians and soldiers (many of whom had been farmers and needed to be replaced by old men, boys, and women), as well as horses to move supplies.

Transportation in general was a challenge, especially when Britain and Germany each tried to intercept merchant ships headed for the enemy. Finance was a special challenge. Germany financed the Central Powers. Britain financed the Allies until 1916, when it ran out of money and had to borrow from the United States. The U.S. took over the financing of the Allies in 1917 with loans that it insisted be repaid after the war. The victorious Allies looked to defeated Germany in 1919 to pay reparations that would cover some of their costs. Above all, it was essential to conduct the mobilization in such a way that the short-term confidence of the people was maintained, the long-term power of the political establishment was upheld, and the long-term economic health of the nation was preserved.

The poster depicts a pair of hands full of silver coins transforming into bullets as the hands dump them out.

Total War: British poster encouraging investment in war bonds. Total war involved immense economic and labor costs through the restructuring of finance and industry toward military purposes.