(75mm pack howitzer M1920, c. 1921 [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
By the end of the 19th century, into the early 20th century, the weapons of warfare were evolving at an alarming rate. Guns, explosives and machines were becoming increasingly more lightweight, powerful and exponentially more deadly. The tragedy of the situation was that very few people knew just how devastating many of these new weapons would be when a major war broke out. True, there were many wars in the years before World War One— such as the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), the Boer Wars (1880-1881 and 1889-1902), the Spanish-American War (1898), and the Ruso-Japanese War (1904-1905). Yet, in these wars, countries often remained doubtful about the new weaponry in their arsenals, and were still in a phase of experimentation and implementation. By the start of WWI in 1914, however, most major powers had adopted the latest guns, artillery, explosives, ships and planes, resulting in a Great War the likes of which the world had never before seen.
(Fra Burmeister og Wain’s Iron Foundry, by Peder Severin Kroyer (1851-1909), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
In order to create and transport newer, stronger weapons, the major powers needed improved manufacturing systems, quick infrastructure and a streamlined military hierarchy to oversee and direct the growing armies. In the late 19th century, all of these requirements were achieved. Steam powered engines allowed forges to create sturdier, but lighter-weight, metals that were used in producing weapons. For the transportation of weaponry, supplies and soldiers, the locomotive and railway boom fit that bill perfectly. As for military hierarchical structure, the competent General Staff of the Prussian military impressed the major powers of the world after the Franco-Prussian War. Most countries either copied Germany’s General Staff, or they adapted pieces of the German system for their own militaries. The idea of conscription, or the military draft, was another favorite idea adopted by world powers from the German war machine.
(Munition workers painting shells at the National Shell Filling Factory No.6, Chilwell, Nottinghamshire, c. 1917, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
The powerful explosives, TNT (1863), and later dynamite (1867), were also produced and refined in the decades before WWI. At the same time, artillery was becoming larger and lighter, and could fire rounds much farther than before. The giant guns were also equipped with recoil mechanisms so soldiers were no longer required to push their canons back into position after each shot. Another inventor named Paul M. E. Vieille developed stable and safe smokeless gunpowder in 1884. In addition to reducing smoke emissions, Vieille’s new powder gave projectiles better range and stopping power. As an added benefit, it did not clog weapons as badly as previous gunpowders and the relatively smokeless battlefields led to better visibility during firefights.
(British artillery gun going to its position in Ypres, Belgium, c. 1918, [Public Domain] via Flickr Commons and the Creative Commons)
The advances in explosives and artillery were utilized in the design of the British Dreadnaught battleships, which were unveiled in 1906. Similarly, Wilbur and Orville Wright took flight in the world’s first stable and controllable airplane in 1903, and aircraft would be outfitted with weaponry by WWI.
(French soldiers waiting assault behind a ditch around 1914, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
While artillery pieces were becoming stronger, so were smaller firearms. Around the 1970s, the major powers began to equip their infantry with powerful rifles. Prussia led the charge with their Prussian Needle Gun around 1871, and they later switched to the Mauser metal cartridge bolt-action rifle. Rate of fire and ease of use further improved for rifles in 1885, when Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher invented the clip-loaded magazine. The last country to formally adopt a rifle was the United Sates, which experimented with the Krag-Jorgenson rifle in 1893, but soon decided on the Springfield in 1903. Even more devastating than the rifles, however, were the machine guns. The first self-powered machine gun was the Maxim Gun, produced in 1884, which could fire about 600 rounds a minute. As WWI approached, newer machine guns were produced, such as the Vickers machine gun, which was picked up by the British in 1912.
(British Vickers machine gun crew wearing PH-type anti-gas helmets. Near Ovillers during the Battle of the Somme, July 1916.)
With all of these military advancements, it is easy to see why the world powers were so shocked by the devastation of WWI, especially with the addition of mortars, flamethrowers, tanks and chemical weapons. Before WWI, the major powers did not truly grasp the terrible potential of modern weaponry, but they got to know the devastation intimately once the Great War erupted.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- Warfare in the Western World: Military Operations Since 1871 (Volume II) by Robert A. Doughty and Ira D. Gruber et al. Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1996.