First World War led to transformation in technology

Many things changed because of the First World War, but the range of technological advances ushered in by four years of fighting was among the most dramatic.

Basic weaponry was the area to see the starkest developments. In 1914, men rode horses and used bayonets, but by the end of the war in 1918 they drove tanks – introduced in the later stages of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 – and used machine guns firing nearly 12,000 rounds a minute.

Victory Parade tanks
Victory Parade tanks

These guns had been invented before the war broke out but they were still in their infancy and bulky – only carrying around 600 rounds and limited in the British Army to two guns per battalion.

By 1918, most machine guns were still too heavy to be carried by one man, but they had been attached to plane wings and tanks.

It was the development of new guns that defined the Great War into the "war of attrition" – by making it almost impossible for men to get close to their enemy – so soldiers had to camp out and wait instead.

World War One - British Empire - Home Front - Army Training - Aldershot - 1916
World War One - British Empire - Home Front - Army Training - Aldershot - 1916

This led to the complex map of trenches, and with this, further shifts in technology.

The telephone – invented just 30 years earlier – was overhauled during the conflict. The model as it stood could not operate in the damp of the trenches and was soon replaced by the D Mark III, a specialised, better protected military phone.

Newly-designed radio transmitters, signalling lamps and switchboards all became part of life in the trenches too, but – like the machine gun – not all developments during the war made life better.

The idea of flame throwers had been around in warfare for centuries, but the Great War saw the German Flammenwerfer developed to terrifying new levels, as they were used to attack enemy trenches.

Equally, hand grenades had been used for hundreds of years but from 1914, on both sides, it would transform from a hefty, match-lit device, liable to detonate before it even left the trench, to safety pins and fragmenting shells.

Poison gas was first officially used by the Germans at Ypres on April 22 1915 but use of other gas had been trialled in one battle before this.

First World War exhibition
First World War exhibition

Over the next three years, the range of gases launched by both sides evolved.

First chlorine was used, attacking the respiratory system and causing death by choking, then phosgene, which killed in the same way, just with less coughing first – and therefore warning.

Then finally, mustard gas was deployed, which caused extreme external and internal blistering.

The early protection offered to troops – first a cloth soaked in urine, later a basic filter mask – gave some, but little, defence, and although only 3% of gas casualties proved immediately fatal, hundreds of thousands of men would suffer the side effects for the rest of their lives.