Technology and equipment developed during World War I

 

The war drove scientific and technological initiative on an unprecedented scale. Innovation on both sides created more destructive and effective weapons. Communications, medicine and transportation were also advanced. But not all inventions achieved their intended goals.

Aircraft

Aeroplanes

A significant technological advance in World War I was the adoption and modification of aeroplanes for military use.

Early aircraft flown by Australian Flying Corps crews were unsuited to operations in the Middle East. When Lieutenant George Merz was let down by a faulty plane on 30 Jul 1915, he became the first Australian airman to die in the war. His unarmed Caudron G.3 was prone to engine problems. In the desert between Nasiriyeh and Basra, Merz and his passenger were murdered while trying to fix the plane.

Only 3 years later, Australian airmen were piloting the deadliest machines of the war. The last Australian airmen to die in the war were:

Captain Baker was an accomplished combat pilot. As part of No. 4 Squadron, he had brought down five German planes over 7 days.

All three men were killed on 4 November 1918 while escorting a squadron of British bombers back to base after a raid over Leuze. Their manoeuvrable Sopwith Snipe planes were shot down by the ace German pilot, Rittmeister Karl Bolle.

Tactics in aerial warfare developed throughout the war and included:

  • artillery spotting
  • battery ranging
  • sector reconnaissance
  • spotting for fire-effect
  • dogfighting

Germany’s Baron Manfred von Richthofen, 'the Red Baron', was a well-known fighter pilot at the time. With 80 combat victories, he was the highest scoring pilot of the war. Von Richthofen was killed in action over France on 21 April 1918. At his funeral the next day, the Australian Flying Corps No. 3 Squadron fired a 12-gun salute.

Anti-aircraft weapons

At the start of World War I, dedicated anti-aircraft weapons were rare because few aircraft were used and their military use had not been proven. At first, Allied units were slow to provide dedicated anti-aircraft batteries. Germany initially led the way with motorised and horse-drawn guns controlled by the German Army Air Service.

Both sides quickly realised the value of planes during combat. Aircraft were used to undertake:

  • offensive roles, such as bombing and artillery spotting
  • reconnaissance operations, such as photography and surveillance

Combatting these offensive aerial roles needed more effective weapons that could:

  • provide high rates of fire with specialised munitions
  • be elevated towards the sky to shoot down aircraft

Scientific research to develop specialised munitions included:

  • timed fuses that would detonate shells in the air, dispersing shrapnel to destroy aircraft
  • incendiary shells that would ignite and set fire to airships and balloons

Other ways to prevent attacks from aircraft and airships were devised to:

  • disrupt their passage, such as searchlights and web-like barriers of tethered balloons
  • funnel aircraft into anti-aircraft firing range

Optical systems to track and range aircraft were important. Such advances helped to direct more accurate fire at incoming planes.

Both sides mounted machine guns on tripods as anti-aircraft measures. Although machine guns had a high rate of fire, they lacked the range of heavier calibre artillery munitions. Infantry on both sides sometimes used their rifles to shoot at low flying planes.

In 1917, Germany released a high velocity 88mm artillery gun as an anti-aircraft weapon. It allowed anti-aircraft gunners to more accurately calculate their bearings to shoot down Allied planes.

The British also developed some specialised anti-aircraft guns in different calibres. The best known was a variation of the 'pom-pom' gun.

By the end of the war, adoption of anti-aircraft tactics and weapons meant that:

  • Americans claimed 58 aircraft shot down from 1917 onwards
  • British and Australian forces claimed 340 aircraft shot
  • French forces claimed 500 aircraft shot down
  • German forces claimed over 1500 aircraft shot down

Airships and balloons

Military use of balloons peaked during World War I.

Newly developed dirigibles were more manoeuvrable and tougher than traditional hot air balloons. They were a constant sight above both sides' trenches on the Western Front.

Observation balloons:

  • were floated or tethered to a great height behind the front lines
  • carried observers who could spot enemy troop movements and collect intelligence

Ground artillery took advantage of the observer's increased range of sight from up high.

Anti-balloon warfare

Balloons became a target for both sides during the war. They were heavily defended by anti-aircraft guns on the ground and patrolling fighter aircraft.

Allied flying squadrons shot down German balloons with specially developed ammunition. This was an important tactic to prevent intelligence collection before major offensives. Incendiary bullets ignited the flammable gases in the balloons, causing them to erupt into fireballs.

The Buckingham incendiary bullet was developed for Allied airmen to use against German balloons.

Being an observer in a balloon or dirigible was risky business. You could be shot down by the enemy. Observation crews used parachutes long before they were adopted by airmen.

If a balloon came under attack, its occupant's only chance of survival would be to bail out and deploy a parachute as they left the basket. Sometimes their escape was too late, or their parachute caught alight.

Tethered observation balloons were used at sea, including by the Royal Australian Navy. Balloons were tethered to vessels, such as HMAS Parramatta, to help spot, pursue and sink enemy submarines.

The saying, 'The balloon goes up', means that something exciting or risky is beginning. During the war, the ascent of the enemy's observation balloon was nearly always followed by a barrage of shells.

Armoured cars and other vehicles

Armoured cars were widely used in the Middle East and on the Western Front. These cars were particularly useful for reconnaissance.

Even taxis played a role in the war. A fleet of taxis carried reinforcements to the forward areas in the First Battle of the Marne in 1914.

Where they could be used, motorised ambulances fulfilled a vital role. They provided rapid transportation for the wounded to hospitals.

Gas and anti-gas measures

Gas canisters and shells

Gas was an effective tactic for clearing enemy forward positions during the war. Gases used included:

  • chlorine
  • bromine
  • mustard gas
  • phosgene

When gas was first used in combat on the Western Front, it was stored in cylinders. When the wind was favourable, it was released to drift over enemy lines.

The gas from cylinders had a fairly short range in windy conditions and could prove lethal to the side using it if the wind changed direction.

At the Battle of Loos, the chlorine gas used against the Germans blew back into the faces of the British and Canadian troops. War correspondent Charles Bean wrote:

as a matter of fact gas in cloud form, emitted from cylinders, was never used directly against an Australian division

From 1916, gas was delivered in shells, which could be shot over a greater distance.

Gas masks

Anti-gas measures became increasingly sophisticated as the war progressed. In 1915, the British Army issued its troops with primitive cotton face pads soaked in sodium bicarbonate. The bicarb soda in the 'Black Veil' worked against a normal concentration of chlorine for about 5 minutes. By 1918, it was common to use filter respirators with charcoal or chemicals to neutralise the gas.

Gas alarm gong

When a gas attack seemed imminent or was in progress, the troops on the front would bang on a gas alarm gong to warn others. The gongs were usually hand made from metal rods or shell casings.

Sometimes strombus horns were sounded too.

Ayrton fan

A foldable anti-gas fan was designed to supply the troops with fresh air after a gas attack. It was used to clear gaseous residue that collected in shell-holes and craters.

Communication

The nature of trench warfare drove a need for more rapid communication between headquarters and the front lines. Conventional methods of communication at the time included:

  • runners
  • cyclists
  • animals, such as pigeons and dogs

Telephones were widely used in the trenches, but their lines could easily be cut due to artillery damage or enemy sabotage.

The portable Morse code machine used by British forces enabled:

  • communication between headquarters and the front line
  • developments in field radios for forward observers to communicate with artillery units

The portable Fullerphone included both Morse code and speech facilities.

Early aircraft could drop message canisters down to ground forces. As planes became more sophisticated, so did their methods of communication.

A throat microphone described as 'a cap with a throat microphone and earpiece' was developed for hands-free communication. Pilots could receive orders from ground staff and pass on intelligence they had collected in the air.

Wireless was used to send messages between ships on convoy duty or during battle.

Other important communications methods included:

  • heliographs (sunlight flashed in mirrors)
  • signalling flags
  • signalling lamps (eg Begbie oil lamp and Lucas daylight electric lamp)
  • simple tools for transmitting Morse code (eg a whistle)

Signalling flags, lamps and whistles carried the risk of being seen or heard by the enemy.

Some technical developments enabled the collection of intelligence from intercepted telecommunications. Wireless signals from German Zeppelins were collected at 'Direction Finding Stations' in Great Britain. This provided both the location and anticipated targets of Zeppelin attacks.

As a final measure, the complete 'cut off' of communications was another way to stall and disrupt a German attack.

Inventions and innovation

Artillery techniques

Artillery was the most devastating weapon during the war.

The Allies put a lot of effort into locating and destroying German artillery positions. One technique was artillery sound ranging. This process used the sound of individual artillery pieces to work out the position and coordinates of enemy batteries.

Another technique was acoustic location, a forerunner to radar. An unusual device with large horns could amplify distant the sounds of enemy aircraft. The sound was monitored through headphones. Similar developments were initiated in marine acoustics to locate enemy submarines.

Flash spotting was important too. Ground troops would observe for the flash of an artillery piece being fired as another method of locating enemy batteries.

Kettering unmanned torpedo

The Americans developed the first pilotless flying weapon ('drone') in 1918.

The Kettering Bug had pre-set pneumatic and electrical controls to stabilise and guide it toward a target. After a set period, the controls closed an electrical circuit to stop the engine. This released the wings and caused the machine to plunge to earth, where 180 pounds (82kg) of explosive would detonate on impact.

The war ended before it could be used in combat.

Periscope rifle

The trench periscope rifle was invented in May 1915 by Lance Corporal William Beech, 2nd Battalion AIF. The gun allowed a soldier to take accurate aim and fire from down inside the trench, without exposing himself to fire from enemy trenches or snipers.

Flamethrower

The Germans improved the flamethrower, a brutal infantry weapon. Its operator could send a jet of flame many metres towards enemy troops. Inside the device, a cylinder of oil was being pressurised by a propellant, such as carbon dioxide or nitrogen.

Hand grenades

The hand grenade (called 'bombs' at the time) became more advanced and lethal during the war.

Initially, the Germans had the most advanced grenades. By the end of the war, the British and French forces had developed more effective:

  • fragmentation and concussion grenades
  • 'smoke' grenades to conceal movement
  • coloured smoke grenades for signalling
  • gas grenades
  • rifle launched grenades

Sometimes the troops themselves took the initiative to make grenades. The AIF’s 'jam tin' bomb was an empty tin or two packed with explosives, shrapnel and a fuse.

Medical advances

No one was prepared for the tremendous physical impact that modern artillery, gas and machine guns — and the stress of battle — would have on the men.

At first, armies had very basic arrangements in place for moving and treating wounded men. Usually, a man would be carried away from the battle by soldiers, or be placed on a stretcher or a horse or mule-drawn cart. Private Simpson and his donkey is one early Australian example of using donkeys to transport for the wounded.

Military medical facilities were also poorly equipped to treat:

  • shock
  • loss of blood
  • open wounds

Before the age of antibiotics, medical officers were unable to kill harmful bacteria, such as gangrene-causing Clostridium perfringens. Many patients either died from the infection or underwent salvage amputations of gangrenous limbs.

Transport and treatment improvements

Three significant medical advances sprang from the experience of mass casualties in World War I:

  • ambulances
  • antiseptic
  • specialised anaesthetists

The methods of evacuating and treating wounded that evolved so quickly during World War I are the forerunners of the technologically advanced tools used in modern military medicine.

The Carrel-Dakin method to wash open wounds with a solution of sodium hypochlorite was a major breakthrough. It helped to prevent the spread of deadly bacteria.

Other major developments included:

  • anaesthetic to reduce pain, such as nitrous oxide
  • anti-coagulants to store blood in 'blood banks'

Medical treatment became more hygienic and less traumatic. Supplies of blood saved countless wounded men from bleeding to death.

Specialist anaesthetist posts were introduced to casualty clearing stations behind the lines by late 1917. This enabled specialist medical officers to help prevent shock during surgery by focusing on:

  • blood transfusions
  • pain relief
  • resuscitation

The British Army trained 200 nurses in anaesthesia in late 1917. They were posted to the casualty clearing stations in 1918.

Post-war improvements

The terrible effects of modern weapons on the human body were addressed as the war went on.

Men who suffered tremendous disfigurements were helped with the development of:

  • maxillofacial reconstructive surgery
  • use of prostheses as facial masks and limb replacements

Common conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), were little understood at the time. The psychological impact of the war was called 'shell shock'. It was known that loud explosions, such as fireworks, could trigger a reaction in some returned service men and women.

Ships

Both Navy and merchant navy ships helped the Allies to win the war against Germany.

For the first 6 months of the war, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) fleet operated under one command. After that, its sailors and ships served with different squadrons around the world - as requested by the British Admiralty.

RAN ships and submarines worked with the Grand Fleet and other Allied navies to:

  • search for enemy raiders over thousands of miles of ocean
  • carry out anti-submarine warfare
  • escort convoys of merchant ships carrying supplies and troops
  • do long routine patrols, essential to the blockade of Germany and enemy ports
  • experiment with the use of aircraft at sea
  • sweep for mines in home waters

Australian ships could be found around the world during the war. From South Pacific outposts to the freezing North Atlantic Ocean, the waters off Africa, the Caribbean off Mexico’s west coast, navigating New Guinean rivers, patrolling the Mediterranean and in the waters surrounding Australia.

Ultimately, the British Grand Fleet, which included Australian ships, played a vital role in the defeat of Germany. Not by destroying the Imperial German Navy, but by preventing the German fleet from reaching open waters and making possible the Allied blockade of Germany.

The Allies’ ability to maintain a naval blockade of Germany crippled Germany’s imports and industry. It was a significant factor in the Allied victory.

Naval developments

More powerful battleships could carry the largest guns. The Dreadnought class of battleships gave both sides tremendous destructive capability.

Other major developments included:

  • ammunition with greater firing range
  • naval fire control systems in Dreadnought class battleships for added lethality
  • steam turbines for a faster more agile battleship

Small torpedo boats were developed to attack and harass much larger naval and merchant navy vessels.

Merchant navy

Both sides used converted merchant vessels to attack or defend shipping.

German commerce raiders were converted civilian ships carrying disguised weapons. Their apparent vulnerability often lured enemy vessels towards them. Armed merchant cruisers were converted civilian ships equipped with guns.

The German raider, Möwe, sank 34 merchant ships. The German raider, Wolf, sank 12 ships and laid sea mines in the Indian and Pacific oceans and the Tasman Sea in 1917. The mines sank three ships in Australian and New Zealand waters.

The heaviest ships engaged in commerce raiding were German light cruisers. They attacked Allied shipping in the Atlantic, Caribbean, Pacific and Indian oceans. The SMS Emden sank Allied vessels before being sunk by HMAS Sydney

The British and French navies also used armed merchant vessels. The British 'Q' ships were used in anti-submarine warfare.

Submarines

Submarines played a significant role during World War I.

The Allied and German navies used submarines against enemy warships from the outset of the war.

Australia’s submarines, AE1 and AE2, served the British Admiralty from the start of the war. AE1 tragically became the first Allied submarine los in the war. It disappeared with all 35 British and Australian crewmen on 14 September 1914.

Great feats of submariners' bravery were celebrated early in the war.

British Captain Norman Holbrook led the submarine B11 on a high-risk mission through the Dardanelles on 13 December 1914. After a tortuous passage through the narrow waterway, the crew sank the Turkish battleship, Mesudiye, and then escaped.

Australia’s AE2 also traversed the Dardanelles. The crew damaged an Ottoman gunboat before the submarine was attacked by a Turkish ship and scuttled on 30 April 1915. They were all taken prisoner.

Submarine warfare

Submarine warfare was almost polite at first. Submarine crews tried to obey the internationally agreed cruiser rules. For example, a German U-boat would surface and allow the crew to abandon a ship before it was sunk. But this operation was difficult and risky for submarines, and it was soon replaced with more aggressive tactics.

In 1915, the Germans declared unrestricted submarine warfare on Allied and neutral vessels. The policy aimed to isolate Britain and starve its people of resources.

The infamous sinking of the RMS Lusitania by Germany's U-20 was an example of this policy. An angry response from the United States made Germany stop the practice between September 1915 and February 1917.

In response to the Allied blockade of German sea ports, Germany escalated its submarine operations from 20 U-boats in 1914 to 140 by 1917 when the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare was resumed in full force.

Anti-submarine strategies

During the war, Allied forces initiated U-boat countermeasures, such as:

  • warship escorts ordered for convoys of merchant ships
  • heavily armed Q-ships disguised as merchant ships
  • airborne reconnaissance to spot U-boats

The Royal Navy used heavily armed merchant ships called Q-ships to lure U-boats into making a surface attack. When the U-boat approached, the Q-ship would unleash its superior concealed guns. Deceitful tactics included staging an abandonment, with some crew visibly 'leaving' the ship in lifeboats.

The Allies also tried airborne reconnaissance to spot U-boats, with varying success. Spotters in airplanes or tethered balloons were used to this end.

Anti-submarine technology

The Allies developed other anti-submarine measures, including:

  • depth charges
  • detection equipment
  • underwater barriers

Australian ships were at the forefront of early experiments to launch military planes at sea. The idea of operating aircraft from platforms on battle cruisers and light cruisers became reality.

On 1 June 1918, a Sopwith Camel scout (fighter) aircraft flown from the deck of HMAS Sydney intercepted two German reconnaissance aircraft. One was badly damaged and reportedly went into a tail spin.

Tanks and land vehicles

The tank was developed in response to the stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front. German trenches seemed impenetrable to Allied infantry, with a combination of:

  • artillery
  • barbed wire
  • overlapping arcs of machine-gun fire and rifle fire from German infantry
  • strong-points and concrete reinforced pillboxes on the Hindenburg Line
  • rapid counter-attacks by fresh reinforcements

Attacking forces suffered horrendous casualties as soon as they left the protection of their own trenches. Even if an Allied assault met with early success, the costly gains were often held only fleetingly.

Tank design combined:

  • all-terrain capability of the tank's caterpillar tracks
  • armour to protect it from machine gun and rifle fire

In April 1917, the First Battle of Bullecourt left the Australian troops suspicious about the capability of tanks. But further developments made tanks a potent weapon for the Allies.

Tanks were used with success at:

Anti-tank tactics

Germany was the first to develop anti-tank warfare to combat the tanks being developed by Allies. On the battlefield, tanks were susceptible to:


Last updated: 13 March 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Technology and equipment developed during World War I, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 24 October 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/military-organisation/technology-and-equipment
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