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Weapons of World War 1

Discussion in 'World War One Forum' started by brianw, Feb 15, 2014.

  1. brianw

    brianw Member

    Sep 6, 2011
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    Bridgend, Mid Glam.
    via War44
    In August 1914 Europe and later the world descended into what was often referred to at the time “The Great War”; the war to end all wars. It was thought that it would all be over by Christmas, but nobody said exactly which Christmas. Four years later after the fields of Northern France and Flanders, Southern Belgium had been turned into desolate treeless moonscapes of mud, blood and shell craters a kind of peace returned to the world on 11th November 1918 when the guns finally fell silent. It did not become “The first world war” until after war was declared for a second time in 1939.

    Casualty numbers are difficult to estimate; some sources estimate between 5 and 15 million military deaths and up to 37 million dead and wounded, including civilian casualties.

    One thing is for certain, the 1914-18 war heralded the birth of modern warfare and weapons, many of which are still in service today, albeit in a more up-to-date and effective guise. At the opening of hostilities it was probably envisaged that it would be yet another conflict much like those earlier colonial wars fought by highly mobile cavalry with infantry support. However during the first year of fighting British and French troops were facing a much more effective fighting force and tactics from the German forces which resulted in a general withdrawal out of Belgium and into Northern France where the conflict rapidly became stalled into the stalemate of the now infamous trench war.

    Personal weapons
    The infantry man’s main weapon was his rifle, the British standard issue being the Lee-Enfield MkI .303; a breach loading bolt action rifle with a magazine holding a total of 15 rounds. In the hands of a skilled marksman it was lethal at more than 1000 yards (915 plus metres). The Lee-Enfied rifle in various marks remained in general service until the mid 1960s when it was replaced with the “Belgian FN” otherwise known as the 7.62 SLR (Self Loading Rifle). The Lee-Enfield could be fitted with a long bayonet which from experience could make it somewhat unstable for accurate shooting but was a frightening close-quarters stabbing weapon. Even today, the standard modern services weapon, the SA80 can be fitted with the short bayonet, although mainly for ceremonial duties.

    Machine guns
    There were numerous designs of machine guns deployed at the front and even though at first they were able to use the standard ammunition, the weight of the gun, the belt fed ammunition and the overheating of the barrels meant that they were only suitable for generally fixed firing positions. The water cooled barrels of the Vickers machine gun was typical of the day. Later machine gun designs, post WW1 led to weapons like the Bren .303 light machine gun which employed quickly interchangeable barrels so that it could be used almost continuously. Later improvements in the quality of the steel used to manufacture the barrels and lower temperature propellant has allowed machine gun technology to be improved upon, even today.

    In the field of artillery WW1 saw guns grow from the small 6 pounder horse drawn field gun to the incredibly huge howitzer such as the German “Big Bertha” which could lob a 1800 pound explosive shell almost eight miles and the railway mounted “super-guns” like the “Paris Gun”; a weapon used to target the city of Paris. The Paris gun was capable of firing a relatively small 106 kgm explosive shell a distance of 130 kilometres (81 miles). At that range, accuracy was not good and the explosive payload relatively small, consequently it was regarded more as a psychological weapon than anything else. Super large guns continued to be developed; in the second war, Germany was developing the V3 and more recently Saddam Hussein was thought to be building a super-gun in the Iraqi desert. Trench artillery also saw the use of air-bursting explosive shells, the purpose of which was to explode above the enemy trenches, showering them with white hot fragments of metal or shrapnel. The technique of air-bursting shells became a standard anti-aircraft technique during the second war; in German it was called Flugzeugabwehrkanone and was often just referred to as “Flak”.

    The nature of trench warfare necessitated the development of mortars; a short range weapon which fired an explosive “bomb” upwards at a very steep angle which meant that the projectile would fall nearly vertically at just a few hundred yards range. The bomb was generally aerodynamically shaped with fins which help to produce a more stable flight.
    The purpose of the mortar was to drop the projectile directly into the enemy’s trench system.
    Sizes ranged from the small 3 inch trench mortar to some so large that they required specialist teams to fire them effectively.
    The ordinary soldier in the trench was not over-enamoured with mortars being situated close-by. Once the enemy had identified a mortar’s location they tended to shoot back at it with their own mortars. Portable mortars are a standard infantry weapon nowadays, even seeing service in Afghanistan.

    Aeroplanes and airships
    On of the difficulties with longer range artillery was “spotting” the shell’s trajectory and fall. Early attempts to overcome this problem resulted in the use of tethered balloons with a spotter soldier being carried aloft and a telephone cable running down to the ground along with the tether cable. Artillery spotting by this method became an extremely dangerous occupation since soldiers in the enemy trenches invariably had a clear shot of the balloon. One safety feature which was developed quite early during this period was the parachute so that the spotter could jump out of the balloon basket as soon as the gas bag had been hit, although it wasn’t until sometime after the war that parachutes became standard kit in aeroplanes.
    The aeroplane was found to be most useful in providing up-to-date information about the enemy disposition initially with the observer hand drawing details onto maps of the area, but with the advent of “portable” high definition cameras and film, aerial photography began to make an appearance.
    All sides used what became “photo-reconnaissance” to stay abreast of the enemy’s movements and some method of deterring aeroplanes from coming too close had to be developed. At first this was little more than the soldier in the trench letting off a few rifle shots but very soon larger calibre high angled machine guns were being used; the forerunner of later anti-aircraft weapons.
    Pilots found that very often they were close enough to an enemy aircraft to actually try shooting at eachother with handheld pistols which inevitably led to machine guns being mounted on aeroplanes and once the problem of synchronizing the guns with the propeller was successfully addressed the single seat fighter aircraft was seen over the trenches.
    Man had been flying in a “heavier than air” machine for a little over ten years after the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903 and already he had found ways to turn the aeroplane into a weapon of war.
    A development of the tethered balloon, mainly by the Germans was the Zeppelin airship. Originally conceived as a passenger transport, the Zeppelin soon found favour with the German high command as a platform suitable for long range bombing missions on targets on the British mainland such as London. A major failing of the airship was that the gas used to provide the lift was hydrogen, a highly flammable gas and once the British fighter squadrons had worked out an effective mix of ammunition; bullets and tracers the airship being less than easily manoeuvrable they became extremely vulnerable to attack from fighter aircraft.
    Thought was also given to using aircraft as artillery and dropping shells directly on enemy trenches, but it was not until the shells became properly designed bombs that it became effective. With the advent of larger multi-engined aeroplanes capable of carrying a number of bombs and a crew who could defend themselves, the bomber aircraft was born.

    While developments continued at ground level and above the trenches, a more secret war was being conducted deep beneath no-man’s land. In addition to the zig-zag of the trench lines, there were chambers dug under and behind the trenches to serve as many purposes, “safe” areas where men could rest awhile from the terrors of the front line, control rooms for small sectors of the front, message centres and so on. Many of these dug-outs were dug by a secret branch of the Royal Engineers; the tunnelling companies. These tunnellers were often men with the experience of working underground; miners and sewage workers. Their primary role was to dig tunnels across no-man’s land from their own lines until they were beneath the enemy positions where they could explode huge amounts of explosives to undermine the enemy trenches. This was not quite as easy as at first thought. Both sides were digging tunnels, and both sides were developing listening devices to try to locate and destroy the other’s tunnels.
    Working in incredible conditions and almost in total silence, tunnelling companies did score some amazing and frightening successes such as the huge Lochnagar mine at the beginning of the Battle of the Somme when some 27 tons of ammanol was exploded creating the loudest man-made noise up to then; the explosion was heard in London and also the nineteen (out of twenty-one) mines exploded under German trenches along the Messines Ridge at the prelude to the third battle of Ypres in July 1917. Undermining was seen as an effective method of bringing down difficult targets such as bridges and viaducts during the second war, but instead of digging under the target structure, special bombs; the five ton “Tallboy” and the ten ton “Grand Slam” were used to create underground voids into which the target would collapse.

    Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector
    Along with undermining the enemy trenches with explosives, another “secret” weapon used from tunnels dug under no-man’s land was the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector; a huge high powered flame thrower which by using a mix of kerosene and diesel oil was able to throw a flame over thirty metres covering the German trenches in flames and continuously burning oil. By all accounts, 5 flame projectors were built with four being deployed to the western front. Two were damaged beyond repair when a German attack collapsed the tunnels in which they were being assembled. The remaining two were used ahead of the British advance on the Battle of the Somme and it was said that the weapons contributed to the reduced numbers of casualties in those sectors. Such weapons of mass terror and destruction were later banned under international conventions; although the smaller man carried flame thrower weapon was widely used during WW2, particularly in the Pacific theatre and the Vietnam War and is still available as a weapon.

    Poison gas
    Another weapon now banned under international agreement and used by all sides during WW1 but largely by the Germans was poison gas. Many chemical concoctions were tried from tear gas to some extremely toxic substances, notably chlorine gas, phosgene gas and mustard gas. Gas was generally used as a prelude to an infantry attack when it was hoped that the enemy defenders would be incapacitated prior to the attack. Initial trials of gas as a weapon showed that the prevailing winds could help or hinder the deployment but later gases were developed which were heavier than air which tended to creep across the ground and fall to the bottom of a trench and adjoining tunnels and dug-outs. Mustard gas could remain in the soil and also clothing for anything between a number of hours to many months. The main mechanism that gas operated as a weapon was to attack the moist linings of the internal respiratory organs, the casualty often succumbing due to symptoms not unlike drowning in their own fluids.
    The use of poison gas was feared during the second war; a fear which fortunately proved unfounded, even though gas masks were issued to the civilian population and were to be carried at all times, by law. The only instance of gas being used in combat was in the Second Sino-Japanese war. The Nazis did of course employ poison gas in large quantities, mainly Zyklon B in the gas chambers at their extermination camps during The Holocaust.
    Although banned by international convention, there are even today many stockpiles of more deadly modern gases such as Sarin and VX which tend to work mainly by attacking the nervous system.

    Not often thought of as a weapon, barbed wire was originally devised in America for stock control, however when laid in loose coils it becomes an almost impenetrable obstacle designed to slow the approach of oncoming infantry, making them an easier target for defenders. Barbed wire, these days it’s more likely to be razor-wire is still in use for the same purpose.
    Some method of advancing in relative safety over the ground called no-man’s land while at the same time destroying such defensive measures and also providing some protection for advancing troops had to be found. Britain had been experimenting with both tracked vehicles, armoured cars and mobile gun platforms for some time before the concepts were combined resulting in a vehicle with caterpillar tracks which could operate over mud and other obstructions with armour to protect the occupants and troops sheltering behind it and also armed with both machine guns and small field guns. The tank was born.
    The first tank of British design was the 14 ton “Little Willie”. Built on a commercially available tracked chassis, weight problems resulted in the design being abandoned and a new design with the rhomboid shape was chosen. By the end of January 1916 the 30 ton “Big Willie” later named “Mother” underwent field trials. By the middle of February an order for 150 had been placed.
    The first successful deployment of tanks in combat was at the Battle of Cambrai in 1917, but as so often on the western front, the breakthrough wasn’t exploited to the full.
    Although the Battle of Kursk in the second war is thought to have been the largest clash of armour in history, the first tank against tank battle is thought to have taken place at Villers-Bretonneux on 24 April 1918.
    In their early day, tanks were lumbering devices capable of no more than three or four miles per hour, but by the start of World War two the Germans had developed the tank to new heights and used them very effectively in their Blitzkrieg methods of warfare.
    These days tanks form the mainstay of any modern army.

    One of the supposed reasons often referred to for going to war was Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm’s perceived jealousy over the size and type of Britain’s Royal Navy. After trying to keep up with the “Dreadnought” type battleships, he realised that he would be unable to get the better of the Navy on the surface. So it was decided by the German Navy to employ what was seen at the time as underhanded tactics and deploy submarines.
    The first merchant navy vessel to fall prey to the U-Boat was the 44,600 ton “RMS Lusitania” off the south coast of Ireland on the afternoon of 7 May 1915. She was sunk by a torpedo from the German U-Boat U-20 resulting in the loss of 1,195 of the 1,959 passengers and crew.
    Following the Battle of Jutland on 31 May/1 June 1916, the result of which was inconclusive but Britain and the Royal Navy maintained dominance of the North Sea, the Germans tried to impose an embargo on imports to Britain of supplies from the US and the Empire in an effort to starve the nation into either a full surrender or to sue for peace. Being unable or unwilling to use their surface ships they opted for the use of submarines. The German submarines during the First World War were not a fully submersible vessel; they were able to submerge for very short periods under battery power while making an attack. They travelled on the surface using normal engines while on patrol. Anti-submarine tactics relied on good lookouts, guns, the convoy system and luck. The various aids to detection although in the trial phase at the end of WW1 were not available until well into the Second World War.
    The submarine was then as it is now an offensive rather than a defensive weapon, no matter how it is armed.

    In conclusion, it would appear that even though the weapons and methods of the First World War, the war to end all war seemed barbaric and totally horrific, they were no different to the methods of later conflicts and even today. The only difference is that nowadays it just seems cleaner; now we can do the killing even more efficiently.
  2. Cabel1960

    Cabel1960 recruit

    Nov 4, 2006
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    via War44
    Great read Brian I particularly enjoyed the read regarding the gases, you don't get to read much about this from the great war.

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