The destination for history

How the First World War changed combat forever


Today people talk about a development being a ‘game-changer’. The First World War could certainly lay claim to that, and indeed there was not a single development but many. It is also important to bear in mind that not everything that is associated with the First World War was really new, although it was certainly new to many of those fighting, and to their commanders.

The enduring images of the war were of trench warfare, with the mud and misery of the Western Front, and indeed of Gallipoli, or of men advancing slowly across no man’s land to be greeted by a hail of machine gun bullets, or of bodies stuck on barbed wire.

Yet, none of these things was new, and in fact all dated from the American Civil War, more than fifty years earlier. Another feature of the American Civil War was the extensive use of railways, so that commanders in the field had fresh troops in large numbers, and abundant supplies. The railway was an important aspect of the First World War as well, and the British Army actually built a narrow-gauge network behind its front lines to improve the distribution of supplies. So, what were the novel aspects of the First World War that set it apart from earlier wars and which influenced combat in the years that followed the Armistice of 1918 and the Treaties of Versailles and St Germaine in 1919 and of Trianon in 1920?

The use of aerial warfare, especially the development of the fighter and the bomber, was one. Another related to this was the advent of the aircraft carrier. Then there was the submarine. On the other hand, the torpedo was already known and feared, with the destroyer having been first conceived as the ‘torpedo-boat destroyer’ rather than an anti-submarine weapon. Sonar, or as it was then known, ASDIC, appeared at the end of the war. There was also the tank, designed to break the stalemate on the Western Front.

Aerial warfare

The advantages of air power had been known since the Battle of Maubeuge in 1794, but this was the use of tethered, or static, balloons for reconnaissance and artillery direction. Reconnaissance was a duty for which balloons were used again in the American Civil War and by the British in southern Africa near the end of the nineteenth century. During the Balkan Wars, the Italians were accused of using aircraft to bomb enemy positions, but these were frail aircraft and the ‘bombs’ were hand grenades or artillery shells dropped over the sides.

Fighter aircraft evolved in 1914 and 1915 from the scout aircraft used by both sides for reconnaissance. Development was rapid, and First World War fighters were improved by first propeller interrupter gear so that accuracy was improved with pilots able to fire straight ahead. It also allowed fighters to be single-seat aircraft, vastly improving performance. An interim stage was the pusher-biplane fighter, with a rear propeller so that the crew had an uninterrupted view ahead. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill volunteered the Royal Naval Air Service for the aerial defence of London. Bombers came later, as did bombs that were designed as such and not simply artillery shells fitted with stabilising fins. The Germans had the larger bombers at first, including the Gotha, and with these and Zeppelin airships they conducted air raids over European cities and London. The British had their single-engined DH4 and DH9 bombers, and at the end of the war came a larger aircraft, the Vickers Vimy, twin-engined and post-war to make the first non-stop transatlantic flight. Caproni also provided larger bombers for the Italians.

The development of the flying boat led to the use of aircraft for maritime-reconnaissance and specifically anti-submarine warfare. One of the leaders in this field was the American Glenn Curtiss, working with a British associate, Lieutenant Commander J.C. Porte, and this led to the establishment of a flying-boat factory at Felixstowe in Suffolk. Seaplane carriers had been trialled before the outbreak of war, and Irish Sea and English Channel packets had been adapted for this role soon after the outbreak of war. Nevertheless, seaplanes while fine for fleet reconnaissance were too encumbered by the weight and drag of their floats to be effective fighters, even against airships which could jettison their ballast to climb quickly. After experiments with launching landplane fighters from lighters towed by destroyers, which meant that the aircraft had to ditch and so could only be used once. The first ship was modified to act as an aircraft carrier, HMS Furious. It was from this ship that the first carrier-based strike from the sea was made in summer 1918 against the Zeppelin sheds at Tondern in Germany.

War at sea

Mention the role of the submarine in the war and most think of the German U-boat menace that nearly brought the people of the British Isles to the point of starvation, but the Royal Navy used submarines to great effect in the Baltic and then again in the Sea of Marmara, and in the latter case attacked shore targets as well as Turkish and German shipping. The Baltic campaign was brought to a premature end by the Bolshevik Revolution and the collapse of Russian resistance, which meant that bases were no longer available. Detecting submarines was attempted by using hydrophones, which had the one big drawback that the noise of the submarine hunter’s machinery and propellers often drowned out the noise of the submarine. ASDIC was invented during the war years - the name stands for ‘Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee’ – but did not get to sea until five days after the Armistice. Nevertheless, it was a significant advance that stood the Allies in good stead during the Second World War, and is now known more usually as sonar.

Battleships had been developed long before the war and in 1906, the first all-big-gun battleship, HMS Dreadnought, appeared. Nevertheless, while these were significant warships in the First World War, they quickly came to play a secondary role to the submarine and the aircraft carrier in the Second World War.

War presents challenges and opportunities for invention and innovation. Many believe that four years of war advanced aviation more than a hundred years of peace might have done, but it is worth remembering that Igor Sikorsky developed and flew large aircraft in Russia before the war. Perhaps the real lesson of war is that officialdom and politicians sometimes have to sit up and pay attention to the inventors and innovators.  

By David Wragg

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