World War I Tactics and Weaponry in Term Paper

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World War I Tactics and Weaponry

In many ways, the "War to End All Wars" was fought with a wide range of increasingly modernized weaponry that was matched with obsolete tactics that resulted in millions of deaths and casualties on both sides of the conflict. Indeed, during the period between 1914 and 1918, the full brunt of early 20th century technology was brought to bear on the battlefields of Europe and the ghastly results were truly impressive, but the initial results of these weapons were insufficient to completely turn the tide of the war. Consequently, the belligerents became increasingly bogged down in trench warfare that demanded even more destructive weapons. To determine what happened during World War I in these areas, this paper details the type of techniques and weaponry used throughout the war and looks at how these changed technologically to change future wars. An examination concerning the reasons why there were so many stalemates on the battlefield, which led to a war of attrition and mass casualties is followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Weaponry of the First World War

The First World War was fought primarily by the Allied Powers comprised of Great Britain, France, Italy, Russia, Japan and ultimately the United States against the Central Powers consisting of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey (Neiberg 61). Each of these countries had their own weapons and tactics at the beginning of the war, but the crucible of fire that would follow proved their ineffectiveness on the modern battlefield in various ways. For instance, in his classic account of German military life during World War I, Erich Maria Remarque vividly describes the horrific nature of the World War I battlefield as well as the weapons and tactics that were typically used by both sides. In many cases, the weapons used by World War I infantry would be familiar to the soldiers of World War II and even well into the 21st century. For instance, familiar weapons such as bayonet-equipped rifles, machine guns, hand grenades and knives were standard issue for the soldiers of the Allies and Central Powers alike. Likewise, flamethrowers, tanks and even fixed-wing aircraft and dirigibles were increasingly used as the war dragged on, all with limited effectiveness (Childs 37).

Although there was official weaponry used in World War I, it would seem that there were some unofficial but highly effective ways that the front-line soldiers created their own weapons and enforced weapons policy as well and some of these weapons were feared by the Allied troops more than others. For example, together with the flamethrower, Remarque reports that German soldiers who carried the standard issue bayonets with saw-blade edges were specially targeted by the Allied troops because of the particularly gruesome wounds that would result from these weapons. For instance, Remarque notes that prior to a major offensive by the enemy, German soldiers would be issued extra hand grenades and ammunition, but the seasoned veterans took care to "overhaul the bayonets, that is to say the ones that have a saw on the blunt edge. If the fellows over there catch a man with one of those, he's killed at sight" (p. 103). Interestingly, one of the most formidable weapons used in trench warfare was not a weapon at all in the traditional sense but was rather a sharpened entrenching tool or spade. Spades were shorter than rifles and were easier to maneuver in the tight quarters of trench warfare. In this regard, Remarque adds that:

It is usually the fashion now to charge with bombs and spades only. The sharpened spade is a more handy many-sided weapon, not only can it be used for jabbing a man under the chin, but it is much better for striking with because of its greater weight and if one hits between the neck and shoulder it easily cleaves as far down as the chest. The bayonet frequently jams on the thrust and then the man has to kick hard on the other fellow's belly to get it out. At night they send over gas & #8230; (p. 103-104).

The use of gas, of course (discussed further below), was an especially gruesome weapon used in World War I which has since been banned by international agreement, but the use of sharpened spades and hand grenades may seem primitive by early 20th century standards, but these were pragmatic tactics designed in response to the exigencies of trench warfare. In this regard, Neiberg emphasizes the extent of the entrenched forces that were involved. According to Neiberg, "By late 1914, the western front had bogged down into a stalemate of opposing trench systems that stretched from the English Channel to Switzerland. On the western front alone, the men dug 25,000 miles of zig-zagged trenches, enough to circle the globe if set end-to-end" (61). The extent of these trenches can be seen from the red line demarking the main battle lines during World War I shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Major War Fronts of World War I

Source: Maps of the World at

The elaborate nature of many of these trenches is well documented, and the troops had plenty of time to improve their condition because the war dragged on for several more years with little substantive change in the battle lines, but with increasingly formidable defenses in place. Not surprisingly, then, battlefield commanders on both sides were at a loss concerning what tactics could prove effective in breaking through these defenses, and the trial-and-error that followed was gruesome to consider. As Neiberg (2001) points out, "The defensive nature of World War I weapons technology meant that offensive charges against these trenches, so crucial to the pre-war doctrine of all armies, were bound to fail. Nevertheless, commanders continued to order them despite horrific losses" (61).

In response to the human slaughter that ensued from the use of these obsolete tactics, Samuels (1992) reports that the German military leadership increasingly placed a high priority on developing alternatives that would prove more effective in trench warfare, even if this meant resorting to the basics. According to Samuels, "The German infantry were equipped with weapons best suited to their primary Stosskraft [assault power] function. The use of stun grenades gave them protection over the last few seconds before contact, while their pistols and knives gave them a distinct advantage in a melee against men attempting to wield a cumbersome rifle in a narrow trench" (49).

Despite the ability of rifles to be fired in the traditional way, as well as their ability to be used as clubs and equipped with a bayonet, the very nature of narrow trench warfare generally precluded their effective application by either side. Moreover, the muddy conditions that frequently prevailed in the trenches meant that rifles were difficult to keep clean, further limiting their usefulness. In this regard, Samuels adds that, "A rifle is both more difficult to keep free from mud and harder to clean when dirty than is a pistol, which may be kept safely inside a man's tunic, while a grenade is largely unaffected by being dirty. The Germans' equipment was therefore technically better suited to the prevailing conditions than that of the British infantry" (49).

As noted above, one of the most feared weapons of World War I was the mustard and blister gas that was used to devastating but frequently unpredictable effect. According to one historian, "At the collective level, poison gas created confusion and pandemonium. Initially, the Allies' reaction to gas warfare was the same as their opponents-surprise. The French had experimented with gas grenades in 1914 but were not impressed by their lackluster performance and discontinued their use" (82). Moreover, the Hague Convention of 1907, which the Germans had signed, prohibited the use of poison or poisonous weapons, and the British military leadership were convinced that the Germans would abide by the agreement (Brundt 82). In fact, the German leadership had remained unconvinced of the viability of gas as a tool of warfare and the use of gas in the Battle of Ypres (see map in Figure 1 above) was used as a testing ground to evaluate its effectiveness (Brundt 83). According to Brundt, "To everyone's surprise, the gas attack was so devastating and unexpected that it created a gap over 4 miles wide in the Allied lines. When news of the attack reached the Allies, public outrage was pervasive. The Allies had received warnings from German prisoners attesting to the impending attacks, but, incredibly, the Allies chose to ignore them" (83).

Consequently, it appears that the Allied leadership was either unwilling or unable to grasp the imminent use of gas in the trenches of the European theatre in ways that directly contributed to additional casualties from gas attacks due to troops being ill-prepared and ill-equipped. Even worse, when the Allied military leadership, for example, did respond to the looming threat of gas attacks, it did so in ways that further exacerbated the…

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