The First World War, also known as the Great War saw the use of some of the deadliest weapons known to humankind during that period of time. Europeans entered the war expecting cavalry charges and infantry carrying bayonets like older times, but reality was far different when the continent woke up to face U boats, machine guns, lethal chemicals and some of the most advanced artillery. Each side would come up with stronger and more advanced response of the existing weapons from century old barbed wires to aircrafts. It is believed that both warring sides had evaluated some 3000 chemicals to be used and about 50 of them were used in the battlefield. While many new developments were carried out, artillery remained one of the most prominent and devastating weapons of the First World War.
10. Barbed Wires
Barbed wires were innovated for livestock enclosure during the 19th century, which eventually found its way into modern warfare during the First World War. It had been estimated that a million miles long barbed wire had been installed in Flanders, Belgium alone that could circle the earth 40 times. These wires proved to be lethal weapons during the war. Wires were laid out to defend trenches and mark the no man’s land, and were also used by soldiers to lure an enemy into slaughter zones filled with artillery target points and machine guns.
The wires were typically laid out in long zigzag strips or in belts running parallel to the trenches. They were often several rows and dozen feet deep. Wire fields, particularly on Germany’s densely fortified Hindenburg Line stretched as far as 300 feet out into No Man’s Land making it dark and dense even during daylight.
9. Big Bertha
The Big Bertha was during the time of its creation the largest and the most powerful mobile artillery pieces used by any army. It was a 420 mm (16.5 in) howitzer used by the German forces to advance through Belgium during 1914. At the start of the war, the German forces had two Big Berthas and a total of 12 came into service during the war. The gun could fire projectiles weighing up to 1,785 pounds to a distance of about six miles (9 km). The most widely used type of shell in Big Berthas included a delayed action fuse which exploded after penetrating up to 40 feet of concrete and earth.
The name Big Bertha was given to the artillery piece as an honor to Bertha Krupp von Bohlen und Holbach, owner of the Krupp firm which made the weapon. During the seize of Liège, Belgium one of its projectiles completely destroyed Fort Loncin, displaying the capacity of Big Bertha.
8. Fokker Triplane
The Fokker Triplane is the most famous airplane of the First World War. Despite its popularity, only 320 of the Fokker Dr.1 Triplane were produced. The Fokker Triplane was the German response to the famous British Sopwith Triplane. It was flown by the most famous German Ace Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen also known as the Red Baron who downed at least 70 allied pilots, 19 with his Dr. 1. Some of the aces that flew with Dr.1 also include Werner Voss with 48 victories, Kurt Wolff with 33 victories, Lothar von Richthofen with 40 victories.
The top wing of the Fokker D.VI Triplane had ailerons and the lower and middle wings were attached to the fuselage. The top wing was above the fuselage and was attached by steel-tube struts. Powered by a 110 hp engine, the D. VI was armed with two synchronized 0.31 inch LMG 08/15 guns.
7. Artillery Gun
The First World War saw many developments in weapons like bomber aircrafts, automatic and portable machine guns, but it was highly dominated by artillery pieces. Its main aim was to fire explosive filled projectiles over large distances. Unlike infantry and calvary, the artillery could not enter into combat independently on its own. The two main types of artillery used in war were light field artillery pulled by horses and heavier guns moved by tractors.
Since 1914, the field artillery mainly had cannons with flat trajectories that had calibers ranging from 7.5 to 8.4 cm. Heavy artillery also included heavy mortar fire. Heavy artillery included special guns with calibers of over 30 cm that were used for combat against modern armored turret fortifications. The use of artillery hiked during wartime and its number rose by the end of the war. In 1914, artillery men made up 20 percent of the French army, by 1918 the number was up to 38 percent. Most deaths in the war was caused by artillery, which is estimated to be about 2/3rd of all deaths.
6. Machine Guns: Maxim MG 08
The Maxim MG 08 or Maschinengewehr 08 was an adaptation of the original machine gun, the world’s first fully automated machine gun system developed by Sir Hiram S. Maxim in 1884. The German army made a direct copy and deployed it during the First World War. During the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916 on just one day the British lost 21,000 men mostly to the German version of the machine gun. The MG 08 variant was used throughout the war and even during the final year of the Second World War.
The firing rate of the weapon depended on the lock assembly used and averaged 500 rounds per minute for the Schloss 08 and 600 rounds per minute for the Schloss 16. The gun used 250-round fabric belts of 7.92×57mm ammunition. While sustained firing would lead to overheating it was water-cooled, using a jacket around the barrel that held approximately one gallon of water. The practical range of MG 08 was estimated at some 2,200 yards up to an extreme range of 4,000 yards.
5. Chlorarsine and mustard gas
Chlorarsine in groups of chemical warfare agents is classified as vomiting agents or sneezing gases. It caused short-term but intense respiratory distress which was designed to disable temporarily but also to terrify the enemy troops. During wartime German’s used the first mustard gas in 1917. After encountering several attacks using the gas, the allies named it Hot Stuff or H.S. or simply H by the end of the war.
Mustard gas or sulfur mustard has the ability to cause large blisters on the skin and lungs. Mustard gas could not be easily detected unless under a direct attack. It has a funny smell and that is how the soldiers often detected the gas. During the time when Germans used the gas, gas masks proved inefficient as the gas penetrated through filters and mask housing. Gas Shell including chlorarsine, mustard gas and also phosgene caused about 160,526 casualties and about 4000 deaths of the British troops.
4. Phosgene and tear gas
Chemical warfare of the First World War included different types of chemicals. The French side was the first to use them in combat against the Germans in August 1914. While the precise chemical is not known both xylyl bromide and ethyl bromoacetate have been mentioned. Tear gases were not designed to kill but rather make the enemy unable to defend their position. Tear gas also opened doors to use more lethal chemicals like chlorine. Tear gases affected the eyes and lungs and the effect was cleared within 30 minutes of exposure.
Phosgene was the next chemical that was used alongside chlorine. It could take about 48 hours for the major symptoms to appear. It can cause the build-up of fluid in the lungs, causing the fatality. It is estimated that as many as 85% of the 91,000 deaths attributed to gas during wartime was the result of phosgene or the similar agent diphosgene. Poison gases caused more psychological trauma than deaths. About 1% of the wartime fatalities and 7% casualties were a result of poison gases.
3. Tanks: Mark V tank
The Mark V Tank was the last and largest tank to serve in the First World War from the British side. It was a modified version of Mark IV. Together with its variants Mark V* and Mark V** about 1,070 were built by March 1919. The Mark V had the external features of the Mark IV including the hull, rollers, and tracks to avoid disruption of production. However, a new, more powerful drivetrain and transmission were ready during early 1917. These systems included petrol-electric schemes, hydraulic systems, a multiple clutch system (a single driver was needed), and Wilson’s own epicyclical gearbox design (4 forward gears, one reverse). A new and more powerful 19-liter six-cylinder in-line Ricardo engine (150 bhp) was fitted. Autonomy of the Mark V was 70 km (45 mi) with 450 liters fuel capacity (93 gallons), which was enough for about 10 hours on a rugged terrain.
The Mark V made its combat debut at the Battle of Hamel on 4 July 1918 where it successfully supported Australian troops in action. This managed to repair the Australians’ confidence in tanks which had been badly damaged earlier at Bulle court. Before the end of the war, the Mark V was used in eight major combats. Since the Mark V was available only during 1918 its overall effect on the war remained insignificant.
Airships or dirigible balloons are types of aerostat or lighter-than-air aircrafts that can navigate through air with their own power. These types of aerostat aircraft gain their lift from large gas bags which are filled with lifting gas, less dense than the surrounding air. Airships had been used before the start of the war, but it was during the war that it debuted as an air weapon.
Zeppelin was one of the first airships to be used in the war. It was created by Count von Zeppelin, a retired German army officer. During the initial days of the war, the German side used Zeppelins filled with hydrogen, capable of traveling at about 85mph and carrying up to two tonnes of bombs. Raids on England began during January 1915, and the Germans believed that their airship was an ideal weapon against the superiority of the British Navy. The Germans used it at the beginning to damage British morale. As the war progressed, the damage caused by airships were insignificant and the deaths amounted to few hundreds. Development of newer weapons like ammunition made them vulnerable due to flammable hydrogen that powered it.
1. Type 93 U-boat
The Type 93 was one of the most lethal weapons used during the First World War by the Imperial German Navy. It was a class of U boats. The name U boats was derived from Unterseeboot which means undersea boats in German, but were used mostly by the English to refer military German submarines. The Type 93 was built by Kaiserliche Marine. Type 93 U-boats carried 16 torpedoes and had arrangements of deck guns. Some of the Type 81 and 87 had only one 8.8 cm (3.5 in) deck gun while others had a single 10.5 cm (4.1 in) gun with 140 rounds and some were equipped with both at the initial stage. In 1917 some of the boats were refitted with a single 10.5 cm gun and 220 rounds.
These boats had a crew capacity of 39 members and was equipped with excellent seagoing abilities with a cruising range of around 17,000 km (or 9,000 nautical miles). The Type 93 boats were responsible for sinking about 3% of all allied shipping sunk during the war, which was about 411,304 gross register tons (GRT). They also managed to damage 70,913 GRT and captured 235 GRT.
Final Conclusion: These weapons of the First World War not only caused deaths and casualties but also raised psychological terror amongst troops and civilians. Gas attacks would often cause trauma where the soldiers would remove their safety gears in a wave of panic. Technological advancement changed the face of war and civilians were killed in air raids for the first time. Old tactics and strategies were rendered less important as new methods were developed. Both the warring sides were equally powerful which accelerated the development of lethal weapons, new ways of spreading terror, new ways of killing people faster than ever resulting into one of the highest deaths in history.