What role did new technologies play on the battlefield during World War I?
World War I saw the introduction of many new technologies, developed shortly before or during the conflict. These included new weapons, new vehicles and vessels, and new communications devices. These innovations did not, however, win the war in any decisive, spectacular way, and the role they played on the various battlefields of the war is a complex and multifaceted one. In most cases, these innovations served in an auxiliary capacity, used in conjunction with other, older weapons and strategies. Their contributions, however, did not go unnoticed by military commanders and policy makers, and many of these technologies were further developed after the war and are still in use today, albeit in much more advanced forms.
In the Perspectives that follow, Dr. Nikolas Gardner explores this complex issue by highlighting two examples of important military technology that were both in their infancy during World War I but have since become mainstays in modern warfare. In the first, Dr. Gardner examines the tank—a slow, awkward vehicle whose use, although steadily increasing, remained limited during the war. Several commanders, however, saw its potential and the tank underwent major development during the interwar years, becoming a standard feature on the battlefields of later wars. In the second, Dr. Gardner discusses aircraft, which were used primarily for reconnaissance and scouting missions, but also, especially toward the end of the war, as components in offensives against enemy soldiers and in controversial strategic bombing campaigns. This technology would however, like the tank, reach its full potential decades after the war.
Early proponents of the tank saw it as a means of breaking the stalemate on the Western Front and enabling the resumption of mobile warfare. While tanks never achieved these aspirations during World War I, their potential inspired the development of ideas that would be implemented with devastating effect two decades later.
From the opening months of the conflict, soldiers conceived of armored vehicles as a means of cracking formidable enemy defenses impervious to infantry attacks. In 1915, the British and French began independently to develop their own versions, with the British "Mark I" tank winning the race to the battlefield in September 1916. With his Somme Offensive having bogged down, British Expeditionary Force commander Field. Marshal Douglas Haig hoped to use the new machines to break through enemy defenses, clearing a path for the infantry.
The earliest models of the tank, however, were very slow, averaging approximately two miles per hour. They were also poorly armored, prone to mechanical failure, and exceedingly uncomfortable for their crews, who risked carbon monoxide poisoning if they remained inside the machines for too long. Moreover, in September 1916, the British Army in France had less than 50 tanks available. Thus, the debut of the tank on September 15 was unimpressive. Of 49 machines, 32 made it to their designated departure point and only 9 managed to lead the infantry attack without succumbing to enemy fire or mechanical breakdown. The first French armored vehicles proved equally unreliable. Of 48 tanks deployed in battle on April 16, 1917, 40 were destroyed, abandoned, or rendered useless by mechanical failure.
Despite the shaky performance of early tanks, senior commanders were impressed by their psychological effect on enemy troops, and thus encouraged their development. Consequently, by late 1917, tanks were available in much larger numbers. In November, at the Battle of Cambrai, the British deployed 378 armored vehicles. While these tanks achieved impressive initial gains, they also suffered a high rate of attrition, and the lack of sufficient reserves led to the collapse of the British offensive. A lack of cooperation between tanks and infantry also undermined British success. By the summer of 1918, the quality and quantity of British tanks had increased, with over 400 armored vehicles contributing to significant gains at Amiens on August 8. Their continued lack of speed and durability, however, meant that tanks were at best only a supplement to the combined operations of infantry and artillery.
While tanks did not make a decisive contribution to the Allied victory in 1918, World War I served as a laboratory for ideas about armored warfare that had a dramatic impact on the opening stages of the next global conflict. In 1917, the British officer J. F. C. Fuller devised a plan to win the war using tanks to break through German defenses and attack the enemy's command system. This plan did not come to fruition before the armistice. Ironically, however, the German Army, which had neglected tanks during World War I, borrowed elements of Fuller's approach and employed them successfully against Poland, France, and the Soviet Union from 1939 to 1941. Thus, a weapon designed to win World War I ultimately achieved decisive results a generation later.
Evolution of Air Power
Aircraft did not have a decisive impact on the outcome of World War I. Nevertheless, the rapid development of their capabilities during the conflict, along with the apparent bankruptcy of traditional methods of land warfare, led to the emergence of sweeping theories regarding the ability of airpower to decide future conflicts.
In the decade following Orville Wright's inaugural 12-second flight in 1903, the capabilities of airplanes developed rapidly. By 1914, aircraft had crossed the English Channel, served as a means of commercial transport and seeing action during Italy's conquest of Libya in 1911–1912 as well as in the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913. From the beginning of World War I, airplanes were used for reconnaissance, locating targets for artillery batteries and tracking the movements of enemy forces over land. As the war progressed, they also became increasingly important as a means of attacking enemy units on the ground. In March 1918, 730 aircraft were deployed in this role as part of the German offensive against the British Army. In September 1918, the Allies deployed nearly 1,500 aircraft in support of attacks by American ground forces at St. Mihiel. The ability of airplanes to support armies through reconnaissance or ground attacks depended upon command of the air. Thus, another of the principal tasks of pilots on both sides became aerial combat above the front. It was in this role that "flying aces" such as the German "Red Baron," Manfred von Richthofen, made their reputations.
Of all the tasks performed by aircraft in World War I, none sparked more enthusiasm among theorists and more concern among civilian leaders than strategic bombing, the independent use of airpower to influence the outcome of the conflict. The first strategic bombing missions against civilian targets occurred in August 1914, when German Zeppelins attacked Belgian and French ports as well as the city of Paris. In May and June 1917, the Germans used winged aircraft to attack British cities, killing 162 people in London on June 13 and causing considerable alarm among the civilian population. The British retaliated, dropping more than 500 tons of bombs on German targets and killing nearly 800 civilians.
By the standards of later conflicts, strategic bombing caused minimal damage in World War I. Military and civilian authorities, however, were largely unable to prevent bombing raids. Before the development of radar in the 1930s, there existed no reliable means of detecting the approach of aircraft. Nor were antiaircraft defenses particularly effective. This situation gave rise to ambitious theories regarding the potential of airpower to decide future conflicts. Disillusioned with the prolonged carnage of World War I, the Italian officer Giulio Douhet argued that the deliberate bombing of cities would ensure rapid victory in the future, as civilians would force their governments to capitulate when faced with the prospect of sudden, devastating attacks from above. Airpower in World War II did not achieve the results that Douhet and others had expected. Nonetheless, based on the rapid development of airpower from 1914 to 1918, their ideas influenced the evolution of air forces throughout the 20th century.
What role did new technologies play on the battlefield during World War I?
Although there is a popular conception that it is new technology and weaponry that wins wars, most scholars agree that this was certainly not the case during World War I. While a number of new technologies were employed with varying degrees of success during the conflict, World War I was not the high point for the vast majority of these innovations. The war was, however, a testing ground for many of them. While new technology did not win the war, it helped to usher in a new era of modern warfare that would increasingly rely on advances in technology. Today, most armies rely on a number of high-tech weapons and communications systems.
The preceding Perspectives illustrate this point through their exploration of the often problematic but ultimately important role played by technology during World War I. Both tanks and aircraft had numerous drawbacks—they were costly, dangerous to operate, and prone to mechanical failure. They could, however, be combined with existing resources and, with alterations to traditional military doctrines and practices, be employed in some useful capacity. Additionally, the very novelty that hindered their battlefield performance also made them enormously effective psychological weapons. More importantly, their potential was recognized by important military officials, who after the war invested the time and money needed to make these inventions effective military tools. This investment would pay off during World War II and subsequent conflicts, and both tanks and aircraft are today considered indispensable components of a modern military establishment.
Gardner, Nikolas. "The Tank." World History: The Modern Era. 2009. ABC-CLIO. 8 Mar. 2009 .
Gardner, Nikolas. "Evolution of Air Power." World History: The Modern Era. 2009. ABC-CLIO. 8 Mar. 2009 .