The Development of New Weapons during the First World War
As the war developed both sides tried to find ways round a direct attacks on enemy trenches. Artillery guns were used to fire shells from behind your own lines into enemy trenches. The British used 170 million shells during the war, but often they did little but churn up the ground in ‘No Man’s-Land’ and make it even harder for the soldiers to cross.
In 1916 at the Battle of the Somme, the British introduced a new weapon, the tank. The tank had been secretly built in England and had special caterpillar tracks which helped them it to cross trenches and ‘No Man’s Land’. The British generals hoped that their new tanks would crush the barbed wire and protect their infantry from machine gun fire so that they could come up behind them and attack the German trenches with their mill bombs and rifles.
These large rumbling machines terrified the Germans but they were unreliable and most of them broke down during the Battle of the Somme. However, at the Battle of Cambrai in 1917, the new Mark IV Tanks broke through the German trenches and pushed them back nearly 5 miles. There were still many mechanical problems with tanks, but they proved themselves to be a weapon of the future.
Throughout the war the British Army kept on redesigning the tank. However, the true potential of the tank was only unlocked towards the end of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and again in 1917, at the Battle of Cambrai, when it was used with another new weapon the fighter aircraft.
The two fighter aircraft used to support tank attacks were the Sopwith Salamander and the Dolphin. They would attack the German trenches with their machine gun fire and then drop small bombs on the enemy soldiers. Source A below, describes one of the very first combined tank and air attacks in the final phase of the Battle of the Somme.
Source A: Sir Douglas Haig, September 1916.
“Gueudecourt was carried after the protecting trench to the west had been captured in a somewhat interesting fashion. In the early morning a Tank’ started down the portion of the trench held by the enemy from the north-west, firing its machine guns and followed by bombers (Men carrying Mills Bombs). The enemy could not escape, as we held the trench at the southern end. At the same time an aeroplane flew down the length of the trench, also firing a machine gun at the enemy holding it. These then waved white handkerchiefs in token of surrender, and when this was reported by the aeroplane the infantry accepted the surrender of the garrison. By 8.30 A.M. the whole trench had been cleared, great numbers of the enemy had been killed, and 8 officers and 362 other ranks made prisoners. Our total casualties amounted to five.”
Another new weapon that was developed during the First World War was the bomber aircraft. The British Army was slow to recognise the value of the bomber and it was left to the Royal Navy to ask Sir Frederick Handley Page to build a patrol bomber. Its early success was soon recognised by the Army who began to use it with devastating effect to attack railway lines and factories behind German trenches which helped stop reinforcements and supplies getting to the front.
The success of the Sopwith Salamander and the Dolphin and as well as other fighter and bomber aircraft such as Handley Page 0/400 in the Royal Flying Corps, lead General Haig and his staff setting up of the Royal Air Force as separate military service in April 1918. The RAF was at its largest on the first day it was set up with just over 15,000 planes.
First World War Homepage
Causes of the First World War – Assassination of Franz Ferdinand
Schlieffen Plan – Public Reaction to the Outbreak of War
British Expeditionary Force – Interactive Timeline of the First World War
Simulation: Life in the Trenches – Statistics
Changing role of Women – War Poetry
British Contribution to Western Front – Development of New Weapons
Creeping Barrage – Western Front in 1918 –
Home Front in the First World War
Timeline Infographic: Causes of World War One – Ludendorff and the Spring Offensive