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The Change of an Era: Life in the Trences and Letters from Home

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World War 1 brought significant advancements in military fighting for the ages to come. With limited rules on weapons, man’s destructive power knew no bounds. Advancements in metallurgy, chemistry and engineering became deadlier than ever before. Leaders had to adapt their old mentalities to the changing times, and with the rise of the Industrial Revolution and Mechanized Warfare, tactics, weapons, and philosophy adapted to the change of an era.

Industrial warfare was the process of mass conscripted armies, technical advancements, and the concept of total war. With the industrial revolution, warfare changed forever, no longer were soldiers fighting on horseback, but inside a tank, on top of a dreadnaught, or from the air. These rapid advancements lead to bloodier and deadlier wars. With these advancements also brought total war, no longer could a country lose a war, because doing so meant the fall of an empire. As such, nations pulled all their resources and mobilized every system, from political to social, to the war effort. The earliest form of total war goes all the way back to the Civil War, where union generals such as Ulysses S. Grant and William Sherman believed that, if the North was to win, they had to crush the Confederacy’s strategy, economic, and mental ability to inflict war. This lead to widespread destruction particularly among civilian infrastructure and supplies.

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Industrial warfare also lead to the mass conscription of armies. Conscription is the voluntarily enrollment of civilians into military service. Industrial war lead to differences in conscription among nations, in developed nations, emphasis was put on technological firepower and better training for the forces, yet in smaller countries such as Switzerland or even big, but desperate countries like Russia and Germany, mass conscription was preferred. These countries relied on mass conscripted armies because war was all or nothing, they became so desperate as they hung from a thread and sent anybody who can fight to protect the motherland.

Significant advancements in transportation was also achieved, prior to motorized transport, soldiers were transported by horses, wagons, and marching. With the steam engine, soldiers were able to build their way into the war zone. This was first seen with the colonization of Africa by Europe. Europeans were able to build tracks deeper into Africa and mass transport materials needed to conquer and control the continent. In World War 1, trains were used to transport materials such as artillery, tanks, gas, food, and et cetera to the front lines of the trenches, and for the US to transport materials coast to coast for, in turn, shipment to Europe. This caused railroad usage to spike 32% in the US alone in one year. After the war, the US government was left with battered roads and railroads from years of overuse, which lead to a massive government rebuilding program as the potential for long distance motorized freight transport had been demonstrated. This lead to many of the United States intricate road and railroad systems seen today.

One of the most iconic and significant advancements of technology was the Tank, or landships as the British would call them. As the “war of movement” really turned into the war of trenches, generals searched for a solution to protect soldiers as they advance small arms fire, and to have some serious firepower to take out other heavily armored vehicles. The British Mark I was then formed, this tank provided armor for the soldiers as they advanced through no mans land, and allowed heavy return fire to be sent. Though the tank helped turned the tides of war, the early units were highly unreliable. These problems caused high attrition rates during combat and during transit. The Mark I through Mark III were highly unmaneuverable, often heavily shelled terrain was impassable by the predecessors to the Mark IV, as up until the IV, caterpillar tracks were not invented.

The Continuous track, or more commonly known as the Caterpillar track, was the solution to the early tank’s problem. The British Mark I-III tanks had extreme limitations with maneuverability and drivability. Essentially, the early wheels gave a high ground pressure for the vehicle’s weight, causing reduced maneuverability and limitations on armor and firepower. This problem could be solved by adding more wheels, but adding more wheels meant that unless they were driven, an effect of reduced traction was set on the already powered wheels. Yet driving extra wheels meant more drivetrain weight, which meant a heavier and larger engine, and in the end, none of this extra weight was put into armor or armament improvements and the vehicles were still incapable of navigating heavily bombarded terrain. The solution was the continuous track, which offered to spread the weight of the vehicle across a greater area, and it heavily improved traction to move the vehicle. The track ran on a continuous band of treads or plates driven by two or more wheels. The large surface area of the treads distributed the weight of the vehicle better than tens of rubber or steel tires like the predecessors to the Mark IV. This allowed the limitations of armor and armament to no longer rely on ground pressure, but on the power outputted by the engine and the weight of the engine itself.

Often in trench warfare, the attacking side suffered the most casualties. This was due to the fact that the attackers had to swarm over no man’s land, dodging a hail of thousands of bullets to reach the defenders just tens of meters away. The chemical advancement of poison gas had mixed results, sometimes delivering devastating results, other times, not so much. During the Battle of Bolimov against the Russians on January 31, 1915, the Germans pioneered a large scale use of chemical weapons against their positions, but due to low temperatures, the gas was frozen in the shells. Yet on April 22, 1915, Germans deployed chlorine gas toward French colonial troops, who fled, but as per usual for the First World War, it did not yield a decisive victory for the Germans. The Germans were slow on the offensive, and before long the gas dissipated and allied forces were back on the defense. Over the course of the war, both sides of the war would use chemical weapons, causing direct 90,000 casualties from a total of 1.3 million fatalities by gas attacks. Gas attacks were a unique form of warfare, as it was unlike most other weapons of the time period. Unlike other weapons, it was possible to develop countermeasures such as the gas mask. With the development of the gas mask, the overall effectiveness of chemical warfare diminished.

Yet not all forms of chemical warfare became ineffective, though World War One was known as a soldiers war, it was also became known as the chemist’s war with the development of high explosives and weapons of mass destruction. Though World War 1’s weapons of mass destruction are primitive compared to today’s measures, coming from an era of horseback fighting, these developments were colossal. The main advancement of mass destruction during this time was the High Explosive. In the form of a hand grenade, this could be used as an aid in attacking enemy trenches, or more importantly, the high explosive shell for mortars and artillery.

The primary use of artillery was to counter trench warfare shortly after conflict commenced. It was a very important factor in war, contributing to tactics, operations, and strategies to break stalemates. The first advancements of the artillery was higher rates of fire and longer distance, this lead to no parts of the trench being safe. Secondly was the development of the high explosive shell. A typical High Explosive, or HE Shell composed of 10% mixture of either Ammonium Picarte, Picric Acid, Ammonium Nitrate, or even crude TNT was used as the explosive fill. It would not be until World War II where British researchers concluded that 25% fill was the most “optimal” for anti personnel purposes. The common HE shell had a strong steel case, a bursting charge and a fuse. The fuse detonated the bursting charge which in turn shattered the steel case and scatters sharp, high velocity, and scorching hot fragments onto soft targets below. The HE Shell became even more deadly with the German reintroduction of the Mortar, as their ability to shoot at angles above 45 degrees lead to a deadly mixture. The problem with artillery was that it would shoot at far distances, but the shell had a very flat trajectory and was not able to land inside enemy trenches. The mortar would solve this problem, with the mortar, the Germans were able to theoretically drop shells directly above the enemies trench before exploding, as mortars were shot almost straight up and landed almost straight down, leading to maximum damage.

Along with the tank, the machine gun was one of the most iconic weapons of World War One, there is zero doubt that it revolutionized combat during its time. In the beginning of WWI, forces still used horse cavalry units, these heavily diminished due to the machine gun and were quickly replaced to the tank corps. The first machine gun was the Maxim Gun, it was water cooled by a sleeve around the barrel and held about 1 gallon of water. It shot 600 rounds per minute and was extremely heavy at 140 pounds, by the end of the war, 600 RPM quickly turned into 1200 plus and was belt fed and air cooled. The machine gun often had overheating and jamming problems, this caused them to be grouped together to maintain a constant defensive position and manned by experienced soldiers. This lead to Germany’s elite machine gun sharpshooter detachments who specialized in attack formations and elite defence. A single machine gun was estimated to be worth as many as 80-100 rifles, an impressive figure considering the British Army rejected the device in the early 1900s. The British high command saw no real use for the oil cooled weapon that Maxim demonstrated in 1885, and some officers regarded the weapon as a improper form of warfare. The German army quickly picked up the weapon and produced their own version of the machine gun. Before the war, the German Army reported 12,000 machine gun units, this number quickly grew to over 100,000 units by the outbreak of the war. By 1917, the Germans machine gun used 90% of the German small arms ammunition. In contrast, the British and French armies had access to only a few hundred when the war started.

The Germans were masterminds in specific points covered by machine gun fire, these points were alone potential enemy attack routes and those prone to attack. The machine gun would prove a fearsome defensive weapon, as enemy infantry assaults on these positions would cost highly. The British saw the cost of their futility of massed infantry attacks against well entrenched and dug in positions in the Somme Offensive. During the first day of the Somme Offensive, the British lost a record number of 60,000 casualties in one day, mainly due to machine gun fire.

Many historical accounts of the Machine gun of the First World War emphasized the defensive use of the weapon, but there were efforts made to produce a offensive version of this gun, such as the Lewis Light Machine Gun and the formidable Bergmann MP18 Submachine Gun. Unlike the Bergmann MP18, most attempts failed to produce a machine gun for offense, as the weapon was just to heavy at 30lbs, with soldiers often carrying hundreds of pounds of ammo with pack animals or wheeled carts. Though these heavier weapons could be used on roads or flat ground, on broken ground of bombarded terrain, it was simply not possible. This is where the cross of the Tank and the Machine Gun came in, heavy machine guns were affixed to tanks or armored cars allowing infantry soldiers to use the daunting weapon for attacking.

The weapons also successfully made their way into the air, but it was a rough beginning. With the development of the airplane just a decade before WW1, it inevitable that the plane be used for combat use, but it was not clear how air to air combat would work. Early airplane use consisted of scouting enemy positions, flying slow and low while dropping HE bombs into enemy trenches, and occasional air to air combat which looked very different than what is seen today. Pilots flew slow circles around each other, firing their pistol out the side at one another. This evolved into a secondary gunner who mounted a gun next to the pilot and shot out, but this was not ideal as it required two airmen to operate. The problem was fixing a gun for a single man to use was very hard, as the propeller blades got in the way of the gun firing. In a crude attempt to fix this, the U.S. Army fixed a gun to the top of the plane, aiming down, so the bullets would clear the propeller blades. Yet this made it extremely hard to aim, and in case of a jam, the pilot was in no position to reach the gun. The French then added deflectors on the propeller, allowing forward firing aimable armament, with the ever so often deflected bullet. This worked until the crankshafts deformed due to their own pilots bullets.

The solution was a synchronization gear, or sometimes called an interrupter, which was attached to the armament of a single engine tractor configuration aircraft. This allowed the armament of the aircraft to fire through the spinning propeller without bullets hitting the blades. The Germans were first to use synchronizers to fire their weapons. They fixed a cam operated push rod onto the propeller that allowed the gun to fire at its free rate until the push rod stopped pushing the sear. This proved to be very deadly at the beginning because the push rod triggered the firing mechanism and the gun shot at its own rate and was not necessarily controlled. Sometimes the mechanism was still triggered and timing was off, leading to the pilot to shoot their own propeller off. The Germans then figured that a plane propeller generally spins at 1200 RPM, and the gun fires at 600 RPM, so they essentially made a machine gun semi automatic, shooting one shot every time the bolt closed each time the propeller passed by. This was a much safer effort, but since the rate of fire was dependant on the engine, at slower speeds, the trigger pull was slower so lower rate of fire, and at higher engine speeds, higher rate of fire. This lead the synchronization to occasionally be off and not allow for the bullet to clear the propeller due to speed of the propeller and in turn shoot it off.

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