Eight technological advances that resulted from World War I

  • Living
  • Friday, 27 Jun 2014


Scientists and tacticians are often at their most inventive, pushing the limits of technology and innovation, in the pursuit of military victory. 

Canadian War Museum

Chemical warfare: Arguably the first modern weapon of mass destruction, chemicals were first used by Germany at the Second Battle of Ypres, France, in 1915, when chlorine gas was released over French trenches on April 22.

This was followed in that year by three more uses of chlorine, produced as an industrial by-product by German chemical companies BASF, Hoechst and Bayer: On April 24 against the 1st Canadian Division, on May 2 near Mouse Trap Farm, and on May 5 against the British at Hill 60, locations in Western Belgium.

Chemicals continued to be used throughout the war, with the British using chlorine at the Battle of Loos, France, on Sept 25, 1915 – here, though, the chlorine either pooled uselessly in clouds between the trenches, or, in places, blew back across British lines.

Further developments saw phosgene gas being used in 1915, and then mustard gas in 1917. The latter caused internal and external bleeding and attacked the bronchial tubes, stripping off the mucous membrane.

Imperial War Museum

The machine gun: This was the weapon that brought mass infantry charges to their knees, often literally. The machine gun, which was invented in 1884 by American Hiram Maxim, was used by both sides of the war, often mounted in concrete pillboxes to defend trenches from being stormed by human waves.

It was an advance over previous rapid-fire weapons as it used the energy from the recoil to eject each spent cartridge and insert the next one, producing a firing rate of approximately 600 rounds per minute.

However, further advances were needed as Maxim guns were too heavy to be used by advancing infantry. Lighter machine guns, such as the Lewis gun, were developed for offensive roles, such as by the Australian Corps in the Battle of Hamel, France, in 1918.

Wikimedia Commons

The flamethrower: Although fire-based weapons, such as Greek Fire (an incendiary weapon system), have been used since the Byzantine era, the modern flamethrower was first used on July 30, 1915, in the Battle of Hooge, Belgium, by German forces.

The flammenwerfer was used to clear out trenches, but had serious limitations – it could only be safely fired from a trench, and its maximum range was 18m. Additionally, it only carried two minutes of fuel.

Tanks: Developed to break the stalemate of trench warfare, the tank paired steel armour with caterpillar tracks, a petrol engine, and machine guns.

The first use of tanks on the battlefield was at the Battle of the Somme in France on Sept 15, 1916. On that day, the British sent 49 Mark I tanks to attack the German trenches – but the results were not the resounding success hoped for, as only a third of the tanks deployed broke through German lines.

Success came later at the Battle of Cambrai, France, in November 1917 where 350 British tanks, supported by infantry, took the town from German hands.

The Fokker E.IV, an advance on the first true fighter airplane, the Fokker E.1. —Wikimedia Commons

Aircraft: When the modern petrol-powered aircraft was invented in 1903 by Americans Orville and Wilbur Wright, it was regarded as no more than a novelty by military authorities. However, with the outbreak of war, those contraptions of wire, canvas and wood entered military service and quickly began proving their value as airborne intelligence platforms.

For instance, on Aug 22, 1914, British Captain L.E.O. Charlton and Lieutenant V.H.N. Wadham reported that German General Alexander von Kluck was preparing his army to surround the British Expeditionary Force in France – this report contradicted all other intelligence received by the British High Command.

Their subsequent decision based on this intelligence to withdraw to Mons saved the lives of 100,000 soldiers.

The role of the aircraft expanded to air-to-air combat with the first true fighter, the Fokker E.1, emerging in 1915, handing air superiority to the Germans until in early 1916, with the arrival in numbers of the French Nieuport 11 and British DH.2 fighters.

This development in turn prompted an arms race that would continue until the 1918 Armistice, with each side trying to develop harder hitting and faster fighters.

Submarines: World War I marked the first war in which navies and merchant shipping feared death from below. The submarine, powered by a diesel engine on the surface and batteries underwater, was heavily used by the Germans in a bid to cut off supplies to Britain, which depended on imports and shipping to resupply its war effort and feed its civilian population.

While the first U-boats initially were able to prey on Britain-bound shipping almost unhindered, Royal Navy developments, such as the anti-submarine Q-Ship and the use of escorted convoys, ultimately broke the German stranglehold – and these tactics would also prove successful in World War II almost 20 years later.


The depth charge: Germany’s success with submarines forced the British to innovate, and one successful result that is still in use today is the depth charge. This device is detonated by a pressure-sensitive pistol; once the pistol senses it is at the correct depth by water pressure, it fires and triggers the explosives.

The first practical depth charge, the Type D, was produced by the Royal Navy’s Torpedo and Mine School in January 1916. The first German U-boat sunk by depth charge was the U-68, destroyed on March 22, 1916.


Mobile x-ray machines: Injuries caused by the new technologies, such as artillery and the machine gun, required new techniques to treat, and one newly-developed scanning technology, the x-ray machine, was in high demand. However, it was too bulky and fragile to be moved around to treatment centres along the front lines.

The breakthrough came when Marie Curie (who worked on x-rays) developed smaller, sturdier x-ray stations that could be set up in cars and small trucks by October 1914. By 1918, there were 18 “radiologic cars” in operation.

Information sourced from mentalfloss.com, shmoop.com, and spiegel.de.

Related stories:

The Great War: Remembering the ‘war to end all wars’ 100 years on

The Battle of Penang

The Singapore mutiny

Aces high: WWI's fighter pilots

The Christmas truce: When the fighting stopped for one day

Flying ace

The war in moving pictures

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