Forged in Fire: 5 Inventions from World War One

Forged in Fire: 5 Inventions from World War One

Mike Wood - June 3, 2017

It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention. Few situations can provide as concrete a need for new and innovative items than a war, in which the very future of a nation is threatened. With need as high as it can be, the greatest of minds come together to invent things that will outlast the war situation, and never was that more true than in the First World War.

In a lot of ways, World War One represented the first industrialized war – or at least the war in which killing was done on an industrial scale – in which machines could legitimately claim to be winning the conflict rather than individuals. Of course, individuals are required to operate those machines, but the supremacy of forces was largely decided by those with the better equipment rather than those with the better individuals.

The participants knew that this was becoming increasingly the case as the war went on, and with the front lines static for long periods, there was ample time to apply the new-fangled ideas of the industrial world, of the production line and of mass production to warfare technologies that could give one’s side a competitive advantage. The obvious technologies to talk about are the weapons and artillery: World War One saw the first widespread use of the machine gun and the airplane, while behind the lines, generals could deliver orders faster than ever via the use of radio while infantry could be moved around quickly using the newly expanded railway networks. There are plenty of historians out there who believe that the whole war itself for precipitated by a technological shift in the creation of the internal combustion engine, which prioritized the use of oil over coal and thus heavily advantaged the British and French Empires above the German and Austro-Hungarian.

These inventions, however, were already there and influenced the way the war was fought. Others, such as those that we will discuss, were invented with the war itself in mind and have subsequently entered the popular imagination as a result of their use on the battlefields of World War One. We cover offensive technological advances that helped to locate enemies, kill them, disrupt their communication as well as defensive ones that assisted in aiding the friendly soldiers that had been wounded themselves. If World War One was the first truly modern, industrial war, then these were its children, forged in the conflict on the Western Front and brought to life as a way of breaking the stalemate.

Forged in Fire: 5 Inventions from World War One
US soldiers drive French Renault tanks in the First World War. Wikipedia

1 – Tanks

The obvious place to begin in any discussion of the technological battles of the First World War is with tanks. Tanks were far from the first examples of mechanized warfare that the average Tommy or Fritz in the trenches had experienced, but they might well have been the most terrifying. The sight of these metal behemoths slowly creeping across No Man’s Land and crushing all before them cannot help but have influenced the already fragile mental states of some of those at the very frontline of the conflicts.

Soldiers were already well aware of what industrialization had done to war. Of those who were professional soldiers in the British and French ranks, they had used machine guns extensively in colonial wars, while Americans had had Gatling guns since the Civil War. The mass use of machine guns, however, was not to occur until the First World War and the unprecedented death tolls had been the result. The trench warfare that characterized the Western Front was made possible by advances in machine gun technology, particularly the Vickers model used by the British, which was optimally used by a team of seven or eight people and from a high, static position.

On the other side, the Maschinengewehr 08 used by the Germans was issued widely and each battalion could expect to have around six. The casualties of the first day of the Somme, for example, were large as a result of old-style tactical charges meeting the supreme defensive combination of barbed wire and the heavy machine gun. With both sides’ defenses on top, the trenches were dug and everyone settled it.

It was to break this stalemate that the tank was designed. The idea of a mechanized, militarized, armored automobile was pioneered by the British from around 1915 onwards. They were known as “landships” – “tank” was either a code name or a name given to the contraptions by factory workers – and at the beginning, bore some resemblance to the vehicles of today. The first tank prototype, Little Willie, would be recognizable at least. There were the wheels on runners, which enabled all-terrain mobility and in particular, the ability to cross over a trench without falling in. There was a turret that allowed for machine guns, though they proved too heavy and were eventually abandoned. There were clear deviations too, most notably the two auxiliary wheels at the back that were required to steer.

The first tanks – bearing the designations of “male” and “female” depending on their firepower – were moved from their British factories to the front in France in the late summer of 1916 and would have an inauspicious debut in the field. While some worked and caused panic in the German lines, only nine of the first thirty made it as far as the Germans. The majority broke down, while others only had a speed of 1km per hour while traveling over broken ground such as that of the Somme.

The conditions inside them were fierce. Temperatures regularly exceeded 50°c (122°F) and the air inside was often tainted by carbon monoxide fumes from the engine and weapons. Tank passengers were forced to wear gas masks and chainmail that saved them from fragments of metal that flew around inside when under enemy fire. The slow speed and huge size made them sit ducks for German artillery.

Still, plenty had been learned and the engineers returned to the drawing board with confidence. By the time the Mark 1 took to the field, they were far more effective. At the Battle of Cambrai in 1917, huge advances were made on the back of effective tank warfare. Mass production methods used by Renault allowed for tanks to be deployed on mass, and by the end of the war, the French could but nearly 500 into the field. The Germans never really took to the idea of tanks, but after the end of the First World War, they were here to stay. Modern battle would never look the same again.

Forged in Fire: 5 Inventions from World War One
A German gas attack. Bundesarchiv

2- Chemical Weapons

If the tank was the weapon that would affect how wars were fought in the future, then chemical weapons were perhaps the ones that had the most effect at the time. The tanks were negligible for the majority of the war, with every advance that they made being followed by a setback, but the mass use of chemical weapons would be something that only increased as the war went on. Biological and chemical weapons were hardly new to war in the early 20th century – Sun Tzu mentions them in 200 BC and the Spartans were known to have created acrid smoke that affected their enemies, to give an insight into how far back they were used – but the technological advances in industrial chemistry, the specific conditions of the trenches and the psychological effects of their use would help them reach previously untold heights.

Again, chemical weapons, and their use on a mass scale, were not new to the average First World War soldier. There were existing international conventions that had set out how, when and the extent to which chemical weapons were to be used in warfare, although by the time that the first international – indeed, global – conflict broke out in 1914, they would quickly be disregarded. The gases used were often in lockstep with the advances in the industrial sector. With the concept of total war (in which the entire economy of an industrialized nation is turned to the war effort) in full effect, the industrial kitchens that had fuelled the factories of France and Great Britain were able to create some concoctions that were ideal for military use. In 1914, a tear gas based on industrial alcohol and chloroacetone was first used against the German lines and by the middle of 1915, the Germans had responded with their chlorine-based gas that was produced as a byproduct in dye manufacturing for uniforms.

The effects of the gases were compounded by their tactical use. In a war dominated by trench fighting and close-quarters living, chemical warfare was an ideal way in which to make your enemy’s life very difficult and to spread nagging, constant fear across the lines. They could be delivered on the back of the wind, let loose from canisters and left to drift on the breeze towards enemy lines. They could be fired with artillery, particularly useful for the practically odorless, colorless phosgene gas that was used later on in the war – even the shells used to fire them would land almost silently. The resultant effect was that soldiers lived in fear of attack from something that they couldn’t detect. One soldier described the “gas shock” as being akin to shell shock, claiming that it was just as frequently cited too.

Gas masks were available, but if one didn’t know that one was under attack until it was too late, then it made no difference. Masks were similarly ineffective against the famed mustard gas. While most gases were designed to choke or to attack the sinuses, mustard gas was an irritant that attacked the skin, causing boils and sore eyes. It could fire and would remain on the ground for several days until disturbed. It would burn any exposed skin and if inhaled, the insides of bronchial tubes and lungs. The rate of death was low – estimated at around 2% of all wounded – but the effects on troop effectiveness and moments catastrophic.

The total number of people killed in World War One as a result of chemical weapons is thought to be around 1.3m. As mentioned, it was not the war in which chemical weapons were first used, but it was the conflict in which its use became standard. One could no longer plan for war without factoring it in, or devise battle tactics without utilizing it as an option.

Forged in Fire: 5 Inventions from World War One
Fritz Haber, inventor of the Haber Process. Alchetron

3 – Fertilizer

It was not only the battlefield where the effects of the chemists could be felt. With the theory of total war taking hold in all the major combatants, every advantage that could be found anywhere in the economy had positive effects on the battlefield and could be used against the enemy. Many of the chemicals that were used to take human life were also more than capable of killing smaller organisms and thus were perfect for use as insecticides, greatly improving the productivity of agriculture in a time in which many of those who previously had tilled the land were at war.

The crossover between chemical warfare and chemical fertilization is considerable. Fritz Haber, one of the top German chemists tasked with their gas production programs, later gave his name to the Haber Process, a fundamental in the production of fertilizers. Indeed, his son, Ludwig Haber, wrote the major history of World War One chemical weapons in the mid-1980s. Fritz Haber’s dedication to the war effort was total. He is quoted as saying “During peacetime a scientist belongs to the World, but during wartime, he belongs to his country.” and he was awarded a host of medals for his service, going as far as being given the rank of Captain although he was far too old to fight. While creating chemical weapons was one aspect of his work, his skill at creating industrial fertilizer was what made his name.

Haber and his partner, Carl Bosch, were responsible for the discovery of the Haber process, which synthesizes nitrogen and hydrogen, both abundant in air, into ammonia. This could then be used as a fertilizer and was directly responsible for feeding millions of people throughout the war and billions after it. Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918 for his work on the process and it is now estimated that almost half the world is fed by food grown using the Haber process.

Ammonia had previously been known, but industry was dependant on naturally occurring examples of it: with Haber and Bosch’s discovery, it could be created in a lab – using one of the most common elements available as well. When the war ended, the production of industrial fertilizer would go into overdrive and Haber would be feted as the man who fed the world. Few outsides of the field of chemistry are aware of his dual role in World War One and his dichotomous career as the man who saved millions from starvation, but also caused the death of countless soldiers through his gases. This duality would be brought to a head in the next war.

One of the fertilizers that Haber was responsible for developing was Zyklon A, a cyanide-based insecticide that was used to keep grain stores free of weevils and other microscopic life. The gas had been used as a chemical weapon too, in World War One, and later proved perfect for disinfecting clothes with lice in peacetime. It would form the basis of Zyklon B, the gas that was used to kill millions of Jews in the gas chambers of Eastern Europe. Haber, who was Jewish, had several members of his family die in the Nazi camps.

Forged in Fire: 5 Inventions from World War One
The Kettering Bug. Flying Machines

4 – Drones

Drones might seem to be at the very forefront of military technology, but their roots go back far further than one might imagine. The state-of-the-art unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) used by the US Army today bear little resemblance to those used in the First World War, but the basic concept remains the same – a method of attacking the enemy from the sky without risking one’s own men. The modern definition of a UAV requires it to be able to return to base afterward, a limitation that the prototypes that were produced in the 1910s would certainly fall short of, but they were certainly a step further than the traditional missiles or torpedoes that were also in use at the time.

They flew under their own propulsion, sustained their own flight and offered a more penetrating range of attack than had ever been seen before – all characteristics that also mark out the current models of attack drones. The First World War drone was capable of traveling a massive 75 miles, a range well beyond the capacity of any artillery available elsewhere, and perfect for the circumstances of the Western Front, where the military top brass would be situated well behind the lines and in presumed safety. In practice, none were ever used in battle, but the idea would live on far longer than the prototype.

The key technological advance that made the drone possible was hardly a secret. Orville and Wilbur Wright, better known as the Wright brothers, had pioneered the idea of human flight back in 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where they successfully managed a short flight in their self-devised and self-built craft, the Wright Flyer. The intervening decade had seen a proliferation of potential aviators and a speed of technological advancement that few could have dreamed possible.

The battlefields of the First World War were the first to see aerial warfare and the new heroes of the public back home were the fighter aces, with their exploits in the clouds broadcast widely. As one might expect from such a new technology, none of the generals really knew what they were doing and the casualty rate for those engaged in aerial combat was very high, so the idea of an unmanned bomber aircraft was very appealing.

The advance that allowed the drone to come into existence was not so much technological as it was cerebral. The basic mechanism was already there, but a few small tweaks modified it for a totally different purpose. Orville Wright was involved in the project – his brother had passed away before the war began – but the genius of the idea came from Charles Kettering, an inventor and airplane engineer from Ohio. He adapted the design that was used by airplanes with the key modification of removing the pilot. He built a fuselage from papier mache and wood and a propellor system, released from an existing airplane on a track and fired at the enemy.

A gyroscope maintained orientation and the propellor allowed the drone to fly itself for far longer than any ground or air missile could travel, with the payload released when an allotted number of engine revolutions had been achieved. This meant that, when atmospheric conditions and velocity had been factored in, the drone could bomb a target fairly accurately at no risk to the firing force.

The Kettering Bug, as it became known, was never to see action in the First World War but it represents the first attempt at unmanned aerial combat. The drones that the US Army and other militaries use today are its direct descendants, and they can draw their origins back to the very birth of flight.

Forged in Fire: 5 Inventions from World War One
Marie Curie in a mobile x-ray truck. Wikipedia

5 – X-Ray Machines

Orville Wright is one of the most celebrated names in 20th-century science – as is Fritz Haber – but they were not the only geniuses who were called into action in the First World War. Marie Curie, one of the finest minds of her generation and the first double Nobel Prize laureate – not to mention the first woman – was already feted around the world when war broke out in 1914 and she would put her considerable intellect into the service of her adopted country, France.

Though Polish by birth, she had been living in Paris since the early 1890s and said in a letter to her lover and fellow scientist Paul Langevin: “I am resolved to put all my strength at the service of my adopted country since I cannot do anything for my unfortunate native country just now…”. As one of the world’s foremost experts in radiation (she invented the term “radioactivity) Curie was able to put her knowledge in that field to use as soon as the war began.

When the war began and the government in Paris departed en masse to Bordeaux, she was forced to follow them with France’s entire supply of radium, which was to be moved for safekeeping. Undeterred, she returned to the capital and set to work aiding the wounded soldiers that flooded into the city from the frontlines to the north. Using her knowledge of radiation, she convinced local mechanics to outfit trucks that could carry mobile x-ray machines.

The x-ray was not new, having been first used for medical procedures in 1900, but the practical application of the technology on a mass scale was unprecedented. It was blindly obvious that the ability to isolate and remove shrapnel, bullet and other objects from wounded men, not to mention resetting broken bones, was vital to saving lives and getting as many soldiers back into the field as quickly as possible.

Curie herself, though an accomplished scientist and theoretician of x-rays, was untrained in their medical use. She took it upon herself to learn how the machines were properly operated and even how to drive and service the trucks that carried them, so she could best make herself useful. She kept her daughter Irene, then just a teenager, close at hand as her assistant. The mobile x-ray machines were known to French soldiers as “little Curies”, bringing as they did the technology of the famed scientific family to the frontlines.

Marie Curie was named the director of the French Red Cross Radiology Service and was able to draw upon a huge contact book of wealthy individuals in order to gain financial and material assistance for her x-ray programs. She funded generators that could keep the trucks powered and developed a team of doctors that could use the technology and then operate using the results that they acquired. By the end of the war, there were 20 mobile radiology units in operation as well as hundreds of members of staff, a large number of them women like their leader.

Curie described the vehicles herself in her autobiography: “It was simply a touring motor-car, arranged for the transport of a complete radiologic apparatus, together with a dynamo that was worked by the engine of the car, and furnished the electric current necessary for the production of the rays. This car could come at the call of any of the hospitals, large or small, in the surroundings of Paris. Cases of urgent need were frequent, for these hospitals had to take care of the wounded who could not be transported to more distant places.”

Previously, radiology had been something that required extensive hospital treatment and the fortune of having such a technology nearby. Marie Curie managed to take the existing capabilities of science and apply them to the circumstances that befell France in the First World War, creating the mobile x-ray facilities that are commonplace today.