Relics of the Past: 5 Obsolete Tools of 20th Century Warfare

Relics of the Past: 5 Obsolete Tools of 20th Century Warfare

Stephanie Schoppert - May 30, 2017

The 20th century saw drastic changes in the way the world waged war. From airplanes and tanks to chemical weapons and long range missiles, the rapid pace of technology has transformed war permanently. Gone are the days when a weapon could stay relevant on the battlefield for centuries and remain just as fearsome as ever. Now many tools of 20th century warfare have already become obsolete and are no longer a common factor in 21st century war.

Relics of the Past: 5 Obsolete Tools of 20th Century Warfare
USS New Jersey.


In 1918, battleships dominated the seas. There were 118 dreadnoughts serving in 13 different world navies. The ships served well in World War I and they once again became a huge part of warfare in World War II. They were 9 battleships sunk in WWI and 23 in WWII. During the course of the wars there were dozens of battleships patrolling the seas.

Battleships were fearsome methods of war that were used for shelling shore lines and shooting down aircraft. They were also effective at bringing down other battleships. But the massive armored ships did not last long in the spotlight. The technology that brought them to the seas made them obsolete just as quickly as it brought them to the battle.

Battleships still served their purpose in World War II but even in that battle they were starting to show their wear. Submarines were proving just as effective at bringing down enemy battleships as a battleship was and they served other purposes. Submarines were also more cost effective because they could do more than their massive counterparts and they were much stealthier.

Even when it came to shelling shorelines there were better and more cost-effective options. An aircraft carrier loaded with planes could do just as much damage as a battleship on the coastline. Like submarines they also had more uses than bulky battleships. In the end aircraft carriers and submarines overtook the battleship because they were more affordable and they did not require the manpower that a battleship needed to operate. To date there remains only one real battleship in service today and that is the Pytor Velikiy of Russia.

Relics of the Past: 5 Obsolete Tools of 20th Century Warfare
German Soldiers firing from the backs of their trained horses.


Horses may have seen obsolete with the introduction of cars and vehicles but during World War II there was still a desperate need for horses for the war effort. The Wehrmacht horses were vital to the German war effort because the Germans were lacking in oil resources for all their military vehicles. They needed the horses to pull their equipment and help transport troops.

For most of the allied forces the military was mechanized by 1928. However, the United States had a mounted unit in the Philippines and the German army maintained a single mounted brigade. The French incorporated mounted troops into their mobile units and the Soviets had thirteen cavalry divisions. The Italians, Japanese, Romanians and Poles kept substantial cavalry divisions as well.

But during World War II the use of horses by the Germans and the Soviets increased drastically. As many as six million horses were necessary to keep the Red Army and the Nazi Army moving. The Soviets had mechanized by World War II but much of their equipment was lost in Operation Barbarossa which meant that they were forced to go back to using horses to move artillery, troops and equipment. For the Soviets, they soon ran out of horses as well but with the help of the Allies and increased tank production they were able to keep mobilizing their army.

The Germans on the other hand relied on horses for the entire duration of the war. They kept hundreds of thousands of horses on the battlefield and kept up supply until 1945. There were substantial losses of horses for the Germans with a loss of 179,000 horses just between the months of December 1941 to January 1942. After World War II the use of horses disappeared almost entirely from all of the developed militaries. Today horses are largely just used in a ceremonial sense by major militaries.

Relics of the Past: 5 Obsolete Tools of 20th Century Warfare
Browning M1917 in use during the Korean War.

Water-Cooled Machine Guns

Machine guns were the new weapon of choice for modern war because they were able to provide sustained fire. In 1917 the United States was just starting to take an interest in outfitting their military with machine guns. The British already had the Vickers machine gun, the French had the Hotchkiss and the Germans had the Maschinengewehr 08. The United States developed the M1917 Browning which was lighter than both of those models and proved to be reliable enough to fire constantly for 48 minutes and fire over 40,000 rounds without failure.

During World War I despite the U.S. government intending for the Browning M1917 to be the main machine gun of the military, they actually depended more on the French Hotchkiss 8 mm. This machine gun would be the one used most often by the American Expeditionary Force. While the Browning M1917 was used only toward the tail end of World War I, it would come into use again in World War II.

During World War II the Browning M1917 was used but it’s purpose was already being transformed. It was used mostly as a fixed gun and not one that was likely to be used by an army on the move. The Browning M1917 was also given to the British in order to replace the Vickers that had been lost in the Fall of France. The Browning M1917 would be used again in the Korean War but afterward most of the guns would be considered no longer useful to the U.S. military and would be left to the South Koreans.

The water-cooled Browning M1917 and other machine guns like it were replaced by guns that used quick changing barrels. The quick changing barrels meant that it would be quicker to keep the fire going without needing to spend several minutes changing the barrel and adjusting the timing. The quick-change barrel system also eliminated the need for a water-cooling system.

Relics of the Past: 5 Obsolete Tools of 20th Century Warfare
British troops releasing a carrier pigeon in WWII.

Carrier Pigeons

Pigeons have been used during war for over 2,000 years, proving effective at carrying messages for the Romans during battles. They were even used by both sides during World War I as a way to send messages between troops and commanders. A pigeon service was even created by the United States in 1917.

By the time World War II broke out, it seemed that pigeons were no longer needed. Advancements in radio communication and field phones meant that troops could coordinate over large distances and radio for help much faster than by sending a pigeon. But it was still not foolproof. Radio communications could be overheard and field phones were not always reliable.

Even in World War II pigeons proved their usefulness. They were able to communicate over long distances and communicate with troops who were not able to get messages through. In one instance British troops found themselves pinned down by German fire and unable to get to safety for nine days. In order to save them three scouts were sent along different routes, each with a homing pigeon. One scout was pinned down by fire while the other two were able to reach their destination. They sent details of their route by homing pigeon and the Allies were able to take the safe route in order to rescue the pinned troops.

All branches of the military continued to use pigeons as emergency communication throughout World War II. However, as technology continued to improve throughout the post-world war era, the need for pigeons was phased out. Today there are no pigeon units or uses for carrier pigeons in the military, however in the past they were responsible for saving countless lives.

Relics of the Past: 5 Obsolete Tools of 20th Century Warfare
Paris Gun.

The Paris Gun

The Paris Gun was a gun that became obsolete nearly as soon as it was created. The massive gun was built in order to be able to shell Paris from behind German lines. This supergun was the largest gun employed during World War I by barrel length and it was almost unheard of for the time. When the first shells landed on Paris there were numerous theories, including the idea that the shell had come from a hidden gun somewhere in France. Other theories suggested that the shells had come from a zeppelin.

However, it did not take long for reconnaissance to locate the massive gun just over the German border. It was encased in concrete and was able to fire a shell so far that the curvature of the Earth had to be taken into account when plotting trajectory. For all the hype around the gun, it was not a very effective weapon, except in the psychological sense.

The gun was only good for targets the size of a city and it was never the sort of threat to Paris that a bombing was. The payload of the gun was small and the barrel of the gun needed to be replaced frequently. The objective of the Paris Gun was more psychological, to scare and demoralize Parisians rather than really destroy the city.

The specifics for the Paris Gun were never known as all surviving guns and the documentation regarding them was destroyed. As per the Treaty of Versailles the Germans were supposed to turn over a Paris Gun to the Allies but they never complied. The Germans largely abandoned the idea of a supergun and instead focused more on rockets, created the V2 rocket for World War II.