New technologies and their effect on the stalemate on the Western Front

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A stalemate had developed between the armies of the Central Powers and the Allies. This stalemate lasted for almost four years, taking millions of lives. But in 1918, for whatever reason, the stalemate ended after both armies made effective attacks on the other’s trenches. World War One was the testing arena for a number of new weapons. Some had been designed and made before the war, but not yet tested in combat conditions. Others were developed during the war. A number were to become fundamental to success in future wars.

The plane, for example, was designed at the turn of the century and made its combat debut in world war one. The tank had not got beyond the drawing board before the war. Other weapons also saw their first use during World War One. Did the new weapons used contribute towards the ending of the stalemate? One of these new weapons was the aeroplane. It had shocked the world when it appeared in 1901. Its first use was reconnaissance. They observed the opposition’s troop movements and artillery positions and photographed possible weak areas of defence, which could be exploited.

However the first planes of that time were, extremely flimsy and made of piano wires and the pilot was completely exposed to the elements around him. Some could be lifted by a couple of people and most would fall apart if put under pressure or extreme G forces. Also a pilot could not dive for too long, because the planes would disintegrate if the speed went above 100 knots. However, rapid technological advances were made. As both sides were using planes for reconnaissance, the observers began taking pistols, or even rifle’s to take pot shots at enemy planes. Others threw bricks or hand grenades at enemy planes.

In September 1914 the RFC (Royal Flying Corps) put machine-guns that were angled to fire forwards clear of the propeller onto its planes. But it was not until October 1914 when the first aircraft was shot down by a machine-gun. Development of the plane continued and in 1915 a French pilot, Roland Garros, attached deflector plates to his propeller blades. These were actually small wedges of toughened steel that diverted the passage of those bullets that struck the blades. It was now possible for a pilot in a single-seater aircraft to fire successfully a machine-gun at enemy aircraft.

However this technology fell into German hands after Garrors was shot down, and then captured. Anton Fokker, a Dutch designer who had set up an aircraft factory in Schwerin, German, was informed of this development. He was another of the many trying to develop a machine-gun that could fire through rotating propeller blades. In autumn of 1915 Fokker was fitting his Eindecker planes with interrupter gear, therefore producing the first true fighter aircraft. Also called a synchronizing gear, the propeller was linked by a shaft to the trigger to block fire whenever they were in line.

He fitted this synchronizing gear to his new range of Fokker E aircraft. These planes arrived on the Western Front during the summer of 1915. This new technological advance gave the German pilots a considerable advantage over the Allied pilots. As a result of this German aces such as Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke became national heroes as their number of victories increased. This period of German domination of the skies was known as the ‘Fokker Scrouge’. However in 1916 this advantage was lost when Allied pilots received aircraft (like the Airco DH2 and the Nieuport 17), that were also armed with synchronized machine-guns.

Nevertheless both sides made rapid advances in all areas of aircraft technology, but the balance of power was constantly changing, as each advance of one side was equalled or bettered by the other side. Thus it seems that at first the use of air power contributed to the continuation of the stalemate. Gases were first used during World War One was by the Germans on 22-April-1915 near Ypres. The attack was to become typical of gas use during World War One. Although it was an effective means in killing the enemy, it did not substantially break the stalemate.

The Germans released a chlorine gas from 520 cylinders (168 tons of the chemical was used). The cloud drifted over to the French and Algerian trenches where it caused wide spread panic and death. The French originally thought that the cloud was a smoke screen and orders were given to prepare for an attack men hurried to take defensive positions. Eventually the French realized what the ‘smoke screen’ (which smelt like a mixture of pineapple and pepper) actually was, and many soldiers ran as fast as they could away from the lines.

After about an hour after the release of the gas there was a four-mile gap in the Allies’ defence. The German soldiers, worrying about what the chlorine gas would do to them, hesitated before attacking in large numbers. This indecision enabled Canadian and British troops to retain the position before the German attack through the gap that the chlorine gas had created. Consequently the use of gas did not allow large territorial gains.

Throughout the war three main types of gases were used by both sides: > Mustard Gas, this rotted skin, caused inflaming, and it could take four or five weeks for the victim to die. Chlorine Gas, this was the first gas used at it caused pains in the chest and a burning sensation in the victim’s throat. > Phosgene Gas, this attacked the lungs During 1916-17 there were approximately 17,700 gas casualties counting the Somme, Chemin des Dames, and Passchendaele battles alone. These numbers would grow significantly due to the large number of deaths after the war that would be blamed on gas exposure. Despite this high casualty count for both sides, the use of gas continued. By 1918, one in every three artillery shells fired contained gas of one type or another.

By July 1915 most soldiers had been given efficient gas masks and anti-asphyxiation respirators. British gas casualties: 1914-18 Deaths Non-Fatal Chlorine Gas 1,976 164,457 Mustard Gas 4,086 16,526 In Sept 1917 the most lethal of all the poisonous chemicals was first used. Mustard gas was almost odourless and took twelve hours show effects. Yperite (its chemical name) was so powerful that only small amounts were required. Mustard gas remained active for several weeks. The effects of mustard gas effect were horrific; it was by far the worst gas of World War One.

It infected the skin of victims and their eyes became very sore and they began to vomit. Mustard gas caused internal and external bleeding and it stripped the bronchial tubes of mucous. Soldiers had to be strapped to their beds. It usually took four or five weeks of agonizing pain for a soldier to die of mustard gas poisoning. Gas was by far the worst weapon of the war. However, since it remained active for a reasonable amount of time, it could not really break the stalemate, as soldiers would not want to advance into trenches, which were contaminated with their own gas.

It was also used ineffectively on a number of occasions when the gas was blown back to where it had come from by the wind. Consequently the stalemate was not broken by use of gas, as it could not be effectually followed up, although many men were killed. The tank was a weapon developed by the British and the French to end the stalemate. The idea was that an armored tracked vehicle, would provide protection to troops from machines gun fire, Colonel’s Ernest Swinton and Maurice Hankey, became convinced that this vehicle that could play an important role in the war.

At the outbreak of the war, Colonel Swinton was sent to the Western Front to write reports on the war. He watched early battles of the war, noticing that machine-gunners were able to kill almost all enemy infantrymen who attacked. He wrote that a “petrol tractors on the caterpillar principle and armoured with hardened steel plates” would be able to neutralize the threat of machine-gunner Constructed in great secrecy, the machine was coded named ‘tank’ by Swinton. Overall the first prototype, nicknamed ‘Little Willie’ had a disappointing performance.

Nonetheless Colonel Ernest Swinton remained convinced that when modified, the tank would enable the Allies to defeat the Central Powers. A second prototype known as Mark 1, nicknamed Mother, met with a contrast of opinions, Lord Kitchener believed that “the war would never be won by such machines” and he described the prototype tank as a “mechanical toy”. However, David Lloyd George and Reginald McKenna although both without military experience, saw the tanks potential and placed an order for 100 tanks. General Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in Chief of the British Army, also had doubts about the tank.

However, during the substantial losses at the Somme Haig gave a controversial order that the tanks at the Western Front, should be used at Flers-Coucelette on 15th July, 1916. 49 tanks were considered to be ready to fight. Regrettably 17 of these broke down on the way to their starting point at Flers. There was a profound effect on the morale of the German Army at the sight of the tanks. Percival Phillips a reporter who saw the tanks in action, said that “Sinister, formidable, and industrious, these novel machines pushed boldly into No Man’s Land, astonishing our soldiers no less than they frightened the enemy.

So in terms of morale, the tank definitely was a success. Haig was later convinced, that with these machines the Allies could end the stalemate, so he requested an additional 1 000 tanks. Colonel John Fuller(the Tank Corps chief of staff was aware of the tank’s early problems. He argued that they should only be deployed when the terrain was appropriate) So after crushing the final German offensive attack at Aisne, the commander in chief of the allies, Ferdinand Foch, decided to counter attack, with Haig in overall charge of the offensive. General Sir Henry Rawlinson and the British Fourth Army were selected to lead the attack.

The capture of the German trench network at Amiens Line was the main objective of the offensive. Colonel John Fuller persuaded General Henry Rawlinson to use tanks followed up by soldiers and 1,000 support aircraft. So every available man and tank was moved to the sector. Included were 72 Whippet and 342 Mark V tanks, 2,070 artillery pieces and 800 aircraft. The defensive force numbered 20,000 soldiers in the sectors chosen so; they were outnumbered 6 to 1 by the attacking troops. The tanks and soldiers met little resistance and by mid morning allied forces had advanced 12km and moreover the Amiens line was taken as hoped.

So overall the Amiens offensive was an immediate success and Fuller’s strategy worked. General Erich Ludendorff described the Germans failure to hold onto the Amiens line as the blackest day of the German Army in the history of the war. The tank had silenced its critics, by being an effective offensive weapon and boosting British morale. When tanks were first introduced, they had a number of problems. There were a high number of breakdowns, and the tactics that were used were not appropriate or successful. By spring 1918 the tanks capabilities had significantly improved with the introduction of cribs. Cribs’ were a braced cylindrical framework, and they acted like a kind of stepping-stone for large trenches.

The tank became a successful offensive weapon. A new defensive weapon, which added to the stalemate, was the machine-gun. A machine gun could fire 400-600 rounds (bullets) per minute; it had the combined firepower of 100 rifles. General Sir Douglas Haig thought that machine guns had no potential. But machine-guns were unequaled in defending, as they could mow down attacking soldiers faster than anything else of the time. The war deaths show the devastating effect that machine-gun fire could have on attackers.

In trench warfare artillery was a large-calibre firearm that could fire heavy shells a number of kilometers. These weapons only maintained the stalemate as both sides were using them in the same role. Howitzers could fire heavy shells (900kg or heavier) over 18km on a high trajectory path so they were useful against fortifications. The mortar a very mobile weapon used by soldiers in the trenches could at the end of the war, fire shells up to 2km. In 1915, 400 000 shells were used a month. A new strategy was developed and employed by the artillery as a result of the stalemate in World War One, the ‘creeping barrage’.

This was artillery fire moving forward in stages, just ahead of the attacking infantry. In the autumn of 1916, the Allied forces developed a system where the shells landing area moved forward at 50 meters per minute. The strategy required precise timing by the heavy artillery and the attacking infantry. If the timing went wrong, the artillery would kill their own soldiers. Creeping barrage was sometimes successful, however it failed to end the stalemate. If the other side sent its men over the top to attack, then the artillery of the defending side would just pour shells down into no-mans land.

Before attacks, shelling usually continued through the night, to soften up defenses, and damage the defenders trenches. Continued firing also tested the nerves of the defending soldiers. Some soldiers even went mad, going over the tops by themselves, this was called ‘shell shock’. Grenades were also a new technology tested in World War One. The British used a number of ineffective designs until the Mills bomb was brought into use. The Mills bomb was an instant success, as it could be held one hand with until the soldier holding it wished to throw it.

At the end of the war soldiers in the British Army had used more than 33 million Mills Bombs. It was also modified so that a rifle could fire it. The rifle was loaded with a grenade and a blank. Then on firing, gas, which was released from the cartridge, would send the grenade over 600 feet. Grenades were a development of a 16th century idea, and both sides had them, thus grenades would not have drastically affected the stalemate. It is clear, from the available evidence that new weapons used in World War One, did contribute to both the eventual ending and the prolongation of the stalemate.

Historians argue whether the tank was a contributing factor, but in terms of morale, the tank certainly was a success. The allies developed them first, and as a result had numerical and technological superiority. They did break the German defences and make significant gains. The plane was also an indirect cause of a breaking of the stalemate as photos of weak defence were spotted and then exploited. As planes became more sophisticated and heavier loads were carried, the plane became more of an offensive weapon but other aircraft were solely designed for shooting others down.

When the tank and the plane were combined with infantry, (at Amiens for example) territorial gains were made, and not lost again. The use of gas did not break the stalemate, although it killed large quantities of soldiers. The modern heavy-artillery was used both defensively and offensively and only sustained the stalemate. Similarly machine-guns worked better as defensive weapons, as they were essentially ‘fixed’ guns and not therefore effective offensive weapons. The new weapons when used offensively with suitable tactics could effectively break the stalemate.

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