Recovered Writing, PhD in English, World War I Literature, Presentation on Weapons and Tactics, 31 January 2008

This is the forty-sixth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

During my second semester at Kent State University as a PhD student, I was a member of Professor Robert Trogdon’s World War I Literature seminar. Professor Trogdon created a terrific syllabus of readings and facilitated insightful discussions. While we focused on the prose and poetry surrounding or focused on WWI, I found it to be a uniquely suited class for thinking about the history of science and technology in early 20th-century literature. My greatest success in this class was my final paper on H.G. Wells’ “The Land Ironclads” and the invention of the British tank, which I continued writing after the class and eventually presented in shortened form at SLSA and published in the prestigious Wellsian journal. The essay included below is a paper that I wrote for a presentation on the weapons and tactics of World War I. This early research in the class and my previous reading of H.G. Wells led me to pitch “The Land Ironclads” essay idea to Professor Trogdon.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Robert Trogdon

World War I Literature

31 January 2008

WWI Literature Presentation – Weapons and Tactics

            The Great War illustrates the disconnection between the vast technological developments at the turn of the century and the implementation of those new technologies in the waging of war. Whereas the new weaponry of the Great War would go on to be used in innovative ways in World War II, the overall strategies employed, particularly on the Western Front, was that of attrition. However, there was certainly a number of innovations, and the networks of war making and technology fed into one another, which eventually produced new weapons and tactics that left an ineradicable mark on history.

The most recognizable aspect of the First World War is trench warfare. The Western Front stabilized early in the war after the Allies and Central forces were unable to outflank one another. This stalemate initially prompted a breakdown in imaginative thinking regarding strategies to breakthrough, which resulted in enormous losses. Essentially, troops in forward trenches would charge forward toward the exposed “No Man’s Land” while their artillery fired on enemy positions. Aside from the uneven terrain due to artillery craters, these front line soldiers encountered a new impediment to crossing to the enemy lines: barbed wire. It was first patented by Joseph Glidden in 1874 in the United States. In use, it was stretched parallel to the front trenches of each side to prevent advances from the other side. Soldier caught in the barbed wire were gunned down and left to die hanging.

Germany revealed its first advantage early in the war through the extensive use of machine guns, which they had stockpiled in the years leading up to the war. The first machine guns used in First World War were typically tripod mounted, and were water, oil, or air cooled (predominantly the first). Despite their weight, a crew of several soldiers could easily setup a machine gun quickly from a defensible position, or it may be hidden within a secure enclosure. These machine guns had a theoretical sustained rate of fire of up to 600 rounds per minute, but firing was often limited to controlled bursts rather than continuous use due to the possibility of overheating. The first self-powered, force recoil machine gun was patented by Hiram Maxim in Britain in 1883. The British had access to the Maxim oil-cooled gun and the Vickers water-cooled gun, both in .303 British caliber, but their numbers were limited, because, “the British army high command could see no real use for the [machine gun that Maxim] demonstrated to them in 1885; other officers even regarded the weapon as an improper form of warfare” (“Machine Guns” par. 9). However, the Germans had no such qualms about the use of machine guns, and they made an almost identical copy called the Maschinengewehr 08 (MG08) that fired 7.92x57mm Mauser rounds. At the outbreak of war, Germany had “approximately 12,000 MG08s…available to battlefield units” (“Maschinengewehr” par. 5). Due to the weight of the gun, it’s cooling requirements, and heavy consumption of ammunition, the machine gun was originally a defensive weapon. German soldiers more than aptly demonstrated its defensive capabilities to the Allies during the first phase of the war. Later, machine guns were adapted to mobile platforms such as carts, tanks, airplanes, and ships.

Artillery served a central offensive role in trench warfare. It served a clearing function by cutting through barbed wire defenses in No Man’s Land, though with lackluster success. Additionally, it supported infantry soldiers by first attempting to weaken the enemy’s defenses and ability to return fire, and leading the way during advances past enemy lines. However, this didn’t always work out as planned, which was evidenced by the Allied losses at the battle of Verdun after their 1.5 million shells left only “superficial” damage to Germany’s well fortified deep trench system (Robbins 56).

There are three types of artillery: guns, howitzers, and mortars. Guns are very large, long barreled machines that fire a large projectile. Howitzers are shorter range artillery weapons with a short barrel, and fire a smaller projectile. And finally, mortars are easily conveyed by troops in trenches and fire small projectiles nearly vertically that fall down onto the enemy. Initially, these used shrapnel rounds to attack troops, but later in the war there was a shift to high explosive rounds.

Poison gas, which was first used in the Great War, is another offensive weapon employed throughout the conflict. Simply put, poison gases are chemical agents tailored to kill, maim, and/or serious disable enemy soldiers. The first use of poison gas (excluding early forms of tear gas) took place at Ypres salient on 22 April 1915 when the Germans utilized favorable winds to carry 150 tons of chlorine gas to the French lines. The gas of choice in the war initially was chlorine, which was easily produced, but difficult to release. That problem was solved through the use of canisters and later shells. Chlorine gas breaks down tissues, particularly in the lungs, when it dissolves in water producing hydrochloric acid. The common cause of death by chlorine gas is asphyxiation due to the destruction of lung tissue and the accumulation of fluid. A poison gas arms race developed after the use of chlorine. As one side developed protections in the form of masks and breathers, the other side would redouble its efforts in creating a more deadly chemical that circumvented those protections. Other well-known gases developed during the Great War include the toxic, mucous membrane irritant phosgene, the paralyzing hydrocynanide, and the blistering agent dichlordiethyl sulphide, or mustard gas (Hartcup 102 and 106). Both sides of the war developed poison gas, delivery systems, and protections, and these agents were used throughout the war.

Poison gas, artillery, machine guns, and barbed wire promoted an unimaginative solution to the war through attrition. These weapons were employed without a retooling of the methods of warfare in an age of intense technological development. However, three technologies provided the promise for new ways of seeing and thinking about warfare at the turn of the century: tanks, airplanes, and submarines.

Motorized tractors in warfare were considered as a possibility following the development of petrol-based engines. However, the first image of the modern battle tank was envisioned by H.G. Wells in his 1903 short story, “The Land Ironclads,” which reveals the battle potential of mechanized warfare in a thinly veiled bourgeoisie triumph over the simple proletariat. Appropriately enough, the British were the first to develop a tank for deployment in the Great War. Unfortunately, its strategic potential was limited by planning and numbers when first unleashed on the Western Front on 15 September 1916 at Flers Courcellette (Hartcup 86). This first model of British tank is described as, “cumbersome and unreliable,” and, “whose movements as yet inspired more awe than fear amongst those Germans who observed it” (Robbins 56).   Germany developed approximately twenty tanks in response, but there was only one reported tank battle between British and German tanks during the war (Hartcup 91).

Another new technology used in the war were airplanes. They were initially used for aerial reconnaissance, but their role evolved as the conflict progressed. The number of aircraft produced increased during the war, and they were outfitted with two means of attack: machine guns and bombs. Both of these involved major engineering work. Machine guns, mounted on the fuselage of the aircraft had to be synchronized with the propellers so that bullets would pass between the rotor blades as the plane was in flight. Bomb delivery evolved from hand dropping shells and grenades to mechanically releasing heavier bombs, which necessitated the invention of bomb sighting mechanisms. Furthermore, the development of air to ground warfare precipitated the inauguration of air-to-air combat. The airplane didn’t have as central a role in operations as in World War II, but it was seen as the future well before the Great War in H.G. Wells’ 1908 novel, The War in the Air.

A third and final major weapon in the Great War is the submarine. The German Unterseeboot or U-boat is an underwater submersible with a diesel power plant for continuous underwater operations, and it was equipped with a deck gun, torpedoes, and (optionall) mine laying capability. Without detection mechanisms early in the war, Germany was able to declare the waters around Britain a war zone and thereby effectively wage unrestricted warfare. However, this position was relaxed momentarily following the diplomatic fallout after the RMS Lusitania sinking by U-20 on 15 May 1915. Later, Germany shifted to unrestricted submarine warfare beginning on 1 February 1917, which precipitated the United States’ involvement in the Great War.

These are only a sampling of the technology, weapons and tactics utilized in the First World War. Others include flamethrowers, grenades, improved infantry rifles and bullets, British Q-ships, new battleships, the battlecruiser, improved naval guns, naval mines, and zeppelins. There are two final points that I would like to make about these technologies and their uses. First, the technology at the turn of the century influenced the war, and the war influenced the development of new technologies. And second, these technologies left a lasting mark on the physicality of future technologies as well as the human bodies engaged in their use from 1914 to 1918.

Works Cited

Duffy, Michael. “Machine Guns.” 3 May 2003. 30 January 2008 <;.

—. “Maschinengewehr.” 3 May 2003. 30 January 2008 <;.

Hartcup, Guy. The War of Invention: Scientific Developments 1914-1918. New York: Brassey’s Defense Publishers, 1988.

Robbins, Keith. The First World War. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984.

Wells, H.G.. “The Land Ironclads.” Selected Stories of H.G. Wells. Ed. Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: Random House, 2004.

—. The War in the Air: And Particularly How Mr. Bert Smallways Fared While It Lasted. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1908.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.