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The First World War was the first modern war

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  • Pages: 6
  • Word count: 1328
  • Category: War

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This statement is partially valid. To assess the validity of the statement two aspects of the war should be taken in consideration. During the First World War modern, heavier and weapons more lethal than ever before were used for the first time. Traditional weapons were redesigned, making each soldier deadlier than before. However old tactics going back to the 19th century were used to combat the enemies.

The First World War is often referred to as “a 20th century war fought with 19th century tactics”. It was the first “world” war in the true sense of the word, involving the whole of Europe and even, towards its end, the United States of America.

“Modern” it became indeed when one considers the new, deadlier weapons that were developed just before and during this war: Tanks, airplanes, machine guns, chemical weapons are the most widely known by the general public.

However, “old fashioned” tactics were used in every day combat tactics. Trench warfare and massive offensives designed by old world general sipping cognac in their comfortable leather armchairs, sending foot soldiers to be butchered to an almost certain death as if they were young boys simulating a battle with lead soldiers, are there to remind us that this war was not “franche et joyeuse” (clearcut: “brave and joyous” is the best translation I could think of).

World War one is indeed the first modern war, as far as the weapons developed and used were concerned, but in my opinion the tactics used in the war were closer to those of the Napoleonic wars than the later 20th century wars.

A modern aspect of the First World War was the weaponry used or developed. During the First World War a wide range of new weapons appeared. Old weapons were rediscovered and redesigned to fulfill “modern” purposes. This is the case of the Flame thrower or the mortars. The use of a flamethrower is already mentioned in the 5th century B.C. Its use in a modern version by the German army brought terror to the British and French lines. The trench mortar or grenade launcher fired unseen and unnoticed by the enemy from the bottom of their trench, was another permanent, invisible deadly threat.

Some weapons had never been used before in any kind of warfare and weren’t trusted to be effective in this war. However when one army started to use one sort of weapons, the other side took note of it and developed their own design of the new weapon. This was the case of the machine gun which was proposed to the British army in 1884. The British army dismissed the offer of this powerful weapon. The Germans however understood the deadly potential power of the machine gun and started to produce them on an industrial scale before the war. This device, originally unreliable because of his quick overheating and its weight, would rapidly evolve during the war to the point that machine guns infantry, however unsuccessful, would be formed with 9-14 kg machine guns.

The machine gun introduced innovations since it was used in aircrafts, warships and tanks. The machine gun allowed for a theoretical rate of fire of up to 600 rounds per minute. The machine gun proved to be a lethal defence mechanism against the massive infantry offensives in trench warfare. In the battle of the Somme for example, 60,000 British soldiers died wave after wave, under the constant fire of well positioned machine guns. The machine gun is nowadays a standard weapon in all armies in the world.

The tank is a good example of a weapon that dramatically changed the way wars would be fought in the 20nth century. Tanks were first used and became famous during war. They replaced the classical cavalry. Most countries didn’t believe before the war started, that tanks would prove to be an effective weapon. Tanks were first used in September 1916 when 36 tanks launched an offensive on German positions. From there on several countries started to recognize the value of this weapon and started to design their own tanks. With the progress of the war the technology of the tanks improved.

A British army officer, Swinton, drew up a list of key criteria the tanks should comply with to prove their efficiency on the battle field. According to him, a tank should reach a minimum of 4 miles per hour, be able to climb a 5 foot obstacle, have 2 machine guns, transport a crew of 10 men and be immune to the effects of small arms fire. The following generation of tanks did take his considerations into account. The use of tank permitted to cross a battle field without being shot down by machine guns, and to drive over barbed wire. In the final days of the war, tanks were used heavily, especially at Le Hammel in 1918. Australian officer organised first the clearance of the defensive position of the trenches by heavy artillery and the use of tanks. The fight, won within 93 minutes, evidenced the advantages of the use of tanks.

The grenade is another example of a weapon that evolved during the war. The “Mills bomb” when it exploded, projected a large amount of small parts all around it, creating a fragmentation bomb. The grenade was used effectively against machine guns: well thrown, it could injure the gun operator or even destroy the machine gun. A British grenade team consisted of: 2 launchers, 2 bayonets who protected the launchers and the ‘spare’ to replace the possible casualties.

Poison Gas was another weapon that marked World War One. Chemists had found out that some liquids, when released in the air would evaporate into poisonous gas. Both parties in the war used this mass killing weapon. The Germans, however, were the first to use it widely. Weather conditions were crucial for the use of this weapon. Ideally a light wind would carry the gas to towards the enemy lines. However if the wind would change direction the gas would turn back on its own trenches. Poison gas was a lethal weapon that killed and injured many soldiers on both sides.

Large shell bombardments would be carried too. When the bombardments stopped, the targets knew an offensive was about to start. The whistle coordinating the offensive would usually confirm this.

In this war of attrition the mass of attackers would struggle to run across no man’s land not taking care of the amount of bodies lying on the ground and the shouting injured soldiers. They would most likely be kicked down before reaching the barbed wire by machine guns. If they were lucky enough they would have to fight hand to hand in the enemy’s trench. The First World War was the first war of its kind. Altogether, 14.5 million people died, 21 million were wounded. Never before had a war caused so many casualties.

The strategy used by the generals, trying to win a war of attrition and sending thousands of soldiers to an almost certain death, hoping that by sending out more and more men the enemy would be the first out of men. These tactics were obviously not in phase with the “modern” weaponry used.

In Conclusion, one can say that the First World War was the first modern war, in terms of the weapons that were used. The weapons used were far more advanced than those used in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and are similar to weapons still used nowadays. However, the top level commanders of the fighting armies used old-fashioned, out of date strategies and were not aware or did not realise the possibilities offered by new technologies. This created a war of attrition were defences were becoming impenetrable with the tactics used.

This leads me to state that stating that “The First World War was the first modern war” is only partially true.

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