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World War One: On Land, at Sea & In the Air

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  • 0:06 World War I: A War…
  • 0:49 The War on Land
  • 5:01 The War at Sea
  • 6:12 The War in the Air
  • 7:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will look specifically at the way World War I was waged on land, at sea, and in the air. We will explore how warfare was conducted within these contexts, and learn about the new technologies that made this possible.

World War I: A War Like No Other

World War I was unlike any war preceding it. In many respects, it was the first truly modern war. Never before had technology been put to such destructive ends. On land, at sea, and in the air, mechanized warfare was carried out with devastating efficiency. Just in case you are not sure, mechanized warfare refers to the use of advanced machines in war. Aircraft, armored vehicles, modern artillery, machine guns - these are all components of mechanized warfare. Let's take a look at the characteristics of World War I, and see how new technologies were adapted in a variety of contexts.

The War on Land

The Great War, another name for World War I, was fought on land in a much different way than the wars that predated it. Warfare in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was highly formalized. Calvary played a critical role, and men lined up in formations to fight in open spaces. Think about the American Civil War. In major battles, Union and Confederate armies marched steadily toward one another, then fired volleys before charging. Men who took cover behind trees, rocks, or in ditches were singled out as cowards. Flash forward fifty years. World War I was completely different.

The Great War was characterized by trench warfare, in which opposing armies would dig sophisticated trenches into the earth in order to provide themselves with cover. The open space between the opposing trench systems was commonly referred to as 'no man's land' because no man wanted to enter this dangerous area. Holed up underground for weeks and months at a time, the men living in trenches experienced horrible conditions. Cold weather, rain, mud, food shortages, rats, and disease were just a few of the difficulties they had to bear.

Each side would rain down heavy artillery shells across 'no man's land' hoping to weaken enemy positions. Those who stuck their heads above the trench risked being hit by a sniper's bullet. The constant noise of artillery barrages day and night caused some men to suffer mental instability. When one side felt it was in a position to advance, officers ordered their men to climb over their trench and embark on a suicidal charge across 'no man's land' with the hope of climbing into the enemy trench and overrunning it.

Another major change in World War I land warfare was the improved machine gun, which was capable of bringing death to the hundreds of men charging across 'no man's land.' Although the Gatling machine gun saw limited action during the American Civil War, by the time the Great War broke out, machine guns had undergone dramatic (not to mention deadly) improvements. The most commonly used machine guns of the Great War were the British 'Vickers' machine gun and the German Maschinengewehr 08, or MG-08.

Artillery also improved between the Civil War and World War I. Larger, more destructive types of cannons were available throughout the Great War. The two most famous siege guns, or 'superguns' as they were called, were the German Paris gun and Big Bertha. The roughly 240 mm Paris gun, manufactured by Krupp and used to bombard Paris from the remarkable distance of 75 miles, was the largest gun of World War I. It could fire shells into the stratosphere.

One of the most important innovations to come out of World War I is the tank. The world's first combat tank was invented by the British. Called the Mark I, it first saw action in September 1916 in the Battle of the Somme. The tank was originally designed so that 'no man's land' could be safely crossed, and enemy positions over-run. The British developed two variants of their tank: male, with heavier guns, and female, with lighter guns. Recognizing the value of this new invention, the Germans developed their own tank, the A7V, which entered service in early 1918.

Another scary first of World War I involved the use of poison gas. World War I was the first war in which modern chemical warfare was used. Mustard gas and chlorine gas were among the most commonly used poison gases. To protect themselves from gas attacks, many soldiers were issued gas masks.

The War At Sea

Although submersible vessels were used in the Civil War, and even the Revolutionary War, it was not until World War I that submarines saw widespread use. Germany's U-boat fleet was particularly formidable. U-boat stands for 'Unterseeboot', which means 'undersea boat' in German. German U-boats were used with deadly efficiency against Allied merchant ships in the Atlantic. In May 1915, U-20 torpedoed the RMS Lusitania, resulting in its sinking and the loss of nearly 1200 lives.

Throughout World War I the British Royal Navy was the most dominant naval force, with the Imperial German Navy following behind. In the years leading up to the outbreak of World War I both nations, as well as others like Russia and France, modernized their naval forces. The result was that when war broke out, powerful battleships roamed the seas. Naval blockades became a common tactic as nations attempted to starve one another into submission by preventing imported goods from coming in.

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