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WWI New Weapons & Technology: Tanks, Machine Guns & Planes

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

World War I wasn't just about the alliance system being put to the test. In this lesson, we explore the impact of machine guns, planes, and tanks on the conflict and how they changed the face of war.

Old Tactics, New Weapons

Have you ever been digging around your closet and found an old t-shirt that you used to love? Excitedly, you try it on and find it doesn't fit anymore. Perhaps you grew taller or lost weight, but for some odd reason you think, just for a second, that maybe this t-shirt can still work?

For many generals at the start of World War I, that was the thought about their armies. They knew that completely new technologies existed that could challenge anything that they had encountered before. However, they refused to accept that their old ways of thinking were out of date. In this lesson, we'll look at how three of those technologies forever changed warfare.

Machine Guns

Guns had been a common sight on a European battlefield for hundreds of years. However, it was only recently that most armies could expect their infantrymen to fire more than a few shots a minute. The adoption of cartridges meant that the average infantryman could fire faster, up to 10-20 bullets every minute. That was what the Europeans had accepted.

Machine guns, on the other hand, could fire hundreds of bullets a minute. The only time that the Europeans had ever really seen a machine gun in action was in small colonial wars. They didn't appreciate just how many people one of these could shoot in a larger fight. More than anything, machine guns forced the warring powers, especially in the west, to settle down to trench warfare, where each side fought from the protection of trenches.

Planes

One technology that was unencumbered by trenches was the airplane. The plane had only been invented a decade before, but flight gained a role in operations quickly. At the beginning, pilots were charged with reconnaissance, or figuring out what the enemy was doing. However, eventually the air became its own battlefield, as machine guns were mounted on planes with the purpose of shooting down other planes.

It wasn't just plane-to-plane fights, however. World War I also saw the birth of bombers, planes designed specifically to attack ground targets. More and more planes had to be built to counter the bombers.

The Sopwith Camel was one of the most common planes in World War I
Sopwith Camel

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