The Mechanization of Warfare

Emilie Adlide, Dickson College 2008

Since the beginning of time man has been trying to think up new ways of defeating the enemy. In particular, World War 1 led to significant developments in modern warfare in the creation of machine guns and tanks and a change in Britain’s economic structure. The new weapons caused more casualties than ever before and made the Great War from 1914 – 1918 a hellish battle between the world’s super powers.

After World War One broke out in the summer of 1914, the opposing armies ended up in trench warfare - stuck in deadlock. They were positioned in long lines across Europe and neither side could make any advance without incurring serious losses upon themselves (Commins 2002, p. 2). As a result of this, armies had to try and find new ways of suppressing their rivals. As it was often muddy and slippery, hand to hand combat was very difficult and so prompted developments in increasing the variety of weaponry. Cover fire was provided by guns to help soldiers cross “No Man’s Land” – undecided territory between the two sides. Winston Churchill wrote a letter on January the 5th 1915 to Prime Minister, Mr H.H. Asquith, voicing the tactical concerns brought about by trench warfare.

The present war has revolutionized all military theories about the field of fire. The power of the rifle is so great that 100 yards is held to be sufficient to stop any rush, and in order to avoid the severity of the artillery fire…war has become a short range instead of a long range war as was expected, and opposing trenches get ever closer together for mutual safety from each other’s artillery fire. (Harris 1995, p.17)

This is just one example of dilemmas facing the armies at war. The size of the armies also noticeably increased and so the scale of the conflict in general increased (Beckett 2002, p. 59). In hindsight, Britain was behind other countries such as Germany in term of preparing for the war. They didn’t have a large enough army and there was no machinery ready for people to produce the appropriate amount of military material (Milverton 2008, p. 1). However, there was no way that Britain could have predicted the magnitude of the war.

As the war escalated, it became just as important to out-produce as it was to out-fight an opponent (Beckett 2002, p. 187). Before the war, Britain was one of the world’s premier economic forces, basing itself on its rapidly developing trading network (Cain 2002, p. 1). During the war, however, trading was disrupted and this lowered Britain’s overall exports. Additionally, Britain produced more in the ‘older’ spheres such as coal, iron, steel, textiles, and heavy manufactures such as ships, vehicles, and machinery (Cain 2002, p. 1). This meant it was subject to competition from newer industrialising nations. Also because Britain had to switch over to war production, foreign customers had to go else where for ‘peacetime’ products. Britain lost much of its previous foreign investment and export markets. In order to pay for the war, Britain's gold reserves were depleted and debts were formed due to borrowing money from other countries (Cain 2002, p. 1). The change to Britain’s economic structure due to the war meant that it was no longer the leading influence in the international economy.

Another effect of the war was the development in advanced weaponry such as the machine gun which became an essential part of infantry battalions. Created in 1884 (Commins 2002, p.1), the full potential of the weapon was not discovered until World War 1 when it was used to defend trenches with indiscriminate brutality. Because of the rate at which the machine gun was able to fire bullets – five hundred and more rounds per minute (Haythornthewaithe 1992, p. 70) - it could repel mass attacks of armies in ways a rifle never could. Although the machine gun was extremely effective in defending trenches, it weighed between 30-60kg(Duffy 2000, p.1) and even with a tripod was not very mobile. Also the gun was prone to overheating due to its rapid fire, requiring a water cooling jacket (Haythornthewaithe 1992, p. 69). Sometimes however, the cooling jacket was not effective enough and in desperation men would urinate on the gun just to cool it down (Duffy 2000, p.1). Because of this weapon, tactics had to be rethought to account for its defensive power. Nevertheless, even once the war had started, leaders refused to change their view, best put by historian Bernard Fitzsimons, that “any offence with good drive and training were more than enough to take over any defended position” (1973, p. 7). One such leader was British commander Douglas Haig who, one year into the war, stated “The machine gun is a much over rated weapon...” (Commins 2002, p.1). This displays Haig’s disapproving view of the machine gun, a view not uncommon. After many a bloody battle, it was evident that some new invention was needed to counteract the machine gun.

The British implemented a new weapon, the tank, in the hope of bringing back mobility to the Great War. Crushing or removing barbed wire and neutralising machine guns were two of the main aims of the tank (Harris 1995, p. 15). Although the basic design of tanks had been around since the eighteenth century (Duffy 2000, p.1), Maurice Hankey, a British military adviser, first suggested the idea of using tanks. He published a paper, known as the “Boxing Day Memorandum,” in December 1914 which proposed:

Numbers of large heavy rollers, themselves bullet proof, propelled from behind by motor-engines, geared very low, the driving wheel fitted with a caterpillar driving gear to grip the ground…a Maxim gun fitted. The object of this device would be to roll down the barbed wire by sheer weight, to give some cover to men creeping up behind and to support the advance with machine gun fire” (Harris 1995, p.16)

Although armoured fighting vehicles like this were already available in 1914, they were only able to fight on ‘normal’ ground and were unable to cope with the trenches that dominated the war grounds. There were many problems associated with the tank. There were problems of poor visibility, susceptibility to breakdown and mechanical malfunction (Milverton 2008, p. 1). Even so, the principle of the tank changed modern warfare forever. The tank symbolised the great need for innovative and new inventions that was apparent in 1914 but only came about because of the war. Without the stalemate on the Western Front, the tank may never have been developed or properly tested. This one invention shows the impact war can have on countries to develop new and dangerous means of winning a war.

The study of Britain’s economic and industrial processes and changes shows how World War I encouraged invention.. Due to the invention of the machine gun and tank, killing people in war became easier and more brutal than ever before. The world and warfare would never be the same again.


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Cain, P. J. 2002, To what extent, and for what reasons, was the British Empire in crisis after the First World War?, viewed 2 June 2008, <>
Commins, Daniel 2002, Frontiers: The Machine Gun, viewed 7 June 2008, <
Duffy, Michael 2000, First World - Weapons of War, viewed 9 June 2008, <>
Fitzsimons, Bernard 1973, Tanks & Weapons of World War One, Beekman House, New York.
Harris, J. P. 1995, Men, Ideas, and Tanks: British Military Thought and Armoured Forces, 1903-1939, Manchester University Press, Manchester.
Haythornthewaithe, Philip J 1992, The world war one source book, Arms and Armour press, London.
Milverton Associates Limited 2008, 'How ready for war was Britain in 1914?', viewed 8 June 2008,