The outbreak of war in 1914 was a pinnacle moment in global history. From this moment on the world entered a new age; a modern era that was to begin with the bloodiest conflict it had ever seen. The conflict lasted four years and was deemed by American diplomat George Kennan as the ‘great seminal catastrophe’ of the twentieth century.[1] Why this description has been widely accepted by historians is quite clear, not only did the war trigger a triad of unstable and destructive decades in Europe, it also resulted in the death of millions of soldiers. It is however, how such high mortality rates were able to occur, that historians tend to disagree upon. One prominent explanation is the development of new, and improved weaponry. The war sparked a revolution in weaponry with a range of technological innovations emerging. From the defensive to the offensive, almost all of the weapons developed were to have devastating effects on the battlefield. Using evidence from the sources I have found, this essay will explain the extent to which developments in weaponry led to the death of so many men on the battlefield during the first world war in order to come to a balanced conclusion.

The Great War is renowned for being a defensive one. The stalemate that occurred in the trenches is what the majority refer to when speaking of the battlefield during the conflict. It was a type of warfare that had never been experienced before, and it arguably benefited the defender over the attacker. The machine gun is arguably the main weapons which contributed to this advantage. Whilst it was invented in the late nineteenth century and employed in the Russo-Japanese war in 1904, the machine gun was not able to achieve its full potential until 1914. Up to this point it had been marked as a ‘weapon of opportunity’, and failed to integrate in to human-centred warfare.[2] The First World War was however, a completely new style of war, one which suited the machine gun perfectly. The stationary, attacker-versus-defender style of warfare allowed the machine gun to be fully utilised. As opposition forces advanced over the top of their trenches and across no man’s land, they were met with by a barrage of machine gun fire. This barrage was seen at the Somme in 1916, where the allies lost approximately sixty thousand men, a large majority of which came from the machine gun. This was due to its ability to fire over five hundred rounds per minute with a long range accuracy of six hundred metres.[3] It resulted in most attacking forces being mowed down in their thousands due to their limited defence against the weapon.[4] The fire power of the machine gun was equivalent to that of one hundred rifles, and as explained by G. M. Lindsay, firepower is what counted, not the number of men you had at your disposal.[5] The arrival to this conclusion did not arrive until after the war, and so sending men over the top continued across the four years resulting in the machine gun racking up its frightening death tally. Indirect fire power was another deadly aspect of the machine gun. In his article, Paul Cornish describes how when deployed in groups and controlled, machine gun batteries were able to effectively fire indirectly. This was achievable by exploiting the curved trajectory of the bullets, making machine almost artillery like.[6] This in turn helped give it an offensive value, as it could now be used along-side artillery in aiding advancing troops, thus giving it a greater capacity to kill. Both the direct and indirect fire power of the machine gun were extremely effective in killing the enemy however the positioning of such a weapon was what made the crucial difference in the amount killed. Crossing fire was one way of achieving this, a group of machine guns, each crossing their arcs of fire allowed for a more lethal spread, resulting in more fatalities. Another way is explained by Historian Tooley, ‘machine guns were positioned slightly to the side in order to be more accurate and kill more men.’[7] Hitting the enemy from the side created a larger killing zone, resulting in a greater death toll. The deadliness of the machine gun is summed up by Private Edward Stewart, who when writing about his war experience stated, ‘you would suddenly see the flash of their machine guns, immediately after would come the report and nasty thuds on the sandbags which you might be resting against… two shells which lodged in the parapet either side of my head leaving about two to three inches between me and certain death.’[8] This primary account gives a vivid image of how feared the machine gun had become. Historians Stevenson gives an example of where this fear understandably came from when writing, ‘On the second day at Loos German machine-gunners inflicted thousands of causalities on novice BEF divisions for almost no losses themselves.’[9] This helps explain the statistic in Antione Prost’s article; that a third of all French causalities were as a result of the machine gun.[10] These kinds of statistics were common during the war and make a compelling case that the machine gun had a significant impact on the battlefield mortality rates. It is evident that the machine gun’s terrifying ability to kill supports the argument that it was to a large extent that so many were killed on the battlefield due to advanced weaponry.

The machine gun was arguably the most detrimental defensive weapon on the battlefield, however there was another which assisted in its efficiency to kill. Barbed wire was an extremely successful defensive weapon for all powers in the war. Although it did not cause many deaths directly, it was an asset that reduced the pace of the enemy, making them more vulnerable to effective fire power from machine guns and artillery.[11] It made it almost impossible for infantry to cross no man’s land without being killed or wounded. In his account of the war, Professor T. M. Kettle wrote ‘there are two sinister fences of barbed wire, on the barbs of which bloodstained strips of uniform and fragments more sinister have been known to hang for a long time.’[12] This sums up the horrifying effect barbed wire had in the war, explaining how it trapped men, leading to them being shot and left to rot on no man’s land. The wire was strategically placed in order to funnel advancing enemy soldiers into a smaller, more concentrated killing zone, to be picked off by riflemen or machine guns.[13] What added to its effectiveness was how easily it could be produced and, if damaged, repaired. During the night, soldiers could be sent out to repair the wire, resulting in the killing cycle restarting. Barbed wire proved to be a surprisingly difficult obstacle during the war, one which no side truly overcame. There is no doubt that this weapon resulted in the deaths of thousands as it made soldiers ‘sitting ducks’ for the opposing side to target. Historian Herwig agrees, summing up the effect barbed wire had on the death toll on the battlefield, ‘the fighting on the western front had taken on a deadly regularity; attackers stormed enemy trenches in waves only to be mowed down by hostile machine gun as they tried to cut the wire entanglement that protected the earthworks.’[14]

Artillery is one weapon that never fails to appear when researching weaponry in the Great War. Each source seems to come to the same conclusion, one that historian Audoin-Rouzeau sums up when stating that artillery was ‘the determining weapon of the battlefield.’[15] Along with the machine gun, it dominated no man’s land as David Zabecki clarifies when stating in his article that ‘artillery dominated World War I as no other war in history.’[16] What made it so dominant was its ability to be used effectively in both attack and defence, and with its fire power came a substantial death toll. On the defensive, artillery was used along-side the machine gun in destroying the enemy whilst they tried to cross no man’s land. In this instance artillery, would not only destroy bogged down infantry, but also create a torn-up surface, making it harder for any enemy to cross. This would in turn make it less of a challenge to destroy enemy cavalry, which was shown at Chamin des Dames where German artillery wreaked havoc on French tanks.[17] Again on the defensive side of artillery, the majority of British causalities that occurred on the 1st of July 1916 were due to artillery rather than the machine gun.[18] When you consider that the British experience around 20,000 fatalities in just the first day of the Battle of the Somme, it is easy to see the damage that artillery could inflict on the defensive.[19] The final causalities of all sides during the battle amounted to just over a million, of which a large majority lost their lives to the devastating power of artillery.[20] The effectiveness of artillery to kill did not go unnoticed, as seen in how many shells were produced by Germany from 1915 to 1916. In the early part of 1915 around 2,300,000 shells were produced. This increased to a massive 35,000,000 by the end of 1916.[21] One could argue that this evidence suggests that they put such a significant emphasis on the production of shells because they were so effective in their ability to kill. On the offensive, artillery could be used to destroy defending positions and personnel of the enemy, in order to allow friendly forces to have a greater chance of friendly soldiers reaching their objective. In his book, Historian DiNardo explains how ‘throughout the campaigns in Galicia and Poland, the trump card of the central powers was their heavy artillery.’[22] It was their advanced 150mm Howitzers that gave them their advantage over their enemy on both the defensive and on the offensive. On both fronts, artillery was a crucial part of every military operation. In his article, Dieter Storz explains that it was trench warfare that made the artillery such an effective killing machine, due to its fixed nature. It was this stationary warfare that made it possible for artillery to rack up approximately three quarters of all causalities that occurred during the war.[23] This statistic argues that artillery and therefore advanced weaponry had, to a large extent, a significant part in causing the incredibly high mortality rates that occurred on the battlefield during the first world war.

The development of chemical weaponry, in particular gas, had a considerable effect on the death toll during the war. In early 1915, German scientist Fritz Haber advised the military that the use of chlorine gas, a potent lung irritant, could be the weapon to penetrate enemy lines.[24] The gas was first diffused by canisters in April 1915, when the Germans successfully opened a gap in Allied lines approximately six kilometres wide. However, although they killed five thousand allied troops, they failed to capitalise on the opening. The element of surprise was now lost, and the Allies soon began producing poison gas as well, and with the benefit of prevailing winds, the allies were able to release gas at a rate ten times that of the Germans.[25] It wasn’t until the development of yperite, which was now being projected in shells which eliminated the need to await favourable winds, that gas began to make a serious impact on the battlefield death toll. Mustard gas, as it is referred to, was invisible, and not volatile which made it extremely persistent. Yperite contaminated places and clothes for a long time; it attacked all of a person’s mucous membranes, devouring tissue and killing cells. It burned soldier’s eyes making them blind resulting in many soldier being out of commission for months. This, whilst not killing the men, made them redundant for a substantial period of time during the conflict. There is an argument that would suggest that with less men to fight, it was more likely that sides would take more causalities due to their lack of fire power. It was because of this new type of poison gas, that the number of allied gas casualties rose even more during the war’s last year. Up to fifteen percent of all of the dead and wounded on the battlefield was due to this poison gas.[26]  The estimated causalities were 496,000, and while this is not close to that of the machine gun and artillery, it is still a significant amount. This tally, as well as its indirect effects, argues that poison gas had a key part to play in the overall death toll on the battlefield during the war.

The Great War was the first to see the involvement of aircraft in warfare. Its impact in the war is hotly disputed, however the evidence found would suggest that it did have a considerable effect on the death toll on the battlefield. The role of aircraft was split in to two main areas throughout the war; reconnaissance and bombing. Although reconnaissance did not directly kill the enemy, it was still partly responsible for the death of so many. Aircraft reconnaissance was used as an aid for artillery; once it had the fire power to reach further targets.[27] It provided ‘eyes on the enemy’ with photos of enemy positions that could in turn be used by artillery gunners in order to get accurate firing.[28] Once it had served to give a clear picture of the operational situation, Historian DiNardo explains how aerial reconnaissance was also vital in getting accurate angles for the artillery to use.[29] This is reiterated by Audoin-Rouzeau who states that ‘aviation served reconnaissance (for instance, in the preparation for the battle of the Marne)… it guided artillery.’ What this evidence arguably suggests is that the accuracy of the artillery was heavily reliant on aerial photography and reports. When you consider the number of fatalities that occurred from artillery shells, it could be argued that a significant amount of them may not have occurred had the information from above not been obtained. With regards to bombing, it wasn’t until the later years of the war that it became a common sight on the battlefield. The development of specific aircraft for example, B.E.-2s and Tauben proved useful not only in observing the enemy, but also in dropping bombs.[30] The range and stability of these aircraft allowed them to start giving aircraft its own killing ability. In his account of the war, Sergeant William Hastings described the effect bombings had whilst he was at the front, ‘Had a dirty time yesterday morning dodging damned great bombs… they were eighteen inches to two feet long and made a hole about ten feet deep and fifteen feet diameter… They caused an enormous amount of causalities.’[31] This was true, bombing was beginning to rack up a considerable death toll in the last year of the war[32]. Although on a less direct basis, aircraft was responsible for a notable amount of deaths and it certainly played a role in the high mortality rates experienced on the battlefield.

In conclusion, the development of advanced weaponry played a significant role in the high mortality rates that occurred on the battlefield during the first world war. The then Lieutenant Charles de Gaulle wrote ‘In an instant, it appeared that any bravery in the world could not prevail against firepower.’[33] It was the fire power of these new weapons that was to have the greatest effect on these rates. On the defensive, both the machine gun and barbed wire made it possible to accumulate so many kills, something that had never been achievable previously. Trench warfare suited them perfectly, something it had in common with artillery; the other colossal killer. Its part in the death toll was just as considerable, resulting in seventy five percent of all causalities. Poison gas and the development of aircraft both had a direct effect however it was their indirect influence that made the most impact on the battlefield. Aircraft provided the accuracy of the deadly artillery whilst poison gas put thousands of troops out of action; making forces more vulnerable to attack. There is no doubt, from the evidence I have found, that advanced weaponry was to a large extent the predominant factor in causing the incredibly high mortality rates that occurred on the battlefield during the first world war. As stated by R. J. Q. Adams, ‘all of humankind was on the losing side’ during the Great War; a statement that advanced weaponry had a great influence in creating.[34]


[1] I. Kershaw, To Hell and Back, Europe 1914-1949 (London, 2015), 9.

[2] T. Travers, The Killing Ground: The British Army, The Western Front & The Emergence of Modern War 1900-18 (London, 1993), 64.

[3] A. Patnaude, ‘Machine Guns’, 100 Years Legacies, 1 (2016), 25/11/17.

[4] P. Cornish, ‘Machine Gun’, 1914-18 online, 1 (2015), 17/11/2017.

[5] Travers, The Killing Ground, 69.

[6] Cornish, ‘Machine Gun’.

[7] H. Tooley, The Western Front, Battleground and Homefront in the First World War (Basingstoke, 2003), 82.

[8] E. H. C. Stewart, Writing of his war experience in 1916, 20/11/2017.

[9]  D. Stevenson, 1914-1918, The History of the First World War (London, 2004), 183.

[10] A. Prost, ‘War Losses’, 1914-18 online, 1 (2014), 13/11/17.

[11] D. Todman, The Great War, Myth and Memory (London, 2005), 74.

[12] T. M. Kettle, The Ways of The War (London, 1917), 172.

[13] S. Sloat, ‘Barbed Wire’, 100 Years Legacies, 1 (2016), 12/11/2017.

[14] H. H. Herwig, The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914-1918 (London, 1997), 164.

[15] S. Audoin-Rouzeau, ‘Weapons’, 1914-18 online, 1 (2014), 10/11/2017.

[16] D. T. Zabecki, ‘Military Developments of World War I’, 1914-1918 online, 1 (2015), 6/11/2017.

[17] Stevenson, 1914-1918, 183.

[18] Travers, The Killing Ground, 157.

[19] W. Philpott, ‘Somme, Battles of’, 1914-18 online, 1 (2014), 18/11/17.

[20] H. Strachan, The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War (Oxford, 1998), 60.

[21] Tooley, The Western Front, 90.

[22] R. L. DiNardo, Breakthrough, The Gorlice-Tarnow Campaign, 1915 (California, 2010), 140.

[23] D. Storz, ‘Artillery’, 1914-18 online, 1 (2014), 20/11/2017.

[24] Herwig, The First World War, 169.

[25] Herwig, The First World War, 170.

[26] Audoin-Rouzeau, ‘Weapons’.

[27] A. Schwarz, ‘Science and Technology (Germany)’, 1914-18 online, 1 (2014), 14/11/2017.

[28] C. Morris, ‘Aircraft, Reconnaissance and Bomber’, 1914-18 online, 1, (2016), 23/11/17.

[29] DiNardo, Breakthrough, 140.

[30] Morris, ‘Aircraft’.

[31] W. Hastings, Writing of his war experience in 1915, 15/11/2017.

[32] Audoin-Rouzeau, ‘Weapons’.

[33] Prost, ‘War Losses’.

[34] R. J. Q. Adams, The Great War 1914-18 (London, 1990), 10.