War and Social Upheaval: World War I -- Weapons


Figure 1.--While European powers conducted a major arms race and prodyced increasingly modern arms in vast quantities, the United States neither built a large army or modern infantry weapons. As a result, the rapidly mobilized and lagely untrained American Expeditionary Force (AEF) that heded for France when American finally ebtered the war would fight largely with Bitish and French weaponty. Here we see American boys about 1915 posing with a small caliber Spanush-American War artillery piece.

The major European powers durung the late-19th and early-20th century engaged in a deadly arms race. Huge sums were appripriated for arms production and research on new weaponry. The greatest rivalry was between Germany and France. Both had large, modern arms industries. The German arms indutry was larger because the country had larger industrial base. France had, however, an alliance with Russia. Tsrist Rusia was backward, but had the fastest growing industy in Europe. At the time of te War, howevr, it was not yet capable of adequately supplying the vast army it mobilized. Britain was also a major indistril power, but put much more emphasis on the Navy than Army. Austria-Hungary was a major 19th century power, but had not kept up with industry. Much of the Empire's heavy industry was located in the Czech lands. The major powers developed important arms industries. The sole exception was the United States which neither had a sizeable army or important arms industries. The United States had the largest industrial capacity in the War, but that indutry was not used for significant arms production. As a result, when America entered the War, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) would fight with British and French arms. Improvements in weaponry that had been appearing throughout the 19th century came togrther to create a battlefield leathality of unprecedented proporions. And one that commanders had not yet adjucted tactics to accomodte. The result was battlefield losses of unprecedented proportions. The machine gun mowed down whole columns of advancing inantry. Artillery became even mote murderous. Both rapid fire and heavy types appeared. And the air plane played an important role for the first time. The Germans introduced gas warfare. One unexpected development was what was expected to be a war of movement bogged dowwn into trench warfare on the Western Front. Another major innovation was motorized vehicles--especially the truck. This was the principal American industrial contribution to the War. American trucks arrived in Europe nearly 3 years before American soldiers. General Pershing had learned an important lesson in Mexico--the needed for interchangeable parts. As a result, the AEF brought with it 100,000 trucks--mostly the standard type V liberty truck. The AEF used a lot of Allied weaponty. At the time America declared war, it did not have a large arms industry. The AEF used many French weapons, but their trucks were American. The trucks weren't practical in the mud at the front, but were widely used behind the front lines. The British in the last year of the War introduced the tank which was a factor along with the American infantry in breaking through the German Siegfried Line on the Western Front. At sea, the submarine, especially the German U-boat, unexpectedly became a major new vessel type.

Arms Race

The major European powers durung the late-19th and early-20th century engaged in a major arms race. Huge sums were appripriated for arms production and research on new weaponry. The greatest rivalry wss between Germany and France as aesult of the Franco-Prussian War. Frabce was humiliated by the loss of Alsace-Loraine and derrmined to regiaining thise provinces. Britain did not traditionally field aarge army, but put its emphasis on the Royal Navy. Here Germany which had been a traditional ally of Britain, unnerved the British etablishment by beginning to build a high seas fleet with modern battleships. The battleship was the high-tech weapn of the early-20th century. They were complex and enormously expensive to produce. The German naval policy added a new naval dimension to the arns race. Of all the major beligereant countries, only the United States did not participate. The United States had a modern navy, but the army was not only extremely small, but lacked modern weaponry.

National Industry

Both France and Germany had large arms industries. The German arms indutry was larger because the country had larger industrial base. France had, however, an alliance with Russia. Tsrist Rusia was backward, but had the fastest growing industy in Europe. At the time of the War, howevr, it was not yet capable of adequately supplying the vast army it mobilized. Britain was also a major indistril power, but put much more emphasis on the Navy than Army. Austria-Hungary was a major 19th century power, but had not kept up with industry. Much of the Empire's heavy industry was located in the Czech lands. The major powers developed important arms industries. The sole exception was the United States which neither had a sizeable army or important arms industries. The United States had the largest industrial capacity in the War, but that indutry was not yet a major arms producer. As a result, when America entered the War, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) would fight ith British and French arms. This was one reason that Kaiser Wilhelm and his military advisers, viewing the almost non-existent American Army, discounted the importance of the United States. Another German leader leader would incredibly make the same mistake a generation later.

Weapon Systems

The Napoleonic Wars in the early-19th century, despite the dimensions of the conflict, had been fought with little advance in weaponry. The Industrial Revolution ushered in enormous refinements in military technology during the second half of the century. The improvements in weaponry came together in the early-20th century to create a battlefield leathality of unprecedented proporions. And one that commanders had not yet adjucted tactics to accomodte. The result was battlefield losses of unprecedented proportions. The machine gun mowed down whole columns of advancing inantry. Artillery became even mote murderous and proved to be the real killer of the War. Both rapid fire and heavy types appeared. And the air plane played an important role for the first time, at first in connection with reconnaissance and protecting ballonists attempting to locate enemy artillery. The Germans introduced gas warfare. One unexpected development was what was expected to be a war of movement bogged dowwn into trench warfare on the Western Front. Another major innovation was motorized vehicles--especially the truck. This was the principal American industrial contribution to the War. American trucks arrived in Europe nearly 3 years before American soldiers. General Pershing had learned an important lesson in Mexico--the needed for interchangeable parts. As a result, the AEF brought with it 100,000 trucks--mostly the standard type V liberty truck. The AEF used a lot of Allied weaponty, especially French weapons, but their trucks were American. The trucks weren't practical in the mud at the front, but were widely used behind thge front lines. The British in the last year of the War introduced the tank which was a factor along with the American infabtry in breaking through the German Siegfried Line on the Western Front. At sea, the submarine, especially the German U-boat, unexpectedly became a major new vessel type.

Motorization

The armies that went to war after the Germans crossed the Belgian border (August 1914) had a variety of modern arms, but unbelievably the modes of military transport were little changed since chatriot armies clashed at Qadesh (1274 BC). eapons and supplies were carried on the backs of soldiers themselves or animals, eith pack animals or on wagons drawn by them. Ot was the horse or mule that were what moved artillery, ammunition, and the vast quantity of supplies requird to wage modern. The only change of any importance was that early armies first depended on the donkey to move equipment and supplies. Motor vehicles had appeared early in he century, but none of the world's armies despite the vast sums expended in the European arms race had devoted any serious attention to the military potentional of these vehickes or tested them under field conditions. The typical reaction to a few brve voices was what the the reaction U.S. Army Captain Alexander E. Williams to an articlke he published (1911). His superiors informned him that the Army already had all they needed--12 trucks. This began to change, especially after Gen. Black Jack Pershing took an American Expeditionary Force into Mexico (1912). Pershing and many others began to see the utility of motor vehicles. None other than the future Gen. George S. Patton's got into a skirmish with some Villistas at a hacienda, chasing them down with his car and killing them, beining them back to camp for burial tied over the hood of his car. While the various armies gave only minimal attention to motor vehicles, American industry was booming. So cars and trucks were being made in large numbers. And American farmers and businessmen were finding many uses for the relatively low cost vehicles that rolled out of U.S. factories. And to the astonishment of German commanders, arguably the most important battle of the War was won by the French using motor vehickes--not French Army trucks, but of all things little Paris taxis. German General Alexander von Kluck's armies executing the Schlieffen Plan smashed into Belgium. His massive force was slowed, but not stopped by the gallant Belgian Army and highly professional, but small Britsh Expeditionary Force (BEF). After conquering most of Belgium, von Kluck directed much of his force at the ultimate target--Paris. Over confident after the success in Belgium, Von Kluck left his right flnk wide open. Here he was estimating the ability of the French Army to rspom based om the speed of foot soldiers and horse drawn artillery and wagons. French General Joseph S. Galliéni, military governor of Paris, without real authority, mobilized what he could pull together of the French Sixth Army and threw thm into battle aboard the small Renault taxis that populated Parisian streets. These cabs piled full of French soldiers moved the men so rapidly and unexpectedly that the French almost destroyed the German Army in the field at the resulting Battle of the Marne (September 1914). Only the competence of General Hans von Gronau, the German right flank commander, saved the Germans from military disaster. Von Kluck, his confidence badly shaken, on the Marne and Ourcq rivers, desengged and pulled back to defensible positions. This was the beginning of 4 terrible years of trench warfare on the Western Front. It meant that the Germans were denied an early victory and turned the War into one of attrition--a shift that left the Germans as a result of the Allied naval blockade at a critical disadvantage. Trucks would also become important in the ensuing War. European automobile manufacturrs were largely craft shops, incapable of mass producion. America did not have an important arms industry. And American soldiers had to fight with Allied, mostly French, arms, but America did have a huge automotive industry. And a huge influx of American trucks made an important contribution to the eventual Allied victory.

Sources

Scheck, William. "World War I: American Expeditionary forces get motorized transportation," Military History Magazine (June 1997).

Williams, Alexander E. Infantry Journal (1911).






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Created: 5:12 AM 5/25/2012
Last updated: 11:47 PM 6/23/2013