“Had the slaughter continued into 1919, a whole new generation of modern weaponry would have made their deadly debut.”
AIRPLANES, machine guns, zeppelins, submarines – all were part of the arsenals of the great military powers of Europe in 1914. Yet, none of these fighting machines were used to their horrible full potential until the First World War. And had the slaughter continued into 1919, a whole new generation of modern weaponry – many of the sorts of armaments seen in World War Two — would have made their deadly debut. Consider these:
Designed specifically for trench raids, the German Bergmann MP-18 was the first mass-produced sub-machine gun in history. Capable of firing up to 500 9-mm pistol rounds a minute, the two-and-a-half-foot long, nine-pound weapon was ideally suited for close combat. As many as 10,000 were manufactured in 1918. Storm trooper battalions used them with deadly effectiveness during the opening phases of the Spring Offensive. The MP-18, along with weapons like John Thompson’s legendary “trench broom”, would pave the way for an entire new class of small arms.
Aircraft like the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, the Boeing B-29 Stratofortress and the mighty Avro Lancaster defined strategic bombing in World War Two, but it was planes like Germany’s Gotha G.V that first demonstrated the value of deep strike missions. Entire squadrons of the twin-engine long-range bomber mounted nearly two dozen raids on southern England in the last year of the First World War.
By the conflict’s final weeks, the Royal Flying Corps had its own formation of Handley Page V/1500s in Norfolk that were ready to undertake attacks on Berlin. The mission would have seen eight of the lumbering four-engine aircraft drop more than 10 tons of bombs on the German capital. The Armistice was signed just one day before the raid was to be launched.
Armoured Personnel Carriers
Modern armoured troop carriers like the British Warrior, the American Bradley and the Russian BTR-80 are all descendants of the Mark IX, a sort of bunker-on-treads that the Allies hoped would end the bloodshed of trench warfare had the fighting continued into 1919. An elongated version of the ubiquitous British Mark V, the 30-foot, 27-ton monster, which was nicknamed “the pig,” was designed to carry a 30-man infantry platoon across No Man’s Land. Forward-mounted machine gun turrets and side-facing rifle slits would allow the crew and passengers to suppress enemy troops as the contraption rumbled forward at a blistering speed of 4 mph. Only 34 were ever manufactured; the war ended before any saw action.
Allied researchers like Robert William Boyle of Newfoundland, France’s Paul Langevin and Ernest Rutherford, a New Zealander, helped pioneer the first military sonar technology in 1917, known then by the codename ASDIC, ostensibly an acronym for “Anti-Submarine Division.” The system, which involved using echo location to pinpoint submerged targets, was still a work in progress by the time Germany surrendered in 1918, but it has been a mainstay of anti-submarine warfare since.
While the battleship represented the ultimate in sea power during the First World War, the aircraft carrier would rule the waves in the Second. Yet it was during the Great War that history’s first carriers saw action. Even before 1914, the U.S. and British navies experimented with launching aircraft from ships. Visionaries in both countries had already fixed impromptu flight decks onto cruisers and battleships. HMS Ark Royal, commissioned in late 1914, could sortie amphibious sea planes and then winch them aboard once they had landed safely on the water. HMS Furious, which was converted from a battlecruiser, had separate fore and aft decks that could launch and (theoretically) recover planes respectively. On July 19, 1918, Sopwith Camels flying from Furious flew history’s first carrier raid when they attacked a Zeppelin base at Tondurn in what is now Denmark. The pilots, unable to land on their mother ship after completing the mission, ditched beside the vessel or put down in neutral territory. HMS Argus, commissioned in September of 1918, was history’s first true aircraft carrier in the modern sense. The 565-foot ship, which was converted from the hull of an ocean liner, featured a single full-length flight deck that could launch and recover up to 18 warplanes. Argus was mothballed after the Armistice, but was refitted and recalled to service in the Second World War.
Amazed onlookers must have felt that they were witnessing the future of aviation when the Junkers J-2 first took to the sky on July 11, 1916. History’s first all-metal warplane, the so-called “iron aircraft” was a sleek monoplane featuring a fuselage design that was a precursor to many next generation warplanes. While the all-metal construction promised both stability and durability, while offering speed and agility, its actual performance in test flights fell far short of expectations — the plane was heavy, awkward and slow. Only six were built and none saw combat. Regardless, the lessons learned with the J-2 would go on to influence the design of future fighter planes like the Messerschmitt Bf-109, the Hawker Hurricane and the legendary Spitfire.
When the first shells from Germany’s infamous Paris Gun, history’s first super long-range artillery piece, began landing in the so called City of Light in the spring of 1918, citizens wrongly believed that they were under attack from a high-flying Zeppelin. In reality, they were being bombarded by a 211-mm field gun with an unheard of range of 130 km. In the first day of its use, the gun hammered the city with 21 shells, each weighing more than 200 lbs. Despite the terror the weapon wrought on the people of the city, the Paris Gun proved to be more trouble that it was worth for the Germans. For starters, the 350-lb. powder charges required to send a shell such a distance wore the barrel’s rifling down so quickly each successive shot measurably increased the caliber of the gun. In fact, after 60 rounds, the entire barrel was ruined and would need to be replaced. The gun was also woefully inaccurate. Not only was it virtually impossible to hit anything smaller than a city from a distance of more than 100 km, but since the flight time from muzzle to target was more than three minutes, the gunners actually needed to calculate the earth’s rotation when aiming the weapon. Simply put, by the time one of the gun’s shells returned to earth from its then unprecedented 130,000-foot-high flight path, the city had moved slightly with the planet’s own rotation. Despite this, the Germans managed to kill 256 civilians with the Paris Gun. Sixty-eight died in one lucky shot alone, when a round struck a packed church on Good Friday of 1918. The Paris Gun was withdrawn from service in the final weeks of the war, lest the advancing Allies capture it. It was dismantled in Germany before the Armistice. Although militarily a failure, the Paris Gun was the first device to launch a man made object so high into the stratosphere. An improved version of the weapon would be used by the Nazis in World War Two to shell southern England from Occupied France.
The First World War saw the development of a flying weapon all too common on the 21st Century battlefield: drones. America’s Kettering Bug was a 180 lb. winged bomb that resembled a small bi-plane. During test flights in the fall of 1918, some of the small aircraft travelled up to 75 miles at speeds of 50 mph. The U.S. military built 45 of the $400 flying missiles. But with an accuracy rate of roughly 30 percent, the army balked at deploying them in battle. The entire project was classified top secret and withheld from the public for decades. Unmanned planes would continue to be evaluated during the inter-war years as auto-pilot and gyroscope technology improved. The drones were largely used for providing anti-aircraft gunners and fighter pilots the chance to practice firing on moving airborne targets.
First fielded in 1942, the U.S. Army’s famous portable recoilless anti-tank rocket launcher, known unofficially as the “bazooka” was initially tested in the dying days of the First World War. The brainchild of a 36-year-old Clark University researcher and pioneering rocket scientist named Robert Hutchings Goddard, lightweight weapon was designed to propel an explosive warhead across No Man’s Land into enemy fortifications. The Massachusetts native demonstrated a prototype at the Maryland Aberdeen Proving Grounds on Nov. 6, 1918. Five days later, the First World War ended and the idea was put on ice for more than 20 years.
(NOTE: This story originally ran on MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Nov. 5, 2015)