World War One
Industrialized Warfare in the Great War

Firepower, technology and tactics contrasted: 1759 and 1914

This page introduces industrialized war - for which railways were essential..

World War 1: Highlanders detrain at Valcartier, near Quebec City before departing for Europe circa 1915

Highlanders arrive at Camp Valcartier, Quebec before shipping off to World War 1.

 'The Battle for a Continent'

The battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759 is said to have determined the 'destiny of the continent' ... between England and France.

... well, if you don't even consider many, many other factors, such as France's sloppy and indifferent colonial administration ... and its military - which really needed reform.

France sort of wanted a big piece of North America, but wasn't willing to work for it. On the other hand, the defricheurs and their descendants did want 'New France' in some form, and they had put a lot of work into their little corner of it. (One quick note: I don't insert French accent characters just in case they decode into something confusing or really obscene within your machine.)

Neither British Major-General Wolfe (age 32) nor French Lieutenant-General Montcalm (age 47) wanted to be in the military or serving in rustic and primitive North America anymore. They were both burnt out and fed up.

For those who may be reading this who are not products of the traditional Canadian educational system ... the battle of the Plains of Abraham just west of 'Quebec City' on September 13, 1759 during the Seven Years War, has been used to justify many, many things in Canadian history. This is because the British and English-speakers simply 'won' ... and the Canadiens (habitants) supported by France, who spoke French, simply 'lost'. But history isn't simple.

Like older people remember where they were when JFK was shot ... in the historic past, young 'traditional Canadians' since 1759 were generally taught - formally and informally - what they 'won' (anglophones) or 'lost' (francophones)  forever at that symbolic instant in time.

... and my point would be ... the battle is well-documented, known well by Canadians, and I just want to look at the technology of armed conflict (war) used back then.

So forget what I just said about the politics.

European-style war

Prior to this day, Quebec had been subject to a long, effective bombardment by British cannon and the place was wrecked. Many farms along the lower St. Lawrence River had also been torched by Wolfe's forces. As winter was coming soon, this wasn't very sporting of them.

Wolfes Cove circa 1870
Except for a large number of Canadien militia who fought in formation with the French military on the Plains ... and Canadiens and their First Nations allies who sensibly sniped from behind cover ... this was a European-style battle choreographed by European commanders.

It contrasts nicely with the more modern European technology and strategy later used in World War 1.

On their tippy-toes, Wolfe and about 4500 British soldiers 'scaled the cliffs' just up-river from Quebec at night - technically, an amphibious landing made with the help of the Royal Navy. Wolfe's Cove is shown here in an illustration from around 1870.  The view is looking up-river toward Montreal and the Plains of Abraham and the settlement of Quebec are behind us in this view.

Unsure of the bigger tactical picture the next morning, Montcalm - commander of all French troops in North America - rushed into battle with about the same number of troops including a high proportion of Canadien militia. Montcalm was contemptuous of 'Indian-style' fighting, and the genuine fighting skills of the Canadiens who had lived in New France for 150 years.

Wolfe's force

Picture that Wolfe stands at our left, commanding a force of Scottish Highlanders, and British regulars - 4500 soldiers. Instead of the usual three ranks - or lines of soldiers - the troops are shoulder-to-shoulder forming two ranks. The British force is about one mile in width on the battlefield and their position gives them a good clear field of fire on the battlefield. They have a few muzzle-loading cannon which have been hauled up the cliffs. The soldiers have muzzle-loading muskets.

Muzzle-loaded weapons had the following processes and characteristics :

Characteristics of this type of European battle :

Montcalm's force

Coming in from the right side of our picture is Montcalm's force. They start from the walled city of Quebec and come west through the bush to the edge of the old farm field ... where Wolfe waits with his troops - forming that thin red line across the horizon. The route Montcalm's troops take is strewn with trees and brush which break up any kind of formation marching they might have done.

In hindsight ... if Montcalm had returned to the walls of Quebec, bolted the door, and just dialed 911 (i.e. the Chevalier de Levis and his army at Montreal) France wouldn't have had to scapegoat poor Governor Vaudreuil for 'losing the continent'. This is because it is September, and pretty soon the British ships would have to leave for New England or get frozen in at Quebec ... with most of the British force dying - one way or the other.

But  nooooo ...

The Battle begins ...
British on the left, French coming in from the right

General Wolfe, disco kingGeneral Montcalm
So it's about 0930hr and some French soldiers with a large number of Canadien militia come on to the field of battle - about 4500 in all.

To play head games, the British fire their cannon at the French for about 30 minutes as the latter get organized. This produces more stress than casualties.

Around 1000hr, in a ragged formation, the French come forward. The Canadien militia was not into this European 'one fighting organism' thing - any sensible person would take cover !

Then the French fire while their muskets are pretty much out of range.

French soldier thinks : We fired our muskets and nothing happened !
British soldier thinks : That wasn't so bad. These guys are bush league !

When the French come into range, the British first fire in a disciplined manner by platoons.
The French fire here and there ... 'Who's in charge ? ... What's the plan ?'

Then, in unison, the one-mile-wide red-uniformed organism fires one mighty volley at a range of about 40 yards. To increase their firepower, two balls have been loaded into each musket to create lots of damage and general dismay.

For a veteran British soldier, there will be severe punishment if he does not comply exactly with the commands he has drilled with thousands of times before. He likely fears his officers more than the enemy.

For a Canadien militiaman receiving this volley, looking forward : his central and peripheral vision sees nothing but red coats, muzzle flashes and smoke. Then a mile-wide swarm of angry deadly bees comes at him alone - he is not psychologically protected within a tight formation and he has never had this experience before.

The French waver and, individually and collectively, decide to retreat to our picture's right : back toward the safety of Quebec's walls - where Montcalm should have kept them.

Now ... performing one of the traditional duties of the cavalry ... we have the Highlanders (sorry, the British didn't bring any horses up the cliffs). With very large, sharp swords drawn, they run after, and work to cut down, members of the retreating French force. In a disciplined manner, the rest of the British force follows.

The 'foot cavalry', moving after the retreating French, is stopped in its tracks as the 'smart French' - Canadiens behind cover - and First Nations fighters, ambush the Highlanders and British from under cover in all directions. After inflicting some damage, they melt away.

Wolfe is dead. Montcalm will die tomorrow from a wound he just received upon reaching the walls of Quebec.

And now our statistics ...

Length of musket fire exchanges
about 15 minutes
Total combatants
about 9000 : soldiers and Canadien militia
Total casualties
about 1300 *
Range at effective engagement
40 yards
Commanders killed
'Continents lost'
* Casualties = killed + wounded = not available for duty

Europe 1900

map: Europe 1900

As you would expect, there were a few developments
between that 1759 colonial battle involving professional European soldiers ... and World War 1.
This made the latter a very different kind of military engagement.

Big things had changed

Little things had changed
(relatively speaking)

Hall Table of Fame - Historical and obsolete propellants and explosives
saltpeter (potassium nitrite) 75%
carbon 15%,
sulphur 10%
Ancient traditional explosive and propellant.
Guncotton 1846
(made by acting on cotton with nitric and sulphuric acids)
'Smokeless', more powerful than gunpowder.
Corroded artillery barrels, unstable & caused factories to blow up (oops) until it was finally stabilized decades later.
Poudre B 1886
'smokeless powder'

nitrocellulose (collodion & guncotton), ethanol, ether
3x more powerful than gunpowder, stable so it could be used in small arms.
Smokeless so it allowed for concealed firing positions (e.g. snipers).

Cordite MD
circa 1905

guncotton 65%
nitroglycerin 30% 
vaseline 5%
Less corrosive than guncotton when used in artillery, more stable than guncotton. Shortages during part of WW 1 when acetone was in short supply.
Acetone was used to gelatinize the guncotton during manufacture.

Old and new compared

New Idea 1: If your soldiers start walking across a flat open field toward the enemy they will be cut down at a great distance.

New Idea 2: Forget about tight formations. They just make easy targets. Let your soldiers spread out and enjoy the whole battlefield !

As you will see - unfortunately - soldiers would find themselves ordered to walk across open fields and through battlefield constrictions in full view of the enemy !!

With greater firepower, individual soldiers controlled more space

World War 1, French riflemen before trench warfar

In 1914, the French soldiers above are using newer tactics. You can't see the enemy because their bolt action rifles shoot much farther.

Unlike Montcalm's soldiers, they are 'tak-ing cov-er' !
They are still bunched together and you can see a couple of officers behind them, keeping an eye on things. This doesn't look like World War 1, but it is.

One dumb thing the French above were doing : wearing bright red trousers with their dark blue coats. At least it looked spiffy.
You should have seen the Zouaves !
The French army had their colours done again and got into more subdued hues pretty quickly.

World War 1: Cambrai battlefield - before trench warfare
In the graphically-muddy newspaper-type illustration above, you can see a more traditional battle early in the war.

At Cambrai, the French and British (foreground) were retreating from Mons, Belgium ...
and had set up one of many rear-guard actions as the Germans advanced on Paris.

From behind cover, French infantry fired rifles half-heartedly at the advancing Germans.

As the Germans confidently approached, the hidden field guns and machine guns opened up with devastating results at a range of 250 yards.
British cavalry (in the bottom right corner) also participated as the Germans retreated.

The Germans' invasion strategy was to swing counter-clockwise across Belgium toward France like a big door - Luxembourg was the 'hinge'. The man on the right side of the swinging German 'door' was supposed to 'brush his sleeve on the English Channel'. The Germans did not get that close to the Channel, and Dover-Calais remained a viable route for transporting troops and supplies from Britain - along with other English Channel ports.

The British had an expeditionary force in western Belgium. These English/German encounters in Belgium were the last great exhibitions of the fine marksmanship and concentrated fire, of professional British soldiers, using bolt action rifles. The tactics would be changing.

As World War 1 began, half the time the various armies were just trying to find each other in the forest, behind hills, etc.

(In contrast, on the Eastern Front - between Russia and Germany in the area of Poland - the battles were free-ranging across open terrain for most of the war -  trench systems were seldom necessary in the east.)

This newspaper illustration shows 'guns' in action. Did you ever see the movie 'Full Metal Jacket' ? ...

'This is my rifle ... this is my gun.
This is for shootin' ... this is for fun.'

'Guns' = artillery ... which classically comes in three flavours :

Traditional 'field guns' - sort of visible above - were towed around by horses and positioned like cannon for battle on the field. The shells followed a relatively flat, direct trajectory.

Howitzers - Napoleon or someone was fiddling around and found out that a shell fired at an upward angle of 45 degrees ... travels the farthest. That's the general idea with howitzers. While the field guns above have front row seats, World War 1 howitzer crews usually didn't have to worry about hand grenades or machine gun or rifle bullets - because they enjoyed life far behind the lines. Well ... except when they were subject to pre-emptive 'counter battery work' by enemy howitzers.

- We've all seen the small ones on TV. Some bigger ones were for throwing heavy shells from one set of trenches to the other. Why bother with large trench mortars ? Their 'big bombs' could be fired fairly close to the enemy BUT from under cover to an enemy under cover. The most pleasant thing about them was that their slow incoming rounds could often be heard and avoided if a soldier was lucky.

World War 1: Trench mortar

Fun with a trench mortar

The Famous French 75s in the battlefield !

The thing about these 75 mm field guns at the right was they were quick firing. A crew could fire off a shell every 2-3 seconds. World War 1: French 75s
During a field battle on level ground, a battery of 75s had amazing firepower.

Wow ... an 'aeroplane' ! This must be a cheating newspaper photographer's composite photo. Certainly, a frail aircraft like that didn't last long during the war. Planes turned out to be a big deal later.

But look again ...

HORSIES !  Lots of them ! And the war's voracious appetite for horses never really diminished in spite of new technologies.

The 'Entente' ... Britain, France, (and sometimes Russia, USA) etc. ...
had the reserve manufacturing capacity to make greater use of motorized transportation later.

However, the 'Central Powers' ... Germany, Austria-Hungary, (and sometimes the Ottoman Empire) etc. ...
and the many smaller theatres of war always took a terrible toll on horses and other draft animals, including dogs.

Desperately chasing elusive German quasi-guerillas in east Africa, imported horses taken into areas where the tsetse fly was endemic had a life expectancy of 4 weeks.

As I continue to build the case for more efficient transportation systems for another page, notice the big stack o' hay.
Hay, oats, etc. were transported to the battlefield in great quantities to 'fuel' the horses.
Some sources suggest the tonnage of ammunition, and the tonnage of fodder, hauled into the war zone ... were roughly equivalent.

How war technology and ideas evolved on the western front ...

As you might expect, no one really planned things the way they turned out.
In most cases, when one side used a new weapon or technique, the other side quickly adapted ... unless their hard-headed military dogma initially slowed progress (oh hello, Britain).

Generally, the Germans had better weapons and techniques in the beginning ...
Generally, the British military was focused on seapower and was not well-prepared to fight a European land war ...
Kitchener used the idea of 'Pals Battalions' (A battalion is about 1000 soldiers - a small, complete fighting unit). The 'pals' were a group of sportsmen, or sometimes a group of similar occupation - most often they were from the same city or geographical area. Local social pressure acted to influence individuals to volunteer with their pals. On the battlefield, this resulted in the strong cohesion and loyalty desirable in military units.
Generally, the French (and Belgians) expected the Germans to pop by every few decades ... and had pre-invested heavily in forts and citizen soldiers ...
World War 1: Krupp siege mortar
Krupp siege mortars like the one above were used to crack open the stone and concrete forts of France and Belgium.
This piece would probably have been pulled into position by a steam-powered traction engine - one of those early farm tractors.
The longest barrel fired the shell. The cylinder on the right was typical of many guns and it was designed to absorb the force of the the recoil.
This looks like a builder's photo at the Krupp yard.

It's a small world, after all ... it's a small, small world

The large 1915 newspaper map is included below because it offers so much easy-to-understand information about conditions early in the war. It was created before computer graphics !

For most of the war, the 'Western Front' extended in a continuous line of trenches : from the northern border of Switzerland, continued obliquely (west of the France-Belgium border), then north at around Lille to the last 'k' in Dunkirk. The Germans held, and took advantage of, most of the important mining and industrial land of France and Belgium during the war.

If nothing else, you can conclude that this 'battle for a continent' was going to involve more than the 9000 soldiers employed on the Plains of Abraham !

World War 1 map of Europe: national military strength circa 1915


Technical evolution of infantry ...
World War 1 British wiring party with screw in stakes.
This photograph is taken well behind the front lines because :
  1. The soldiers are walking above ground level.
  2. They are going to do some wiring in daylight.
  3. Artillery is working in the background at the left.
Besides their rifles, packs, picks, shovels, coils of wire, etc. the soldiers are carrying an invention that saved many lives. Most activity - particularly placing barbed wire in No Man's Land - was done at night to avoid becoming a target. However, noise could invite enemy parachute flares which would turn night into day for those found in No Man's Land. The curly-bottomed fenceposts could be silently turned into the ground by inserting a bar through the 'eye' on top - thus avoiding the noise of trying to drive them in with mallets ... and a sniper's bullet.

World War 1 battle-scarred landscape showing barbed wire entanglements
This postcard photograph was most likely taken after the war. I have been unable to find any wartime story to explain the site's name.
It shows the accumulations of barbed wire entanglements and the destruction of soil and vegetation.

The Argonne Forest was in the French/American sector, about 120 miles east of Paris.

Technical evolution of the artillery and the 'air war' ...
German observation balloon
Everyone and his horse is out to watch the launch of a tethered German observation balloon.
Once aloft, an observer connected via a telephone wire to the ground could see 60 miles under good conditions and correct the aim of artillery.
More than just tasteful decoration, the Maltese crosses are designed to help prevent 'friendly fire' from German aircraft.

('Fun' fact : The Germans' unique Pariskanone rail-mounted gun sent shells to an altitude of 130,000 feet
- requiring the Earth's rotation and curvature to be factored in to the targeting calculations.

By the end of the war, a range of 100 miles was possible with this type of gun.)

Things get really fancy ...

Observers in aircraft kept track of all changes on the enemy side, taking aerial photographs for commanders to review. Weather permitting!

The arrangement of things starting from No Man's Land on the British side :
  1. Barbed wire entanglements
  2. Front line trenches
  3. Often second and third line combat trenches - in case the first line was taken ... with numerous connections between them. The trenches were often named in alphabetical order.
  4. Then, extensive honeycombs of 'communications trenches' for moving and massing of troops, communications, and storing food and ammunition supplies. In theory you could walk from Switzerland to the North Sea without ever leaving this elaborate maze of ... um ... ditches.
  5. Then, heavy artillery batteries, some organized medical treatment, heavy transportation systems and supply massing areas. ('Bricks and mortar' hospitals were often near the coast.) 'Rest' billets for soldiers taking a duty turn away from the trenches were often within range of lucky strikes by heavy artillery shells.
  6. Command and administrative support were in the rear and safe. Thank goodness.

A Map from the 1920s - mostly of the British sector during the war.

World War 1 map: British Sector, Western Front including Flanders

Geography, soil science, and 'public health' on the Western Front

Before :

After :
Stretcher bearers

How to be a winner !

British Strategy, version 1.0 ... Breakthrough !

British Strategy, version 2.0 ... Attrition

British Strategy, version 3.0 ...
Let's see ... Breakthrough?  nope ... Attrition?  nope ...

'The Tanks are coming, the Yanks are coming !'

World War 1 British tank
The British tank above is not that impressive, is it ?

If you were a German machine gunner, you could stay behind cover and barbed wire and disable all the soldiers to the right of the tank almost immediately. Unlike the dead soldiers, the tank would continue to grind and screech toward you at 2-3 miles per hour ... over the barbed wire ... over the trenches ... until the heavy gun in the side turret was pointed directly at you.
All tanks break down a lot, but the first ones set world records for breakdowns and getting stuck in the mud. They were hellish to work in (noise & heat), and exploded into flame, burning the crew to death, when the gasoline tank was hit. (In World War 2, Germans referred to some British gasoline-fueled tanks as 'Tommy Cookers'.)

But early tankers learned quickly ... Already, you can see a design 'upgrade' to prevent grenades and bombs from disabling the tank from above ... that little peaked roof made of fencing. Tossed grenades would bounce off and a larger bomb could not be placed directly on the steel roof - so its blast would be diffused.

The End

Everything seemed to fall apart at once. Workers, other civilians, and low-ranking soldiers everywhere were fed up.

The Czar had previously been tossed out in Russia.
The Kaiser - the emperor of Germany - could be next.

For at least the last couple of war years, Germany had actually been run by a military dictatorship.
There could have been a Russian-style 'socialist revolution' in Germany.
Instead, there was a German 'revolution at the top' and Kaiser Bill got out of the way.

President Wilson's Fourteen Points were accepted by a new German chancellor and the fighting stopped.

No one had really won decisively on the battlefield. The German soldiers marched home as if a victory had been won.

A few years later, to get German citizens in the right frame of mind for World War 2, they were told that the faithful, long-suffering World War 1 soldiers (among them, a cheerless Corporal Adolf Hitler) had been stabbed in the back by German politicians.

The following statistics demonstrate the relative industrial capacity of the Entente / US ... (the 'Allied Powers') :

British tanks produced by war's end (crew: usually 8)
French tanks produced 1918 (crew: usually 2 .. up to 8)  
German tanks produced by war's end (big: crew of 18)
about 20

British, French, U.S. aircraft production 1918
German aircraft production 1918

'War cannot be won. No one can win a war.'

Central Powers : Military deaths / Military wounded

Austria-Hungary *
Germany *
Ottoman Empire *
* Empire broken up as a result of the war.

European countries of Entente/Allied Powers : Military deaths / Military wounded

Russia *
England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales
* Empire broken up as a result of the war.

Non-European countries of Entente/Allied Powers : Military deaths / Military wounded

New Zealand
South Africa
United States

early World War 1 editorial cartoon. Published Chicago 1915

In the left background, a village and church are being shelled.
In 1915 when this cartoon was published in the U.S., the worst was yet to come.

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