From a gun so large and powerful it could flatten an entire 19th century fort to poisonous gas that left thousands of soldiers dead, the weapons of World War I were unlike any anyone had ever seen before. Here, we take a look at the deadliest weapons of the Great War.
Maxim MG 08
On 1st July 1916, 21,000 British men were killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Most were killed by one of the most devastating weapons of the war - the Maxim MG 08.
An adaptation of the original 1886 British Maxim machine gun, the MG 08 fired an average of 500 rounds per minute over a distance of more than 2,000 yards. Set up in emplacements facing enemy trenches, just a few MG 08s could decimate an infantry charge in a matter of minutes, making going ‘over the top’ one of the most feared ordeals a soldier would face during the war.
While no estimates were kept of how many men were killed by machine gun fire during the war, it can be surmised that after artillery shells, machine guns counted for the second largest number of deaths.
As synonymous with World War I as barbed wire, No Man’s Land, war poetry and trench foot, poisonous gas was unleashed on the infantry of both sides during the conflict and the effects were truly horrifying. So much so that the use of chemical weapons in warfare was eventually banned by international treaty.
The first significant use of poisonous gas came during the Battle of Ypres in 1915. The Germans released a cloud of chlorine gas, causing the deaths of several British and Canadian soldiers and spreading panic and confusion amongst the French.
After that, the gloves were off. Throughout the rest of the conflict, chlorine, mustard gas, bromine and phosgene attacks were deployed by both sides. While only three per cent of attacks resulted in deaths, many thousands were either temporarily or permanently injured, making gas one of the deadliest and most effective weapons of the war.
At the start of the war, planes were primarily used for reconnaissance. If two pilots from opposing sides did happen to meet in the air, they shot at each other with pistols. That all changed in 1915 when machine guns were added and the fighter plane was born. The best of the bunch was the Fokker Triplane.
Germany’s answer to Britain’s Sopwith Triplane, the Fokker came into service in 1918 and proved more than a match for its British counterpart. Fighter aces such as Kurt Wolff and Werner Voss racked up an impressive string of victories in the plane and the legendary ‘Red Baron’, Manfred von Richthofen, made his final 19 kills in a Fokker.
As the name suggests, guns didn’t come bigger than Big Bertha. Built by the German company Krupp in 1914, Big Berthas were howitzers with 420mm cannons capable of firing 1,785lb explosive shells six miles.
12 Big Berthas were built and put into service during the war to devastating effect. At the Battle of Liege in 1914, for example, one was used against the 19th century Fort de Loncin. The fort’s magazine was hit and exploded, causing its total destruction and the deaths of its defenders.
Mark V Tank
The first use of tanks in the war at the Battle of the Somme in September 1915 caused many Germans to flee in panic or surrender. Developed by an agricultural machinery manufacturer in the city of Lincoln under the orders of Winston Churchill, the tank completely changed the way warfare was fought. Following the invention of the tank, the idea that both sides could dig in for a years-long trench war was pretty much consigned to the history books.
The greatest tank of the First World War was the British Mark V. The original tanks had been slow, lumbering machines that frequently broke down and were extremely vulnerable to enemy fire. By the fifth iteration of the tank, introduced in support of Australian troops at the Battle of Hamel, the tank had evolved with better armour, steering, engine and gearbox, along with six-pounder guns and machine guns. While not in service for very long as the war ended just a few months after it was introduced, the Mark V gave the world a glimpse into the future of modern warfare.
Type 93 U-Boat
World War I wasn’t just fought on land and in the air - it was fought at sea as well, and the biggest danger Allied naval and commercial shipping faced was the fearsome Type 93 U-Boat.
With a range of 9,000 nautical miles, the submarine was armed with 16 torpedoes, which meant any ship that crossed its path was unlikely to survive the encounter. In total, U-93s were responsible for sinking 3.2% of all ships sunk during the war - a combined tonnage of 412,419. These deadly submarines also damaged a further 70,913 tonnes, making them one of the most effective weapons in Germany’s wartime arsenal.
The Great War was first and foremost an artillery war. The guns boomed for four long years, shattering the landscapes of France and Belgium, levelling villages, towns and cities and killing and injuring millions of people.
There were three main types of artillery used during the war - long-range guns, short-range guns and mortars. Combined, these weapons provided a lethal barrage of shells that exploded across the battlefields day after day. The damage the artillery inflicted was colossal. Soldiers who didn’t die outright in an artillery barrage suffered horrendous shrapnel wounds, often losing body parts or one or more senses. The endless pounding of the guns also led to a new type of psychological illness - shell shock. Mistaken for cowards, many who suffered this debilitating condition were shot by firing squad on charges of desertion.
Artillery was without doubt the most devastating weapon of the war. When peace was declared in 1918, the moment was referred to as ‘when the guns fell silent’, such was the impact artillery had on what was then the most destructive conflict in human history.