World War I is often considered the first modern war. Certainly, it was the first war in which men could be called up by the millions to fight, with most of them serving in the infantry. It was also the first war in which mechanical mass-production played a significant role in the equipping of every army. Both of these factors strongly affected the experience of the infantryman. The infantry of the First World War had access to a wide variety of weapons; these weapons fall roughly into the categories of firearms, hand-to-hand weapons and shock weaponry.
Central to every army was the rifle. All of the major infantry rifles were bolt-action longarm rifles. In a bolt-action rifle, the ejection of a spent cartridge and the loading of a fresh cartridge into the breech is effected by the fluid operation of a turnbolt mechanism that also pulls back the firing pin, leaving the rifle ready to be fired again. Such rifles had internal magazines carrying five to ten rounds; most could be reloaded rapidly by sliding rounds assembled on a clip into the magazine, but exceptions like the French Lebel rifle required a slower process of manual reloading.
Longarm rifles are ones with longer barrel lengths, ensuring higher muzzle speeds and greater accuracy. Shorter rifles, known as carbines, also existed, but they were used mainly in the cavalry. Most infantry rifles were longer than four feet; the only notable exceptions were the British Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) and the American rifles, the 1903 Springfield and the 1917 Enfield.
Ammunition consisted of pointed (“Spitzer”) bullets in calibers averaging seven to eight millimeters, powered by smokeless powder packaged in single cartridges. Such a bullet could theoretically travel almost two miles before coming to rest, but even when the line of sight permitted such a shot, it would be wildly unreliable. The British considered 1400 yards to be the farthest range of effective fire.
The same ammunition was also used in machine guns, which might be loaded by a high-capacity magazine or by bullets strung on a belt. The machine gun truly came into its own on the battlefields of the First World War, and while there were many variations, they are largely classified by the method used to keep the barrel from overheating. Some, most notably the Maxim gun that saw service with the Germans, Austrians and Russians, used a water-filled jacket to cool the barrel. Others, like the French Hotchkiss, used exposure to the air to cool the barrel. Early machine guns were always of the “heavy” variety, resting on a tripod and requiring at least two men to operate effectively.
As the war progressed, the concept of the “light” machine gun developed; the Madsen and Lewis guns are good examples of the principle. The submachine gun, in which a rifle-sized or smaller weapon could fire pistol rounds with the speed of a machine gun, also emerged. The Germans fielded the Bergmann MP18 at the end of the war; the Thompson Submachine Gun was also invented for this purpose, but was not yet deployed before the war’s end.
Two additional categories of firearms need to be considered: pistols, firing rounds ranging in size from 6 mm to .45 caliber, were carried by the officers, and as tanks entered into service, antitank rifles were developed. The latter was largely created by the Germans, as the Allies enjoyed a powerful lead in tank development. These were just large-caliber rifles capable of penetrating armor and then bouncing around inside the tank, for deadly effect. The rounds fired by the “elephant gun” were 13.3 mm in width.
Just as the rifle was the primary weapon of the infantry, so was the bayonet its primary hand-to-hand weapon. Affixing a bayonet turned a rifle into a spear, and in some circumstances it could be a very effective weapon. In the context of the First World War, such use was fairly rare, but bayonets were the soldier’s constant companion and often served other practical uses. Bayonets came in two basic types, the sword-bayonet and the needle bayonet. The sword-bayonet was essentially a long knife with a groove in the handle permitting it to be fixed to a lug under the barrel of the rifle. This was the more common variety of bayonet; it is noteworthy that the British compensated for the shortness of the SMLE rifle by equipping it with a longer bayonet. The French and the Russians used the needle bayonet, which offered little or nothing in the way of a cutting edge but was still useful in its primary role. This sort of bayonet was more easily broken, however.
Trench raids brought close combat into the equation, as well as a desire to keep the fighting as quiet as possible. This instigated the adoption of improvised clubs as an alternative to firearms with their loud reports. All sides used clubs and metal rods in this manner, many of them hearkening back to the maces of the Middle Ages.
Grenades were the leading example of shock weaponry available to the infantry. Grenades had been used extensively during the eighteenth century, and then fell into disuse, largely because the area of effect tended to exceed the distance by which it could be thrown. Two factors made their resurgence in World War I possible: the ability to propel the grenade mechanically, and the nature of trench warfare.
Mechanical methods of launching grenades included a fixture at the end of a rifle which primed and propelled the grenade by the rifle shot, and larger grenade-throwing devices that could only be used effectively from a defensive position. The latter might be considered a very small form of artillery, closely akin to a mortar, but it was a weapon of the infantry and not of the artillery. Grenades could also be thrown by hand, and while they could seldom be thrown far enough away for the thrower to be safe, the existence of trench networks meant that one could throw the grenade into the trench, and when it exploded, it hurt or killed the men inside the trench, while the thrower, outside of the trench or around a corner inside of it, would be safe from his own blast.
Grenades came in many forms. Most were either round and thrown like a ball, or on the end of a stick and hurled like a small axe. Some were intended mainly for a percussion effect, while others were built to throw about a lethal payload of shrapnel. Finally, they could be designed to explode after a certain time, or when the grenade made contact with a hard surface. One important variation developed for the German Storm Troops was the concentrated charge, which wired together a group of perhaps six or seven explosive charges on a single stick. This could not really be thrown in the same way as a grenade, but it could be deployed against strong sedentary targets, like bunkers, or slow-moving tanks.
Closely akin to mechanically-propelled grenades were mortars, which were larger than the mortars of World War II and which were clearly a small form of artillery. Like grenade throwers, these were devices mainly used by the infantry within their trenches, either in defense or in a nuisance attack.
Perhaps the newest type of infantry weapon was the flamethrower, which had only been perfected in 1906. Large flamethrowers were essentially fixed devices, and with a limited range and a heavy fuel consumption, they were largely unsatisfactory. Smaller flamethrowers could be carried by a soldier and therefore became a useful raiding weapon, especially against fortified targets. Like the machine gun, however, these required two-man teams, and their risk was proportionally greater, as a lucky shot could kill both men in an explosion.
These are the types of weapons used by infantry in World War I, although a great deal of variation can be found in every type. Because the First World War was largely a war of stalemate, both sides attempted to use every bit of ingenuity available to discover an exploitable advantage. For the most part, the effects of these innovations was to cancel each other out, and further contribute to the stalemate. In the creation of portable automatic weapons, new methods of propelling explosives, and flamethrowers; however, the infantry weaponry of World War I contributed to a more mobile style of warfare that would characterize the Second World War.
Bull, Stephen. Stormtrooper: Elite German Assault Soldiers. Military Illustrated, 1999.
Haythornthwaite, Philip J. The World War One Source Book. Arms and Armour Press, 1992.
Willmott, H. P. World War I. Covent Garden Books, 2003.
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