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Weapons of World War One:
Specialized Weapons  pt1


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While many changes were made to traditional weapons as the Great War approached, the conflict also saw the debut of a number of specialized weapons that would make a significant difference in how the War was fought. While they could be used in many situations, these weapons were primarily used in trench warfare. Even though they proved to be very deadly and often had great shock value in tactical operations, their greatest effect seems to have been in making life more horrific for the average solder. Many of these were never accepted by civilians or solders as weapons that should be used on a battlefield, and some were even banned by treaty, but they were all used to their maximum effect in the Great War. This represented a very basic change in attitude in regard to how wars were to be fought.

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One of the new weapons to rise out of the Great War was the flamethrower. Flammable substances had been hurled against enemies since ancient days but it was just prior to World War One that the German, Richard Fiedler developed a practical weapon for doing so for use on the battlefield. His flamethrower consisted of two pressurized cylinders, one for air and the other for oil that could be carried on a single soldier’s back. Attached to this device was a nozzle at the end of a short hose that could stream out about 60 feet of flame.

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After 1911 the German army assigned these weapons to specialist battalions. Starting in October of 1914, flamethrowers began to be sporadically used against the French on the Western Front. It was not until July 1915 that they were used in a coordinated attack, which fell on the British lines at Hooge. These weapons were problematic because of their short range and limited supply of fuel, but they still proved useful in clearing out trenches. The initial shock of their deployment also had a very terrifying effect. Afterwards the Germans used flamethrowers on a regular basis in most attacks, and they later became an important weapon among storm troopers. When tanks were introduced to the battlefield, flamethrowers became an effective weapon against them.

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The British began using flamethrowers of a similar design in 1916 and the French in 1917. The French also developed larger models that could throw flames out much further. They drew their fuel from a large stationary tank, which allowed them to operate for a much longer time, but their lack of mobility severely limited their usefulness.

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While flamethrowers were a formidable weapon the soldiers who used them bore excessive risks. The flammable tanks they carried would sometimes explode, and they were also singled out as targets by the enemy they approached. Most soldiers disliked the use of flamethrowers, and not just because of their effectiveness; they seemed to cross a moral line of what should be permitted even on a battlefield. So much animosity built up against their uses that if the men bearing these weapons were captured they were more likely to be killed than taken prisoner.

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The use of flamethrowers can be found depicted on postcards but they do not exist in great number considering how widely they were used. It is also odd that artists who never seemed reluctant to add the drama of fire to their illustrations rarely covered this subject. They may have just been too unfamiliar with this new weapon to render it properly but this does not seem to tell the whole story. While the public was often intrigued by new weapon systems and craved images of them; they too may have been repulsed by their use and so publishers bowed to lack of demand.

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On rare occasions the use of flamethrowers were captured on real photo postcards. The card above claims to show the use of a flamethrower during an attack at Ypres, but can we be sure? It was rare, though not impossible for soldiers to take pictures during battle. Could have this been a mop up operation depicted that was a more safe environment to photograph in? Perhaps this is only a training exercise; the landscape is rather generic and could be anywhere. Then there is the matter of an English title on a card depicting Germans. Is this a postwar card titled with the name of a famous battle just to make it more sellable? Even if the particulars of this image can never be accurately verified, it still gives a general idea of what a real flamethrower in use looks like.




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A hand grenade is a shell filled with explosive material that is light enough to be thrown by hand. Its detonation may be initiated by a fuse or by impact. The first recorded use of grenades was by the Byzantine Empire in the 8th century. These were basically ceramic vessels filled with Greek fire, a complex incendiary substance. News of their use spread through the Muslim world until it reached China. They readapted the idea for use with an iron shell and gunpowder that would release more energy to scatter deadly fragments. By the mid-15th century this type of grenade had returned to Europe but it was not until the 19th century that it saw extensive use. The concept became so well known that soldiers often constructed makeshift devices out of bottles and tin cans. In 1906 Nils Waltersen Aasen patented the first hand grenade in Norway, and soon afterwards it went into commercial production.

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Many French soldiers in the Great War went into battle with ball grenades that were only slightly improved over the model designed in 1847. Not only were these grenades heavy to throw, they were susceptible to moisture, which ruined many in the wet trenches. Images of French soldiers throwing grenades are not very common.

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By 1915 both sides in the Great War had improved upon the grenade’s design and began to mass produce them. The British primarily used the Mills bomb, whose fuse was initiated when a metal ring was pulled. Its outer surface was segmented (pineapple design) in the hope that this would cause more fragmentation and thus be deadlier. While this proved not to be the case, it did provided the thrower with a better hand grip.

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The German stick grenade (potato masher) had a hollow wooden handle containing a ball and cord that would start the fuse when pulled. The long handle not only provided for a good grip that made it easier to throw, it allowed the user to throw it much further. This type of grenade relied more on blast than fragmentation, and its effect was enhanced when detonated within an enclosed space like a bunker or trench. These grenades could also be used to kill soldiers that were well protected from direct gunfire. They became the ideal weapon for trench warfare.

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German stormtroopers frequently went into battle loaded down with hand grenades, sometimes by the sack full. There are quite a few postcards depicting these soldiers throwing grenades in mass for their shock effect. They sometimes taped grenades together, throwing them in bundles for greater impact. It is quite common to find a stormtrooper posing with as many grenades as he could manage strapped to his jacket to show off his deadly capabilities.

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Hand grenades were particularly effective in clearing trenches where their limited blast was enhanced by it being confined to narrow defiles. Even though the Allies did not train their soldiers in specialized tactics like the Germans did with stormtroopers, men assigned as bombers would be used to assault enemy trenches with sacks of hand grenades. While this weapon could cause grievous wounds, publishers tended to find ways to display the deadly use of grenades without showing graphic details. The public at this point was so used to generic portrayals of violence that the lack of specifics was accepted without question.

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While it seems only natural to see hand grenades pictured in images depicting combat, artists and photographers frequently added these devices to their compositions in numbers that would indicate a motive. The history of grenades might have been old but their use in such numbers on the battlefield was unprecedented, and this caught the public’s imagination. A calculation seems to have been made that a postcard of a soldier with a grenade would sell better than if armed with a rifle alone. All these depictions helped to create a visual association between German infantry and grenade throwing. This connection is strongest when depicting storm troopers who are practically identified on postcards by a grenade in hand.



Rapid fire weapons made their debut in the mid-19th century but they were rarely put to good use. One problem was technical; their rapid rate of fire would cause them to over heat very quickly so they could only be used to fire short bursts. While this problem was enhance in small caliber weapons like Gatling guns, larger weapons like the Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon invented in 1872 had fewer problems. This gun had five barrels, each with a ten round magazine, that would fire one at a time but in quick succession. It was used as a field gun and mounted on ships. While a bit of an antique by World War One, all available weapons were pressed into service.

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The heating problem of rapid fire weapons was solved by Hiram Maxim with the introduction of the water cooled Maxim gun in 1884. While using coolant kept these guns serviceable, large quantities of water had to be kept on hand for they still heated up fast. These guns also used a new type of ammunition that created higher rates of fire. Bullets were secured in long metal belts and each cartridge would be advanced into the firing chamber by the recoil generated from the previous cartridge’s firing. This allowed for continuous firing, limited only by the amount of weight a man could carry. Their usefulness on a European battlefield was still questionable in 1914 as they had only so far been deployed against colonial rebels. Some believed that the training and character of the European soldier might be enough to overcome these new weapons. There was also a long standing reluctance by military experts to put them into use as they claimed these guns wasted too many bullets.

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Benjamin Hotchkiss also solved the heating problem of rapid fire weapons with his own design for the air cooled Hotchkiss gun. Ammunition was fed into it by way of a rigid magazine. By the outbreak of World War One, the tripod mounted Hotchkiss gun, without much modification, was being used by the French army but only in small numbers.

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Only Germany had an extensive inventory of machine guns (Maschinengewehr) based on the Maxim model in their arsenal. These were mounted on sleds early in the War but were later make for use with tripods, which only cut their weight a bit. Though each gun required four to six operators to handle all the equipment, they had the equivalent firepower of about eighty riflemen. Machine gunners were organized into their own companies, which were assigned to support infantry battalions.

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Andreas Schwarzlose developed his own version of the water cooled Maxim gun that was simpler to use and less expensive to make. It became the standard issue for the Austro-Hungarian army in 1902, but was adopted throughout the Balkans by the Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarian, and Ottoman armies. By World War One the Schwartzlose was often deployed with wheels and shield.

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In 1912 the British began using a modified version of the Maxim known as the Vickers gun, but they were not produced in large numbers until the Great War was well underway. Many British generals disliked rapid fire weapons because they encouraged defensive fighting at the expense of the attack. By October 1915 they had enough guns to organize them into a Machine Gun Corps to deploy them more effectively. Another water cooled gun was invented in the United States by John Moses Browning, though it received little interest until America entered the War in 1917.

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The machine gun was a heavy piece of equipment averaging about sixty pounds, but the gun did not travel alone. Its tripod, coolant, and ammunition added on so much weight that many men were needed to carry, deploy, and operate it. These gunners were usually organized into sections consisting of at least a dozen men.

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Machine gunners were also given recognition on regimental type cards that usually carry symbols of their service. On the German card above we are presented with a death head along with a machine gun belt used as a decorative border. What is unusual is that we are not presented with heroic fighting men but two soldiers sweating under the hard labor of carrying coolant for their guns. This symbolism validates that the difficult work that is required of soldiers is just as important as their valor.

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There was a great need for lighter rapid fire weapons that could be more easily used by a single man in offensive operations; and several were developed. A new Hotchkiss gun was available in 1914 and became the standard issue for the French and later the American army though it was still relatively bulky. The gas operated Lewis gun was designed in the United States but largely used by the British army. Fiat also designed light guns for the Italian Army. In 1916 the Germans developed a lighter version of the Maxim that was a true light weapon. There were of course many more designs.

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The Italian firm Fiat is well known today as a car manufacturer but during World War One they were heavily involved in producing armaments for the Italian army. They produced aircraft, tanks, and tractors to pull artillery. They even produced weapons like the Fiat-Revelli medium machine gun that was used throughout the Great War. It was water cooled like the Maxim gun but of a different design. Many postcards depict their weapons with the Fiat name boldly displayed. While these cards worked as propaganda to show how Italy was defending itself with modern weapons, the branding also helped Fiat in the postwar years.

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When operating in unison, the deployment of many machine guns made it nearly impossible for an enemy to cross terrain within their line of sight. They were very effective when covering the type of barren ground often found in no man’s land between entrenchments. These guns allowed forward trench lines to be more lightly manned, which lessened casualties during bombardment, but machine gunners could still often hold off an attack until reinforcements arrived. The Germans continued to add more guns to these units as the War progressed.

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The futility of men rushing into machine gun fire has come down to us as one of the more potent symbols of the Great War. It was already being seen as such in its own day, which can be determined by the large amount of postcards that specifically depict such charges. They are meant to give the impression that the army using such weapons is invincible, and perhaps suggest at the same time that the attacker lacks good judgment and should not be feared. While these guns proved to be very deadly, they were not without their problems. Despite the cooling systems employed, machine guns still over heated and the gunners would have to let their weapons cool down between bursts of fire. This made it important to have a number of machine gun sections to working together if constant fire was to be maintained during an attack.

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While many postcards represent machine guns in typical battle scenes, they were far more often singled out for special attention by photographers and artists alike. Individual machine gun units were captured on postcards deploying, firing on the battlefield and from trenches, as well as on posed portraits. This trend can be scene developing on postcards that were published just before the War.




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