From flamethrowers and mustard gas to machine guns and tanks, the trenches of World War I were dangerous places.
During the Great War nearly 20 million people died – about 10 million soldiers and officers and another 10 million civilians.
In the years leading up to the outset of war in July 1914, advances in weapons like artillery, aircraft and armor were rapid.
Across the Atlantic just 50 years before another horrible conflict had ended.
Characterized by single shot rifles, horses and outdated skirmish lines, the Civil War was the bloodiest chapter in American history, but despite the carnage less than a million lost their lives.
That said, World War I ushered in a new era of more mechanized, more efficient, and far deadlier warfare that shaped world history for much of the 20th century.
Some of the Great War’s most notorious weapons are still in use today in even more lethal forms, while others like gas are largely (and thankfully) relegated to history books and YouTube videos like this one.
1. Poison Gas
Though the use of noxious agents as weapons had been outlawed by the Hague Treaties of 1899 and 1907, combatants produced nearly 125,000 tons of chemicals during the war that ranged from debilitating tear gas to deadly mustard gas.
Specifically, the treaties prohibited using projectiles like rockets and artillery shells containing poisonous or asphyxiating gases.
But even in a time unimaginably indiscriminate killing, gas attacks were particularly dubious, though their use increased steadily throughout the war.
Gas’ volatility and reaction to swings in temperature and humidity often prohibited it from spreading as intended, and sudden changes in wind direction could reroute it back toward those who’d sent it in the first place.
Nonetheless, by the end of 1914 and the beginning of 1915 German gunners lit up the battlefields at Neuve Chapelle and Bolimów in France and Poland respectively, firing nearly 20,000 fragmentation shells filled with tear gas-like irritants.
In the first case against English troops results were minimal, and against Soviet troops in the second instance the chemicals froze instead of vaporizing and spreading across the battlefield.
The British responded with their own chlorine attacks, but in at least one instance a wind change resulted in more than 2,000 English soldiers being gassed by their own chemicals.
Yet the ante had been upped, and shortly thereafter German howitzers once again opened up in the Belgian city of Ypres – but this time relatively benign tear gas had been replaced with chlorine, marking the first attack using a killing agent.
In what must’ve been akin to a glimpse into Dante’s Inferno, advancing French troops caught in a storm of momentous explosions turned tail and staggered back toward their lines disoriented, choking, and enveloped in a sickly yellow haze, and though no official death count was recorded, the attack was a resounding success that left a huge whole in the line.
At low concentrations chlorine caused discomfort and ghastly damage to skin, eyes, throats and lungs, but in high amounts death by asphyxiation was common.
Luckily for the Germans, chlorine was an inexpensive by-product of dye manufacturing carried out by some of the country’s largest industrial concerns like BASF and Bayer, who’d later morph into the infamous chemical powerhouse IG Farben that supplied chemicals to the Nazi extermination camps.
Meanwhile other nations scrambled to accelerate their own chemical weapons development and production, and deadlier gases and more efficient delivery systems were introduced.
Phosgene for example, which is nearly invisible and far more lethal than chlorine was first used in late 1915.
Then in mid-1917 the German’s unleashed mustard gas for the first time, and since it attacked exposed skin and eyes even more voraciously than its predecessors, most masks and respirators were rendered useless.
Eyewitness accounts describe horribly blistered and discolored skin, swollen eyes and throats, uncontrollable convulsions, bloody vomiting containing chunks of lung, permanent scarring and painfully slow death.
But though the German’s pioneered the use of gas in the Great War, when it was all said and done the other powers were far from pikers.
As the war drew to a close in 1917, soldiers from both sides experienced persistent gas attacks, and estimates of deaths caused by gas ranged from just shy of 100,000 to nearly a million.
At the signing of the Armistice more than ⅓ of all French and German artillery shells contained chemical agents, and about ¼ for the British and Americans.
2. Machine Guns
These days machine guns aren’t heavy-hitters compared to other more powerful weapons, but during World War I they were true gamechangers.
When positioned strategically in anticipation of a mass charge across flat ground, heavy machine guns easily cut through huge swaths of troops with lethal efficiency.
But unlike their modern counterparts, machine guns of the day were heavy and immobile which made them suited to trench warfare but little else.
Most like the British Vickers .303 (7.7 mm) were based on Hiram Maxim’s iconic 1884 design, largely because Vickers had purchased Maxim’s company just a few decades before.
Their water-cooled machine gun improved on Maxim’s design in a number of ways, and was particularly well-known for its reliability.
Crewed by up to six and tipping the scales at just over 50 pounds (23 kg), Vickers machine guns spewed out 500 rounds a minute with a muzzle velocity of more than 2,400 feet per second (744 m/s), and had effective ranges of nearly 2,200 yards, though maximum firing range was twice that.
Vickers were fed by 250-round canvas ammo belts, but despite being water-cooled spare barrels were kept on-hand in the event of overheating.
It’s rumored that in mid-1916 a company of the British Machine Gun Corps was in such dire straits that gunners fired their Vickers for twelve consecutive hours burning through more than 100 barrels and 1 million rounds of ammunition without so much as a jam or misfire.
Not surprisingly, with minor upgrades the stalwart guns remained in service until the ‘60s.
The Maschinengewehr 08 (MG08) was the German Army’s standard machine gun in the First World War, and it too was nearly a piece-by-piece copy of Maxim’s original design.
Like the Vickers, MG08s were belt fed, water-cooled, and had sustained rates of fire of more than 400 rounds per minute.
At the beginning of the war more than 10,000 MG08s were pressed into service, though in 1914 monthly production of new guns was just 200.
But by war’s end the weapon had become indispensable, and peak production reached more than 14,000 units per month.
Some estimates suggest that machine guns were responsible for more than 80% of deaths in World War I, and in the Battle of the Somme alone most of the 60,000 who died on the first day were killed by machine gun fire.
In the ever changing world of weapons and counter weapons, the protection, mobility and breakthrough ability of tanks made them the machine guns’ nemesis.
Whereas machine guns could lay down huge volumes of fire from static positions nearly impervious to infantry assault, tanks could smash through these previously impenetrable firebases with ease.
Though hopelessly light by today’s standards, their armor easily deflected bullets, and their low-geared engines and long tracks could traverse crater-ridden wastelands, scale trenches, and shrug off barbed wire like nothing that’d come before.
Tanks weren’t a new concept, after all da Vinci drew one more than 400 years before the Great War began, but though early models were slow, unreliable and available in limited quantities, they came into their own during the war.
The term “tank” was first used by the British for their new armored vehicle named “Little Willie” – a 14-ton machine with anemic guns, persistent mechanical problems and a top speed of just 3 miles per hour.
Initially tanks were doled out sparingly across wide areas, but during the Battle of Cambrai in November of 1917, their true worth was realized when Britain amassed nearly 400 Mark IVs in a concentrated spearhead resulting in stunning advances.
At 30 tons the new and improved British Mark V was among the war’s heaviest and most mass produced tanks, and it came in both “male” and “female” versions.
The more potent male variant was nearly 27 feet long (8.5 m), 13.5 feet wide (4 m) and almost 9 feet high (2.7 m).
Crewed by eight and powered by a monstrous 19-liter gasoline engine that cranked out a whopping 150 horsepower at 1,200 rpm, with 4 forward gears top speed was a blistering 5 miles per hour (8 km/h).
Sporting 4 x .303 machine guns and two main 57 mm cannons housed in protrusions on either side of the hull, Mark Vs were capable of destroying enemy pillboxes with high-explosive rounds from more than 500 yards away.
On the downside they were vulnerable to artillery fire and breakdowns, the noise inside was unbearable, and crew compartments often filled with noxious carbon monoxide from faulty exhaust lines.
But unlike the British and French who pioneered the use of tanks, the Germans largely developed theirs in response to their adversaries’ overwhelming deployment.
The only German design of the war was the A7V, an awe-inspiring but cumbersome beast resembling an ironclad pillbox on tracks that made its debut in 1918.
With armor between 5 and 30 mm (0.20 to 1.18 in) thick, at 33+ tons it was heavier than the Mark V, but slightly shorter, narrower, taller, and had a much larger crew.
Bristling with 6 x 7.9 mm machine guns with more than 30,000 rounds of ammo and featuring a bow-mounted 57 mm cannon, early versions carried less than 200 rounds of main armament ammunition, while later models held 300.
Each A7V was powered by two 100 horsepower Daimler-Benz 4-cylinder engines capable of propelling it to nearly 10 mph (15 km/h) with a range of between 20 and 50 miles (30 – 80 km) on finished roads.
A7Vs saw action from March to October 1918, but total production was just 20 units.
Tanks improved throughout the war, but many traditional commanders on both sides considered them little more than passing fads that wouldn’t play significant roles in future wars.
Even when compared to machine guns and gas attacks, artillery was probably responsible for the lion’s share of the war’s casualties.
Bombardments often lasted for days, and in some places like France and Belgium shell craters and unexploded ordnance still abound.
Advancements in metallurgy, ammunition, and recoil management made the guns of World War I more powerful, reliable and accurate than their predecessors, but though some countries fielded much larger examples, it was generally those in the 75-150 mm range that did most of the killing.
Known for its high rate of fire and innovative recoil system, the French 75mm cannon was referred to as the“Devil Gun” by German troops.
In fact it’s commonly regarded as the first truly modern artillery piece, largely because it’s strong recoil was dampened by an innovative two-cylinder oil and air system that prevented it from knocking itself out of alignment, which meant it didn’t need to be re-aimed between firings.
The French 75 was primarily used as an anti-personnel weapon due to its proficiency at delivering time-fused shrapnel shells on enemy troops advancing in the open.
However with the onset of trench warfare and the abundance of hardened targets like tanks and bunkers, it’s roles expanded into delivering both high-explosive shells and those containing toxic gas.
Manned by 6 men and featuring a muzzle velocity of 1,600 feet per second (500 m/s), experienced crews could accurately deliver 15-20 rounds per minute on targets up to 5 ½ miles (8,500 m) away.
When war broke out the French had about 4,000 75s in service, but by the end nearly 12,000 had been produced.
At 150 mm Germany’s 15 cm sFH 13 heavy field gun was far bigger than the French 75, and though its shells packed a bigger punch, range was about the same due to much heavier projectiles and relatively low muzzle velocity of 1,240 feet per second (377 m/s).
Referred to by British soldiers as “5.9s” because of their shells’ diameter, these big-bore howitzers gave the Germans a distinct firepower advantage particularly on the Western Front where they were most prevalent.
Though earlier models were prone to barrel explosions and catastrophic damage caused by heavy recoil, later variants were safer, more reliable, and had longer range.
All told, nearly 3,500 units were produced, though they were relatively harder to move than smaller guns and had an abysmal rate of fire of just 3 rounds per minute.
By the time the Armistice was signed, Germany had approximately 5,000 heavy guns like 15 cm sFH 13 in service.
5. Shotguns and Trench Clubs
Admittedly deaths from shotguns and trench clubs were miniscule compared to the other killing machines on the list, but they’re noteworthy because they required their users to get up-close-and-personal with their intended victims.
During the war the US Army was the only combatant to use shotguns in major numbers, and the design was a modification known as the Model 1917 Trench Shotgun based on the venerable
Winchester Model 1897.
With shortened barrels that made them easier to wield in tight quarters, pump-action 12 and 16-gauge shotguns were notoriously efficient when fired down tight trenches.
Each shot unleashed a hail of nine “double ought” (.33-caliber) buckshot pellets capable of taking out multiple defenders in often gory fashion, which prompted Germany to issue a diplomatic protest stating that trench shotguns caused “unnecessary suffering,” which was strictly prohibited by the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare.
They even threatened to execute any American soldier captured with one, though there are no reports that they ever did.
Trench Clubs on the other hand were particularly medieval close-quarters weapons used by both sides, but because they weren’t standard issue they were cobbled together with whatever materials were at hand.
In really close fights long cumbersome bolt action rifles were usually fired once and ditched, and even using an affixed bayonet to impale an adversary left the user open to attack while he tried to remove it from meat and bone.
Hence, trench clubs were the weapon of choice under such circumstances – and the wounds they caused were notoriously gruesome.
Fabricated from scrap wood and rifle butts and wrapped in chain, barbed wire or studded with protruding nails, trench clubs were usually 15 inches long, weighed a few pounds, and featured handles wrapped in cloth or leather that provided extra grip to counteract the slipperiness of blood.
Trench clubs were often hung from belts during infantry charges, so in the unlikely event of reaching the enemy’s trenches they could be used to bludgeon defenders.