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World War 1 saw a quantum leap in weapons technology, as befi tted the fi rst major confl ict of the Industrial Revolution, which meant more effi cient and hideous ways of killing

Death dealers W

orld War 1 was a testing ground for modern weapons and warfare. Chemical weapons, machine guns,

fl amethrowers, tanks and, in the air, Zeppelins, fi ghters and bombers all made their deadly debut on the battlefi eld. But despite all the new technology, the enduring image is that of a soldier, with a bayonet fi xed to his rifl e, head down, charging into the chaos and horror of No Man’s Land.


Nearly every soldier on both sides of the confl ict was issued with a bayonet – it came in handy for opening cans of food, toasting bread and scraping the mud off boots. However, there was a very brutal side to this traditional weapon – the British army’s training manual taught soldiers to aim for the enemy’s throat, breast and groin. With so much fi ghting taking place at close quarters, in trenches and tunnels, it was safer to use bayonets than bullets to avoid what we now call ‘friendly fi re’. The very idea of the bayonet – a brutal, ancient symbol of aggression – that made it a powerful, psychological weapon. That said, most soldiers in World War 1 rarely used their bayonets in combat. The Western Front was controlled by lines of machine guns, so when soldiers went ‘over the top’ to launch an assault, they were more likely to be cut down in No Man’s Land than reach the opposing trenches and bayonet the enemy.

From top

The portable German flamethrower; British machine-gunners on the Western Front

28 ❮ WW1 Centenary Special MACHINE GUNS

Invented in 1884 by Harim Maxim, an American living in London, the machine

gun was an effi cient self-powering, automatic weapon. It re-used the gas that was produced each time a cartridge was fi red, in order to keep the machine gun mechanism working continuously. The rattle of machine guns dominated the battlefi elds of northern France during World War 1. The machine gun was a frightening weapon in both defence and attack. Ground assaults on enemy positions which were defended by machine guns led to a colossal, and often futile, loss of life on both sides during World War 1. At the Battle of the Somme in 1916, Britain suffered 58,000 casualties on the fi rst day – most were cut down by persistent machine gun fi re. At the start of the war, machine guns could fi re up to 600 small-calibre rounds per minute. That fi gure doubled by 1918, with rounds fed into the gun via a fabric belt or metal strip. The fi repower of one machine gun was equal to that of 80 rifl es. This constant technological development, spurred by comprehensive battlefi eld testing, saw the fi rst portable machine gun introduced in 1918. Weighing around 14kg, they could be carried by one man and used in ground-based attacks. The most deadly was the German-built Bergmann MP18 submachine gun, which gave soldiers the same fi re power as a heavy machine gun. The new, lighter machine guns were adapted to work on armoured cars, then tanks, ships, aircraft and – as night follows day – for anti-aircraft use.

Hiram Maxim died in London during November 1916, aged 76, with World War 1 still raging less than 100 miles from his death bed.


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