A New Kind of Warfare

The First World War initiated major transformations which led to recognisably modern forms of warfare. The arms race between the two warring sides hastened the development of more efficient and destructive weapons.


The most common rifle issued to British troops was the Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) rifle, which was manually operated and contained 10 rounds in two five-round clips. The SMLE was capable of rapid fire in the hands of a highly trained professional. Machine guns were also introduced as infantry weapons and their reliability made them effective at inflicting high numbers of casualties. The German ‘Maxim’ machine gun was able to fire as many as 600 rounds a minute, and was used to deadly effect during the Battle of the Somme. German troops tactically placed their machine guns on the front line, and within minutes of the battle starting thousands of British troops were killed.


© IWM art 3037. the gas mask by irish artist william orpen. a study of a stretcher-bearer sitting beside a stretcher, his face obscured by the gas mask he is wearing.

© IWM art 3037. the gas mask by irish artist william orpen. a study of a stretcher-bearer sitting beside a stretcher, his face obscured by the gas mask he is wearing.

During the First World War many different gasses were experimented with and used as a weapon, resulting in horrific injuries, although many proved transient and gas was not as lethal as first presumed.

Chlorine was first used on the western font on April 22nd 1915 during the Second Battle
of Ypres. It was used on the eastern front earlier but the cold seems to have limited
its effect. It is a yellowy-green gas with a distinct smell. It caused coughing, vomiting and eye irritation. And if there was enough of it, it could even cause death! Early in the war it caused a lot of casualties but these lessened when the gas mask was invented.

Phosgene was first used 19th December 1915. It was harder to detect as it is colourless with a faint smell. Phosgene was the most deadly of the three, causing 85% of all gas-related deaths during the war. When exposed to the gas victims experienced breathing problems and the full impact of suffocation could be delayed for up to 48 hours!

Mustard Gas was first used on 12th July 1917. It became a frequently used chemical weapon, causing many injuries, especially to the victims’ sight. It is a yellowy-brown gas that could and did cause fatal chemical burns, as well as impacting on a person’s eyes and breathing. Although it did not kill a huge number of people, it caused a lot of suffering and troops were particularly afraid of it.


To protect themselves from potential attacks, soldiers would wear protective helmets, which consisted of Face masks, goggles, and respirators.

A Soldier’s Equipment

This was the first metal helmet worn by British troops. It was only issued in later years of the war - at first soldiers fought in cloth caps.

On his belt the soldier has a water bottle, entrenching tool, sheath for his bayonet, more ammunition pouches, and a small haversack for food and other supplies.

These were strips of cloth wrapped tightly around the lower leg for support and protection. The word comes from the Hindi word pati, meaning bandage.

The soldier is wearing battle dress, containing all of the essential supplies for fighting, minus the large rucksack worn while on the march. The small front pouches are for ammunition.

This man is a sergeant, meaning he was in charge of a troop or platoon of around 30 soldiers.

Chambering a .303 round, the SMLE was designed as a reliable, accurate rifle, and was used throughout the War by troops fighting for the British Empire.


Large guns used on land are called artillery. Artillery supported lighter or so-called field guns by firing high explosive shells to destroy trenches and field fortifications. 

© IWM art repro 000684 6 a muirhead bone, a gun hospital.

© IWM art repro 000684 6 a muirhead bone, a gun hospital.

 Before the First World War, ‘ranging shots’ would be used to establish an enemy’s position. However, this made a surprise attack impossible so once war broke out scientists began searching for ways to accurately target enemy positions without firing ranging shots first. The principal use for aircraft in 1914-15 was for reconnaissance and aerial photography. Pilots and their observers could spot enemy artillery batteries and direct fire.

A new technique to improve the impact of artillery was sound ranging, where microphones were used to detect the sound waves of a gun being fired. By measuring the time between the sound waves it was possible to determine the position of an enemy’s gun.

Time fuses were developed and designed to make shells explode while still in the air, to shower and injure ground soldiers with shrapnel. However, these fuses burned unpredictably and everyone involved in the conflict raced to find the solution first. The Germans created a clockwork fuse that was not affected by the atmosphere or altitude making their artillery much more effective. By 1917 the British had adopted a fuse which exploded on impact, so that its force spread sideways before it could bury itself in the ground.


© IWM art 3035 - william orpen, tanks. a view looking up to the underside of two tanks. the tanks are cresting a low rise, their treads rearing up towards the grey sky.

© IWM art 3035 - william orpen, tanks. a view looking up to the underside of two tanks. the tanks are cresting a low rise, their treads rearing up towards the grey sky.

In January 1915 the idea of the tank or “Land Battleship” was beginning to be seen as a necessary war weapon to withstand machine gunfire, act as shields for advancing troops and break through trench defences. Tanks were used for the first time at the Battle of the Somme in September 2016. The early models were not very successful, after short journeys in the tanks men would no longer be fit to work because the conditions in the tank were so awful! Although the tanks caught the Germans by surprise, their flaws quickly became apparent and often caused more damage to their own troops! Later models played a vital role in the Allied advances of 1918.


Lieutenant-Colonel Sir John Norton-Griffiths MP recruited civilian miners with little military training for the Royal Engineering tunneling companies. Their task was to go 100 feet underground and tunnel their way to the other side. He knew these miners had been working underground since childhood and he believed it was that experience that would make them better, faster and quieter tunnelers than the Germans.

Tunneling was a dangerous job. The fear of carbon monoxide poisoning or the tunnel collapsing was always present, but the main worry was that the tunnelers would meet the enemy underground in fierce hand to hand fighting or would be detected and buried alive. The key to tunneling was being very quiet and to be able to locate the opposition before they found you. From November 1915 tunnelers were able to use a Geophone, a device that picked up sounds from up to 100 feet away, allowing them to track the enemy, find the position that would cause most damage, and blow them up.

Tunneling became a vital part of the war. By May 1916 there were three Canadian, one New Zealand and three Australian Tunneling Companies working on the Western Front. The key to success underground was hearing and killing the enemy before they heard and killed you.



One tactic used to hear the Germans was filling a biscuit tin with water. This way, when the German tunnellers approached, the vibrations would cause a ripple in the water!