A War Begins

WWI tank


The Weapons and Their Effects

In the 1914-1918 War about 12 per cent of all active service soldiers died. Total battle casualties on the Western Front, killed and wounded, have been estimated at over 50 per cent. Because of the determination to 'lead from the front', officers in combat suffered more severely than other soldiers, with about 17 per cent being killed. To realize fully the appallingly high level of death and mutilation, one should also remember that the ratio of fighting soldiers to support troops was about one to five, so that statistically very few actual frontline men could escape at least some form of wound. Individual soldiers relied on their bolt-action rifles, the British .303 inch Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE- 'Smellie' to the soldiers) and the German 7.92mm Mauser. But this was a dramatically 'modern' war with an ever increasing range of new weapons. The Germans brought out the flamethrower; the British the tank- a revolutionary tracked armoured fighting vehicle, armed with guns. A dreadful new weapon appeared early in April 1915--poison gas--introduced by the Germans at the Second Battle of Ypres, where Canadian and French troops were first to experience it. Soon the British were retaliating with their own gas, discharging it regularly with the prevailing westerly wind for the rest of the war. In all, Commonwealth forces had an estimated 250,000 gas casualties, of whom 10,000 died immediately, while the rest suffered to varying degrees.

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However, artillery claimed by far the largest number of casualties. Both sides used guns in unprecedented numbers (sometimes thousands were concentrated almost wheel to wheel), bombarding each other's troops with high explosive, steel fragments and shrapnel. About half of all wounds sustained by troops who were medically treated were found to be caused by shellfire, either from fragments or shrapnel-balls. Rough, tumbling, shell fragments caused far more shock and damage to the human system than did a smoothly flying bullet. Consequently, more of those struck by fragments died at once, or before medical aid could be given; this was the main reason why the proportion of killed to wounded was much higher for artillery casualties than from other causes.

Water filled bomb crater.spacer Apart from its death-dealing capabilities, sustained artillery fire could break the will of men and bring on 'shell shock', a widespread and serious nervous disorder. However, lengthy artillery bombardments could be self-defeating, the ground becoming so cratered and boggy as to be impassable to the troops the artillery was supporting. At other times (on the Somme in 1916, for example) several days' preliminary bombardment induced over-confidence in the attackers. Most shells were incapable of reaching down the 20 feet or more into the dugouts, from which the German machine-gunners emerged when the barrage lifted and caught the attackers struggling through the barbed-wire entanglements.


Machine Guns

The second most effective weapon was the machine gun. Early in the conflict General (later Field Marshal) Douglas Haig had classified this weapon as being 'of limited use', yet by the end of the war Britain had an entire Machine Gun Corps, with an allocation of up to 50 machine guns for each of its battalions. The Germans recognized early the 'efficiency' of the machine gun and equipped their army lavishly with them.

The Numbers

Average British losses between battles exceeded 300 men a day. 'Quiet' sectors of the front could kill troops at a rate of up to 500 a week. Even out of the line, most battalions lost an average of eight men a week, from training accidents and so forth. For all the valiant contribution of British, Commonwealth and Belgian troops, it should be remembered that it was the soldiers of France and its colonies who bore the heaviest burden of fighting on the Allies' side on the Western Front. By the war's end French dead totalled one and a half million; Germany lost at least two million.

spacer The text on this page has been taken from Courage Remembered, by Kingsley Ward and Major Edwin Gibson.

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