World War 1 was an odd combination of rigid and unimaginative strategy (such as suicidal human wave attacks against enemy trenches) and technical innovation and creative ways to kill the enemy (the tank, the airplane, the flamethrower, etc). Sometimes these innovations were quite bizarre, as in the case of this Italian solution to getting past enemy barbed wire.
The standard approach was to try to blow the enemy’s barbed wire to bits with artillery bombardments, or to cut it using special tools. Later in the war, tanks were used successfully to plow through barbed wire.
These Italian troops came up with a unique and surprisingly athletic solution to breaking through the Austrian trenches. Instead of cutting the wire, they would leap over it using a pole vault.
This 1918 article from Leslie’s Weekly, reproduced below, shows elite Italian shock troops training to attack the Austrians. In one picture, an Italian soldier is using the latest flamethrower. That’s fairly mundane compared to the photo in the middle of the page showing leaping soldiers pole vaulting over the enemy trenches.
I am not aware of this method every being used in actual combat, and I suspect that the pole vaulters would have been shot to pieces long before they managed to reach the enemy trenches. I can not even imagine what kind of military genius decided to create a platoon of pole vaulters. Perhaps the plan was to make Austrians die from laughing.
French troops on the western front were issued with a plane spotting guide to help them tell friend from foe.
World War 1 Pilot
It has been said that war is the true mother of invention. The Wright Brothers had made their famous first flight only in 1903, just eleven years before the outbreak of World War 1, but all the major countries had been quick to recognize the value of the airplane as a weapon of war. Driven by an undeclared arms race between Germany, France and Britain, all of the future combatants worked to to improve the airplane, so that by the time war came airplanes were part of the arsenals of all the major warring nations. In the next four years, the airplane would be perfected even more, so that it could fly faster, climb higher and drop more bomb loads.
However even the relatively primitive airplanes that existed at the start of the war in 1914 posed a threat to soldiers on the ground; at first, in their role as spotters and reconnaissance planes, but soon also as ground attack aircraft and bombers. It was important that soldiers could identify enemy planes so they could take cover and or fire back at them, without of course hitting friendly planes.
For this purpose, French troops deployed in Belgium at the start of the war, where the infant German airforce was particularly active, were given cards printed with the silhouettes of enemy planes and zeppelin dirigibles.
The graphic below provided illustrations of various German bi-planes:
This graphic showed the outlines of German monoplanes. It is interesting how much these planes resembled birds in terms of their shape and wing design, as nature was still the best model for conquering the air.
Finally this illustration showed the silhouette of units of Germany’s deadly dirigible fleet. In the absence of an effective interceptor force, Germany’s zeppelins could roam far and wide, dropping bombs on cities and strategic points such as railways. They did not become obsolete until later in the war.
This is combat footage of French soldiers taking cover in a trench while under enemy fire.
Trenches have become almost synonymous with world war 1, as millions of soldiers faced each other in a network of underground warrens, launching futile attacks across no man’s land. However the war did not start that way. Initially both sides planned to make fast thrusts into the enemy’s territory and the high commands believed that the war would be over in a few months.
Outmatched by the initial German onslaught, the French and British began to did in to stiffen their defences. Initially these shelters were no more than fox holes or short trenches to guard important points. But as time went on, they developed into a vast network – soon mirrored on the German side – of trenches stretching from the English channel in the north to the Swiss border in the south.
Trenches were also used on the Italian Front but because of the terrain and larger distances, trenches never became as prevalent on the Russian front.
Trenches were effective in protecting soldiers when they were in them, but they also created a bloody stalemate. Neither side was content to simply hunker down and wait for the other to attack and so both sides launched repeated attempts to break through the enemy’s trench system. These attacks usually failed to make substantial break throughs because the trench system, buttressed by barbed wire, mines and defended by artillery and machine guns usually managed to repulse the attackers and inflict great losses.
The carnage of these back and forth attacks in which thousands of men went over the top to their deaths finally began to change back into a mobile war of movement when the allies began to effectively use tanks to spearhead their attacks, as well as coordinating with their air forces to attack German trenches from above, the direction from which they were most vulnerable.
The photograph above shows the trench system in its early stage of development. You can plainly see a shovel in the foreground which has been used by the soldiers to dig the small ditch that they are using for shelter. As time went on these trenches became deeper and more elaborate, with connecting trenches, underground living quarters, barbed wire entanglements and second and third line of trenches to allow the defenders to fall back in case their first line of trenches was overrun.
Wounded Soldiers on the Western Front
American casualties on stretchers are being brought in from the battlefield and left on stretchers at a collection point. Eventually they will be loaded on trucks for evacuation to the rear, and eventually to a field hospital.
Medical care on the battlefield was rudimentary and evacuation was extremely slow. One can’t tell the severity of their wounds from the photo, but they must have been severe enough that they could not walk on their own. Despite blood loss, shock and the risk of infection, the men are being left essentially unattended on the ground amid the debris of war, waiting their turn to be sent to the rear, away from the front lines.
If they survived, many of these men would suffer life long disabilities.
Major gen. Sir Sam Hughes
Canadian Major gen. Sir Sam Hughes is shown visiting wounded soldiers at a Red Cross Hospital in England during World War 1.
Sir Sam Hughes (January 8, 1853 – August 23, 1921) was Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence during the Great War, serving from October 10, 1911 until his resignation on October 12, 1916.
Hughes was a controversial figure, especially because of his vitriolic Anti Catholic sentiments, shameless self promotion and probably exaggerated stories of his bravery during the Boer War, in which he had served. Hughes relentlessly lobbied to be granted a Victoria Cross, the highest military commendation in the British Empire. In fact, Hughes had been dismissed from his command for disobeying orders after granting unduly favourable terms to an enemy force which had surrendered to him. Hughes charged the British high command with incompetence for this action.
During the war, Hughes was in charge of setting up training and recruitment of Canadian forces, but the process was often chaotic and plagued by supply problems. He was particularly criticized for insisting that the Canadian forces be equipped with equipment manufactured in Canada, which resulted in the soldiers receiving inadequate equipment and supplies which were often unsuitable in quality. For example, Hughes favoured the Canadian made Ross rifle which often jammed instead of the more reliable Lee-Enfield rifle.
Due to these difficulties, Hughes was eventually relieved of his spending and purchacing powers and a short time afterwards he resigned.