World War I was the first all-out war fought on the ground, in the air, on the seas and under the seas. Machines and weapons that were unknown and almost unimaginable just a few short years earlier were being used in combat by both sides with very effective results. It was also a testing ground for improving these new weapons and perfecting their use by men who would be fighting another and even bigger war in twenty years.
The American Civil War was being fought roughly 50 years before WWI. It had been a war between armies using single shot, black powder muzzle loading rifles, pistols and swords for the most part. The cavalry rode horses, and the artillery was large bore muzzle-loading black powder cannons. Battlefields were often covered with a haze of smoke from the weapons, and visibility was sometimes lost. In the relatively few years between these wars, rifles and pistols had become multi-shot weapons with each having the firepower of a squad of Civil War infantrymen. These weapons were powered by a new invention called smokeless powder, which gave better performance and accuracy while creating very little to no smoke on the battlefield. Swords were now only for show. The Calvary was still present on horses, but was soon to be replaced by the new terror of the battlefield -- the armored tank. Artillery had been improved from a line of sight weapon to one that could reach targets that were not even seen by the crews firing the shells.
The Confederate Navy had proven underwater warfare by submarine was possible, but at the time was not practical. The Confederate submarine "Hunley" successfully sunk a Union ship off the coast of Charleston using a black powder spar charge during the War. Unfortunately there were some complications, and the "Hunley" itself sank during or shortly after the attack. Submarines were still in their infancy at the time of WW I, but had advanced considerably into a long range hazard to ships and shipping on the oceans. It was now possible for an attack submarine to submerge for long periods of time and wait for a passing ship that could be easily sunk using a torpedo that was fired underwater. One of the factors in the U.S. entering this war was the sinking of several civilian ships by the German subs.
Tethered balloons were used by both the Confederate and Union forces for reconnaissance. A man or men climbed into a wicker basked and were lifted by the balloon to a height controlled by tether ropes where the enemy could be observed. Communication between air and ground was by shouting. Thanks to a lot of inventors and especially two brothers, by WWI, the airplane was in service, barely. It was still a contraption made from sticks and cloth with a motor of sorts, but it did fly and was controllable by a pilot. No one really knew what they were good for in the beginning, so the first duty was reconnaissance. As the war progressed and the planes improved, their use grew into fighter planes and bombers and became a deadly threat.
Following WWI, the world found peace for a short while again. During this time of peace, many of the weapons that had been used were improved, and others were designed to be on hand and ready if needed. Some of the weapons, like the airplane were redesigned for use in the civilian sector. Communications, transportation, medical treatments and manufacturing processes advanced greatly because of the demands that had been created and met during the conflict. What the world did not know was that all this was just a rehearsal for WWII.
Some of the combatants, and one dog, who served in the conflict became well known afterward; some in a good way, some in a very bad way. Winston Churchill, Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Buster Keaton, Humphrey Bogart, Earnest Hemmingway, Rin Tin Tin, and Walt Disney were all veterans of WWI.
This coming Saturday, May 26, another combatant will be present at the Carroll County Veterans Memorial Park Association's Memorial Day program giving a report on the progress of the Great War to the people. General John Pershing will be once again returning from the pages of history to the Veterans Park at 11 a.m. In the event of rain, the program will be moved to the Carroll County Recreation Department building on Olympic Drive just south of the Park. Please plan to attend this very special program and bring the kids for a history lesson they will never get in school.
Dale Robinson, Vietnam Era Veteran and member of American Legion Post 143,(www.gapost143.org), writes a weekly column on veterans issues and military history.