This year marks one hundred years since the beginning of World War One. It was a war that changed the face of the world in many ways, not least in its almost unbelievable death toll of 17 million soldiers and civilians. However, out of the war also came innovation, with many inventions that we rely on today stemming from advances made during this time.
In the British military, engineers formed the backbone of the army; without them there would have been no supply lines, as it was the Royal Engineers who maintained railways, roads and vital transport structures. There would have been no communications between troops, as they were responsible for the signalling equipment and telephones. There would have been no cover for front line forces, as the engineers constructed their trenches and fortifications, and no weapons with which to defend the lines, as the engineers were the men who repaired and maintained the guns.
It’s no surprise, then, that the war swelled the ranks of the engineers drastically. On the 1st August 1914, just before war was declared, the Royal Engineers numbered around 25,000 – around 11,500 in the regular army and Special Reserve, with around 13,500 men in the Territorials. By the 1st August 1917, it had grown to almost twelve times that size, numbering 295,668 men and officers combined.
Innovations of the Great War included:
Tanks: The British Mark I was the first combat tank, designed in 1915 and first seeing action at the Somme in September 1916. It was designed to overcome the domination of trench warfare, with fields covered in barbed wire preventing troops from effectively advancing on foot.
Pilot Communications: Early pilots had no way of speaking with each other or to controllers on the ground; once they were in the air, they were cut off, and could only occasionally communicate through gestures if they were in sight of another pilot. Radio technology was developed to allow communication between air and ground, overcoming the issues of cockpit noise along the way and paving the way for commercial air flight after the war.
Watches: Although of course watches were available prior to 1914, they were largely pocket watches; it was the war that increased the demand for watches that could be worn on the wrist. Precise timing was needed for many offensives, particularly for the “creeping barrage” which required exact timing from both the artillery and the men who were advancing behind it, and the wrist watch was the answer.
Alongside these developments were many others; stainless steel, sanitary towels, mobile x-ray machines and more, which shaped not only the course of the war but of society in the years that followed.
Here at Airedale Springs, we’d like to acknowledge the efforts and sacrifices of the engineers of the First World War, without whom our work would be very different today.