Compared to the 18th and 19th Century armed conflicts, World War I saw new and unique tactical and fighting characteristics, which were staticness, the absence of the cavalry as a fighting force, the presence of deep trenches and a strip of no-man’s land, bristling with barbed wire, spikes and other obstacles, as well as extreme fighting conditions. The initial Imperial German Army westward offensive, established in the Schlieffen Plan, had been stopped in northern France by the Allied armies at the First Battle of the Marne and, from then on, World War I became a stationary yet savage armed conflict. But what made it static and why there was no cavalry? The new weapons, which were the byproducts of the Second Industrial Revolution and were designed to stop the massive cavalry charge.
The machine gun, which was massively and widely used, and modern, breech-loading howitzers fitted with hydro-pneumatic recoil systems that gave them accuracy, wiped out the cavalry from the battlefield and forced the infantry to dig deep trenches to protect themselves from artillery barrage and lethal machine gun fire. On the Western Front, this network of trenches ran in long winding lines for about 420 miles, from northeastern France to Belgium, ending up on the North Sea coast. They were reinforced with pillboxes and fortifications, in which machine guns and field artillery pieces were implaced. Heavy howitzers were fired from save positions behind the lines. The field lying between the opposing lines of trenches was called no-man’s land, which was strewn with barbed wire, posts, and even spikes.
To add to the viciousness of the Great War, both the French and German forces used chemical weapons in the form of mustard gas hurled over across the battlefield in artillery shells, while the infantry used the flamethrower for the first time in military history. This gas was very corrosive to the skin, damaging the respiratory mucous membranes and the cornea. Anxious to break the stalemate and gain enemy-held territory, generals launched massive infantry attacks on the enemy positions. As they ran across no-man’s land, heading towards the enemy trenches to take them, thousands of infantrymen were mown down by machine guns that raked across the field only to gain several hundred yards or a couple of miles, or to be thrown back with heavy losses. Bomber aircraft were small and flimsy flying machines unable to carry enough bombload to destroy fortifications and heavy artillery positions hidden in the forest.
If modern machine guns and howitzers forced the advancing armies into the stalemate of trench warfare, another new weapon was needed to overcome the barbed wire and enemy trenches and protect soldiers from the withering machine gun fire; the tank. The first WWI tanks were lumbering and faulty, but, by mid 1918, English and French tanks had been improved and became effective war machines, with which the Allied armies overcame the German trenches, punching holes in their lines as they went.