To what extent did the internal combustion change

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To what extent did the internal combustion change the practice of warfare during WWI?
Julian Pozniak
IB Extended Essay 2010
Word Count: 3783
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Abstract: To what extent did the internal combustion change the practice of warfare during
Before the integration of the internal combustion engine into modern warfare, battles
were fought in fronts or lines of battle. These lines of battle consisted first of men standing in
formations and facing each other directly. During the First World War, front-oriented tactics were
manifested as trench warfare in which the lines of battle extended for miles in each direction.
These lines of battle became increasingly dense and difficult to penetrate. Inventors developed
two major inventions which used the internal combustion engine, during the war, that were able
to penetrate or bypass the fronts: the military tank and the airplane. The concepts of these two
vehicles were not new as many inventors had tried unsuccessfully in the past to create these
inventions, however, what set these inventions apart from their predecessors was the use of the
internal combustion engine which was compact enough and provided enough power that these
inventions were viable. Previous inventions did not have the power sufficient to either move a
large armored vehicle or get a wooden and canvas frame off the ground. The result of the tank
was a new vehicle that could maneuver up to and break through fronts without suffering huge
losses. The result of the airplane was that militaries could now bypass a front without having to
go through it. This led to the demise of fronts as strong defensive positions, as they could be
approached safely by a tank, and to the beginning of strategic bombing by which a military could
attack a population or industrial center without having to break through a front. In sum, the
internal combustion engine provided enough power for tanks and airplanes to break through
static fronts which resulted in an abandonment of front-oriented warfare.
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Word Count: 289
Julian Pozniak
Extended Essay
Mrs. Schweber
To what extent did the internal combustion change the practice of warfare during WWI?
Long before the invention of the internal combustion engine, military strategy had
developed as front oriented strategy, that is to say, armies that fought in lines of combat. Armies
would march in close formations in which they would face the enemy and eventually meet and
fight. This strategy did not change significantly with the invention of increasingly accurate and
powerful guns, both small arms weapons and field guns. Tactics at the end of the nineteenth
century and beginning of the twentieth were still front-style tactics except on a larger scale. This
is best exemplified by trench warfare in the First World War during which armies would meet
and dig themselves into trenches that would span many miles. Trench warfare, though seemingly
dissimilar to early front oriented warfare developed from the American civil war and Prussian
campaigns which “drove men to take cover behind stockades or in trenches” (Macksey 12). This
style of warfare did not change until the widespread integration of the internal combustion
engine into combat settings, specifically in the tank and airplane. The internal combustion engine
provided the necessary power for machines to break through the lines of battle that had been
used as the main tactic for years.
To begin, the idea of the tank was not the concept that broke through the rigid lines of
front-oriented warfare. Indeed, the armored fighting vehicle had been envisioned previously by
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many different inventors, some dating back to as far as the early 1400’s. These contraptions,
however, failed to be of any practical use because of the lack of compact or practical enough
methods of propulsion. Even proposed vehicles of the early to mid-1800’s which used a steam
engine were not seen as practical combat machines because of the awkward size of steam
engines. Steam engines remained confined to a few combat ships which had the size capacity to
fit a steam engine however they were not used in land battles because of their impracticality. The
designers of these early defensive fighting vehicles knew of the benefits of their use though.
British inventor John George proposed an idea of his to the British parliament in 1838 which he
described as a steam war chariot with scythes and iron beaters, armored against ‘muskett and
grape shot’. In his petition he stated that his machine would “penetrate the densest lines…with as
much certainty as a cannon ball would pass through a partition of pasteboard” (Wright 23). He
asked the parliament to envision the battle of Waterloo with one of his inventions. Despite the
promise of almost certain victory to the owner of the machine, his petition to the parliament was
unsuccessful. This was simply due to practicality. George’s claims were seen as humorous
because the size and awkwardness of a steam engine was too great to have been balanced out by
the destructive capabilities of a tank. Only until the invention and widespread integration of the
internal combustion engine into contemporary technology, was the armored fighting vehicle
considered a plausible combat technology.
The first style of the armored vehicle was the armored car. The first designs for armored
cars were simply cars that had armor plating, to deflect bullets, and a large gun mounted onto the
back of the car. By 1906, armored cars went into development and production phases, though not
to large degrees. These armored cars were not looked upon favorably by the majority of military
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authorities because the cars were difficult to coordinate with infantry movements and the designs
were difficult for the military thinkers of the time to comprehend (Macksey 10). However, in
1912 the Italians successfully used armored cars in two separate campaigns, one in the Balkans
and one in the Tripolitanian desert (Macksey 10). At the outset of the First World War, armored
cars were used with some success before the conditions became very muddy. An article from
‘The Times’ (London) explained how “when taken in conjunction with the German policy of
intimidating the civil population and reducing them to a position of absolute inaction that the
enemy is found to make really expert use of the motor car” (“motor car in war” 5). The armored
car was used more for fear than as a weapon.
When trench warfare began during the First World War, armored cars were not able to
cope with the non-level and muddy conditions. The British Army had attempted to use armored
cars to support infantry during the early German invasion of Belgium but the vehicles were not
only slowed by mud but also were vulnerable to many kinds of fire such as armor-piercing
bullets and mortar and artillery shells (Macksey 17). One article from ‘The Times’ recounted a
battle during which a group of cars were halted by sandbags and left completely vulnerable to
enemy fire. The article said “The squadron made good progress till it was stopped by a barrier of
sandbags…the halt coincided with the movement of our attack and the British armored cars
found themselves exposed to the full fury of the enemy’s barrage… [the commander] called for
volunteers to remove the obstruction, though it was almost certain death to leave the protection
of the cars” (“British armored cars” 6). This battle, one of many in which cars became stuck,
illustrated the vulnerability of cars that only had wheels as the wheels could easily immobilize
the car. To cope with the bad conditions, tank developers in Britain tried many different solutions
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including large wheels, which were abandoned because of their vulnerability to gunners (Wik
130). Tank designers eventually employed the design of ‘caterpillar treads’ from an American
farm tractor on their invention to provide enough surface area and traction for the machines to
move over the muddy terrain. When one of the British officers involved in the development of
the tank made a goodwill visit to America he said, in reference to machine guns, “the antidote
was the Holt ‘Caterpillar Tractor’” (Wik 132). Interestingly, upon seeing a demonstration of the
caterpillar treads, German military authorities decided the treads had no military use (Wik 128).
American minds similarly did not see the treads as practical and believed that pack mules were a
more reliable form of transport for supplies. As a consequence for Germany, the German military
only produced fifteen tanks before their surrender in WWI (Wik 128).
The union of armor, caterpillar treads, and most importantly, the combustion engine,
yielded the Mark I, the first combat tank. The Mark series tank was overall a very effective
weapon for fighting in the trenches. It was able to maneuver over trenches and through pits
created by shells without sinking into the mud. It was also able to resist small arms and machine
gun fire, a significant improvement in the design of machines for attacking trenches, as well as
retaliate with both machine guns and larger naval cannons. Certainly, the tank was the perfect
instrument for attacking enemy trenches. The first appearance of tanks on the battlefield was
during the battle of the Somme on the 15th of September 1915. During the battle of the Somme,
the only enemy “was the tanks own unreliability” (Weeks 21). While machine gun bullets could
not penetrate the armor of the Tanks, the number of participating tanks for the first wave of the
offensive dropped from fifty to twenty four due to “mechanical and other failures” (Duffy). The
only way that the Germans were able to defeat tanks in subsequent early battles was to develop a
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new kind of bullet and/or gun to cope with the armor of the tanks to which the allies responded
by simply adding more armor (Weeks 22-24). In many instances the only way for German
soldiers to defeat tanks was to run up and overpower the tanks by grabbing the guns or throwing
in a grenade, both of which were extremely risky (Weeks 26). The greatest dangers to tanks were
usually field guns or mortar shells which a tank could not survive. A British captain described a
tank being hit by a shell in his diary and wrote “One had been hit by a large shell, and the petrol
tank pierced. She lay on her side in flames, a picture of hopelessness…The firing gradually
slackened and she lay silent, the gallant little crew burned to death” (Wright 41). Another
account came from a soldier who wrote in his diary “At night one of our tanks just on our right
flank took fire. It blazed away for a long time while the Hun amused himself flinging shells at
it” (Mackay). While the tank operations on the Somme were not considered a great success, the
results still left the tank commanders optimistic and proved the tanks to be potentially very
capable machines. A later operation at Cambrai, on the 20th of November, 1917, proved far more
successful. A total of 376 Mark IV tanks achieved a resounding victory against a German cavalry
charge and conquered the trenches belonging to the Germans as well as 40 square miles of
enemy territory and 12,000 prisoners, solidifying the future of the tank in the military and
proving the futility of past tactics (“Cambrai Victory” 6).
Tanks were also quite a detriment to enemy morale. Never before had soldiers seen such
a contraption in the history of warfare. The self-propelled iron landship stuck fear in many
soldiers’ hearts. Upon seeing tanks, many enemy soldiers chose to either flee or surrender.
(Weeks 21-22). After the battle of Cambrai, a German General wrote about the effect of the tanks
on the morale of his troops. In his diary he wrote that “Those who fought in the battle describe
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the imposing impression made by the British tanks which preceded the attack on the widest front.
As they advanced in masses, with very small intervals between them, they reminded one of
Hannibal’s battle elephants or the sickle chariots of the Pharaohs” (“German Opinions” 10).
Furthermore, tanks were a positive boon to the allied soldiers’ morale. An army photographer for
the British Army recalled his account of the first time he saw a tank in battle. He wrote “the
Huns, terrified by its appearance, were mowed down like corn falling to the reaper’s sickle…
[British] Officers and men were doubled up with mirth as they watched the acrobatic antics of
this mechanical marvel” (Wright 39).
In sum, the combustion engine, as used in the tank, was able to provide a means to break
lines of combat. While before the invention of the combustion engine, tanks were seen only as a
silly dream, the combustion engine provided enough power to move large armored vehicles that
could withstand enemy fire such as small arms fire and machine guns. The tank’s mobility and
armor provided it with the necessary components to approach an enemy line without being
destroyed. The tank effectively ended front oriented warfare by ending the advantage of infantry
in a defensive formation/location. It did so by overcoming the fronts that would otherwise be
impenetrable without armor.
While the ‘land ship’ dream was being fulfilled on the ground, other inventors were
looking to adapt to military purposes the recently invented heavier-than-air craft. The heavierthan-air craft had only been successfully flown eleven years prior to the outbreak of WWI, by the
famous Wright Brothers. But even the Wright flyer could not fly for extended periods of time;
the flights were measured in seconds rather than minutes (Gibbs-Smith 101). The first truly
successful flight of a heavier-than-air craft was the flight made by Frenchman Louis Blériot
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across the English Channel from France to England in 1909. That very flight changed the
common public and military perception of front-oriented war by showing that one could bypass a
front or border altogether with an airplane. The flight “wiped out the security of international
boundaries and erased the defense provided by large bodies of water” (Whitehouse xii). A
journalist for the times who attended a banquet in 1909, given in honor of M. Blériot wrote, in
regards to an Englishman attending the banquet “Mr. Wallace was cheered to the echo when he
declared that England rejoiced in the triumph of France, her friend, who was now by the aerial
entente united to her more closely than ever” (“Blériot in Paris” 4). By this time, flying was
taking hold as a practical concept. The same article contained a statement of Thomas Edison’s
views on powered flight in which he spoke of how airplanes could be used for many domestic
purposes. Most importantly though, the statement “Mr. Edison believes it is a question of
power” (“Blériot in Paris” 4) framed well the struggle faced by many previous inventors in
getting their inventions to fly.
Just as with the armored fighting vehicle, many inventors had attempted to make designs
of vehicles that could transverse the heavens just as birds did. Designs for flying machines have
been around as long as man’s fascination with flying. Flying devices have propagated myths
from as far back as ancient Greece including Hermes’ flying shoes and Daedalus and Icarus’ wax
wings and even a contraption made by Alexander the great consisting of a cage to which he
harnessed griffins. Even throughout the Middle Ages, men had been recorded jumping off towers
with cloth sails attached to themselves, attempting to use them as gliders and fly. Unfortunately
these men almost always fell to their deaths (Gibbs-Smith 4-5). Perhaps the most famous flying
machine from before the Wright brothers was Leonardo Da Vinci’s helicopter in which he
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illustrated the use of a ‘corkscrew’ propeller. The common issue with all these previous
inventions, at least the historical ones, was the lack of a powerful enough and sustainable power
source for keeping the aircraft aloft.
Da Vinci was not the first one to invent the propeller. The propeller for use in air had
appeared much earlier, in the 1300’s, in the familiar form of windmills and later as the
windscrew, a popular children’s toy (Gibbs-Smith xvi; 4; 7). Another important aspect of the
airplane was invented far earlier than the propeller, in the form of the kite as far back as 1000
B.C. by the Chinese (Gibbs-Smith 3). The Chinese were able to lift men into the air by utilizing
wind power, showing that men can fly with the assisted power of a flying contraption.
After many years, the airscrew was adapted for use in aircraft, specifically for use in a
hydrogen balloon. The airscrew was used for lateral propulsion and was powered by mounting
the axle into a bow and using the torsion of the bow to rotate the propeller (a designed which
inspired another children’s toy not unlike the medieval airscrew). This successfully showed the
‘airscrew’ to be useful for aerial propulsion, however, it still could not be used for prolonged
propulsion as the technology did not exist that could keep the prop spinning indefinitely until the
1860’s when the gas engine was invented which led to the subsequent inventions of more
powerful and compact engines (Gibbs-Smith 17-19, 35). The next major milestone, completed
by Félix Du Temple in 1874, was the first powered flight of a fixed wing airplane assisted by
gravity, that is, down a ramp. The airplane had a propeller fixed to the front, powered by a steam
engine, with two fixed wings on the side and a tail (Gibbs-Smith 45). The final great, and most
famous, development was the powered flight by the Wright brothers in which they used an
internal combustion engine, providing enough power to perform a flight in which the plane took
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off by the sole power of the motor, carried out a sustained flight for twelve seconds, and landed
without incident 120 feet away.
Unlike the tank, airplanes were not seen as ultimate war machines by their designers but
rather as recreational craft. When WWI broke out, the German Military Aviation Service had
about 240 airplanes at their command while the number of domestic aircraft in Germany was
between 600 and 700 (Whitehouse 3). Airplanes were not used in combat until 1911, by the
Italians, during the Turkish invasion of Libya and even then they were only used as
reconnaissance to monitor enemy positions (Kinney, 22). Airplanes were not used in great
numbers for military purposes until the First World War.
The first important service performed by aircraft during the First World War was
reconnaissance, much as they had been used previously in earlier conflicts, simply on a larger
scale. Planes were used to observe troop movements, a very useful task which was instrumental
in the halting of the German army by the British Army (Gibbs-Smith 3). Planes were also used as
spotting craft for artillery. They could carry luminescent material and drop it to give artillery
operators, who could not see far, a target. One particular account of one of these events came
from the survivor of one of the first poison gas attacks near Ypres during April of 1915. In his
diary he wrote “Above us, a Taube [German airplane] appears and, hovering over us, lets fall a
cascade of glittering silver like petals. A few moments more and shells begin to fall about us in
quantities, and gaps appear in our snakelike line” (Hossack).
As the transparency of troop movement greatly increased with the use of airplanes, the
deadlocked stalemate of war only intensified as counter offences could easily be made against
any foreseeable enemy incursion. Before the battle of Cambrai, the Germans had already known
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of the movement of British forces southward because of aerial intelligence (“German Opinions”
10). Although they did not know of the tanks, they had already prepared defenses to counter any
infantry assault. The British truly took heed of the ability of the Germans to spy on them and
ordered various artists to paint camouflage onto the early tanks so that spy planes could not see
them (Wright 31). This increased transparency in troop movements made offensive tactics ever
more difficult. The increased transparency necessitated the creation of a means to shoot down
enemy aircraft, which led to the birth of the first combat aircraft (Kinney 23). This was
particularly difficult for tractor-style airplanes, on which the propeller was mounted on the front
and would pull the airplane, because a forward mounted gun would shoot the propeller off.
While pusher style airplanes, like the Wright Flyer, could have a forward mounted gun, the
planes were much harder to control. Eventually, the automatic interrupter was invented in May
1915 so that pilots could fire their machine guns through their propeller blades without shooting
their propeller off.
As each side secured periods of aerial domination, they used this time to develop and use
the first bombers, evolved from the reconnaissance aircraft. Originally, the term bomber did not
exist as there were no aircraft specially equipped to drop bombs. In the first few months of the
war, pilots would simply drop makeshift weapons, like bricks or rusty chains, on the enemy
(Whitehouse 70). Many planes, later in the war, were used as ground attack fighters, which
would fire their machine guns at ground targets such as troops or artillery placements. These
attacks worked well at creating gaps in the enemy positions for an attack or at least slowing
down an enemy offensive (Kinney 30). One particular instance of one of these attacks occurred
in March, 1916 in Egypt as a battalion of British soldiers was advancing toward a Turkish
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position. One of the British soldiers wrote “Again the Taube came over and dropped bombs all
amongst us, but even the wounded didn't realise the danger, and it was impossible to do anything
for them” (Jones).
Eventually both sides began to see the need for increased damage to trenches or factories
and so created larger bombs. These larger bombs could not be carried by the conventional fighter
and so bombers were developed specifically for taking out ground units (Whitehouse 72).
Germany’s bomber program was begun after the failure of the Zeppelins as bombers. Zeppelins
did not work as bombers because of their high vulnerability to incendiary rounds. Both sides
eventually developed what is known today as strategic bombing which would target supply
centers and population centers such as London or Paris. Attacking factories would cut supplies to
the enemy while attacking population centers would “erode the psychological well-being of a
nation by bombing its citizens” (Kinney 31). The concept was not new but rather the ability to
bomb cities was newly available because of the newer makes of planes. Samuel Johnson, in
reference to aircraft, wrote “Against an army sailing through the clouds neither walls, nor
mountains, nor seas, could afford any security. A flight of northern savages might hover in the
wind, and light at once with irresistible violence upon the capital of a fruitful region that was
rolling under them” (Gibbs-Smith 219). Johnson foreshadowed the effectiveness of strategic
bombing, with this quote. Planes could bypass static fronts such as trenches, they could fly over
mountains and they could also fly over seas as Blériot demonstrated.
Ultimately, though the combat airplane did not have a profound effect on the outcome of
WWI, it did have a huge effect on the practice of warfare (Kinney 38). The airplane was able to
exploit the vulnerability of the static front during WWI by observing the locations of enemy
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troops and artillery and by attacking ground targets, thus breaking holes in the enemy’s
formation. Unlike the tank, the airplane created a new front in warfare that served to
revolutionize the way that war was carried out, while tanks simply broke through the rigid fronts
on the ground.
In sum, the combustion engine had a profound effect on the practice of warfare by
changing the most basic strategic principles from front-oriented warfare, to the style of warfare
that we are familiar with today. Before the invention of the combustion engine, armies would
meet in fronts and fight in lines of battle. This ‘line of battle’ ideology carried through to the First
World War with trench warfare, which saw the line of battle carried out for miles in each
direction. With trench warfare, came an increase in defensive technology that made offenses
almost impossible on foot. The internal combustion engine provided enough power for inventors
to realize their inventions with a more powerful and compact power source. The combustion
engine’s utilization in the tank made it possible for armies to effectively attack enemy trenches
without significant losses while its use in the airplane allowed for a new method of attacking an
enemy by striking at their cities and industrial centers rather than directly confronting their
armies. Overall, the combustion engine provided enough power for the tank to break through
fronts and for airplanes to bypass them, rendering the concept of front-oriented strategy
completely useless.
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1: This was a ‘land fortress’ designed
by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. A
model was never built and the design
was very cumbersome because of the
large steam engine that was inside as
signified by the large smokestack.
(Macksey 8)
2: The armored car used by the Italians in the
Balkans and Tripolitania. The design was compact
because of the small internal combustion engine
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but the wheels could easily get stuck with mud in the trenches and could not navigate large
obstructions. (Macksey 10)
3: The Mark V tank. The tank
sported two large naval cannons
and had caterpillar treads that
wrapped around its body. The
design was much more compact
and plausible than Kaiser
Wilhelm’s design. (Macksey 25)
4: A Screw pull toy. (Gibbs-Smith xvi)
5: The method of propulsion for early balloonists.
(Gibbs-Smith 18)
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6: Félix Du Temple’s design for a steam powered aircraft. The design did not work because of
the awkward bulky size of the steam engine (the smokestack can be seen in the lower right-hand
image) and the relatively small amount of power it gave. (Gibbs-Smith 33)
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7: A pusher airplane in which one can see the propeller located behind the cockpit. (Gibbs-Smith
8: A tractor airplane in which the propeller is located in front of the cockpit. This particular
airplane is the Fokker Eindecker Which was the first to successfully use the interrupter. (GibbsSmith 175)
“M. Bleriot in Paris” The Times 2 August 1909: 4.
“British Armored Cars’ Splendid Fight. Volunteers for Certain Death.” The Times 14 July 1917:
“Cambrai Victory and Retreat.- The Operations In Review.- Balance of Gains and Losses.” The
Times 17 December 1917: 6.
DiNardo, R. L. “The First Modern Tank: Gunther Burstyn and His Motorgeschutz" Military
Affairs Jan. 1986: 12-15
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Duffy, Michael. 19 September 2009. <
“German Opinions on Cambrai Surprise.-‘Enormous Importance of Air Service’” The Times 30
November 1917: 10.
Gibbs-Smith, Charles Harvard. Aviation An Historical Survey from its Origins to the end of
World War II. London and Beccles: William Clowes and Sons Limited, 1970.
Hossack, Anthony R. The First Gas Attack. 22 September, 2009
Kinney, Jeremy R. Airplanes the life story of a technology. Post Road West Westport
Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2006.
“The Motor-Car In War. Use for German Patrols and Commissariat.” The Times 24 August 1914:
Mackay, Robert Lindsay. The diaries of Robert Lindsay Mackay – Somme 1916. 19 September
2009. <>
Macksey, Kenneth; Batchelor, John H. TANK A History of the armoured fighting vehicle. Poland
Street, London: Macdonald, 1970.
Weeks, John. Men against Tanks A history of Anti-Tank warfare. Philip Avenue North
Vancouver: David & Charles Limited, 1975.
Whitehouse, Arch. The Military Airplane Its History and Development. Garden City, New York:
Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971.
Wik, Reynold, M. “The American Farm Tractor as Father of the Military Tank." Agricultural
History Jan. 1980: 126-133
Wright, Patrick. Tank The progress of a monstrous war machine. 3 Queen Square London: Faber
and Faber Limited, 2000.
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