Innovations in weapons technology produced improved designs of mortars and hand grenades during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The tank emerged as a weapon during World War I and, from its modest beginnings, would emerge as a formidable force on the battlefield.
Though mortars, muzzle-loading cannons firing low-velocity projectiles at short ranges, had been used since the 15th century, early mortars were primitive, unwieldy (often too heavy to move), and fired at impractically slow rates.
The first portable mortars saw action in the American Civil War, especially in defense of Union railroad and supply lines. During World War I, the mortar’s size was further adjusted to enable a single individual to carry and operate it, thus leading to mass production, distribution, and use of these weapons. Due to their high angle of fire, mortars could often penetrate into narrow trenches close by, which artillery had no chance of hitting, thus being effective means of capturing enemy positions without sending infantry in costly head-on assaults.
Primitive hand grenades first saw use in the 15th century, but their employment largely ceased after 1750, as they were quite cumbersome to manage and damaged their users as often as their enemies. As the objectives of war became more closely identified with the infliction of mass casualties in close combat, the grenade was reintroduced and used on a large scale during the Russo-Japanese War and in World War I.
At first, the grenade’s safety record remained atrocious, as there was no mechanism to protect the thrower, and early grenades were even nicknamed “jam bombs,” as they were often constructed by soldiers on the front lines from tin cans formerly holding jam, which the soldiers then filled with stones and gunpowder and attached a fuse at the end. In 1915, the Englishman William Mills invented the Mills Bomb, the first grenade with a safety pin to protect the user. During World War I, the French also invented the “pineapple” design of the grenade largely prevalent today, while the Germans manufactured the “stick” grenade, elongated for more effective throwing.
During World War I, the tank was not an optimally efficient weapon, due to the early tanks’ lack of firepower, armor, and maneuverability in the rough terrain of no man’s land. However, the basic concept of the tank was devised during that time and later improvements in tank equipment, speed, and armor would render trench warfare obsolete. The first tank, the Mark I, was developed by the British Army in 1915 and saw action in the Battle of the Somme on September 15, 1916. The first French tank, the Schneider CA1, was developed in 1917.
The British and French first used a mass combination of tanks in a successful attack during the Battle of Cambrai on November 20, 1917. Germans did not extensively pursue tank technology in World War I, but did design armor-piercing bullets that could demolish the flimsy metal coverings of early tanks. Early tanks also lacked the gun turrets typically associated with them and usually had several smaller guns embedded in their main body. Later Allied tanks were given a rhomboid shape and stronger armor to allow them to deflect or stop German bullets with greater ease. Tanks were part of an emerging new technological paradigm that transformed wars of stalemate and attrition to wars of maneuver, speed, and even greater mechanization during the mid-20th century.