Industrialization and World War I

World War I and The Industrial Revolution

World War I was unlike anything the world had seen before. There had never before been so much of the world engulfed in conflict. Although the sheer scale of the war set it apart from all previous conflicts, new inventions and technology developed during the industrial revolution made for an entirely different kind of combat. I believe that the industrial revolution enabled World War I to happen, but more importantly, permanently changed how warfare was done.

Manufacturing a New Type of War

Prior to the 20th century, a war like WW1 would not have been possible: there were simply not enough resources readily available to wage war of that scale. Before the war broke out in 1914, the developed world had unknowingly been preparing itself for the better part of a century.

During the industrial revolution, many farming families were now moving to large urban centers for manufacturing jobs. As shown in the maps on this site, we can see the rapid movement towards large cities with manufacturing jobs. We can see that iron, steel, salt, coal, and other resources were being manufactured at rapidly increasing rates. With this newly found abundance of goods, weapons, vehicles, and various other instruments of war could be produced rapidly and readily. Indeed, many of the factories were converted to make tanks and weapons for the war effort. (If you check out the other links on the site, there are a ton of great documents, maps, and other information from the time period!)iron_production

However, there is one thing that is even more important to war than supplies and weaponry: soldiers. Even if you have all the guns in the world, you can’t wage war without an army. During the industrial revolution, advances in agriculture and medicine allowed people to live longer than ever before. While the birth rate stayed the same, the death rate took a plunge in the century leading up to World War I. For me, it is more helpful to see this visually. The graph below from Oxford’s Big Ideas textbook shows just how much of an effect these advancements had on life expectancy. The Big Ideas book has very good informative visuals that get the point across well (also, I had it on my bookshelf). Britain’s population exploded from about 7 million in 1750 to over 30 million by the start of the 19th century. With that many people, there would be no shortage of soldiers.


Tools of Destruction

Prior to World War I, combat was a very different thing. There were no tanks, no airplanes, and the guns were not nearly as effective. The many factories and manufacturing plants allowed these things to be produced quite quickly. Besides weapons and vehicles, other inventions (like the telegram or electricity) greatly affected the way war was waged.


This is a picture of an artillery gun that I found on a neat Pinterest board dedicated to WW1 weapons (it seemed like a good board, the author seemed to know his history). This particular artillery piece was able to shoot over 12 miles. Artillery guns played a big role in trench warfare. It was not unheard of to have your trench bombarded for days on end.


Above is an M1917 Browning machine gun. Almost all of the weapons used at the time were bolt action, although a few were semi-automatic. Imagine climbing up over the trenches, charging towards the enemy, and seeing this gun pointed right at you. The Browning machine gun was truly devastating to anyone unfortunate to get caught in its sights.

Although not nearly as deadly as the above two inventions, the telegraph (along with phones, radios, and the internet that would eventually follow) changed warfare forever. With the ability to communicate enemy troop movements and coordinate attacks, the telegraph allowed for an increased level of awareness and strategic planning.


Above is a diagram of a telegram machine as well as written instructions on how to operate it. It was drawn up by Samuel F.B. Morse. While Morse did not invent the telegraph himself, he did improve on the concept and made it commercially viable. I found this image on the Library of Congress site. They have tons of good credible information as well as some interesting images from the time period.

The inventions and advancements of the industrial revolution changed the framework of war entirely, which can be seen by the massive death toll the war took. Due to this, not even the best generals and military strategists knew how to fight WW1; the strategies of the past did not work anymore. As you could imagine, the soldiers had even less of an idea what to do, and were rightly terrified. I found this wonderful collection of letters written by soldiers during the war, with transcribed text and photos of the original letters (I think these give a really unique perspective into the time period). After reading through the letters from soldiers, it is readily apparent how new and scary the war was. Many of the letters contain the word “scared”, talk about wearing gas masks constantly, and life in the trenches. They mention being stressed, strained, or worried very consistently. One soldier referred to his experience as an “everlasting nightmare”. More than anything else, there are mentions of the extreme destruction caused by the artillery. Here is one of my favorite letters I found, along with the transcript below (as it is slightly difficult to read).


Dear Effie,

Very pleased to receive your letter, like yourself I find my correspondence voluminous for me at times, especially since I have taken on the duties of Platoon Sergeant which takes up more time than one realises at first. We are still in the trenches and have been in action twenty four days consecutively and I don’t know long we shall keep it up. Had a dirty time yesterday morning dodging damned great bombs the blighters were presenting to us without exaggeration they were eighteen inches to a two feet long and made a hole about ten feet deep and fifteen feet diameter at least we did not wait to see them burst. They can be seen descending through the air and then a scoot is made to get as far as possible round the corner, the iron and dirt seem to be falling for a minute afterwards, they are disturbing. Dicky Gilson has not been with us the last twenty four days, he broke his glasses and would not buy new ones (went to the doctor and all that and worked the oracle and was left behind with the Transport, don’t know whether he worked the ticket properly and got a safer job farther back, should not blame him if he has, his nerves have been in a shocking state, he’d brood a lot as you know that is absolutely fatal when you have a dirty job on like this. I have not seen either Frost or Kemball out here, do not seem to meet anybody fresh as we are always in the same district and relieve the same crowds generally.

Our pals the French in my opinion scrap jolly well except in the isolated instances which are given undue prominence by our chaps by prejudice probably. The casualties have certainly been enormous but a lot of them are a week old and one cannot form any opinion of what is going on by the lists, and I should not be allowed to say what I thought of our doings lately. Cronin is still with the 5th Bedfordshires and not out yet, I think not likely to be in all probability. Only wish we could repeat our swimming performance off Penarth ‘specially the Wednesday evening ones. Have heard rumours of leave being given shortly but do not rely much on it, have been offered a Commission in this Battalion and I may take it up if my papers go through satisfactorily.

Kindest regards and wishes to Mrs Lewis,

Your old Pal,


Imperialism, Industrialization, and War

Imperialism and industrialization go hand in hand. With the railroads and cars invented during the industrial revolution, goods could be transported more readily. This meant that the spoils of Africa could be brought back to Europe more easily. This was a good thing: the ever-expanding cities needed more and more resources to maintain their standard of living. This was a contributing factor to the scramble for Africa at the end of the 19th century. However, not everyone industrialized at the same time, and not everyone colonized Africa at the same time either. As you can tell from the maps below, Britain and France had a huge head start (after all, they were the first to industrialize so it makes sense). On the other hand, Germany was too late to get much of Africa, while the Ottoman’s had a good chunk but lost it over time due to internal conflict. In essence, territory disputes and a sort of “imperial rivalry” made tensions high. Imperialism and industrialization were both important and inseparable factors leading to World War I.


The left map is from 1885, shortly before the “scramble for Africa” occurred, while the map on the right is from around 1900. I chose this source for the maps because they were actually drawn during the late 19th and earliest 20th century.


Rex Pope, ed., Atlas of British Social and Economic History Since c. 1700, London: Routledge, 1989, p. 47. (Date)

Easton, Mark, Helen Butler, and Kate McArthur. Geography / History. 9th ed. South Melbourne, Victoria: Oxford UP, 2014. Print. (Numbers)

“John Bull and Uncle Sam: Four Centuries of British-American Relations Inventions and Discoveries.” Inventions and Discoveries – John Bull and Uncle Sam: Four Centuries of British-American Relations | Exhibitions (Library of Congress). United States Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2016. <;. (Images)
Luscombe, Stephen. “Africa and the British Empire.” The British Empire in Africa. N.p., 14 Oct. 2002. Web. 14 Dec. 2016. <;. (Maps)
Onan, Michael. “WW1: Weapons of Warfare.” Blog post. WW1: Weapons of Warfare. Pinterest, n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2016. <;. (Social Media)
Various Authors. “Letters from the First World War, 1915 – The National Archives.” The National Archives. The National Archives, n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2016. <;. (Words)

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