World War I Innovations Still Used Today

By Yolanda R. Arrington
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the United States’ formal entry into World War I. After a long period of neutrality, U.S. lawmakers voted to enter the war, beginning a period of military industrialization never before seen. The Great War, as it’s often called, left an indelible mark on the art of war and catapulted the American military into a more modern age. We’re highlighting a few of those advancements.

Air Combat

The Fokker D.VII was one of the best fighter aircraft of World War I, and was the only weapon used by the Central Powers specifically mentioned in the Versailles Treaty. The Central Powers surrendered 142 at the close of the war, and the Fokker company sold even more to the U. S. Air Service. Several were flown at Langley Field, but this one was the sole example operated by the NACA. (Photo courtesy: NASA)

The Fokker D.VII was one of the best fighter aircraft of World War I, and was the only weapon used by the Central Powers specifically mentioned in the Versailles Treaty. The Central Powers surrendered 142 at the close of the war, and the Fokker company sold even more to the U. S. Air Service. Several were flown at Langley Field, but this one was the sole example operated by the NACA. (Photo courtesy: NASA)

The military’s use of aircraft really came into its own during the war. While balloons and planes were used prior to World War I, this was the first major conflict to use aerial combat on a large scale. Initially used for observation purposes, planes quickly became tools for combat with the inclusion of machine-gun fire and aerial bombs. They were even used to drop propaganda materials in war-torn countries.

This period was also the precursor to unmanned aircraft. Aviation entrepreneur Lawrence B. Sperry demonstrated the safe and stable operation of what would later become the modern use of autopilot some ten years after the Wright brothers first flew in 1903.

Submarines & Ultrasound
Both the Allied forces and Central Powers employed submarines during the Great War. Germany’s Unterseeboot, or undersea boats, were commonly called “U-boats.” These vessels were used to sink thousands of Allied ships, including the British ocean liner, RMS Lusitania, on May 7, 1915. Nearly 130 Americans aboard that ship perished in the attack. The Lusitania sinking, and other incidents later on, would eventually prompt the United States to declare war against Germany on April 6, 1917. Advancements like the gyrocompass system and magnetic torpedoes made hitting targets and navigating the waters faster. Britain’s advancement in ultrasound technology allowed sunken vessels to be easily located, an advancement that would prove vital during World War II.

Blood Transfusions & Banking

Heavy Surgical Ward, British General Hospital No.13 (Harvard), Casino Municipal, Boulogne, France. (National Archives Photo, 111-SC-44198; Photo by Cpl. W.H. Ellis, S.C.)

Heavy Surgical Ward, British General Hospital No.13 (Harvard), Casino Municipal, Boulogne, France. (National Archives Photo, 111-SC-44198; Photo by Cpl. W.H. Ellis, S.C.)

While in France, Oswald Hope Robertson, a doctor affiliated with the Army’s Base Hospital No. 5, worked with the British Army on mastering blood transfusions. Doctors realized not all blood was the same and that it could be refrigerated for longer shelf life. It was after these discoveries that Robertson mapped out plans for one of the earliest blood banks in 1917. Using Type O blood donors, Robertson was able to collect blood in advance and store it for a short period of time for use in wounded service members. Dr. Charles Drew would go on to perfect the blood banking process during World War II.

It’s estimated 4.5 million Americans would die each year without lifesaving blood transfusions.

Plastic Surgery

Facial injuries of a wounded soldier named "Fraser," taken circa 1918. (Photos: Archives New Zealand Reference: WA10 6/23)

Facial injuries of a wounded soldier named “Fraser,” taken circa 1918. (Photos: Archives New Zealand Reference: WA10 6/23)

The increased use of bombs and machine gun fire changed the scope of injuries troops on the frontlines sustained. Doctors saw an increase in facial wounds among service members. In 1916, New Zealand surgeon Harold Gillies began performing reconstructive surgeries on military patients who needed skin grafts and other forms of plastic surgery. One such patient required a new kind of skin graft called the “tubed pedicle,” which Gillies used to repair the service member’s damaged eyelids. Gillies created a skin flap for the patient inside a tube to keep the blood supply intact and free from infection since there were no antibiotics at the time. Gillies’ medical advancements didn’t stop there. In 1946, he performed the first female-to-male gender reassignment surgery.

Sanitary Pads
Most people may think of the ways the Great War revolutionized combat on the ground, at sea, and in the air, but one wartime development forever changed things for women. The advent of a cotton substitute made of wood pulp called cellucotton helped save lives but it also revolutionized menstruation for women. Highly absorbent, cellucotton was used to bandage wounded troops. Nurses on the front lines noticed the material was a better alternative than the washable, reusable rags they were using during menstruation.

In 1920, the Kimberly-Clark Corp.acted on the nurses’ discovery, using excess cellucotton to create the first disposable sanitary napkins under the Kotex brand.

Trench Coats

Lt. Archibald Robert Allen, 48th Battalion, standing in front of a wall of sandbags. Lt. Allen is wearing a trench coat and pair of rubber boots. Original caption reads "After Passchendaele." One of a series of images in an album relating to the wartime service of Lieutenant Harry Downes MC MM, 48th Battalion. (Photo courtesy: Australian War Memorial)

Lt. Archibald Robert Allen, 48th Battalion, standing in front of a wall of sandbags. Lt. Allen is wearing a trench coat and pair of rubber boots. Original caption reads “After Passchendaele.” One of a series of images in an album relating to the wartime service of Lieutenant Harry Downes MC MM, 48th Battalion.
(Photo courtesy: Australian War Memorial)

You may not associate war with fashion but this functional design has transcended wartime to runways around the world. The trench coat was initially used for just that: troops in the trenches. Created as a coat for British officers, the trench coat was water-resistant and made from a breathable fabric. The coats held field gear and even included a gun flap over the right shoulder. Today, there’s no need for insignia or D-rings to carry maps on the popular trench coat for every day wear. Now, these functional, yet fashionable overcoats can keep you dry on rainy days or warm when there’s a chill in the air. The military also inspired other popular civilian trends like pea coats and combat boots.

What are your favorite war-related advancements?

RELATED LINKS: World War I: Building the American Military
NRL First In History To Remotely Fly Pilotless Aircraft
Daylight Saving Time Was Once Known As ‘War Time’
Ten Technologies: A Brief Look at Military Evolution — Minesweeping
History of Marine Aviation

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