Issue 12 - Air War and Weapons Technology

Technology changed rapidly at the beginning of the 20th century, leaving an indelible mark on society, on industry and on the nature of war.  Warfare was forever altered by the changes that happened during World War I. A conflict that began with mounted cavalry and mule-drawn supply carts ended with tanks, fighter pilots and wide-scale use of gas warfare.

This issue of Understanding the Great War looks at the impact of this technology: on land, on the seas and in the air. 

The technological developments that occurred from 1914 through 1919 were so profound that they cannot be summarized by just a few educational resources, however the sampling below offers a great starting point for learners to gain an understanding of these changes, so that they can continue to explore this history in their own way.
"All these space writers in magazines and Sunday editions would have people believe a lot of things about aviation - such as the wonderful thrills and excitement to be met with in the air have never been up - as I figure it. Of course it is a lot of fun but for real excitement a Ford on a bumpy road at 30 m.p.h. has any slow airplane skinned a mile."

- First Lieut. Kenneth Bell,
U.S. Air Service, 28th Aero Squadron,
3rd Pursuit Group, A.E.F.  
Excerpt from a Nov. 9, 1917 letter written while serving in Loggia, Italy.

La Mission du centenaire de la Première Guerre mondiale

When the United States declared war on April 6, 1917 they were not prepared to fight and this included the relatively small air service. This English-language article written by Christoph Bergs with France's Mission Centenaire 14-18 explores how the U.S. Air Service started almost from scratch and became a contributor to the success of the American Expeditionary Forces. View on

Recommended Grade Levels: High School, College, Adult Learners
Format: Online Article

Explore the history of American airmen during World War I in this interactive timeline created by the American Battle Monuments Commission. The interactive includes information about specific aero squadrons, photographs, archival materials and more. The interactive site requires that Adobe Flash be enabled to be viewed.  View at

Recommended Grade Levels: Middle School, High School, College, Adult Learners
Format: Interactive Web Content (Requires Adobe Flash)

Need a resource on WWI aviators specifically for middle schoolers? Then check out this lesson plan created for the National WWI Museum and Memorial.

Created by Brigadier General R. G. Head, USAF (Ret.), the WWI Aviation History Timeline hosted by the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission provides a wealth of information about aviation before and during the First World War. Including information from almost all combatant nations, this resource provide a deep dive into aviation history. View on

Recommended Grade Levels: High School, College, Adult Learners
Format: Online Article

World War I: 100 Years Later

While drones may seem like a new phenomenon, the military began experimenting with unmanned aerial vehicles during World War I. This article by Jimmy Stamp from 2013 published in Smithsonian Magazine explores the first unmanned aerial prototype developed during the War: the "Kettering Bug." Read at

Recommended Grade Levels: Middle School, High School, College, Adult Learners
Format: Online Article

Eugene Bullard was one of many Americans who joined the Lafayette Escadrille, a French aerial squadron of mostly American volunteers; however, Bullard was the only African American. He served with distinction under the French flag, but was rejected from joining the American Air Service because of his race. This article written by Cori Brosnahan in conjunction with the PBS American Experience special The Great War explores the life of Eugene Bullard. Read at

Recommended Grade Levels: All Levels
Format: Online Article

Want to learn more about the Lafayette Escadrille? Then go in-depth with this article by Chris Cottrill, Head Librarian of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
"Soon I discovered that I was not meeting a beginner. He had not the slightest intention of breaking off the fight. He was traveling in a box which turned beautifully. However, my own was better at climbing than his. But I succeeded at last in getting above and beyond my English waltzing partner.

"When we had got down to about 6,000 feet without having achieved anything particular, my opponent ought to have discovered that it was time for him to take his leave. The wind was favorable to me, for it drove us more and more towards the German position. At last we were above Bapaume, about half a mile behind the German front. The gallant fellow was full of pluck, and when we had got down to about 3,000 feet he merrily waved to me as if he would say, 'Well, how do you do?'"

- Manfred von Richthofen,
the "Red Baron", from his autobiography Der Rote Kampfflieger.  More information on the Red Baron is available in this article created several years ago for the PBS program Nova.

To become an ace during World War I, a pilot had to shoot down five enemy planes. This article by Evan Andrews from HISTORY® explores six famous aces including the Red Baron and top American ace Eddie Rickenbacker. Read at

Recommended Grade Levels: All Levels
Format: Online Article

The Great War YouTube Channel

Balloons were used in war as early as the American Civil War, but the invention of the dirigible, a steerable airship, opened up the possibilities of this new technology. The German Army and Navy initially used Zeppelins for reconnaissance, but soon deployed them on bombing runs against civilian and military targets. To learn more about the use of Zeppelins during World War I, check out this nine-minute video from the Great War YouTube Channel. Watch online

Recommended Grade Levels: Middle School, High School, College, Adult Learners
Format: Digital Video (YouTube)

BBC iWonder

Delve into the world of WWI submarines with this online article by Matthew Seligmann for BBC's iWonder guides. Similar content is also available from BBC on tanks, including the British Mark I Tank, written by historian William Philpott. View online

Recommended Grade Levels: All levels
Format: Online Article and Infographics (some additional video content is region-locked)

The above illustration, from the Sept. 19, 1916 issue of Philadelphia's Evening Public Ledger is part of a collection of period newspaper articles on tanks provided by the Library of Congress as part of the Topics in Chronicling America series. Library of Congress also archives past issues of Stars and Stripes, the A.E.F. soldiers' newspaper.
Canada and the First World War

This collection of articles from the Canadian War Museum looks at the ground weapons of WWI, starting with Weapons on Land - including trench weapons, artillery, gas and tanks - and continuing with the Air War and Sea War. Each article is accompanied by objects and photographs from the museum's collection. View online

Recommended Grade Levels: All Levels
Format: Online Articles and Images

"Lack of infantry support was still very noticeable. During the day the tanks took the town of Appremont five times before the infantry would enter, consolidate and exploit the success. In many instances the infantry seemed to have forgotten the fire power which they themselves possessed and expected the tanks to completely obliterate all opposition before they would advance."

- Major Sereno E. Brett, Tank Corps,
from a personal report during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, September 28, 1918. View it here.

How technology changed the way WWI was fought

This high school lesson plan from the National WWI Museum and Memorial looks at how new technologies changed warfare and engages students in considering just what made WWI the first "modern" war, through discussion, analysis of primary resources and hands-on activities. Download the lesson

Recommended Grade Levels: High School
Format: Lesson plan (pdf format)

And for a worksheet on Technology and WWI, download this activity for students from the MacArthur Memorial.

The United States World War One Centennial Commission and the National WWI Museum and Memorial are dedicated to educating the public about the causes, events, and consequences of the conflict and we encourage the use of these resources to better understand the Great War and its enduring impact on the global community.

Partners on this project include:

The Pritzker Military Museum and Library is a founding sponsor of the United States World War One Centennial Commission.