The regular British Army prior to 1914 was renowned for its high standard of marksmanship and in the early weeks of the war, while fighting went on in open countryside, the skilful regulars of the British infantry were able to fire ‘fifteen rounds rapid’ from the superior Short Magazine Lee-Enfield rifle, a rate that was sometimes mistaken for machine gun fire. New recruits of Kitchener’s army, trained quickly and focusing overly (in some opinions) on bayonet practice, could not hope to match this level of skill.
In fact, machine guns, along with heavy artillery, were to be a dominating element of trench warfare, beginning to make redundant the rifle carried by advancing infantry who were simply felled in swathes by machine guns before they got close enough to aim their rifles. Pistols were acquired by some men while swords, knives and crude trench clubs were all used to a certain extent. Grenades, requiring less skill, were increasingly favoured for close and mid-range attacks and used for clearing trenches. Early grenades were fashioned out of old, empty jam tins but new types were in constant development, the best perhaps being the Mills bomb. The Illustrated War News, which recorded the technological advancements of the war, featured a photograph of British soldiers making grenades out of tobacco tins in April 1915 and in December that year, a page of various more sophisticated versions. Machine guns evolved too during the war, with the lighter and more agile Lewis gun superseding the older Vickers model.
Soldiers suffered the most arbitrary and horrific injuries from enemy shrapnel and high-explosive shells, fired from trench mortars, howitzers and big guns operated by artillery teams. The variety and quantity of artillery continued to increase and by October 1918, the British Army on the Western Front had over 10,000 artillery guns of varying kinds in operation. Bombardments were designed to weaken the enemy both physically and psychologically prior to an attack, while the creeping barrage was used with some success to allow infantry to move behind it until almost upon the enemy position.
Mines, laid underneath the ground by tunnelling teams of the Royal Engineers, known as ‘sappers’, were further evidence of the powerful destruction of explosives; when 990,000lb of explosive was detonated deep under Hill 60 on the Ypres salient in June 1917, the blast was heard in London and 10,000 German soldiers were killed. Aerial attacks, by both bomb and machine gun were also becoming more common, while gas and the tank both made their debut during the war.