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Seven British “Firsts” from World War I

Military Records
18 February 2015

Image: John Warwick Brooke, Battle of the Somme, July-November 1916. (Public domain, via Wikimedia commons)

War has a tendency to hasten progress and inspire invention. After all, necessity is said to be the mother of invention, and wartime is a period of prolonged, urgent necessity. Radar, the computer, duct tape, and Twinkies all owe their invention or improvement to world wars.

Here’s a list of more innovations you probably never knew emerged from Britain as a direct result of World War I.

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Plastic surgery

We often associate plastic surgery with Hollywood actors chasing eternal youth and beauty, but the origins of modern plastic surgery were far more practical (and, perhaps, noble). Horrified by returning soldiers’ disfiguring shrapnel wounds, British doctor Harold Gillies developed methods of facial reconstruction to ease veterans’ transition back into normal civilian life. He pioneered techniques like skin grafts to repair cheeks, noses, and chins. His pedicle tube graft to supply blood to newly reconstructed areas is still used today.

Gas masks

When German troops initiated the first chemical warfare by releasing chlorine gas on opposing troops, it didn’t take long to realize that urine-soaked socks were not the most effective (or sanitary) protection. Thankfully, British officer Edward Harrison stepped up to the challenge and invented the very first gas mask, using himself as a guinea pig to test its effectiveness. He died days before the end of the war, reportedly working himself to death improving the masks.


While nowadays a tank is considered the pinnacle of military strength, the very first tank was a relatively slight vehicle known as “Little Willie.” It was developed from farm vehicle technology, could carry only three men, and reached a maximum speed of a whopping three miles per hour. The British pioneered the invention of tanks as a way to navigate the trenches and gain the upper hand in World War I, and their development was so secret that even the factory workers building them didn’t know what they were.

Female soldiers

A century ago, women were forbidden from serving in the British military on account of their purportedly weaker dispositions. English reporter Dorothy Lawrence also encountered this prejudice when she tried to make her name in journalism, getting turned down by editor after editor for a post as a war correspondent. Undeterred, Lawrence took extreme measures to prove her capacity. She chopped off her hair, bound herself in a corset, disguised herself as a man, and headed to the front lines. She became the first and only English woman to fight in the trenches of the First World War. British officials were so embarrassed by her successful disguise that they detained her in a French convent until she swore not to tell her story.

Metal helmets

It may seem unbelievable, but it’s true: for the first year of conflict, British soldiers fought with only cloth caps protecting their heads. Within a year, the British developed the iconic Brodie steel helmet, an invention the Imperial War Museum heralds as a “masterpiece of simple design.”

Sanitary napkins

For centuries, women improvised with fur, cotton, wool, or even grass inserts to manage their monthly periods. But when Cellucotton was used for soldiers’ bandages during the First World War, nurses recognized new potential for these absorbent, disposable cloths, and their use as sanitary napkins spread in popularity. Commercial companies latched onto the idea, and mass-market sanitary napkins became available in the following years.

Blood banks

When World War I began, the British Army was conducting direct blood transfusions from donor to patient, the only way they knew to prevent the blood from coagulating. Along came British-born American, Captain Oswald Robertson, who demonstrated that with the addition of sodium citrate, donated blood could be stored on ice for up to 28 days. This led to the very first blood banks, which increased the availability of blood to wounded soldiers needing immediate transfusions and saved countless lives. Robertson’s work also led to the first blood donor station in London in 1922, where donors agreed to be on call 24-hours a day.

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—Connie Ray




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