Scholars argue the Great War was unlike any previous military conflict in history for a variety of devastating reasons. Click below to explore how both civilians and soldiers utilized traditional and innovative technologies to navigate the complexities of the Great War.

“Our auto trip took only about twenty to twenty-five minutes because we only had about ten miles to travel. We reach our destination and reported to the office and were assigned to barracks. It’s getting pretty dark now as it is quite late, about nine-thirty and I am writing this letter out of doors, so I will go upstairs and write some more on this letter by candlelight.”
Max Ottenfeld
July 5, 1918
Letter 32

By looking at the technology Max Ottenfeld and those around him used, we can understand how elements of the Great War were both innovative and traditional. People relied on these technologies to navigate daily life at war and at home. Once the US Congress approved the declaration of war in 1917, the military needed to draft and mobilize millions of people into the war effort. The government needed soldiers to send to Europe and civilians to support the war at home. Accomplishing both goals required the use of existing and emerging technology. While the French, British, German, and eventually American forces rapidly developed advanced weaponry like chemical agents and tanks, we must also consider the advancement of other kinds of technology. Telephones, motorized vehicles, clothing, more efficient ways of organizing people and information, and the government’s cutting-edge use of photography, posters, and moving pictures to inform and inspire were all crucial technologies.

Oral History

Max discusses some of his duties and responsibilities in the following video clips:

  • 14:10-18:06 Ottenfeld discusses the Signal Corps.
  • 18:08-20:06 Ottenfeld discusses laying wire, German planes, and trench warfare.
  • 31:14-36:03 Ottenfeld discusses artillery shelling and a lack of communication.
  • 36:03-39:50 Ottenfeld discusses artillery shelling and mustard gas.
  • 39:50-56:40 Ottenfeld discusses horse-drawn ambulances and the evacuation hospital.


Online Media


“War Risk Insurance” US National Archives (9:40).
Note: Sections of this video show the process of sending mail and information.

“Shots of the World War” US National Archives (21:02)
Note: This video shows the kinds of technology available during World War 1 and which information the War Department thought necessary to record.

“Manufacture of Gas Masks, 1918” US National Archives (6:21)
Note: This video demonstrates the construction of gas masks for the First World War.

“Cavalry Training in the United States, 1917-1918” US National Archives (9:46)
Note: This video demonstrates how horses were incorporated into the war effort.

Guiding Questions

  1. Throughout his time in Europe, Ottenfeld was concerned his mail was not reaching home and vice versa. How long do you think it took to send a letter? How long does it take now? Consider how many soldiers sent mail each day and the kind of technology used to transport it across the Atlantic Ocean and throughout the United States.
    a. How do soldiers communicate with family and friends at home now?
  2. Ottenfeld does not mention them in his letters, but animals played an important role in World War 1. They served as modes of transportation and means of communication and safety. View the Calvary Training in the United States, 1917-1918 in the Online Media section and consider how soldiers trained and used animals in the war effort. What are other animals that might be useful to soldiers?
  3. Ottenfeld explains some of the different weapons and vehicles used by the military in Letter #5. What is some of the technology he mentions?
    a. In this letter he also explains the different gasses used by the German military. What technology was available to protect soldiers against these gasses?
    b. What are the different types of signals he is training to use? What does he think of them?
  4. What were the communications technologies Ottenfeld learned as part of his signal training?
    a. What seems new? What seems more traditional?
    b. What technologies do you see in the videos? Which would Ottenfeld have used or at least seen?
  5. Given that so much of this technology was new, Ottenfeld does not mention fighting on the front or weapons very much in his letters. Why might that be?
  6. Discuss how new inventions of the early 1900s like electricity, the telephone, the automobile, etc became more accessible to middle-class families and/or how these inventions impacted the war. (Letter #6)
    a. What is a Pathe machine? Why did Ottenfeld consider it “classy”?
  7. Ottenfeld mentions various aspects of his uniform and equipment in Letters #8 and #13. Compare these items to those used by soldiers before and after World War 1. What remains standard? What changes for soldiers’ equipment?
  8. Ottenfeld used a typewriter to write Letter #18. What are some benefits of using the typewriter?
  9. Explain some of Ottenfeld’s responsibilities in using the radio according to Letter #32. How does Ottenfeld adapt using to the technology?
    a. Give a description of radio duty from Letter #45.
  10. What made using the telephone difficult on the front according to Ottenfeld’s account in Letter #40?
    a. What were some of the medical advances and technologies available to treat gassed soldiers? (Letter #40)
    b. What kind of medical attention did Ottenfeld receive in Letter #60? What are your thoughts?
  11. In Letter #61 Ottenfeld asked if, “things in the way of living changed much since the Armistice was declared?”. What are some of the things that changed for civilians over the course of the war related to technology?
    a. How did people at home in the United States, learn about the war through emerging technology?
  12. Ottenfeld writes about the recreation available at through the YMCA and the Red Cross in Letter #64. What is a “picture show”?
  13. In Letter #67 Ottenfeld writes about the ruins he saw in Trier, Germany. What are some of the items he views from the past? What are some items and artifacts that might be preserved from this war like the ruins?
  14. Why are photographs so popular? In Letter #70 Ottenfeld mentioned having his picture taken yet again. How did this technology work in the early twentieth century?