Blood transfusions, trench coats, and other WWI innovations still used today
(Photo: NASA)

By Yolanda R. Arrington, DoD News, Defense Media Activity

This month 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. In recognition of the anniversary, we’re highlighting a few of those advancements.

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 10 years after the Wright brothers first flew in 1903.

Submarines and 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 later incidents 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 and banking

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

The increased use of bombs and machine gun fire changed the scope of injuries sustained by troops on the frontlines. 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

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 everyday 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.