World War 1
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This section contains...

  • An introduction
  • A topic web about the war
  • Pictures to promote discussion
  • Facts about the war
  • Science and Technology of the war
  • Periscope making activity
  • Morse code telegraph activity
  • Secret codes - making a code wheel
  • Trenches model activity
  • Motorized Tank model activity


World War 1 was also called ‘The Great War’  or ‘The war to end all wars’.

World War 1 was a ‘mechanized’ war. Scientists and engineers worked together on both sides to make the most powerful machines of destruction ever used in battle.

Guns were made to fire more quickly and more accurately. The ‘machine gun’ was the most feared of weapons by the ordinary soldier who had to run towards them under fire. Heavy artillery fired bigger shells with high explosive charges which created huge holes in the ground called ‘craters’ on landing. Gigantic cannon were fitted on railway trucks and taken to the battle lines (called ‘the front’) on rails because they were too big and heavy to move on roads.

Scientists developed poisonous gases which blinded, burnt and suffocated the soldiers. The poison gases where placed inside artillery shells and fired over into the enemy. On exploding the gas drifted on the breeze towards the enemy.

Aeroplanes were used for the first time to sight the enemy and help aim the guns. They also dropped bombs and fired guns too.

Towards the end of the war the ‘Battle-tank’ was used to great effect. It could advance over rough and muddy ground firing guns while the driver and crew were protected by heavy steel armour on the outside of the tank.

Communications in the war was very very important and there were various ways to send important messages including: Carrier pigeons; flag signals; hand written notes on paper; electric telegraph and the telephone.

Topic web

What comes to mind when you think about World War 1 or any war?

ww1 topic web cropped

Pictures for discussion

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A trench is a pathway dug into the ground so that soldiers can move around safely. If you climbed out of the trench you could be shot by the enemy. The trenches nearest the enemy marked the ‘frontline’, the most dangerous place to be! Various tunnels and underground rooms and shelters were joined by the trenches.

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If you climbed up out of the trench to have a look at what the enemy was doing you could easily be shot because the enemy trenches weren’t very far away. An invention called the ‘periscope’ was used to look over the top of the trench safely. There were even guns with periscopes fitted so that soldiers called ‘snipers’ could take a shot at the enemy without being seen.


Barbed wire ‘entanglements’ were used by both sides to slow the soldiers down as they attacked. They had to slowly cut their way through with wire cutters. In the last year of the war the ‘battletank’ was ued to drive straight over the entanglements to attack the enemy. The tank above has a German cross painted on the side. It is a British tank which was captured by the Germans and used by them against the British.

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The army use the word ‘artillery’ to describe their heavy weapons which could fire enormous ‘shells’ as big as a man! The shells caused vast destruction and made giant holes called ‘craters’ in the battlefield which made it very difficult for soldiers to cross. Aeroplanes were used in the war to spot the enemy and gather ‘intelligence’ about positions and numbers of troops and artillery. They also used to drop bombs. Poisonous gas was used to blind, blister and suffocate the soldiers. The gas was heavier than air and if there was a light breeze it drifted over and sank into the trenches were the soldiers hid. Gas masks were worn to protect against the poisonous gas.

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The soldiers in the first picture above are carrying reels of wire but it isn’t barbed wire, it’s electric wire for a telegraph or telephone system. Messages had to be sent to the troops in the trenches giving them their orders. Miles of telephone cable was laid and had to be repaired constantly because it was always being damaged. The middle picture shows a ‘Morse Code Key’ which was a type of switch used to send messages along the wires. On the right is a coloured light telegraph which didn’t need wires. The Morse code key was used to flash the lights on and off in a coded sequence to send messages from one signal station to the next. Special radio telegraph machines invented by ‘Marconi’ were also used to send Morse code messages.


A wooden footbrige over a trench

A steel girder bridge over a canal which replaced an old stone bridge destroyed by enemy shelling


Some soldiers were specialist engineers who could build bridges to replace those which were destroyed by enemy bombardment. This was a very important job. Without roads and bridges it would be impossible to transport men, food and equipment to the front line.

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Soldiers of many different nationalities fought in the First World War. These are Canadian soldiers. Many soldiers died in the ‘Great War’ and were buried in Belgium and France where they fought. The war cemeteries are preserved for everyone to visit and pay their respects and honour the brave men from all over the world who took part in the war.


Many thousands of horses were used in the war. They could carry heavy shells for the big guns and food and water for the soldiers. Horses were much better than lorries for carrying supplies over the muddy ground.


The troops had to be fed! Their food was packed in specially weighed portions called ‘rations’. There was even a Christmas Pudding ration as a special treat! Many old soldiers remember their ration of ‘bully beef’ which we call ‘corned beef’. Tins were very useful for keeping food fresh. Food kept in sacks or packets could be eaten by rats which were a big problem in the trenches.

10 Facts about World War 1

65 million troops were mobilized during WW1 (1914 to 1918)

8 million troops died

21 million troops were wounded

58,000 British soldiers were lost on the first day at the Battle of the Somme

Trenches were infested with millions of rats, frogs and lice

Big Bertha was a gigantic cannon used by the Germans in WWI which could fire shells weighing 1000Kg  (the weight of 12 men)

More than 500,000 pigeons carried messages between headquarters and the front lines

On Christmas Eve in 1914, soldiers on both sides of the Western Front sung carols to each other

WWI helped bring about the emancipation of women. Women took over many traditionally male jobs and showed that they could perform them just as well as men

WW1 included the first known use of chemical weapons (mustard Gas)


Science and Technology of the war

Scientists and engineers were heavily involved in the Great War. They helped develop or invent.....

Bigger, faster firing and more powerful guns and explosives

Trench periscopes

War planes

Giant gas filled bombers called ‘Zeppelins’ which attacked London

Tanks and armoured vehicles

Medicines and methods of treatment by doctors

Communications systems eg. the field telegraph and telephone

Secret codes for communications

Ways to crack enemy codes

Poisonous gases such as ‘mustard gas’ which was based on ‘chlorine’

Gas masks for men and horses

Methods of quick bridge building to replace damaged bridges


zep plaque a
horse gas mask

Periscope making activity

A periscope uses two mirrors placed at opposite ends of a tube but angled at 45 degrees so that light can travel down the tube and allow the user to see what is happening on a level above where they are standing. This means that you don’t have to pop your head up in view of the enemy to see what or who is there.


There are lots of designs for card model periscopes. Here is an idea which uses a card cylinder with two mirrors stuck onto some discs of plastic foam.

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This design allows the mirrors to be tilted to the correct angle after assembly.

This picture shows the periscope in action allowing the card battle scene models to be viewed from below the level of the bench.

It’s fun trying to identify the models using the periscope because they are from the different sides in the conflict.

How can you tell the difference between a German soldier and a British soldier?

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Roll a piece of A4 card to make a short tube. I have used a card map tube as a ‘former’ to help.

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The card discs, mirrors and paper pins are ready for each end of the tube.

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Use some double sided tape to stick the mirror onto the foam disc.

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Two paper pins are used to attach each discs into the ends of the tube - facing opposite ways!

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Check that the mirrors are in line and can be tilted at the same angle (opposite one another) then make a cut-out as shown so that each mirror can be seen. Now try it out and adjust the mirror angle for best results.

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model periscope ray diag

With a mirror at 45 degrees the overall angle through which the light rays change direction is 90 degrees!

The first reflection makes the light rays change direction from horizontal to vertical.

The second mirror reverses the work of the first mirror and changes the direction of the light rays from vertical to horizontal.

The overall result is that the observer can see objects which are above his eye level eg. over the top of a WW1 trench!


Morse code telegraph activity

It was very important to relay orders from Command Headquarters to the front line and between trenches on the front line as well as reports back to HQ from the battlefield.

The telephone had been invented in 1876 but in 1914 telephones still weren’t very common and only the wealthy had one in their home. Laying telephone lines in a battlefield wasn’t easy and an exploding shell could easily stop communications.

Sometimes a telephone line could be ‘tapped’ into by the opposing army and this could mean important information was given away to the enemy.

The telegraph system had been in use long before the telephone. The Telegraph didn’t carry a voice message. It carried a coded message in the form of ‘dots and dashes’ (Morse Code) which had to be decoded in order to make sense.

Because it was coded it was possible to make up new codes so that the enemy couldn’t understand the message if they intercepted it.

A simple circuit can be used to send a coded message as follows...

circ0003 w103

Each time the switch is pressed the buzzer turns on. If you keep the switch pressed for a very short period you will make a short ‘bleep’ sound. If you hold the switch down a little longer you will get a slightly longer ‘bleeeeeep’ sound. This allows us to make a code of short bleeps (called the ‘dots’) and longer bleeps (called the ‘dashes’).

The dots and dashes can be used to encode the whole alphabet and this was done by Samuel Morse - the inventor of ‘Morse Code’.

See the Morse Code alphabet and circuit on the ‘Electricity 1’ page in the Science section

Morse Code buzzer unit

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Here is a working Morse Code buzzer unit which can be used to make Morse code ‘bleeps’.

With two of these units and a pair of long wires you can send messages from one place to another eg. from one room to another.

The single paper fastener is used to bridge the gap between the two fasteners in the foam block so as to complete the circuit.

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The single fastener acts as a switch but its shape and action can be improved by bending it and fitting it into the foam as shown.

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Two of the buzzer units can be linked together by a pair of wires so that messages in the form of ‘bleeps’ can be sent from one unit to the other. This forms a basic ‘telegraph’ system for communications.

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Click the field telegraph pictures below to see the buzzer circuits in operation and hear Morse code messages

When one person presses their switch the buzzer sounds in both units. This means that you know what message you are sending and the person at the other end of the wires receives exactly the same message at the same time.

The wires can be very long indeed eg. from one end of a classroom to the other or from one room to the room next door!

morse code 103

How to use Morse Code

eg. letter A is coded as a dot followed by a dash

A    ._

A short bleep is used to represent the dot and a long bleep represents the dash so the buzzer switch is pressed as follows...

bleep pause bleeeeep

So if you want to send a whole message you have to generate the code for each letter in the form of dots and dashes and send each character in the form of short and long bleeps.




This is a WW1 field telegraph unit. The round black finger ‘key’ which is pressed to send the coded messages can be seen in the very bottom of the picture. The box carried some batteries but did not have a buzzer! Instead it had a device called an electromagnet which made a loud ‘click’ sound.


This is a finger ‘key’ from a Morse Code field telegraph unit. When it is pressed it acts like a switch which completes a circuit linked by long wires to the receiver unit somewhere else on the battlefield.

Fact: An experienced telegraph operator could send more than 1 character every second!

Secret codes - making a code wheel

To make a secure code which the enemy can’t understand you will have to create a different combination of dots and dashes to represent each letter of the alphabet!

There are other ways though which mean that you can still send the normal dots and dashes but the persons sending and receiving each have a ‘decoding’ book which makes proper sense of the message.

It’s fun making up your own secret codes based upon rearranging the alphabet with an alphabet wheel. An alphabet code wheel allows you to scramble the letters of a word, then send it in Morse code and then unscramble it again.

Here’s how to make one....


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  1. Draw around an old cd and draw the centre hole
  2. Mark the very centre with a dot
  3. Draw another circle on a fresh area of card but this time use a compass and make it 1cm smaller in radius
  4. Use a protractor to divide both of the circles into 36 segments (10 deg each segment)
  5. Use the compass again on both circles and draw a smaller circle within each one which is 1cm smaller in radius.
  6. Start writing the alphabet around each circle in the 1cm gaps and contnue after Z with numbers 0 to 9. Use black pen for the larger (outer) and red pen for the smaller (inner) circle
  7. Use a paper fastener to join both circles together.

Using the code wheel

Line up the outer (black) letter B with the inner (red) letter A

Now try writing a real word on paper eg. your first name.,,,,,TOM

Now write the code (red letter) for each letter in the real word by reading off the red letters one at a time taking care not to let the wheels move position.


T becomes S

O becomes N

M becomes L


So the real word TOM becomes the code word SNL

Now the word SNL could be sent in normal Morse code but the person receiving it could only understand it if they knew the position to which you had set the code wheel. The code wheel setting might be pre-arranged for each month or week etc. so both the sender and receiver would know the plan and be able to send and receive coded messages which they could then decode.

Here is another example...

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Try changing more words or a whole message into secret code.

Try changing the code wheel position and write a new coded message.

Try making up your own code and code wheel.

Trenches model activity


As wars became more and more mechanized soldiers had to hide away below ground in trenches to protect themselves. Later in the war even the trenches couldn’t protect soldiers because aeroplanes could fly above them and tanks could drive right up close to them.
A trench was a corridor in the ground which was dug out by the soldiers using pick axes and shovels. These corridors protected the soldiers and allowed them to move. With the soldiers dug into the earth in trenches the war quickly became a ‘stalemate’ with neither side able to win many battles.

The enemy trenches were very similar and the two frontline trenches faced one another as little as 50 metres apart in places with an area called ‘no man’s land’ in between which was laid with barbed wire and covered in big holes called craters where shells had landed.

A model trench can be made from card and other simple craft materials. The trench scene below was made from 3 sheets of A4 card, some drinking straws, cocktail sticks and scrap card offcuts.

Two of the sheets of card are folded into simple trays or boxes and the third sheet is folded to create the trench. The trench is then fitted into one of the card trays so as to keep its shape. The other tray is turned upside down (open side down) and forms no man’s land where the barbed wire models can be positioned.

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The trench net is shown below and is made from an A4 sheet of card divided up with parallel lines as shown. The lines are the fold positions.

A4 trench net with dimensions a
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Now you can start assembling the model and adding detail eg. cut-out soldiers, wooden structures, mud and earth, duckboards to walk on, sandbags, barbed wire, ladders etc.

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Motorized Tank model activity

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Video clip

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main basic parts

A very effective and great fun moving model WW1 tank can be made using a motor fitted with an off-centre weight. As the motor spins the weight is thrown around and makes the whole vehicle shake. The base of the tank model is fitted with rubber grips which help ‘jog’ it along as it shakes. The overall result is a tank model which steadily chugs its way over the ground (smooth surfaces are best).

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You can make a fabulous WW1 battle scene using cut-outs stuck onto card.

Here you can see the battle tank in a scene with a German machine gun squad, british soldiers under a gas attack etc.

Please get in touch if you have any ideas for World War 1 activities or models to make.

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