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Interpreting the Evidence

Submarine Interior

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:

    World War I

  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:

    New York State
    United States

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Submarine Interior, 1916 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
Submarine interior, 1916.
Historical Context
There were many different types of submarines used during the war by the different nations involved, many had similar components located in the interior: pressure hull, forward torpedo room with torpedo tubes and reserve torpedoes, officers’ compartments, central station with compass and depth rudder hand-operating gear, bilge pumps, and blowers, the engine room, and the periscope region where the officers could see and operate the valves to release air from the tanks, check the depth of the submarine, or fire torpedoes.  

Life aboard a WWI submarine was anything but luxurious. German submarines often had 30 men as part of the crew.  Bunks, when available, were shared and if there weren’t enough available, hammocks would be used.  There are even times on record where men would have to sleep with a torpedo, if the submarine was overloaded with weapons. Originally, British submarines were built primarily to serve in coastal areas, so many didn’t have bathrooms aboard at first. After these were installed, because toilets were pressure controlled, sailors had to be very careful when flushing, so that the flush didn’t backfire. Because of cramped quarters, cleanliness was not the norm in the submarines.  Little fresh water was available and close quarters combined body odors with all the other odors of the ship.  Many men experienced seasickness.  Submarines would also have bilge water (the bilge being the lowest compartment where two sides meet) full of vomit, food particles, oil, and much more. If this water got into the batteries, chlorine gas could be created forcing the submarine to surface.  Condensation inside the submarine could cause electrical issues, in addition to making sailors feel as though they lived in a damp cellar.  They would often have to cover their faces with rain clothes or rubber sheets to prevent being dripped on all night long. Because the interior was pressure operated, sailors had to be careful when surfacing.  Sailors would have to hold the captain’s legs when opening the hatch, so he would not be torpedoed out of the boat with the escaping air.

Essential Question
How does technology change the way wars are fought?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and explain how submarines changed warfare.
Historical Challenges
How are modern submarines different from WWI submarines? How are they similar?
Interdisciplinary Connections
Science: Try building your own periscope. Use a search engine to research plans to build a periscope.