Artillery Pt. 1



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium episode number 23. The first world war would be defined by artillery, more than any other arm it would reach unbelievable heights of importance, size, and ability during the war. However, even with its importance, which nobody would dispute, it often fades into the background of history. This is something that I am as guilty of as anybody else. Artillery on a World War 1 scale is remarkably hard to properly describe in words, there was constant shellfire over the front during engagements, but you can’t talk about artillery all the time since what it was doing was quite boring. So in my episodes it is often relegated to a section where I explain what is going to happen with the artillery, and the effects it would have, then it often is not mentioned again for the rest of the episode. In many larger histories the situation can be even worse, with page after page not having a single piece of discussion about the artillery. These episodes, hopefully, go some ways to fixing that problem. We are going to have three episodes on artillery that I am calling, Preparation, Adaptation, and Refinement. We will be covering preparation today, which means the years leading up to the war. It would be during these years that the artillery of all sides would be built up, and the doctrine for its use would be developed. Overall it was typified by a very 19th century mindset with the role of artillery being secondary and the guns often firing over open sights at enemies that were easy to see and to hit. To find out what they had planned we will take each nation in turn. We will start with Germany, then jump to the British, then to the French. We will then cover the events of the war in the next two episodes.

The German military often gets a lot of credit for its artillery during the first world war, much of this credit is given to the larger amounts of heavy artillery that the Germans had in their army during the early parts of the war. This then made their artillery, as a whole, far more effective. However, this presence of heavy artillery was not due to some great tactical insight into the future where heavy howitzers would reign supreme on the battlefield. It was instead down to two very simple reasons that would then have several follow on effects. The first was simple, the German armament manufacturer Krupp had a huge amount of influence in the government. They lobbied for, and received, large contracts to build some of the largest guns in the world, and to build many other large artillery pieces as well. These larger guns were not completely without merit though, they did have a key part in the German war plans. This brings us to the second reason for these large guns, the Belgian forts. The Schlieffen plan demanded that the German army quickly dispatch the Belgian forts like Liege and Mauberge, after which they would go charging into northern France. The Germans were not dumb, they knew that to take these forts in a timely fashion they needed large guns, a need that would result in the creation of such massive guns as the 420mm howitzer, nicknamed Big Bertha. These guns did perform well against the forts, even if they did not fall quite as fast as the Germans had hoped, a problem that was down to the men defending it. The critical piece is that the Germans did not plan on using these large guns for anything other than the forts. In the planning and preparations for these attacks the Germans had to spend a good amount of time thinking about how to hit targets with artillery that was beyond visual range through indirect fire. They also had to figure out how to use and properly coordinate the fire of all of their artillery against these fortifications. Both of these skills would pay dividends in the war almost immediately. Just by having the discussions, and then having to develop tactics and command and control systems around them was an important leg up in the war. However, and I cannot stress this enough, what the Germans thought the war would look like, and what they thought they would need from their artillery after they broke through Belgium almost perfectly mirrored what the British and French were planning for. Outside of the siege guns, almost the entirely of the German artillery doctrine revolved around mobility and deploying guns faster and during maneuvers. The guns were expected to be right up in the thick of it, providing close support for the infantry and firing over open sights when needed. This thinking was just as wrong as everybody else’s. The Germans did have some pretty good advantages right from the jump though, first of all they had more guns than the French, with each division having roughly a third more field guns than the French divisions. This was not the big advantage though, the big advantage revolved around the 105mm howitzer which each German division had a battalion of. This gun was the best light howitzer in the world at this point, and the French and British did not have anything like it. This was good for the Germans since their field guns, the 77mm, was objectively worse than the French 75mm and the British 18 pounder being both heavier, less accurate, and slower firing. The Germans also had two far less tangible advantages. The first was that the German artillery command structure was always more centralized and separated from the infantry. This made it easier for the guns to transition higher and higher up the chain of command to allow for greater and greater concentrations. The second was the emphasis that German artillery officer training put on tactics and theory, there was a lot of focus on learning rather than just on the specific technology they were using at the time. This helped them to adapt faster once the war started and technology started to grow in leaps and bounds. These last two benefits were only marginally useful during the first year of the war, and they did not represent a huge advantage at that time, as the war kept going they would become more important.

The British had some issues when it came to the artillery, and it all started with the positioning of the artillery in the British military hierarchy. The artillery was divided into the Royal Horse Artillery, the Royal Field Artillery, and the Royal Garrison Artillery. The garrison artillery, was seen as the lesser service and was mostly neglected before the war. It was seen as the lower branch because it rarely interacted with other military arms, or even the other groups of artillery for that matter. It also never went on campaign with the army, limiting the amount of experience that its men could gain, which in turn limited the number of promotions they could receive. While this promotion problem was felt the worst by the garrison artillery, it was also a problem for all of the artillery units. It could take decades to rise through the ranks. This meant that the best, most ambitious, candidates often shied away and it also meant that there was less innovation since it took so long for a young officer to get into a position where they could begin to influence policy. This was true before the start of the Boer War, and it would be the same after, however during the Boer war the artillery had some experiences that would change how they prepared for future conflicts. A key change that was brought into the fold after the Boer War, a colonial war that in hindsight had very little in common with future European conflicts, was the belief that shrapnel was the most important type of ammunition for the artillery to have an use. Shrapnel, as opposed to high explosive, was really good at killing large groups of exposed infantry. In essence the shrapnel shells made the artillery feel like cannons that fired really big grenades. For the decade before the war the British would continue to believe that shrapnel was the way forward, and so when they would arrive on the battlefields of 1914 their guns would be equipped with mostly shrapnel shells. The only problem with this scheme was that as soon as the Germans came under fire they would often dig some trenches, and very often even these shallow trenches would keep them perfectly safe from the shrapnel. So, in summary, the British have two problems a lack of promotions in the artillery meant they never got the best officer candidates and they came to rely heavily on shrapnel, both of these would be an issue in 1914. But they would not be the only ones.

Much like the Germans the British believed that the number one role of the artillery was to support the infantry at close range. This meant that the artillery was often broken up into batteries and sections and sent forward into the front lines. It was believed that once the guns were there they could provide a great moral effect on both the British infantry and their enemy. A key part of this moral effect on the enemy was to suppress enemy fire to help the infantry gain fire superiority before they pressed home their attack. In this way the artillery was treated as simply a larger gun. To try and coordinate all of this artillery, spread out as it was with the infantry, was the job of the Commander, Royal Artillery, or CRA. The CRA was a divisional position but they only had a tiny staff, with a total of only 3 signallers, 3 orderlies, and two bicyclists. When the guns were broken up by battery or section, or even single guns, this was not even close to enough men to keep them all under control. This meant it was often up to the battery commanders and the associated infantry officers to determine what they artillery should actually be doing. In these matters the army training manuals, published in 1902 and 1912 had little guidance for exactly how the artillery and infantry were supposed to work together. There was a lot of debate happening in places like the Journal of the Royal Artillery, but very little firm guidance. Since it was drilled into the artillery that they were the subordinate branch, they did whatever the infantry officers needed them to do, they might make a few suggestions but overall they would do what was asked. When this was combined with the overall desire to showcase bravery it would put the artillery in some pretty hairy situations. Then once the fighting began to settle down they encountered another problem. In the artillery manuals there was a clear separation between what should be happening during normal field operations and what should happen during sieges. However the army found itself in a siege in the field which required the artillery do try and figure out the new situation. This meant that in the early months and years of the war there was very little hard information on how much artillery would be needed to achieve specific results against specific targets. They would have to learn rapidly.

That is quite a bit of negativity about the British, so lets turn to something maybe a bit more positive, their guns. The primary workhorse for the British artillery before the war was the 18-pounder. This was the heaviest field gun in use in Europe at the time when you are looking at the weight of shell that it could throw downrange, however it combined this was being reasonably light and maneuverable, if a bit less of either than some of the guns used by other countries. This was not really a problem, and while it might have slightly hampered mobility in a mobile war, or in the first few months of the first world war, it would not end up mattering. There was one problem with the 18-pounder though, it had a very flat trajectory, flat even when compared to other field guns. This trajectory was chosen on purpose though, it wasn’t a mistake, and it was chosen because that was the optimal trajectory when firing shrapnel. You want shrapnel to be sweeping along the ground in a group of targets, not just dissipating its energies into the dirt. This made it much better at the front line role the British were envisioning, and to this point all of the guns were equipped with gun shields for protection. Each division was equipped with 54 of the guns and they would be joined by 18 4.5" light field howitzers. These smaller guns were joined by 4 60 pound howitzers. This was a pretty good amount of guns, but they were all outfitted with shrapnel shells, or at least the vast majority of the shells they had were shrapnel. This would make them far less impactful then hoped. It would also limit their range since shrapnel losses its effectiveness at long ranges, in ways that high explosive shells do not.

When the war started all of these prewar ideas were executed about as well as possible. When the infantry and artillery found the enemy, the artillery would often deploy in full view of the Germans, a situation that would happen at both Mons and Le Cateau. In both cases the infantry and artillery would be unable to stop the German advance which when combined with the artillery fire from the Germans would require the artillery to frantically evacuate the area, often suffering heavy casualties. There was certainly no hesitation from the gunners to go forward, and they did some good work when they could, but they were just not in a position where they could resist the German advances. As the line began to settle during and after the Race to the Sea the British artillery found themselves in a new arena that they had not really planned for. There was some innovation early on, especially around how the artillery and armies were organized. This brought the specific artillery batteries out of the army chain of command and assigned them to geographical sectors. This let the same guns stay in the same place even if their infantry units rotated out of the line. They might still be moved when concentrating for large attacks, but by leaving the guns in one spot the logistical issues with the artillery were lessened. There was one problem they could not get around in the short turn, the shell shortage. This was a problem that every country in Europe was having, and the British were no exception. The British would also make an incorrect assumption near the end of 1914, which would carry into their 1915 battles, this was the belief that if they had enough artillery then they could just destroy the German positions and that would make their attacks successful. This was not the case, and it would take them 3 years to learn that no matter how much artillery they had destroying the German positions over weeks of artillery bombardment did not make for successful attacks.

We now move over to the French. Much of prewar French artillery doctrine was driven by a man named Hippolyte Langlois. Langlois was a career officer in the French army, reaching the rank of General, but more importantly he was a well-regarded military theorist who would write many articles on artillery topics in the decade before the war. He believed that the next war would be one of movement and firepower and because of this the French needed a gun that would be easy to move around, could fire rapidly, and could be used from forward positions in close support of the infantry. These requirements would mean that the guns would have to be small and light, because that was the only way they would be able to keep up with the infantry. Then when they got into the line they would need to put as many shells downrange as quickly as possible. Langlois would have a role in working these theories into the French Regulations of 1895 and 1913. Perhaps more importantly, Langlois’ theories would be the driving force behind the introduction of the French 75mm field gun. This gun was a technical marvel, it could fire quickly, its recoil mechanism negated the need for the gun to be re-aimed after every shot, it was small and maneuverable, it was basically the perfect gun for Langlois’ tactics. Not only did the 75mm fit perfectly into French tactics, it was also better than what the Germans had. In 1911 Colonel Remy, the Director of Procurement for the French army felt that the 75 was vastly superior to anything that the Germans had “If one compares our 75 with the 77 which constitutes 3/4 of the artillery of the German Army Corps, it is undeniable that this last is inferior not in ‘some details’ but in important points: power, stability, efficacity”

One statistic that many arguments would circle around before the war was the weight of shell that could be put on target, basically, how many pounds (or kilos) of shells a gun could put on a specific point on the front over a given period of time. For heavy guns, they could fire bigger shells, but they did it slower and generally with less accuracy while smaller guns could put more shells out faster and with great accuracy but less range. If you assume that each of the shells would do damage proportional to its size, then the calculations are easy, rounds per minute times weight. This was the assumption that Langlois and the French were making when they went with a smaller, more rapid firing gun, they believed that the battles would happen more in the open where small shells were just as efficient as larger shells. Unfortunately on the battlefields of World War 1 5 small shells does not a heavy shell make. One item that I mentioned when discussing the British also comes into play here, the gun shield. There was a general belief that a gun shield could protect the crews of a gun from infantry fire, this would then allow the guns to be moved as close to the front as possible. This belief was true after the Russo-Japanese war, where many first-hand accounts claimed that the gun shields on the Japanese guns were successful at providing protection for the gunners. The Russo-Japanese war also seemed to confirm the beliefs of many European countries that direct fire was the best possible use for artillery. During that war the Russian artillery often had a hard time landing shells on the Japanese because they had a tendency to take up defilade positions out of sight of the enemy which meant they had to rely on indirect fire on targets. Similar information would be brought back from observers of the Balkans Wars where the Bulgarians had similar issues. While the Russians and Bulgarians had a hard time with this setup, that would not transfer to 1914.

While the French loved their 75mm field gun, it did not mean that they did not at least investigate making some larger guns. Before they war they began the process of developing a new light howitzer, looking for something that would serve the same purpose as the 105mm howitzer that the Germans had. Lets talk a bit about the process of trying to create this new guns, I think it is somewhat informative of the kinds of decisions that were made due to the French beliefs in what the war would be like. When the calls went out for a larger gun, the response was sort of all across the board, at least partially due to the army not knowing precisely what it wanted. The weapons that would arrive for testing ranged from a 120mm howitzer, to a 120mm cannon, to a 107mm cannon and then some sort of weird 75/120mm hybrid gun/howitzer thing that I don’t have too much information on but which sounds interesting. All of these guns had different strengths and weaknesses, and you will note that some of them were not even howitzers. The commission in charge of choosing the weapon eventually decided on the 107mm cannon, so not a howitzer like they were looking for, and they also wanted it rebored to 105mm. The key point of contention on the commission, and in the French military as a whole, was that they were still stuck on the idea that these guns had to be small enough to travel with the infantry. This put a sort of soft cap on how large any gun could be. Anything that was too large to travel with the infantry would be shuffled off into the siege gun category, and while the French had some of these larger guns they were only planned to be used occasionally, on specific targets, and was generally not an area that the French felt the need to spend a lot of money on. When the war began the 105mm gun, again not a howitzer, would only be available in small numbers anyway and they would frantically begin scaling up work on a 155mm howitzer that they also had plans for.

So in summary when the war started, the French had exactly the kind of gun they thought they needed to win the war, the 75mm, a fast firing, easy to move, accurate field gun. This was precisely what Langlois wanted the French to have, and French doctrine was built around its capabilities. Obviously, the opening battles of the war did not go quite according to plan and by October the French were already scrambling to adapt. Every heavy gun in France, many old, outdated, and obsolete, were brought forward to the front and joined with the 75mm and 105mm guns to try and provide enough firepower. We will save discussion of further adaptation until next week.