Artillery Pt. 2



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium Episode number 24. This is our second episode discussing artillery during the war and it will be an important one. Last episode we discussed the artillery theory and build up before the war and a little bit about its experience during the actions of 1914. Today we will discuss the next two years of the conflict, 1915 and 1916, these would be the years of the war when the artillery had to rapidly transition from its pre-war state of unpreparedness to actually fighting in the war that was taking place. It would be during these two years that the British and French settled on the strategy of more, more gun, more shells, more time. The positive aspects of this scaling did have an upper limit of effectiveness, but they did not know this at the time and so they just kept throwing more and more of everything at the enemy. This time period would also be defined by the armies fighting against decisions that were made before 1914 which hamstrung them as they tried to adapt. The first issue was simply the number of guns that were available. By the end of 1914 the French were digging old black-powder guns out of storage and sending them to the front, they were inaccurate and short-ranged but there was plenty of ammunition available. One of the reasons that mortars would become so popular in some of the armies was because they were easier to produce, required less material, less manufacturing time, and had much wider tolerances for manufacturing defects. They would prove to also be very useful, but the ease with which they could be created was a serious upside. Each country was also frantically trying to scale up production of newer guns, but due to very limited manufacturing capabilities this took a lot of time, and sometimes they would push it too fast. The Austrians, for example, would have to shut down production of new guns in late 1915 just so they could deal with all of the broken guns at the front in need of repairs. The British would encounter a similar problem where they put so much time, effort, and material into making new guns that they neglected to create enough spare parts for the ones already at the front. While they were trying to create more guns, there was also the problem of shells. Nobody had enough shells when the war started. The French had 3,000 rounds per gun in August 1914, many other countries would have even less. What every army found was that this number gave them not weeks, or even days, but hours of heavy firing at the front. Producing more shells was a problem, for the British it would prove to be a problem that would require a complete government shake-up when it became known. So these were the constraints of 1915 and 1916. The armies feeling like the only thing that could fix their problems were more guns and more ammunition, neither of which they would have. Today we will spend our time looking at the struggles of the French and British on the Western Front, from the attacking in Champagne and Artois in early 1915 until the battle of the Somme in 1916, we will then close out our episode with a discussion about the increasing importance of counter-battery fire and how the British changed their artillery organization to deal with it. Our final episode on this topic will be next month, where we will look at the events of 1917 and 1918 to close out the war.

The French would be the primary aggressors on the Western Front in 1915 and because of this they would feel the brunt of the artillery shortages. The entire concept of the French battles in 1915 was based around the idea that the artillery would basically beat the German defenses into oblivion before the infantry even attacked. However, their attacks in April and May proved that they simply did not have the amount of artillery required to make this happen. In later attacks they would be the first to introduce what would come to be known as the “Chinese Barrage” which was the practice of periodically, but randomly, pausing the pre-attack bombardment. The goal of these pauses was “to keep the enemy in a state of uncertainty as to the real time of the attack, so that he may prematurely man his trenches and expose himself to later bursts of fire.” These pauses would become a typical feature of French bombardments for the rest of the war. One of the downsides of the French failures of 1915, other than the fact that they were failures, is that it allowed many in the French military leadership, the old school “offensive” minded generals, to lay the blame for the failures on the lack of artillery and not on problems with French tactical doctrine. While this would slowly be changed, it certainly would not be in 1915. This led many Generals to believe that nothing else had to change other than finding ways to get more artillery. More guns did begin to arrive in the middle of 1915 as increases in production that had started all the way back in 1914 started to show dividends. This came first in the form of more medium artillery, with pieces like the new 155mm howitzer coming to the front in reasonable numbers. This allowed for these larger guns to be focused on destroying strongpoints while the 75s could be used for other purposes which they were far better suited for anyway. Ther was also some honest attempts to increase the level of training and standards in the French artillery and how they interacts with the infantry as everybody tried to make the artillery as efficient as possible. This came in many forms, sometimes it was just practicing and codifying communications, in others it would manifest as daily reports that would be sent around to all units in a sector that contained vital information like the latest information in enemy targets, positions, and activities. These changes would be somewhat in place by the autumn battles of 1915, but they would not play a large role in the results as the French were still trying to get everything integrated together, it would serve them very well in the trying times of 1916.

For the British, they would spend most of the winter months between 1914 and 1915 just trying to get as many guns as possible onto the Western Front. This often meant bringing in batteries from their colonial postings, bringing older guns back into action like the French, or scrounging up guns that had previously been used as coastal defense and were no longer believed necessary for that purpose. This gave the British more guns, even if it did not magically give them more shells, or change their primarily shrapnel shells into high explosives. While we won’t go over supply difficulties for the British anymore than we already have, there was one very smart move done by the British at this stage and that was the concentration of all of their available heavy guns into a new Heavy Artillery Reserve. In the previous system each unit, generally a Division or a Corp would have a certain number of heavy guns at their disposal and they could use them how they wished. In the new system the British high command had control of the heavy guns and this would allow them to use the guns at one location and in concert, preventing their power from being diluted all along the front. The British would then put in place changes around how the artillery communicated with forward observers, these changes came in the form of the artillery telephone system which was designed to connect forward observers directly with their batteries in the rear, this made communication far quicker and allowed for more information to be communicated. The second big change for the artillery was the beginnings of their work with the Royal Flying Corps. It would be a long road to make the two arms work together but 1915 would see the RFC begin to work with the artillery after artillerymen were transferred to the role of aerial observers and they begin to develop systems to communicate with batteries to assist them in their duties, remember this is before wireless was widespread so there were some serious challenges to overcome.

One early problem that the British artillery would experience, and this once again comes back to their change in role from being designed as a direct fire service to now primarily performing indirect fire missions, was how horribly their maps were of Belgium and France. The artillerymen rapidly determined that their maps were hopelessly inaccurate and were completely worthless for guiding artillery fire. In fact, many of these maps had been based off of civilian tour guides that were available to the public before the war. While this was a problem, it was not the biggest topic of discussion floating around the artillery circles at this point, instead that honor went to just how long the artillery would have to fire to achieve its goal of neutralizing the German defenses. In general the artillery commanders fell into two categories, the long bombardment and the short bombardment schools. The first of these schools, the long bombardment, was populated mainly be heavy artillery commanders, who would lets be honest, be doing most of the work during the bombardment, and they believed that it would take 3 days of constant fire to achieve the goal of neutralizing the German positions. The CRAs, or Commander Royal Artillery, were joined by Haig in the short bombardment school. They believed that 3 days was simply far too long to fire, it would give any possible surprise away, and surprise was believed to be critical to success. To preserve surprise they wanted not 3 days but 3 hours of preliminary fire. What is very clear from these estimates, both from how much even the various artillery commanders disagreed and also from how wrong we know they were, is how completely unprepared the British artillery was for what they were being asked to do. In reality both groups was wrong due mainly to how much they overestimated the firepower of their guns. For the long bombardment school they were willing to give up surprise under the belief that the German positions would be completely destroyed, letting the British army march through regardless of whether or not the Germans knew it was coming. The short bombardment school were actually closer to the amorphous definition of correct in their 3 hour estimate, that would be close to an ideal amount of artillery fire, but to achieve their goals in that timeframe they were going to need much more firepower. For reference the German bombardment to open their 1918 Spring Offensive was just 5 hours long, but they had more guns than the British and 1915 could even dream of, and they were far more capable of using them.

Another topic that was part of many conversations during 1915 was around the Command and Control structure of the artillery. Before the war there had been the belief that there was no need for artillery officers above the divisional level because it was believed that the concerns of the artillery would never go above the division they supported. This was partially rectified early in the war and in 1915 the Artillery Advisor, which was a corps level position, was retitled to a Brigadier-General Royal Artillery and they were given a staff to work with. There were still some problems with what exactly this position’s role was, what power they had, and whether or not he was actually commanding the artillery or was more in an advisory role. While these questions were being sorted out, and while they were important, they would not really play a role in 1915. There were some serious administrative inefficiencies that were introduced as the Royal Artillery continued to massively expand its numbers, but they would not necessarily cause too many issues in 1915, the attacks that the British would launch would be infrequent enough that it would not be artillery planning that was the problem. There were some positive effects to come out of greater levels of coordination between artillery units, particularly round coordinating fire on tactical and strategic targets like German headquarters, telephone exchanges, and observation posts but in all of these efforts they were hindered by the lack of numbers to achieve their purpose, even if their purpose was the correct one.

The first large British attack of the year was at Neuve Chapelle, this would also be the first large effort by the artillery to affect permanent and well-prepared German defenses. Nobody could quite agree on how much artillery this would take, as we have discussed. One interesting item for this attack was that the 18 pounders were armed almost exclusively with shrapnel, and the fuses on these shells had to be set by hand. For a shrapnel shell, the British wanted it to explode just before it reached the target, spraying the resulting metal over a wide area. The only way to make this happen was to cut the fuses by hand which took a tremendous amount of experience and skill to get even close to right, otherwise the shell would explode too soon or after it hit the ground. This is one of the reaons that it was hard for the Royal Artillery to quickly expand. Fuses would be a problem for the British all the way until 1917. When it became clear that cutting the wire was one of the artillery’s greatest concerns the hunt began for a fuse that would allow this to happen. The British would find that the ideal arrangement was for a high explosive shell to explode in the middle of the wire, not underneath it, therefore the hunt began for a fuse that would make this happen. The search for this fuse would last years, and result in some very bad fuses which resulted in many premature or dude shells. Eventually the British would find a fuse that was hardy enough to be shot by the artillery but touchy enough to be triggered by the wire, that would be a long time in the future, and for now they were convinced that shrapnel could easily cut the German wire, it couldn’t.

The next British offensive was at Aubers Ridge, and there is much to discuss for this battle. Before the battle the British had taken some time and tested out the effectiveness of their artillery on positioned made to look and act like the German positions at Neuve Chapelle. Many of these tests were done with 18 pounders and high explosive shells, and it was found that correctly placed 18 pounder shells could have a devastating effect on the German positions. There was one important error made with these tests, they assumed that the Germans would not continue to improve their defenses. After the experience at Neuve Chapelle and against the French attacks in early 1915 the Germans had begun to reinforce all of their positions and had increased the amount of wire in front of the lines. This made their defenses a much tougher nut to crack than the British were expecting. This mistake would be joined by others, mistaking that show that the Royal Artillery was still not prepared to increase its contribution to the extent that was required. One area of several mistakes was in coordination between the batteries. Good observation points for artillery observers became impossible to find near the front, and instead of working together observers were fighting over the slightest terrain elements that gave some elevation. This could have been resolved by a higher level of organization and communication between artillery units and the sharing of observers between them. There were also problems planning where to put the guns and this meant that many guns were not moved forward in time to get properly anchored down and prepared. Once they were in position there were then all kinds of administrative errors that resulted in many guns not getting proper timetables or targetting information. All of this made it more difficult as they tried to do everything at night to stay out of the sight of the Germans. When the barrage did start the British then ran into another error that displayed their inexperience with indirect fire. Due to the problems of observation many batteries were forced to fire off the maps that they were given, using estimation and, often, flat out guesses to hit their targets. They were provided with some time to register their guns on the targets in the days before the attack, which was helpful and moved many guesses into the estimation category. However, the days before the attack were cold, wet, and generally involved a heavy mist while on the day of the attack it was hot and sunny. This change in weather would completely change the flight paths of the shells. Many British gunners did not properly account, or did not realize at all, that this change would cause so many accuracy problems and therefore did not properly compensate. All of these issues would combine to result in the artillery providing some useful fire on the 10th, but by the second day their contribution was drop precipitously. This attack was once again an important learning experience and the British would make two important changes for future efforts. The first was a massive increase in the production of artillery ammunition. While this was a welcome change, there was a problem with quality that would continue to plague the ammunition all the way through the Battle of the Somme in 1916. These quality issues meant that shells were inconsistent and there was a large percentage of just duds. The second change coming out of Aubers Ridge was a change in the role envisioned for the artillery. Instead of the prewar doctrine for the artillery where they were just there to briefly neutralize the enemy after Aubers Ridge the British would really lean into the idea that the artillery was there to completely destroy the German positions. This would be the overriding goal of the British artillery all the way through the 1917 battles. In some ways the huge British failures on the Somme, Arras, and Passchendaele, the trio of so called attrition battles, was caused by this one change at Aubers Ridge, this belief that the artillery had to destroy every single German position no matter how long it took. It is crazy to think about the effect that this battle in 1915, that many people forget even happened, had on the course of the British war effort.

While it was believed that the destruction of the German positions was the path forward for the British artillery, at Loos they would prove that they were not up to the task. There were improvements made to the organization of the artillery at the corps level, with the creation of the Corps Artillery commanders, which was a good step forward for the British. The problem was that once again the amount of artillery had was just not enough. They had more artillery than earlier in the year, but now they had widened the front. At Loos the attack frontage was 10 times longer than in previous attacks, a change that was thought necessary to prevent the Germans from being able to easily counterattack against the British effort. This spread the guns thinner than they had been in any previous attack, with just a few rounds per yard of German trench. While this would lead to disaster, Loos would be the location for Britain’s claim as the first artillery in the war to us the creeping barrage, basically every army in the war tries to take credit for it, with the British having a pretty good claim.

Overall, 1915 had seem some serious strides made for the British, sure there had been many failures, but there were steps to success sprinkled throughout. One issue that they had for the year was the constant search for a winning formula, some kind of magic solution that would solve all of their problems. This type of answer did not exist, and trying to scale up their failures under the belief that it would fix the problems would just cause others. In an effort to not be to negative though, lets focus on the positives for just a moment. They had made efforts to further centralize the artillery and to bring together larger and larger groups of guns. They had also made improvements to their maps, and the development of better methods to use those maps. There was also some emphasis put on getting the RFC and artillery to work together. All of these efforts would come together when the British High Command would begin to produce a series of informational and training booklets, about 90 of these were produced in 1915 and there were several focused on the artillery. They were not fully comprehensive, but they did begin the process of getting all of the artillery on the same page and the sharing of best practices between all of the batteries. In many ways the British artillery was making all of the right moves to fix the problems that they had control over, many of the others like the number of guns and shells they had were simply out of their hands and they would need the politicians to help them out.

The French would draft a new set of regulations for their artillery in May 1916, in these regulations the roles for each type of artillery and the proportion of each type of gun was slightly changed due to what had been learned in the previous 5 months of fighting, fighting that of course included Verdun. Verdun was such an influence due to the creator of the new regulations, General Petain who created them first for the Second Army at Verdun before they were distributed to the rest of the army. Much like the British many of the changes involved centralization. Each French division would be given greater numbers of medium howitzers, but everything that was 155mm or larger would be moved out of the division’s hands and into the purview of the corps and the armies. The artillery was also consolidated into larger units, with artillery regiments getting almost double the number of guns. These efforts would allow the artillery to better concentrate and coordinate on a larger scale. There were also other changes in early 1916 revolving around all kinds of technical details. Topics like how units should perform counter battery fire, the best ways to communicate, how to liaise with other units, all of the little details that were so important to getting the artillery to run like a well-oiled machine.

For the British artillery, just like for every other piece of the British army, their year revolved around the Somme. In the lead up to the battle two critical pieces of planning were done, and two critical decisions made, that would derail the entire offensive. The first decision was the creeping barrage, its composition and its movement, both of which would be left to individual commanders. This meant that it was, in general, inconsistent and underwhelming along most of the front. This was at least partially due to the inexperience of many of the commanders in the usage of such barrages. One of the real benefits of consolidating this type of planning was that it would allow the real experts to drive the resulting actions, instead the British were depending on many generals and their staffs to properly understand the intricacies of the creeping barrage and design them accordingly. To go along with this problem, the British also just still did not have enough guns. At Loos there had been a heavy gun for every 100 yards of front, on the Somme it would be one every 75 yards, a concentration that was an intentional choice. The decision was made that if more heavy guns were available the attack would be widened instead of the concentration of guns increased, this would have been a monumental mistake, a heavy gun for every 75 yards was not nearly enough for what was planned.

One fact that surprised me when reading through some of the planning documents for the attacks just how little input the artillerymen of the army seem to have had in the construction of the plan. Part of this was due to the prewar mindset that had been driven into the artillery, that they were the secondary branch that existed to support the infantry, and therefore they should work within the confines of the plans devised by infantry generals. This mindset would be hard to break even after the appointment of an Army Artillery Commander, Noel Birch. This position was created to control and coordinate the entire preliminary bombardment for the Fourth Army. However, Birch was only occasionally asked for input on the coming plans, and when he received the plans he quickly arrived at the belief that what was being asked of the guns was simply beyond their abilities. When these concerns were communicated to Haig, he simply dismissed them. The Somme is well known for its lengthy bombardment, 8 full days of fire before the attack began on July 1st. This was much larger than any previous British bombardment but even as late as April 1916 the beliefs within the artillery on whether or not this kind of lengthy bombardment was a good idea or not were mixed. Here is a quote from Artillery in Offensive Operations, the BEF’s artillery textbook, within this quote can be seen not only the confused nature of what was the best bombardment type, but also the subordinate nature in which the artillery placed itself “Shortening the period may give the advantage of surprise, and may prevent the enemy bringing up more artillery to meet the attack. On the other hand, it will entail a much heavier expenditure of ammunition of the heavier natures, and a short bombardment, however intense, may not have the same effect on the enemy’s morale as the protracted strain of some days’ exposure to constant shell fire, particularly if during this period his communications are adequately blocked. Judging from the duration of the preliminary bombardments in the most important offensive operations of the past year it cannot be said that the high road to success lies either in short ‘hurricane’ attack or in a protracted bombardment. In some cases and attack must be launched a prearranged time, whatever the cost, and the responsibility of the artillery commander is then limited to doing his best to have the preparation as complete as possible by that time”

Along with all of their other problems, the Somme would be the point that many mistakes that the British had made around artillery would really come back to bite them. These problems were both based around the intense need to drastically scale up the amount of artillery and ammunition available at the front. Much like the other armies in the war, and the Austrians that I mentioned earlier, in the run up to the 1916 actions that British government placed too much emphasis on getting more guns to the front, placing it above all other concerns, and eventually the result would be serious maintenance problems. The 18 pounder gun that was in heavy use by the British was built around a recoil system that used buffer springs. These springs would absorb the recoil of each shot and because of this they were under heavy strain during the large bombardments like the one on the Somme. As the springs got old they would lose their strength which would cause the gun to be affected by greater recoil. This would result in a slower fire rate and less accuracy as the gun had to be constantly repositioned much like the guns of the previous generation that had to be repositioned after every shot. Some of the springs would even fail in a way that would damage guns beyond repair. This entire problem was caused by decisions made in the Ministry of Munitions that had greatly reduced the number of spare parts available to the guns. Later in 1916 this problem would be partially solved with the introduction of an air recoil system to replace the springs, but this would be of little help to the men on the Somme as the air recoil systems did not begin arriving until after the battle was over. The second major problem was one of shells. There were a larger than normal number of duds in the artillery shells used on the Somme, this is a problem we have covered before. Another problem was the mixture of explosives in the shells that had been created to allow for faster production. This mixture of 60/40 TNT to Amatol and it exploded very well, that was not the problem, the problem was that the explosions produced very little smoke. This made it very difficult for either aerial observers or ground based artillery spotters to see where the shells were hitting at any given time. This made it more difficult to fire accurate shots, resulting in more ammunition needed for each target. It is estimated that some guns would take 100 shells to hit a specific target, making it difficult to destroy all the required German positions.

One critical piece of the artillery puzzle during the war, but one that would only truly come into focus after 1915 was counterbattery fire. For the British the artillery had not entered the war with any concept of how important counter batter fire would be on the battlefield. Much like the other armies of Europe they had spent most of their time concerned with how to help the infantry in the final assault, a small piece of that was hitting enemy artillery, but it was never a large focus. The French would begin to put real focus on counter battery fire as early as April 1915, but even with this focus they were still concerned primarily with silencing batteries during the final assault, not during the preliminary bombardments. The French analysis would say that the artillery should “counter-battery and silence the hostile batteries, whose positions should have been previously discovered, or those positions should be searched for by every possible means as the battle proceeds.” The British would not truly begin to focus on counter-battery fire until during the battle of the Somme. To emphasize how little importance was placed on counter-battery action, for many heavy artillery units, for the beginning of the battle counter battery action had been listed as 7th out of 10 missions. It was only after the battle that reports started to emphasize its importance, and it would only be later that it would be one of the most important objectives. It was during this period that a new group would be created, a corps level group titled the Counter-Battery Staff Office. The CBSO as I will call it from here on out would have a staff of artillery personnel dedicated solely to suppressing enemy guns. Much like every other centralization strategy this was critical to getting enough focus and experience on this aspect of artillery preparation. The CBSO was given the following duties: collect and compile counter-battery intelligence, disseminate counter-battery intelligence to all concerned, liaise with flank counter-battery organizations, advise the General Officer Commanding Royal Artillery as to the quantity and disposition of the artillery required for counter-battery work, issue orders for survey units and cooperate with squadrons of the RFC, provide detailed arrangements and issue orders for counter-battery work. Another critical role of this new office would be to provide detailed daily artillery intelligence reports, weekly hostile battery activity reports, and a list of all known hostile batteries which would be available almost upon request. All of these items seem very obviously important, but there was simply nobody tasked with doing it before the CBSO. It is easy to see why the CBSO would have a positive influence on the British artillery in the last two years of the war. For 1917 and 1918 counter-battery fire would be an important part of every British attack, and by Amiens in 1918 the British would be almost entirely successful in its application of fire, but that is a story for next episode, where we will finish out our story of artillery in the war.