Artillery Pt. 3



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium Episode 25. This is our third and final episode covering the evolution of artillery during the war and today we will cover both 1917 and 1918. Compared to the bombardments that would take place during these years, the last two of the war, everything that came before would look like amateur hour. Part of this was due to just the sheer amount of artillery available to the armies by 1917 and then even more in 1918, but there were other less obvious indicators of how sophisticated the artillery was becoming. In 1915 there had still not been a great understanding how the weather affected bombardments, there was some resistance to properly accounting for it, and before an attack there would have to be a lengthy program of registration as each gun slowly dialed in its fire against the various targets along the front. By 1918 things had advanced so far that guns could be tested behind the lines and then mathmatical equations could be used to let them fire at the front with some degree of success. There would also be much more advanced methods for figuring out where the guns should be shooting, with methods developed to determine the location of enemy artillery though both flash and sound ranging. Then of course there were an infinite number of small improvements in doctrine, technology, and logistics. And then of course there was still just a hell of a lot more guns. While these improvements helped, there was also a lot more for the guns to do later in the war, there were more enemy batteries to destroy, more wire, more trenches, more fortifications, and there would have to be tactics developed to deal with all of these changes in defenses. We begin our story in 1917, and we will be focusing on the British for that year. They would start the year with their artillery pretty much as it had been on the Somme, they would release a publication early in the year that would say that “The artillery’s task being to open the way for the infantry, its fire must be directed towards breaking down, firstly, the enemy’s material powers of resistance, and secondly his means of directing his defense, incidentally thus increasing his demoralisation by causing casualties and inducing confusion.” However, even if the top level goals of the artillery had not greatly changed, there were more subtle changes already happening, that same publication included a section on how important it was for the artillery to work with the infantry, not just because of enemy action, but also because it greatly improved morale of friendly infantry. While the British started 1917 in a similar place as in late 1916, they were about to go through a rapid transformation.

In their efforts in 1917 the British would greatly assisted by the introduction of the 106 fuse. Essentially, for the entire war up to when the 106 was introduced the Brtiish had been trying to develop a new artillery fuse. The number of duds and premature explosions on the Somme is notorious, but just in generally the British experienced not just shells that did not explode but also those that would explode too early in numbers far greater than other armies. Even those shells that did explode at close to the right time did not explode at the optimal time, especially when trying to destroy wire. In goal with wire cutting shells was to have them explode as soon as they touched any wire. This was important because the best moment for a shell to explode was right in the middle of the wire entanglement. If the fuse was not touch enough it would not explode until the shell hit the ground, which would waste most of the explosive power in the earth. The fuse also could not be too touchy or it would not survive firing. The 106 fuse would solve most of these problems and it would be in use for the rest of the war. To give you an idea of about how effective it was when compared to its predecessors, before its introduction in the premature explosion rate, which could destroy guns and kill the gunners, was around 1 in 500, after it was introduced that went down to 1 in 317,000, a pretty hefty improvement. Another problem that the British had before 1917 that they would then solve during the year was the problem of their shells not producing enough smoke. This problem may seem a bit silly, you want the artillery to explode not produce some smoke, there are smoke shells to do that, but the smoke created by the shell explosion was critical to properly spotting and then adjusting the fire of the guns. This became doubly important as aerial spotting became more and more important. The explosive used by the British shells, Amatol, did not produce enough smoke by itself, and so the British started trying to mix things in with it to make the explosions more noticeable. This was tricky because they did not want to reduce the explosive power of the Amatol too much, and so after several tests they came up with a mix of 70% Amatol and 30% ammonium chloride. This did not greatly impact the explosive power of the shell, but the ammonium chloride produced a large visible smoke cloud on explosion. The final major technical advance of 1917 was around the recoil system used by most British guns. Up to 1917 most guns used a physical spring based recoil system and during the year most would be swapped over to using an air based recoil system. The spring based systems had a problem were as the gun fired the springs would become less and less, springy, causing the guns to need to be repositioned after every shot, reducing accuracy and fire rate. The air based systems were both longer lasting and more reliable, which would be critical as the artillery bombardments got longer and longer and more was expected out of each gun.

Along with improvements to the tools of the artillery the British also spent time to improve their methods for 1917. This was really the moment when the British fully abandoned the prewar artillery doctrine and replaced it with one suitable for what they were not trying to accomplish. As part of this transition several documents were printed and distributed the artillery units. One of these very definitively stated the 3 primary goals of the artillery in this order 1. counter-battery fire 2. hitting the German infantry and 3. hammering the German defenses. This was a big evolution from the middle of 1916, when those priorities were basically reversed, with counter-battery being at the bottom of the list for artillery tasks. Counter-battery fire was focused on by a publication entitled Artillery Notes No. 3 and this established counter-battery work as the most important job of the artillery and also discussed many of the techniques to make it effective. The second major publication was Artillery Notes No. 4 which was entitled Artillery in Offensive Operations. This publication made it clear that the entire focus of the artillery had changed. Whereas before there had been an emphasis on fire rate, now itw as instead on accuracy. These publication also put an increased focus on proper organization and communication. This communication as improved with the creation of the Corp Signal Officers, with a good portion fo their responsibilities being to keep the observers and the gunners in contact at all times.

One of the important new capabilities for the British was the ability to truly fire by the map, instead of having to always observe where fire was landing and then slowly adjust it to be on target. This was critical when it came to properly targetting German artillery, much of which was not easily observable by the British. Part of using these new advanced methods was in properly educating artillery officers on the new methods, and in 1916 many young officers ewre sent to crash courses that lasted 12 days to increase their knowledge. This type of training would continue, to great effect and by 1917 thee were more advanced courses like one that taught them how to use complex calculations to allow them to quickly hit targets based solely on map coordinates, these calculation included ways to account for weather, elevation, and other atmospheric effects. To get the proper atmospheric information to the batteries the number of weather updates that were published was increased from 2 per day to 6. These concepts would then be combined with new and better ways to locate German batteries through the use of flash-spotting and sound ranging. Putting both of these methods into practice was a simple matter of having either men watching or microphones listening along the front, and then very precisely recording the time in which they saw or heard the enemy artillery. After this was recorded it was a simple matter of doing some geometry to determine where the German guns were. Both of these techniques would be perfected in 1917 after making their debut at the battle of Arras. And this let the British quickly and almost easily locate German batteries across their section of the front.

The first test of these new British methods would come at the Battle of Arras. For this effort the British would have more heavy guns than ever before, with almost 1000 modern heavy artillery pieces present. This was double the total number present at the Somme, but that doesn’t quite do the difference justice. On the Somme almost half of the British heavy guns were older, obsolete models, some of them without a modern recoil mechanism, this meant that while the British had double the guns they had far more than double the artillery firepower. They would also fire a million more rounds than during the opening of the Somme battle, with 2.7 million shells being fired before the infantry attacked. All of this firepower allowed the British to achieve some success on the first day, which somewhat proved that they had finally reached the artillery levels necessary to guarantee that first attack would be successful. However, they could not continue forward beyond those early gains. There were still some other changes that the British would have to make, changes that were far outside of the power of the artillery, becuase they could begin to maintain a successful advance.

The next artillery trial was in Flanders. There were many concerns among the artillery about mounting a large offensive in Flanders, the ground was thought to be unsuitable for lengthy actions. While this would certainly be a problem in September and October, it would not negatively effect the attack at Messines or the early actions at Ypres. At Messines Plumer planned to attack on a very narrow front, and this would allow for an extreme concentration of artillery. Plumer also planned to introduce a new feint into the artillery bombardment plan, with the goal of finding as many German batteries as possible before the attack began, this was in some ways taking the French idea of stopping the barrage for a bit and then restarting it one step further. Here is Jackson Hughes from his work The Monstrous Anger of the Guns: The Development of British Artillery Tactics 1914-1918 to explain “The way in which he proposed to deal with the situation was to put forward his destructive fire by 2 days to Z-7 and devote the last two days before the attack almost entirely to counter-battery work. In order to lacate all the enemy’s guns and discover where he intended to put down his barrage he proposed a full dress rehearsal of his artillery bombardment as planned for zero hour, combined with a smoke demonstration along the front of attack.” At Messines almost the entire battle was the artillery preparation, and of course the mine as well. Before the mine exploded over 3 million artillery rounds would be fired into the German defenses, and then there would be the customary creeping barrage to escort the infantry forward. The infantry was not able to advance much beyond their initial push though. Messines is a great example of the fact that if the British used enough artillery, they could eventually move forward a short distance quite easily. However, the amount of artillery shells that were required meant that it would be infinitely costly to try and maintain these attacks on a frequent basis. It is dangerous to try and draw too many conclusions from the action at Messines, becuase the specifics of the Messines attack, especially the massive mining effort, could not be replicated again. The one way in which this attack would influence the later attacks at Ypres was in proving to Plumer that these types of very concentrated artillery bombardments and then very short attacks by the infantry were the best way to grind down the German defenses.

The Third Battle of Ypres, or the Battle of Passchendaele, showcased that just massing a ton of artillery on one area of the front did not guarantee success. One of the problems that the British would cause for themselves at Ypres was the desire to advance too far. Back during the Somme episodes we had a lengthy discuss about how the deeper that they wanted the infantry to advance, the more they would dilute the artillery firepower as a whole since they were was simply more area to cover. Well at Ypres Gough wanted to advance 5,000 yards with roughly the same amount of artillery as Plumer had at Messines, but Plumer only wanted to advance 1,500 yards. While many British leaders were confident that the attack would still succeed, there were officers who were concerned. For example General Davidson, head of the Operations Branch at GHQ, would give 11 different and separate reasons why the coming attacks would be less likely to succeed specifically because of British planning decisions, and most of them would revolve around artillery. One example of these reasons was that the plan called for the artillery to be evenly spread along the front, instead of concentrating it against the most difficult objectives. Along with decisions made by the British, there were also problems for the artillery that were completed out of the control of the guns. The first was the delay between Messines and Ypres, which allowed the Germans to fully prepare for the coming attack. The second, and biggest problem, was the weather. In the run-up to the attack there were many days were fog and rain prevented the RFC from launching planes and this took away the best source of information that the British had about where the German positions and guns were, greatly reducing the effectiveness of the counter-battery fire. Then on the day of the attack the RFC was not able to put planes in the air which prevented up to date information from being sent back about the progress of the attack, or areaas that needed additional artillery focus. Without eyes in the sky to keep the two arms coordinated the artillery rapidly outpaced the infantry, eventually resulting in the gusn firing on the 4th German line while the infantry were still struggling through the second line. While the planning was not perfect, there was certainly a lot of firepower aragned for the attack. 1000 heavy guns, 2000 field guns, and 4 million rounds of ammunition. Even with all of this material though, the first day would be a failure with a good portion of the attack making no gains. The struggle would continue through August and then in September Plumer would be brought in, and with him the same bite and hold style that he had used at Messines. These attacks would be launched until November 10th, resulting in some objectives being captured on a very narrow front, but the advances were slow and costly both in material and lives. At the end of the attack in November the British had advanced only a few miles.

The final action for the British in 1917 woudl be the attack at Cambrai, an attack known for its usage of tanks, but along with the massed take attack there would be several artillery based improvements that were made for the attack and which were necessary for the armor to be successful. Flash and sound ranging were used before the attack, and enough time was invested into it that almost every German battery was plotted. There were also improvements with how the guns were pre-registered before the attack. up until this point there were really two ways to determine where shells would hit when fired from a gun. The first, and easiest, was to put the guns in position behind the front, and fire at targets ane see where they land. This pre-registration had bee used for century and was very simple and obviously effective. The problem was that the firing would give away the upcoming attack to the enemy since it was impossible to hide the number of guns that had to do this registration process. The second way of hitting targets was to practice firing the guns away from the front, to try and capture as much information as possible about its firing profile and then try to apply that information when the gun went to the front. This process would work, but it was time intensive and required a lot of guesswork to try and match up conditions behind the front to conditions before an attack. Cambrai would be one of the first times that the British would use a third, and more advanced method, and it involved a lot of math. At its simplest if you want to know where an artillery shell will land, and you have some good math skills, all you really need to know is how fast it leaves the barrel. With that information you can then account for wind resistance, weather conditions, elevation, everything with math. This is what the British, and the other armies, wanted to do but they needed their velocity numbers to be very accurate. to get this information they would setup two electric screens and then they would fire a shell through both screens, while measuring the precise moment when the electricity was interrupted in each screen. This was a great method because it was easy, and also quite quick, which qallowed it to be done for every gun. All three of the armies of Western Europe would get so good at this method that they were able to just bring their guns anywhere and with accurate enough maps they could be reasonably sure they could come close to a target in one shot. They were not perfect, there was still some margin of error, but it was close enouogh that by the middle of 1918 the British would forbid their artillery from doing any pre-registration at the front by the old methods, because they wanted to maintain surprise. The new methods of registration came into play at Cambrai because before the attack most of the guns were still up in Flanders. Some of them would be transported south to Cambrai they would be tested before the attack, and then sent up to their positions. When they opened fire they would catch the Germans by surprise and after a quick counter-battery program they would move into the creeping barrage. Another change in the artillery program was the fact that this creeping barrage was made up of one third smoke shells. This smoke gave the British infantry far more cover than normal and it made it very difficult for the Germans to determine what was happening. While Cambrai would end up being a limited success, this new British artillery formula with very short pre-attack bombardments, heavy shell density, a huge emphasis on counter-battery fire, and a lot of smoke in the creeping barrage would be the blueprint for both British and German bombardments in 1918, and all the way until the end of the war.

1918 would be split into two major groups of attack, the first would be the German attacks in the spring and early summer and the second the Allied attacks during the last 3 months of the war. This sequence of events would all start with the German attacks on March 21st codenamed Operation Michael. This operation really represents the peak of German offensive evolution during the war. It would be the debut of the German stormtroopers on the Western Front, representing the final move away from the massed unit maneuvers from before the war. It would also be a new evolution of their artillery, with Colonel George Bruchmuller being credited with crafting the German barrage. Bruchmuller made a few critical changes to the German artillery program that was used for the Michael attack, changes that had been tested and evolved on the Eastern Front. They were just now making their appearance in the West because the Germans had not launched any major offensives on the Western Front since February 1916 at Verdun. There were several features of this bombardment that were quite similar to what the British were doing in 1918 as well. The first was how short the bombardmetn was, just 5 hours from the time the first guns began firing until the infantry attacked. The second was the emphasis that the Germans placed on shells other than high explosives or shrapnel. Over the course of the five hour bombardment the specific type of shells, and their targets would evolve. The bombardment would begin with gas shells, with the hope that this gas would catch at least some of the British soldiers off guard or sleeping. Bruchmuller would also mix gas types together in this bombardment with the lethal phosgene mixed together with nonlethal tear gas. The tear gas would often penetrate the British gas masks, making it very hard for men to keep them on, and if they took their masks off then they would be hit by the phosgene. After several minutes of this gas bombardment, and under the assumption that everyone that would be caught by surprise had already been caught, the Germans switched to counter-battery fire. This counter-battery fire incorporated all different types of shells, high explosive, shrapnel, gas, even some smoke. The goal was not so much to just destroy the guns, but also to kill the gunners, or at least make it as difficult as possible for them to operate the guns, which was just as good. After the counter-battery program some of the guns could continue to fire on the British guns with most moved to softening up the British infantry defenses. Then right before the attack began the guns would shift to the creeping barrage. This final evolution of the fire would include smoke shells, just like the British had at Cambrai. The goal of all of this artillery fire was not to destroy all of the British defenses, the Germans knew that even with 6,000 guns, and over 2 million artillery rounds, they could not completely destroy the defenses in just a few hours. Instead the gaol was to simply suppress the British infantry to reduce their ability to resist the German troops as they moved forward, and in this goal they were mostly successful. After the inital breakthrough, for almost 2 weeks there would be almost constant fighting. Here is Paul Strong and Sanders Marble from their book Artillery in the Great War for a full description of the fighting during this time “For those two weeks it was mainly a soldiers’ battle, with battalions and batteries at times fighting semi-independent engagements. British batteries often engaged over open sights, and battery commanders spotted their own gunfire. They might well hold off a German advance, but with their flanks left ‘in the air’ units were falling back daily. Nobody can question the gunners’ individual valour, but there was little opportunity for the artillery to have more than a local effect on the battle.”

After the initial success of the Michael operation it would be all downhill for the Germans. As they advanced, and lost more and more men, they were also able to muster less and less artillery. This was due both to general attrition, but also the increasing ability and emphasis that the British, French, and soon Americans were putting putting into their counter-battery programs. The Allies began to shell any location what they determined had a German battery, even if they did not plan on attacking, and they would often do so with over 200 round of howitzer ammunition, just to try and reduce the total amount of artillery that the Germand had, even if it was slow. From April until the end of the war the German artillery strength would slowly decline at 13% every month, while the British strength would grow by 20% every month. The first large scale British and American response would come at Hamel, and here the Australians and Americans woudl attack using an artillery program that was similar to what had been used at Cambrai, the only slight difference was that here they used only 10% smoke and far more shrapnel. This was just as effective because the German defenses at Hamel were much weaker than what they had been at Cambrai, making shrapnel far more effective. There was also a concerted attempt to douse the German batteries in gas and smoke to go along with the high explosive and shrapnel in the hopes that this would reduce their effectiveness. A similar setup would be used at Amiens where once again it was very effective. Some interesting trends began to develop after Amiens that shows that the Allies had decisively shifted the artillery equation in their favor. The first of these trends would be the fact that only 27% of the British casualties for 1918 would be from Germn artillery, compared to 70% from 1917. The second trend was that after Hamel it was often the case that very few German guns would even be able to meet an attack, since the British were so good at counter-battery fire. There are reports that even at Hamel only one German battery was able to fire during the infanry attack. This type of situation would be the unenviable position of the German artillery for the rest of the war.

While the Germans had been able to use their time on the other fronts of the war to evolve their artillery doctrine to complement their changes to their infantry doctrine, these types of changes would only take them so far. While they would not be completely overtaken by all the armies of the Western Front in 1918, really only the British surpassed them, with both the French and Americans using older methods. The Americans also did not have as much artillery as the other armies, and they were forced to use French guns with little training and experience for the gunners. On some level, these doctrinal inefficiencies would not matter, and just the presence of the Americans and French would be enough to tip the scales. The final months of 1918, at least from an Allied Artillery vs. German artillery perspective sort of reminds me of the Pacific war in 1945. Tactics, strategy, technology, none of it really mattered due to the incredible material advantage that the Allies had over their enemies. Really the interesting parts of the artillery in the great war ended in about July 1918. Over the course of the four years between teh start of the war and that date the artillery in all armies had went from a supporting arm to the place of prime importance. There ahd been an amazing amount of innovation during this time, going from primarily firing over open sights to using math and science to hit targets completely out of sight on the first try. They had developed flash and sound spotting to find hidden enemy batteries, and they had become experts at laying a creeping barrage, and cemented it as a critical component of attacks. Finally, much like the infantry, the armies of Europe had found a way to deal with the massive expansion of the artillery, just the logistics of getting thousands of guns to the front and then supplying them with millions of shells boggles the mind, but in solving those problems the artillery would make the Great War their war. More than any war either before or since, the First World War would be an artillery war. And from the guns of August until the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month of 1918 the big guns would rule Europe as the Kings of the Battlefield.