I’ll do something different today. It’s not a good day for anniversaries, and I’ve touched on most of the ongoing action away from the Western Front in the last few weeks. I could spend a while cataloguing the carnage taking place at Verdun, but I think I can trust other people to do that for you, Besides, the beginning of the latest German assault on 9 April (from the northeast of Verdun, attacking on both sides of the River Meuse) had coincided with the arrival of heavy rain, which went on for twelve straight days and reduced fighting to a chaotic, murderous mud-fest. So today I’m offering up a slice of basic background information, aiming to put some flesh on a bare word that loomed over the First World War like an angry god. Artillery, that’s the word.
Say what you like about tanks and aircraft, or about the terrible impact of machine-guns, the big gun was the weapon that dominated the First World War. Nobody expected this, any more than they expected a long, static war, and nobody had really prepared for it.
Improvements in big gun technology during the late 19th century had produced breech-loaded weapons with (more accurate) rifled barrels, but though most modern field armies were equipped with these in 1914, hundreds of old muzzle-loaders and smooth bores were still in service. Old guns were mostly used by old battleships, coastal defences and the fortresses dotted all over mainland Europe, but were hastily redeployed for front-line duties as artillery came to be seen as the defining factor in trench warfare.
Artillery, old and new, came in various sizes and was generally classified by the diameter of its barrel (e.g. 6-inch, or 150mm), although some British guns were named for the weight of their ammunition (6-pounder, etc.). The lightest and smallest modern artillery pieces used for front-line action in 1914 were 37mm (work out your own inches) ‘mountain guns’, also known as ‘horse artillery’. Used for difficult terrain, support of fast-moving cavalry or colonial work against ill-protected enemies, they were essentially anti-personnel weapons, though they could wipe out light cover.
Next up, and the main support weapon for major armies in 1914, was the long-barrelled field gun, firing a high-velocity shell at a low trajectory. Restricted in range and weight of shell because they were required to be mobile in support of infantry, the most modern ‘quick-firing’ (QF) field guns had a recoil system that automatically bounced the barrel back into firing position. This was the artillery seen as most important by planners expecting a fast-moving war, and by 1914 the French 75mm, German and Austrian Krupp 77mm, British 18-pounder, US 3-inch and Russian 3-inch field guns were all pretty much of a muchness in performance terms. Smaller armies had to buy in QF guns from the major powers.
The planners were wrong. Field guns weren’t ideal weapons for knocking out trench fortifications, so their importance dwindled from the autumn of 1914 and their design remained essentially static throughout the War. Some bigger models were produced (Russian 100–105mm guns, for instance), but they were too cumbersome to support infantry effectively, and anyway less useful for blasting trenches than howitzers, heavy guns or mortars.
Originally designed to shoot over castle walls, howitzers lobbed a heavy shell a shorter distance through a shorter, wider barrel. Medium howitzers (roughly 120–160mm) were mobile weapons, intended to keep up with infantry attacks, but nobody thought they’d need them in August 1914. The British were relying on museum pieces, the French Army was doing without medium howitzers altogether (instead attaching a small disc to field-gun shells to make them fall short), and Russia was only just starting to manufacture new models. Once static warfare set in, the French and British rushed every medium howitzer available into action, and introduced new models during 1915 – but they were playing catch-up, because Germany and Austria-Hungary had developed a range of modern medium howitzers before the War, giving the Central Powers a qualitative advantage on the main fronts that lasted until late 1916.
Trench stalemate, and in particular the development of ‘breakthrough’ tactics, soon turned heavy artillery into an important field weapon. The theory that a concentrated assault against a single point could break through an enemy line called for the heaviest possible bombardment of defenders’ positions just before the attack. Spreading from the Western Front to other theatres during 1915, breakthrough tactics kept failing, and failure kept being attributed to insufficient firepower. Heavy guns – until then used for static defence of fortresses and coasts, or aboard major warships – were seen as the answer, and the German Army again held the initial advantage.
Germany’s gigantic, mobile howitzers – the 420mm Krupp ‘Big Bertha’ and the 305mm ‘Schlanke Emma’ – had reached service just in time to perform their allotted task of destroying Belgian fortresses in August 1914, and their success prompted a general rush to find heavy guns for the Western and Eastern Fronts. Fixed guns were stripped from fortresses all over Europe , but their clumsiness often made them useless, vulnerable or both, and new heavy weapons soon followed.
Theoretically mobile across muddy, shell-shattered ground, the new heavy field guns were generally bigger than 170mm, and could eventually send a 65-100kg shell as far as 30km, while heavy howitzers (200-400mm) lobbed projectiles of up to about 900kg to a distance of up to 18km. In April 1916, the German Army still had the edge in heavy guns, but from the end of the year it was overtaken by superior Allied production capacity.
Along with portable mortars (for lobbing projectiles over short distances, and ideal for trench warfare), enormous railway guns (train-mounted and used behind front line areas) and adaptations of field guns for anti-aircraft use, those were the big guns responsible for the devastated landscapes we associate with the Great War. Their design didn’t change much during the War because constant escalation of production requirements kept manufacturers too busy to manage much technological innovation, but the artillery-related fields of targeting, ballistics and ammunition made up for that.
Line-of-sight targeting wasn’t generally an option around trench warfare if you wanted to stay alive, so balloons and spotter planes became crucial artillery adjuncts, aided by advances in photo-reconnaissance and radio technology. Meanwhile the science of ballistics, little more than a matter of compensating for and replacing worn barrels in 1914, expanded to take in wind, humidity and other variables.
Leaving aside the older, smooth-bore guns in use on secondary fronts, which still fired solid cannonballs, the first big problem with ammunition was getting enough of the stuff, as the War’s opening weeks made estimates of shell requirements look ridiculous. The more industrialised economies had adjusted within about a year, but until then shell shortages were a major issue for all the main armies.
Trench warfare also altered the kind of ammunition used by modern artillery. In 1914 most guns fired shrapnel, which is good at killing people but does little harm to barbed wire, trench fortifications or enemy guns. So high explosive shells, barely beyond the experimental stage in 1914, became the artillery ammunition of choice on static fronts, and again Germany held a technical advantage into late 1916, when the British and French were finally able to find an explosive as stable and reliable as German TNT.
The problem of transporting ever-bigger guns across difficult terrain (whether shell-battered or tropical) was never really solved during the War. Pack animals – usually horses in Europe, but often mules or oxen elsewhere – were still struggling to do the job in 1918. Lorries were hardly ever used unless propaganda was involved, and the few big guns put on early tank tracks by Britain and France were an experimental irrelevance.
And there’s the rub. From 1915, offensives on the Western, Eastern and Italian fronts were typically supported by anything between 3,000 and 8,000 big guns, expending millions of rounds of ammunition and creating a level devastation that left them bogged down as soon as they tried to advance. Like so much other contemporary technology, First World War artillery could dish it out – and I mean really dish it out – but couldn’t take advantage of it.
I know that was a long, rather dull piece, short on revelation and derring-do, but artillery’s simultaneous hour of glory and most ghastly failure is stamped across every word, image and folk memory of the First World War, so I figure you might as well know something about it.