Category Archives: Weapons

15 September, 1916: False Start

I’m inclined to bang on about the First World War’s impact on the future, and though I tend to stress its momentous economic, political and social effects, there’s no getting away from the weapons.

Any major war is a hothouse for weapons development, but posterity tends to focus on the Second World War as the twentieth century’s big moment in this respect.  Fair enough on one level, in that coming up with missiles and nuclear weapons counts for a lot of posterity points, but even the horror perpetrated on Hiroshima and Nagasaki represented the ultimate expression of an idea – strategic bombing – conceived and first attempted during the Great War. Most of the other major weapons associated with Hitler’s war, including submarines, chemical weapons and all the other ways of using aircraft, were direct products of First World War development that would go on to blight the next hundred years – and that brings me to tanks.

Today, as anyone watching, hearing or reading Anglophone news media probably knows, marks the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, a subsidiary action within the long and horrible Somme Offensive that saw the first large-scale combat use of what were then called ‘landships’ and are now known as tanks. Heritage history being what it is, you don’t need me to talk about how it felt inside a landship or about details of the operation. What’s more, the populist grapevine makes it reasonably clear that tank warfare’s first day out wasn’t a great success, and very clear that tanks would go on to play an important part in future warfare.  On the other hand, possibly because it’s primarily concerned with celebrating tanks as a great British invention, mass media tends go a little easy on both subjects, so here’s a take on some of that stuff with the flag-waving filtered out.

First of all, the Battle of Flers-Courcelette was yet another of the BEF’s increasingly desperate attempts to gain something positive (and, more to the point after 77 days of fighting, popular) from the Somme debacle. It was a relatively minor foray, involving 12 divisions of General Rawlinson’s 4th Army, which advanced northeast along a 12km front on 15 September, intending to extend the small salient (that’s a bulge in everyday English) it had established in the opposing line.  Beyond the use of all 49 available landships, and of aircraft to provide them with direct ground support, the attack was bereft of innovation and failed accordingly. After making initial gains of about 2km, British units were halted by bad weather and German reinforcements, and the operation was called off on 18 September.

Secondly, the tanks were a complete failure and didn’t scare the German high command.  They did cause a certain amount of local disruption, and terrified German troops at first sight, but were too few to make any major tactical contribution.  Most of them broke down or were destroyed, and German observers were of the opinion that they could be beaten and weren’t worth copying.

The British felt very differently about tanks in 1916, and despite the credit given to him by later propagandists (and his own memoirs), Churchill didn’t have all that much to do with it.  The general idea of an armoured trench-buster had been under discussion inside both the British Army and the Royal Navy (which was already using armoured cars in Flanders) since the autumn of 1914.  As the sitting naval minister, Churchill’s contribution was to read reports of naval ideas – along with a memo about army ideas from Colonel Hankey, secretary to the Committee for Imperial Defence (Britain’s central strategic command) – and secure the formation of a Landships Committee for technical research and development in February 1915.  By September, the Committee had built a working prototype on the chassis of an American tractor, and its trials impressed BEF commander Haig so much he ordered 40 more in advance.

Haig’s enthusiasm reflected high hopes among British strategists and newspaper editors that the landships could finally break the deadlock on the Western Front. War Minister Lloyd George gave the project his approval in February 1916, and Mark 1 Heavy Tanks (ultimately named after their transit code name of ‘water tanks’) went into full production in April.  In June, the first Mark 1’s entered front line service with the Heavy Section of the Machine Gun Corps, promptly renamed the Tank Corps.

Senior British commanders, by now very excited about tanks, could hardly wait to let the new monsters loose on the enemy and win the War, but official military doctrine regarded them as infantry support weapons, and the relatively junior officers charged with actually operating the things agreed, quickly deciding they were best used in small numbers to aid attacks on specific targets.  Haig’s decision to ignore their advice and deploy the all tanks as a single, concentrated force at Flers-Courcelette, using every half-trained crewman and every half-tested machine, was controversial at the time, and the operation’s failure left some senior officers convinced tanks should only be used for direct infantry support (like a machine-gun unit, one for each company, or even each platoon if sufficient numbers became available).  Not Haig, who ordered another massed tank attack in the same sector on 25 September, and reacted to a second abject failure by ordering 1,000 more tanks – and not the British press, which went right on assuring its readers that tanks were unstoppable war-winners.

The Mark I tank in 1916 – the British Army decided it was meant to travel this way, and took more than 20 years to change its mind.
The Mark I tank in 1916 – the British Army decided it was meant to travel this way, and took more than 20 years to change its mind.

Tank warfare had arrived, but for a time it hardly set the world alight. The French Army was soon developing its own chars d’assaut, and like British tanks they would see plenty of combat in France, Italy and Russia, but the USA was the only other Allied power to build tanks in wartime (though only two machined reached France before the Armistice).  Wartime tank development among the Central Powers was confined to Germany, which built a few (generally enormous) machines for trench support during the next couple of years, but never prioritised their development.  With hindsight, and bearing in mind the other pressures on German industry, that was probably a smart move.  Though their armour would be improved, their weight would be reduced to aid mobility and they would become marginally more reliable, British and French tanks would still be all potential and very little end product when the War ended.

Wartime German tanks were huge, hardly mobile and built in very small numbers... but would soon be abandoned as a strategic dead end.
Wartime German tanks were huge, hardly mobile and built in very small numbers… but would soon be abandoned as a strategic dead end.

Post-War technological progress would change that, opening up alternative possibilities for deployment of tanks.  British theorists were the first to argue for use of tanks – in large numbers, with air support – as long-range strike weapons, but they were ignored by the British and French armies, which carried on developing big, lumbering machines for the support of infantry attacks.  German planners, on the other hand, paid careful attention to British theories, and built Panzers to carry out a refined version known to posterity as Blitzkrieg.

So while giving a cheer for yet another groundbreaking product of British invention and enterprise, and accepting that the tank went on to become one of the 20th century’s defining weapons, let’s remember that First World War tanks never really worked in the only role they were capable of fulfilling, and were the blueprints for a strategic blind alley taken by the British and French that would be utterly discredited at the start of the next war.  In other words, the British invented the wrong tanks for the wrong reason. The result was a huge waste of time, lives and money that ultimately provided a research and development platform for the very army it was intended to defeat.

12 APRIL, 1916: Crater Creators

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.

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Field gun…
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… and howitzer

 

 

 

 

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.

31 JANUARY ,1915: GAS!

Here in Britain, populist history of the First World War paints a simple picture chemical warfare. Poison gas was a terrifying, volatile weapon that never lived up to its reputation as a game-changer and made no strategic difference to anything. Its use was a classic symptom of the modern brutality foisted upon the world by the Great War, and yet another example of the clumsy desperation displayed by contemporary commanders. Gas shouldn’t have been used, and might not have been if the dastardly Germans hadn’t broken international law to start the ball rolling.

This analysis contains plenty of truth, most of it obvious, but the overall picture contains more than a hint of poppycock. So on the centenary of the German Army’s first large-scale battlefield deployment of gas, at Bolimov in what is now Poland, here’s a brief but sober look at what chemical warfare actually meant in 1915.

It meant gas and flamethrowers. Flamethrowers were a German invention, developed since the turn of the century, regularly deployed by the middle of 1915 and eventually copied by the British for limited use in the latter stages of the War on the Western Front. Gas had been around a lot longer – the Chinese had used arsenic smoke as a weapon almost three thousand years earlier – and had become a matter of serious international concern with the growth of mass-producing chemicals industries during the nineteenth century. Although outlawed by the Hague Declaration of 1899 and the Hague Convention of 1907, agreements ratified by every major power except the USA, the use of poison gas was still a matter of live argument in 1914.

Washington’s official view, espoused by Admiral Mahan, its chief delegate at the Hague and an isolationist nation’s apostle of military preparedness, was that no international agreement should be allowed to restrict the USA’s technological or military enterprise, but the real debate centred on the morality of gas attacks.  The argument that poisonous gas was a  weapon too barbarous for use by civilised people won the day in peacetime, but every armed nation embraced a strand of opinion, usually though not always military, that saw no real difference between gassing people and shooting them or blowing them to bits.  Once war broke out they had their day.

Both sides on the Western Front attempted small-scale experiments with canisters of irritant gas during the autumn of 1914, as the defensive superiority of trench warfare became evident and forced a search for radical methods of attack, but discovered that small amounts of tear gas weren’t even noticed by troops on a modern battlefield. On 31 January 1915 the German Ninth Army on the Eastern Front repeated the experiment on a much larger scale, firing 18,000 shells containing canisters of tear gas (xyxyl bromide) at Russian troops defending Borimov.

The German attack, a preliminary to a major offensive around the Masurian Lakes, in the northern sector of the Eastern Front, was a total failure. Cold weather meant most of the gas fell harmlessly to the ground, changing winds sent some of the rest in the wrong direction and the small amounts that reached Russian forces had little effect. Tear gas was cheap and easy to mass produce, but after one more large-scale experiment in March at Nieuport, on the northern tip of the Western Front, the German High Command turned to lethal chlorine gas.

Germany’s first use of chlorine, against French colonial troops at Ypres in April, signalled the beginning of chemical warfare in earnest. The British began their own attacks in September, and by 1916 both sides on the Western Front were adding poison gases to artillery shells as a matter of course.

Gas always terrified those in its path and sometimes caused utter panic, but its strategic impact was very limited. Changeable weather always made its use a risky business, and when successful it delayed or prevented advance into affected areas. Countermeasures meanwhile improved rapidly to provide reasonably effective protection in the form of gas masks, but were heavily dependent on rapid detection and therefore less useful against another German innovation introduced near Riga in 1917 – mustard gas.

Of all the poisonous chemicals deployed by both sides, none was more effective as a shock weapon than mustard gas, which could be used in tiny, undetectable quantities and produced powerful but delayed effects. Its relative success has come to represent wartime gas attacks, the terror they caused and the suffering of their victims, for posterity, while sealing Germany’s popular reputation as the villain of the piece.

The Germans were quicker than the Entente powers to exploit the potential of chemical warfare, were perhaps more ready than their enemies to ignore international law in the process, and were arguably more ruthless in its execution.  None of that alters the fact that the British and French were more than willing to do the same thing, or erases the suspicion that the long-term effects of propaganda have something to do with our heritage history’s acceptance of German guilt.

Gas was and still is frightening. While other weapons initially deplored as barbarous and greeted with blind terror – aerial bombing, mines and torpedoes spring to mind – have passed into modern definitions of conventional warfare, chemical warfare has remained in the realm of nightmares, outlawed and despised the world over. Perhaps this twist of human psychology explains why the gas attacks presaged on the last day of January 1915 are treated by today’s heritage industries very much as they were by British propaganda at the time, as German-inspired barbarism, when they were in fact a symptom of the age, implemented with greater determination by the most efficient fighting nation of the age.