Category Archives: Weapons

28 SEPTEMBER, 1917: Wheels Come Off

I’ve made the point before that the First World War was largely fought on foot and horseback, but is often defined for posterity by its mechanised elements, or rather by some of them. While aircraft, tanks, massive guns, big warships and submarines attract most of the modern world’s attention, pretty much in that order, the practical importance of less vaunted machines tends to be overlooked. Motorbikes and light railways spring to mind, but today marks the centenary of the Battle of Ramadi, an engagement that featured another prime example of unsung technology.

A strategically marginal but comprehensive Anglo-Indian victory on the Mesopotamian Front, Ramadi was the last success of General Maude’s tenure as theatre commander, and owed much to one of the most useful and least celebrated military vehicles of the day – the armoured car.

On the River Euphrates, 30km west of Falluja, the town of Ramadi was an important local irrigration point. In September 1917 it was also a centre for black market sales of food to Ottoman forces further north, and it housed the largest concentration of Ottoman troops in the vicinity of British-held Baghdad. In July, it had been the target of the only Anglo-Indian operation on the front during the summer, but an attack by a single motorised column had been repulsed by a thousand or so disciplined defenders. The attackers had lost 566 casualties, two-thirds of them to the sweltering heat.

Temperatures were slightly lower by late September, when the British made a second, more determined effort to take the town. On 28 September, a division moved up the east bank of the Euphrates towards Ramadi, where some 4,000 Ottoman regulars were deployed in expectation of an attack close to the bank of the river. By sending armoured cars and cavalry to circle behind Ramadi and cut the road north to Hit, British field commander General Brooking was able to surround the defenders once his infantry had stormed ridges overlooking the town. British cavalry picked off a few attempts to break out of the cordon overnight, and the garrison surrendered next morning.

Look carefully, you’ll find Ramadi, Falluja and Hit.  Mosul and its oilfields are easier to spot…

The armoured cars received great credit for the victory from the British press, and by the autumn of 1917 they had proved their worth time and again – when used in the right circumstances. They could reach distant targets quickly and provide infantry with rapid mobile support, like cavalry but with greater protection and firepower, but they needed relatively open terrain, ideally with roads or tracks to follow.

Armoured cars had evolved from the ordinary road vehicles used by European empires for colonial policing. By 1914 all the Entente armies were using standard production cars, armoured and carrying a machine-gun or light artillery piece. By the end of the year purpose-built cars were in service, and later models were fitted with a revolving central turret.

The Allies used a lot of these light armoured cars, basically civilian vehicles decked out with a bit of armour plate and machine-gun.

At the very beginning of the War the Belgian Army had been the first to deploy armoured cars in combat. The success of Belgian Minerva models in hit-and-run raids persuaded the German Army, which had previously only used armoured cars as anti-aircraft defences for observation balloons, to develop designs of its own. Not untypically, German designers ignored the improvised nature of other armies’ cars and came up with much bigger, heavier vehicles, heavily-armoured and powerfully armed, that proved prohibitively cumbersome on both the Western and Eastern Fronts. Only a few dozen were built, most of them the Erhardt model that would go on to serve as a policing weapon into the 1930s, and the German Army was forced to use captured Allied vehicles when armoured cars were needed in numbers during the War’s last campaigns.

By way of contrast, the heavy German Ehrhardt car took armoured protection seriously.

As initially deployed with British, French and Belgian forces on the Western Front, armoured cars were used as mobile strongpoints for infantry support, but once trench warfare was established their tactical value was very limited, and they were anyway almost useless in the theatre’s heavily broken terrain. They came into their own in more open conditions, and though eventually important during of the final offensives on the Western Front they were generally most effective in the less confined spaces away from the main European battlefields. No surprise then, given its global commitments, that the British Empire made by far the most enthusiastic and widespread wartime use of armoured cars.

The first British vehicles in France and Belgium were crewed by Royal Navy and Royal Naval Air Service personnel.  Naval operatives continued to crew armoured cars deployed in African and other colonial outposts,  and a small Navy unit was sent, along with Belgian cars, to fight under Russian command during the latter stages of the campaign in Romania, but by 1915 armoured cars had otherwise been incorporated into the Army’s operational structure. As such they were initially deployed in units of four vehicles, either as Armoured Motor Batteries using heavy, purpose-built Rolls Royce machines (as pictured above the title), or as Light Armoured Car Batteries equipped with adapted British or US production models. By 1917 the types were being deployed together in eight-car Light Armoured Motor Batteries, or LAMBs, often crewed by imperial troops.

British armoured cars enjoyed their greatest successes in desert conditions, against the Senussi tribes of Libya (13 December, 1915: Thin End, Big Wedge), during the conquest of Palestine in 1918, and above all as the spearhead of guerilla attacks on Ottoman supply lines during the Arab Revolt.  Their part in the victory at Ramadi was a rare case of opportunity and terrain combining to make the most of their tactical potential in less open spaces, and their luck didn’t last long.

British prisoners rescued from Senussi tribesmen by armoured cars in 1916. The cars were commanded by Major Hugh Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster, just so you know.

Once Ramadi had fallen, Brooking made an immediate attempt to capture the town of Hit, which guarded the road linking Ottoman forces on the Tigris and Euphrates. A completely motorised force of 400 infantry in lorries, with ambulances and armoured cars in support, set out for Hit on 1 October, but a poor road proved too much for the vehicles and the attempt was abandoned next morning.

So yes, armoured cars were more useful and important to First World War fighters than posterity cares to notice, and there’s no real excuse for leaving them out of the picture, but overall they couldn’t be called a successful weapon. Like all the latest forms of motorised transport available to contemporary armed forces (everything but ships and trains), they were still in a relatively primitive stage of development, too fragile in battle conditions to fundamentally change a tactical and strategic picture that still, on the whole, belonged to men on foot and horseback.

There’s your problem.

31 AUGUST, 1917: It’s All About The Riflemen

Nothing was happening a century ago that I feel compelled to talk about, or haven’t already bombarded with my opinions, so let’s have another go at getting down to basics.  One of the irritating things about a lot of modern popular history, as transmitted through mass media, is its ability to be simplistic without being basic. It can, for instance, spend a lot of time describing the fear, suffering and fates of soldiers without saying much about what they were doing or how they were doing it.

This kind of behaviour promotes myths without really trying, because ignoring its banal, everyday realities reduces warfare to a highlights reel. We are shown war fought with propaganda-hyped, audience-friendly machines, imprinting their stories on the public mind as central to the conflict’s narrative.  In some ways some of them were – the dominance of the machine-gun over attacking infantry in trench conditions was, to pick a relevant example, fundamental to the War’s course – but on the whole the First World War was less to do with machine-guns, tanks, aircraft, submarines, giant guns or gas, more about foot soldiers armed with rifles.

Rifles – that’s to say guns with a spiral groove inside the barrel to improve accuracy and range – had been around since the early eighteenth century, but they had been expensive to manufacture and difficult to maintain in combat conditions, so their battlefield use was largely restricted to the kind of sharpshooter units familiar from the Sharpe stories.  Improving production techniques, and the invention of bullets that didn’t leave barrels too dirty for re-use, made it possible for major armies to arm ordinary soldiers with rifles from the mid-nineteenth century, and they quickly became world’s standard infantry weapon.

They were still at the heart of all infantry fighting in 1914.  As long as machine-guns and mortars were prohibitively cumbersome for mobile operations, and grenades remained a one-shot weapon, concentrated rifle fire was the most potent attacking force known to contemporary warfare.  A spurt of intense development in Europe had seen most major armies introduce a whole new breed of rifle during the 1890s. Small-bore, bolt-action weapons, they fired multiple rounds (usually five) from a spring-loaded clip inserted into the magazine, and they remained the standard infantryman’s friend in all major armies – and the better-equipped units of minor armies – throughout the First World War.

John Nash painted this. I like it. It shows plenty of rifles. Job done.

Aside from a preference for short-barrelled ‘carbines’ over clumsier long-barrelled weapons, and the addition of periscopes for trench fighting, wartime development of rifle technology was minimal, because everyone was more interested in mass production than experimentation.  Some refinements of the basic design were in place from the start of the War, perhaps the best of them being the German Army’s standard 7.92mm Mauser (1898), which incorporated the clip and magazine into a single detachable mechanism.  The British Army developed a 10-shot magazine for its standard 0.303-inch Lee-Enfield (1907), which was also used by US and Canadian infantry during the War’s later years, while the French Army waited until 1916 before replacing its reliable old Lebel (1886), which held eight rounds but took a long time to load, with the 5-round Berthier.   Late in the War, Germany developed a one-shot 13mm Mauser for use against tanks, and it achieved some success against early light models.

What the Anglophone infantryman was wearing in 1917… the Lee-Enfield MkIII.

These are just random examples of the wartime state of the art. Older, wide-bore, single-shot rifles remained in use with the armies of small nations and with the second-line or colonial forces of major belligerents, and as the conflict ate into the resources of every warring state every kind of working rifle, no matter how old, was pressed into service somewhere.  British imperial forces alone used more than twenty different rifle types during the War, and attempting to list even the modern weapons used by various belligerents would be very boring for everyone, particularly since their performance was roughly similar across the board.  They could be all aimed accurately over about 600 metres and at a general area over about 1400 metres, about half their maximum range – but although design variations did make some difference to the all-important factor of firing speed, the real determinant was the skill of the rifleman.

During the mobile campaigns of the War’s first few weeks rifle skills mattered, and the performance of the small BEF’s highly trained riflemen at Mons, where each apparently fired 15 rounds per minute, is usually seen as their high-water mark.  General virtuosity became a lot less relevant once trench warfare had been established on the Western Front and elsewhere, and once rifles were in the hands relatively ill-trained mass armies, but individually skilled riflemen could still have an enormous impact in mobile actions (as emphatically demonstrated by the story of Sergeant Alvin York) and as snipers in static conditions.

Rifles weren’t just about shooting.  As the infantryman’s principal close combat weapon they were equipped with a detachable blade, or bayonet.  In theory, with a long blade attached to the long-barrelled rifle preferred by pre-War armies, the bayonet enabled a soldier to kill while still out of an enemy’s reach, but although the French Army used a long ‘needle’ blade on its Lebel rifle most bayonets were based on standard knife types.  Some German Army ‘pioneer’ units (engineers to you and me) used a saw-bladed bayonet for practical purposes, a refinement worth mentioning because Allied propaganda persisted in describing it as a barbaric anti-personnel device.

Bayonets were much loved by those more orthodox officers in European armies, especially the British and French, who considered a bayonet charge the very epitome of ‘offensive spirit’ and put a lot of faith its psychological effect on defenders (29 April, 1917: All Riot On The Western Front).  Troops were sometimes required to advance from trenches with fixed bayonets, discouraging them from blowing the element of surprise by firing, and were officially expected to use the bayonet thrust as their primary close-combat tactic.

Canadian troops training with bayonets. Pointless, but they wouldn’t know that until later…

This official enthusiasm, largely based on colonial campaigns that seldom featured well-entrenched defenders with machine-guns, was not shared by the rank and file.  Bayonets were clumsy to use, often spoiled the accuracy of rifles in the hands of inexpert users, couldn’t be used while firing and were usually removed at the first opportunity by experienced infantry troops, who preferred to use a separate blade, club, knuckleduster or anything else they could carry and get their hands on.

As the War grew old light machine-guns, light mortars and sub machine-guns offered infantry soldiers with the best-equipped armies alternative forms of mobile close support, as did aircraft (which were often armed with long-barrelled rifles in 1914, before suitably light machine-guns became available) and tanks.  Used with sufficient tactical nous, these weapons improved the chances of success for attacking infantry, but the modern rifle, a state-of-the-art weapon in 1914 and essentially unchanged in 1918, remained the principal weapon of attack all the way through the War on the main European fronts.  Sadly for the poor bleeding infantry on all sides, it was a War fought with technology that could almost always beat a rifle attack.

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.

Art 47 32
Field gun…
… 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.