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Artillery of the Great War

The war of 1914-18 was an artillery war: artillery was the battle-winner, artillery was what caused the greatest loss of life, the most dreadful wounds, and the deepest fear. The Great War was a period of extraordinarily rapid technological development. Military technology had changed dramatically in the decades before the War, but even the most perceptive pre-war military thinkers of 1914 were unable to predict the pace of wartime technical development. The terrain conditions after intense bombardment made all movement, including that of infantry and horse-drawn artillery, very difficult. To sustain the infantry advance beyond the initial range of the guns was extremely difficult, because such heavy guns could not displace quickly.

Whereas in the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War the greatest source of battle casualties had been the rifled bullet, the artillery caused the greatest number of casualties over the total duration of the Great War. Technological innovations such as recoil systems, improved propellants and explosives, optical sights, and improved communication made indirect fire unexpectedly effective. Although artillery support of the attack was generally not well developed in anyone's prewar tactical doctrine, the experiences of the first months of the war indicated that artillery fire was essential in support of an infantry assault. The destruction of enemy machine guns, enemy batteries, and dug-in enemy positions, in turn, required vast quantities of munitions.

Before 1914, all the Great Powers had planned for a short conflict, had underestimated the demands that would be made for shells and other weapons, and had wasted much effort on preparing their cumbersome (in terms of the transport needed) cavalry for mobile battles that seldom materialized. The year 1915 was one of shell shortages for all the warring nations as they scrambled to mobilize their resources. Throughout the world war, a total of all calibres were spent: Russian artillery to 50 million, Austro-Hungarian to 70 million, and German about 272 million; French artillery spent about 192 million of 75- mm and 155 - caliber rounds. The experience of the First World War made it quite clear that under modern conditions it is impossible to wage a war on stocks of combat supplies formed in peacetime. It is necessary to prepare the plants in advance so that they can be mobilized simultaneously with the troops and at the same time come into operation.

Rapid-fire artillery not having appeared in Manchuria and the Japanese having proved themselves unskilful in the subject of the use of heavy artillery, some thoguht the information from the Russo-Japanese War concerning tactics and technic of artillery was of little value.

But the most critical lesson of the Russo-Japanese War was the absolute necessity of employing indirect fire - the era of direct fire on the field of battle in view of the enemy was unquestionably over. Two points stand out in artillery officer's writing about the War; the first was the seemingly widespread agreement among them about the applicability and relevance of the lessons of the war for the artillery, and the second was the absence of repeated references to the American Civil War or the Franco-Prussian War - both of which figured prominently in writings by infantry and cavalry officers. As far as interpreting any lessons was concerned, it was apparent that artillerymen everywhere found more to agree with than to haggle over.

It was the Japanese who understood this principle from the outset, whereas the Russians initially held to standard practice and employed their guns close together in the open, on forward slopes, and on hilltops. Thus, at the first encounter at the Yalu 30 April to 01 May 1904,, the Rusians emplaced their artillery accordingly. As expected the Japanese, completely destroyed the Russian batteries on the morning of the attack.

From the second war of the Balkans, observers gathered only the fact of the enormous superiority given by the rapidfire field artillery of French make over corresponding Krupp material. Consequently, while admitting that in these campaigns the power of fire had been a considerable factor in the victory, the French admired, above all, the offensive, the spirit of the victors, the thought of the manœuvre, the skill of movement under fire, and did not know enough to draw categorical conclusions of the necessity of increasing armament and perfecting methods in the use of fire.

In the place of pushing the development of matériel of war (artillery, automatic arms, aviation) the military writers vaunted in the general problems of the field of battle, based upon the increase of the power of fire, those solutions called "economic" or quite speculative ones. (Examples: la Plaquette Malandrin, the steps of moving the infantry in the zone of fire, turtle covers, filtration, oblique marching, etc.) In sum, that which struck observers in the spectacles of the wars from the beginning of the twentieth century was the passivity of the vanquished (Boers, Russians and Turks).

The main operational question was whether the policy should be to mass the artillery or distribute it. Between the two extremes of massing it all at one place and distributing it along the whole line, there are many possibilities, and it will rarely, if ever, happen that either extreme is either practical or wise. In some instances all the available guns, in case of emergency, might suddenly be massed at one point. It was a generally recognized principle that, in so far as it is practicable, artillery should be massed; but the '-practicable" was complex. It may be very easy to mass the artillery at a point where it will be rendered useless by an unexpected turn in the battle.

In handling artillery in the field the first consideration is that its fire must do the utmost possible to assist the infantry to get forward. The fire power in the hands of the infantry themselves by reason of the magazine rifle and the machine gun, usually renders direct assault impracticable for the infantry alone, while the vast numbers of troops placed in the field resulted in there being no flanks round which to maneuvre. These conditions, together with the increased power of resistance conferred on the defender by field entrenchments and wire entanglements, soon brought the war in Europe into a stable condition, where the opposing armies faced one another along continuous lines from Switzerland to the English Channel, and where each attempt to break the deadlock and power of maneuvre resulted in prohibitive casualties to the attacker.

The obvious solution of the difficulty lay in a preponderance of artillery sufficient to crush out the existence of a wide section of the enemy's system, entrenchments and defenders alike, thus creating a gap through which troops could be thrown to work around the exposed flanks. The idea of the barrage was to tie the enemy to the ground, to inflict casualties and to demoralize him and prevent his using his rifles, machine guns, trench mortars, etc., and to screen the advance of infantry by a wall of bursting shell, and smoke and dust. The establishments of artillery based on pre-war requirements were far from adequate to permit of the accomplishment of this result and, quite early, all belligerents set to work to remedy this defect in their organization.

The essential difference between the old and the new artillery practice was one of distance and degree of precision attained. At the time of the Civil War the artillery was fired point blank in the general direction of the enemy, and the effort was made to overwhelm him with shots at close range. The gunners sighted their fieldpieces hastily and banged away, trusting to hit some vital spot. By the Great War artillery was concerned chiefly with much longer ranges and the aiming must be accurate, otherwise the target is missed altogether.

This degree of accuracy was attainable only by means of optical instruments of high precision which serve both as observational instruments for detecting details of distant objects, noting the accuracy of the firing, and as surveying instruments for measuring angles correctly. These instruments are not only exact but also sufficiently rugged to withstand the violent concussion of rapid artillery fire. The French 75-millimeter gun, for example, which proved so effective in the late war, has a range of 8,300 yards, and can be fired at the rate of 30 shots per minute, as against the 2 shots per minute of the Civil War. The gun, moreover, is an instrument of high precision and the shots can be placed by the gunner practically where he wants them. The best breech-loading musket rifle in Civil War days could be fired 10 times per minute as against 600 shots per minute by a modern machine gun.

The gunner of who was not equipped with proper fire-control apparatus was almost helpless in the presence of the enemy; he can not see to aim properly without these aids and his firing serves little purpose. The effectiveness of artillery and, with it, that of the active army in the field, depended to a large extent on the quality and the quantity of its fire-control equipment. This is only one of a number of the fundamental requisites of the complex army.

There is a limit for all metals to the wall thickness beyond which any additional thickness adds but little to the ability of the cylinder to withstand internal pressure. This limit is at a point where the wall thickness is approximately the same as the internal diameter. Such a cylinder of forged steel of 60,000 lb. elastic limit will be ruptured by an internal pressure of but 37,000 lb. per sq. in., and a cylinder of infinite thickness of the same material will be ruptured by an internal pressure of 45,000 lb. per sq. in. Modern artillery demands internal pressures of from 30,000 to 40,000 lb. per sq. in., so it is evident that single piece large guns were out of the question.

The next development in this principle of gun construction, which is called initial tensions, was the famous Parrot gun, in which a wrought-iron band was shrunk on the breech or rear end of a cast-iron gun which was made on Rodman's principle. Since the American Civil War progress was more rapid. European and American ordnance engineers developed this principle of initial tensions, the manufacture of forged steel developed, ordnance engineers and steel manufacturers co-operated, efficient rifling was secured, powder and explosives were improved and within 50 years the present 14-in. guns, weighing about 150,000 lb., firing a projectile weighing 1400 lb., with ranges for accurate fire, of approximately 25,000 yd. or more, has been made possible, and the 16-in. gun with a projectile weighing about a ton and about the same effective range.

An effort was made, with some success, to still further increase the strength of guns by substituting for the intermediate forged cylinders a series of wire windings. This is in effect merely an increase in the number of cylinders or layers. Such guns, called wire-wound guns, are stronger than the forged built-up guns. They, as will be easily appreciated, lack girder strength, and this system is more suitable to short guns than to long ones. And further, the added strength leads to the use of higher pressures, which increases the erosion and therefore decreases the life of the gun.

The breech of all modern guns was closed with either an interrupted screw plug or some kind of bolt or wedge plug. In a screw plug the breech is sealed by an expanding pad or soft metal ring, and the gun is fired by a primer which shoots a flame through the axial hole in the mushroom or plug. In small guns the seal is secured by the cartridge case which expands on discharge, and the gun is fired by a primer located in the base of the case.

Accuracy of fire was, of course, greatly enhanced by rifling, and all modern artillery' is rifled. Rifling also permits of the use of elongated projectiles, which secures greater explosive carrying capacity. In small arms the projectile itself "takes" the rifling, while in artillery a copper band is put on the projectiles for that purpose. The section of the rifling varied. The amount of rotation which was given depends on many factors and differs quite widely in different guns. A twist of about one turn in twenty-five calibers is the average rule. In some guns the twist of the rifling is uniform; while in others it was increasing, beginning with a slight twist and gradually increasing in degree until at the muzzle the maximum twist was reached.

Early powders were quite erratic, giving different pressures with the same charge, and hence, to be on the safe side, comparatively small charges had to be used. The perfection of the modern nitrocellulose and nitro-glycerine powders, however, remedied this condition. It was, of course, highly desirable that the pressure in the gun be maintained to a considerable degree during the passage of the projectile along the bore and, after many experiments, this was accomplished satisfactorily by molding the powder grains into shapes which maintained the burning area as a grain consumed. Such shapes are thin stripes and perforated cylinders.

Optical instruments for the direction and control of firing were unknown in the Civil War and would have served little purpose with the ordnance then available. During the subsequent half century, however, artillery construction and practice developed at an unprecedented rate. The power and precision of the guns have been increased to the extent that at the present time relatively small targets may be successfully attacked at ranges up to 40,000 and 60,000 yards. Most of the firing by such artillery was directed at objects either below the horizon or hidden by intervening obstacles and hence not visible to the gunner, but whose positions have been accurately located on the map, either by land or aerial reconnaissance.

Firing under these conditions became an engineering problem and the method of instrumental aim known as indirect fire control is employed. This method required the use of surveying instruments and serves to determine the line of sight and the distance to the target with reference to fixed points that are visible to the battery. This method was used not only in firing at hidden targets located miles away, but also in laying down a barrage, or deluge of missies, in front of an advancing line of troops, thus clearing the way for them and preventing counterattacks by the enemy.

There were three general types of projectiles in use — shrapnel, common or high explosive shell, and armor-piercing shell. The shrapnel was used by both armies and navies, but generally where men were the object. The high-explosive shells were used by the armies against intrenchments and fortifications, and by navies against unarmored vessels and some fortifications. Armor-piercing shells were used by sea-coast and naval artillery against armored vessels. In this type of shell cavity capacity has to be somewhat sacrificed in order to obtain penetrative ability. The cap of soft steel on the point is there for the purpose of supporting the point on impact with armor, and its presence increases the penetrative ability of the shell.

All guns except small ones were now constructed with liners in the tube, which, when the bore is worn out, are removed and replaced with new liners. The cost of thus relining a gun can be roughly fixed at about 30 per cent of the cost of the gun. There appears to be no limit to the number of times that a gun can be relined, and hence the life of a gun can really be stated as indeterminate. It is, of course, a matter of arbitrary decision as to when a gun should be relined, as the criterion depends solely on what is considered as the accuracy desirable.

Mobile artillery was classified according to its degree of mobility. A six-horse team can be easily handled and can pull with a high degree of mobility a load of about 4000 lb. The lighter artillery, therefore, is restricted to that weight, and in this class come the mountain and field guns of from 2.5 in. to 4.0 in. caliber, firing projectiles of from 7.5 to 35 lb. The next class are the heavier siege guns and howitzers, using eight-horse teams, varying in caliber from 3.5 in. to 6.0 in. and firing projectiles of from 40 to 125 lb. Howitzers are short guns which secure their range by high angles of elevation.

The horse was at its best for drawing loads when moving at a rate of 2 to 2.5 miles per hour. When held down to a slower speed, and likewise as the rate of speed was increased beyond this figure, its efficiency decreased. At length, when a speed of 11.25 miles per hour was reached, less than one-tenth the maximum amount of work was accomplished. When it is necessary to develop maximum power continuously at a considerable speed, the number of horses required for a specific work must always be greatly increased. Thus when horses were used on mail coaches, even on the admirable highways of Great Britain, the proprietors maintained one horse per mile of route for each coach, each horse travelling only eight miles and working an hour or less per day on the average, four horses drawing the loaded coach which weighed two tons. Draft horses moving 2.5 miles an hour are expected to do seven times the work of coach horses moving 10 miles per hour.

Formerly the Germany army horse was fed only 11 pounds of oats, 5.5 pounds of hay, and some cut straw during the manœuvres, when often travelling over 40 miles a day, covering about equal distances at the walk, trot, and gallop. It is not surprising that on this ration, containing only about 8.8 pounds of digestible nutrients, the horses, which performed about 11,900 feet—tons of work daily, lost heavily in weight, and that many were unfitted for further military service.

The automobile has had a monumental effect on warfare. In the first place, it has greatly simplified the transportation of ammunition and supplies, thus permitting a more extensive use of artillery and machine guns and the massing of troops. Without railroads and motor trucks the masses of troops being used in the present war could not be put into the field. All the horses in Europe could not handle the field transportation work of such armies, even if drivers and forage could be provided.

Strategical surprise required absolute secrecy in such measures as are taken long beforehand to get ready for the attack. Relative to field artillery, it is first necessary that all required installations be made without the enemy learning of them. Then the concentration of matériel in the attack sector must be accomplished with the utmost discretion. It is incontestable that rapidity of execution is, from this latter viewpoint, one of the best guarantees of success. Accordingly the field artillery must be very flexible, very mobile, capable of rapidly making long marches. It will thus be able to take part, at short intervals, in widely separated operations. Horse-drawn artillery has severe limitations in this respect. It must be transported over great distances, by railroad, and thus is the slave of the trace of railroad lines and their capacity. Only artillery with motor traction possesses the strategical mobility adequate for rapid long distance movement in a country with developed highways. Accordingly, while local artillery reserves can be of the horse-drawn type, the great general reserves must necessarily have mechanical traction.

The increase in train loads opened still another field to the ordnance engineer, and the "railroad artillery," of which the German 42-cm. (16.5-in.) howitzer was an example, was the result. It can not be stated that such guns had deciding influence in the Great War, but it can not be denied that their use secured important results.

During the war, it was not only in quantity that the field artillery changed, but also, and to still more advantage, its quality was greatly improved. France entered the war with a field artillery almost exclusively armed with light matériels; the few heavy field pieces were of obsolescent design, short range, and were slow firing. At the time of the armistice there were about as many heavy cannon as there were light.

At the beginning of the war, the 75-mm. gun could, as a rule, not fire over 5500 meters, the limiting range of its sights. At the end of the war, by increasing the pressures in the recoil mechanism, and by using shell with better ballistic shape, the maximum range of this gun had increased to over 10,000 meters. Similarly, the maximum range of the 155-mm. gun, Model 1877, which at the beginning of the war was 9800 meters, had been increased, when the war ended, to 12,800 meters.

Almost all of the old model heavy cannon were replaced by modern matériel characterized by long range and rapid fire. The 155-mm. howitzer, Model 1904 or Model 1912, firing to a range of only 6000 meters, gave place to the 155-mm. howitzer, Model 1917, Schneider, whose maximum range was nearly 12,000 meters, or double that of the old one. The 220-mm. de Bange howitzer, with a range of 7 kilometers, was replaced by the 280-mm. Schneider howitzer, with a range of 11 kilometers.

The field artillery had acquired unequaled power by reason of: first, rapidity of fire, which allowed of a mass of projectiles being fired in a limited time; second, increased range, which permitted massive and unexpected concentrations to be put down on any part of the battlefield; third, numerous matériels, which allowed of using the various types in the manner best suited to their characteristics. This power, suddenly applied, was of irresistible violence.

In reality the destructive fires were localized during several hours on the same points: but everywhere else in the position, traffic and the work of repair were almost without risk—from which there were important consequences. Every battery too violently attacked could displace during the interruptions of the hostile fire and take a new position where it had a chance to remain ignored perhaps until the moment of the assault. It was thus that taking more and more advantage, in each of the battles of 1915 to 1917, of the mobility of their artillery, the Germans succeeded in guarding their precious reserves of fires, destined to break Allied attacks. If they were able to operate in that manner, it was because even for an experienced aerial observer it was difficult and slow work to report with precision whether or not an emplacement previously the object of counter-battery was still occupied: on both sides of the front line there were numerous examples of empty emplacements on which the artillery rained projectiles for many days.

In the first phase of the war of position, during nearly three years beginning in December, 1914, the Allies sought to break the front by continually increasing the power, the range, and the rapidity of fire of their artillery, by engaging it in denser and denser masses, by providing munitions in ever increasing amounts, and by lengthening the preparations. During this time attempts were made to destroy everything, and the enormous quantity of explosive projectiles fired transformed the ground attacked into a series of joined craters. Prolonged preparations finally changed terrain, already cut up by a dense lacework of trenches and communicating trenches, into a vast field of almost contiguous shell-craters. Across this chaos, movements were extremely difficult, especially in rainy weather.

Page last modified: 09-06-2019 18:57:38 Zulu