Artillery in the Great War

Artillery in the Great War

by Paul Strong

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ISBN-13: 9781783030125
Publisher: Pen & Sword Books Limited
Publication date: 01/19/2014
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Paul Strong and Sanders Marble are authors and historians.

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CHAPTER 1

1914

No country began the Great War with a fully developed appreciation of how artillery would function in a modern industrialised war. Only a few technical specialists proposed applying scientific principles to orchestrating artillery fire, usually described as fire-planning, and even fewer recognised the startling impact of a wide array of technical advances on the battlefield effectiveness of the artillery arm. Recent wars in South Africa, the Far East and the Balkans, all offering potentially useful examples illustrating the impact of both new tactics and technology, were more often used by leading theorists examining the future of warfare to 'prove' what they already believed than to explore the emerging character of conflict in the new century. Within a few weeks the Great War would overturn many of these assumptions, forcing both sides to innovate and counter-innovate at an increasingly bewildering speed. Historians looking at the evolution of the conduct of operations by specific armies have sometimes described this process as a learning curve but this term ignores the ways in which the opposing sides inspired and frustrated the designs of their opponents, and marginalises the cultural factors that encouraged or delayed development.

Each nation organised its armed forces to fit the strategies that it expected to use to secure its intended national objectives. Inevitably the pre-war development of artillery techniques and technology mirrored these assumptions in each of the war plans. Just as the overall strategies proved to be flawed, much of the equipment and tactical doctrine turned out to be short-sighted, and none of the belligerents appreciated the difficulties they would face in keeping the artillery synchronised with their operational plans and supplied with adequate ammunition. This chapter briefly reviews these assumptions and the immediate reaction of the artillery officers to the shattering of their pre-war illusions during the first months of the war.

Germany and 'The Guns of August'

Given Germany's perception of encirclement by powerful opponents and the challenge created by her formidable military objectives, the effective application of artillery firepower was central to her entire war plan. The Großer Generalstab (Great General Staff) was all too aware of the threat from Russia and France and had good reason to believe that Britain would be hostile even if Germany observed Belgian neutrality. A long war against those countries' combined wealth, industry and population was assumed to end with Germany being ground down, so German strategy, immortalised as the Schlieffen Plan, became one where she knocked out one of her opponents before dealing with the others. With Russia's territory being so vast and her army's mobilisation slow, France became the target almost by default. In 1870 the Prussians had been able to attack France head-on because the French had few modern frontier forts, but by 1900 the French had both refortified their frontier and increased the size of their army to fill the gaps between the upgraded defences. If the Germans repeated their 1870 manoeuvres they would simply smash into the French defensive system and the offensive would stall just as the Russian steamroller gathered momentum in the east. Due to the rough terrain in southern Belgium (principally the wooded hills of the Ardennes), the Germans began examining the option of a wide outflanking manoeuvre through Belgium. Belgian neutrality was guaranteed by international agreement, but the Belgians knew that their neutrality depended more on being ready to fight back than on what the Kaiser had derisively dismissed as 'a scrap of paper'. They upgraded the fortifications around the key border city of Liege, the main communications hub for the area, and thus a key part of the German war plan hinged on rapidly defeating the dozen forts covering this one city.

Established around 1890 under the direction of the highly regarded Dutch-born fortress engineer Henri Alexis Brialmont, the Liege forts were built to resist 210mm artillery, and although there had been some recent refurbishment, most of this was cosmetic and much of the core of the enceinte (defensive system) had not been upgraded with reinforced concrete. The layout of the detached forts had been designed to protect and support a strong infantry force with casemated artillery (some 400 guns), but in turn required infantry to cover the roughly 4 mile gaps between them. In 1914 the Belgians assigned a reinforced infantry division to this role but the Germans had also made special preparations. Several brigades of assault infantry were kept at full war strength, earmarked for operations against Liege. More importantly, they were assigned a powerful siege train of extraordinary siege mortars.

The Krupp works had designed a 420mm (16. 2-inch) mortar that fired projectiles weighing over a ton. However, the mortar itself weighed 175 tons and could only move by railway, so it was hardly the offensive siege piece the Germans needed to crack Liege. As a result, a more mobile 42. 6-ton version was designed that could move at 7km per hour on roads; these improved siege mortars could lob 800kg (1, 760lb) shells a distance of around 9km. Only five of these behemoths were ready in August 1914 and the Germans had to borrow four batteries of Austrian 305mm howitzers to augment the siege train. The Germans also deployed a few naval gun barrels in bespoke gun carriages, including the 380mm Schwersteflachfeuer. The need for a steady supply of heavy guns was a consequence of both the wealth of fortified objectives outlined for destruction in the overall strategic plan and the effect of barrel-wear on the largest guns: a 105mm howitzer could fire 10, 000 rounds before barrel-wear began to affect accuracy but a 42cm howitzer would wear out after firing only 100 shells. The fire-planning for these monsters was dominated by concepts developed by the coastal artillery, whose technical research into both ballistics and indirect artillery techniques was far in advance of anything developed by the field artillery. Many of these approaches had faded into obscurity before the war as increasing gun ranges made accuracy at sea problematic without complex and expensive mechanical computers, and a number of useful lessons were lost until similar challenges arose on the Western Front.

German troops crossed the Belgian border at dawn on 4 August and raced the 50km to Liege; by nightfall they were attacking Belgian pickets. The next day the Germans attempted to storm the forts with infantry, but they were mown down; General Bülow was thus forced to halt the Second Army while the cavalry and Emmich's Army of the Meuse commenced a grand encirclement of the city designed to both secure the lines of circum-vallation and isolate the individual forts. The Belgian troops between the forts recognised the danger and retreated, and by 7 August the gaps were large enough to enable Generalmajor Erich Ludendorff to lead a brigade of infantry into the centre of the town and capture the garrison commander; however, the forts continued to resist while they could. Unfortunately for the Belgians, the fort defences proved to be inadequate owing to the use of mediocre concrete – a fact the Germans did not trumpet at the time. As the German mortars methodically hammered the isolated Belgian forts, a German battery commander described the effect of the heavy shells:

'The train is coming,' my telephone operator used to say. ... Now it was time to direct the telescope upon the air just above the target; with a little practice the shell could be picked up in the air and the impact itself observed. ... There was a quick flash, which we had learned at Kummersdorf [the German artillery testing range] to recognise as the impact of steel upon steel ... Then an appreciable pause, during which the cupola seemed uninjured; then a great explosion ... After a few minutes the smoke began to clear, and in place of the cupola we saw a black hole, from which dense smoke was pouring. Half the cupola stood upright, 50 metres away; the other half had fallen to the ground. The shell, fitted with a delayed action fuse, had exploded inside.

The last of the Liege forts surrendered on 16 August, just as the Germans completed their mobilisation and deployment. In another ten days the Germans would be across Belgium, with the forts at Liege hardly hindering their advance. At the time the Germans crowed about their success but admitted they had not expected to penetrate the forts so quickly. However, the Germans' ordinary 210mm (8. 2-inch) mortars were almost as effective; the forts at Namur and Maubeuge were likewise crushed under their concentrated artillery fire. These smaller shells did a fair amount of damage but they also demoralised the defenders, who must have feared to hear at any moment the roar of the terrifying Krupp mortars that had cracked Liege. By the end of the first phase of the Schlieffen Plan, the consensus was that the pre-war fort designs had performed poorly when pitted against the German onslaught.

There is no doubt that the Belgian forts were outdated; designed to withstand shellfire from black-powder artillery, they were helpless against the more modern and powerful shells. Obsolete weapons are often of little use, and obsolete forts proved more of a hazard to the defender because they were obvious targets and their outdated guns lacked the firepower to keep any attacker out of range. In the meantime the Germans had achieved what they had hoped for: the door to Belgium was open, their supply lines were clear for the Schlieffen Plan to start, and the 'Guns of August' had established their fearsome reputation.

Germany and France – 'right but repulsive' versus 'wrong but romantic'

In contrast to the huge siege guns, the German field gun assigned to the infantry divisions (the 77mm FK 96 n/a) was technically less formidable than the French 75mm or the British 18-pounder but was supported at the divisional level by an effective light howitzer, the 105mm FH 98/09. German field gunners were expected to support any assault as closely as their opponents but the howitzer gunners were given basic instructions in how to conceal their positions (in defilade) and how to utilise the successful indirect fire methods that German liaison officers had witnessed in the Russo-Japanese War.

Unlike the Entente powers, the Germans intended to dedicate a proportion of their artillery to counter-battery missions, thus neutralising the enemy's artillery before the decisive infantry attack: the so called 'gunners' duel'. Counter-battery fire had proved effective in 1870 though the prewar regulations reminded artillery officers to keep close to the infantry to maintain close support: 'our own infantry [should] never have to do without the support of the artillery. Therefore, the artillery must not, in decisive moments, avoid even the heaviest infantry fire.' To enable more effective close support at divisional level, from 1876 onwards the German Field Service Instructions stipulated that batteries should be organised into larger formations on the battlefield so that a higher commander could concentrate his guns more closely and perhaps decisively. Shrapnel shells, fired from the new generation of quick-firing guns, might not destroy a gun in a defilade position but were likely to kill gunners and horses out in the open, and this meant that counter-battery fire had to start at the range at which these projectiles became effective against the infantry (in 1914, between 5, 000 and 7, 000 yards); the Germans decided that the most practical solution was to use field guns to support the infantry and longer-ranged howitzers to eliminate the defender's batteries once enemy positions were identified.

At corps and army level the German military retained far larger numbers of heavy guns than their opponents, though these were usually assigned to the infantry divisions as soon as the operational schwerpunkt (decisive point) was identified. At corps level they deployed four heavy batteries of modern 150mm howitzers, the most effective heavy gun of the early years of the Great War. It is important to note that howitzers fired a substantially more powerful shell than the field guns; on average a medium howitzer hurled twice the amount of high explosive a far greater distance, and with greater accuracy, for the same weight of gun carriage as the basic field gun. As described above, the Schlieffen Plan required the German army to smash through a range of enemy defences and established fortifications, and this requirement gave them a major advantage once the grabenkrieg ('war of the ditches') began. Yet much like the Entente powers, the Germans had no clear doctrine for dealing with a major European opponent armed with modern weapons, and their ammunition reserves were inadequate for a sustained conflict – as Bethmann-Hollweg, the German Chancellor noted, the coming war would be 'decisive – a brief storm'. Much of the German artillery doctrine was as outdated as that of any other army mobilising in August 1914: pre-war training still focused on mobility and gunnery deployment on manoeuvres still shared many characteristics with the cavalry. Much of the field artillery was expected to support the infantry closely, firing over open sights. These limitations were outweighed by the fact that detailed pre-war planning gave Germany more effective battlefield tools, in large enough concentrations, to allow her to dominate her opponents in the initial engagements.

The Germans thus had a technical edge over the Entente powers in the first few months of the war and this priceless advantage was maintained once the front line stabilised and Falkenhayn ordered the armies in the west to go on to the defensive while the Russian threat was addressed. In the west the German army focused on improving its defensive tactics and field fortifications, while on the Eastern Front they sought to capitalise on the greater opportunities for manoeuvre (and Russian technical and organisational weaknesses), with artillery proving the weapon most capable of counter-acting Russia's numerical advantage. German soldiers soon discovered ways of improving their survival chances against the weaker Allied barrages of the first months of the war, and the poor coordination of their opponent's infantry and artillery usually gave them more than enough time to get from the dugouts and bunkers to their assigned positions in the defensive system.

The training of German artillery officers was more focused on tactics than on the technology available to their batteries and this made them far more open to new ways of utilising innovative ideas and to developing ways of collaborating with the infantry. This was a cultural advantage that was to give the Germans an edge in innovation until their opponents developed their own unique approaches to developing, collating and disseminating new ideas. Artillery officers were expected to understand the wider plan and adapt their own actions to support their overall commander's intentions. Their commanders were also given far more latitude during an evolving engagement, enabling them to adapt far more rapidly to a changing situation than their equivalents in other armies and to assign batteries to missions as required instead of having dedicated units. When firepower needed to massed, the operating division's artillery commander concentrated all the available batteries on the schwerpunkt; as Graf von Haslingen noted in 1910, 'if it is established where the decisive attack is directed, the artillery must place an overpowering fire there'.

One deadly addition to Germany's formidable arsenal was the minen - werfer (mine launcher). This weapon was created specifically to deal with heavy fortifications after an analysis of the siege of Port Arthur suggested the need for a close-quarter infantry support weapon for clearing strong-points, machine-gun posts and barbed wire. The first heavy variant, developed by the army's Ingenieurkomitee, was a 250mm weapon developed in 1910; a total of 44 of these deadly devices were available to the armies invading Belgium in 1914. These static but radically simplified muzzle-loading monsters gave the German army additional firepower against heavy defences in a deliberate attack, laying down shells that were relatively short-ranged but needing a carriage only a tenth the size of a howitzer firing a similar-sized shell. A medium (170mm) minenwerfer was ordered in 1913 and 116 of these were assigned to engineer units in 1914. The low muzzle velocity allowed the use of more powerful explosives than conventional guns and less expensive shell cases. Faced with an evolving Stellungskrieg ('fortress or positional war'), the Germans ordered vast numbers of minen werfer from commercial suppliers but the delivery of significant quantities would take time and the engineers were often forced to jury-rig their own versions for immediate use, often working with designs that would have been familiar to medieval siege engineers.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Artillery in the Great War"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Paul Strong and Sanders Marble.
Excerpted by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Maps,
Introduction,
Prologue: Le Cateau,
Chapter One – 1914,
Chapter Two – 1915,
Chapter Three – 1916,
Chapter Four – 1917,
Chapter Five – 1918,
Conclusion,
Notes,
Bibliography,

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