German Army officer. Georg Heinrich Bruchmüller was born in Berlin on December 11, 1863. His early military career was undistinguished. After service as an officer candidate, Bruchmüller was commissioned in the foot artillery in 1885.
Bruchmüller spent his entire career in the standard pattern for an officer of that branch, alternating between assignments with fortress guns and as an instructor in various military schools. In 1913 he had a riding accident and subsequently suffered a nervous breakdown. In October of that year he was medically discharged and was placed on the retired list at the rank of lieutenant colonel but with retired pay of a major.
When World War I began in August 1914, Bruchmüller was recalled to temporary active duty and posted to the Eastern Front, assigned as the divisional artillery commander of the newly formed 86th Division. He soon displayed a talent for field operations. Bruchmüller began experimentation with different fire support tactics, and by the start of 1915 he had seen action in 13 battles and won the Iron Cross Second Class and First Class.
After languishing in a minor post in a fortress in 1914 he was briefly assigned as a corps artillery staff officer then as a divisional Artillerie Kommandeur (ARKO). As reports of the Russians massing for an assault came in, Bruchmüller suggested abandoning the traditional divisional artillery system and instead proposed using massed, centrally controlled fire directed by the corps artillery commander to break up enemy attacks as soon as their plan became apparent. His direct superior, Borkenhagen, was unimpressed but Bruchmüller took the plan to XL Korps’ chief of staff, Emil Hell, and convinced him to test his theory on the Russians. Bruchmüller’s method proved startlingly effective and the Russian infantry and artillery paid a heavy price for their ineffective preparatory barrage as the Germans focused their own fire on the sectors where the Russians were massing instead of reacting to individual attacks. To support the counter-attacks, Bruchmüller used a variant of the creeping barrage and this tactic drove the Russians back in disarray. Hell was immediately transferred to the staff of an army group, and Bruchmüller was assigned to his delighted patron’s staff. In May 1917 he was awarded the coveted Pour le Mérite.
Bruchmüller eventually came to the attention of Generalmajor (U.S. equiv. brigadier general) Max Hoffmann, chief of staff of the Eastern Front. In August 1917 Hoffmann assigned him to the Eighth Army to control the artillery for the attack at Riga (September 3–5, 1917).
The German Eighth Army, commanded by Oskar von Hutier, was tasked in August 1917 with finally breaking through Kornilov’s Russian Twelfth Army at Riga. Plans had been under consideration since April, but the Russian positions were formidable and the garrison well prepared. Kornilov seems to have been aware that the offensive was imminent but appears to have played little role in the battle except authorising the retreat. Fresh divisions were assigned to Hutier’s command but more importantly he planned to use a combination of the latest assault tactics to achieve a decisive breakthrough, with a fire-plan orchestrated by Colonel Bruch-müller. The infantry assault units were trained in infiltration methods – an approach initially suggested by Laffargue but perfected by Hauptmann Willy Rohr and others – on a grand scale for the first time. The Germans intended to use abbreviated registration in the first phase of the preparatory bombardment to mask the detailed fire-plan. This simple system was an effective solution to the problem of maintaining surprise. Instead of a long general bombardment or a slow methodical battering of key positions over several days, abbreviated registration required the batteries supporting the main assault to use pre-set registration points to first confirm their position on the battlefield and then shift their fire to targets identified within the carefully surveyed area around their initial registration point. Batteries could thus arrive during the night, pre-register at dawn, then fire on their main targets with a reasonable chance of hitting the target. Accuracy was worse than the old way but chemical rounds meant near-misses could still neutralise targets. Allied analysts would ultimately conclude the Germans had discovered a new way of delivering unobserved fire without registration.
Mindful of the damage the Russian artillery could cause during the Duna river crossing, the first two hours of the fire-plan, planned for 1 September, also included a hurricane bombardment against identified battery positions. To ensure counter-battery success, the artillery was reinforced from both the Eastern and Western Fronts, with enough ammunition to provide a genuine test of Bruchmüller’s methods. Given the scale of the bombardment, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Russians failed to notice the final phase of the abbreviated registration plan during the torrent of shellfire. The mix of shells (three-quarters gas and one-quarter high explosive) shattered the communication system and silenced most of the batteries. After 2 hours the majority of the heavies continued to focus on the Russian batteries while the rest, including the trench mortars, adjusted their sights according to the data gathered from the abbreviated registration phase and began to pound the front lines with a mix of shells dominated by high explosive (80:20). After another 3 hours of intense fire, the remaining heavy batteries joined the main barrage for a final terrifying few minutes before the creeping barrage commenced, leaving only one gun per battery to maintain the lethal miasma over the Russian gun positions.
The creeping barrage surged forwards after 5 hours and 10 minutes of pounding. As Zabecki notes in his biography of Bruchmüller, the main barrage had delivered 10,500 tons of high explosive on to the Russian defensive system – the equivalent of 500 B-52 bomber payloads. The devastation was made more horrific by the densest utilisation of gas shells since the technology was introduced and by the relative accuracy of the fire. Unlike the timed barrages at Verdun, the six lifts in the German creeping barrage were coordinated by the advancing infantry firing green flares. Bruchmüller’s fire-plan fed additional silent batteries in to each phase while earmarked batteries pounded identified targets in the rear areas, sowing further chaos. Once the river crossing was complete (aided on the day by the morning mist), the heavy guns switched back to counter-battery fire. Light guns were rafted over for the attack on the second position, at which point the heavy guns switched targets to give supporting fire. The next phase of the fireplan supported the consolidation units building the bridges, covered the movement of heavy guns over the river and assisted the assault units by disrupting counter-attacks on the bridgehead. Once these were in position the final phase of the fire-plan could begin and the exploitation phase could theoretically commence before the Russians could move any effective reserves into play. 51 The only aspect missing in the plan was the recognition that confusion was inevitable as soon as the assault units surged over the bridges and into the chaos created by the Russian retreat. This elaborate fire-plan confirmed Bruchmüller’s reputation as a master gunner and his version of the creeping barrage was quickly nicknamed the `feuerwalze’, a peculiarly light-hearted term which nevertheless captures his skillful orchestration of phased zone fire missions. While the intended effect is always entirely destructive, the creation of a complex fire-plan certainly shares some of the combination of art and precision that characterises musical composition.
After Russia withdrew from the war, Bruchmüller went to the Western Front with General der Infanterie (U.S. equiv. lieutenant general) Oskar von Hutier when the latter assumed command of the newly formed Eighteenth Army.
With Ludendorff looking at the front lines rather than at a deeper objective, the Germans assembled 6, 473 guns and 3, 532 mortars – 48 per cent of their guns and 40 per cent of their mortars. Three armies would be attacking, but there was no single artillery commander: instead each army had a different chief. Among the Germans coming west was Oberst Georg Bruchmüller. While he was important in the upcoming offensive, he was not the key figure that he is sometimes made out to be. Bruchmüller certainly brought new techniques (including the `Pulkowski method’ of calibration and allowance for daily weather variations, which was essentially what the British had been doing for several months5) and his own gift for matching the right mix of munitions to targets. While he influenced Ludendorff (especially in getting the `Pulkowski method’ widely adopted so that the whole bombardment could be predicted instead of registered, thus preserving surprise), he was only in direct charge of the artillery for the Eighteenth Army. This meant that the impact of his talents was limited; the Second Army paid close attention to his suggestions but dedicated Westerners in the Seventeenth Army had to be forced to listen.
The Germans had not made a major attack on the Western Front since Verdun, over two years before. Bombardment methods had changed a great deal since Verdun, where areas had basically been drenched with shells; if the target area was trenches it was a `trench bombardment’ and if the area had French guns it was called `counter-battery fire’. In 1918 far more precision was used, along with different types of artillery and a range of specialist shells. Bruchmüller was extremely confident in the Pulkowski method and planned to use a wholly predicted barrage. He also mixed gun types and shell types based on the effect he was trying to achieve, not on tradition. For instance, in the past counter-battery fire was often done with howitzers because they fired larger shells that were more likely to destroy enemy guns; meanwhile, field guns would fire at infantry. Bruchmüller turned this assumption around, trying to break up the infantry’s positions (especially headquarters, observation posts and strong-points) with howitzer shells while field guns swamped the enemy artillery with gas shells. (He also mixed gas types, using a tearing/sneezing agent to make British gunners take off their masks and breathe in lethal phosgene.) At different phases of the bombardment Bruchmüller mixed field guns, field howitzers, gas and high explosive for counter-battery fire, and used various types of gun and shell to support the infantry. Trench mortars, minenwerfer, were used wherever possible, including during the barrage, but due to range limitations they could only reach the first British line. Bruchmüller kept the supportive role of artillery in mind all the time (he later wrote `the thanks of the infantry, in my opinion, must be treasured more by every artilleryman than all decorations and citations, but took a wide range of routes to the objective. The artillery commanders for the Second and Seventeenth Armies were far more traditional; they lacked Bruchmüller’s (uniformly successful) Eastern Front experience and confidence in his unorthodox methods. For instance Lieutenant-General Richard von Berendt of the Seventeenth Army would not fire a wholly predicted bombardment; there was a little registration fire before the attack, and he also had a pause in the fire on the morning of the attack to adjust fire. (Ludendorff had had to specifically order the Seventeenth Army to use the new principles and even suggested they use the same procedures, but the order came only two weeks before the attack, while Bruchmüller had used seven weeks.) Another difference was in trusting the infantry. All the armies had a feuerwalze to cover the advancing infantry (including a creeping barrage advancing 200 metres every 4 minutes), but Bruchmüller ended the fire at the guns’ maximum range so the infantry could continue their advance, while von Berendt continued the barrage to protect against British counterattacks.
Bruchmüller commanded the artillery of the Eighteenth Army during the Saint-Quentin Offensive (March 21–April 5, 1918), and his fire support tactics greatly influenced those of the other two armies in that attack. In the four subsequent German offensives of 1918, German first quartermaster general (de facto chief of staff) General der Infanterie Erich Ludendorff placed Bruchmüller in direct charge of all the artillery. In late March, Bruchmüller was promoted to colonel and restored to the active list.
Bruchmüller pioneered many of the fire support techniques that were widely copied by all sides during World War I and ever since. While the massive artillery preparations on the Western Front lasted days and even weeks, his preparations lasted only hours but with better effect. Bruchmüller was one of the first to recognize that artillery’s ability to neutralize the enemy temporarily through shock effect was more important than its too often inadequate capability to destroy enemy fortifications. Bruchmüller also developed a system of task-tailored artillery groupings for specific tactical missions, and he was the war’s most successful employer of artillery-delivered gas.
After the war, Bruchmüller again retired from the army. He wrote several influential books about his tactical methods. These were translated into English, French, and Russian and were widely studied in military schools between the world wars. But the postwar German Army, focusing almost exclusively on the tank–dive-bomber combination, abandoned most of Bruchmüller’s World War I artillery principles, for which it paid a heavy price in World War II. The Soviets, however, followed Bruchmüller very closely.
In August 1939 the German Army belatedly promoted the man who once commanded more than 6,000 guns to the rank of Generalleutnant (U.S. equiv. major general) on the retired list. Bruchmüller died in Garmisch, Germany, on January 26, 1948.
Bailey, J. B. A. Field Artillery and Firepower. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004.
Zabecki, David T. Steel Wind: Georg Bruchmüller and the Birth of Modern Artillery. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994.
DAVID T. ZABECKI, an Engineer by profession, is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve. He is a field artillery officer with an additional skill designator as a historian. He is currently a contributing editor to Military History magazine. In 1987 he received the General John J. Pershing Award as the Distinguished Honor Graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Presently, he is enrolled in the U.S. Army War College. In 1968 he served as an infantry rifleman during the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive.