Ever since its significant contribution to the German victory against France in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, the artillery had enjoyed a particularly prestigious position within the army. From 1914, artillery units were employed extensively to support all operations, while technological advances meant that its destructive power and effectiveness increased significantly as the conflict progressed. That effectiveness also influenced the future construction of defensive positions, as all sides sought to counter the sheer weight of high explosives that could be delivered with considerable accuracy by a wide range of guns, mortars, and howitzers of all types, capabilities and calibres. Arguably, the combination of artillery fire and machine-gun fire shaped the whole nature of the war on the Western Front in particular, precipitating the stalemate and onset of operational stagnation from the end of 1914, followed by the years of trench warfare and the dominance of defensive operations, which persisted until the appearance of Allied tanks on the battlefield. Certainly, the artillery arm more than any other exemplified the industrialized, dehumanized and mechanistic forms of attrition warfare that characterized so much of the 1914–18 conflict.
The German artillery was categorized either as field artillery (Feldartillerie) – which also included the horse artillery (Reitende Artillerie) – or as foot artillery (Fußartillerie), which manned the army’s heavy artillery, howitzers and mortars. The horse artillery was intended for employment with cavalry divisions and the field artillery with infantry divisions. In 1913, the field artillery’s peacetime establishment consisted of 3,523 officers, 325 medical officers, 315 veterinary officers, 529 paymasters and assistant paymasters, 101 bandmasters, 214 artificers, 14,181 NCOs and 72,180 other ranks, with 57,327 horses. These personnel manned 3,732 guns and light field howitzers, with a further 54 guns designated for training use. All field artillery training and development was the responsibility of an inspector of field artillery.
The second category of artillery was the foot artillery, and in 1913 its peacetime establishment included 1,332 officers, 82 medical officers, 35 veterinary officers, 129 paymasters and assistant paymasters, 25 bandmasters, 50 artificers, 5,322 NCOs and 28,002 other ranks, with 3,391 horses. Training and development for all of the Prussian foot artillery regiments was the responsibility of an inspector of foot artillery, his inspectorate being organized as three sub-inspectorates. However, in peacetime the Bavarian ministry of war retained a measure of responsibility for the efficiency and preparation of the Bavarian artillery regiments for war.
From February 1917 the separate branches of field and foot artillery were centralized, with a single focus for artillery development, command and control.
FIELD ARTILLERY REGIMENTS AND BATTERIES
In peacetime the headquarters staff of a field artillery regiment included seven artillery officers, three medical officers, three veterinary officers, three paymasters and their assistants, a bandmaster, an armourer, three NCOs, and three regimental tradesmen. The headquarters staff of the eleven horse artillery regiments had five medical officers and four veterinary officers. In field and horse artillery regiments alike, these numbers included six personnel to serve as Abteilung staff. A field artillery Abteilung was formed of three batteries, each of which in 1914 had six 7.7-centimetre field guns or four 10.5-centimetre light field howitzers; the pre-war horse artillery batteries usually had only four guns rather than six. In wartime the field artillery regiments were subdivided into two Abteilungen (numbered I and II), each of which contained the usual three batteries (numbered 1 to 6 within the regiment) of field guns or light field howitzers. A field battery was commanded by a captain (Hauptmann), whose post as battery commander was termed Batterie-Führer. As at 1 October 1913 there were 642 batteries of field and horse artillery, including nine batteries at the field artillery school of gunnery (Feldartillerie-Schieß-Schule). During 1914 the total number of batteries increased to 782, and then to 1,691 by late 1918.
On mobilization the divisional field artillery was grouped into field artillery brigades (Feldartillerie-Brigaden), each consisting of of two regiments and commanded by a major general (Generalmajor), with a brigade allocated to every division. These Feldartillerie-Brigaden bore the number of the division they supported. In August 1914 the divisional field artillery brigades were formed as planned, and each initially deployed with two regiments and a total of twelve field batteries grouped in four Abteilungen (with two Abteilungen per regiment). The second Abteilung of the second field regiment of the brigade usually had three batteries of the 10.5-centimetre light field howitzer rather than the 7.7-centimetre field gun. A light ammunition column supported the regiment in the field.
In wartime, field batteries were subdivided into two sections (Züge). Subalterns commanded these sections, while other junior officers were responsible for observing and adjusting fire, supervising the supply of ammunition to the battery and overseeing the battery’s transport arrangements. This resulted in an authorized establishment of six officers to manage the battery once fully mobilized and deployed for action. Although the precise numbers always depended upon the operational situation and stage of the conflict, a field artillery battery usually had about 135 rounds of gun ammunition or 88 rounds of howitzer ammunition immediately available for each gun from its battery gun limbers, wagons and wagon limbers.
In 1915 the number of guns or light field howitzers of all field batteries was reduced to four, together with commensurate reductions of manpower, in order to enable the redistribution of the surplus guns produced by this action to equip newly formed artillery units. These reductions were followed in April 1916 by further decreases in the transport establishment of the field batteries. As a result of these changes some 110 new batteries of field artillery were formed during 1916, most of which were subsequently deployed to reinforce the divisional artillery of divisions serving on the Eastern Front.
The four-gun batteries in service from 1915 had an establishment of six officers, 21 NCOs, 64 gunners and 45 drivers, with its transport divided into the firing battery (Gefechts-Batterie) and its 1st Line (Gefechtsbagage) and 2nd Line (Grosse Bagage) transport.
An important vehicle within the field battery was the six-horsed observation wagon, which carried the equipment necessary to observe and adjust the battery’s fire. Included in the wagon’s standard equipment inventory was optical equipment such as a rangefinder (Entfernungsmesser) and a stereoscopic telescope (Scherenfernrohr), as well as a 3.75-metre tripod-based ladder with a shield fitted to protect an observer while observing from the ladder, plus telephones and various other items.
In 1917 a mobile observation mast or tower was added to the surveillance inventory. This self-contained device featured sophisticated prisms and magnifying optics as part of a telescoping eight-section tubular metal tower that could be raised and lowered to enable observation from behind cover to a height of between nine and 24 metres. The tower was raised and lowered by a cable winch, with three guy ropes fitted to stabilize the equipment when the tower was fully extended. The whole equipment was mounted on a two-wheeled trailer and drawn by a suitable motor vehicle, a metal seat being provided at each side of the tower for use by the device’s two-man crew when in transit. Although not as effective as a reconnaissance aircraft, these extending observation towers were mobile and relatively easy to conceal, so they were less vulnerable than captive observation balloons.
Communication between the command posts and the guns was effected by the telephone detachment (Fernsprech-Trupp) found in every field battery and Abteilung, each with a capability to lay at least two kilometres of telephone cable. In 1917 a bicycle was added to the transport inventory of every field battery to assist with routine liaison, administration and message-carrying duties in situations where a horseman might otherwise have been employed.
In light of battlefield experience and the pressing need to form ever more artillery units to support newly-formed formations during 1916, the two-regiment divisional field artillery brigade had been completely displaced by a new organization by 1917. This involved the creation of a divisional artillery headquarters (Artillerie-Kommando) in each division, which now controlled not only the field artillery but all of the artillery allocated to support the division. The demise of the field artillery brigade soon followed the adoption by divisions of a single field artillery regiment from 1916 in place of the two-regiment organization that had existed from 1914. These reorganized regiments now had three Abteilungen, numbered I, II and III (one of which was entirely equipped with light field howitzers) rather than two, and nine instead of twelve field batteries. The three-Abteilungen organization also reflected the fact that most infantry divisions were ‘triangular’, being based upon three infantry regiments, and by 1917 this structure had become the standard field artillery support for a division.
In addition to the field artillery allocated to specific divisions, some 80 independent field artillery regiments were also created in 1917, these being held in reserve and allocated by higher-level army headquarters to support front-line sectors and specific operations as necessary. By early 1918, the army had no fewer than 2,900 field artillery batteries in service.
Mention should also be made of the so-called ‘close range batteries’ (Nahkampf-Batterien) formed from 1916, the numbers of which expanded significantly during 1917. These batteries were developed primarily to counter the threat posed by the arrival on the battlefield of the first Allied tanks on 15 September 1916. Initially using 2-centimetre, 3.7-centimetre, 5-centimetre, 5.7-centimetre and 6-centimetre guns adapted for the purpose (mainly by lowering and reconfiguring the gun carriage to enable shells to be fired with a near horizontal trajectory), these defensive or protective artillery units (Schützengrabenkanonen-Abteilungen) were deployed to infantry regiments on the Western Front as sector troops, being manned jointly by artillery and infantry gunners. However, these units and the Nahkampf-Batterien that succeeded them from 1917 – by that stage armed with a 7.7-centimetre gun – were never able to counter the Allied tanks decisively.
Some 50 Nahkampf-Batterien were formed, with single batteries being deployed to divisional sectors as required. Their establishment mirrored that of the infantry-gun batteries deployed to the army-level assault battalions described earlier and included two officers and up to 70 other ranks with six guns, although their usual method of employment meant that neither the infantry-gun battery nor the Nahkampf-Batterie were allocated transport or horses. Following the mixed results achieved by the Nahkampf-Batterien, better success was achieved by the army’s anti-armour gunners later in the war following the introduction of a 3.7-centimetre light anti-tank gun (Panzerabwehrkanone, or PAK) and improved armour-penetrating munitions; however, the Panzerabwehrkanone was not produced in sufficient numbers in time to realize its full potential before the war ended.
ARTILLERY OBSERVATION AND SOUND-RANGING UNITS
Although categorized as part of the army’s survey organization and arguably, therefore, part of the army’s support services rather than combat troops, counter-battery fire planning was supported by a comprehensive network of artillery survey units tasked with pinpointing the location of Allied artillery fire positions. As well as identifying Allied gun positions, these units actively assisted the ranging and fire planning of the army’s own guns. They included artillery observation groups (Artillerie-Meßtrupps) of about six officers and 100 other ranks, which could deploy up to five flash-spotting sections (Licht-Meßstellen) as well as four or five sound-ranging sections (Schall-Meßtrupps).
Personnel for the observation groups were trained at an artillery observation training school (Artillerie-Meßschule) at Wahn in Germany. The units or sections were controlled by, and allocated to, corps and divisions by army-level headquarters and included at least one artillery officer. They were under the operational command of the artillery commander of the division in which area they were deployed, with one Artillerie-Meßtrupp and one Schall-Meßtrupp usually assigned to a division sector. A single observation or sound-ranging post might cover a frontage of five to sixteen kilometres, the actual distance depending upon the type of terrain and the prevailing meteorological conditions. To carry out their task, artillery group observation detachments used a range of optical surveillance equipment, including large periscopes (Mastfernrohre) manned by an NCO and four other ranks. Observation reports were passed by telephone directly to a coordinating centre (Auswertungs-Stelle), which was usually located close to the divisional artillery headquarters. However, when that division moved out of the sector, the Meßtrupps usually remained in place, serving as sector troops and thus providing invaluable continuity and knowledge of the area to the benefit of the relieving division.
The army’s artillery survey training manual issued in May 1917 included a list detailing the principal duties of these units: ‘(a) Location of hostile batteries and other targets; (b) Information from aeroplane photographs; (c) Observation of fire for own artillery; (d) Observation of enemy’s movements; (e) Preparation and use of stereo photographs; (f) Preparation of charts and tables showing the positions, number and activity of hostile batteries; (g) Preparation of battery [fire data] boards and artillery maps; (h) Collection and collation of all reconnaissance reports concerning the sector.’
With artillery and machine-guns dominating many of the World War I battlefields, the identification and neutralization of Allied artillery batteries was accorded a particularly high priority by the German general staff, and it was therefore hardly surprising that by early 1918 there were at least 175 Artillerie-Meßtrupps and 125 Schall-Meßtrupps operating on the Western Front alone.