WWI German Artillery II

10.5cm leFH16 howitzer.

FOOT ARTILLERY REGIMENTS AND BATTERIES

The foot artillery contained a diverse range of heavy artillery, howitzers (leichte Feldhaubitzen and schwere Feldhaubitzen), mortars, and special-purpose weapons (such as siege guns and railway guns), which from 1914 regularly bombarded the Allies’ defensive positions, troop concentrations, artillery batteries, headquarters and many other key command, control and logistic targets. Whether firing in support of a German offensive, to destroy an Allied attack, or simply engaging opportunity targets to disrupt Allied activities on a day-to-day basis, these massive guns – with calibres from 10 centimetres right up to 24 centimetres – routinely delivered tons of high explosive shells on to an already devastated terrain. These awesomely destructive and relatively indiscriminate weapons exemplified World War I as a war of attrition – nowhere was this more apparent than in the stagnant operational environment of the Western Front. There the defence ruled supreme, with the weight and accuracy of massed artillery and machine-gun firepower determining the outcome of so much of the fighting at the tactical and operational levels. Time and again the German artillery frustrated Allied attempts to regain the initiative, as successive Franco-British offensives crumbled into a chaos amid the fire-swept mud and barbed wire of a desolate and shell-cratered no-man’s-land.

As at 1 October 1913, the foot artillery could field 24 regiments, comprised of 48 battalions with a total of 190 batteries: this increased to about 1,100 by late 1915 and to 1,550 by late 1918. Prior to the war, one foot artillery regiment was allocated to each military district (or army corps) and was intended for use as corps-level artillery support in wartime. Two additional artillery battalions formed the instructional regiment at the foot artillery gunnery school (Fußartillerie-Schieß-Schule). Of the 24 foot artillery regiments, nineteen were Prussian, two Saxon and three Bavarian, with 38 of the total 48 foot artillery battalions stationed in Prussia, four in Saxony and six in Bavaria.

The structures and establishments of the various foot artillery regiments, battalions and independent batteries were frequently complex and often varied considerably. Inevitably, the established strength and internal organization of a unit depended in large measure upon the type of heavy gun, howitzer or mortar with which it was equipped. Accordingly, in the pre-war years, it was always anticipated that a certain amount of restructuring and regrouping of some foot artillery units would need to take place during the period of transition to war. Nevertheless, as the majority of foot artillery units were equipped with the same types of 15-centimetre heavy field howitzers and 21-centimetre heavy mortars, these units were able to achieve and sustain a fairly standard regimental organization. With the weapons it manned, the foot artillery had a particular heavy-haulage requirement, and one or two sections of foot artillery draught horses (Bespannungs-Abteilungen) were included in the peacetime organization of most foot artillery regiments. These draught horses were attached to batteries to provide them with a degree of mobility, so that they could train for field deployment and siege missions. Only the several static foot artillery units committed solely to coastal defence were not allocated Bespannungs-Abteilungen.

Generally, foot artillery howitzer battalions had four batteries, while mortar battalions comprised only two batteries; irrespective of the type of gun or mortar involved, the standard foot artillery regiment fielded two battalions once mobilized. Indicative maximum and minimum manning figures for foot artillery units in peacetime and on mobilization were laid down by the general staff pre-war as at 1 October 1913, and these establishment figures remained valid up to the mobilization of August 1914.

The varying deployment concepts and typical fire positions of guns and mortars, together with the different 1st and 2nd Line transport arrangements for a heavy field howitzer battery and a heavy mortar battery, reflected the contrasting employment characteristics of these weapons. Whereas all of the troops directly involved with crewing and firing howitzers could be carried on the battery’s gun limbers and wagons if necessary, those in the mortar battery could not, which meant that a mortar battery could move only at marching speed and was therefore much less mobile.

Once the war was under way the foot artillery expanded steadily, with an increase of heavy artillery batteries in the order of no less than 550 per cent achieved by January 1918. Inevitably much of this expansion depended upon exploiting captured Allied artillery pieces and guns removed from fortresses in Germany, which in turn meant that the variety of guns in service increased – and this of course had unwelcome implications for those staffs and services responsible for the army’s logistical support. The addition of many long-range naval batteries to the field army’s artillery inventory during 1916 and 1917 exemplified the ever-growing diversity of that fire support. Nevertheless, the overriding need to dominate by fire the static battlefields on the Western Front drove the expansion of the army’s heavy artillery, so that Reserve, Landwehr, Ersatz and Landsturm regiments, battalions and batteries all began to appear in the foot artillery’s order of battle from 1914. These were joined by a further 650 independent batteries during 1915 and 1916, many of these new units being equipped with captured or older guns and established without any horses – a clear reflection of the static nature of the conflict by that stage. However, during 1916 a number of these independent batteries were regrouped into new foot artillery battalions, each of three or four batteries, at which stage they also received an allocation of horsed transport, providing them with a movement capability.

Not surprisingly, the wartime organization of the foot artillery was much less straightforward than that of the field artillery assigned to the divisions, as foot artillery deployments and allocations were based primarily upon availability, weapon types and capabilities together with the task in hand. Consequently, when a division redeployed it would usually leave in place the foot artillery units that had been supporting it. Eight or nine heavy batteries might be sited in a quiet divisional sector, with up to sixteen in a more active sector. While there they would be controlled by the division’s artillery commander along with the divisional field artillery units. Super-heavy railway guns and other long-range artillery were usually held under corps-level control for counter-battery and other special missions.

In April 1918 a British intelligence staff assessment sought to correlate foot artillery gun allocations with the different types of battery. It concluded that the 10-centimetre gun batteries had four guns, 13-centimetre and 15-centimetre batteries had two guns, 15-centimetre howitzer batteries had four howitzers, and 21-centimetre mortar batteries had three guns. At the same time it was assessed that the established strength of a 15-centimetre heavy field howitzer battery in 1918 was four officers and 120 other ranks, and that of a 21-centimetre heavy mortar battery was six officers and 200 other ranks, with three mortars, 100 heavy and 25 light draught horses. It then added that ‘[Heavy] Batteries do not appear to be horsed in all cases, and, in general, the number of horses has been considerably reduced from the establishment laid down prior to mobilization. In other respects, the normal organization and equipment of heavy batteries does not differ greatly from that of field batteries.’ Despite having observed and analyzed the development of the German artillery for almost four years, the uncertainty implied in this Allied intelligence report is another indication of the sheer complexity, non-standard and necessarily flexible nature of much of the German army’s foot artillery organization.

The army’s mountain artillery units were also categorized as part of the foot artillery, despite the fact that the guns they manned were of relatively small calibre and their support role was closer to that of a field battery than that of a foot artillery unit. Mountain artillery units were not permanently established before the war, although quantities of the specialized equipment, guns and howitzers to equip a number of batteries were held ready on a contingency basis, and the requisite preparatory training was also carried out. Once the conflict was under way – with the need to provide artillery support to the divisions and infantry mountain units operating in the Carpathian, Alpine and Vosges mountain regions and in the Balkans – mountain artillery batteries (Gebirgskanonen-Batterien) were formed, with some 25 batteries created by 1918. As was the case with the mountain infantry units, these batteries were largely manned by soldiers from Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden in order to capitalize on their direct personal experience of living and working in the appropriate terrain.

Three of the four-gun Gebirgskanonen-Batterien were grouped as a detachment (Abteilung) but were in practice usually employed independently as two-gun sections. The main gun used by these batteries was the 7.5-centimetre quick-firing mountain gun, firing high-explosive and shrapnel shells, although a small number of batteries were also equipped with mountain howitzers. The 7.5-centimetre guns could readily be broken down and carried on pack mules, seven of which were required to transport a complete gun. Thirty-one mules (including two in reserve) could transport the entire guns and equipment of a two-gun section, including its guns, entrenching tools, a field forge and tools, forage, farrier’s tools, observation equipment, medical stores, cooking equipment and ammunition. In December 1916 the establishment of a two-gun section included two officers, a warrant officer, six non-commissioned officers and 60 other ranks (26 gunners, 33 drivers, one orderly), together with 31 mules and ten riding horses.

ARTILLERY EQUIPMENT

The German army’s field, horse and foot artillery units used a wide array of light, medium and heavy guns, howitzers, mortars (which were in practice heavy howitzers) and adapted naval guns, as well as captured artillery pieces. Some pre-war guns were employed throughout the conflict, while others were superseded by new, improved weapons, which themselves underwent further modification and updating in the light of experience of their use on the battlefield. Among a very diverse range of guns of all types and calibres, eight or so emerged as the ‘core’ guns, howitzers and mortars that were in daily use to provide fire support by early 1918.

At the very top of the scale of heavy artillery were the army’s railway guns, which included a 28-centimetre gun that could fire a 284-kilogram shell more than 28 kilometres, a 38-centimetre gun that could fire a 353-kilogram shell 45 kilometres, and railway guns of 21–24 centimetres firing slightly smaller (119 kilogram) shells almost 130 kilometres. In addition to all these artillery pieces, the army also used a number of 7.7-centimetre, 9-centimetre and 10-centimetre guns fitted on rotating pedestal or mobile mountings for engaging aircraft, airships and balloons, as well as rapid-firing 2-centimetre and 3.7-centimetre anti-aircraft guns (Flugzeugkanone, Flugabwehrkanone, or Flak).

Principal Artillery Weapons (1913–1918)

TRENCH MORTARS

The static nature and attrition warfare of the 1914–18 conflict led to the development of a range of so-called trench mortars or (in the German army) Minenwerfer (literally ‘mine thrower’) capable of projecting heavy explosive charges relatively short distances, using their high trajectory to drop these charges into or on to emplacements, trench systems and besieged towns and fortresses. These purpose-made weapons, which were generally based upon flat-bed carriages, began to appear on the battlefield during 1915, quickly replacing the several types of much older, relatively rudimentary – but suitably modified – pre-war mortars that had been introduced as an interim solution to this operational deficiency. Whereas all the Allied versions of this type of weapon were smooth-bored, most of the German army’s Minenwerfer had rifled barrels. The most commonly used Minenwerfer varied in calibre from 7.6 centimetres up to 25 centimetres, although other types, including several smooth-bore Minenwerfer variants, were also in service. The heaviest Minenwerfer generally fired only high-explosive shells or bombs; medium and light Minenwerfer also fired gas shells, while a message shell was also available.

In the German army Minenwerfer were usually manned by the Pionier troops of Minenwerfer companies and battalions and were therefore not categorized as part of the artillery, despite the obvious similarities between the various calibres of Minenwerfer and conventional heavy artillery pieces and mortars, as well as between several skills common to both artillery and Minenwerfer units. The introduction of a light Minenwerfer into infantry battalions from 1917 frequently resulted in infantrymen being reassigned and trained to crew these close-support weapons, where they were routinely employed as light field guns or light howitzers. Most light Minenwerfer were mounted on wheeled horse-drawn gun carriages but could also be manhandled into position if necessary. Heavy Minenwerfer were typically crewed by between 21 and 28 men, while the Flügelminenwerfer required a crew of 42 to operate it effectively. Medium Minenwefer needed between 17 and 21 men, while light Minenwerfer had a 6-man crew. These totals included the men required to move the Minenwerfer into position. By 1918 a formidable array of Minenwerfer was in service, among which several main types predominated.

Minenwerfer (1915–1918)

Other types of Minenwerfer included the 9.2-centimetre Ehrhardt and Lanz weapons, the fairly rudimentary wood-barrelled Albrecht Mörser produced in 25-, 35- and 45-centimetre calibres, as well as two smooth-bored Minenwerfer: the 18-centimetre Minenwerfer and 17-centimetre Flügelminenwerfer (which used finned projectiles).

ARTILLERY SUPPORT

The organization of the artillery described above identified the division of that combat arm between the lighter guns of the field artillery and the heavy guns of the foot and siege artillery units, as well as the existence of mountain batteries. Although numerous types and calibres of artillery were used, the principal guns of the field artillery were 7.7-centimetre field guns and 10.5-centimetre howitzers, while the foot artillery mainly used 15-centimetre and 21-centimetre howitzers. Most of the heavy siege guns came into service between 1909 and 1912, in response to a general staff requirement to have available a suitable means of destroying existing and newly constructed French and Belgian fortifications in the west and thus to carry through the Schlieffen Plan. Until 1917, field artillery was generally deployed at division level and heavy artillery at the corps and army-level, but in February 1917 all artillery within a divisional sector came under the control of a single Artillerie-Kommandeur irrespective of type.

Both before and during the war, the main role of the artillery, both in attack and defence, was to support the infantry. Pre-war and during the campaign in 1914, field batteries were expected to deploy and move closely behind advancing and attacking infantry units, employing direct fire to support the attack and if necessary even to form a gun line to repel a counterattack and behind which the infantry could rally if necessary. However, developing technology and the improved range of guns meant that artillery batteries could provide heavier and more accurate supporting fire from well-selected positions while remaining further displaced from the infantry’s close-contact battle. At the same time, the diminishing opportunities for manoeuvre and offensive action from 1915 further reduced the need for the guns to employ such direct fire and close support of the sort envisaged before the war.

Where offensive action was practicable and undertaken, all the available artillery would initially fire on to the infantry’s objective; then the field artillery would continue to do so and to fire other close-support missions as required, while the heavy artillery engaged enemy reserves in depth and fired counter-battery missions to limit or deny the enemy artillery’s ability to fire on the attacking troops. Artillery was not usually held in reserve, and any decision to do so temporarily would normally only be taken at division, corps or army level if the operational situation warranted it – at the outset of a major offensive for example, where the likely course of the impending battle might be difficult to anticipate in the short term. One gun for every 25 metres of front was the norm on the Western Front, but this would increase to three guns per 25 metres in anticipation of an offensive. In March 1918 the general staff artillery support plan for the Kaiserschlacht required the equivalent of 92 field guns, 31 field howitzers, 14 medium howitzers, 14 heavy guns and 7 heavy howitzers for every 1.5 kilometres of the 80 kilometres attack front, as well as 7 super-heavy howitzers for every 3 kilometres of that front. In addition, numbers of extra field guns were positioned by hand and used only for the opening bombardment.

If the supported infantry were in defence, the main task of the artillery was to destroy any infantry attack or incursion before it reached the obstacle line in front of the defenders’ positions, while at the same time neutralizing any enemy artillery firing in support of the attackers. In defence, the artillery fire plan would usually be much more detailed than might be the case when supporting advancing troops. For defensive fire planning, targets and potential targets would already have been ranged-in (i.e., having been successfully engaged earlier in order to register the precise gun settings required to ensure first round hits whenever that target was again fired upon); obstacles, possible lines of approach and choke points would all have been noted as fire missions; observation posts would be pre-positioned ready to adjust fire; and telephone communications between the supported troops and the guns were more or less assured, so long as the telephone cables were buried, with backup cables also in place.

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