THE KING OF BATTLE

M109A6 Paladin

It has been a truism since at least the days of the Prussian king Frederick the Great that artillery is the `King of Battle’. Countless commanders from Napoleon to McArthur have credited the field artillery with both their victories and their survival. The importance of artillery is unquestioned still on the modern battlefield and no weapons system exemplifies that better than the US Army’s 155mm M109 Self-Propelled Howitzer.

Development and Early History

Self-propelled artillery had played an important role in the Allied victory in World War II and vehicles such as the 105mm M7 Priest and 155m M12 and M40, all based on the Sherman chassis, had featured among the US forces that fought in north- western Europe during the last year of the War. The M40 served in the Korean War alongside the M37 and M41 (mounting the 105mm and 155mm howitzers respectively and based on the M24 Chaffee light tank chassis), but two replacement vehicles, based on the chassis of the M41 light tank, were in development by 1950. These vehicles, the M52 (105mm) and M44 (155mm) entered service in 1952, but both proved unsatisfactory. Work was soon underway to develop a new generation of fully enclosed self-propelled howitzers that could meet the challenges of the envisaged nuclear battlefield of the Cold War. Moreover, the development of effective artillery-location radar during the 1950s made counter-battery fire a very real threat and necessitated a much enhanced level of crew protection than that offered by the open-topped M44 and M52.

In 1959 the first prototypes of the T195 110mm and T196 155mm HSP (Howitzer Self-Propelled) enter testing. Problems with the engine and drive train delayed production, but eventually, in June 1963, they were accepted into service as the M108 and M109. Production of the former was short-lived – only 355 were built in 1963 – as the Army required a larger gun. The M109 mounted the 23 calibre 155mm M126 howitzer and carried 28 rounds with a maximum range of 14,600 metres. Between 1963 and 1969 2,111 M109s were built for the US Army and Marine Corps, with a further 1,675 units built for export.

The M109 had its baptism of fire in the Vietnam War. Initially no armoured or mechanised units were deployed in theatre and commanders relied either on heavy, long-range artillery (such as the 203mm M110) or lighter towed pieces. By 1966, however, the utility of the M109 (and M108) was clear. Deployed in forward firebases, defended with earth works and sandbags, the M109 proved itself well-suited to supporting the infantry. Its traversable turret and M2HB .50cal machine gun also made it capable of defending itself against infantry attacks. By 1969, however, the M109s were being withdrawn and two years later the last battery left Vietnam. The Vietnam War had confirmed the basic soundness of the M109 design, but it had also revealed shortcomings in the M126 howitzer and its ammunition when compared to state-of-the-art Soviet designs such as the M46 130mm gun.

Production Variants

The next four decades would witness a constant programme of measures to update and improve the performance of the M109, its gun and ammunition, alongside, ultimately futile, attempts to design and produce a successor vehicle. The need for greater range had long been apparent and in 1971 the M109A1 entered service. This was armed with the 39 calibre M185 gun which increased the maximum range to 18,100 metres. Other changes necessitated by the increase in firepower included a strengthening of the torsion bar suspension and a new travel lock fitted to the front of the vehicle.

The conversion of M109s to A1 standard continued until 1981, but in the meantime a `Mid-Life Improvement’ program was instituted resulting in the M109A2 being adopted as for production in 1975. A new cannon mount, counterbalanced travel lock, and an improved engine accompanied a new turret bustle stowage arrangement which increased capacity from 28 to 26 rounds. Those M109A1s rebuilt to A2 standard were known as M109A3. The M109A2 eventually entered service in 1980 and 823 new vehicles were built between 1976 and 1985.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s much time, money and effort was spent in developing new forms of artillery round for the M109 series. These included rocket-assisted rounds, various types of sub-munitions and mines, and `special’ rounds. This latter category included chemical weapons (which remained in the US arsenal until 1997) and the W48 nuclear warhead, a simple plutonium- based weapon which delivered a yield equivalent to 72 tons of TNT. Some 3,000 of these tactical nuclear weapons were deployed before they were withdrawn from frontline service with the end of the Cold War.

The 1980s saw further refinements to the M109 design. The M109A4 introduced enhanced NBC (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical) protection, but its deployment was limited to reserve and National Guard units. More significantly the Army launched the `Howitzer Improvement Plan’ (HIP) to develop a new M109, alongside the abortive attempts to design and develop a completely new self-propelled howitzer.

The Paladin

The HIP resulted in the definitive model of the M109, the M109A6 Paladin. Beginning in 1985 various new guns were trialled and tested with the M109, eventually resulting in the adoption of the 39 calibre M284 cannon in a new mount. The M284 has a maximum range of 22,000 metres with normal munitions and 30,000 metres with rocket-assisted projectiles. Those M109A2/ A3s fitted with the new gun and mount were designated M109A5, but the Paladin proper had much more extensive modifications. The Paladin has a redesigned, larger turret incorporating new navigation systems, sensors and a digital communications system. The improvement in rates of fire and accuracy are startling: the Paladin can deploy from the march and be ready to fire within thirty seconds. The Paladin is deployed today in field artillery regiments as part of the Armoured Brigade Combat Team (ABCT). An ABCT currently fields sixteen M109A6s in two batteries and they are deployed in Poland and Germany as part of US Army Europe, as well as on the Korean Peninsula.

The ultimate version of the M109, the M109A7, entered low-level production in 2014. The M109A7 is the result of the Paladin Integrated Management Program. The new variant sports an entirely new chassis and drive train, engine, suspension and steering system, utilising components from the Bradley Fighting Vehicle family. It also has an enhanced 600-volt on- board power system designed to service the emerging technologies of the digital battlefield. It is heavier and faster than the M109A6 but can sustain a one round per minute rate of fire with deadly accuracy. The first vehicles were delivered in April 2015 and full production of 48 vehicles in the initial batch started this year.

The M109 in Action

The US Army’s M109s have seen action in Vietnam, in the First Gulf War, in the former Yugoslavia, and, most recently, in Iraq. After its first taste of combat in Vietnam, the M109 has proved itself a highly effective weapons system. During the First Gulf War no fewer than 582 M109A2/A3s were deployed in 25 artillery battalions, firing some 43,000 rounds. These were mainly DPICM rounds, which unleased a rain of sub-munitions and steel fragments on the hapless Iraqi forces, but also included 100 Copperhead laser-guided munitions used to destroy enemy tanks.

In Operation Iraqi Freedom and in subsequent operations in that country the M109A6 cemented its reputation. The deployment of M109s for the 2003 invasion of Iraq was less than half of that to the Gulf twelve years earlier and as the United States fought the `War on Terror’ the continued relevance of field artillery was called into question. Indeed, the proposed successor to the M109, the Crusader project, had been cancelled in May 2002 and the artillery was conspicuous by its absence from the operations in Afghanistan.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom the Iraqi artillery both outranged and outnumbered the divisional artillery deployed with 101st Airborne and 3rd Infantry Division, yet time and time again it proved itself essential in destroying enemy artillery and rocket systems. During sandstorms, the M109s and other guns provided artillery cover in the absence of air support. Essentially, during the invasion of Iraq the M109A6 excelled in the traditional role of artillery: providing effective and integrated close fire support to the infantry. The impact of the M109A6 was further enhanced by the presence of the M7 Bradley Fire Support Team Vehicle, which could keep up with the forward elements of the Combined Arms infantry and armour combat teams, providing precise coordinates within 50 metres at ranges up to 8,000 metres. The ability of the Paladin to keep up with the Bradleys and the Abrams, indeed the insistence of field commanders that they did so, and to provide both direct and indirect accurate fire support quickly was key to the remarkable success it enjoyed in the opening encounters of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Paladin’s success in suppressing the Iraqi artillery meant that during the invasion no American lives were lost to enemy artillery fire. A brigade commander from 3rd Infantry Division noted “the Iraqis had a lot of artillery, he used it extensively, but the combination of Paladin howitzers and the [Hughes AN/ TP]Q36 [weapon locating] radar was deadly. If he didn’t move, he was dead. The 1-10 Field Artillery fired about 1,000 rounds during the battles around An Nasiriyah. The Iraqis [as a result] very seldom massed fires.” (`U. S. Army Field Artillery Relevance on the Modern Battlefield’, Marine Corps University, 2004)

Conclusion

Operation Iraqi Freedom and the subsequent actions by the US armed forces in that country confirmed the importance of the M109 to combined arms manoeuvre warfare. Alongside the M1 Abrams MBT and the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the M109 is central to American war-fighting doctrine as the US Army reorients itself towards peer-to-peer or near-peer encounters. Put simply, the Paladin will be around for a few decades to come.

Heavy Artillery of WWI

To the sentry standing his pre-dawn duty in the trenches of the Western Front, the sight of a jagged line of light on the opposite horizon cannot have been comforting, for behind such a line lay the fire of the largest concentration of artillery pieces in history. World War I was an artillery war and, while large numbers of field guns were involved in. all the major battles of that conflict. It was the heavy artillery that ultimately won or lost battles. It was only the heavy artillery that had the shell power to destroy the earth or concrete protection upon which each side. came to rely for survival in the front line, and it was only the heavy artillery that could smash a way through the lines of defences behind which each side sheltered. By 1914 most European powers had built up large gun parks that contained artillery of increasingly heavy calibres and power. These were necessary to demolish the rings of fortifications that all the major powers used to protect their territories against the intrusions of others, but once those fortresses had been bypassed by the events of the first year of the war the same heavy artillery was equally useful in the strange conditions of the Western Front, where trench lines imposed their own peculiar method of warfare.

The Great War was the heyday of heavy artillery. in the purely static conditions that existed along the Western Front the heavy guns and howitzers could be carefully emplaced with few thoughts of dramatic or rapid moves, and they could be fed with their heavy projectiles for as long as the required logistic machinery remained in being. They had plenty of targets as each side burrowed deep into the earth to survive the storm that daily flew over their heads. The only way to harm such burrows was by the use of heavy projectiles that could smash their way through such protection as there was, and these heavy projectiles could only be delivered by the heavy artillery.

ln an age in which mass-produced mechanical transport devices are common-place, it comes as something of a surprise to realize how scarce such devices were during the early days of this century. Before World War I a great deal of power was generated by the simple application of manual labour assisted at times by the power of the horse, and this has to be remembered in the context of heavy artillery. At that time mechanical traction and powered lifting devices were unusual. So when it came to moving and handling heavy artillery there was often little more than brute force available.

Throughout the centuries gunners have learned to handle even the heaviest of their charges using only what is to hand. This has always involved a complicated system of timbers, joists, pulleys, levers and hard work, and while this can on its own move even the heaviest field gun and its carriage, such methods can have only a limited utility in the movement of large-calibre weapons. Fortunately the monsters in service during World War I had generally been designed at a time when metallurgy and mechanics were beginning to reach an advanced state, so designers were often able to build into these weapons some form of handling system that required only a minimum of physical effort and also offered a greater degree of safety to all concerned. The various systems usually involved built-in rails and ln; inches that enabled a howitzer or gun barrel to be removed or withdrawn on to its transport carriage without the need for special jigs and overhead structures. Some heavy artillery had inbuilt cranes for the same purpose, while some designers simply decided that the best way to assemble and disassemble guns was by suppling a mobile crane that was issued as part of the weapon’s standard equipment.

So by the time of World War I the emplacement of a heavy artillery piece was often not quite the problem it might have been, but usually there was still a great deal of work to be done. Pits had to be dug to accommodate the heavy firing platform needed by most weapons of the period, and in some cases earthboxes had to be filled to counteract the forces produced on firing. Heavy sub-assemblies still had to be manhandled on occasion, and this necessity often led to the allocation of only the largest men to heavy artillery units.

Putting the weapons [together or taking them apart was only one aspect of the labour involved in moving heavy artillery. Once the weapon had been broken down into a number of loads, each load had somehow to be pulled to where it was required. Before World War I this usually involved the horse or other draught animal, but the largest weapons required so many teams of horses that any real efficiency was impossible. Some of the less advanced nations had to rely on the horse, but the more advanced nations came to rely upon powered traction in the form of the internal combustion-engined tractor, the steam traction engine and even railways.

Traction engines were very often normal commercial models impressed into military service, and they rarely required any modifications for their new role. With the motor tractors things were different, however. The motor vehicle was still a relatively simple vehicle, and very often the power generated by the engines was relatively low. The only way to gain the power required tow heavy artillery was by the enlargement of engines to massive proportions.  This in turn led to large and heavy wheels to carry the engines and transmit power, with the result that the specialist artillery tractors of World War I resembled nothing more than huge bonnets carried on large wheels. ln such examples the drive appeared to be a mere appendage to the vehicle. Typical these monsters were the many designs produced in Austria and Germany, such as the Austro-Daimlers and their ilk.  

But it should not be forgotten that all too often the motor tractor and traction engine could not be used for the simple reason that even under war production conditions there were rarely enough to meet all the demands made upon the numbers available. All too often the gunners had to rely on the horse for their traction purposes, and if horses were not available they had to call upon such beasts as draught oxen or even camels. The difficulties involved in using  huge teams of such animals to tow heavy and awkward artillery loads across the shattered terrain of World War I battlefields can barely be imagined, but for the gunners who had to carry out such tasks we can now only offer our admiration.

French self-propelled heavy guns

Based on a large chassis developed by Schneider, the M 280 sur chenilles carried a derivative of the mle I 4/I6 Schneider howitzer. Few of these 280-mm models were produced.

The Canon de 194 mle GPF used the same chassis as the 280-mm model. While elevation was limited, the vastly increased mobility was more than adequate compensation. The driver of the carriage sat at the front of the equipment, with the working area and rearward-facing ordnance behind him. The petrol engine was at the rear of the carriage, below the elevating gear.

The Canon de 194 mle GPF (Grand Puissance Filloux – High-Power Filloux) – was the first French tracked self-propelled gun (SPG). Designed at the end of World War I, it was a pioneering weapon with many modern features.

The vehicle was designed in Schneider’s Le Creusot works. It was originally planned to arm it with a 155 mm gun but a weapon of 194 mm was eventually chosen. A few examples of this SPG were armed with a modified 280 mm siege mortar, this version was known as the M 280 sur chenilles (literally – “tracked M 280”). Both weapons used the same chassis and were powered by a 120 horsepower (89 kW) Panhard SUK4 M2 engine. Compared to its contemporary British SPG, the Gun Carrier Mark I, the Canon de 194 was much more advanced; it was driven by only one person, had hydraulic brakes and the gun had automatically adjusting recoil mechanisms and pneumatic recuperators.

These two weapons shared a common carriage driven by a petrol engine installed at the rear of the chassis. The driver sat at the extreme front with the barrel cradle almost immediately behind him. A small crane was provided to raise ammunition to the level of the crew platform behind the breech. The design had one drawback, the installation so arranged that ordnance elevation was somewhat limited (preventing the full range of the piece from being reached), but the mobility that the carriage provided more than made up for this. Later models were redesigmed to achieve increased elevations.

Not many of the 280-mm (11.02-in) models appear to have been made, Production was apparently concentrated on the 194-mm (7.64-in) model, but even so the main problem during the latter part of World War I was that there were never enough of them, Despite their bulk and weight they were able to cross terrain that no equivalent towed weapon could negotiate without difficulty, and the gun itself had a good range and a useful projectile weight.

After the Great War all M 280 models were converted to take the 194 mm gun. Around 50 were still in use at the outbreak of World War II, some were used against the invading German forces. Surviving vehicles were pressed into Wehrmacht service as the 19.4cm Kanone 485 (f) auf Selbstfahrlafette. At least 3 of them were used by the Germans in Russia in about 1942, serving in the 84th Regiment of Heer Artillery.

For its day the French self-propelled carriage was a remarkable achievement. It now seems safe to say that it was the first true self-propelled artillery platform to be used operationally in any numbers, and it certainly had many features that were carried over to later designs. Apart from the caterpillar tracks these carriages had automatically-adjusting recoil mechanisms to suit all angles of elevation, hydraulic brakes and pneumatic recuperators.

Specification Canonde 194mleGPF

Calibre: 194 mm(7.64 in)

Lengrth of barrel 6,50 m (2i ft 3,9 in)

Weight: in action 29600 kq (65,257 lb)

Elevation: 0* to 37* Traverse: 55*

Muzzle velocity: 725 m (2,379 ft) per second

Maximum range: 20900 m (22,855 yards)

Shell weight: 78.83 kg (173.8 Ib)

LINK [Russian]

French Artillery

The superiority of the French artillery was not due to its equipment, but to its tactical handling and to the efficiency and esprit de corps of its officers and men. That superiority was very marked, for instance, in the Jena-Auerstädt campaign of 1806. The Prussian army had a greater ratio of artillery to infantry than the French; but in the artillery, as in the other arms, the Prussian officers were still following the teachings of Frederick the Great. In their time these had been revolutionary, but that student of the art of war, Napoleon, had absorbed the lessons and had superimposed his own system of a massive artillery reserve, in order to achieve artillery superiority at the decisive point.

French artillery doctrine can be neatly summed up in this passage from Tousard:

In defensive positions, place the large calibers in situations from which you can discover the enemy at a great distance, and from which the most extensive parts of its front are to be seen.

In attack, place these large calibers in the weakest part of your order of battle, consequently the most distant from the enemy; on the same side with the with the false attacks; on such heights which can, in securing them from insult, afford you the means of seconding the flanks of the real attack, and, if possible, batter de revers, the points which are attacked …

You should know the effect which you are to produce; the troops which you have to support; the points of attack, and take your positions so as not to impede your troops, nor occupy such where infantry could be more usefully employed than artillery. Avoid bringing your cannon too near and exposing them too much. Avail yourself of the disposition of the ground to cover your front, and especially your flanks; and, unless you are sure of a decisive effect, never trust your cannon from the protection of the troops.

Your crossfires should embrace the whole of the enemy’s position, and the ground he must march over to attack you. Let your fire be concentrated, that is to say, offer to the enemy only scattered subdivisions to fire at, whereas from your several positions you may batter the same object.

These same objects, in the defensive, are the Debouches, or openings of the enemy; the heads of such of its columns which threaten you; the ground in front of your weakest parts.

In the offensive; the whole front of the enemy’s army on which you should fire, in order to check and perplex him; and the parts which you intend to attack and destroy.

Force the enemy to make use of direct fire, before their crossfires might annoy your attacking troops; and, when forced to cease firing on the points which your troops attack, batter such of the enemy’s as are collateral to them.

Fire on an extent which covers the amplitude with the divergency of your shots.

Make your shot range the greatest dimension of a troop. Consequently, batter a line obliquely, or en echarpe, and a column with direct fire, but never trust your pieces from the protection of your troops.

Place your cannon so as to be beaten neither en echarpe, in flank, nor in the rear, unless you can shelter yourself, or have the certainty of producing the expected effect before you can be entirely disabled, and put hors de combat.

Before adopting a situation, consider the nature of the site, to avoid the miry, stony, and broken ground.

Secure to yourself easy means of advancing or retreating.

Choose positions not too much elevated. The maximum which is the most advantageous, is thirty or forty yards on six hundred, and sixteen on two hundred.

Avoid taking your situation behind your troops; your fire makes them uneasy, and presents two objects instead of one to the enemy’s fire.

Give at least thirty-six yards for each piece of your battery, unless the enemy may batter you en echarpe, under a very favorable angle; for they fire on a front, and not at a single piece.

Prefer positions from which you may batter the enemy for a longer time.

Never fire gun against gun, unless the enemy is under shelter, and his cannon exposed; moreover, unless your troops, being more annoyed by their fire than their troops are with yours, should be rendered incapable of performing their maneuvers.

Embrace with your fire the whole field of battle, or such part of it where the greatest number of their troops are collected, and do not fire on a contracted point.

Accelerate your firing so much the more as you may do it with more justness.

Make use of the grapeshot at shorter distances than such as are prescribed by the tables, if the field of battle is unequal, soft, covered, plunging, or plunged.

Spare your ammunition for a critical moment. Infantry, at quick time, march two hundred yards in three minutes; cavalry, at gallop, in half a minute.

Never abandon your cannon but when the enemy enters the battery. The last discharges are the most destructive: they may perhaps be the means of your preservation, but for certain those of your glory.

While the tumult of the Revolution did not affect the artillery officer corps as much as it had in the infantry and cavalry, 81 percent of the artillery officers on the Army List in 1789 emigrated. This left a burden on the remaining officers, such as Napoleon, and the NCOs, which was eventually filled to some extent. Newly commissioned officers also filled the void: Marmont, for example, expertly served and smoothly emplaced guns to support Desaix and Kellermann at Marengo in 1800, smashing the Austrian pursuit and helping turn defeat into victory.

Tactics employed by the artillery units in the Wars of the Revolution reflected what had been taught in the schools before the wars. Although not always successful, and many times outnumbered in guns and equipment by the Austrians, the French artillerymen learned their trade and supported their infantry brethren on the battlefields of the Republic. The horse artillerymen brought a new variable into the artillery/infantry equation, and Séruzier remarked that “they were renowned for their courage, and no less for their contentious spirit. They pushed esprit de corps far beyond the point of virtue and believed themselves infinitely superior to their comrades in the foot artillery.” Horse artillery were assigned to the cavalry as, according to Kilmaine, “it is the only way to make up for our scarcity of cavalry.” They fought alongside the clouds of light troops that screened attacks, closely supported attacking infantry in line or column, and in the advance guard of the army. They furnished the needed artillery fire with the support that sometimes kept a faltering attack moving. At the Battle of Wattignies in October 1793, a French concentration of five artillery companies, three horse and two foot, totaling thirty guns, paved the way for the decisive infantry assault: the three horse artillery companies accompanied the French infantry, while the two foot companies conducted counterbattery fire against the opposing Austrian artillery. The doctrine taught and written about before the wars was starting to bear fruit.

When the French phased out the divisions of all arms by 1800, artillery was still assigned to infantry and cavalry divisions. Artillery was initially employed to support the skirmishers in attacks, as well as being formed in multiple company batteries along the front of the army to support the infantry’s main and secondary attacks. One of the problems in the Revolutionary campaigns was that the French were many times outnumbered in artillery by the excellent Austrian artillery, and were many times outshot, as at Neerwinden in 1793.

Napoleon’s coming to power in 1799 gradually changed all that. The artillery arm was enlarged, and more guns were manufactured and issued to the gun companies. The Grande Armée of 1805, the best Napoleon ever led, was short of horse transport (which is an indication that Napoleon’s actual intention was to invade England), and the artillery was short of horses when it moved east to face the Austrian invasion of Bavaria. Not all the guns and ancillary equipment could be taken until the horse shortage could be solved. Davout had to leave some of his guns and artillery equipment at Mannheim during the French offensive, to be retrieved later.

After the Austerlitz campaign and subsequent peace treaty, Napoleon reorganized his artillery in a more logical manner. New guns of the Système AN XI, of which the 6-pounder, a new 12-pounder, and a 5.5-inch howitzer were being produced, and now were issued as soon as they were manufactured. What Napoleon wanted to do was issue every infantry division in the Grande Armée with two artillery companies. He also wanted one of them to be a horse artillery company if there were enough to go around. One horse artillery company would be assigned to every light cavalry division, and the heavy cavalry divisions would get two each, and all divisional artillery companies would be equipped with 6-pounders and 5.5-inch howitzers. An army artillery reserve would be formed, where most of the 12-pounders would be held. Additionally, corps artillery reserve companies would be held by the corps commanders. The 4- and 8-pounder Gribeauval guns would either be placed in the arsenals for storage as they were replaced by the new ordnance, or assigned to armies in secondary theaters, such as Italy and Spain.

In December 1814, General Ruty conducted a study that favored the older 8-pounder Gribeauval gun tube over the newer and widely employed 6-pounder of the Système AN XI. His main points were that the older piece was better and more accurate, that there had been no field testing comparing the two pieces, and that the weight saved by using the lighter piece failed to give it a decisive advantage over the older 8-pounder.

Ruty also found that the companies of each gun type were almost identical in size, and that the number of horses needed to haul both guns and their ancillary equipment was also nearly identical. He also came to the conclusion that:

The 8 caliber has, in all respects, an undeniable advantage over the 6-caliber. The use of the former, in preference to the latter, could not be put in doubt if we disregarded all economic considerations in the use of the resources. If, on the other hand, we proposed to coordinate with these last considerations, rather than with the first ones, the determination of the field calibers, the advocates of the old system would appose [sic] to the 6 caliber, the 4 caliber which, for the economy of the resources, obtains more advantages in relation to the 8 caliber. Yet, if the question was considered from only one of these points of view, it would be discussed in an incomplete and wrong way. In order to grasp the real point of view of the question, we must determine, in a more precise manner, the various purposes the cannon can serve in field warfare and then, examine if, for a definite sum of resources, the combination of the 8 and 4 calibers serves better these purposes than the intermediate 6 caliber.

Finally, Ruty stated that:

If the reasoning itself did not suffice to establish the advantages of the 8 caliber or the 6 caliber in the formation of the batteries… it would rely on the memories of the past to convey its undeniable advantages … Twenty years of brilliant success had sanctified it. Nobody can feel more inclined than an artillery officer to grant the personnel a share of merit it has to claim in these successes; yet it is for the same officer to judge to what extent the nature of the weapon has played a part in obtaining these successes. It seems impossible to deny that the material and positive superiority of a caliber more significant than the usually weaker caliber, had a lot to do with the superiority of our horse artillery batteries generally accepted at the time of the war currently being discussed. This opinion was so widespread that the gunners brought themselves reluctantly to renounce a weapon that so many reasons of pride and trust made it precious to them. They seized with eagerness the opportunity to take it back, wherever the 8 caliber was still accepted in the composition of field companies, in competition with the 6 caliber, which has been introduced in our armies only successively.

The addition of the new 6-pounder into the French artillery simplified many issues, such as ammunition resupply and the number of calibers used by the field armies. However, the Système AN XI was not fully implemented, only the 6-pounder and 5.5-inch howitzer being issued in large numbers. Furthermore, as has been noted, the new carriage for the 6-pounder was unsuitable and fell apart after hard campaigning, so the 6-pounder had to be remounted on the older Gribeauval carriages taken from the armories.

On campaign, French artillery was organized by company, the companies being assigned to a separate corps under a corps artillery chief who was usually a general officer. Companies of the same regiment did not necessarily serve together, or even in the same corps, though sometimes it was specified that they should. There was no battalion-level organization in the artillery regiments.

Corps artillery was organized with a corps reserve, and with every infantry division receiving one company of foot artillery. Those companies were also issued with four extra caissons to carry ammunition resupply for the infantry. There were also companies assigned to the army artillery reserve, that mission generally being taken over after 1809 by the larger Guard artillery.

Saxon “geschwindstuck” Artillery

The Saxons deployed an interesting artillery design in the 3 and 6pdr geschwindstuck (quick-firing) pieces. These had barrels that could be quickly tipped back to a 65° elevation after loading, which seated the charge without the need for ramming. This was only used for loading canister, but was proven in action during the Silesian wars when the rate of fire with canister was doubled. These guns were normally issued as battalion pieces.

7YW Artillery – part 5 – SAXE-POLAND

Saxon Artillery Geschwindstück

“Author: Dr Stephen Summerfield Title: Saxon Artillery 1733-1827 Published: December 2009 Publisher: Partizan PressISBN: 978-1-85818-598-9″

The strong links of Saxony with the Polish crown caused her to become the battleground for the competing powers of Austria, Prussia and Russia for centuries. Efficient artillery was essential but in the 1740s was neglected due to the prohibitive costs of ordnance and maintaining a standing army. This contributed by the annexation of Saxony by Frederick the Great in 1756 and the adsorption of her soldiers into the Prussian Army. The remnants of the Saxon Army fought with distinction with their Austrian and French Allies.

This unhappy experience of the Seven Years War (1756-63) led to the M1766 Hoyer system that was first used in the War of Bavarian Succession (1777-78). The gun carriage and elevating system of the M1766 4-pdr Schnellfeuergeschütz regimental gun probably influenced the design of the Austrian M1780 Wurst guns. The M1766 Granadstück based upon the Russian Unicorn was a long barrelled howitzer that could fire an early form of spherical case [Shrapnel].

The 1809 campaign showed the Saxon Army and its ordnance had to be transformed from that suited for 18th Century to Napoleonic warfare. The main influence on the M1810 gun tubes was the French AnXI with the carriages derived from those of the Saxon M1766 Hoyer System. These excellent guns performed well in 1812 and especially at Gross Beeren (23 August 1813) where they dismounted 9 Prussian guns.

The century of Saxon ordnance development is illustrated with 66x 1:24 scale plans, 64x 1:30 scale plans and 64 details drawn from contemporary sources. These are enhanced by 34 photographs, 38 contemporary plates and 32 uniform plates with 78 separate uniforms shown in colour. In addition there are 3 maps, 34 OOBs and 22 Tables.

Artillery Development 16th-18th Century

Cornelius Redlichkeit’s disappearing gun carriage; on recoiling, the small carriage runs down to inclined plane, counterbalanced by the heavy roller. From Scheel’s Memoirs d’Artillery published in Denmark, 1777.

After the Restoration, artillery appears to have vanished from sight in England, for Macaulay tells that when William of Orange landed (1688) the apparatus he brought with him, though such had been in constant use on the continent, excited in our ancestors an admiration resembling that which the Indians of America felt for the Castilian harquebuses’. This ‘apparatus’ consisted of ’21 huge brass cannon which were with difficulty tugged along by 16 carthorses each’.

One of the other causes of artillery’s poor standing at the time was that the force rarely belonged body and soul to the Army. The problem of maintenance of such an expensive and technical force in peacetime, already touched upon, was still unsolved. A limited number of professional gunners were retained, together with a number of guns, and when war broke out this cadre was augmented by a scratch collection of labourers and drivers to serve under the gunners. A great difficulty lay in the fact that these reinforcements were hired civilians rather than soldiers, and when things got too hot for them, they frequently de- camped, leaving guns and gunners to manage as best they could. Sooner or later this misfortune befell most armies, and sooner or later the fact was accepted that the expense of forming a permanent corps of artillery simply had to be borne. In this way the entire force, gunners, drivers, fire- workers, matrosses and other peculiar incumbents were subject to the same military discipline and imbued with the same martial spirit as the rest of the Army.

The War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13) shows some leanings towards a resurgence of flexible artillery employment which had been for- gotten since Gustavus’s time. Marlborough, to everyone’s surprise, revealed himself to be one of the greatest soldiers of history, and like all good generals he had a sound appreciation of what could and could not be done with the various component forces under his command. At Blenheim, after being repulsed four times in frontal attack, he moved a battery of guns across the River Nebel, and this moving of guns in the course of the battle contributed in no small measure to the day’s eventual success.

At the Battle of Malplaquet, which was won at the cost of 12,000 dead, the decisive stroke was again an artillery manoeuvre; having penetrated the French centre, Marlborough ordered the ‘Grand Battery’ of 40 guns to advance into the heart of the French line where, wheeling to face the flanks, they opened a withering fire of case and grape-shot on to the French cavalry who were waiting, behind their infantry, to begin the counter-attack charge. This destruction of the French reserve decided the battle. No doubt had other opportunities offered, ‘Corporal John’ would have made more use of his guns, but circum- stances were sometimes against him; for example at Oudenarde we are told, ‘few pieces of artillery were brought up on either side, the rapidity of the movements of both (armies) having outstripped the slow pace at which these ponderous implements of destruction were then conveyed’.

When Marlborough fell from grace after the war, the armies of the world had perforce to wait for another great captain before any further improvement was likely. It fell to Frederick the Great to take the next step. In 1759 he formed a brigade of horse artillery armed with light 6- pounder guns, with a view to providing a force of artillery which could manoeuvre with and keep up with his cavalry. This he found necessary by virtue of his appreciation of the function of cavalry. Frederick’s father had, more or less as a hobby, created an enormous and highly disciplined army which he was too solicitous to hazard in actual warfare. But when the son succeeded his father he found an instrument to hand with which he was able to impress his mark on the whole of Europe. An outstanding soldier and never averse to trying something new, on his accession he found himself in charge of a cavalry force which had been trained to manoeuvre into position, then form into line and fire at the halt. While this tactic provided them with excellent firepower, it con- verted them into little more than mounted infantry, and Frederick, appreciating that movement was the fundamental feature of cavalry action, soon abolished this tactic and trained his cavalry in the use of lance and sword. Having removed their firepower, he had to replace it; he rediscovered Gustavus Adolphus’s principles, expanded them and invented horse artillery.

The measure of this innovation can be gauged by the fact that at this time the only mobile artillery in use on the Continent was the ‘Battalion Gun’, a misguided innovation due to Gustavus which had been perpetuated by those who knew no better. These were light guns dragged along by the marching infantry; they were a species which propounded a dilemma. Either they were light enough not to impede the infantry’s rate of march, in which case they were too light to have much effect when fired; or they were heavy enough to provide a worthwhile lethal effect, in which case they encumbered the infantry and slowed their advance. Usually the bias was to the latter case; had Gustavus lived he would undoubtedly, in due course, have recognized the defects and abolished the battalion gun, but in the event they remained to encumber armies until Frederick’s horse artillery showed how mobility and firepower could be brought together.

Frederick’s ideas took time to implement, and in the interim the tactics of the day had their effect on the artillery. Frederick’s ideas on tactics were easier for the average soldier to assimilate than his ideas on reorganization, and his tactical thinking came to dominate the armies of Europe; drill and discipline his armies had, and won wars. Drill and discipline therefore became the be-all and end-all of military thinking, and war developed into a matter of position and manoeuvre, for with drilled and disciplined troops some elegant manoeuvres could now be performed. The defending army selected its position, made its dispositions, and sat there waiting attack. Their artillery was entrenched with it, and it was rarely called upon to move in the course of a battle. The attackers, for their part, secure in the knowledge that nothing short of divine intervention would tempt the de- fenders from their position, could move at leisure. ‘They marched and countermarched, broke into column and wheeled into line with a gravity and solemnity that in our times would provoke a smile’, a Victorian analyst wrote. This sort of armed gavotte reached its zenith at Fontenoy with Lord Charles Hay’s infamous invitation to the French to fire first. But the system was accepted as the only method of fighting, and it remained the doctrine until Napoleon reintroduced mobility, which upset several people. ‘In my youth’, complained an elderly Prussian officer, ‘we used to march and countermarch all summer without gaining or losing a square league, and then we went into winter quarters. But now comes an ignorant hot-headed young man who flies from Boulogne to Ulm, and from Ulm to the middle of Moravia, and fights battles in December. The whole system of his tactics is monstrously incorrect.’

The general result of this dilatory tactical system was to produce a tendency to improve the accuracy and effect of artillery fire to the detriment of mobility, leading to the gradual adoption of heavier guns of larger calibre. But in spite of this trend there were one or two attempts to produce more practical weapons from time to time, at- tempts which prevented artillery from sinking entirely from sight. One rather eccentric innovator was the Chevalier Folard who decided to design a lightweight gun and produced a short 24- pounder. With a 28-inch barrel it weighed only 15 cwt, a startling change from the conventional 24-pounder of the day which was 11 feet long and weighed 45 cwt. Unfortunately when constructed and fired, it blew up; this regrettable result so upset the good Chevalier that he came to the conclusion that artillery was incapable of any improvement, and he proposed the complete abolition of the arm, replacing it with mobile ballista and catapults.

Folard’s disillusionment with the state of artillery led him to advocate equipping the troops with this catapulte de campagne instead.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the poor state of artillery at this time (1723) than the fact that Folard’s ridiculous proposals were seriously considered. Even such an astute intelligence as Benjamin Franklin was swayed by Folard’s arguments and in later years urged upon General Lee the suppression of artillery and the reintroduction of archery.

However, this was the lunatic fringe. At the same time as the Chevalier was advocating a return to catapults, others, more versed in artillery fundamentals, were also taking a look at the light- weight gun. The first move was in Germany in about 1725 when a number of 8-pounder and 4-pounder guns were mounted so that they could be brought rapidly into action and fired without detaching them from the horse. Their firepower was inferior but the balance of advantages was in their favour, lightness compensating for poor lethality. What the horses thought about the idea is not on record. The ‘Galloper Guns’ which appeared in the 1740s were a further and more practical development of this idea; the carriage was made with shafts which could act as a trail when the gun was in action.

Unfortunately, while the galloper gun calls up a dashing image the reality was less stirring. The design well illustrates the confusion between light- ness and mobility. The gun was light and mobile, no doubt of that. But the flaw in the system was that while the guns were capable of rapid movement they did so at some disadvantage; the ammunition was on heavy carts and the gunners were mostly on foot. So for all the lightness, mobility was still absent.

Marshal Saxe suggested provision of this Amusette’ in considerable numbers, but the idea failed to catch on.

Marshal Saxe was the next to try his hand; he had a high opinion of the power of artillery but a poor one of its mobility. ‘It is unlikely that the artillery will ever move faster; it is impossible that it will ever move slower,’ he is reputed to have said. And to remedy the deficiency he proposed the ‘Amusette’, a species of heavy musket firing a half-pound ball and drawn by hand, to be distributed in large numbers across the front of the battle. Nothing seems to have come of this suggestion, but it was echoed a few years later (1762) by another Frenchman, M. de Bonneville. He proposed a 1-pounder breechloader which, according to him, could be loaded and fired on the move. This idea also never seems to have reached the field of battle.

Another idea which failed was M de Bonneville’s mobile 1-pounder breech-loader.

In these years of tactical ferment, one is entitled to ask if there had been any technical advance in the material of artillery. Fortunately, here the picture is brighter. This side of the matter was in the hands of the gunners themselves, and, with a certain faith in the rightness of their calling they applied themselves to improving the tools of their trade. No matter that the generals and marshals were incapable of handling the guns or appreciating their worth; when the day came that their talents were recognized, the gunners would not be found wanting. The guns themselves were long and ponderous still, due to the powder. Slow burning, it demanded a long and thus heavy barrel to develop its full force. There seemed to be no way round that problem, but there were other fields to be explored.

The gun carriage, two wheels joined by an axle-tree and with a trail to support the weight and the shock of firing, had superseded the gun cart in the fifteenth century, and in about 1500 came the first gunnery instrument-the gunner’s quadrant. This is reputed to have been invented by the Emperor Maximilian I, and was no more than a 90-degree quadrant with one side extended, carrying a plumb-bob. Since degrees were not yet known, the quadrant was arbitrarily marked off in ‘points’. By placing the extended side in the cannon’s bore the weapon could then be elevated or depressed until the plumb-bob indicated the desired point to achieve the required range. With the gun horizontal the plumb-bob reached the end of the scale, from whence comes the term ‘point-blank’.

Having a scale of points and equating them to ranges demanded the production of some form of table ot ranges and elevations, and this was some- thing the gunner had to find out for himself, for guns were individual weapons and not mass produced. All sorts of minor variations in dimensions could be found between two nominally identical guns, and in addition every gunner was idiosyncratic about how much powder he used, how he rammed it, whether he used a wad and so forth. Thus it was necessary for him to take his gun out and actually fire it at the various points on the quadrant, measuring the result of each shot and recording it for his future use.

The actual task of elevating the gun was done by heaving it up or down by the use of levers or handspikes, inserting wooden blocks beneath the breech to hold the required angle; the blocks were soon refined into a wedge which gave more precise control, and the ultimate system came in about 1578 when John Skinner, ‘one of the Queen’s Majesty’s Men’ invented the elevating screw, which gave finer control. Some early guns, as can be seen from the illustrations, used an. arc perforated with holes to position the breech end of the gun, but this was only suited to the lighter types of weapon. Whichever system was used, there were, as yet, no sighting arrangements; the gunner merely looked over the line of the gun, elevated by means of quadrant and range table, and hoped for the best.

In the ammunition field, Stefan Batory, King of Poland, is credited with the introduction of red-hot shot in 1579. This device, more useful against ships and property than against men, required some dexterity on the part of the gunners to fire it without doing themselves harm. The iron shot was heated to redness in a furnace; the gun was loaded with a charge of powder and a tight-fitting dry wad rammed down on top; then, with great rapidity, a wet wad was rammed down, followed by the red-hot shot, whereupon the gun was touched off-before the shot burned its way through the wads and did the job itself. Primitive as it sounds, it remained a standard item of ammunition until the smoothbore gun disappeared from the scene in the nineteenth century.

In 1588 comes the first record of the use of hollow cannon balls filled with gunpowder, these being used to shell Bergen-op-Zoom, thus translating the explosive effect of the powder to the target and bringing new meaning to Bacon’s observation that ‘These substances can be used at any distance we please, so that the operators escape all hurt from them, while those against whom they are employed are suddenly filled with confusion.’ The operators did not entirely escape all harm though; the explosion of the powder at the target was brought about by internal friction when the shell struck its target, and often an equal friction was developed when the shot was launched, so that the explosion took place at the beginning of the trajectory instead of at the end. One Sebastian Halle proposed a way round this in 1596 by the use of a wooden peg inserted into the shell and containing a filling of gunpowder, which would be ignited by the explosion of the charge and then burn away to ignite the shell contents at the end of the trajectory, but his idea was not followed up for many years; one drawback to the development of such a ‘time fuze’ was the simple question of calibrating such a device when no accurate method of measuring small intervals of time existed.

At sea the use of ordnance had made a slow start. Sea battles for the most part were simple and bloody affairs in which one ship grappled to an- other and the crews fought it out hand to hand, and the use of cannon was confined to short-range fire with peterara and the like, loaded with ‘langridge’-scrap metal and small stones-to repel the boarders. It was not until the middle of the fifteenth century that the use of cannon as offensive arms, to reach across the intervening water and damage the enemy before he could come to grips, became a standard practice. Among other reasons, the bulk and weight of the contemporary long- ranging gun was a considerable problem, and not until the general introduction of cast-iron guns and corned powder allowed the development of handier weapons did the sailors take kindly to burdening their craft with cannon.

By the time of Elizabeth I the seagoing cannon was an accepted item, and so far as the gun itself was concerned its advance paralleled that of land artillery. The principal difference lay in the question of adapting the weapon to the ship-the gun carriage or mounting. The first ship-board guns appear to have been simply barrels laid in a wooden trough, the trough being fixed to the ship and the barrel free to recoil in it, controlled to some degree by ropes or chains. This was later changed, when it was appreciated that increasing the mass of the recoiling parts decreased the violence of recoil, to firmly attaching the cannon to the trough and allowing both to recoil. Then, some time in the sixteenth century, came the addition of wheels, or trucks, to the trough, and from this rough beginning the ‘truck carriage’ or ‘ship carriage’ evolved.

The truck carriage was, in fact, far from the perfect answer, and even its champions had to admit that it had its defects. The system of con- trolling recoil by the ‘breeching rope’ was primitive; if the tackle securing the gun broke loose in a storm, the task of catching and securing the runaway was extremely hazardous and if not done quickly could well lead to greater disasters. More than one ship lost with all hands had her foundering attributed to the guns breaking loose in a storm. The attachment of the breeching rope and running-out tackle invariably caused the gun to jump on firing, to the detriment of accuracy, and the sailors had to step lively to avoid being struck by the recoiling gun or caught up in the festoon of ropes and tackle. But having said all that, it had to be admitted that the truck carriage was simple, robust, easily repairable by the ship’s carpenter and did its job. Since nothing better offered, the truck carriage was to stay in service until the nineteenth century with very little improvement.

Grinding into the Mountainside: Italy on the Isonzo

The Obice da 105/14 modello 18 was a howitzer used by Italy during World War II. The howitzer was designed by Schneider in 1906. It was chosen by the Italian Regio Esercito to serve as their new field gun, but licence production by Ansaldo was slow.
The Cannone da 381/40 AVS was an Italian railway gun that saw action during World War I.
The Cannone da 75/27 modello 06 was a field gun used by Italy during World War I and World War II. It was a license-built copy of the Krupp Kanone M 1906 gun. It had seats for two crewmen attached to the gunshield as was common practice for the period. Captured weapons were designated by the Wehrmacht during World War II as the 7.5 cm Feldkanone 237(i).

On the Isonzo front, both sides suffered from the winter conditions, including ice storms and avalanches. Shelling and snipers forced both sides to work at night. The mountain troops on both sides grew more proficient at raiding and specialist weapons like flamethrowers made their first appearance. Boroevic´’s outnumbered Fifth Army still lacked enough shells but constantly improving defences and superb intelligence gave him a priceless advantage.

For the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo the Italian artillery continued to rely on area fire and not a detailed fire-plan, even after new regulations were disseminated: a 48-hour bombardment by over a thousand guns was simply more indiscriminate shellfire. Late snowfall and mist only compounded the coordination problems and the Italians were driven back with heavy losses. Alpini units, supported by their own mountain artillery, had more success. Both sides began to use mining in the high alpine passes to edge towards and under enemy positions, blasting holes in San Martino in 1916 and eventually honeycombing the Little Lagazuoi in the Dolomite Range.

Conrad von Hötzendorf was eager to punish the Italians for breaking the Triple Alliance. He could not match the strong Italian forces on the Isonzo, so he decided to shift the battle westwards to the South Tyrol and ordered Colonel-General Archduke Eugen to prepare a suitable plan for April 1916. The Fifth Army yielded some of its reserves and fresh artillery soon followed. The Italian First Army was poorly deployed and Cadorna, easily distracted by a minor thrust on the Carso, became aware of Austrian preparations too late to affect the outcome. Eugen’s infantry and artillery, supplemented by the units stripped from the Russian front, were well co-ordinated and made significant gains before they outpaced their already meagre supply system and Cadorna finally managed to stabilise the front line. The Archduke was pleased with his men and, although most of his reserves were withdrawn after Brusilov’s attack, he gave a press interview to publicise the fact that the defenders had lost more men than the attackers. Eugen believed that better defences and closer infantry–artillery co-ordination gave the Austrians a huge advantage over the Italians:

[On the Isonzo] it was demonstrated what our [Trentino] offensive has now confirmed: that our men, but not the Italians, could stand the horrors of drumfire … Specifically, the close cooperation between our infantry and our artillery, and the batteries among one another has been the main source of our success. Our artillery-based defence has cost the enemy veritable hecatombs of dead … The Italian prisoners unanimously declared the effect of our artillery fire was frightful, simply unendurable. Under cover of this artillery fire, it was possible for our infantry, with […] slight losses, to tear from the enemy, position after position … The Italian artillery answered our fire only weakly – not, as captured magazines afterward showed, from lack of ammunition, but because they were holding back for our infantry attacks …

The Sixth Battle of the Isonzo, in August, finally saw the Italians use a genuine artillery fire-plan. Colonel Pietro Badoglio, later a key figure in Mussolini’s regime, was assigned to plan the offensive and he and his staff selected a range of key targets including command bunkers, known supply dumps and artillery batteries. To show his confidence in the plan, Badoglio opted to personally lead a brigade attacking Mount Sabotino. For once the Austrians misread the situation and the size of the offensive surprised them. With only four heavy batteries and fewer than 600 light and medium guns, the Fifth Army was heavy outgunned and ran ruinously low on ammunition. The artillery bombardment cut all communications to the positions on Mount Sabotino and the Italians were able to overwhelm the defenders and trap many of them in their formidable kavernen. This time, when the inevitable counter-attack came, the Italians had enough time to establish their own defensive system. A similar success was experienced on San Michele but here the Austrians ran out of ammunition and their counter-attacks were driven back with heavy casualties. Just as a breakthrough glimmered, Cadorna lost his nerve and the Italian artillery reverted to re-arranging the geography while the Austrians strengthened the new defensive line on the Plava and received urgently needed shells. Further Italian attacks were predictably beaten back after savage fighting. Russian prisoners of war were brought into the Fifth Army sector to help construct an expanded defensive system, and as the Italians dithered, fresh artillery arrived to further strengthen the position.

Once again Cadorna returned to planning how to batter his way through to the Carso and the Duke of Aosta’s Third Army was instructed to prepare the latest assault. The fire-plan on this occasion required the artillery to soften up the front line, and to use heavy guns against the rear areas before intensifying the so-called ‘annihilation barrage’ just before dawn. The 9-hour bombardment was impressive but the Austrians held firm and their surviving gunners broke up the attacks. The bombardment of a key water pumping station that supplied the front line threatened to force the defenders to retreat but some Austrian naval flying boats destroyed the Italian long-range battery by bombing.

The new Italian tactics worked when the Austrian artillery was weak or low on ammunition. The Italians, not understanding how important artillery was to the Austrian system, did not emphasise counter-battery fire. That, combined with the strong Austrian defences, meant that too many attacks were broken up before they could make any progress. Worse, poor concealment meant that the Austrians could shatter attacks even before they commenced. Technical problems also hampered the Italians: their air force was still relatively weak, flash-spotting was difficult when the guns were in kaverne and sound-ranging was almost impossible in the mountains.

The bombardment before the Eighth Battle (although involving an even more intense barrage that destroyed 41 of the Fifth Army’s guns) made real progress because of the combination of dust and fog in the Carso sector during September. Austrian counter-battery and counter-assault fire inflicted heavy casualties but the Italians retained the advantage in both guns and ammunition. By the Ninth Battle the Italians were finally using curtain barrages to protect their hard-won advances, deluging the inevitable counter-attacks with gas and shrapnel before moving on to attack the Austrian second line. Only frenzied counter-attacks straight into the Italian advance prevented a major breakthrough. The Italians had learnt a great deal in 1916 but the Austrians were better at balancing resources and results. By comparison, the Italian success ‘bore no relation to the mighty expenditure of men and materiel that it cost’.

‘It will crush us all’: The Isonzo in 1917

On the Isonzo the morale of both armies was increasingly fragile. Cadorna ignored the growing criticism from his men and listened to the siren voices of Italian politicians (who wanted the Irredenta captured) and the demands of the Allies (who wanted constant pressure on all fronts). After considering the options, the Italian Third Army was ordered to attempt yet another attack into the Carso, but this time with more supporting artillery, including 166 new heavy batteries, but there was little sign of sophistication in the fire-planning. Even though the Italians had doubled their number of guns, they still had little more than a quarter of the numbers seen on the Western Front and the uncertain ammunition supplies meant that the rate of fire for heavy guns was a fifth of that seen in the Heavy Artillery Groups of the Royal Artillery. Field Marshal Robertson, visiting the front before the offensives of 1917, was stunned by the lack of pre-battle planning: ‘no system of co-operation existed between the artillery and the infantry in the attack; in fact the relations between the two seemed strained.’

Cadorna’s tenth offensive on the Isonzo began a few weeks after Nivelle’s offensive had collapsed and was delayed by the transfer of guns from the Trentino. On 10 May some 2,150 guns and 980 mortars blasted Austrian positions northwest of Gorizia for 44 hours. Initially the intention was to form a bridgehead at Hill 383 and then seize the Bainsizza Plateau. The Austrian artillery, firing at pre-planned sectors of the defensive system, shattered the first massed assaults. However, Italian numbers, a successful bombardment and dwindling Austrian ammunition stocks meant the Italians still managed to seize part of the Tri Santi position. Even then the Austrians reacted quickly, retaking several key positions in night attacks.

In other sectors the usual problems of coordination led to ruinously heavy casualties but the Italians grimly refocused their efforts. They shifted artillery from sector to sector and their methodical battering of Austrian positions enabled gradual progress. In some sectors intense shelling prevented either side from holding the objective. The attack on the Asiago Plateau was even less successful, with heavy rain disrupting the preparatory bombardment and Austrian machine guns slaughtering the fanti struggling through the mud and barbed wire. An Alpini captain described the aftermath: ‘the mountain is infinitely taciturn, like a dead world, with its snowfields soiled, the shell-craters, the burnt pines. But the breath of battle wafts over all – a stench of excrement and dead bodies.’ With typical petulance, Cadorna was furious with the slow progress of some units and blamed everyone but himself for the inadequacies of his own plan.

To launch the second phase of the battle, on to the Bainsizza Plateau, the Italians fired a million shells in 10 hours – approximately 20 shells for every foot of the front line. Dust and smoke from the intense bombardment covered the advancing infantry and major gains were made wherever the artillery were able to dominate the battlefield. The Austrians retained the key observation posts and utilised units released from the Eastern Front, using more flexible tactics and working more closely with their artillery support, to counter-attack and many of the Italian gains were lost. During the savage fighting both sides expended prodigious amounts of ammunition – the Austrian Fifth Army fired almost 2 million shells during the battle – a rate of expenditure that Austria’s industrial base could not support.

After a short pause, during which Cadorna displayed a ruthless disregard for the simmering discontent within the army, the Italians began planning the Eleventh Battle, which Cadorna described as a ‘general simultaneous attack’. The Second and Third Armies would take both Gorizia and the entire Bainsizza Plateau before capturing Tolmein, the Austrian Isonzo army’s main railhead. However, even if Cadorna’s plan succeeded, the Bainsizza was a rugged wilderness that would prove a poor basis for a fresh offensive, and Boroevic´ recognised this flaw in the plan for the eleventh Italian offensive far better than did his Italian opposite number. The Italians massed 3, 750 guns and 1,900 mortars, almost three times the Austrians’ total (450 heavy guns and 1,250 field and mountain guns), and four times the ammunition; the artillery duel would be the largest on that front. The barrage commenced on 18 August with the Italian guns, howitzers and mortars mercilessly hammering the entire front line. The quality of the artillery preparation was higher than in earlier battles and there were a small number of Allied batteries supporting the attack. In some sectors the defenders were rapidly cut off from headquarters and the defending corps commanders found it difficult to coordinate counter-attacks or to update the Isonzo army’s headquarters on the progress of the battle. Elsewhere the difficult terrain and poor Italian planning gave the Austrians enough time to reorganise and prevent a breakthrough.

Weak planning left the Italians unable to capitalise on their gains. Despite their collapsing defences, the Austrians could choose to withdraw or to feed troops into the meat-grinder. Boroevic´ was assured by the High Command that a counter-offensive was being planned and commenced a series of skilful Austrian withdrawals that delighted the Italians but ensured that he was able to consolidate on new positions on the eastern edge of the plateau. The end result was that the Italians secured most of the Bainsizza Plateau but stalled in front of Boroevic´’s new position, unsure of how to proceed. Monte Santo was taken by coup de main but desperate assaults on San Gabriele by massed columns were torn apart by artillery and machine-gun fire. Desperate counter-attacks, supported by heavy artillery, prevented the last of the Tri Santi from falling; the mountain is said to have lost 10 metres in altitude due to the near-continuous bombardment by guns of calibres of up to 420mm. Angelo Gatti, a staff officer in the supreme command, described his mounting despair: ‘I feel something collapsing inside me; I shall not be able to endure this much longer, none of us will; it is too gigantic, truly limitless, it will crush us all.’ The Austrians looked as if they had suffered a major defeat but, after Cadorna’s grimly pyrrhic victory, the tide was about to turn.

There are excellent British sources on the quality of the Italian artillery at this stage of the war. Lieutenant Hugh Dalton served with the B2 Heavy Artillery Group assigned to the Isonzo sector while Lieutenant-Colonel Archibald Moberly commanded B1 Heavy Artillery Group. Dalton was particularly impressed with the individual technical skills of the Italian artillery and their incomparable mountain engineers but noted that local commanders were very keen to secure Royal Artillery support. While the total number of shells appears impressive on the Isonzo Front, Dalton noticed that the ammunition levels were lower than those in France and Flanders and noted that this was reflected in the rates of fire, RA ‘ordinary’ rate being 30 rounds per hour, five times Italy’s fuoco normale. Dalton also noted that the proportion of heavy guns was one quarter of what he had experienced in France. The abundance of good observation post sites astonished the Royal Artillery officers. Depending on the sector, there were kavernen, mountain huts or treetop hides, all under cloudless skies. Such luxury delighted one of Dalton’s colleagues, who gleefully described Italy as a ‘gunner’s heaven’. The no. 101 fuse was almost as effective as the no. 106 in Italy due to the impact advantage of hitting solid rock. Wire-clearing was relatively simple but a great deal of fire was required to destroy rockhewn trenches or kavernen – Moberly and his Italian colleagues naturally preferred enfilade fire to lobbing shells straight into the enemy’s defensive line and both Dalton and Moberly were impressed by the ‘man-killing’ effect of high explosive in the mountains (as at Gallipoli, the rocky terrain increased the effectiveness of the artillery).

Moberly was equally impressed by the Italian engineers but rather less impressed with the higher levels of command. The lack of telephone wire for communications surprised him, particularly as the observations posts that had so impressed Dalton tended to be distant from the battery and thus required even more wire than usual. Italian HAG equivalents, the raggruppamenti, were allotted to sectors, not to particular assault or defensive units, and Moberly was surprised by the fact that there was no expectation that he would meet with the commander of the division he was supporting. During the first operation supported by B1, Moberly noted the Italians were still grappling with technical issues that had been identified and solved on the Western Front years before, particularly regarding communication between the assault units and the supporting artillery, a situation aggravated by the smoke and dust created by the bombardment obscuring the target. He was also troubled by the lack of specific missions assigned to his men and the concentration on planned but uncoordinated support for attacks.

Moberly noted that the ineffectiveness of Italian counter-battery fire was due to the HAGs assigned to the task being allocated to army and not corps command and thus lacking tactical coordination in the battles. As a result the counter-battery staff soon lost touch with the progress of the battle and found it difficult to coordinate fire. Moberly even received orders to shell positions that his own observation posts had reported as silent for days. Commando Supremo had made counter-battery work a priority for ammunition allocation, but had not realised that numbers did not equal results. Counter-battery orders criss-crossed the chain of command, bypassing the heavy artillery raggruppamenti and going to the field artillery groupes, a system that naturally led to some confusion and to errors that made counter-battery fire ineffective. Attempts to solve problems created others: the deliberate simplification of orders, for example, speeded up their transmission across scratchy telephone lines, but sometimes led to requests for a handful of shells so even a timely request lacked enough power. The only aspect that impressed Moberly was that counter-battery officers spent four days out of every eight at front-line observation posts and thus established a close relationship with the Forward Observation Officers.

75-mm field gun – Cannone da 75/27 modello 11

Italian Field Artillery

Although its Turin Arsenal manufactured a limited number of mountain guns, before World War I, Italy acquired its artillery from foreign sources, including Krupp of Germany, the Austro – Hungarian Skoda factory, and the French Deport firm. These included the Krupp-designed 75mm 75/27 Mo. 06, which also saw service in World War II, and the 75mm Gun Mo. 11 Deport. Designed by the prolific Colonel Albert Deport of France and adopted in 1912, the 75mm Gun Mo. 11 Deport introduced a dual recoil system as well as the split trail carriage. The latter innovation incorporated twin hinged trails that could be closed for limbering and then spread apart to stabilize the piece and allow greater recoil at higher elevation. The Mo. 11 was acquired by other powers as well as Italy, and the split trail carriage quickly became the standard for nearly all field pieces worldwide.

Italy also fielded the 75mm Gun Mo. 06/12 and a howitzer designated the Obice da 100/17 Mo. 14. An Austro-Hungarian design, the quick – firing caliber 100mm Mo. 14 howitzer was adopted in 1914, and numbers were also captured from the Central Powers at the end of World War I. The 100/17 saw extensive Italian service during World War II and was also used by Polish and Romanian forces.

Cannone da75/27 modello 11

Although the Cannone da75/27 modello 11 was designed by a Frenchman it was produced only in Italy and may thus qualify as an Italian weapon. The designer was named Deport, who conceived the idea of a recoil mechanism that could stay fixed in a horizontal plane while the barrel could be elevated to any angle desired. The advantages of this system are rather obscure, but the Italian army certainly took to the idea to the extent that they produced the modello 11 in large numbers.

The modello 11 was a relatively small field piece, as a result mainly of the fact that it was originally ordered for cavalry use, In time it was issued to other arms and became a standard field gun, Apart from the unusual (an uncopied) recoil system, the modello 11 also had one other novel feature for its day. This was split trail legs which gave the gun an unusually wide traverse by contemporary standards, and also enabled the barrel to be elevated to a maximum of 65* allowing the gun to be used in mountainous areas if required, In action the trails were spread and instead of the more usual tail spade the legs were held in place by stakes hammered through slots at the end of each. This certainly held the gun steady for firing, but there were two disadvantages to this system. One was that any large change of traverse could not be made until the stakes had been laboriously removed from the ground; the other was that on rocky or hard ground it took time to hammer in the stakes. For all these potential troubles the Italians used the stake securing method on many of their artillery designs, large and small.

The modello 11 was a handy little weapon with a good range; its 10240-m (11200-yard) capability was well above that of many of its contemporaries. However, for its size it was rather heavy, which was no doubt a factor in its change from the cavalry to the field artillery, In action it had a crew of at least four men although a full detachment was six, the extra two looking after the horses.

It is known that some of these guns were used by the Italian maritime artillery militia within the Italian coastal defence organization. The modello 11s appear to have been used as light mobile batteries that could be used for close-in beach defences of likely landing spots. Many of the modello 11s were still in use in this role after 1940, and many other modello 11s were in service with the field arti1lery. In fact so many were still on hand in 1943 that many came under German control, with the designation 7.5-cm Feldkanone 244(i), for use by the German occupation forces in Italy. By that time many modello 11s had been modified for powered traction by conversion of the old wooden spoked wheels to new steel-spoked wheels and revised shields; these modernized equipments used pneumatic tyres.

Specification

Cannone da 75/27

Calibre: 75 mm (2,95 in)

Length of barrel 2.132 m (83.93 in)

Weights: in action 1076 kq (2,372 1b);

Travelling: 1900 kg (4,189 lb)

Elevation: – 15* to +65*

Traverse: 52*

Muzzle velocity: 502 m (1,647 ft) per second

Maximum range: 10240 m ( 11,200 yards)

Shell weight: 6.35 kg (14 lb)

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WWI: Technology, Logistics, and Tactics – An Overview I

The history of the two sides’ strategies from 1915 to spring 1917 was one of frustration and failure. To explain why, it is necessary to re-examine how the battles were fought: how the troops and their equipment were deployed, and what weapons were available. An impasse at the level of tactics drove the two sides towards more ruthless strategies: the Allies towards escalating doses of attrition and the Germans towards Verdun and unrestricted submarine warfare. But this was not a static equilibrium, and both attackers and defenders were increasing their tactical sophistication and the number and power of the weapons at their disposal. Developments were in progress that after 1917 would break the stalemate. The emphasis here will be first on the conditions of defence and attack in the west, and then on a consideration of how far these conditions also held good elsewhere.

The Western Front has been likened to the outworks of the Roman Empire and the Iron Curtain that bisected Cold War Europe, but really it was without historical parallel. The trenches at the siege of Petersburg, in the closing stages of the American Civil War, were fifty-three miles long; but both they and those round Mukden in the Russo-Japanese War were eventually outflanked. In contrast the Western Front extended for some 475 miles and could not be outflanked, short of violating Dutch or Swiss neutrality, or by an Allied landing in Flanders. From the end of 1914 until 1918 it moved, with the exception of Germany’s voluntary withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line, barely more than five miles in either direction. It was also the most decisive and intractable front, where more troops and guns were concentrated than in any other theatre, and the graveyard not only of Falkenhayn’s grand design at Verdun but also of successive Allied initiatives in Champagne, on the Somme, and on the Chemin des Dames.

The ultimate defence was the infantry: German, French, and British Empire soldiers all displaying a stubbornness and resilience that many Russian and Austro-Hungarian units lacked. As all three armies showed comparable determination in attacking, however, the morale variable mattered less than on other fronts or in later periods of the war. The Western Front was distinctive not only for the troops’ fighting qualities but also for their numbers. The French and German armies were several times their size in 1870, and a huge British army later joined them. Each side mustered some 5,000 troops per mile of front, enough to garrison it thickly and to hold counter-attack forces in reserve. It helped that the more rugged and forested southernmost hundred miles was less suitable for large-scale operations and saw little fighting apart from a series of French attacks in the Vosges mountains in 1915. Even between Verdun and Ypres many sectors were quiet and never saw great battles. The most active sectors were in Flanders and on the two flanks of the Noyon bulge in Artois and Champagne. Although the high force-to-space ratio was an essential reason for the Western Front’s immobility, however, it must be considered in conjunction with the field fortifications and their supporting infrastructure, the weapons used to hold them, and defensive tactics.

The Germans took the initiative in creating the trench system. Trenches might be claustrophobic, verminous, smelly, wet, and cold, but they offered the best protection available against blast and bullets, and they saved lives. Most of the armies suffered their heaviest proportionate losses during the mobile campaigning of the first weeks of war. Digging in gave Germany a glacis for its western border while consolidating its grip on France and almost all of Belgium, either to keep in perpetuity or to trade in. It released forces to attack elsewhere, at Ypres in autumn 1914 or later in Poland and Serbia, and OHL endorsed it as a lesser evil that would at least halt the Allies’ advance.

In January 1915 Falkenhayn directed that the line must be so organized that a small force could hold it for a long time against superior numbers. A strong first position must be the backbone of resistance, to be held at all costs and at once retaken if any part of it were captured. Linked to it by communication trenches should be a second line, to shelter the garrison when the first was bombarded. Further lines to the rear should be beyond the range of enemy field guns. Falkenhayn wanted to lessen casualties by keeping the front-line cover thin, but if the main garrison were too far back the advanced guard would be more likely to surrender and the artillery could not protect them. Some of his commanders opposed a second line in principle, as making the defence of the first less stubborn. In the light of experience OHL nevertheless ordered in May that a reserve line must be built 2–3,000 yards behind the first along the entire front: a colossal undertaking that was completed by the end of the year. The Germans had the advantage of being able to select higher and drier ground, with good digging and above the water table, which lent itself to artillery observation. The great battles in Champagne, on the Somme, and at Arras therefore consisted of Allied attacks uphill against defences that by 1916–17 were up to 4–5,000 yards in depth, against the 1,000 yards characteristic of British ones. Those on the Somme, which followed Falkenhayn’s prescriptions closely, lay behind two belts of barbed wire, each three to five feet high and thirty yards deep. The ‘front line’ actually comprised three trenches 150 to 200 yards apart, the first for sentry groups, the second for the main garrison, and the third for support troops. The Germans’ forward trenches (like British ones) were not straight but set in every ten yards or so in a ‘traverse’, or dog-leg, that protected troops against shell blasts or enfilading fire if the enemy captured a portion of the line. They built deeper dug-outs: six to nine feet down in 1915 and twenty-five to thirty feet on the Somme. A thousand yards behind the first position lay an intermediate line of machine-gun strongpoints; and behind that communication trenches led to the reserve position (the ‘second line’ of Falkenhayn’s memorandum), as heavily wired as the first and out of range of the Allied artillery, which would therefore need to be moved up to support an assault on it. Another 3,000 yards back lay the third position, added after the experience of September 1915, when the French had reached the German second line. Telephone cables laid six or more feet deep linked the artillery in the rear with the front trench. On the Somme the British did not capture most of the third line until late September.

‘No man’s land’ between the front lines might be as narrow as five to ten yards or as wide as 1,000, but it averaged 100 to 400 yards. Beyond it, when the Germans attacked, they encountered trench systems less solid and elaborate than their own, though still adequate. The Belgians held the sector stretching fifteen miles inland from the coast, and the British zone ran south of them for twenty to twenty-five miles at the end of 1914 but over 100 by the start of 1917. None the less, until the Americans arrived the French guarded at least three-quarters of the Allied line. In January 1915 Joffre directed his troops to divide their front between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ sectors. Strongpoints in the former would cover the latter, which would be heavily wired but guarded only by sentries. Shellproof shelters behind the strong-points should accommodate counter-attack companies, and a second line would be dug two miles behind. The entire complex should be garrisoned thinly to economize on manpower and save casualties. In the forested Vosges, and even in the tangled woods around Verdun, there were separate blockhouses rather than a continuous defence. The British approach lay somewhere between that of the French and the Germans. Their front was more thickly garrisoned than most of the French one, and they could yield less ground without surrendering their lateral railways or being driven into the sea. Normally they had three parallel positions: the front, support, and reserve lines. The first line was built up with sandbagged breastworks as well as being dug into the earth: in waterlogged areas the ‘trenches’ might be mainly above ground. The first line comprised the fire and the command trenches, some twenty yards apart. In the fire trench small forward units occupied the ‘bays’ between the traverses; the command trench contained strongpoints, dug-outs, and latrines. Communication trenches ran to the support trench, 70 to 100 yards behind, which had more wire and deeper dug-outs; another 4–500 yards back lay the reserve trench, with yet more strongpoints and dug-outs; and behind that, the artillery. In practice the system was far less orderly than laid down in regulations, or than in the mock-up created in Kensington Gardens for the London public. In active sectors trenches were continually blown up by mining and bombardment and the approach to the front became a labyrinth of craters and impasses, to whose complexities newcomers needed seasoned guides.

In their way the trenches were an imposing engineering achievement, the more so if account is taken of the immense infrastructure behind them. It comprised hospitals, barracks, training camps, ammunition dumps, artillery parks, and telephone networks, as well as military roads and canals, but pre-eminently it meant railways. The Western Front lay in one of the most densely tracked parts of Europe, and both sides added hundreds more miles of standard- and narrow-gauge line. In 1914 the Germans took the trunk railway running from Metz to Lille (and onwards east of Ypres towards the sea); the fighting stabilized between it and the main lines running behind the Allied front from Nancy via Paris to Amiens. In the British sector two transverse lines extended northwards from Amiens to Hazebrouck and Dunkirk, and a third, to Arras, was added after the Somme. Both sides pre-positioned support forces near vulnerable portions of their fronts, but the railways enabled larger reinforcements. By day two at Neuve Chapelle the German number of defenders had risen from 4,000 to 20,000; the French ran in 832 reinforcement trains to Verdun in the first three weeks of that battle; and in the first week of the Somme Germany moved up ten divisions in 494 trains. Beyond the railheads both sides depended heavily on horses and ultimately men to convey supplies to their artillery and the front lines, but the railways gave the defender a crucial advantage in funnelling in reinforcements before the attackers could consolidate and expand their footholds.

In addition to the railway network, Western Front defenders benefited from the panoply of innovations ushered in by the nineteenth-century revolution in military technology. In trained hands a breech-loading magazine rifle could fire up to fifteen rounds a minute, at a range of half a mile. Using smokeless powder and firing in a prone position, riflemen were almost invisible, and the kinetic energy of a rotating high-velocity bullet gave it an impact against bones and tissue out of all proportion to its size. But machine-guns and field artillery were the mass killers. European armies all had versions of the Maxim gun, and were equipped with light as well as heavy machine-guns as the war progressed. A heavy machine-gun typically weighed 40–60kg, even without its carriage and ammunition belts, and needed three to six men to operate it; light machine-guns (such as the British Lewis gun and the German MG 08/15) weighed 9–14kg, and were more suitable as offensive weapons, as a man could – with difficulty – carry one. In August 1914 a standard German infantry regiment comprised twelve companies of riflemen and only one of machine-gunners (with six weapons), but in 1915 six more machine-guns were added and in 1916 the same again, raising the proportion of machine-guns to rifles from 1:12 to 1:4. By 1917 the ratio in many divisions was 1:2. One heavy machine-gun could fire up to sixty rounds a minute, equivalent to as many as forty riflemen. Its range was greater, and it could ‘beat’ (i.e., fill with flying lead) an ellipse 2,500 yards long and 500 yards wide. As long as its attendants fed in belts of bullets and topped it up with cooling fluid it could continue its lethal traverses, one at Loos firing 12,500 rounds in an afternoon. At Neuve Chapelle two machine-gun posts held up the British until reinforcements arrived; and two guns halted the French at Neuville St-Vaast on the first day of the May 1915 attack. On the second day at Loos German machine-gunners inflicted thousands of casualties on novice BEF divisions for almost no loss to themselves. On 1 July 1916, however, many British casualties were caused by artillery rather than machine-guns. Both sides kept field guns targeted on no man’s land and the opposing first line so that they could respond at once with ‘SOS fire’ if the sentries sent up flares. By September 1915 in Champagne the Germans had perfected the art of siting their field guns on ‘reverse slopes’, so that as the Allies came over a crest and advanced downhill they were in full view from the German artillery, which the slope had kept invisible from the Allied gunners. At Verdun French artillery west of the Meuse disrupted Falkenhayn’s attack plan, while on the Chemin des Dames German guns wreaked havoc on Nivelle’s tanks. In this period of the war the combination of trenches, railways, rifles, machine-guns, and artillery was too strong for attacking forces to overwhelm.

The principal weapon available to the attackers was bombardment. Both GHQ and GQG altered their tactical doctrine during 1915 to stress its vital role in destroying enemy positions before the infantry could occupy them. It has been calculated that shellfire caused 58 per cent of the war’s military dead. Yet the artillery was a blunt instrument. The quick-firing field gun’s flat trajectory made it of little use against entrenchments, especially as in 1914 most field gun shells were not high explosive but shrapnel, scattering fragments that mowed down infantry in the open but lacked the blast effect needed against earthworks. In any case the Allies were short of shells of any description by the first winter of the war. For precisely such reasons the Germans could protect themselves against the French 75mm cannon by digging in. Moreover, French divisions were not equipped like German ones with light field howitzers (whose curved trajectory was much more appropriate against trenches), the whole army possessing only seventy-eight 105mm howitzers in June 1915. Their stock of heavy artillery was small, outdated, and kept under GQG’s central control. Matters did improve. In Champagne in September 1915 the French attacked with 1,100 heavy guns, compared with 400 in Artois in May, and after a bombardment lasting not four hours but several days. Similarly, before the Somme the British had in total more than twice as many guns as at Loos, and four times the number of howitzers. But it was still not enough, and not simply because the German defences grew ever more sophisticated. High explosive shells needed a heavy metal casing to stop them disintegrating: the explosives themselves accounted for only 900 tons of the 12,000 tons of munitions fired before the Somme. Even so, many shells failed to detonate or did so in their own guns. Also, artillery fire was highly inaccurate. In the open campaigning of 1914, guns could operate as in previous wars by ‘direct fire’: the crew could see their target and fire ranging shots until they hit it. But in such conditions they too might be visible, and on the quick-firing battlefield visibility was hazardous. In trench warfare ‘indirect fire’ from a concealed position against an invisible target became the norm. In a procedure known as ‘registering’ the gunners adjusted the range, barrel elevation, and explosive charge on advice from a forward observation officer (FOO), ideally telephoning from the front line, or from an observer in an aircraft reporting by wireless. Registering was slow and gave the enemy warning, while the FOO might be blinded by rain or smoke or his telephone line might be severed (and in a battle it often was, making communication dependent on carrier pigeons or runners). The Germans could tap into British telephone conversations within a one-mile radius, though in 1915–16 the British developed more secure communication methods such as the ‘Fullerphone’ and the ‘power buzzer’. Even when a gun had found its target, varying wind speeds and atmospheric temperatures and pressures could alter the fall of the shell, as could wear and tear to the barrel. For all these reasons, artillery preparation repeatedly yielded disappointing results. On the first day at Verdun an unprecedentedly intense German bombardment failed to annihilate a sketchy but cleverly dispersed French defence. When the assault troops advanced they came under heavy fire. On the Somme the British fired over 1.5 million shells in five days but on most of the front neither cut the Germans’ wire, nor smashed their dug-outs, nor silenced their guns. British commanders operated by guesswork and failed to calculate (in fact grossly underestimated) the bombardment needed to destroy the enemy front line. They arrived at the correct formula almost by accident at Neuve Chapelle, where they stealthily concentrated almost all the BEF’s artillery against a single-line defence, but they did not match this density of shells until Arras two years later. Such quantities were needed against just the first position, however, that it was not feasible to destroy the entire depth of enemy trenches, and by attempting to do so Haig on the Somme and Nivelle on the Chemin des Dames ensured their artillery would be ineffective. Moreover, as the Somme battle developed the Germans left their trenches during barrage and dispersed into the surrounding shellholes, creating such an extended target that no bombardment could destroy it. Enlarging and prolonging the bombardment in the hope of blasting through a passage by weight of explosive and metal was a fruitless quest.

Reliance on artillery preparation also contributed to tactical inflexibility, and made surprise virtually unattainable. Preparing a Western Front offensive was akin to a major civil engineering project. The British used 21,000 black South Africans in labour battalions in Europe: by the end of the war they made up 25 per cent of the labour force on the Western Front.

The French imported labourers from China and Vietnam. But the soldiers themselves did most of the work, and an integral part of the trench experience was hard and unremitting manual effort. Preparations on the Somme began in December 1915 in a poorly accessible region that lacked housing, roads, and railways, and even surface water because of the chalky terrain. By July 1916 the British had dumped forward 2.96 million artillery rounds, laid 70,000 miles of telephone cable (7,000 at a depth of more than six feet), and built fifty-five miles of standard gauge railway for a battle expected to require 128 trains a day. The French were at work for two months before the September 1915 offensive and the April 1917 attack – though in the latter case they needed more time than Nivelle’s impatience allowed them because the proposed location’s drawbacks included very poor transport links. Among the reasons why Falkenhayn persisted at Verdun, Haig on the Somme, and Nivelle on the Chemin des Dames was the scale of the preliminary investment in each battleground and the delay and expense entailed in preparing fresh attacks elsewhere.

Given the limitations of heavy artillery it was unsurprising that both sides sought alternative solutions, mobilizing their scientific and industrial communities for the purpose. To begin with the Germans were not only better trained and equipped than their opponents for trench construction but also better provided with assault weapons. Hand grenades were standard issue in the German army in 1914, as were light mortars. The Mills bomb, which became the main British grenade, caused many accidents when first introduced, and only in 1916 did a safer version follow. The Stokes mortar, designed at private initiative and ordered by Lloyd George as minister of munitions, was similarly in general service only from 1916. The Germans also introduced the flamethrower, first employed on the Western Front in February 1915. Virtually all the flamethrowers in the German army were brought to bear against the fortresses and blockhouses at Verdun, but they were used less frequently in the later stages of the battle as they had only a short range and their operators presented easy targets. The British on the Somme also employed flamethrowers, but despite the horrific injuries and panic they could generate, they were more spectacular than effective. All these weapons, however, were more suited to raids or to clearing enemy trenches than helping troops cross no man’s land in an offensive. Three other technologies promised more in this latter respect. The first was tunnelling under the enemy trenches to lay mines, which began in the winter of 1914–15 and was mainly a feature of the Anglo-German front. Mines were exploded on the first day of the Somme, although by being detonated ten minutes before zero hour they gave warning of the assault. Mining was an even slower and a more hazardous activity than preparation with heavy artillery, though if kept secret it could bring the benefit of surprise. It was unsuited, however, to be more than a supplementary attacking device.

The remaining two developments – poison gas and tanks – were much more important in the course of the war. Both were designed to overcome the trench stalemate. The British had experimented with gas before the war and the French fired projectiles from rifles and may have used gas grenades in the winter of 1914–15, but the substances concerned were irritant rather than lethal. Although there are plausible grounds for saying the Allies would have used gas if Germany had not, the Germans are rightly saddled with the opprobrium attached to introducing it, which was to be one of the war crime charges levelled against them at the peace conference. After trying out tear gas against the Russians, on the afternoon of 22 April 1915 they commenced the second battle of Ypres by releasing the cloud of chlorine that began the massive chemical warfare that distinguished the First World War from preceding and from most subsequent armed conflicts. In all, 124,208 tons of gas were used during the war, half of this quantity by Germany. The quantity quadrupled from 1915 to 1916, doubled in 1917, and doubled again in 1918. By 1918 the technology employed about 75,000 civilians in large and dangerous manufacturing operations, as well as thousands of specialized troops. It claimed perhaps half a million casualties on the Western Front (including 25,000 fatalities), in addition to 10,000 in Italy and a large but unrecorded number in Russia. But gas warfare was a microcosm of the conflict as a whole in its combination of escalation with stalemate. The best chance of its becoming a breakthrough technology was when it was first used, but if a moment of opportunity existed here, it was, as usual, lost.

Germany much exceeded Britain and France in its manufacturing and research capacity in chemicals and until the end of the war it mass-produced toxic gases faster and more efficiently. Falkenhayn saw gas as a tactical tool that might facilitate the decisive result he craved in the west and compensate for shortages of shells. The Germans satisfied themselves that they could reconcile their actions with a pedantic reading of the 1899 Hague Convention, and Falkenhayn’s technical adviser, Fritz Haber, told him early retaliation was unlikely. Most of the army commanders were hostile, fearing that if the Allies did reciprocate Germany would be disadvantaged by the prevailing westerly winds over France and Flanders. The commander in the Ypres salient was willing to try, but it became evident that gas had major shortcomings. To save shells it was decided to deliver the chlorine from almost 6,000 pre-positioned cylinders, which were bulky to transport and difficult to conceal (although the Allies ignored the intelligence warnings), as well as being liable to leak and therefore extremely unpopular with the troops. Success depended on a favourable wind, which took weeks to materialize. OHL therefore did not expect spectacular results, but envisaged a limited operation that would disrupt the Allies’ spring offensives, distract attention from Germany’s troop movements to Russia, and (by capturing Pilckem Ridge), make the Ypres salient indefensible. In the event, when the gas cloud was released at 5 p.m. against Algerians who mostly panicked and fled it opened an 8,000-yard-wide breach north of Ypres, but the Germans had few reserves on hand and the troops they sent forward had no masks. The Allies used the night to close the gap, and a second release, against Canadians two days later, had less impact. By June primitive respirators had been issued en masse to the Allied armies, and in September the French used gas in Champagne and the British at Loos. Haig had high hopes for it and was confident it would enable him to break the German line despite his continuing shortage of shells, but on the morning of the attack at Loos the air was still and although the chlorine cloud helped in some sectors it gassed more of his own men than the enemy.

After Loos there was little likelihood or expectation on either side that gas would be a war-winning weapon, although both continued to use it (the Germans against the Russians during the summer campaign in Poland in 1915 and on the Western Front a dozen times more down to August 1916). On balance it aided attack over defence. Although both sides introduced better respirators (notably the British Small Box Respirator or SBR) they also introduced more poisonous gases and new methods of delivering them. Phosgene, six times more toxic than chlorine, was brought in by the French at Verdun, fired in shells and therefore less dependent on the wind; the Germans used diophosgene or ‘Green Cross’ shells before their culminating attack there on 23 June (though they ended the bombardment too soon and French masks were reasonably effective against it). On the first day at Arras the British fired great quantities of phosgene from a new mortar-like device, the Livens projector. The projector was much easier to set up than the cylinders had been, and the Germans greatly feared it because it gave almost no warning. In general the Allies were gaining the edge in the gas war until in July 1917 the Germans attacked the British with mustard gas, opening a major new phase. Although both sides pointed out, with some justice, that gas caused less terrible injuries and fewer fatalities than did high explosive, it continued to evoke peculiar horror, and made conditions for the front-line soldiers even more difficult. Once the gas shell replaced the cylinders its use became much more widespread. Yet it remained an ancillary, harassing weapon that at Second Ypres, Verdun, and Arras facilitated temporary successes but produced no radical results.