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.


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)


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.

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

Such results were even less likely from tanks, which the British used on the Somme in September 1916 and at Arras, and the French in the Nivelle offensive. Tanks were initiated independently in Britain and France, the Germans making no move until they saw the Allied weapons in action. In France the visionary behind them was Colonel J. E. Estienne, who secured an audience with Joffre in 1915 and was authorized to work in conjunction with the Schneider armaments firm. However, it was in Britain that the first combat-ready tank, the Mark I, was built by Foster & Co., a Lincoln agricultural machinery company, under the aegis of the Landships Committee at the Admiralty, which Churchill had set up and funded. Churchill in turn had been fired by a memorandum that Hankey had submitted to the cabinet after meeting Estienne’s British equivalent, Lt.-Colonel Ernest Swinton. Both Swinton and Estienne had seen the Holt tractor, an American vehicle with caterpillar tracks, and both viewed it as a model for a trench-crossing device. And if Joffre’s backing was crucial to Estienne, Swinton (who headed a new Tank Detachment created in February 1916) enjoyed Haig’s enthusiastic support once the latter heard about the project. Indeed, Swinton found the enthusiasm excessive: he would have preferred to wait until a mass attack could be unleashed without warning. All the same, neither Haig’s use of tanks on the Somme nor his use of gas at Loos suggest that he was blindly resistant to new technologies.

Tanks achieved little at this stage not because of obstruction by the military establishment but because they were far from being the weapons of 1939–45. Even if deployed en masse, they could not have restored open warfare. The basic problem was that they were underpowered. The British Mark I to Mark V tanks weighed approximately thirty tons and had engines of up to 100 horsepower; the Shermans and T-34s of the Second World War were of similar weights but had engines of 430 and 500 horsepower respectively. The Mark I had a top speed of three to four miles per hour, and a maximum of eight hours’ endurance. It was lightly armed, with machine-guns or two small cannon. It was difficult to drive, hot and full of carbon monoxide fumes, an easy target for artillery, and highly susceptible to breakdown. Despite its weight, the Germans’ new armour-piercing bullets could penetrate it. It could not negotiate the ruined Somme woods and was vulnerable in villages. Nor could it climb steep slopes and extricate itself from shellholes. Of forty-nine machines fit for duty on 15 September 1916, thirteen failed to reach the start line. The preparatory barrage left ‘lanes’ along which they could travel over undisturbed ground, but because so many failed to move forward the supporting infantry walked into intact German machine-guns. However, three reached and helped to capture Flers, one mile from the start, and two carried on to the next village before German guns halted them. On day one at Arras sixty were available but again many broke down before the start of the offensive, to which they contributed little. On day two eleven tanks had been detailed to support an Australian attack on the village of Bullecourt, but they failed completely and an unsupported infantry assault was repulsed with 3,000 casualties, creating a legacy of bitterness against the British high command and tank crews. On the Chemin des Dames the heavy French Schneider models suffered even more severely from breakdown, their fuel tanks were located where they were easily ignited, and German gunfire set many ablaze. The state-built St-Chamond machines presented even easier targets. The tanks’ debut was patchy, to put it mildly. They seemed best suited to small-scale infantry support, crushing wire, silencing machine-gun posts, boosting the Allied troops’ morale, and unnerving their opponents. These accomplishments were enough to convince GHQ that hundreds more should be ordered, while the French responded to the Chemin des Dames débâcle by pinning their faith on lighter Renault two-man vehicles. During the central period of the war, however, neither tanks nor gas could restore mobility.

This being the case, the best prospect remained with the infantry and artillery, and better co-ordination between them. Another new technology – that of aircraft – was mainly important precisely for improving artillery effectiveness, both through direct observation (used by the British as early as the September 1914 battle of the Aisne) and especially through aerial photography, which was practised from spring 1915. In 1914 aircraft had had a prominent reconnaissance function – a French plane had observed von Kluck’s First Army turning east of Paris and German planes had monitored Russian movements before Tannenberg – but this became less crucial once the fronts stabilized. An independent ground attack role was only just beginning, essentially planes had monitored Russian movements before Tannenberg – but this became less crucial once the fronts stabilized. An independent ground attack role was only just beginning, essentially because the aircraft were underpowered for carrying heavy payloads, although German aircraft dropped bombs in the opening phase at Verdun while British ones bombed five enemy trains during the battle of Loos and strafed German troops and dropped fifty tons of bombs during the Somme. Finally, a strategic bombing role was also in its infancy, and it began not with aircraft but with the German navy’s Zeppelin airships, which lay unused because of the High Seas Fleet’s inactivity. Initially raiding near the British east coast, they first hit London in May 1915, killing 127 people and injuring 352 during the year. Typically they arrived on fine, moonless nights, and although the British soon learned how to detect their movements by intercepting their wireless messages, at first there was no means of destroying them. In 1916 they ranged more widely, reached the Midlands and Scotland, and forced widespread blackouts. From September 1916 onwards, however, the defenders got the measure of the problem, locating the airships by eavesdropping on their radio messages and then shooting down several with anti-aircraft artillery and with fighter aircraft firing new explosive ammunition. From 1917 Gotha bombers replaced the airships as the main air weapon against Britain. The Zeppelins set a precedent for new forms of attack on civilians and reinforced the British public’s sense that its enemies were beyond the pale, but their damage to the Allied war effort was slight.

Assistance to the artillery was therefore the crucial role of the new arm. By 1915 British aircraft were carrying radio and evolving special codes to communicate with their gunners and monitor the effects of their fire, but the task of direct observation was mainly accomplished by tethered balloons, linked by telephone cables to their batteries. The balloons, however, were obvious targets for enemy fighters, and soon aerial combats swirled round them. Aircraft defended the balloonists, and carried out photographic reconnaissance themselves. In general the advantage in these operations lay with the Allies, and especially with the French, who had far more planes and pilots than Britain or Russia in 1914 and owned the world’s biggest aircraft industry. The British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) lagged behind France and Germany for the first two years. Yet at first there was barely an air war in the literal sense, as neither side’s aircraft had machine-guns mounted, and many more casualties resulted from accidents than from enemy action. Most aircraft had ‘pusher’ engines situated behind the pilot, even though these provided less power and manoeuvrability than a ‘tractor’ propeller at the front, the problem with the latter being that a fixed machine-gun might damage the blades. In spring 1915, however, the French aviator Roland Garros equipped his aircraft with a machine-gun that fired through the propeller, which had blades fitted with plates to deflect any bullets that hit them. The Germans downed and captured his machine, and the Fokker firm used the information derived from it to pioneer a synchronization device, enabling them to fit a forward-facing machine-gun that fired through the propeller of a new single-engined monoplane without hitting the blades. For several months in the winter and spring of 1915–16 the ‘Fokker scourge’ gave the Germans the edge, though more because of the intimidation created by their monopoly of the new technology than because many Allied aircraft were shot down. By concentrating their airpower round Verdun the Germans partially concealed their preparations for the battle, and they enjoyed control of the skies in the first weeks of action. But by May they had lost it, the Allies capturing a Fokker plane as well as devising their own synchronization system and introducing new models with ‘pushing’ propellers that did not need such equipment and yet still outperformed German aircraft. In the opening phases of the Somme, the RFC commander, Hugh Trenchard, shared with Haig a commitment to a ‘relentless and incessant offensive’, and to driving the Germans out of their airspace, even if this meant neglecting the defence of British spotter aircraft and accepting punishing casualties among his crews. Beginning the battle with 426 pilots, the RFC lost 308 killed, wounded, and missing, and a further 268 were sent home, to be replaced by cursorily trained novices whose life expectancy by the autumn was barely one month. By September, however, a new generation of German Albatros D.III fighters was helping to redress the balance once again, and in the ‘bloody week’ of April 1917 the German ‘circuses’ or fighter groups inflicted unprecedented losses on the RFC at Arras and commanded the sky over the Chemin des Dames, virtually halting French photographic reconnaissance and balloon observation. Only in May and June, with the arrival of a further generation of aircraft, including the British S.E.5 and Sopwith Pup and the French Spad, did the Allies regain the edge. In the skies as on the ground, therefore, the initiative passed backwards and forwards, yet ultimately air combat was still marginal. Crushing air superiority helped the British very little on 1 July 1916, and its loss did not prevent much greater success on the first day at Arras, even if at other times (the first phase at Verdun, the last stage on the Somme, the Chemin des Dames) the Germans’ air superiority reinforced their effectiveness on the ground.

Aerial observation and photography contributed, however, to a less glamorous but more significant trend towards greater artillery effectiveness. By 1917 the French and British had more and heavier guns firing larger numbers of more reliable shells, and a greater proportion of high explosive rather than shrapnel. They were also achieving improved accuracy. One manifestation was ‘map shooting’: the ability to hit a map co-ordinate without giving prior warning to the enemy and disclosing one’s own position by registering. This became easier once the BEF had prepared new large-scale maps of the entire British front, and was linked to a second development, which was improved counter-battery fire, the British using new techniques such as flash-spotting and sound-ranging to catch up with the French expertise in detecting enemy guns. These were highly skilled techniques, and it took months or even years for men from civilian life to learn them. The third was the creeping barrage, which was first attempted at Loos and become general in the later stages on the Somme. Infantry followed as closely as possible behind a barrage that advanced as little as twenty yards ahead of them, its purpose being less to destroy than to neutralize the enemy defences by forcing the Germans to take cover until the attackers were almost upon them, denying them the moments after the barrage lifted when they could take up firing positions on the parapet. Its effects were even greater when combined (from Arras onwards) with new ‘106’ fuses that detonated the shells when they hit the soil rather than after burying themselves, thus causing much more damage to barbed wire. In the Allied attacks of 1917–especially later in the year – more of the German artillery was silenced beforehand and the attacking infantry were better protected.

To some extent also, the infantry’s own conduct when attacking had altered. The notorious waves sent walking forward on the first day of the Somme were atypical by this stage in the war. The Germans began in 1915 to experiment with surprise attacks and raids by prototype units for their later stormtroop forces: specially trained and equipped squads moving independently and using flamethrowers, trench mortars, light machine-guns, and grenades. On day one at Verdun pioneer units with wirecutters and explosives cut the French wire, flamethrowers were turned on the strong-points, and although the main assault came in a wave it followed behind a creeping barrage. When Ludendorff took over at OHL he demanded an assault squad in each army, and issued new instructions on assault tactics. On the French side, Pétain used aerial photography as early as May 1915 to assist his gunners before attacking Vimy ridge, and trained his infantry to advance as soon as the barrage lifted. The French amended their tactical doctrine after the 1915 offensives and Verdun, and at the start of the Somme their infantry dashed forward in small groups that gave each other covering fire to distract the defence. Nivelle’s Verdun counter-attacks followed a similar model, and the French created their own special assault formations, the grenadiers d’ élite, in January 1917. These new practices foreshadowed a transformation in doctrine. The French captain André Laffargue’s pamphlet on ‘The Attack in Trench Warfare’, written in the light of his experiences in the Artois offensive of May 1915, has attracted much attention from historians as a pioneering statement of the need for infiltration tactics, though it was neither completely innovative nor the sole source of the doctrinal changes. None the less, it was used as a French army manual and by 1916 had been translated into English and German, influencing both Nivelle and OHL. Even the British, whose commanders appear to have followed their unimaginative tactics on 1 July 1916 because they doubted the New Armies had the skill, experience, or cohesion to behave more independently, reconsidered in the light of the Somme and issued new guidelines early in 1917. In short, Verdun and the Somme were a learning process, although no combination of tactics without massive material superiority was likely to spare attacking forces from slow and difficult progress at high cost.

A final reason for the tactical stalemate was that the defenders too were on a learning curve. Falkenhayn’s insistence on holding the first line was increasingly criticized in OHL’s Operations Section in 1915–16, its officers foreseeing that as Allied artillery improved, the cost of garrisoning it would rise. Both sides suffered at Verdun from concentrating men in the forward trenches, and in the early stages on the Somme the Germans suffered again. As the battle developed they mounted a more dispersed defence, which Fritz von Lossberg, the Second Army’s chief of staff, encouraged by devolving tactical decisions to battalion commanders, recognizing that messages from divisional headquarters took eight to ten hours to reach them. After Hinden-burg and Ludendorff closed down operations at Verdun, fresh troops and guns became available while the Germans challenged Allied air superiority, thus succeeding after September 1916 (assisted by the weather) in bringing the Anglo-French advance virtually to a halt and repulsing offensives with counter-attacks. In response to the greater weight of enemy artillery they evolved a more flexible system of defence, despite the misgivings of many of their own commanders. Ludendorff wished to fight a more economical defensive battle in the west and had a more open mind than Falkenhayn about how to do it. As well as approving in September 1916 the construction of what became the Hindenburg Line he asked his staff to prepare a new text on defensive doctrine, which was issued – not without criticism – in December 1916. Its authors advocated a thin forward line that would lure the attackers into an extended battle zone where they would be fired on from all sides before being repulsed by counter-attacks from fresh troops stationed beyond artillery range in the rear, and in April 1917 the front lines were indeed less densely garrisoned than in July 1916. At Arras the German Sixth Army was surprised with its counter-attack divisions fifteen miles distant when the British attacked at 5.30 on a snowy April morning, their barrage having lifted earlier than the defenders had anticipated. On the Chemin des Dames, in contrast, where the Germans knew exactly what to expect, they held the front line thinly, and the French infantry who got beyond the first defences found themselves ringed by fire from concrete machine-gun posts. If Arras demonstrated how the methods and technology of attack had moved on, the Chemin des Dames underlined that the defence had evolved too, and still retained the overall advantage.

How far can this analysis be extended to other theatres? The Gallipoli peninsula was a tiny battlefront in which the force-to-space ratios were even greater than in Western Europe. As it had no railways both sides were supplied by sea, the British and French from Mudros and the Turks from Constantinople across the Sea of Marmara. The Allies were less well endowed with munitions and supplies of all kinds than on the Western Front, they had minimal air support, and they lost their backing from naval guns when the U-boat threat prompted the Admiralty to withdraw its battleships. None the less they attempted to fight up more precipitous hills than any in France against a determined enemy equipped with modern rifles and machine-guns. Once the Central Powers could transport heavy artillery by rail to Constantinople the Allies had little alternative to disengagement. In general terms high force-to-space ratios and the firepower revolution operated similarly at Gallipoli and in France.

The same applied to the Italian front, where by 1916 1.5 million Italian troops faced perhaps half that number of Austrians. Although the Austro-Italian border was some 375 miles long, its two active sectors – the Isonzo and the Trentino – formed only a small portion of the whole, the Isonzo front being some sixty miles long. Hence the force-to-space ratios were again high. Along most of the border the Alps rose like a wall from the north Italian plain, effectively inhibiting the attackers. Conditions here were far worse even than in France: trenches had to be blasted out of the rock with explosives, or cut into the sides of glaciers. Thousands of soldiers froze to death, were asphyxiated at high altitudes, or were buried by avalanches. In the Isonzo sector a narrow gap existed between the Julian Alps and the limestone plateau known as the Carso, but the river Isonzo itself formed a barrier and the Austrians established fortified positions parallel to it. Stalemate set in almost immediately on the Isonzo and persisted down to 1917, while the 1916 Austrian attack in the Trentino, though gaining more ground (and in more mountainous terrain) than the Italians on the Isonzo, had been contained even before Brusilov’s offensive distracted Conrad. In 1915 the Austrians were relatively more outnumbered than the Germans in France, but they had the benefit of topography – arid and rocky plateaux rising to the east of a fast-flowing watercourse – and they had been improving their railway infrastructure for years. The Italians were less well supplied with heavy guns and munitions than the French and British, and the Austrians outnumbered them in machine-guns. Halting the attacks proved unexpectedly easily. According to a French observer the Italian artillery, dispersed along too wide a front, simply failed to destroy the Austrian guns and trenches and the high command seemed not to know how much preparation was needed. A year later the position was similar: because the Italians’ artillery failed to destroy the Austrian second-line defences and was poor at counter-battery fire, their infantry ran into accurate defensive barrages and counter-attacks. They took more prisoners and gained more territory than in 1915, but were still only crawling forward. Although Cadorna increased the troops and guns at his disposal as the war progressed, his army seems to have learned little from the Western Front, experimenting with the creeping barrage only in spring 1917, and reforming its infantry tactics very slowly. Yet the Austrians themselves were too weak to attack, and the endurance of the ordinary Italian soldier should not be underestimated. Until the Germans arrived in autumn 1917 neither side could break the impasse.

If at Gallipoli and on the Italian front the tactical dynamics of the fighting resembled those in France and Belgium, elsewhere this was less true. The force-to-space ratios in the Middle East and Africa were infinitely lower and the logistical circumstances vastly different. The initial problem might be in locating the enemy, rather than reconnoitring across no man’s land. The Caucasus front, an unknown theatre with extremes of climate and terrain, is difficult to compare with anything in Europe, though the mountain warfare of the Carpathians and the Trentino may offer analogies. On the other hand attacking forces were frustrated by entrenched defenders with rifles and machine-guns at Tanga in November 1914, at Ctesiphon a year later, and when the British relieving force failed to break through the Turkish siege positions round Kut. When Murray attacked Gaza in spring 1917, he launched tank attacks against barbed wire and trench defences, though the Turks left an open flank to the interior, which the British would later exploit. Despite the vastly different operational circumstances outside Europe, Western Front tactical conditions still tended to develop wherever modern weapons and high force-to-space ratios coexisted.

The Eastern and Balkan Fronts fell into a category midway between France, Flanders, the Isonzo, and Gallipoli on the one hand, and Mesopotamia and Africa on the other. Measuring some 1,060 miles at the start of 1915, the Eastern Front was more than twice the length of the Western, though the Russian retreat shortened it to about 620 miles before the Romanian campaign extended it by more than another 250. As the armies fighting there were significantly smaller than in the west, the force-to-space ratios were lower. In the winter of 1915–16 the western Allies were deploying 2,134 men per kilometre of front, but Russia only 1,200. Germany garrisoned with one-and-a-half divisions in the east a sector in which it would have deployed five in France or Belgium, while Austria-Hungary manned its Italian front six times more densely than its Russian one. Machine-gun and artillery densities were also lower in the east and no man’s land was wider. Sometimes livestock grazed between the armies. With less risk of bombardment, trench systems were thinner, with more men bunched in the front line and smaller mobile reserves. Yet the east also had fewer railways, making it slower to move up reinforcements. All these factors made breakthrough easier, and both the Germans at Gorlice-Tarnow and Brusilov at Lutsk achieved it, if in significantly differing circumstances. At Gorlice the Russians had stationed their field artillery in earthwork bastions on low hills, from which they commanded the intervening trenches. The sector was strong by Eastern Front standards, though not by Western ones (its barbed wire was rudimentary). The Germans’ bombardment was the biggest yet seen in the east, but their artillery superiority was less than France and Britain enjoyed in 1915 or on the Somme and their infantry tactics were not innovative. The assault forces moved up during the previous night and trenches had been dug towards the Russian positions, but on the day the troops advanced in thick skirmishing lines (supported by aerial strafing) and took considerable casualties from rifles and machine-guns. They were fortunate that in most of the sector resistance collapsed quickly, the Russians surrendering or being hastily pulled back because their generals feared encirclement. By 1916, in contrast, the Austrians opposite Brusilov had constructed three fortified lines, each of three trenches, with machine-gun nests, deep dug-outs, and extensive wire, though his aerial reconnaissance established they had few reserves. Brusilov’s men achieved surprise by digging trenches up to the enemy lines and unleashing a rapid bombardment, followed by an assault with specially selected and trained units. In other words the defensive positions were more elaborate and the attacking tactics more sophisticated than a year before.68 Along a shorter and more static front than in 1915, conditions here too increasingly approximated to the Western Front norm. The obstacles to mobility increased on other fronts even while the armies in the west fumbled towards solutions to them. Essential though considerations of tactics, technology, and logistics are in explaining the course of the war, however, if treated in isolation they are insufficient. After Brusilov’s triumph the later Russian attacks against the Germans round Kovno, though delivered on a narrow front and with heavier barrages, were unavailing. The Eastern Front still differed from the Western in one major respect. The British, French, and German armies were not equally effective, and the Germans tended consistently to inflict higher casualties than they suffered.69 But all three were comparable until 1917 in their willingness to persist in action even when taking very heavy casualties. In contrast Brusilov overwhelmed prepared positions that neither side would have abandoned so easily in the west, and the Germans broke through at Gorlice with far less firepower and tactical skill than they would have needed in France. Many Austro-Hungarian units were as inferior in cohesion, morale, and equipment to the Russians as the latter tended to be to the Germans. Developments in arms production were fundamental, too, in accounting for the contrasts between the theatres and the general pattern of the fighting. The quality and quantity of military manpower and the successes and failures of the war economies must now be brought into the equation.

Ordnance, QF, 4.5-in Howitzer

The 4.5-in (114-mm) field howitzer was one of the best of the British Army field pieces, as it was light, handy and fired a useful shell. Its design was to remain virtually unchanged from its first use in 1914 until World War II, when it once more was taken over to France. Many were sent to Russia in 1916 and more were used by Commonwealth armies.

The two main projectiles ­ red by the 4.5-inch ­field howitzer with the high explosive (HE) on the left with a yellow body and the Smoke on the right with a pale green body.

Another service manual illustration, this time of the barrel assembly for a 4.5-inch Field Howitzer Mark 2.

The Ordnance, QF, 4.5-in Howitzer used by the British army throughout World War I was another weapon developed in the aftermath of the Boer War, During that colonial conflict the Royal Artillery learned the hard way that its field howitzers were too heavy, too slow in action and generally too cumbersome, so they asked for something better. For some reason the usual state arsenals were asked to submit their new designs at the same time as private manufacturers, and in the end a private manufacturer, the Coventry Ordnance Works, was awarded the contract. This welcome change from what had up till then been a virtual state monopoly meant that when the BEF went to France in 1914 it took what was then thought to be the best field howitzer in the world. It was able to outperform all its contemporaries, and yet was handy enough to operate alongside the 18-pdr guns in a normal field artillery regiment. This result was achieved mainly by making the basic design simple and robust, and the weapon was so sound it required only one modification throughout its long service life: the rounding off of some of the sharper corners of the breech mechanism to prevent cracking after prolonged firing.

The design encompassed another assumption: that shrapnel would be the key munition. (The actual weapon of artillery is the shell: guns, howitzers, mortars and rockets are simply delivery mechanisms.) Shrapnel lost effectiveness as the shell’s velocity dropped, and since the Royal Artillery believed so heavily in shrapnel the lack of long range hardly bothered them. Indeed, so strongly did they believe in shrapnel over high explosive (HE) that the 4.5-inch field howitzer had its HE shells designed to match the ballistic performance of shrapnel, although that reduced their bursting charge and thus effectiveness.

Along the way the 4.5 gained the general accolade of being the ­ finest ­ field howitzer in its class anywhere, being sturdy, relatively easy to handle and highly effective on target. However, prolonged ­ ring could lead to small cracks appearing in the sharply machined corners of the horizontal breech-block slides, giving rise to the possibility that the entire breech ring could be blown off. This was overcome by machining gradually curved radii at the affected stress points, leading to the Howitzer Mark 2, this being the only change of mark throughout the 4.5’s long service career. Also introduced at the same time (1917) was the replacement of a complex variable rifling system that was dif­ficult (and expensive) to machine by a uniform twist (one turn in 20 calibres) system that made no difference to ballistic performance or accuracy.

The Mark 2 changes were con­fined to the barrel. No changes were needed to the sound and sturdy box trail carriage which travelled on Number 25 wooden spoke wheels with a diameter of 1.42m. Teams of six or eight horses were used for towing (six being the norm), the load including a Limber, QF 4.5-inch Howitzer Mark 1. Each battery also had a number of ammunition resupply wagons. Each 4.5 had a crew of ten, about ­ five of whom actually served the gun in action; the rest were either ammunition handlers or looked after the horse team. As with most other howitzers of the period, loading had to be carried out with the barrel horizontal so a quick-action device was incorporated in the elevating mechanism to allow the barrel to return rapidly to the required elevation angle for ­ ring without disturbing the No 7 dial sight. The hydro-spring recoil system appears never to have given any trouble, unlike the equivalents on the early marks of the 18-pounder. To protect the gun and its crew a curved shield was provided.

Being a howitzer the 4.5 employed a variable propellant charge system; there were ­ five possible charges to be inserted in a stubby brass case. High explosive was by far the most often ­ red, the payload being about 2kg of Trotyl (TNT), Amatol or Lyddite. Also available were two types of Smoke (base ejection or bursting) and Star (Illuminating). Fuzes could be either Percussion or Time.

The 4.5-inch howitzer was deployed by the British Army throughout the Great War, originally organised into a single brigade but eventually distributed so that each Royal Artillery Field Regiment had one 4.5- inch howitzer battery and three 18-pounder gun batteries. During the accounting period following 1918 it was estimated that some 25,326,276 rounds had been ­ red from 4.5-inch howitzers, a total only exceeded (by some four times) by the 18-pounders.

As with the 18-pdr the 4.5-in (114-mm) howitzer was also issued to many Commonwealth armies including those of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. During the war the 4.5-in howitzer was also passed on to Russia, as by 1916 the Tsarist armies were in a rather poor state, and the British government handed over 400 4.5-in howitzers, These were destined to have an eventful life, for they took part in the Russian defeats of 1917, and also played their part in the events surrounding the revolutions of 1917 and the subsequent civil war, Many were still on hand when the Germans invaded in 1941, captured examples being designated 11.4-cm leichte Feldhaubitze 363(r).

During World War I the 4.5-in howitzer was towed into action by a team of six horses. The full gun team was 10 men although fewer actually served the gun in action, the rest acting as ammunition and horse handlers, In common with most other weapons of the period the 4.5-in howitzer was supposed to make great use of shrapnel, but high explosive was soon found to be much more useful, though it was in short supply in 1914 and 1915, a shortage that lead to a political storm known as the ‘shell scandal’, The ammunition also featured in another political uproar, this time after World War I, for the fuses used on the shells were a clockwork type first produced by Krupp in Germany, After the war Krupp took the British government to an international court to extract royalties due on every fuse fired, and won the judgment!

By the time World War I ended, 3,177 4.5-in howitzers had been produced in addition to the 182 completed before 1914. After 1918 these howitzers were retained in British army service to be used again during the early campaigns of World War II. By then their original wooden spoked wheels had been replaced by new items with pneumatic tires for powered traction, The Germans used 96 captured equipments in the Atlantic Wall with the designation 11.4-cm leFH 361(e). The last 4.5-in howitzers to be used as service weapons were those of the Irish army, the final examples not retired until the late 1970s.

Specification Ordnance, QF, 4.5-in Howitzer

Service date: 1908

Calibre: 114.3 mm (4.5 in)

Length: of barrel 1,778 m (70 in)

Weight: complete 1365 kg (3,010 lb)

Elevation: – 5* to +45*

Traverse: 6*

Muzzle velocity: 308 m (1,010 ft) per second

Maximum range: 6675 m (7,300 yards)

Shell weight: 15.876 kg (35 lb)

British 4.5inch QF Howitzer

15-cm Kanone 16

L-R s.15-cm SKL/40 i.R, 15-cm K.16 Krupp et 15-cm K.16 Rheinmetall au Musée de l’Artillerie de l’École de Fontainebleau.

Both these pictures Krupp model.

The inclusion of a gun with a calibre of only 150 mm (5.9 in) may seem out of place in a description of heavy artillery, but the German 15-cm (5,9-in) guns were really in a class above that of normal field artillery, Quite apart from their size and weight, they were intended for use as corps artillery capable of long-range counter-battery and ‘interdiction’ employment, and thus came into the heavy artillery category.

By 1916 the long-range German artillery in use on the Western Front was mainly of a makeshift nature, being derived from a policy of placing coastal defence or naval gun barrels on to improvised field carriages. While this was adequate as a stopgap measure, the gunners needed something more suitable and manageable for their long-term equipment, and consequently the German general staff made a special plea to its artillery designers for a world-beater. Both Krupp and Rheinmetall took up the challenge, and as things turned out their individual submissions were virtually identical. Both guns were named 15-cm Kanone 16 or 15-cm K 16, but in the long term it was the Krupp 15-cm K 16 Kp submission that was produced in the greater quantities, The Rheinmetall 15-cm K 16 Rh was produced in some numbers as the demands from the front were so great, but never in the numbers that Krupp was able to churn out.

The 15-cm K 16 was along and large gun, The overall design was entirely orthodox for the time apart from the fact that the barrel was extraordinarily long (L/42.7 in the Krupp design and L/42.9 in the Rheinmetall offering) for the size of the wheeled carriage. The carriage was a fairly simple box-trail design fitted with a large shield for the gun crew, Heavy spoked wheels were fitted as the gun had to be towed by horse teams as motor traction was by that stage of the war (it was 1917 before appreciable numbers of the guns actually reached the front) at a premium and resewed mainly for the really heavy guns, The weights involved meant that the 15-cm K 16 had to be towed in two loads, the barrel and the carriage. The carriage was usually towed on a special four-wheeled limber which also had some seating for the crew members, who also operated the brakes,

On the Western Front the 15-cm K 16 became one of the most feared of all the German counter-battery guns. The long range (22000 m/24,060 yards) of the gun meant that it could reach well into the rear areas behind the Allied lines to destroy gun batteries, road and rail junctions and generally to lay down harassing fire that could not be countered by anything other than the heaviest and longest-ranged Allied guns (railway artillery or specially emplaced weapons). This entailed a great deal of effort on the part of the Allies, for despite its weight and bulk, the 15-cm K 16 was still more mobile than its potential opposition.

After 1918 numbers of 15-cm K 16s were handed out to various nations as war reparations (Belgium was a major recipient) but the gun was one of the few allowed to remain on the strength of the small post-Versailles German army. Thus for nearly two decades it acted as a training weapon for a new generation of gunners who, reequipped and with a new military philosophy, went to war once again. Even then the 15-cm K 16 was used during some of the early World War II campaigns.


Calibre: 150mm/5.91in.

Length of gun: 6410mm/252.36in/21.03ft.

Length of bore: not known.

Rifling: right-hand uniform twist, 1/25.

Breech mechanism: horizontal sliding block, percussion fired.

Traverse: 8°.

Elevation: ‒3° to +43°.

Weight in action: 10870kg/23968lb/10.70ton.


Firing the standard high explosive shell weighing 51.40kg(113.34lb).

Charge 1: velocity 555mps/1821fps, range figures not available.

Charge 2: velocity 696mps/2284fps, range figures not available.

Charge 3: velocity 757mps/2485fps, maximum range 22000m/24059yd.


Separate-loading, cased charge.


15cm Hbgr 16: fuzed Hbgr Z 17/23, weight 51.40kg(l 13.34lb).

This was a nose-fuzed high explosive shell with a ballistic cap. The fuze, a modified First World War model, was only used with this equipment.

15cm Hbgr 16 umg: fuzed AZ Hbgr or Dopp Z S/60, weight


This, basically similar to the previous shell, differed in the fuze-hole gauge and was thus adapted to the use of newer patterns of fuze.

Propelling Charges

A three-part charge of tubular propellant was provided in three bags. The charge 1 bag was issued in the cartridge case, the charge 2 bag replaced it completely when needed and the charge 3 bag could be slipped into the case alongside the charge 2 bag. A small circular igniter pad was secured to the bottom of the case by shellac cement.

Charge 1: 6.65kg/14.65lb Ngl R P.

Charge 2: 11.08kg/24.43lb Ngl R P

Charge 3: 1.04kg/2.29lb Ngl R P.


The percussion primer C/12nA was used.

Case Identification Number: 6304.

German WWII Special Artillery: The Taper-bore Guns

The 75/55-mm tapered bore 7.5-cm Pak 41.

Artillery is not a field in which you might have expected, in 1939, to find anything secret; it appeared to be a fairly pedestrian field of activity, with developments limited simply to making minor improvements in metallurgy or fire control or detail design. Surely there was nothing that one nation could come up with which would have escaped the attention of every other artillery-producing nation? Or was there? The taper-bore guns In 1903 a German called Karl Puff patented a design for a gun in which the bore, instead of being the same diameter from end to end, was tapered; it started out at the breech end at, let us say, 10mm diameter and then gradually got smaller until at the muzzle it would be 7mm diameter. He completed the idea by designing a bullet with an expanded sleeve around its waist; this was of 10mm diameter, so that it loaded correctly into the bore, but when fired it passed down the bore and the gradual taper squeezed the sleeve down until it left the muzzle with the sleeve firmly reduced into a prepared groove in the bullet so that the bullet had the usual smooth exterior shape.

His object in designing this device can be explained by some simple arithmetic. Suppose the base area of a bullet when loaded to be 10 square centimetres. And suppose the gas pressure generated by the propellant charge to be 10,000kg. The pressure on the bullet will therefore be 1,000kg per square centimetre, which will produce some specific velocity. But as the bullet goes down the bore, the base diameter shrinks and thus the base area shrinks with it. The design of the charge can be adjusted to provide a constant gas pressure, so that by the time the bullet reaches the muzzle the pressure remains the same at 10,000kg but the base area has, let us say, halved. So the pressure on the bullet is now 2,000kg per square centimetre, and this will have increased the velocity by a considerable amount. Tapering the bore therefore develops a far higher muzzle velocity than could be achieved by a conventionally rifled parallel bore.

Puff’s intention was to obtain high velocity so as to get a flatter trajectory and a shorter time of flight, and thus improve the accuracy of the weapon. And everybody thought it was rather a clever wheeze, but how do you drill a tapering hole and then rifle it? And how do you make these complicated little contracting bullets? Ah, said Herr Puff, that’s your problem. But if you do succeed, than I’ll take my percentage in licence fees.

Puff’s patent duly expired without ever being worked, and some time in the 1920s another German, a gunmaker this time, decided that technology had moved along a little since 1903 and perhaps Puff’s idea might be workable. The gunmaker was Hermann Gerlich, and in conjunction with a partner called Halbe he eventually produced a taper-bore sporting rifle which he marketed as the Halger. With the aid of the RWS ammunition company he also developed a practical bullet, and, as Puff had predicted, the Halger rifle had high velocity and a flat trajectory which, even though it was expensive, made it popular with hunters, so Halbe and Gerlich were able to make a living. But Gerlich, like many a gun inventor before him, had his eyes firmly fixed on a military contract, and in 1928-33 he walked the corridors of war departments in Germany, Britain and the USA in an attempt to interest them in a powerful sniping rifle. They were all interested, but the cost of such a weapon was daunting, and there were no takers. The Americans experimented at Springfield Arsenal and developed a number of bullets, one of which produced a muzzle velocity of 7,100 feet per second (compared with around 2,800fps for a standard military rifle), but the programme was abandoned early in 1939.

Gerlich went back to Germany in 1933 and got in touch with the RheinmetallBorsig company. Hitler had become Chancellor, the Versailles Treaty was repudiated, re-armament was beginning, and ideas were wanted. They were particularly wanted in the field of anti-tank gun design, because the problem there was to produce a weapon light and handy enough to be easily moved about and emplaced by a couple of infantrymen but powerful enough to penetrate the armour of tanks. Fortunately, at that period, the armour on tanks was not of any great thickness, since it was only intended to keep out ordinary small arms bullets and shell splinters.

Reduced to its basics, the penetration of armour is simply a question of momentum; throw something hard enough and the mass and velocity will carry it through. Even a plain lead ball will go through armour steel if you can get it moving fast enough. So the Halger rifle, with its high velocity, was a promising idea. In order to survive the impact with the target, the bullet was given a core of tungsten carbide; this was enclosed in a soft steel casing which had two flanges or’skirts’which could be squeezed down in the bore so as to present a smooth outline at the muzzle.

Rheinmetall, after various experiments, decided on a barrel tapering from 28mm to 20mm; for security reasons it was known as the schwere Panzerbüchse 41 (`heavy anti-tank rifle’) but in every respect it was a small conventional artillery piece on a two-wheeled, split-trail carriage, with a small gun-shield and a hydro-pneumatic recoil system. The whole equipment weighed only 5051b (229kg) and it fired a 131-gram bullet at 4,595 feet per second (1,400 metres/second) to go through 2.6 inches (66mm) of steel armour at 500 yards range.

It would be idle to suppose that security was so tight that nobody outside Rheinmetall knew what was going on, and there was soon a whisper around the armaments engineers in Europe that somebody was playing with a taper-bore weapon. As a result one or two other people began looking at the idea; one was a Czech who, in 1938, got out of Czechoslovakia just ahead of the occupying Germans and fled to Britain. There he began trying to interest the military in his taper-bore theories. He met with a stony response. In the July 1940 the Ordnance Board, tired of his supplications, poured cold water on the idea.

`The principle has been investigated in the past. It is quite clear that, as regards attack of armour, a weapon of this type cannot be regarded as possessing any advantages over a normal weapon of equal weight and of the same calibre. As regards the application of the principle to the 2-pounder gun, the Board recommend No Further Action.’

A few days later a liaison officer lately returned from France submitted a report on the Halger taper-bore rifle, an example of which he had acquired in France. He got much the same treatment:

`The system was investigated by the Small Arms Committee some years ago (See SAC Mins 1935 or so, under ‘Halger Rifle’), Herr Gerlich himself being employed by the War Department. He was not the inventor of the coned bore and skirted projectile, the credit for this being due to Karl Puff whose patent was taken out in about 1903. [Actually Brit Pat 18601 of 27/8/1904]. The system was developed by Gerlich in collaboration with Halger. It is still being pursued by Kern, in Switzerland, and by Pacetti at Otterup in Denmark. The Kern proposal is being dealt with in current Proceedings. Neither ammunition nor weapons are yet within measurable distance of becoming fit for use in war. No Further Action to be taken.’

About eight months later the British Army captured a Panzerbüchse 41 in the Libyan Desert and flew it back to Britain to be examined. It was found to have a muzzle velocity of 1,388m/sec (4,555ft/sec) and to penetrate 70mm of homogenous armour at 100 yards range.

By that time Rheinmetall had moved on and had designed the 4.2cm Panzerjagerkanone 41 (`tank-hunting cannon’) which was more or less an enlarged version of the first weapon. This started out at 42mm calibre and ejected the projectile at 29.4mm calibre. The shot weighed 11.8 ounces (336g), had a velocity of 4,150ft/sec (1,265m/sec) and could go through 3.43 inches (87mm) of armour at 500 yards range, or 2.36 inches (60mm) at 1,000 yards. This weapon came into service early in 1941.

Krupp, that other famous German gunmaker, had also looked at the taper-bore idea. In 1939, looking well ahead to the inevitable increase in the size and strength of tanks, the army had asked Krupp and Rheinmetall for a 7.5cm anti-tank gun. Rheinmetall produced a conventional gun. Krupp was attracted to the taper bore but was faced with a major engineering problem in producing a tapering gun barrel of that calibre and size and therefore invented a variation which became known as the `Squeeze-bore’.

The 7.5cm Pak 41 gun was a conventionally rifled gun with a barrel 116 inches (2.95m) long. To the end of this barrel was attached a smooth-bore extension 37 inches (950mm) long which had a varying internal taper. As the flanged shot left the muzzle of the rifled section and passed into the extension, it first went through a section tapered at 1-in-20 for about 10.6 inches (270mm), then into a more sharply tapered section at 1-in-12 for another 6.7 inches (170mm) and then into a parallelsided section for the rest of its travel, emerging squeezed down to 5.5cm calibre. The advantage of this method of manufacture was that only a short length of the barrel had to be tapered and this did not have to be rifled. The wear on this taper as the shot passed through at high speed was such that the extension piece was worn out after about 500 shots, but it was simply held on the barrel by a screwed collar and could be replaced in a very short time in the field and with the minimum of tools.

The gun fired a tungsten-cored shot weighing 5.71b (2.6kg) at a muzzle velocity of 3,690ft/sec (1,125m/sec) and could defeat 7 inches (177mm) of armour at 1,000 metres range, striking at a 30 degree angle, or 4.9 inches (124mm) at 2,000 metres. This was a really formidable performance for 1941 and but for one thing this might have been the standard German army antitank gun for the remainder of the war. The one thing which defeated it, and also defeated the other two taper-bore guns, was the demand for tungsten to provide the cores for the projectiles. Tungsten was not native to Germany and had to be imported; the supply was restricted, and there was a constant demand for it for the manufacture of machine tools and other vital production equipment. A tungsten machine tool could be sharpened or rebuilt when worn; a tungsten projectile fired at an enemy was so much tungsten lost for ever. And since production was the more vital of the two conflicting demands, tungsten for ammunition was cut off in the late summer of 1942. And once their special ammunition was gone, the taper-bore guns went to the scrap pile. So effectively, indeed, that few specimens of the 7.5cm Pak 41 survived the war.

But if the shortage of tungsten ruled out the taper-bore as an anti-tank weapon, it certainly did not rule it out in other applications, and now the anti-aircraft specialists began to look at the system. In the anti-aircraft business the principal problem was the interval between firing the gun and having the shell arrive in the vicinity of the target; a great deal could happen during that time, and any way of shortening the shell’s time of flight by increasing its velocity was carefully scrutinised. Therefore the taper bore, with its substantial increase in velocity, was a highly attractive idea; the difficulty lay in the design of the projectile. In an anti-tank gun the `payload’ was a lump of inert metal, but in an anti-aircraft gun the payload had to be high explosive. And the dangers which lay in squeezing a high explosive shell were self-evident. With armour-piercing shot the core acted, as it were, as an anvil, while the tapering barrel acted as a hammer, but with an explosive filling the squeezing action had to be carefully controlled so as not to place excessive pressure on the shell body. Two solutions appeared to work satisfactorily. In the first type, the shell was of smaller diameter than the bore and was fitted with two supporting bands of sintered iron, one at the shoulder and one at the base. These were attached in the manner of driving bands, and performed the same function in spinning the shell, but they were malleable so that as the bore reduced they were swaged down and folded back, so that at the muzzle the shell left with two smoothed-down bands which set up minimal air drag. The second method was rather more complex. Three soft studs were fitted at the shoulder of the shell and the base was deeply indented with a semi-circular groove around the body. Into this grove went a malleable skirt with a circular base which fitted into the groove and acted as a sort of flexible ball-joint, turning backwards as the skirt was squeezed down by the reducing bore. At the same time the soft studs at the shoulder were pressed down and deformed until they were mere bumps on the outside of the shell. Again, the result was that as the shell left the muzzle the studs and skirt had been reduced to streamlined excrescenses which set up minimal drag. It was claimed that either of these designs could give a reduction in the time of flight by about 30 per cent, though there appear to be no trials results to back this up. Like so many other developments, the taper-bore anti-aircraft gun was overtaken by events and the war ended before the design could be perfected.