Siege and Defence of Castles During the First Crusade I

From a military point of view, one can relate to the castle – any castle – as a complex and expensive technological development intended to with- stand attack and to ward off enemy attempts to capture or mount a siege against it. Castle architecture, like all other improvements in military technology, was influenced and shaped by a constant tactical and strategic dialogue between opposing forces. When one side developed a new and successful siege tactic, the opponent countered with a new strategy of fortification that took the edge off the enemy’s innovation. This in turn led the attacker to come up with a new strategy for besieging the castle, and the cycle was repeated.

This phenomenon led Hugh Kennedy to write: `The development of castle architecture must be seen as the result of continuing dialectic between attack and defence which gave the advantage sometimes to one, sometimes to the other. Only by examining techniques of attack can we come to a real understanding of the architecture of defence.’ In other words, Frankish military architecture reflected not only the construction methods with which the Franks were familiar, but also Muslim tactics of siege and warfare, as well as the financial ability of the owners of these strongholds. And yet, even in his brilliant and innovative analysis of the strategic dialectic between the Frankish castle and Muslim siege tactics, Kennedy hardly refers to the gradual development of this very dialogue over time and space. He adopts a generalised approach to the common siege techniques and defence tactics, providing examples for every type of warfare and all types of fortifications, but the exact cause and effect relationship between new attack techniques and new defence tactics remains rather cloudy.

And yet, even if my assertion is correct, and the Franks were not endangered by the external enemies throughout the entire period and in all of their territory, they nonetheless had to strengthen their fortifications in accordance with the changing threats. It can be suggested, therefore, that to the extent to which a castle was subject to greater and more frequent threats, the greater was the tendency to invest more resources in the improvement of the fortifications. The opposite argument is also logical: to the extent that the threat was less imminent, the settlers could make do with less expensive and more compact fortifications.

The underlying assumption of this approach is that only an understanding of the ongoing development of the tactics of siege warfare of both sides and a better understanding of the ever-changing balance of power can enable us to gain a clear picture of the ongoing development of defence techniques. Siege warfare and castles account for only one part – important as it may be – of medieval military strategy, and it is impossible to separate the siege and defence tactics from the other elements of their military techniques. Besieging an individual castle is generally only one component of a wider plan of attack which always includes advancing into enemy territory and deploying siege machines, and on the other hand the advance of reinforcements and supplies to the besieged castle. This chain of events might end with the surrender of the besieged castle, the retreat of the besieging armies, or a general showdown in a field of battle.

Thus, the transformations undergone by the Frankish castles cannot be explained solely on the basis of their architectural features (as many of Kennedy’s predecessors attempted to do). However, these architectural changes also cannot be explained simply through a generalised analysis of techniques typical of warfare between Muslims and Crusaders, for these were not the only components of the strategic dialectic between them. The superiority or inferiority of one of the field armies is as important as the financial capabilities of the landlords and their willingness to invest the huge sums needed to provide defence and fortifications.

As for the balance of power between Frankish and Muslim land forces, it is reasonable to assume that during periods of clear Frankish superiority in the field there was less of a threat to nearby Crusader castles. During these periods the Muslims were fearful of engaging in direct land battles and were quick to lift the siege and flee when Frankish reinforcements drew near. The average duration of a Muslim siege during such periods was five or, at most, ten days, the length of time it took Frankish forces to come to the rescue of the besieged castles. The Frankish castles built during such periods were planned so that they could hold out for a week. A longer period of time was unnecessary and there was no need to invest huge sums in mighty fortifications or immense supplies of water and food.

In periods and regions in which the opposing land forces were more or less of equal strength, or during periods in which the Muslim armies were more formidable than those of the Franks, the frequency of Muslim sieges increased, as did their potential length. The castles erected in the frontier areas of the kingdom from the 1160s onwards were planned to withstand lengthier sieges and more frequent attacks than those of the earlier period, because the defenders within their walls could not rely on speedy relief by reinforcements from the centre of the kingdom.

We may conclude, then, that the strength of the castles and the sums needed to erect and equip them were in inverse ratio to the might of the land forces in the immediate vicinity: in periods and areas in which the Franks held military superiority they could make do with smaller, less fortified castles; whenever and wherever the Muslims held the upper hand, the Franks were in need of more mightily fortified castles.

Several factors influenced the relative cost of incorporating defence technologies. The stronger the Muslim land forces and the more improved their siege techniques, the longer the potential duration of the siege they could mount and the mightier the Frankish castles became. Therefore, the cost of castle building increased in a direct ratio to their potential of being besieged and the potential length of the siege warfare. Not every lord was able to assemble the funds needed to fortify and equip his castle; moreover, even if he were able to come up with such sums, it is doubtful that he would expend them unless conditions made this absolutely necessary. It is therefore quite likely that the new and expensive technologies were implemented differentially throughout the kingdom, depending on the frequency of the Muslim attacks and their geographic diffusion. More sophisticated strongholds were first erected in regions more prone to attack or those which in time became frontier areas; only later did these innovations also seep down into other regions in the interior of the kingdom. As a result of these high costs, in the final tally the frontier castles were gradually transferred from the possession of their seigneurial lords to the military orders, which could more easily raise the necessary funding.

Thus, I maintain that study of the archaeology and military architecture are not enough to gain an understanding of their development. Technological innovations and the speed of their diffusion, financial ability, and differential capabilities of the opposing land forces were important considerations influencing military architecture. Moreover, it is not enough to point to the dialectic between Muslim attacks and Frankish defence, for there was a simultaneous, ongoing dialogue by both sides concerning the adopted technique in both siege-fare and defence. I shall attempt to trace, in as great detail as possible, the sieges mounted by both Franks and Muslims, and try to ascertain the relative advantages of each side in the conflict. This analysis will enable us at a later stage to better understand the significance of Frankish military architecture.

Frankish Siege Machinery and Logistics During the First Crusade

The siege and defence tactics employed by the Franks during the First Crusade, and also later, when they took the cities along the Mediterranean seashore, were different from those used by the Muslims during that same period. Frankish attacks were almost always supported by siege engines and siege towers, as well as by various types of artillery, whereas the Muslims did not erect towers and made little use of heavy artillery when besieging enemy castles. They preferred tactics which became traditional: direct storming of the castle, a tight blockade, tunnelling under the walls, and limited use of light artillery.

The difference between the siege tactics of the two warring camps apparently did not stem from poorer technological skills of the Muslims; Latin chroniclers specifically mention that the Muslims were acquainted with heavy artillery and even employed it in defence. But the use by the Franks of heavy artillery, and especially of siege towers, was much more frequent. In fact, it can be maintained that they employed both these means in almost every siege they mounted, while the Muslims did so only very rarely.

I believe that the difference between the siege tactics can be put down to the Franks’ superior logistic capabilities during the first quarter of the twelfth century. They had advanced transport facilities, including four- wheeled wagons; they could call upon the services of trained craftsmen and carpenters who served in their land forces or supporting fleets; and they could count on ships for transport and much logistic support. The Muslim armies too employed the services of Muslim sailors, but they did this more to enhance their defence than their attack abilities. The Frankish superiority in logistic capabilities already came to bear during the First Crusade. The Franks began the siege of Nicaea, the first massive one mounted by the Crusaders in Asia Minor, with a tight land blockade, but what actually accounted for their victory was their superior technology and engineering, and the despair of the besieged.

Descriptions of the siege of Nicaea by Latin and Greek chroniclers indicate just how much the balance of power between the Frankish and Muslim land forces influenced the morale of those within the city. At first, when the Nicaeans believed that no outside help would be forthcoming, they agreed to surrender to the Byzantine emperor. Somewhat later, when they learned that the Seljuk sultan had not abandoned them and was trying to come to their aid, they were more determined and decided not to surrender, but to fight on.

The Franks then erected siege engines and positioned various types of artillery. Most of the engines were intended to protect the soldiers who were digging under the city walls to weaken their foundations, but Anna Comnena relates that her father, Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus, who had little faith in the Crusaders’ ability to take the city, suggested that they use a new type of artillery. Anna does not provide specific details about this weapon, but she does note that the Franks did employ, inter alia, a rock-propelling device known as Helepoleis. The Helepoleis was already known by this name during classical antiquity, and Paul Chevedden, who has studied the development of medieval artillery for many years, believes that `Helepoleis’ does not necessarily signify a specific weapon; rather it is used to designate the most advanced type of artillery existing during each specific period of time. Chevedden provides no proof to substantiate this argument, but he bases his assertion upon it and on the fact that Anna Comnena mentions a new type of weapon, concluding that during the siege of Nicaea the Byzantines for the first time supplied the Franks with an artillery piece of the counterweight trebuchet type, which replaced earlier sorts of artillery (each of which had in turn been called Helepoleis). Though Chevedden’s articles are based on a multitude of references, I have been unable to find in them support for the argument that `Helepoleis’ designated the most advanced type of artillery at a certain point in time, or that the counterweight trebuchet was already in use at the time of the siege of Nicaea. Rogers and France too, both of whom have studied the Frankish siege of Nicaea, did not find any evidence of this fact in the sources describing that event. The question is too vast to be dealt with here in full, but it should be noted that the majority of the students of Frankish and medieval Muslim artillery follow Huuri, in asserting that leverage artillery was invented in China and was brought to the East and from there to Europe, but most of them date the invention of the counterweight trebuchets to the twelfth century.

Nonetheless, even if the Franks did not have artillery of the counter- weight trebuchet type at their disposal when they besieged Nicaea, they were able to employ other relatively advanced types of artillery, at least some of which had been planned and built by Frankish craftsmen on the basis of knowledge they brought with them from their countries of origin. The Latin sources repeatedly mention, sometimes even by name, crafts- men and carpenters who were an inseparable element of the fighting force. They also note that craftsmen were hired and paid to perform professional tasks, some of them even losing their lives while engaged in construction efforts. For example, two German noblemen, Henry of Aische and Count Hartmund, funded the construction of a mobile roof of oak planks to protect twenty knights who were digging under the city walls. This stratagem failed, however, and the roof collapsed under the weight of the rocks hurled down by the defenders. Some time later, craftsmen from southern France in the entourages of the count of Toulouse and the bishop of Le Puy were hired to erect a very high tower along Nicaea’s southern wall. The warriors atop this tower successfully created a breach in the wall, but the defenders soon blocked it.

Siege and Defence of Castles During the First Crusade II

UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1754: Siege of a town led by Godefroy de Bouillon (c1060-1100) 1st Crusade (1095-1099), showing Saracens firing arrows at Crusaders as they attempt to scale the walls. From manuscript of Roman de Godefroy de Bouillon. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

The technological skills of the Franks were not limited to constructing siege engines and artillery. They managed to transport boats overland from the Aegean seashore to the shores of the Lake of Nicaea. This they did by joining together three or four wagons, creating large platforms each of which could carry one boat. One source reports that `during the night, by means of ropes wrapped around the necks of men and horses, they pulled [the boats] to the sea, a distance of seven miles or more’. From this description we learn that the Franks brought heavy four-wheeled wagons with them, and were able to move these wagons using horses. This source emphasises the ability of Frankish craftsmen and carpenters to build cranes under difficult battlefield conditions, and to harness horses to pull heavy wagons.

According to the Latin chroniclers, the breakthrough in the siege of Nicaea came when a Lombard carpenter and engine-builder managed to build a machine sufficiently fortified to withstand attacks by the defenders (for which he was generously paid and supplied with materials), thus providing cover for those who dug under the wall’s foundations. It was this effort which finally brought the lengthy siege to an end.

The Frankish sieges of Antioch, Ma’arat an-Nu’uman, and Arka also entailed the construction of siege engines and the use of heavy artillery. Siege towers reduced the advantage provided by the height of the city walls, and in cases in which they were not effective enough the Franks constructed real wooden fortifications. They were used, for example, in the siege of Antioch, where the Franks first initiated a lengthy land blockade, while the defenders, for their part, mounted surprise attacks and quick sorties through the city gates. At this time the defenders did not yet have special openings in the wall for such sorties, but time and again they managed to surprise the Franks by opening the gates and rushing out to strike at them. The latter responded by quickly erecting wooden fortifications to defend the camps of the besieging forces.

Thus, at a fairly early stage of the siege of Antioch they built a castrum or an external fortification (antemurale) which came to be known as Malregard and was intended to defend the camp of Bohemond and his men. Immediately upon the arrival of reinforcements, which included craftsmen and building materials, another wooden fortification (munitio) which they called the Mahomeria, was constructed on a site that previously had been a Muslim mosque. A third fortification, given the name Novum Presidium and manned by 500 warriors, prevented the defenders from exiting through one of the city gates.

Labourers, craftsmen – and sometime even mercenaries – from among the Crusader forces were employed to construct and maintain such fortifications. They were well paid, for demand greatly outstripped supply. In one case, when the Crusade’s leaders decided to construct a fortification opposite Antioch’s western gate, it was impossible to find persons who would build or man it without receiving due compensation. In the end, Tancred agreed to take this task upon himself, but only after he was promised a sizeable monthly income of 40 marks from the public treasury (ex publico). From this description we learn of the existence of such a treasury and also that sums were paid out of it for building operations connected with military action.

All these fortifications were erected in a matter of weeks, sometimes even days. It can therefore be assumed – though this is not explicitly stated – that they were built of wood and were similar to such fortifications known to us from contemporary Europe. A letter written by one Anslem of Ribemonte, who was party to the construction of one of the fortifications, to the lord of Reims, indicates that it was built atop an earthen motte, which indicates that the castle was of the motte and bailey type and was probably constructed of wood. William of Tyre relates that Bohemond was unable to defend one of the fortifications, so he set it on fire. In the exceptional cases in which they were built of stone, this is specific- ally mentioned: thus, for example, during the siege of Antioch the Franks built a wall of solid materials (`factumque muro cum propuganculist ex opere solido’).

All these sources and examples testify to a sizeable presence of expert craftsmen in the Crusader forces and to their willingness to use their specific skills for proper remuneration, but it is quite clear that such a situation was not characteristic of the Muslim armies as well.

Frankish technical capabilities and their ability to adopt innovations while mounting a siege were obvious during the siege of Ma’arat an- Nu’uman (12 November-12 December 1098). At first they tried to storm it, using ladders, but they had only two ladders. `Had they had enough ladders’, claim the Latin sources, `the city would have already fallen during the second day of the siege.’ When the frontal attack failed, the Franks began to construct shelters, artillery, and a mobile wooden tower, the first built during the First Crusade. According to Rogers, it was less perfect than those constructed during later sieges; though it could be moved by means of four wheels, warriors could not leap directly from it onto the walls. The Muslims propelled rocks and a buzzing beehive at the tower, but to no avail, for according to Ibn al-Qalanisi the tower was higher than the walls and the defenders could not protect themselves. Ibn al-`Adim too noted that the capture of Ma’arat an-Nu’uman was made possible only after the Franks had cut down all the trees in the city’s surroundings in order to build a wooden burj [tower] which dominated the walls. They attacked the city from all sides until they managed to place the tower against the wall. Only then did they raise their ladders and break into the city. We see, then, that the Muslim sources note the tower’s height as its primary advantage, disregarding its mobility.

From the descriptions of this siege it is also obvious that in order to implement Frankish siege tactics, which relied on the construction of heavy engines, they had to rely not only on carpenters and other skilled craftsmen. They also needed devoted rank and file troops trained to carry out tasks connected with the use of these engines. Thus, for example, in order to set siege engines against the walls one needed soldiers to carry weighty planks of wood, fill in dykes and defensive trenches, collect rocks to be propelled, and then drag the heavy engines, all this at a risk to their lives. During the siege of Ma’arat an-Nu’uman, the troops in question were an unusually wild group, known as tafuri, who had a reputation among the Turks as being ruthless and uninhibited warriors, even cannibals!

After completion of the tower, the fighting was primarily between the Frankish soldiers on its platform and Muslim defenders who faced them at the same height atop the walls. By means of lances and artillery, the attackers, commanded by William VI of Montpellier, provided cover for their fellow warriors who leaned ladders against the fortifications in order to scale the walls, and for others engaged in digging underneath their foundations.

Frankish Attacks and Muslim Artillery

The Muslims frequently used artillery to ward off attacks by the Franks against their own cities and castles. For example, in preparation for the Frankish siege of Antioch, the Turkish governor commanded the city’s residents to prepare stocks of iron and wood from which to create artillery pieces. The residents obeyed the governor, and their artillery hurled heavy rocks and fired arrows at the besiegers, forcing them to retreat to a safe distance from the walls. William of Tyre notes that Antioch’s rulers imposed most of the work involved in preparing the artillery upon the city’s Christian population:

If machines were to be erected or immensely heavy beams moved, that work was at once laid upon them . . . Others had to furnish the huge stones which were being constantly hurled beyond the walls by the engines and to manage the ropes by which these were operated.

Similar behaviour is recorded in descriptions of Muslim preparations for the siege of Jerusalem by the Franks. Commanders of the Fatimid forces made ready pieces of artillery and stationed them atop the city walls. William was convinced that the Muslim artillery was no more than an excellent imitation of that of the Franks:

Following our example, they built from these [beams], inside the walls, machines equal to ours in height, but of better material [Machinas interius nostris equi- pollentes, sed meliore compactas materia certatim erigebant]. This they did with the greatest enthusiasm, that their engines might not be inferior to ours either in construction or in material. Guards were maintained constantly on the walls and towers, who watched intently all that was done in our army, especially in regard to devices which pertained to engines of war. Every detail observed was at once reported to the chief men of Jerusalem, who strove with great skill to imitate the work of the Christians, that they might meet all our efforts with equal ingenuity.

Imitation, William goes on, `was comparatively easy, for the people of Jerusalem had at their command many more skilled workmen and building tools, as well as larger supplies of iron, copper, ropes, and everything else necessary than had our people’. He records that these engines, like the ones built by the Muslims during the Frankish siege of Antioch, were constructed by Eastern Christians who were forcibly recruited for the difficult task, which entailed carrying heavy wooden planks and other materials. William, however, attributes the knowledge necessary to build these engines to the Muslim defenders of Jerusalem, whose efforts became increasingly effective during the later stages of the siege, when real artillery battles were conducted between the Franks’ siege engines and the Muslim artillery on the walls. From William’s chronicle one can sense an atmosphere of technological competition, as each side made an effort to study and adopt the enemy’s war machinery.

The similarity between the Frankish siege weapons and those used by the Muslims for defence was most noticeable during the unsuccessful attempt to take ‘Arka and the successful siege of Jerusalem. Since the topographical features at ‘Arka prevented effective use of siege engines, the Franks tried their hand at the tactics favoured by the Muslims: mining under the foundations of the city walls. Despite their strenuous efforts, they were unsuccessful. Artillery, too, was not enough to take the city: the Muslims mounted on the walls artillery no less effective than that of the Franks and managed to hit an important Frankish knight.

The siege of Jerusalem also began with frontal attacks, whose failure was put down to the lack of ladders. The commanders soon decided to refrain from such attacks until they should have heavy artillery and siege towers at their disposal. During most of the siege (until mid-July 1099), the Franks engaged in the logistics which the construction of siege engines and towers entailed, until the two leading camps in the Crusader force each possessed a tower of its own. The one commanded by Godfrey of Bouillon built its tower along the northern wall, while the second camp, under the command of Raymond of St Gilles, erected its tower on Mt Zion. The logistics involved were far from negligible: they had to ascertain where suitable wooden beams could be found; furthermore, in order to cut down trees, prepare the heavy beams, and transport them they needed craftsmen and carpenters, camels, donkeys, horses, and experienced waggoners. Particularly hard hit by a lack of experienced craftsmen, the Crusaders were aided by two Genoese vessels that dropped anchor at Jaffa on 17 June 1099, only eleven days after the siege of Jerusalem began. Their commander agreed to supply the force surrounding Jerusalem with pro- fessional builders (`viri prudentes et nautarum more architectorie habentes artis periciam’) to `construct engines in the shortest time possible’. These craftsmen `brought with them a great selection of tools which proved to be of advantage to the besieging forces’.

Positioning the towers, too, called for much expertise, for this entailed transporting them and putting together the tower’s numerous sections under enemy fire. Both of these tasks were carried out under the cover of darkness to reduce the danger to a minimum. The builders’ expertise enabled them to do this in one night and complete the entire undertaking before sunrise. The fighting, accompanied by curses and acts of sorcery, raged around these towers. William relates that `two Muslim witches and three apprentice witches’, who threw a curse upon these most efficient siege engines of the Franks, died in the line of duty atop the walls of Jerusalem.

The rank-and-file labourers generally went unpaid, but the wages of the others (particularly expert craftsmen) were paid out of donations, since none of the Crusade commanders – with the exception of the count of Toulouse – had the funds necessary to hire expert builders. Yet, even Raymond of Toulouse’s men were ordered to place their beasts of burden and servants at the disposal of those who engaged in transporting building materials, and every two knights in his entourage took upon themselves to supply one ladder or one mobile shelter.

From the detailed descriptions of the sieges of Nicaea, Antioch, Ma’arat an-Nu’uman, and Jerusalem, as well as the less detailed ones of other cities conquered during the First Crusade, we see that the Franks made use of complex wooden structures and sophisticated artillery to breach the fortifications which defended the enemy. The presence in their camp at all times of expert carpenters and craftsmen, in addition to the relatively high availability of Italian fleets, eased these rather complicated efforts. Commanding a siege based upon artillery and siege towers called for much experience in deploying combined forces charged with executing diverse missions: construction of the siege engines and artillery, moving them towards the walls, defending them, and doing battle with the enemy at specific locations along the walls.

Advanced types of stationary artillery, prepared in advance of attack and mounted atop the walls, were used by the Muslim troops. William of Tyre was convinced that the Frankish artillery far surpassed that of the Muslims, and that the latter were in the habit of imitating that used by the Crusaders. During the First Crusade, however, the Muslims had no opportunity to build mobile field artillery or to employ heavy artillery during attacks and sieges.

The evident superiority of the Frankish armies over their adversaries, which enabled them to capture many of the coastal and inland cities of the Levant, did not emanate therefore from technologies which were unknown to the Muslim armies, but from their superior logistics and the presence of experienced carpenters and builders in the field armies. This advantage facilitated the construction of complex machines even under the difficult conditions which prevailed during the siege itself. The Muslims, who were able to construct similar installations to defend their own fortifications, did not possess similar logistical capabilities during their own siege campaigns.

Verdun – Death of All…

The German plans for Verdun appear to have entirely abandoned the idea of a breakthrough, Falkenhayn himself describing such a full-scale assault as a ‘doubtful operation … which is beyond our forces’ and which might lead to German forces being trapped in untenable salients that could be pounded from both flanks. Verdun was chosen as the objective since it was perceived both as a base from which the French could launch a potentially decisive offensive and because it had acquired an almost mystical significance during the Franco-Prussian War. Ironically, the Germans underrated their own fascination for the fortress city. The ever-aggressive General Charles Mangin noted that ‘Verdun has always exercised a singular fascination upon the German imagination, and its capture, which seemed relatively easy, could in itself be celebrated as a great victory in Germany and in neutral countries.’

On the French side the success of German heavy artillery in 1914 had convinced GQG’s theorists that fortresses were potential death-traps which might enable the enemy to isolate and capture large numbers of men. The capitulation of forts on the Eastern Front in 1915 appeared to further confirm the lessons of 1870 and Joffre had ordered the remaining forts to be stripped of their guns in late 1914 to reinforce the army artillery. The theory was that fortresses supported the defensive system but were too fragile to function as a strong-point upon which the entire system could succeed or fail. Placing valuable artillery in a position that the enemy could easily target seemed akin to placing too many eggs in one basket. General Herr protested that there was a difference between an isolated fortress and a fort in a defensive system but his memoranda were ignored. Herr’s problem was exacerbated by the relative inactivity seen in the Verdun sector since the Marne. With major assaults being planned elsewhere and the rumours of an attack assumed to presage a limited assault, GQG assigned Verdun territorial units and concentrated on offensive planning.

Oblivious to their unintended assistance from GQG, the Germans deployed vast quantities of equipment and ammunition and began to construct bomb-proof stollen (shelters) for the assault troops being moved into the line. Infantry units were given strict instructions not to push out ‘parallels of departure’ or Russian saps that might give away the on-going preparations for the offensive. Artillery units were moved forwards and carefully concealed. Most batteries were under orders to hold their fire until Operation Gericht had commenced so that the French would be surprised by the 306 field guns, 542 heavy guns and 152 minenwerfer directly behind the assault units and the 400 additional guns supporting the offensive on the flank. Entirely fooled by the German deception plan, the French artillery was outnumbered by a ratio of 4:1 and French military intelligence had identified only 70 gun emplacements before the battle. Most dangerously, they totally missed the larger guns assigned to smash the forts, including the 420mm and 380mm heavy howitzers; the latter could drop 40 shells a day on almost any target in the Verdun sector.

General Schnabel

In General Schnabel’s fire-plan, the 210mm batteries were assigned to pulverise the front line then place a curtain barrage to block any potential counter-attack as the leading assault units consolidated their hard-won objectives. Strong-points would be reduced by both the heavy guns and minenwerfers and the 150mm batteries would then be assigned to both counter-battery missions and to interdict the supply network and rear areas. ‘No line is to remain unbounded and no possibilities of supply unmolested, nowhere should the enemy feel safe.’ The 150mm batteries assigned to counter-battery work would use zone-fire, deluging entire areas instead of trying to hit individual targets, adjusting rapidly with the aid of air observers, instead of relying on more precise methods of adjustment. This required substantially more ammunition but the use of asphyxiating and lachrymatory agents delivered by gas shell successfully enabled the German gunners to neutralise the French batteries. The lighter guns would move forwards as soon as the assault began so that the heavy guns could be shifted to new positions capable of covering the new front line. The Germans stocked 2. 5 million rounds alongside the batteries, and intended to fire the bulk of them in only 9½ hours on a 22-kilometre stretch of front before an infantry attack only 7 kilometres wide. It would be an unprecedented demonstration of the power of modern artillery.

The bombardment was delayed by poor weather but finally began on 21 February. It was initially general, with batteries concentrating on key objectives only after the French defensive communication system was judged to have been sufficiently disrupted. In the final stages of the fire-plan, patrols were filtered into the gaps between the main target zones to assess the remaining defences. A horrified French air observer saw no evidence of a gap in the carnage and reported that ‘there are gun batteries everywhere. They follow each other non-stop; the flames from their shells form an unbroken sheet.’ Another described the fire as ‘a storm, a hurricane, a tempest growing ever stronger, where it is raining nothing but paving stones’. Fire jumped to the second line and continued on into the rear areas and out on to the flanks as the infantry advanced and the Germans surged forwards, only to halt as soon as they reached their primary objectives. They had been instructed not to push beyond these locations and new units moved forwards methodically to assault the second line; the General Staff had seen the effect of artillery barrages on attacks that were unsupported by counter-batteries and were wary of repeating what they saw as Gallic over-enthusiasm. ‘The mission of infantry units is generally as follows: to seize a part of the hostile fortified system on a front and to a depth which has been delimited in advance; and then to hold it against intense artillery fire, and resist hostile counter attacks.’ A note written by a staff officer in the same division (the 20th Bavarian Brigade) summarised the official view on initiative:

It is possible that the enemy situation may be such as to permit the attack to be continued beyond the line that has been designated, and to capture certain points which the subordinate may consider of secondary importance. Do not forget that our artillery will not be in condition, if progress is made beyond the designated line, to immediately execute a new preparation and to quickly support the operation … The decision made by a subordinate commander to extend the attack beyond the objective is a very serious one and should be the exception. Furthermore, the responsibility of the leader is affected, if a position which has been taken be retaken by the enemy, even though the adversary thus gains only a moral success.

The highly regulated approach to securing the first line of objectives (although this theoretically abandoned any chance of a coup de main) enabled the Germans to exploit along the flanks of the initial penetration of the defensive system. German units that secured the initial objectives instinctively sought out opportunities to assist other units still struggling on their flanks. The French defensive system was severely ruptured but the combination of inflexible assault timetables and the leadership and defensive innovation displayed by the redoubtable if doomed Colonel Driant, in the section of the line dominated by the Bois-de-Caures, bought the French enough time to stabilise the front line before the Germans could realise how close they had come to a breakthrough. Driant’s simple but effective tactic was to scatter his men among the shell-holes so that the German lifting barrage, designed to ‘lift’ just before the assault infantry swarmed over the defences, fell on his empty trench line and not on the men of his beleaguered command.

During the first stage of the Verdun offensive General Fayolle noted:

The Boches have captured the front-line trench and the support trench. How do they do it: all their attacks succeed … they knock over everything with a horrifying bombardment after concentrating superior means. Thereby they suppress the trenches, the supporting defences and the machine guns. But how do they cross the barrage? Probably their infantry infiltrate, and since there is no one left in the fire trenches they get in, and when they are there to get them out we need to have the same artillery superiority.

The effect of the German heavy bombardment, involving a rate of fire that the French simply could not match, soon earned the mordant nickname trommelfeuer (drumfire). An officer of the 243rd Infantry was stunned by the destruction: ‘by three o’clock in the afternoon, the section of the wood which we occupied which, in the morning, was completely covered in bushes, looked like the timber-yard of a sawmill; a little later, I had lost most of my men.’ Kronprinz Wilhelm was delighted by the apparent destruction but was quick to note the relatively low casualties inflicted during the bombardment:

The enemy, surprised by the annihilating volume of our fire, only shelled a few villages at random. At 5 p. m. our barrage jumped on to his second line, and the skirmishers and shock troops of all corps left their trenches. The material effect of our bombardment had been, as we discovered later, rather below our expectations, as the hostile defences in the wooded country were in many cases too well concealed; the moral effect was immense.

Mangin was rather less impressed with their initial moves in the battle:

The offensive of 21st February was both terrible and stingy at the same time; it was staged on too narrow a front, which while it widened out slightly, again contracted, in spite of the great array of artillery with which it was provided, and the limitless use of infantry in deep formations, it advanced only with great effort and did not know how to profit by the gaps which were in front of it on certain days. When it was decided to extend it to the left bank of the Meuse, it was too late; the defence had got a new hold on itself and had been organised.

As Mangin had noted, the first assaults were focused on the right bank of the Meuse and ignored the defensive positions on the left bank; for planning purposes, it was assumed that the counter-battery artillery would deal with any batteries flanking the main assault. Considering that the German plan was intended to maximise French casualties by retaining complete air and artillery dominance of the battlefield, the decision to leave the French batteries on the left bank almost completely unmolested by infantry seems to have been a major error in the planning for the first phase of the operation. As successive assaults went in, the obsolete but cunningly emplaced 155mm batteries on the left bank shrugged off the increasingly desperate attempts to silence them and poured fire into General von Zwehl’s VII Korps every time they recommenced their advance. In spite of a spirited defence and an overly methodical fire-plan, the Germans still drove deep. Their overwhelming superiority in both guns and tactics enabled them to consolidate most of their initial objectives but as soon as the French threw in reserves, they launched vigorous counter-attacks and casualties on both sides began to mount. What Mangin bitterly described as the age of ‘mechanical’ battle had begun.

After the under-garrisoned and ill-armed Fort Douaumont fell, isolated by a near-constant barrage that gradually drove the supporting units to positions from where they were unable to cover the entrances to the fort, the Germans commenced a series of remorseless assaults on positions on both banks of the Meuse. Stunned by the initial reverses, Joffre sacked all the officers he saw as responsible for the débâcle and assigned Pétain to command the sector. Colonel Driant’s tactical success with dispersed defences in the Bois-de-Caures during the first day of fighting was extended into a broader operational concept based upon ‘an advanced line of resistance’ consisting of forward outposts and observation positions backed up by ‘a principal line of resistance’ where localised reserves could gather and retake any lost positions with the assistance of attached artillery units. The concept of the easily identified defensive line was being aban-doned in the face of increasing firepower. Counter-battery and curtain barrages by the heavy artillery units delayed the enemy while creeping barrages supported counter-attacks.

Pétain, ably assisted by the slippery but brilliant Nivelle and the implacable Mangin, stabilised the Verdun sector by creating a position de barrage behind the front line, then using the old forts as armoured bastions in a defensive system that served as a protective zone in which the reserves could gather and launch counter-attacks. Unsurprisingly the artillery was seen as the key to this enhanced system and Pétain demanded additional artillery. The continuing carnage forced Joffre to confront the consequences of years of mismanagement at GQG. The French artillery was still outclassed and outranged by the Germans, giving Kronprinz Wilhelm a priceless advantage in a battle where artillery was the key to victory. The evidence was conclusive enough to convince Joffre, who demanded that 960 medium and 440 heavy guns should be produced as quickly as possible. Even with better weapons, French supplies were being brought along a narrow-gauge railway and the one forlorn, wreckage-strewn road into the salient and Army Group Centre could not hope to equal the near-continuous German barrage even if they wanted to. An American, working as a volunteer ambulance driver, asked about the rumble of thunder he heard as they approached the city and wondered if there was a storm coming. The driver shook his head in despair. ‘If it were thunder the noise would stop occasionally. The noise is constant. It’s Verdun.’

Pétain and his staff drafted a new artillery programme and it was disseminated in May 1916. The roles assigned to each type of artillery and their proportions were adjusted in recognition of the new realities revealed by the battles around Verdun. Divisions gained additional medium howitzers while all the 155mm howitzers and heavier, bunker-busting mortars went into the corps and army artillery groupes. Once again it was the Second Army’s training pamphlet that was circulated to the entire army as accepted doctrine, outlining advances in support, counter-preparation, communications, liaison, counter-battery techniques and the rapid concentration of fire from dispersed batteries. Pétain also set up a Centre of Artillery Studies to coordinate research into new technologies, techniques and doctrines and to disseminate the most effective approaches to artillery operations. The new programme changed production schedules and increased the French artillery regiments from 115 to 247: a radical increase in dedicated manpower at the very point at which the French were beginning to run out of fresh reserves.

Pétain took a personal interest in the activities of his hard-pressed gunners and often started meetings by asking corps liaison officers ‘What have your batteries being doing? We’ll discuss other points later.’ Coordination was to be their new watchword and they were instructed to ‘give the infantry the impression that [the artillery] is supporting them and that it is not dominated’. Such a policy increased artillery casualties but heartened the infantry, who were increasingly seeing the artillerymen as rear-area troops who had found a way to avoid genuine combat. One of the key innovations was the artillery offensive, a series of coordinated artillery raids on rear areas designed to disrupt movement and cause casualties. The Germans quickly noted the effectiveness of such tactics, observing that the French ‘began the flanking fire on the ravines and roads north of Douaumont that was to cause us such severe casualties’.

Even antiquated guns could make an impression if properly sited and, as noted above, the obsolete 155s placed to flank any German assault on the right bank of the Meuse inflicted horrific casualties during VII Korps’ attempts to breach that sector during March. The French guns were concealed among the fortress lines on the Bois Bourrus ridge and there was nothing that General von Zwehl’s gunners could do to prevent the French from slaughtering his men. The wounded streaming back to their start lines were described as ‘a vision of hell’ by one commander while another officer shouted ‘What … battalion? Is there such a thing!’

The next series of attacks focused on the left bank of the Meuse, centring on the grim slopes of the all-too-appropriately-named hill, Le Morte Homme. The terrain gave the attacking infantry considerable cover but the complex topography also favoured aggressive counter-attacks and the entire region was soon covered with blackened craters – one airman described the Verdun sector as appearing like ‘the humid skin of a monstrous toad’. The German preparatory bombardments were horrifying and one description of an attack on Côte 304 creates a strong impression of both the improvements to artillery preparation being made by the Germans and the stubborn tenacity of their Gallic opponents:

The pounding was continuous and terrifying. We had never experienced its like during the whole campaign. The earth around us quaked, and we were lifted and tossed about. Shells of all calibres kept raining on our sector. The trench no longer existed; it had been filled up with earth. We were crouching in shell-holes, where the mud thrown up by each new explosion covered us more and more. The air was unbreathable. Our blinded, wounded, crawling and shouting soldiers kept falling on top of us and died while splashing us with their blood. It really was a living hell. How could one ever survive such moments? We were deafened, dizzy and sick at heart. It is hard to imagine the torture we endured: our parched throats burned, we were thirsty, and the bombardment seemed endless …

Pétain’s new system was based upon building up a detailed record of all enemy artillery missions and battery locations and then centrally co-ordinating his forces to maximise his own guns’ disruption and destruction.20 Petain ensured that units spent only a few days in the front line before being relieved, the noria system, and this combination of fire-power and a realistic understanding of what the infantry could withstand gave the French the edge they needed. The army buckled but it did not collapse, even after the Germans launched eight frontal attacks on the defensive system around the heroic stronghold of Fort Vaux, finally taking its exhausted and parched garrison on 7 June. Undaunted, the Germans experimented with creating artillery corridors for assaults and the French found these extremely frustrating as it was difficult to predict the objective and resist the concentration of firepower. As Pétain noted, ‘In effect, ignorant of the points threatened by attack, the defenders are obliged to be strong everywhere and to place in the front line increased numbers of personnel who must be replaced often.’ While the new tactic was successful in increasing French casualties, it could not win the battle without forming part of a wider operational plan; it proved to be yet another example of the Germans’ inability to use their advanced tactics to achieve strategic objectives. In contrast, they ignored French logistics and throughout the battle ammunition and reinforcements flowed up the road from Bar-le–Duc to Verdun, endless lines of soldiers and 2, 000 tonnes of ammunition a day moving towards ‘the everlasting rumble of the guns’. For reasons that are still difficult to understand, neither the German artillery batteries nor the Luftstreitkräfte made a concerted effort to cut this vital artery and thus doomed both sides to a level of attrition that drained the fighting power of both armies.

Pétain, ‘the master of scientific tactics’, was promoted to command Army Group Centre in June and Robert Nivelle took over the defence of Verdun, ‘the kingdom of the guns’. A new German offensive, led by the elite Alpenkorps and supported by a three-day bombardment that utilised large quantities of phosgene (a new asphyxiating gas), understandably described by Mangin as ‘the most important and most massive attack that Verdun had to withstand’, greeted Nivelle’s appointment but the French artillery had reorganised and restructured since February. The precise German timetable of fire-missions and assaults that had worked so effectively in February fell apart in the face of a devastating series of counter-barrages that enabled French counter-attacks to retake all the key points. Another offensive in July ran straight into Mangin’s veteran gunners and was pushed back to its start line by a series of savage counter-attacks. Verdun had become an open ulcer that threatened to swallow Germans as fast as it slaughtered Frenchmen. The German phase of the battle had ground to a halt and now the French could demonstrate what they had learned in the first six months of fighting.

It would take time to fully reorganise the French army to suit Pétain’s vision of total war but most of the key concepts would be in place when their primary creator was placed in supreme command. The proof came when Nivelle and Mangin finally launched a successful attack to retake Fort Douaumont, after a number of costly but instructive failures, overwhelming the battered fortress with relentless fire from super-heavy guns – including two 400mm pieces which Joffre brusquely dismissed as being ‘chiefly for the diversion of the public and the press’. Nivelle dedicated enormous resources to the assault and a number of innovations helped the advancing French infantry. Every unit was thoroughly briefed on their objectives, a creeping barrage was used to keep the defenders under cover until the assault was on top of them and all communication wires were laid in 6-ft deep trenches to ensure continuous communications. The barrage moved 100 yards every 4 minutes, the 75s firing a hail of shrapnel only 70 yards ahead of the advancing infantry and the 400 heavy guns methodically pulverising the line with high explosive another 80 yards further forwards.

The supremely confident Mangin, described by one observer as literally licking his lips in anticipation,24 even briefed Allied journalists on the morning of the attack:

My 75s will engage the Boche trenches and I have an abundance of large calibre shells to smash every shelter … At H-hour, in two hours, the infantry will leave their own trenches and take the trenches before them; preceding them, at a distance of 70 or 80 metres, will be a blanket of 75 shells … When the creeping barrage catches up with it, the heavies will shift targets and hammer the reserves … We will continue towards the [German] reserves using the same method and they will be beaten by our troops … It will be an affair of at most a few hours …

One officer saw the lines of guns being deployed and understandably snarled at the belated arrival of France’s full military potential: ‘If only we had been thus provided at the beginning of the war, we should not now be fighting in France.’

Mangin ordered a continuous preparatory bombardment to prevent the Germans from improving their defences, a process he gleefully described as ‘not burying the hatchet’ and the Germans assumed that the French intended a series of localised attacks. One French unit even withdrew to avoid being hit by any shorts from their own side during the massive barrage and some audacious Mecklenburgers on the other side of no-man’s-land had the audacity to dash over and take cover in the abandoned French front line! The larger guns focused on Douaumont itself and as the 400mm shells began to smash into the fort’s already shattered carapace, the German garrison withdrew to the interior – then, after the water was exhausted, all but a few men abandoned the fortress entirely.

The bombardment started on 15 December and lasted three days; when the French guns at last fell silent the Germans emerged from their stollen and dashed to their assigned positions just as their own guns commenced counter-preparatory fire. To the amazement of the front-line infantry, there were no enemy troops in sight – but then Nivelle’s reserve of heavy guns commenced counter-battery fire against the freshly unmasked German batteries. The French 155mm guns pounded the German positions for an additional 36 hours, silencing or destroying 68 of the 158 batteries, before the creeping barrage began its relentless progress towards the main French objectives. The stunned Germans were completely over-whelmed as the French emerged from the morning mist and poured across the shell-scarred landscape, seizing positions that both sides had bitterly contested for months. In the foggy chaos Mangin and his staff soon lost contact with the assault regiments – a foretaste of disasters to come – but the key objectives were taken. French casualties were higher than hoped but the defenders suffered an even greater mauling and the Verdun sector was finally deemed to be secure.

Joffre’s influence faded during the battle for Verdun. His aggressive prewar doctrine had simply collapsed in a battle where superior artillery played the decisive role. Heavier guns, indirect fire and greater range gave the Germans a valuable advantage but their strategic errors allowed the French to survive, a victory of sorts. With Papa Joffre politely kicked upstairs, the Young Turks were dispersed to field commands and the artillery was finally able to take full advantage of the increasing numbers of heavy pieces being supplied. Planning began to focus around the artillery instead of the furia francese. The problem with such revolutions is that they occasionally lead to grand assumptions about the utility of the technical innovations forged during the collapse of the old system and tend to forget that the enemy has an even greater reason to monitor such changes.

Of the 800,000 casualties at Verdun, an estimated 70 percent were caused by artillery. The Germans launched two million shells during their opening bombardment—more than in any engagement in history to that point—and the two sides eventually fired between 40 and 60 million shells over the next ten months. Rumbles from the barrages were heard as far as 100 miles away, and soldiers described certain hills as being so heavily bombed that they gushed fire like volcanoes. Those lucky enough to survive were often left with severe shell shock from the constant drumroll of falling bombs. “I arrived there with 175 men,” wrote one Frenchman whose unit fell victim to a German artillery attack at Verdun. “I left with 34, several half mad…not replying anymore when I spoke to them.”

Victor of Verdun

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

The First Breech-Loader Artillery

Guns were already essential for siege warfare, and although they were slow-firing and very immobile they had also been successfully employed on the battlefield before the 16th century, notably in the wagon-riding Czech armies of Jan Ziska, and by the French in the later stages of the 100 Years War. Early cannon were usually on static mountings, and a crane, for lifting, and wagons, for transport, remained essential parts of the artillery train well into the 16th Century (in 1527 the Emperor Maximillian still had six heavy guns like this, though his 105 lighter guns were all on wheeled carriages). Among the first guns on wheeled carriages were those used by the French in 1461, and those which the Swiss captured from Charles the Bold of Burgundy in the 1470s (and still hold).

The first fully mobile and effective field artillery appeared in 1494 in the train of Charles VIII of France when he invaded Italy, and Fornovo (1495) was probably the first battle where artillery played a really effective part. The eight-foot bronze guns were drawn by horse teams and could keep up with marching infantry. They made a great impression on the Italians whose few heavy pieces, being ox-drawn, usually arrived too late for battles and, according to Machiavlli, could never fire more than one or two shots before battle was joined.

Until the middle of the 15th century, gunpowder really was a powder, simply a mixture of the three essential components in a dry, dusty state. This mixture tended to separate into its components during travel and therefore was a very unreliable propellant for the gun operators. Then someone had the bright idea of mixing the potassium nitrate, charcoal and sulphur with water, before drying it into a solid cake. This cake was first broken up into small flakes, then screened into bits of roughly similar size, before being loaded into the barrels of the guns.

The result was a large number of burst barrels. This mixture was not only much more reliable; the entire propellant now ignited almost instantly and was much more effective than a fine powder. A much smaller volume of propellant was found to provide much greater power and range. Gunners were soon able to calculate exactly how much powder they needed to use to achieve firing maximum effect, and as a result, they stopped splitting the guns.

Until about 1450, cannon were relatively immobile. Transported only with difficulty and installed on sturdy mounts before the battle, they were lucky to get off more than a few shots before serious difficulties arose. During the ebb and flow of the battle, infantry and cavalry could wash over the gun positions several times during a fight, and whomever won kept the guns.

Improved mobility began to be seen in the mid-15th century in great measure, because this was when Swiss forces started mounting their guns on large wheels and firing them from carriages. Mobility, firepower, range and lethal effect began to influence the battle in serious ways.

In 1450, at Formigny, two culverin cannon helped French forces break the formation of English archers during battle. Three years later, massed cannon and small firearms were a decisive factor on a battlefield for the first time, routing an English force at the Battle of Castillion. Here the guns were tactically employed from carefully prepared positions as the primary force, in an intentional and devastating way.

Around 1470, the first practical breech-loading cannon were introduced. Other breech-loading cannon had been made for some time, massive weapons, the breech section of which was threaded onto the barrel. Re-loading took time and manpower to unscrew the breech, stuff it with powder and shot, then reassemble it.

The new system, called culverin or veuglaire, tended to be long, slender tubes open at each end, firing a shot about 102mm (4in) in diameter. The breech was a metal component about the shape and size of a large beer stein, with about the same capacity. This was charged with powder and ball, then installed in position at the breech. Wedges secured this crude breechblock in place and thereby prevented it from flying loose after each discharge.

Propellant gas, of course, leaked past the joints with a vengeance, but the gunners of the time were not too demanding about such things. The long bore allowed the propellant to develop its energy fully, which offset the leakage somewhat, and it also made the weapon easier to aim.

Artillery of Burgundy

Archival research was the speciality of Joseph Garnier, archivist of Dijon, who studied the artillery of the Dukes of Burgundy in the archives of the Cote d’Or for his L’Artillerie des Ducs de Bourgogne (Paris, 1895). The bulk of the transcriptions came from the Chambre des Comptes of Dijon that, as he informs, had been already studied by other scholars. He deals with Burgundian artillery from its beginnings, under the Duke Philip I the Bold (1363-1404), until the time of Charles the Bold (1467-77). Of documentary interest are the details of Louis XI’s artillery at the moment of the incorporation of Burgundy into France by the Treaty of Arras (1482). One appendix deals with artillery pieces referred to in the Chambre des Comptes’s ms. B. 11864, on whose origin Garnier is uncertain. A second one is an annotated glossary for the oldest or most difficult words. Some entries are particularly elaborate such as Canons, which is broken down into Bombardes, Bombardelle, Portier, Veuglarie, Coulevrine, Crapaudeau, Courtaut, Serpentine and Faucon. They are pioneering in European artillery study, as also is the last appendix, which contains comparative tables on the pieces mentioned with name, date, type of metal, length, weight of the piece, weight and diameter of the stone ball, weight of the iron ball, gunpowder charge and everything regarding the gun-carriages, carts and horses [attelage].

There is an illustration of the ball casting process in the German Codex Germanicus 600, ascribed to the second half of the 14th century, which shows a man handling the tongs to pour the metal into the mould. In the lower Meuse valley shot was being made at least as early as 1414 and the following year, the council of Strasburg ordered 100 cast-iron balls from that of Freyburg. In 1431 Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (1419-1467), used cast-iron balls and in 1473 Baudouyn d’Awain, Artillery Master of Charles the Bold, cast more than 1,000 balls in Brussels. Simon Mahenard and Anthoine de Maison, iron and steel masters from Diénay and Béze (Cote d’Or) are recorded around 1478-79 as working on cast-iron ammunition. Likewise, in 1486 Jehan Ladmiral, “master gunner and iron smelter” made for Archduke Maximilian I two cast-iron mortars weighing 1,060 kg for the artillery of Burgundy.

Robert Douglas Smith

The latter’s output is mainly for iron cannon. His proposed classification of wrought-iron pieces appeared in Towards a new typology for wrought iron ordnance (1988), followed by various articles such as Identification of iron cannon (1994) and The technology of wrought-iron artillery (2000), where he groups the different types according to shape, number and position of hoops, etc. giving four main categories: “swivel-guns”, “tube guns”, “chambers” and “muzzleloaders”, the latter including two varieties: “short” and “chambered”. In each category there are up to 18 different types, defined by form and shape. This is a good attempt at classification of wrought-iron artillery but the problem is: how many pieces could be admitted without inflating the list so that it became unmanageable? It has been used repeatedly showing a need for this type of framework. Smith has brought new technologies to artillery research, such as X-ray to study construction methods, as in the case of Mons Meg in the so-called Wrought iron cannon project of 1985, amplified in Bombards: Mons Meg and her sisters (1989), written in collaboration with Ruth Rhynas Brown, where eleven iron pieces are studied.

In 2005 Smith was the co-author of The artillery of the Dukes of Burgundy 1363- 1477, written with Kelly DeVries, a prolific scholar on warfare. The work depends heavily on Joseph Garnier’s L’Artillerie des Ducs de Bourgogne, whose transcriptions of archival documentation are analysed extensively. However, it lacks the scholarship of the work of Achilles Gessler or a greater use of the chronicles of Gerold Edlibach, Benedikt Tschachtlan and Diebold Schilling. It includes a catalogue of 27 surviving pieces supposedly of Burgundian origin strongly based on Florens Deuchler’s work. Smith is also the current editor of the Journal of the Ordnance Society, created in London in 1986 with the objective of promoting and disseminating the study “of all forms of artillery” from its beginnings up to the present day.


Self-Propelled Mortar Carriers I

M21 Mortar Motor Carriage

An Australian 3 inch mortar carrier

Half-track carriers were one of the most versatile designs of all armoured fighting vehicles to be used during the Second World War. The Japanese Army had this type of vehicle, as did the French Army, but it was the German and American armies which developed their half-track vehicles to serve in a whole range of roles, from mounting anti-tank guns and field guns to serving as carriers for mortars. One of the first types to be developed for the mechanised infantry battalions of the US Army was the M4, which entered service in October 1941. It carried an M1 81mm mortar in a fixed mounting to allow it to fire rearwards from the back of an M2 half-track vehicle. Unfortunately this layout was not favoured, probably because the carrying vehicle had to be manoeuvred into firing position instead of simply being driven forward to open fire on targets, like standard self-propelled guns such as the M7 ‘Priest’ with its 105mm gun. A modification was made so that the crew could dismount the mortar in order to fire it on a baseplate from prepared weapon pits. The modified mounting corrected the drawback and fitted the mortar to allow it to fire forward from within the vehicle. It was operated by a crew of six men and carried ninety-six rounds for the M1 mortar, which comprised mainly HE but with some smoke and illuminating bombs. Between late 1941 and December 1942, the White Motor Company of Cleveland, Ohio, produced 572 of these vehicles, which went on to serve in mainly the European theatre. The design weighed 7.75 tons, had an overall length of 19.72ft and could reach speeds up to 45mph on roads. It measured 6.43ft in width and 7.4ft in height and carried a .30in calibre machine gun for self-defence with 2,000 rounds of ammunition. Some vehicles were armed with the heavier .50in calibre machine gun, and the crew also had personal weapons.

Another variant was designated as the M4A1, and from May 1943 the White Motor Company built 600 of these vehicles. This was slightly larger and heavier weighing 8 tons but still carrying ninety-six rounds of ammunition for the M1 81mm mortar, which was mounted to fire forward. A crew of six operated the vehicle and weapons, which included a .30in calibre machine gun with 2,000 rounds mounted for self-defence. The M4A1 was 20.3ft overall in length, 7.44ft in height and 6.43ft in width. It could reach speeds of up to 45mph on roads. Together with its M4 counterpart, these mortar carrying vehicles served with armoured units such as the 2nd Armoured Division, nicknamed ‘Hell on Wheels’, from 1942 and later served across Europe after June 1944. Despite the successful development of these two types of mortar carrier, the Ordnance Department decided to re-evaluate the layout and develop a third type of mortar-carrying half-track based on a modified M3 half-track and conduct experiments with an 81mm mortar mounted to fire forward over the driver’s cab.

Field trials and firing tests proved this new layout to be superior to the M4 design in some respects, and in June 1943 it was standardised as the M21. The White Motor Company, with its experience in developing such vehicles, was awarded the contract to build the new design, and between January and March 1944 produced 110 units. Meanwhile, trials were continuing using an M4 half-track to mount a 4.2in (107mm) mortar for use with the chemical mortar battalions. Mobility and firing trials were conducted to assess the feasibility of this combination to lay smoke screens. The mounting was the same as that used on the 81mm mortar but the recoil forces of this heavier weapon proved too great for the vehicle’s chassis, the trials were suspended and the project dropped. Two other projects, known as T27 and the T27E1, using the M1 mortar mounted in the chassis of tanks, were examined, but these were terminated in April 1944. The T29 to mount an 81mm mortar into a converted chassis of an M5A3 light tank was another short-lived project which never got off the drawing board. The Ordnance Department then tried mounting the 4.2in mortar on the M3A1 half-track, and this proved much better. For some reason the design team appears to have reverted to mounting the mortar to fire rearward out of the vehicle and the configuration was designated T21. A change of design to mount the mortar to fire forward resulted in the designation T21E1, and even mounting the weapon into a the chassis of an M24 light tank was considered, but it was not pursued and the complete project was dropped shortly before the end of the war in Europe in 1945. Two other proposals for self-propelled mortar carriers were the T36 and T96 projects. The T36 suggested mounting a 155mm mortar in the chassis of an M4 Sherman tank and the T96 a 155mm mortar onto the chassis of the M37 gun carriage. They were good ideas but by the time these proposals were put forward the war was coming to an end and the projects were dropped.

The M4, M4A1 and M21 mortar carriers were based on the M2, M2A1 and M3 half-tracks respectively, of which some 60,000 of all types were built. They served in various roles, including self-propelled gun and anti-aircraft gun platform with quadruple-mounted .50in calibre heavy machine guns known as the M16. There were also communications vehicles in this range. The White Motor Company built the prototype of the M21 in early 1943 as the T-19 and, following successful trials, it was standardised in July the same year. It was accepted into service in January 1944 and among the units to receive the vehicles was the 54th Armoured Infantry Regiment of the 10th Armoured Division, which later saw heavy fighting during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. The M21 had a crew of six to operate the vehicle, mortar and the machine gun for self-defence, while frames on the side of the vehicle allowed mines to be carried which could be laid for defensive purposes in an emergency. The vehicle had a combat weight of 20,000lbs (almost 9 tons) with an overall length of almost 19ft 6in. The height was 7ft 5in and it was almost 7ft 5in at its widest point. The barrel of the M1 81mm mortar was supported with a bipod and a special baseplate mounting which allowed it to be fired from the rear of the vehicle. A total of ninety-seven rounds of ammunition were carried and included smoke, illuminating and high explosive rounds. A store of forty rounds of ammunition was kept in lockers either inside the hull where the crew could access it easily ready to use. A further fifty-six rounds were kept in storage lockers, twenty-eight rounds either side of the hull, which could be loaded into the rear of the vehicle to maintain levels of ammunition ready to fire. This arrangement was the same on the M4 and M4A1 vehicles. The mortar of the M21 could be traversed 30 degrees left and right; for greater changes the vehicle had to be manoeuvred to face the direction of the target. The mortar could be fired at the rate of eighteen rounds per minute to engage targets at ranges of almost 3,300 yards with the high explosive rounds. The barrel could be elevated between 40 and 85 degrees to alter the range. The .50in calibre machine gun was fitted on a pedestal mount to the rear of the vehicle and a total of 400 rounds of ammunition were carried. From there the firer could traverse through 360 degrees to provide all-round fire support. The vehicle was only lightly armoured up to a maximum 13mm thickness.

The M21 was fitted with a White 160AX six-cylinder petrol engine which developed 147hp at 3,000rpm to give speeds of up to 45mph on roads. Fuel capacity was 60 gallons and this allowed an operational range of 200 miles on roads. The front wheels were operated by a standard steering wheel and the tracks were fitted with double sets of twin bogies as road wheels, larger ‘idler-type’ wheels at the front and rear of the track layout and only one return roller. The open top of the vehicle could be covered by a canvas tarpaulin during inclement weather and this could be thrown off quickly when going into action. Although only few in number, together with the more numerous M4 and M4A1 mortar carriers, the three designs provided excellent mobile fire support to infantry units wherever required. All three designs were equipped with radio sets to communicate and receive orders as to where to deploy if needed to fire against targets. Some units of the Free French Army were supplied with some fifty-two examples of the M21 self-propelled mortar vehicles, which were used during the European campaign.

One armoured unit, the 778th Tank Battalion, recorded of the mortar carriers attached to D Company in December 1944 that the fire support they provided was ‘instrumental on several occasions in assisting the advance of the infantry by placing fire on enemy gun positions and strongpoints that could not effectively be fire upon by other weapons’. The account continues by stating how ‘the two … mortar platoons, from advantageous positions on the west side of the Saar River placed harassing fire on the city of Bous, on the east side of the river. The platoon fired an average of 350 to 400 rounds per day into the city’. Continuing in their support of D Company, the mortar carriers fired from elevated positions at Bisten from where they suppressed German positions. Another armoured unit, the 746th Tank Battalion, was provided with fire support from mortar carriers and the unit recorded how these vehicles were able to ‘fire support to [cover] advance infantry elements in many instances when tank fire cannot be employed successfully’. This account continues by recording how self-propelled mortar carriers ‘were attached to an infantry regiment and further attached to one battalion and the assault company thereof. By following closely behind the advancing infantry, the mobile mortars lay down covering fires within their maximum range before displacing to the next bound. In some actions, the mortar carriers have backed down the axis of advance from one bound to another.’ Yet despite the mortar carrier’s effectiveness in supporting advances at very close quarters and keeping up with the advance, by the end of the war some officers in armoured units dismissed their usefulness. There were plans to develop the M21 vehicle to carry the larger 4.2in calibre mortar but it never entered service.

During its rearmament programme the German Army investigated the possibility of using half-tracked vehicles, and the way in which they could be developed into a variety of roles to support troops on the battlefield. By the time Poland was attacked, the German Army was equipped with several versatile designs of armoured half-tracked vehicles, mostly serving in the primary role of transporting troops on the battlefield and a secondary role as communications vehicles. Production of these designs continued so that several months later, when the blitzkrieg was launched against Western Europe in May 1940, the fleet of half-track vehicles was even larger. The two most widely-used types were the SdKfz 251 and the smaller SdKfz 250, which went on to prove itself to be no less versatile than its larger counterpart. In fact, by the end of the war in 1945; the SdKfz 250 had been developed into no fewer than twelve different configurations.

The German Army was quick to realise that light armoured half-track vehicles could be used on the battlefield as flexible workhorses. Of all the designs to enter service, it was the SdKfz 251 series, weighing 8.7 tons in its basic APC version and capable of carrying ten fully-equipped infantrymen as well as the driver and co-driver, which would prove invaluable in many campaigns, including North Africa. From the very beginning it complied with the requirements calling for an armoured vehicle capable of transporting infantrymen on the battlefield. Known as the Gepanzerter Mannschraftstran-portwagen (armoured personnel carrier) when it was first proposed in 1935, the vehicle quickly took shape and in 1938 the prototype was ready for field trials. It was produced by the companies of Hanomag and Bussing-Nag, which built the chassis and hulls respectively, and the vehicle was given the title of Mittlerer Schutzenpanzerwagen (medium infantry armoured vehicle) with the designation of SdKfz 251. The first vehicles were in service in 1939 and some were used during the campaign against Poland. Production was low at first, in fact only 348 were built in 1940, but there were enough numbers to be used during the campaign in the west in 1940. The SdKfz 251 was fitted with a Mayback HL42 TKRM six-cylinder water-cooled petrol engine which developed 100hp at 2,800rpm to give road speeds of up to 34mph, which was more than sufficient to keep up with the tanks in the armoured divisions.

The APC version was 19ft in length, 6ft 10in in width and 5ft 9in in height. The vehicle could cope with vertical obstacles up to 12in in height, cross ditches 6ft 6in in width and had an operational range of 200 miles on roads. Armour protection was between 6mm and 14mm, but the rear crew compartment where the infantry sat had no overhead protection, which exposed the troops to the elements and also the effects of shells exploding overhead. Two machine guns, either MG34 or MG42, were fitted to allow one to fire forwards from behind a small armoured shield and the weapon at the rear was fitted to a swivel mount to provide fire support for the infantry as they exited the vehicle. Being open-topped, the infantry could jump over the sides to leave the vehicle or exit through the double rear doors. The machine guns, for which 2,000 rounds of ammunition was carried, could be taken from the vehicle when the infantry deployed.

Self-Propelled Mortar Carriers II

8cm Schwerer Granatwefer 34 auf Panzerspahwagen AMR 35(f)

Type 4 Ha-To 30cm special mortar carrier.

The SdKfz 251 was developed into a range of different purposes, from ambulance duties to anti-tank roles. By late 1944, around 16,000 vehicles had been built to serve in no fewer than twenty-three different roles. Depending on the role, each version had a different length of service life, but if they were capable of continuing to operate they remained in use. In fact, examples were still in operation right until the last days of the war at a time when fuel was extremely scarce. One of the earliest variants to be produced was the SdkFz 251/2, which was the mortar-carrying version, weighing 8.64 tons and equipped to carry the 8cm GrW34 mortar. Being open-topped, the weapon could be fired from within the vehicle, firing forward, and a separate baseplate allowed it to be dismounted for use from prepared positions. The vehicle in this role was operated by a crew of eight, available in the heavy platoon and known as Great 892 (Equipment 892). It carried sixty-six rounds of ammunition ready to use and was supported in turn by the SdKfz 251/4 version, which could carry resupplies of ammunition or even tow the heavy GrW42 12cm mortar.

The other half-track vehicle developed into a mortar carrier was the SdKfz 250, which was built by the company of Bussing-NAG, which developed the armoured body, and several other manufacturers including Wegmann and Deutsche Werke. Although the design had been thoroughly tested in the field throughout 1939, there were insufficient numbers ready to enter full operational service on the outbreak of war. In fact, the SdKfz 250, originally referred to as Leichte Gepanzerte Kraftwagen, did not enter service with the German Army properly until 1940, by which time it was known as the Leichte Schutzenpanzerwagen (light infantry armoured vehicle). Although it was not in service for the Polish campaign, there were sufficient numbers in service to be used during the attack against Holland, Belgium and France, where they were used in roles such as reconnaissance, command and communications. After this initial battle-proving deployment, the SdKfz 250 went on to see service on all fronts during the war, including North Africa, Italy and Russia.

The basic model was an armoured personnel carrier designated as the SdKfz 250/1, operated by a crew of two (driver and commander). In this role it was capable of carrying four fully-equipped troops with support weapons, such as crew for mortars or machine guns. This version was armed with two machine guns, such as the MG42, for which some 2,000 rounds of ammunition were carried. The basic version SdKfz 250 was almost 15ft in length, 6.4ft in width, but the height varied according to the role in which it was serving and the armament carried. The standard version had a combat weight of 5.5 tons, but, again, this varied according to armament and other equipment, such as the mortar carrier which weighed 5.61 tons. The armour thickness was from 8mm minimum to 15mm maximum.

The vehicle in all its variants was powered by a Maybach HL42 TR KM six-cylinder water-cooled inline petrol engine, which developed 100hp at 2,800rpm and gave a top speed of just over 40mph on roads. The vehicle had an operational range of over 180 miles on roads and it could negotiate vertical obstacles up to 15in, ford water obstacles shallower than 27in and scale gradients of 40 degrees. The front wheels were not ‘driven’, being used for steering purposes only. The automotive power was to the front drive sprockets on the tracks and the suspension was of the FAMO type, and whilst the vehicle was itself efficient it was somewhat complicated to maintain. This was a telling point in the sub-zero conditions on the Russian Front after 1941. In total, twelve variants were developed from the basic version and included an antitank gun version, specialist engineer versions, signals vehicles, ammunition carrier with ordnance troops and was even used by the Luftwaffe. Most, but not all, versions of the SdKfz 250 were open-topped, which was perfect to allow fire support weapons such as the GrW34 8cm mortar to be mounted and create a variant known as the SdKfz 201/7 or Great 897 (Equipment 897). These were operated by a crew of five and available to the fourth platoon of the Leichter Panzer Aufklarungs, or light armoured reconnaissance vehicles. A total of forty-two rounds of ammunition were carried on the vehicle ready to use and the mortar could be dismounted to be used to provide fire support in prepared positions. It was supported by a version termed munitionsfahrzeug (ammunition vehicle), which was operated by four men and carried sixty-six rounds of ammunition to resupply the mortar carrier. It was armed with two machine guns for self-defence with 2,000 rounds of ammunition.

In addition to using its own standard mortar-carrying vehicles, the German Army also converted a number of captured French armoured vehicles to the role of self-propelled mortar carriers. These they armed with either German service 8cm sGrW34 mortars or captured French-built Brandt weapons. French tanks such as the AMR35 had their turrets removed and the chassis converted to other roles such as self-propelled guns and mortar carriers. In May 1940, the French Army had about 200 AMR35 tanks in service, mostly armed with a 37mm gun in a fully traversing turret, but there were also other variants. After the French surrender, all surviving examples and variants captured by the Germans were converted into other uses, which included carrier vehicles for the standard German Army 8cm sGrW34 mortar. In this role they were designated as 8cm schwere Granatewerfer 34 auf Panzerspahwagen AMR35(f), which identified it as a heavy armoured self-propelled mortar carrier.

The conversion was achieved by first removing the upper superstructure including the engine covering, and this was replaced by an open-topped fighting compartment into which was mounted an 8cm GrW34 mortar fitted on a race-ring mounting to allow it to be fired in any direction without having to manoeuvre the vehicle. The rear of the compartment was open but could be closed off with a door to protect the crew. The conversion gave it a larger profile than the original design but the engine and all other automotive parts and road wheel layout remained unchanged. This gave the vehicle a road speed of 31mph and an operational range of 120 miles. It was operated by a crew of four, which included the driver, and a secondary armament of a single 7.92mm calibre MG34 machine gun was fitted for self-defence. A supply of ready-to-use ammunition was carried on the vehicle and resupply vehicles would have brought forward replenishment stocks. Records show that around 200 such vehicles were converted to this role and used only in France, where they could be deployed in response to threats. The conversion would have been completed at workshops in France, but it is not clear if any of these vehicles participated in the fighting after the Allied landings in Normandy from 6 June 1944 onwards.

It would seem likely these would almost certainly have been deployed at some point against the Allies because it would make no sense to develop such weapon systems and not use them. It may be that some of these self-propelled mortar vehicles were used in the fighting during the Normandy campaign, but due to the low production numbers they have been overlooked in favour of the more widely-used vehicles such as the true self-propelled guns and tanks. The person responsible for developing these systems and other selfpropelled weapons was Major Alfred Becker, who was a professional soldier, having served in the First World War. He was an engineer who excelled in developing hybrid systems such as these, using captured stocks of enemy equipment. He commanded the Sturmgeschutz-Abt 200, equipped with selfpropelled guns of his design, as part of the 21st Panzer Division, seeing much action in Normandy. He served with distinction and developed other systems until his capture in December 1944.

One of the most unusual conversions to serve as a mortar carrier was based on the French SOMUA MCL half-track personnel carrier, which became known as the Mittlerer Schutsenpanzerwagen S307(f), work on which began in 1943. The vehicle was modified to its new role by mounting two rows of eight barrels of 81mm captured French Army mortars stacked on a mounting to the rear of the vehicle. The tubes were pre-loaded and could be fired simultaneously to produce an instant bombardment. Reloading the tubes would have taken time and rate of fire would have been a lot slower than using a conventional mortar firing from a prepared position. In total some sixteen of these vehicles were available in 1944, but their fate is not known. A heavier version was produced, also based on the SOMUA MCL, which mounted twenty barrels of 81mm Brandt mortars in a similar array, and this was known as the Schwerer Reihenwerfer auf SPW SOMUA S303(f). These vehicles served in France, but, again, it is not known conclusively if they were deployed in action against the Allies after June 1944.

Captured armoured vehicles were dispatched to various theatres of operations, including Finland and Norway. Others such as the French Char B-1 bis, known in service with the German Army as the Panzerkampfwagen B-2 740(f), were sent to the Channel Islands and the Eastern Front, which represented the opposite extreme edges of the territory under German occupation. In the Channel Islands, some French tanks had their turrets removed to be incorporated into defence plans. Other vehicles which could have been converted to use as mortar carriers included the UE630, which the French Army used as a transport vehicle for supplies, and the Unic-Kègresse half-track, yet despite their suitability neither these nor apparently any other French vehicles were armed to serve as self-propelled mortars carriers.

The French Army had never deemed it necessary to develop a self-propelled mortar system using any of the weapons in service; after all they had good artillery and armoured units. The Italian Army did not develop a selfpropelled mortar system and relied on artillery and the mortars used by the infantry units. After 1943, when Italy capitulated to the Allies, the German Army seized many armoured vehicles and took these into service. Unlike the French vehicles which they converted to other uses, the Italian vehicles were used in their primary roles. The Soviet Red Army did not develop a selfpropelled mortar system either and relied on self-propelled guns and vehicles which towed the heavy calibre mortars on wheeled carriages. The Japanese Army did experiment with self-propelled mortars for a while and developed the Type 4 Ha To. This used a Type 4 Chi-To medium tank which was converted to allow a 300mm calibre Type 3 heavy mortar to be mounted to fire forward. It could fire a 374lbs HE bomb out to ranges of 3,300 yards, but the design was unstable and the vehicle proved liable to toppling over due to its height. In the end only three prototypes of the Ha To were produced and these never saw combat service.

British and Commonwealth forces did not show much interest in developing a self-propelled mortar version based on an armoured vehicle design. Some feasibility experiments were conducted to examine the viability of producing such a variant, but ultimately the research did not lead to the introduction of a vehicle-mounted mortar in the same way as used by the American and German armies. One experiment which did lead to the production of a self-propelled version of the British 3in mortar was based on the Universal Bren Gun Carrier. This was developed by the Australian Army, which had already modified some Universal Carriers to mount 2-pdr anti-tank guns, and using this as a starting point they fitted a 3in mortar to the vehicle. The weapon could be fired directly from the vehicle or dismounted and used from a prepared defensive position. The mortar had a full 360-degree traverse capability if required, which meant the vehicle did not have to manoeuvre to alter the range of traverse beyond the angles which could be achieved in the bipod mounting. In terms of range, this configuration was comparable to the standard infantry mortar and fired the same bombs. In the end it was never taken into service with the Australian Army, but around 400 examples are understood to have been produced and these were sent as part of the military aid to support the Nationalist Chinese Forces of Chiang Kai Shek in the fighting against the Japanese.

It seems strange that the British Army should not pursue the development of a self-propelled mortar vehicle, especially when it developed a range of specialist vehicles for other roles to clear minefields and close support tanks armed with large calibre guns. These were developed in the build-up for the invasion of Europe to support the landings. They were known as ‘Hobart’s Funnies’, after Major General Percy Hobart who thought up some of the designs. Hobart was a military engineer who had served in the First World War, seeing action in France. During the 1920s, he developed an interest in tank designs and armoured warfare tactics. He retired in 1940 under duress, following a conflict of opinions concerning his designs for armoured vehicles and their role. Hobart initially joined his local Home Guard unit, but in 1941 he was re-instated and given the job of training the 11th Armoured Division. Further positions followed and in 1942 he was given the role of training the newly-created 79th Armoured Division. After the disastrous failure of Operation Jubilee, the Allied attack against Dieppe on 19 August 1942, where none of the tanks were able to get off the beach, he set about developing a series of specialist armoured vehicles designed to support future amphibious landings. What Hobart developed included bridge-laying vehicles, flails to breech minefields and flame throwers. These were to prove vital during the D-Day landings and campaigns across Europe. For some reason self-propelled mortars were not developed. One can only conclude that with SPGs such as the Sexton, with its 25-pdr field gun, and the M7 ‘Priest’, with its 105mm gun, Hobart did not feel it necessary to build a design around the British 3in mortar.


M109A6 Paladin

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

Development and Early History

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

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

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

Production Variants

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

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

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

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

The Paladin

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

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

The M109 in Action

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

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

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


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