Menu

Western Front Artillery At The Outbreak of World War 1 I THE GREAT WAR Special

0 Comment


When World War One began, nobody could really
have guessed the unprecedented level of destruction the war would bring. An observer might have been able to guess
how the war would be fought by looking at the weaponry developed by the nations that
did the fighting, though, and the most destructive of these was artillery. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to a Great War
special episode about French, British, and German artillery before World War One. The First World War was, generally speaking,
an artillery war. The overwhelming majority of casualties were
caused by artillery, and much of the technological and tactical development of the war was in
direct response to the destructive power of shrapnel or high explosive shells. However, when the war began, none of the nations
had an understanding of the decisive role artillery would play. I’m going to look now at the artillery of
the nations initially fighting on the western front. We’ll hopefully look at the artillery of
other nations in future specials, depending on what source materials we can find, as well
as the development of artillery and artillery tactics as the war went on. Okay, France had suffered a disastrous and
humiliating defeat at Prussian hands in 1870-71. The Prussian military machine had been extremely
mobile, and this led France to develop weapons that favored mobile warfare- relatively light
field guns with high rates of fire. In 1898, the Canon de 75 modéle – the French
75 – developed a year earlier, entered French service. The French 75 is regarded by many to be the
first modern artillery piece. It had a very efficient recoil system that
allowed it to fire up to 20 shells a minute in rapid-fire operations. So batteries of 75s could saturate the battlefield
with hundreds and hundreds of shrapnel shells, which would destroy enemy infantry formations
and pave the way for the French infantry. To do that, it was designed to fire over a
flat trajectory and could not elevate above 18 degrees, which meant it couldn’t do plunging
fire. This is important because when you also take
into account the light weight of the shells, either 5.5 or 7.5 kilos, it meant that the
75s were pretty much useless against fortifications and earthworks. Now, most of the French military did not see
this as a problem, since the 1870 experience led them to place their faith in speed and
mobility. That faith came at the cost of heavy artillery. With the possible exception of a few nearly
or even completely obsolete heavy guns, France went to war in 1914 without a modern heavy
artillery piece. As you may know, this would come back to haunt
the French, particularly commanders like Philippe Petain, who had warned against relying on
a single weapon system. The Battle of the Frontiers in August 1914
showcased this huge mistake. Don’t get me wrong, the 75s performed excellently
when correctly deployed, and were actually superior to the German field guns, but plunging
counter battery fire from German howitzers which could reach the 75s even on reverse
slopes, forced the 75s to withdraw, leaving the French infantry totally unsupported, and
contributing to the enormous French casualties. German pre-war artillery plans were different. The German plan for war was the Schlieffen
Plan, which had a rigid timetable for moving through Belgium and into France. In order to keep that timetable, Germany would
have to break through or destroy the Belgian fortifications. That would require artillery that fired a
heavy shell for a long distance, in a plunging arc. However, Germany would also need a field gun
that was mobile enough for the rapid movement of the Schlieffen Plan. The solution for that was the 7.7cm Feldkanone
96 neuer Art. It had a similar recoil system to the French
75, but didn’t have the range. That wasn’t a big deal early in the war,
as the 7.7s were used during the mobile warfare phase to deadly effect in conjunction with
heavier pieces. German artillery doctrine said that the 7.7
was to support the infantry and counter battery fire would be done by the heavier weapons,
and for that they had the 10.5cm Feldhaubitze 98/09, a short-barreled howitzer. These were very effective at silencing the
French field guns as I already said. However, neither the 7.7s or the 10.5s would
be much good against major fortresses like Liege and Antwerp, so Germany developed several
much larger pieces that could crack the Belgian forts. The biggest of these were the 42cm Krupp super
heavy siege mortars that would be known as Big Berthas. They could fire an 800-kilo shell – that’s
1,760 pounds of shell – 9 kilometers, or a bit under 6 miles. 12 of those saw service during the war, though
only two would see action against the Belgian forts. These guns are among the largest ever constructed. Actually, the largest guns constructed during
the war were the German made Paris Guns, which were used to shell Paris from Germany late
in the war and which I’ve already spoken about in Out of the Trenches. Now, unlike the French and the Germans, the
British in 1914 had recent experience with the requirements of modern artillery. During the Boer Wars over a decade earlier,
the Royal Artillery had shifted from providing support over open spaces to supporting via
indirect fire, not in the line of sight. This was in direct response to modern rifles. Field artillery positioned alongside infantry
was subject to heavy fire and heavy casualties, so it had to be moved to the rear and out
of direct sight. The British developed three weapons to respond
to the needs of modern war. In 1903, the Ordnance QF 18 pounder field
gun entered service. It had a similar recoil system to those of
the French and German pieces and a range of nearly 6 kilometers – almost 4 miles. Since it fired a larger, heavier shell, it
could in theory be used against enemy fortifications. For heavier artillery, the British came out
with the BL 60 pounder gun in 1905. It had a quick recoil and a range of just
under 10 km – 6 miles – so it was perfect for counterfire operations against enemy batteries. The third weapon was one capable of high angle
plunging fire, the QF 4.5 inch howitzer, which entered service in 1910. It could fire a 16 kilo shell nearly 7 kilometers
– that’s 32 pounds over more than 4 miles. And it was great against trenches, artillery
batteries, and barbed wire. In addition to the big three already in production
before the war, British General of the Ordnance, Lieutenant-General Sir Stanley Brenton von
Donop got an incredibly powerful 9.2 inch heavy siege howitzer ready for manufacture
when the war broke out. It could fire a 160 kilo shell, that’s around
350 pounds, a distance of 10 kilometers. I want to make clear that the guns I’ve
talked about today were not the only ones used. When war came all three of these nations used
guns of all calibers and sizes, but it would be incredibly confusing to list them all and
would take forever. These ones were the most recent ones to be
adopted and would likely have been the sole weapons of their types had not the war necessitated
the deployment of ALL weapons of ALL types to the front lines, when to the horror of
everyone, August 1914 revealed the devastating power of modern artillery. As said before, we want to talk about the
important artillery pieces of the other nations too, if you have any sources or are an expert
on the topic, get in contact with Flo, our social media guy. We want to thank Natham McCall for his research
on this episode. If you want to find out more about the trenches
on the Western front, click here to check out trench warfare special. Follow us on Instagram and Twitter and don’t
forget to subscribe.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *