How the British artillery developed and became a war-winning factor in 1914-1918

Noted WW1 historian John Terraine said in his excellent White Heat – the new warfare 1914-18, “The war of 1914-18 was an artillery war: artillery was the battle-winner, artillery was what caused the greatest loss of life, the most dreadful wounds, and the deepest fear”. This Long, Long Trail article gives some insights into the extraordinary technological, tactical and organisational developments that took British artillery to the forefront of the war.

German artillery guns were numerous and could easily stop any British attempt to advance. With very few exceptional instances, the enemy’s artillery was out of direct sight. It was hidden, often behind a hill or ridge; sometimes it was several miles away. To win the war, the British had to learn to find the enemy guns and to shoot at them accurately, with surprise and enough firepower to knock out or neutralise them. If that was achieved, British infantry, tanks and cavalry could advance at much reduced risk. This was achieved through a combination of developments and hard-learned lessons: but it was achieved, and it did much to win the First World War.

Knowing where the target is

The days when artillery gunners could see the enemy’s guns had long since gone. The effective firing range of the guns by 1914 was such that they could be kept well back from the front lines and well hidden.

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Knowing where the enemy’s guns were (often known as “target acquisition”) drove developments in a number of areas:

  • Accurate survey and mapping, so the enemy’s position (both of itself and relative to the British guns that would fire at it) could be defined;
  • Observation from ground level, looking both for the target and where British shells were falling so corrections could be made, (but this is obviously limited in what can be spotted);
  • Observation from above, by spotter aircraft and tethered balloons (with enemy aircraft and guns trying to shoot these things down);
  • “Flash spotting” and “sound ranging”: two mathematical techniques working out the position of an enemy gun by the light flash and bang when it fired;
  • Being able to quickly communicate the findings from these sources to the gunners, who would calculate the direction and elevation of their weapon in order to hit the targets when they fired.

Firing accurately at the target

Once the target was identified, the task became one of firing accurately in order to hit it. The method used by both sides in the early days in the war was to “register” on the target. This meant firing some ranging shots which could be observed and corrections made until the target was being hit. This was a slow and wasteful process, but more importantly it gave away any possible surprise and let the enemy know where your guns were. By 1918 this had changed completely to the point where British artillery could open fire and hit the target first time: “predicted fire”.

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Gunners of 101st Siege Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery prepare 6-inch Howitzer shells for firing near Merville, 12 April 1918. From the Ministry of Information Official First World War Collection at the Imperial War Museum. Copyright image Q352.

Accurate predictable fire came about through a combination of technolocical and methods developments:

  • Improved, consistent manufacturing of shells: the weight of the shell being particularly important;
  • Measurement of gun barrel wear and taking this into account in calculating gun settings;
  • Measure of wind speed, air pressure and other meteorological factors and also taking these into account in calculating gun settings.

Ensuring the effect of accurate fire

Artillery shells, particularly the fuze which is the device that ignites it, were a complex mechanism with precision parts. The need to greatly expand munitions production meant that new suppliers and new factories had to be in place in order to produce the quantities required. Almost inevitably, the mass production processes struggled to produce the precision parts until machines and tooling had been refined, workers trained properly and quality control approaches installed. For a lengthy period in the war, the army found that its shells were unreliable: some would not explode at all (“duds”), some exploded at the wrong time (with disastrous effects if within the gun barrel or over your own soldiers). It was only gradually that these issues were overcome and the shells could be fired with confidence.

An important British development of 1916 was the Number 106 Fuze, which was based on an existing French technology. For the first time, the artillery had a highly sensitive contact fuze; so sensitive that it would explode the shell as soon as it touched barbed wire. Before this, contact (or percussion) fuzes needed to hit the ground before exploding. The 106 fuze gave much superior ability to clear barbed wire defences.

Shells were also developed to contain compressed poison gas in addition to the high explosive or shrapnel used from 1914. This added the ability to accurately deliver gas into enemy positions and was much more effective that the cloud gas released from cylinders, which relied on the wind. A similar shell was debeloped for delivering smoke, which proved valuable in masking the enemy’s visual observation of British attacks.

Firing at the right enemy

Entrenched warfare posed new problems for the artillery and in particular for shellfire used to support an infantry attack. In the first two years of offesnive operations (1915 and 1916), to a great extent the British artillery aimed at the enemy’s trenches and barbed wire defences, in the belief that it was necessary to destroy the enemy in the forward position. Great faith was placed in this; the most notable example was the week-long bombardment that began the Battle of the Somme in 1916. General Henry Rawlinson assured his men that , “nothing could exist at the conclusion of the bombardment in the area covered by it“. To the great cost of the army, the firepower deployed was not sufficient, was in some areas spread over too many targets and was diluted even further by the proportion of dud shells. The enemy survived the bombardments and cut down the attacking British infantry in large numbers, from small arms fire from the trenches and from shelling by their artillery. Something had to change – but developments that would enable such a change were already underway, not least in thinking about what to fire at.

In the knowledge that the front line trenches could survive even the heaviest bombardments to some extent, attention turned to firing on the enemy’s artillery and communications: if the German guns could not fire and their batteries could not receive instructions, the British attacks were more likely to succeed. Increasingly, the heavy British guns of the Royal Garrison Artillery targetted the enemy’s guns, both in neutralising and destructive fire (neutralising means stopping your enemy from firing, even if you have not destroyed his guns; dousing the battery positions with poison gas is, for example, a neutralising effect). In combination with the methods of observation and firing from the map described above, the British artillery became expert at knocking out or neutralising a German gun almost as soon as it had opened fire. This became a very significant, war-winning, factor.

A further development by the field artillery was that of the creeping barrage: a curtain wall of shellfire that was aimed just in front of the advancing British infantry that moved slowly forward (at a rate of, usually, about 100 yards every three to four minutes). This destroyed obstacles in their path and stopped the enemy’s ability to see what was happening. British infantry was instructed to stay as close to its own creeping barrage as possible, which meant that shells were screaming down literally a few feet above their heads – an incredibly dangerous, frightening but most effective tactic. Firing a creeping barrage required excellence communication between guns and batteries, anddetailed planning between artillery, infantry and aircraft.

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The painting “The Harvest of Battle” by C. R. Nevinson. The artist would later say that this was ”A typical scene after an offensive at dawn. Walking wounded, prisoners and stretcher cases are making their way to the rear through the water- logged country of Flanders. By now the Infantry have advanced behind the creeping barrage on the right, only leaving the dead, mud, & wire; but their former positions are now occupied by the Artillery. The enemy is sending up SOS signals and once more these shattered men will be subjected to counter-battery fire. British aeroplanes are spotting hostile positions.’ From the First World War Art Collection at the Imperial War Museum. Copyright image ART1921.

Organising to fire at the enemy

The British artillery of 1914 was predominantly under command of the formations known as divisions, with the effect that the brigades and batteries were geographically spread out. This gave good local control but experience showed that it was preferable to be able to mass firepower where it was most needed. This led to half of the field artillery being taken out of the divisions in 1916, being placed under Corps or Army command and physically moved as needed (they became “army brigades”). The heavy and siege batteries were also grouped into units known as Heavy Artillery Groups or Brigades.

Command and control of the guns was improved throughout the war, and by 1918 the British Army enjoyed much superior co-ordination of the guns with infantry, tanks and aircraft.

Links

The Royal Artillery

Artillery communication letter codes