How was artillery developed in World War One?

By Adrian Parry, University of Portsmouth.

The British army fired 273,000 shells in the first 36 months of the Second Boer War. Yet in the four years of World War One, it fired over 170 million shells. This amounted to over five million tons of ordnance. In September 1915, British guns fired 535,000 artillery rounds in four days at the Battle of Loos; 1,732,873 rounds in June 1916 in the eight days prior to the attack on the Somme; 3,258,000 rounds in eight days in June 1917 at the Battle of Messines; and 943,847 rounds in one 24 hour period in September 1918.

In 1914, the British army had possessed six heavy artillery batteries and 72 field batteries. By November 1918, this had expanded to 440 heavy batteries and 568 field batteries. There were twice the number of British artillerymen in France in 1918 than there were soldiers in the entire British Expeditionary Force in 1914.

When Britain entered the war its artillery was organised for the demands of colonial policing rather than for a European war. Its victories against irregular or primitive armies had been based upon inflicting heavy casualties that broke the enemy’s will to fight rather than upon capturing ground or forcing retreat. British field artillery training stressed that: “To support infantry and to enable it to effect its purpose the artillery must willingly sacrifice itself”. This pointed to its deployment close to the infantry and the use of “direct fire” – firing directly at a target within line of sight. It also pointed to the belief expressed shortly after the end of the Boer War by Major E G Nicolls of the Royal Garrison Artillery that “the [artillery] gun is a man killing weapon, and shrapnel should therefore be its principal weapon”.

An 18 pounder QF (quick-firing) gun being fired at last year’s Artillery on Parade event (XIX.529)

All this led to a number of innovations that centred upon the use of the barrage to provide the covering fire necessary to enable the infantry to attack successfully and to break into defensive positions. The barrage had first been used in the Boer War and involved firing groups of guns simultaneously at areas known or predicted to be occupied by the enemy. Over the course of World War One, barrages became increasingly sophisticated.

The first of these developments was the “lifting barrage” as fire was lifted from one point to another to hit targets further behind the front line of trenches, thereby weakening the enemy’s ability to reinforce the front line or to counter-attack following the infantry assault. This was followed by the development of the “creeping barrage” which shielded and kept pace with the infantry assault. It gradually lifted by 100 yards every few minutes and progressively crept across no man’s land and the enemy trench lines. In doing so, it fulfilled two purposes – firstly, it shielded the infantry from view and inhibited the defenders’ ability to lay down effective machine-gun and rifle fire and, secondly, it stopped the enemy moving troops forward into no man’s land to disrupt the attack.

Two other types of barrage that were commonly used to support the infantry were the “block barrage” and the “rolling barrage”. The block barrage would engage several defensive lines at once and would then lift simultaneously as a block to engage several defensive lines that were further back. A rolling barrage would engage several lines simultaneously but with an overlapping fire. This meant that if the first phase of the barrage was to engage the first and second lines then the second phase would engage the second and third lines, and the third phase would then engage the third and fourth lines and so on.

Barrages could also be used to defend positions. A static “standing barrage” might be placed in the path of attacking infantry, with the only way for them to take their objective being to move through it and take casualties. Similarly, a “box barrage” could be used to form three or four sides of a box to isolate a position to prevent reinforcement or, if the position had been captured, prevent counter-attack from the flanks or deeper positions in the enemy lines.

New artillery techniques of sound-ranging and flash spotting were introduced in 1917 to greatly assist direct fire. These were mathematical techniques that calculated the position of the enemy’s guns either by the bang or the flash of light as they were fired. Greater use of surveying and mapping also allowed ‘predicted fire’ whereby ranging shots were no longer necessary and the fall of the shell could be predicted by taking account of barrel wear, wind speed and air pressure when calculating gun settings.

The effectiveness of artillery caused the Germans to develop new defensive tactics. They placed fewer troops in the front line and developed systems of defence in depth. This required a more sophisticated approach and each attack brought its own complexities, with gunners striking enemy targets beyond the front line and using a range of bombardment, barrage and counter-battery fire to support the attack. As Captain Graham Greenwell of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry wrote in August 1917: “The battle is practically confined to artillery work, scarcely a shot is fired from a rifle, but shells go backwards and forwards unceasingly, both night and day”.

A Royal Army Medical Corps study undertaken after World War One concluded that 58% of casualties had been caused by artillery fire. As John Terraine wrote: “Artillery was the killer; artillery was the terrifier. Artillery followed the soldier to the rear, sought him out in his billet, found him on the march”. One German soldier wrote of his experiences on the Somme that that for seven days and seven nights “the drumfire never ceased….. No food or water reached us….. men became hysterical and their comrades had to knock them out, so as to prevent them from running away and exposing themselves to the deadly shell splinters. Even the rats panicked and sought refuge in our flimsy shelters; they run up the walls and we had to kill them with our spades”. It was thus not for nothing that Marshal Petain said: “firepower kills; artillery should be used to gain ground, and infantry to occupy it”.

Artillery on Parade at Fort Nelson runs from the 22-23 July and will feature firings of artillery from the First and Second World Wars, plus a live-action re-enactment of an air attack and a flyover by a Messerschmitt BF-108.