krupp-420mm-howitzerBefore we consider the career of Georg Bruchmuller, we should contrast the number of shells fired in the preliminary bombardment of the Somme battle (1.7 million fired by 1,500 guns in one week) with the German bombardment before the Kaiserschlacht in 1918 – 3.2 million shells fired by 6,600 guns in five hours. The Somme (and other British attacks such as those of Arras, Messines and Third Ypres) led to long offensives with small gains, but the Germans advanced 60 kilometres in a few days. This was not a ‘one off’ – the Lys offensive in April 1918 led to an advance of 30 kilometres and the Marne offensive in May 1918 ensured the Germans were close enough to Paris to shell it. But the Germans did not take the vital railheads: Amiens in the south and Hazebrouck in the north. As a result, these offensives failed to deliver the ‘knock out punch’ that Ludendorff wished for to end the war in Germany’s favour.

Why did the German offensives in 1918 against the BEF make such spectacular gains? Reasons put forward include:

(i) Lloyd George’s decision to keep reinforcements back in the UK for political reasons;

(ii) the BEF had over-extended themselves by taking over a greater length of the line from the French;

(iii) for years the BEF had fought offensive battles, as a result they had neglected their defences;

(iv) the Allies were taken by surprise;

(v) the BEF’s defences were weak;

(vi) the BEF had reorganised their divisions on a basis of nine battalions instead of 12;

(vii) the British were demoralised and surrendered;

(viii) the massive German bombardments;

(ix) fog gave the Germans a huge advantage.

It is advantageous to look at the artillery and tactics used by both sides. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was using field artillery in 1914 with tactics virtually  unchanged since Waterloo: fast manoeuvre, spot the target, deploy into action, fire a few shells and move on. The idea of indirect fire had not yet evolved. The use of howitzers had been limited to shelling a city’s defences. The German artillery were better trained and better equipped. They had the largest artillery section of the armies on the Western Front.

It took the BEF three years to catch up with the Germans. They had entered the war with a wider range of guns and, even by 1918, they had improved their guns so that half were new models and half were old. The Allies had to build big guns and howitzers from scratch, they only came on stream in 1917 but by 1918 there were sufficient guns and shells for the final offensives.

Georg Bruchmuller was born in 1863 into a family with no military tradition (his father was a salesman). He joined the army in 1883 and was commissioned into the Foot artillery (they looked after the big guns which meant fortresses and siege guns) and hence received intensive training in heavy artillery rather than mobile warfare. In 1913 at the age of 50 he was invalided out of the army after a riding accident but was recalled to the colours in 1914 and posted to east Prussia to look after the fortress artillery at Kulm.

In November 1914 he was promoted to the post of Divisional Artillery Officer for the 86th Division serving in Poland. He was awarded the Iron Cross both first and second class within a few months. For most of 1915 he did little but in March 1916 he was involved in the battle of Lake Narotch (in modern Belarus). He was still with the 86th division but by now he had persuaded his superiors to give him command of over 30 batteries. He developed a system of centralised command so that the batteries could fire using a programme which co-ordinated with movements on the battlefield instead of merely supporting limited troop movements. He brought the big guns forward, he engaged targets behind enemy lines and he supported attacks which tore huge holes in the Russian lines.

By 1917 he was artillery adviser to the Eighth Army in Latvia (commanded by von Hutier). Here he supported a river crossing during the battle of Riga (September, 1917). He devised an intense artillery bombardment which neutralised Russian defences by disorientating or killing the majority of the defenders. To do this he used 152 batteries of field guns firing 500,000 shells in the first five hours. This was mainly gas, a mixture of irritant & poisonous gases and HE.  After 20 minutes a 2 hour bombardment destroyed the artillery at the rear of the Russian defences, this was then followed by another 2 hour bombardment of the front line positions. Finally the German advance went forward behind a creeping barrage. The surprise here is that there had been no registration for the German guns – the bombardment ensured the Russian defences were virtually wiped out.

The German army used the same surprise bombardment at Caporetto in October 1917 when the combined German-Austrian advance pushed back the Italian army. The time was now ripe to transfer von Hutier with Bruchmuller to the Western Front and use his surprise artillery bombardment there. It is interesting that he had difficulty persuading the Western Front commanders to accept his centralised artillery command firing off map references in a manner similar to those used at the Battle of Riga.

How  were Bruchmuller’s tactics finally defeated? In five offensives, Bruchmuller’s surprise artillery bombardment overcame the Allied defences but they failed in July 1918 on the Marne. The French had advanced information about the German attack, the commander of Fourth Army (Gouraud) pulled his men back five kilometres out of range of the German guns while they fired their preliminary bombardment. Since the Germans' intense artillery bombardment fell on ‘empty’ lines, the French were ready for the German attack. They shelled the German infantry as they advanced and  they shelled the German artillery as an attempt to move the big guns further forward was made. Any guns missed by the artillery were hit from the air by the French airforce. Within 24 hours the Germans withdrew and the French began a counter-offensive.

The German army had retrained its artillery in three months to use predictive fire, they had surprise on their side and they attacked weaker defences than those that the BEF attacked in 1916 and 1917. The fog certainly helped as did weaknesses in the line like the Portuguese Division. But credit where it is due, Colonel Georg Bruchmuller’s achievement was massive: he rewrote the manuals for his new centralised predictive fire, he was in the words of General Max Hoffman ‘an artillery genius, he knew instinctively how much of which type of ammunition to throw at a position in order to soften it up.

Colonel Bruchmuller was promoted to Major General on the retired list twenty years after the armistice; a memorial was erected to him at the artillery barracks near Koblenz by the German army.

Reference: This article is based on a talk given by Andy Grainger to the Yorkshire branch of the WFA.

Contributed by: Peter J Palmer

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Steel Wind: Colonel Georg Bruchmuller and the Birth of Modern Artillery by JBA Bailey

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