battery-guns-passchendaele_1918The modern style of warfare is a three dimensional activity taking place over an extended area and involving time and tempo. It is also dependent on simultaneity with intelligence about targeting. It is designed to have a rapid effect involving shock and dislocation which may well involve ruse and deception.

In 1914, a survivor of the Battle of Waterloo (fought in 1815) would not have been out of place. Battles were linear, dominated by a doctrine of out-flanking and annihilating the enemy. Artillery was limited to direct fire which invariably used shrapnel. As such, it was limited in capability. The concept of indirect fire which had evolved during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) had been lost. This can be put his down to three reasons:

  • there had been no tactical necessity to retain it;
  • the BEF had no means available to use it (limited air reconnaissance available); and
  • doctrinal laziness.

15 in Howitzer at the Somme 1916The revolution in artillery came in the next three years so that the BEF had evolved a ‘modern' style of warfare by 1918.

During 1915, the problems were mainly concerned with overcoming obstacles into siting the guns on unseen targets. When BEF artillery was urged to use reverse slopes against the threat from observers for the German 5.9 inch howitzers, the response was inadequate. Only the 60-pdr could outrange the 'five-nine', but the former's trajectory was so flat that it was often unable to hit back.  During March 1915 during the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, the BEF deployed 354 artillery pieces against 60 German equivalents on a sector of 1200m, an artillery density not matched again until 1917. Yet, even so, they could only fire 200-400 rounds per gun and targeting was defective even though aerial photography had become available for the first time.

A number of questions exercised artillery strategists. The first question to answer was whether the prime use of artillery was destruction or neutralization. Then the questions concerned how much fire and how long to achieve the determined prime use? Was there a formula for the 'correct bombardment'? Was it the number of guns per yard (metre) of front or was it the number of rounds delivered over a given period? And how long would a battle last? Days or months?

The problem was not merely a tactical one. Tactical successes amounted to mere attritional encounters if they lacked an 'operational dimension'. The Germans defied Allied tactical successes, such as they were, by constructing and withdrawing to ever more formidable fortifications, culminating in the withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line; these defence lines were ever deeper and denser and their defence ever more 'elastic'. In defence the key for the Germans was to hold a line so far in depth that, if the enemy reached it, he could not bring his artillery forward fast enough to support his gains, while the attackers were subjected to massive defensive fire and counter-attack.

The solution was begun to be identified over the period 1916-17. Targets were located using air reconnaissance, reserves were built up and the logistics of shell manufacture and transportation solved. Indirect fire meant that, by 1918, the artillery was locating the enemy targets without his awareness. The means to minimise meteorological problems (atmospheric changes causing shells to perform differently) via calculations were taught to all gunners. The calibration of guns took into account wear on each barrel as well as temperature change during firing. The number and type of guns as well as ammunition was looked into. However, the glaring deficiencies of 1917 were not solved: how to move guns after the initial attack and how to communicate success or the change of target. These were not really solved until after the Great War when mobile guns and radios became available.

German troops positioning a 21 cm Mörser 16 (21 cm siege howitzer model 1916).1914 was seen as the year of manoeuvre but the French Army lost just under a million casualties before the trench line of the Western Front was set. When the BEF started its advance in the Autumn of 1918 it moved faster than the Allies did later in Normandy during 1944 and faster than the Allies did in Northern Italy 1944-5. In 1918 the German army lost more men than they did during either the Somme or the Verdun battles of 1916  (one million in the spring, as well as half a million deserters and 750,000 in the autumn, and one million deserters). Stationary war was less wasteful of manpower than mobile conflict.

Did the tank win the Allies the war in 1918? Doubtful: a tank could travel seven or eight hours before breaking down but only two hours operationally as the crew were overcome by fumes and heat. The tank was primarily a mobile gun designed to break the trench line, but it was unable to keep up with the infantry once the breakthrough had been achieved in 1918. The Battle of Amiens in August 1918 was the high point for tanks and aircraft in a predominantly infantry and artillery war. In September and October 1918, the British Army lost 62% of its tanks, and artillery was left to fill the gap. Reliance on artillery increased right up to the Armistice, if only as a way of saving manpower. The highest British expenditure of shells of the whole war occurred on 28-29 September when 945,052 rounds were fired to breach the Hindenburg Line.

Could the Germans have won the war with stormtroopers? Unlikely, their use was attritional and was both an operation failure as well as a strategic failure.



Did either side learn from the war? The Germans denuded the army for their blitzkreig and lost more men during Operation Barbarossa in 1941 than they lost during the attack on Verdun in 1916. Did the Germans advance at any great rate into Russia? Their advance was as fast (or as slow) as Napoleon's was in 1812, as so much had to be brought up by horse-drawn transport. We might criticize France for the Maginot line but the Germans created an even larger barrier in the Atlantic Wall once they became aware of a potential invasion.


This article is based on a talk given by Major General (Rtd) Jonathan Bailey to the Yorkshire branch of the Western Front Association.


Submitted by Peter J Palmer.

Discuss this article on the WFA's Front Forum

Front Forum


Back to top