To borrow a simile from Robert Louis Stevenson, one should think of "the hand of a clock, which continues to advance as it indicates, rather than the stationary milestone, which is only the measure of what is past. Movement is not arrested."
The information at the writer's disposal is limiteddates given are perhaps inaccurate: nor is he in a position even to hint at the progress of gun construction and manufacture of munitions.
Prince Kraft's teaching [Prince Kraft von Hohenlohe-Ingolfingen wrote influential works on artillery lessons from the Franco-Prussian War.] contemplated the assembly at the earliest possible moment on the battlefield of the largest possible number of guns under the control of one brainalmost of one voice: this concentration was to knock out the opposing artillery and thenceforth to dominate the battlefield. His theory had to do entirely with tactics in a war of movement.
During the rest of the 19th century professional practice was directed chiefly towards the earlier arrival at effective fire by means of good fire discipline within the battery.
Here we come to the South African War.
The invention of facilities for indirect laying made it possible to bring artillery into action without previously exposing itself. Smokeless powder made it next to impossible to locate artillery thus concealed.
Quick-firing guns, if concealed, forbade opposing batteries to come into action, laying over the sights.
The Artillery Duel as known to Prince Kraft could no longer take place, because the opposing artilleries could not find one another.
Here comes the Russo-Japanese War.
The French improved the firing power of field artillery with their soixante-quinze, and, by adding a shield strove to bluff away the hide-and-seek game and to "rush" success by direct fire from the hill tops. High explosive defeated the shield: back to indirect laying went the guns.
Here came the Balkan Wars of 1912.
It was now evident that aircraft would enable each side to locate the opposing artillery, and that this might re-introduce the artillery duel.
A well-known gunner, now occupying an exalted position in the Royal Regiment, described a certain school of artillery thought as having come over "on the crest of a French wave from Calais." According to the group of officers who formed this school, our methods were slow and our policy of training too conservative. They cried for more haste, closer support of the infantry (which was interpreted into actual proximity and a very short range in the final stages of each battle), direct laying, a more rapid rate of fire, less complicated gunnery, less telephone, more tactical teaching at our practice camps. The opposite school, afraid of being hurried into false training, pinned its faith to thorough instruction in gunnery: this school was certainly swimming against the current in 1914. "Field Artillery Training, 1914," chapter VII, was influenced from across the Channel, or at least was considered to be so by the Regiment at large.
The formation of "temporary groups," suggested in section 153, para. 6, was the subject of many discussions; the limitation to such grouping, i.e., "when those efforts cannot be directly combined," was somewhat freely interpreted, if not disregarded, at manŠuvres.
It would be unfair to-day, in the light of our experience, to criticise the ideas expressed in "Field Artillery Training, 1914," for that manual was written solely on the basis of open warfare. It seems fair, however, to say that it showed a tendency to discountenance the principle of centralized control so ably set forth by Prince Kraft in his "Letters on Artillery."
The divisional artillery commander had been in existence as such only since early in 1908, and the officers holding the six billets had had little opportunity for practising control in the field. Under peculiar conditions of terrain, Colonel (now Lieut.-General Sir Lawrence) Parsons had given us an excellent demonstration at the relief of Ladysmith of what might be expected from a mass of guns under one man, but, generally speaking, the end of the South African War had brought the Regiment home opposed to the principle of centralized control: thenceforward all thought was directed towards the battle of encounterwhere lack of time for preparation would necessitate decentralization.
One cannot shut one's eyes to the fact that previous to this war gunnery was insufficiently studied. The use of the map, in spite of the efforts of a few individuals ahead of their time, was discouraged at practice camps; the compass was seldom used; the effect of climatic conditions on explosives and on the trajectory of the shell was quite unknown to the average regimental officer. A serious effort to teach liaison had been made; Lieut.-Colonel (now Major-General Sir W. T.) Furse had amongst others come into prominence for his inculcation of training in forward observation officer's duties. The influencethe absolute indispensabilityof communications, as we see them to-day, was scarcely dreamt of; strenuous efforts on the part of various divisional artilleries to get things on a better basis met with the non possumus from the authorities.
A little elementary co-operation with aircraft had been carried out, and a good deal of discussion and writing had taken place as to the best methods of engaging aircraft with gun-fire. Concealment from the air when in action was rarely, if ever, mentioned within the writer's experience at our practice camps. Drill, turnout, and driving had reached a pitch that we could probably not attain to-day.
The need of re-armament of the field artillery with a new (truly quick-firing) gun was being constantly discussed, and may, for all the writer knows, have been actually initiated.
Lord Nicholson, the Chief of the General Staff, was commonly credited with hostility to the inclusion of heavy artillery in Great Britain's striking force. This may, or may not, be true, but, in any case, there existed the barest nucleus of what exists to-day.
The first two months of the war taught us to fear observation by hostile aircraft and brought about the beginning of artificial concealment. There was an immediate demand for anti-aircraft guns. The pom-pom arrived in September, the 13-pdr. on a lorry-mounting in December, 1914. We learned, thus early, the need for the F.O.O. with a long telephone wire. No further experience was necessary to convince us that heavy artillery had come to stop as an essential feature of the modern battle.
The end of the first battle of Ypres stabilised the battle. The proximity of the opposing infantry lines at once necessitated accuracy of fire, for which we were insufficiently trained; this went beyond the meticulous calculation of angles and touched upon the influence of climatic conditions. It was only want of practice due to lack of ammunition which prevented us from reaching much earlier the high standard of gunnery attained in later days. The flatness of the country forced upon both artilleries an exaggerated form of forward observation and a highly (too highly) organized system of liaison. It became necessary to keep the horses further back, to save casualties to horseflesh; that tended to divide the battery into the gun-line and wagon-line, while introducing the practice of dumping ammunition at the guns. Many of these tendencies re-adjusted themselves during the more open combats of later days, but not before the battle of Cambrai in November and December, 1917. What had come to stop was a new standard as regards the number of guns necessary in relation to number of rifles in the line.
By 1915 we had Army Artillery, as well as Corps Artillery, Commanders, whose powers became gradually but surely developed.
At Neuve Chapelle and Loos artillery movement was abortive, and the field artillery began to adopt siege methods. Fighting maps were introduced. Climatic conditions received continually increasing attentionthe first instructions were issued in January, this year. H.E. began to complicate the sorting of ammunition, and the idiosyncrasies of foreign-made shells necessitated much closer attention to the care and management of it.
A new responsibility fell upon the Field Artillerywire cutting. Other developments:
The whole tendency against mobility (and consequently in favour of centralization) was encouraged by the issue of carefully prepared defence schemes. The initiation of counter-battery work by the enemy brought into existence elaborate gun-pits: it became so difficult to move guns at night in and out of these pits that the custom sprang up of exchanging guns during a relief; there was much to be said against this. The call for large-calibre shells got even louder.
Early in the year the amount of heavy artillery had been greatly increased: it was organized in heavy artillery groups with a brigadier-general in command at corps headquarters working under G.O.C.R.A., Corps. The supply of ammunition was at last on a satisfactory basis.
Sound-ranging had started.
Trench mortars had by now been more logically organized: the new 3-in. Stokes remained with the infantry; the 2-in. and (about June) the 9.45-in. [mortars] became attached to the divisional artillery under a Divisional Trench Mortar Officer,* who, though perhaps not himself a gunner, generally formed part of the divisional artillery staff. Opinion varied as to whether trench mortars should be run by the general staff of the division or by the C.R.A. The one party argued that they were employed with, amongst, and against, infantry, and that it was always infantry who had to carry up their ammunition: therefore they should be run as a divisional (not divisional artillery) concern. The other party said that trench mortars provided an integral portion of the preliminary bombardment, and that they used the ordinary artillery methods of fire, therefore they should be part of the divisional artillery. Gradually this latter idea obtained the upper hand, chiefly because it was only when run by the artillery that they received proper consideration and supervision, but in everyday work, this system took the Field Artillery Brigade Commander out of his daily sphere of work.
Immediately before the battle of the Somme was witnessed a really big concentration of artillery: that behind Maricourt, where (owing to the shape of the line) the British and French artilleries were mixed up, was a most remarkable sight. The danger angle of our practice camp days was no longer considered.
The necessity of buried communications was now thoroughly appreciated, preparations being made accordingly.
The first meteor telegrams were issued in April, 1916.
It should be mentioned that, early in the year, divisional schools had been established: divisional artillery schools were added, but were soon abandoned in favour of army artillery schools, amongst which that organized by Lieut.-General Sir. A. E. A. Holland (G.O.C.R.A., Third Army) obtained notoriety.
It is here that we come to the battle of the Somme.
Early in the battle we had our first experience of gas shells on a big scale, used by the enemy principally to interfere with our assembly.
The biggest development of the Somme was, however, the creeping barrage as we know it to-day. The idea was far from new: it had been attempted in South Africa, and was commonly practised by the French whenever they had the observation to do so. The enemy, finding he was losing all his machine-guns by our bombardment if he put them in his trenches, took to placing them in the open between trenches, so that our fire, lifting from trench to trench, missed them. To obviate this, the Field Artillery fire (XVth Corps, General Sir H. S. Horne) was directed so as to move forward just in front of the infantry with the purpose of annihilating every living thing opposing them. The new thing in this was that it was done by the map, the lifts being timed to suit the pace of the infantry advance, according as to whether the country was open or close, and the terrain rough or smooth. What was not foreseen was the high degree to which the idea developed. Limited at first to 18-pounders, it was later given depth by the addition of 4.5-in. howitzers, 6-in. howitzers, and even 9.2-in. howitzers. Not only was it used to protect the infantry during the advance, but actually to control their movement and the direction of that advance; for, if you must follow a thing, and it moves, you are no longer your own master. Eventually it became the main feature of the attack, so that the infantry could sometimes walk behind it with slung rifles, the only proviso being that they must be as close to it as possible, so that insufficient time should elapse after the barrage had passed an enemy hiding place to allow him to emerge and open rifle or machine-gun fire. The development of the creeping barrage, under favourable circumstances, and well practised by both field artillery and infantry, accounted for the capture of large numbers of prisoners in 1916 and 1917, and did much to knock out the famous "dug-out" system of defencebut the difficulties of preparation added a number of grey hairs to the British Artillery before it became a "drill." Very much more might be said on the subject: it is not, however, proposed to go into further detail here.
In some of the Somme episodes the ground gained was sufficient to entail movement on the part of the artillery. The difficulties of maintaining forward observation on the move were felt at once. Pigeons began to be used from observation posts, and, even as early as this, wireless.
Portable camouflage nets became battery equipment after the Somme.
In the later stages the mud was so appalling that all ammunition had to be carried up on pack-saddles. No one who did not get personal experience can appreciate what drivers went through bringing up ammunition to the guns under such circumstances.
An important result of the experience gained on the Somme was the formation of Army Field Artillery brigades. Up to then, the divisional artillery had consisted of first four (three 18-pounder and one 4.5-in. howitzers) and then three (mixed) brigades. Batteries were nearly all four-gun batteries. It was found that, in order not to interfere with the artillery bombardment arrangements, a divisional artillery had to be left where it was in the line regardless of its infantry. In the later stages of the battle it was rare for a divisional artillery to cover its own infantry. The infantry went in and came out: the gunners went in but came not out for many a week. To ensure the divisions being still formations of all arms, in which infantry and artillery were accustomed to co-operate, one artillery brigade was taken away from each divisional artillery and made an army field artillery brigade: it was hoped in this way to ensure that a division could move complete in and out of the battle, while the higher artillery authorities obtained a reserve of field artillery at their immediate disposal. In combination with this change of organization batteries were increased to six guns each, largely in order to economize officers.
Stated generally, public opinion after the Somme was something as follows:
Centralization continued to develop as a result of position warfare all through 1917 on the lines already indicated, until individuality was well nigh starved out of existence.
We got the recuperator for the 18-pounder,* and the 6-in. Stokes trench mortar with its increased range.
The use of smoke by artillery was much developed.
Ammunition sorting was now becoming a great burden to the battery commander.
The indispensability of good communications to allow of so much centralization was marked by the transfer of R.A. signallers to the R.E., and the addition of a Signal Officer to each field artillery brigade staff.
In the heavy artillery a special Counter-Battery Staff Officer came into existence (July 1st, 1917), and sound-ranging was extensively developed: quite late in the year the R.G.A. was formed into permanent brigades instead of in constantly-changing heavy artillery groups. Heavy guns were included more and more in the creeping barrage, but there was no outward and visible sign yet that the Artillery was to be treated as one arm: the R.G.A. and R.F.A. were still kept well asunder.
We began to be considerably annoyed by enemy bombing, not only horse lines at night but even our gun positions.
The artillery suffered a great deal in the later stages of the battle of Arras from enemy counter-battery work. The terrible struggle for the Passchendaele Ridge followed; with such a mass of artillery for the enemy to fire at, with the impossibility of digging, with the harassing of the Flanders roads at night, and the new mustard gas, it is a matter for wonder that we carried on as we didand, remember, we were already quite outranged by the German artillery. We came out a different regimentinterpret the phrase as you will.
The Third Army attack in November, 1917, was remarkable for two things. In the first phase it was deemed necessary to procure surprise: the Germans had shown us how to do it at the Caporetto. The whole of the attacking artillery opened fire on the morning of November 20th without having fired a single registration round. Every gun had been calibrated in a back area (though not yet by the screen method), every position had been resected: positions were occupied only at the last possible moment. The surprise was complete.
In the second phase the Third Army was surprised by the German counter-attack on Gouzeaucourt on November 30th. In a few moments the whole elaborate system of control fell to pieces like a house of cards.
Unfortunately, only a small proportion of the Regiment participated in this valuable experience.
The three German offensives in which the British artillery was engaged, followed by the great Entente counter, completed the teaching initiated at Cambrai. Decentralization occurred everywhere, though it hardly had time to affect the methods of employing heavy artillery; but even in this matter progress was seen, for a brigade of R.G.A. was affiliated early in the year to each divisional artillery. Control became limited to what the controlling authorities could arrange before the battleallotment of guns to each front, and the barrage for each battle. The individuality of subordinate officers came again into play, more especially in the case of the field artillery brigade commander, to whose lot, if senior, fell the command of anything up to five brigades.
Our chief lessons from the German offensive were in the handling of guns in a big retreat. The preparations for it, as applied to the artillery, were tested to the ultimate degreemost of all the theory of "depth" and "silent batteries." The mounted or dismounted orderly soon replaced the telephone wire; patrolling reappeared; the wagon-line became once more an integral part of the battery in action; the exaggerated form of liaison we were doing with each infantry battalion disappeared like the forward observation officer in the front line with two of three miles of wire behind him.
Heavy artillery battery commanders, when in difficulty, placed themselves at once under senior gunners on the spot.
When we, in our turn, attacked, the Regiment had regained its liberty. Barrages could never be dispensed with, but it was found possible to organize them on much simpler lines at the shortest possible notice: they were essentially "protective" in character. Rapid reconnaissance of positions was followed by rapid shooting-in: fighting by eye to a large extent replaced fighting by the map. To secure surprise, the preliminary bombardment of other days (and sometimes all registration) was dispensed with. The trench mortar died a welcome death; no wire was laid until it was seen to be necessary; even dumping was becoming a thing of the past. The armistice came before the process had reached a logical conclusionwhich is a matter of regret, if one considers it from a point of view of training in the future.
Policy for the future is doubtless sub-judice. The writer only ventures to summarize certain features of our experience.
(Written on the march to the Rhine, December, 1918. W.F.W.)