Extract from the Dispatch from the Field-Marshal, Commanding-in-Chief, British Armies in France, dated the 21st of December, 1918
Volumes might be written on the subject of this article, but the time is not yet ripe. We are too near the events of the Great War to see them as our descendents will see them, without prejudices and with fuller knowledge of the facts as a whole.
I shall not refer to demands for artillery material previous to 1916, but propose to give, first, the reasons which prompted Field-Marshal Lord Haig to ask for so many guns, and some idea of the work he required them to carry out; secondly, to describe the organization and the staff machinery set up to handle the enormous mass of artillery which came into being over and above the amount allotted to divisions; and thirdly, to state briefly the innovations introduced and the scientific progress made by the British artillery during the war.
Guns and ammunition cannot be made in a day. Before construction can begin, jigs* and gauges have to be manufactured and machinery either made or adapted for the purpose, and this takes a long time. Other points concerning manufacture which are not always appreciated by the layman are that the adoption of any technical improvement, either in the construction of the gun or of the ammunition, immediately reduces total output for a considerable period, and that when a new gun or howitzer has been made, it has to go through extended firing tests, and, in most cases, travelling trials, before it is fit to take the field. The history of this war proves, as former wars have often proved, that improvised artillery material is the reverse of satisfactory.
The British Artillery owes a great deal to Major-General Sir Stanley von Donop. It was due to his foresight and initiative that the 9.2" Mark I. Howitzer was introduced, probably the best and most reliable weapon the British put into the field, and the only modern heavy howitzer available at the outbreak of war. It was in 1908 that he first began advocating the use of the heavy howitzer in the field, and in July, 1914, the first 9.2" Mark I. Howitzer, designed and constructed under von Donop's guidance, passed its test. This weapon gave comparatively little trouble in the shops, which cannot be said of some of its more hastily designed brothers.
In 1916, when the Field-Marshal submitted a fresh programme of construction, orders for artillery material which had been given in July, 1915, were nearly completed. As at that date the early delivery of more guns and ammunition was a matter of vital importance, in view of the fact that the British line was being lengthened and new troops were arriving in France, he selected the latest "Marks" of existing models, adopting this policy in order to facilitate construction and to ensure uniformity in design. The elimination of a variety of existing natures of guns was not therefore immediately practicable.
In submitting his programme, however, the Field-Marshal insisted that every endeavour should be made as time went on to increase the range and accuracy of our guns, and that there should be no cessation of research and no finality of design. But in 1916 quality had to give way to quantity. The two main principles on which the construction programme was based were as follows:
The preference for the howitzer over the gun caused a certain amount of criticism at the time, some of it uninstructed and some hardly to be called disinterested, but the reasons for laying down the second principle were both clear and sound.
The "life" of a howitzerthat is to say the number of rounds that can be fired from it before it becomes unserviceable from wearis far longer than that of a gun. For example:
As every weapon had to go back to England to be relined and generally renovated, it is obvious that the second principle was not only sound, but necessary from a manufacturing point of view. This, however, was by no means the only reason. The howitzer is comparatively easier to position in the field. Many can be sited in a comparatively limited area owing to the high line of departure of the shell, and the problem of crest clearance is rarely met with. Howitzers have less range than guns of a similar shell power, but are more mobile, and, when fired at horizontal targets their accuracy is generally speaking better.
The continuous artillery battle which began on the Somme and culminated as it did in the defeat of the enemy's guns (vide Field-Marshal Lord Haig's Dispatch of the 10th of April, 1919) would have been impossible if the proportion of medium and heavy howitzers to heavy guns had not been large. His demand worked out to be 70 per cent. howitzers and 30 per cent. guns, but these proportions were never quite reached, owing to the delay in the delivery of the heavy guns. This delay was no fault of the Ministry of Munitions, as gun plant had to be diverted after orders had been placed for the manufacture of anti-submarine guns for merchantmen.
There were 486 guns and howitzers in the original Expeditionary Force, 24 of which were of medium calibre, and on the day of the Armistice there were no less than 6437 guns and howitzers of all natures in France (exclusive of anti-aircraft artillery and mortars), of which 2211 were medium and heavy artillery. This number was below Lord Haig's original demand, but it must be remembered that the Ministry of Munitions was obliged to supply other theatres and other nations with artillery material; and further, that in the last year of the war more men were not available to man more guns.
The work which Lord Haig required his artillery to perform was, briefly, to destroy the enemy and to protect his own armies. Various kinds of fire were made use of in attempting to attain this high ideal. To dominate the enemy's artillery continuous counter-battery work was employed. The "barrage" covered our infantry in the attack. Harassing fire by day and night did much to make the enemy's roads and paths difficult to use, and often delayed and even stopped the bringing up of his rations. How science and experience helped to develop these and other methods of fire will be told later.
It will be plain to any student of war tactics that, other things being equal, the commander who can rapidly concentrate masses of artillery when and where he chooses has a great advantage over the adversary who is unable to do so. Napoleon taught Europe that artillery should be employed in masses in order to prepare for decisive action. The victories of Friedland, Austerlitz and Wagram can be largely ascribed to his having observed this cardinal principle, which means concentration at the right time and at the decisive point.
To make quick concentration possible artillery organization must be elastic. This primary condition can only be fulfilled if the minimum number of guns required form an integral part of the unit organization.
It will be convenient to discuss the organization of the field artillery and of the heavy artillery in France separately.
It is clear that if all the field artillery belongs organically to divisions, reinforcement cannot be effected unless all or some of the guns are taken from one division to support another: the divisional organization is then dislocated and may remain so for a considerable time. In offence or active defence the infantry of a division tires and must be relieved earlier than the artillery. Therefore, during active operations on a large scale and under conditions such as obtained in France, the guns soon become separated from the rest of the division, and to bring them together again is a tedious process. Divisional artilleries are continually on the move to rejoin their formations and, in doing so, much gun-power and tractive energy are wasted. Serious administrative troubles also arise.
Our available resources in 1916 would not admit of the creation of a considerable number of fresh artillery brigades, and it thus became necessary to reduce the divisional artillery from three brigades to two, and to form a fluid reserve by organizing independent Army Field Artillery Brigades. This introduction was a success from a tactical point of view, and, although it did not entirely do away with the difficulties referred to above, there was much less separation. Moreover, reinforcement was easier and more economical.
It was originally intended that these army brigades should be grouped together, either two or three brigades forming a group. It was felt that they would be better cared for if they had a colonel and staff to attend to their immediate wants, and to represent their case when work was too prolonged or too severe. Neither officers nor men could, however, be spared to form these group headquarters, so the project had to be dropped.
Generally speaking, the army brigade was nearer to the enemy than the heavy artillery brigade, and it certainly had a rougher time; otherwise, as will be shown, the army field artillery was similarly situated to the heavy artillery as regards administration.
To turn to the heavy artillery organization, the circumstances here were different. When Field-Marshal Lord Haig succeeded to the command of the Armies in France the number of heavy batteries was not great, and the few that were in the country had only recently been organized into independent groups. No heavy artillery was permanently allotted to formations.
To obtain the necessary elasticity at the commencement of Lord Haig's tenure of command, single batteries were moved from place to place; as soon as it became feasible the brigade system was re-introduced and the artillery brigades were allotted to armies, and by them to corps in accordance with the tactical requirements. The corps commander fought and administered his heavy artillery and army field artillery brigades. He was enabled to use his discretion as to the temporary attachment of any of these units to divisions as the situation demanded.
Organization in war depends on the possibilities of command and administration. These possibilities are limited by the capacity of one man's brain, the facilities for communication and the degree of movement that is going on. The more mobile the fighting, the fewer will be the units that can be controlled by one commander, and the greater will be the difficulty of communicating orders.
In large wars, unless the machinery of the staffs of the higher formations is so devised that the artillery apportioned to these formations can be conveniently absorbed and effectively directed, history teaches us that grand artillery tactics fail.
The following quotation from Lord Haig's Dispatch, dated the 21st of March, 1919, shows how this axiom was fulfilled:
Each corps commander was also provided with a brigadier-general and staff to command his heavy artillery. This officer was under the direct orders of the G.O.C. of the artillery of the corps. In fine, both army and corps commanders were given an instrument which they could employ as and when they liked to handle their artillery concentrations, and to be technically responsible for the efficiency of the arm.
It is an historical fact that the artillery commander always crops up in war where artillery is, comparatively speaking, plentiful and well handled. Queen Elizabeth had her artillery commanders (these fortunate gentlemen had certain perquisites in the way of church bells after successful sieges)*; Marlborough had his artillery train commander; Napoleon's first command of importance was that of the whole of the Jacobinic artillery in 1783, while in the following year he was appointed "General in command of the artillery of the Army of Italy," which Massena commanded. At Friedland, where artillery played so large a part, Senarmont commanded Napoleon's guns. Alexander Dickson was Wellington's gunner, but the part played by the artillery in the Peninsular War is singularly neglected by the historian Napier.
The poor results obtained by the artillery of both sides in the 1866 campaign may be traced to the want of efficient artillery control and direction. At the battle of Konigratz, half the mass of the First Army reserve artillery did not fire a single shot.
There are, however, a few soldiers who to this day think there should be no artillery commanders in war, and some of them may have formed their opinions from the teaching of the Great German General Staff. The Germans had no permanent artillery staffs for higher formations up to the day of the Armistice. Why was this? It was failure to draw the correct lessons from history, and the conservatism and vanity of their General Staff, who were lovers of centralizationusually the negation of efficient organization. These gentlemen were too vain to learn lessons from their enemies even in the pitiless school of war.
It has already been stated that there was no artillery staff machinery for higher formations in the German Army in the campaign of 1866, but before the war of 1870 began the Germans appointed corps artillery commanders. The results were not satisfactory from the point of view of organization and command, although the early entry of artillery into action (Worth) and the large concentrations of guns (St. Privat and Sedan) were successfully achieved. The system lacked elasticity. The position of the regimental colonel who became the commanding officer of the corps field artillery on mobilization left much to be desired. He commanded the corps artillery, and not the artillery of the corps. The German regulations laid down that when more than half the batteries in the corps came into action the commander of the corps artillery assumed command of the whole of the field artillery in the corps. The guiding principles of higher artillery control were neglected, especially the need of decentralization in moving warfare.
After the Franco-German War the Germans, instead of moulding their organization and artillery command so as to get the best value out of their guns, deliberately destroyed the poor machinery then in existence.
As far as our own original little Expeditionary Force was concerned, it only possessed six 60-pounder batteries, in addition to the divisional artilleries, and the question of higher artillery command did not arise. When the artillery staff organization was set up the success of this wise measure of decentralization was made certain by the close and willing co-operation of the whole British Service.
It is common knowledge that, after the fighting of the autumn of 1914, the Germans were in possession of practically all the high ground on the northern part of the Allied battle front, and therefore of the observation. This very much increased the difficulties of the British gunner. The Flying Corps and the Survey Sections came to his help; without them he would have often shot "blind."
Before this war but little shooting practice took place at night, and the serious effect of a change in meteorological conditions on the range was not fully appreciated by the regimental officer of the Field Army. A careful study of the weather, however, enabled corrections to be made in the range. Tables were supplied to battery officers giving the necessary alterations. It may not be generally known that a gun of large calibre will sometimes vary by 1000 yards in twenty-four hours, owing to changes of weather.
Science was also called in to ensure the correct height of burst of the shrapnel shell. The barometer and thermometer became indispensable artillery stores. For night firing electric lights were supplied for the aiming posts to make certain of the gun being on the correct line, and electric torches were supplied for gun pits.
Accuracy of fire was still further ensured to the field artillery by the establishment of calibration sections. By firing through screens the exact initial velocity of each gun was ascertained, and compensation could be given on the sights which insured the uniform shooting of every gun in the battery.
The Survey Sections supplied the artillery with excellent maps which were compiled with care and accuracy, and mounted on specially prepared boards in order to facilitate "map shooting"; further, the Survey Sections resected all batteries' positions.
The culminating result of this scientific progress was that in the Cambrai attack of November, 1917, registration was dispensed with, and surprise, so far as artillery action was concerned, was made easy. At the battle of Amiens on the 8th of August, 1918, in which over 2000 British guns were employed, practically all of them opened destructive fire from their attack positions for the first time on the actual morning of the assault.
Though observation was carried out from the ground whenever practicable, the Air Force became to a great extent the real "eyes" of the artillery, and not merely the eyes, but also the scouts, the detectives and the tale bearers of bad shooting. By means of the aerial photograph camouflaged German batteries, new works, roads and paths were discovered, and accuracy of fire assured. It was useless for a battery commander to say that his guns were calibrated and clean and the ammunition properly cared for, when the tell-tale photograph showed a bad "pattern."
Not only was observation from the air accurate when stationary objects were engaged, but special progress was made in the art of engaging moving targets.
Counter-battery work, so little thought of before the war, and which, according to Ludendorff, caused the Germans much loss and great anxiety, became an exact science through the development of air photography, aerial observation, sound-ranging, flash-spotting and air-burst ranging. In every gunner office in our Armies in France sat a reconnaissance officer, whose duty it was to keep track of each German gun and to bring to notice the slightest alteration in the terrain on his immediate front, which was constantly photographed.
As to improvements in artillery design, long-range modern 6", 8", 9.2" and 12" howitzers were introduced and also the following guns:- 6" Mark XIX. on a field carriage, the 9.2" Mark XIII., the 12" and 14" on railway mountings.
G.H.Q. wished the split trail system to be gradually adopted for all light and medium natures of artillery, but this did not materialize for several reasons, two of them being that with a high rate of ammunition expenditure (it reached over twenty-three thousand tons on one day in the war), alteration in design was not easy, and that daily throughout the war the man-power problem became more difficult.
Among other improvements and innovations were the instantaneous fuze No. 106, smoke shell, gas shell, shells with large calibre head radius (long pointed shells), stream line shells, improved incendiary shells and star shells.
There are people who think that wars are things of the past; we all hope so. There are others who think that tanks and aeroplanes will compose the fighting forces of the future, and that any guns not used in these machines should be relegated to the museums. A design of a shellproof tank has not yet materialized, owing to the immense weight of the armour which would be required for its protection, and until this problem is solved tanks will be largely dependent on artillery protection. The analogy of a battle of tanks with a naval battle is a bad one, especially if aerial or submarine attack be left out of account. Ships have only to reckon with guns fired from other ships, unless the fighting takes place within range of shore guns; whereas, operating as they do on dry land, tanks must always be exposed to the fire of batteries, which are mobile and usually concealed.
Of the future no one can talk with certainty, but of recent history we know something, and it is worth noting that the officers and men of the Tank Corps were the first to admit, on the evening of the 8th of August, 1918, that it was due to the supremacy of the British artillery that their course had been an easy one that morning. Here is what the Field-Marshal says on the subject in his Dispatch, dated the 10th of April, 1919:
As an instance of the interdependence of artillery and tanks we may take the action fought east of Amiens on the 8th of August, 1918, and following days. A very large number of tanks were employed in these operations, and they carried out their tasks in the most brilliant manner. Yet a scrutiny of the artillery ammunition returns for this period discloses the fact that in no action of similar dimensions had the expenditure of ammunition been so great.
And what good would the artillery have been on the 8th of August, without stout infantry to hold the ground which tanks, aeroplanes, cavalry and guns had assisted them to win?
In the autumn of 1918, when the enemy was in full retreat, large masses of artillery were still employed; on the 1st of November, 1918, the fine Canadian infantry attacked south of Valenciennes, supported by guns and howitzers to the number of one to a little over every two yards of the front of attack, a large proportion of the barrage being in enfilade. This was a higher percentage of guns to infantry than had ever been reached throughout the war.
So much for recent history; what mechanical improvements the future will bring no one can foretell, but they will probably be greater than most of us think. Those who are still interested in the artillery service will, however, be well advised to go forward with experiment and research, and to lay their plans for a quick and larger output of the latest patterns in the event of trouble. The gun-howitzer seems to be the weapon of the future; that is to say, a weapon longer than a howitzer but shorter than a gun, with some of the advantages of both. In future wars an enormous increase in the number of aeroplanes employed in bombing and shooting the troops on the ground must be anticipated. All artillery weapons, or nearly all, should be able, therefore, to put up an air barrage, and construction must allow for a very high-angle of elevation. All such weapons also must be capable of quick and wide traverse in order that aeroplanes and tanks can be early engaged. Here the split trail comes in. A tank travelling at the rate of twenty miles an hour should not be a difficult target for the gunner, if he is supplied with an up-to-date weapon.
Space forbids me to mention the many other directions in which improvements can be sought.
Work and foresight will, however, be of no avail unless the fighting men again display that indomitable courage and power of endurance without which no war can be won. Let me take two examples from among the many of what happened before a mastery over the enemy's artillery and aircraft was obtained. Here is an extract from the official report of a certain artillery brigade during a period in the line in France. Probably no other brigade had a worse period, or even as bad a one:
The whole area was almost continuously under shell-fire, and the enemy's artillery fired hundreds of rounds daily onto the batteries, endeavouring to silence them. By night he made use of great quantities of gas-shell, using for the first time mustard gas. Although he was successful in knocking out during this period an average of three guns and one howitzer daily, and causing casualties to the number of 50 officers and 452 men, the tasks ordered were invariably carried out.
Another report on a battery reads as follows:-
The battery was assigned the task of wire cutting from __ to __, it had already received much attention from German heavy howitzers. It was estimated that 400 rounds would be required to clear the wire, and deliberate fire was commenced. After some 50 rounds had been fired a 15 cm. howitzer battery, firing in enfilade, opened a steady and very accurate fire on the position. Each time the British battery opened fire salvoes of 15 cm. commenced, and four guns out of six were put out of action and two ammunition dumps exploded. The remaining two guns continued to fire until 400 rounds were expended; subsequent examination after the advance showed that the wire was completely cut.
Needless to say, the gallantry displayed by all ranks of the artillery did not pass unnoticed. The gunner yields to none in his admiration of the bravery of other arms, but, as this article deals with the artillery, no excuse is needed for quoting the following extract from a Special Order of the Day, issued by Lord Haig on the 9th of October, 1917:
In preparing the way for the infantry, supporting their advance, and covering them against counter-attacks, the skill and endurance displayed by the Royal Artillery have never been surpassed, if ever equaled, in the annals of warfare. Though the nature of their duties has allowed them no rest, they have risen superior to every trial. Without their splendid devotion to duty the great successes gained would not have been possible.