Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, July 3, 2020

Artillery's Learning Curve in the Great War

French 75 in the Field in 1914


From the middle of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th, artillery is judged to have accounted for perhaps 50 percent of battlefield casualties. In the sixty years preceding 1914, this figure was probably as low as 10 percent. The remaining 90 pcente fell to small arms, whose range and accuracy had come to rival that of artillery.

It was not until the First World War, with its mostly static, soft infantry targets, that artillery was transformed through the use of indirect fire, improved target acquisition, [command and control], and heavy equipment and munitions. This primacy was reflected in the relative allocation of manpower to the artillery and the accounting by artillery for more than half the casualties inflicted in that war.

In the First World War successive events brought about fundamental revisions of tactics, counter-measures, and further evolution. Preoccupation with fire and maneuver of infantry gave way to concern for artillery firepower, machine guns, tanks, and aircraft. The art of command and control (C2) was seen to lie in the way a commander applied firepower, rather than in the way he deployed foot soldiers.

In 1914 infantry was still required to provide its own covering fire, when artillery was not available. Artillery fire, when provided, was almost always controlled by observed fire; counter-battery (CB) fire was advocated but generally impractical; harassing fire, let alone continuous fire, was seldom used, and artillery played little part in battlefield deception.

By 1918 artillery was expected to provide sufficient fire to spare the infantry a long firefight, thus saving their energy for penetration and exploitation phases of the battle. Artillery was expected to prepare a route through which the supported arm might pass; to achieve this it was given enormous quantities of ammunition and numerous technical aids. The increase in artillery strength relative to infantrymen doubled for the British and German Armies from 1914 to 1918 and tripled for the French Army.  

Advances in technique were such that the greater part of fire was either unobserved or unregistered. CB operations had become a science in fire superiority, with a separate organization and staff involved in a deep battle not previously conducted. The key to surprise and deception was no longer to be found in the placing and use of a "General Reserve," but in the methods of applying masses of artillery.

This transformation was common in varying degrees to all the belligerents and experienced four phases: 

  1. the realization in 1914 that existing artillery practice was inadequate, 
  2. the consequent testing of new methods and build-up of materiel in 1915
  3. the tactics of "mass destruction'"by artillery fire from 1916–17,
  4. and, finally, the adoption of "neutralization" from 1917–18.

The lessons learned from these experiences shaped the foundations of modern artillery operations, and many are still recognizable today. Maneuver is dependent upon firepower, and artillery must achieve equipment and fire mobility if it is to support maneuver operations successfully; artillery can be effective against armor as well as infantry; deep attack by artillery can influence the contact battle decisively; effective operations against enemy artillery are a prerequisite for the success of a combined-arms plan; the acquisition of targets by technical means is essential to successful artillery operations; C2 of firepower is at least as important as the design for maneuver  in battle; and operations are unlikely to succeed without thorough logistic, and primarily artillery logistic, preparation.

British Piece at Ypres, 1917

Some Specific Issues:

1.  New tactics were required to make best use of the firepower thus harnessed. At first these were characterized by the 'destruction' of everything in the path of advancing infantry, which had become impotent without artillery support. The vulnerability of attacking infantry forced artillery to devote the greater part of its effort to the close battle; but it was slow to learn that this effort would be better deployed against the men who manned the obstacles than against the obstacles themselves. Lengthy destructive bombardments sacrificed surprise, granted the enemy time to mobilize his reserves, and caused such damage to the terrain that the attempt to create tactical mobility created administrative problems, thwarting mobility on a grander scale and the possibility of a strategic penetration

The tactics of 'destruction' called for vast logistic support, particularly in the supply of artillery ammunition. The weights required and the conditions in which these traveled were largely responsible for the cumbersome character of operations. No attack could be planned until a commander was confident that he had sufficient ammunition, and this often determined the scale of an operation. When planning an attack, Foch was more interested in the numbers of guns than in the number of divisions available. It was useless to have more guns or order a higher rate of fire if ammunition was not available. If supplies were limited, it was sometimes necessary to narrow the sector of attack to generate the required density of fire.

2.  [After the Battles of Passchendaele and Cambrai in 1917] The relationship of artillery to other arms was. . .  redefined. Artillery was not required to aid mobility for the infantry by destroying obstacles and machine guns. Instead, it aided mobility by destroying or 'neutralizing' enemy artillery, and whatever infantry firepower might escape the tank. Surprise could not be achieved without forbidding registration. In earlier battles the techniques of predicted fire were too crude to guarantee accuracy, but by November 1917 major progress had been made. Target location for CB fire which did not exist in 1914, had been transformed from an art to a science. Indirect fire, which had proved dangerously inaccurate in!915, was a routine and reliable method of fire; and gas and smoke shells had become available in quantities that made 'neutralization' with these munitions a feasible alternative to 'destruction' with HE. Accurate maps were available and compensation was routinely made for meteorological conditions and variations in ammunition and the muzzle velocities of individual guns.

Artillery' s efforts were not reduced but redirected. The same mass of guns and equipment was still required, whose observation by the enemy might have compromised operations. All unit moves therefore were made in darkness and at the last possible moment, with great attention paid on arrival to camouflage. Artillery was unlikely to neutralize all opposing pieces with HE, so extensive use was made of gas and smoke.

3.  The lessons of spring 1918 were that artillery in defense must produce sudden and annihilating concentrations of fire on demand; that it must be sited in depth; and that artillery commanders should use their initiative to influence the close battle. To do this they needed good observation and communications. Their primary task was to delay attacking infantry, and put it out of synchrony with the supporting barrage, thus making it vulnerable to infantry firepower. It was also appreciated that as offensive mobility returned to the battlefield, artillery in defense would have to respond with greater flexibility and a capacity to react to the unforeseen.

Once strategic surprise had been lost, artillery bombardment returned to a normal pattern, but not to cutting wire. This task was carried out by tanks which also destroyed the machine guns covering it. Artillery's main task was to support this armored mobility against the threat of enemy artillery.

French Motorized Artillery Column, 1918 (Georges Scott)

4.  The role of artillery might have changed, but not its importance. The speed of the advance was still governed by artillery and the ability of the logistic organization to sustain it. The new role of artillery was seen in its deployment for the Battle of Amiens, which opened on 8 August 1918. Despite the large force of tanks, artillery density was only slightly less than it had been in 1917, and because there was no preliminary bombardment the number of guns and the weight of fire generated during the assault was far greater.

Source: Fire and Mobility, J.B.A. Bailey, The Military Press, 1989

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