Saturday, May 16, 2009

My growing interest in WWI

This doesn't deal with Ukraine. This deals with some military history and a topic that I am finding myself more drawn into recently: World War I (aka "The War to End all Wars" and the "War that would Never Happen").

Now, why would this war interest anyone? Well, major shaper (if not the defining shaper) of the 20th century aside, it is the massive changes in technology and how the various countries dealt with them that has completely captured my interest. What is lost on so many people due to the huge bloodletting and the completely jacked up ending (I have started to call this the war no one won thanks to the peace treaty that promised a rematch or our money back), is the absolutely perfect example of military transformation and impacts of technology on how militaries do business.

In a short period of time (20 or so years), every aspect of how a first class world military did business was changed. Infantry got machine guns and bolt-action rifles. Artillery got the rapid firing, recoil-less, long ranged cannon, aircraft were invented, the cavalry had motor vehicles/armored vehicles (Armored Cars to start, tanks came in the war), transportation had trains and motor vehicles and so on. And this was the first war which the medical science really started to be effective.

A very common word in the recent decade in the US Army has been "Transformation". We are talking about how the army/military is transforming due to new developments. This started as cyber/technology focused impacts, but after 9-11 it has included all kinds of asymetric threats and has started overlapping into all other areas (a good thing too, id Wilson had been smarter than he thought he was and had tied the military and polical parts together maybe WWI woudl have had a different ending).

I am not so big on the political aspects of this stuff. I will never be a general, so I am not trying to pry into that part. For me, the big one is the impact of new ideas or technology. Or the ideas that come from the new gear or the gear that comes from an idea or any other combo. And WWI (or the time leading up to it) provides a wealth of this stuff. Especially artillery which will be the center peice of this thread.

My thesis was actually on the impact of new artillery systems on doctrine in the US Army prior to WWI and how well did the US Army crack the code on the new rules. Or rather, its failure to do so even with 3 years of sitting on the sidelines while Europe provided examples on "how to NOT do things". But I realized something while studying this, this question is so complex and has so many factors influencing it that the answer wasn't that everyone got wrong. The problem was that everyone hadn't figured out what the exact question was.

Yes, to use a Hitchikers Guide reference, everyone got 42 and didn't have the question.

This discussion is way to long for one post, so we are going to do it in chunks. Next time I will discuss the "42" of this problem: the French 75mm.


  1. Hi Redleg,

    Nice blog and interesting post. I have a strong interest in the roles of artillery in military history and I'd like to send you a short paper I wrote for my son (truely) while he was traveling abroad. He asked me about the usefulness of artillery in modern warfare - he himself is an infantryman in the IDF - and I would like your feedback as a professional.

    All the best,

    Jonathan Baum

  2. Isn't it wonderfully enlightening when you pick something up you looked at years ago and suddenly see it in a new light? All of a sudden experiences and knowledge from other areas allow you to rethink on something that one may think is solved and see it in a brand new way.

    Sounds like you've hit on something with your WWI analysis, and I fully agree with you about the comment on transformation, which I think will occur faster and faster as technology continues to accelerate forward.

  3. Jon,

    thanks for the comments. If you want to send the paper please feel free. I can't promise quick feedback, but I'll give it a shot for you.

  4. drteine, you are right about that. This is one of the reasons that I don't debate about GWB anymore. History needs time to sort itself out and get rid of the people who had involvement that was very emotional or very deep. The Ego will still play a part in your historic perception even after decades of time. Such as the last head of the cavalry branch who to his dying day maintained that General Marshall's failure to double the amount of horse cavalry regiments in 1942 was the greatest mistake of WWII (no I am not making that up, General Herr was his name).


    Here is the paper I wrote for my son:

    On Artillery

    To begin with, I'm not sure what you mean by "modern warfare." If you define it as what is going on in Iraq-Intifada than perhaps you could be right, even though the gunners have been very busy in Afghanistan and have won much praise for their work against the Taliban. However, I think it would be wrong to say that those are the only future models for combat. I'm certain that the age of high-intensity conventional combat is not yet over. One possible theater is Korea, for instance. In fighting like that, artillery really comes into its own. In the First Gulf War, the main attack by VII Corps had so much artillery that each maneuver battalion had its own artillery battalion in direct support and there were still other artillery assets available to the commanders for special missions.

    In addition, I think that it's important to keep in mind what are the inherent strong points of artillery, even in this day and age. First of all, in any combined arms formation, like a division or a brigade group (a "brigade group" is a brigade of 3 battalions, either infantry or tanks - so-called "maneuver" battalions -and supporting arms, such as sappers, aviation, medics, etc. and including a battalion of artillery), most of the firepower resides in the guns of the artillery. Even though there is usually only one artillery battalion for every three maneuver battalions, the real muscle is the guns. It is a statistical fact that most of the casualties of the wars of the 20th century were caused by artillery.

    Secondly, the guns are always there. They "belong" to the ground forces and you know that they are going to show up, unlike some other forms of outside fire support such as air strikes or naval guns. Artillery works just fine at night and in bad weather, unlike some planes or helicopters. One of the biggest advantages of artillery is that it doesn't "commit" like the maneuver arms. Once a tank or infantry unit gets into a fight, it's very difficult - if not impossible - to change its mission. Artillery, on the other hand, easily shifts targets. This allows a certain flexibility. If a maneuver unit gets into trouble, artillery batteries belonging to neighboring formations that are in range can be called in to provide support. The British Army has a brilliant system where any forward observer, in a real emergency, can automatically call in the fire of every gun in his division by announcing "Uncle Target."

    Of course, like most modern weapons, artillery works best when massed. It's easy to see why. The normal "spread" of an artillery piece firing at long range is about a 1/2 a kilometer. In addition, artillery's effects are much greater if you have a lot of guns firing at once rather than fewer guns firing sequentially. During WWII, the artillery of the US Army perfected a system called Time On Target - TOT - where entire battalions would fire their shells so that they would arrive on the target simultaneously. You can see why it is important to have all the division's or corps' guns under central control so that the 50 to 200 guns all fire their 5 to 20 shells together at the same target and than shift together to the next target. This way the natural "spread" is counterbalanced by the shear number of projectiles.

    In the old days, when the gunners could see their targets, it was important for commanders to keep a number of their artillery units in reserve. Today, since artillery fires "indirect," all guns should be firing as long as there are targets. As a very smart German officer once said, the "reserve" of the artillery is its ammunition supply.

    You should also remember that artillery doesn't just explode. The guns can lay down a smoke screen, provide illumination at night and even lay a quick minefield. Artillery can also fire anti-tank (HEAT) and flechette rounds. In a pinch, empty artillery shells have even delivered medical supplies to cut-off units.

    Modern technology has made artillery even more effective. Fire control data-processors are electronically linked to laser and GPS-equipped observation gear that provides instant and precise targeting coordinates to the gunners. The amount of time that the infantry have to wait for the artillery support to start has been reduced to seconds and that support is a lot more acurate when it arrives. Today, the American artillery is starting to deploy a new type GPS-guided of 155mm shell called Excalibur. Now the Army and Marines have their own "smart" weapons. This is a great aid for a unit that is engaged in combat in an urban environment. Today's ground forces can also use UAVs for artillery observation, allowing them to engage targets not visible to the units on the ground.

    Many modern armies - such as ours - have rediscovered the advantages of rocket-based artillery - first used by the Soviet Army in WWII, the famous "Katyushas." A shell in a gun has to be robustly constructed in order to withstand the shock of the propellant going off in the barrel. A rocket, on the other hand, doesn't have to deal with those forces, so it can carry proportionally more explosives in its warhead. GPS technology has turned the Multiple Rocket Launching System (MRLS) from a much-dreaded area weapon - the Iraqis called it the "steel rain" - into a very precise "smart" projectile. In addition, by reducing the rocket's payload, you can increase its range.

    In short, it's hard for me to imagine a combat situation when artillery wouldn't be useful. They don't always have the glamour of tanks or special forces but, when the shit goes down, everybody wants the guns.

  6. Jon, not bad. Its a nice roll up. You hit on the main points quite well. Artillery is always there, and its at the immediate call of the maneuver commander at all times in all weather. It can certainly use different munitions. The growing use of Precision Munitions is the biggest point right now. Especially against an enemy that deliberately uses human shields and camps out in hospitals. While the AF can use many guided bombs, an artillery shell is just as if not more accurate than a guided bomb, but also causes much less collateral damage. A 155 HE guided round packs about a third of the actual explosive as a 500 pound bomb. And you can adjust its damage (delayed impact with enter a bunker and go off inside versus going off when it hits the roof). Against an enemy who is attempting to use the media, this is very helpful.

    More accuracy means less guns. The great massed guns of WWI and WWII are gone. They are not really needed anymore. One gun can do the work of a battery or battalion. If you have a system that never misses, you don't need hundreds of rounds to destroy an enemy. With the extended ranges, you can have less guns cover more area and still be deadly.

    OF course you must remember one thing. Artillery alone cannot win fights. Artillery is a component of combined arms. Drones, tanks, infantry, artillery, air support, SF. YOu put all of them together and you can't lose. Israel's scare in the Yom Kippur War was due to its focus on Air Power and Tank Power at the expense of everything else. The Egyptian ADA that caused so much touble would have been smashed if the IDF had artillery to knock it out (SEAD: Suppression of Enemy Air Defense is a major FA mission). The 2006 War against Hezbollia was an issue because the focus was against Air Force heavy (at least that is the opinion I have formed from my knowledge base, if you are in the IDF and know something I don't let me know).

  7. Sorry, correction to typo. Last para should read "focus was AF Heavy". I.E. the IDF didn't have the ground forces ready to go in once they figured out that the Hez targets couldn't be spotted without ground forces.