Sunday, July 19, 2009

This is more than we bargined for.

This is the next artillery evolution piece. The post I wrote previously on this dealt with the French 75mm and its capabilities. This post will detail with how the various powers started to work with the new capabilities.

The biggest and most important thing the French 75 brought to the table of artillery was its ability to shoot accurate indirect fire rapidly. Which is really three items, but they combined into one whole that was so much more than the sum of its parts. With a range of around 7 km, and recoil system that allowed the gun to stay inplace and not have to be re-aimed for every shot and a breechloader that allowed you to shot as fast as you could stuff a new round in, the artillery world was in possession of a weapon it was mentally not ready for. All artillery doctrine to this point had been dealing with only direct fire (i.e. you shoot at what you see), and a vastly slower action time due to having to either a slow reload, or having to reaim the gun. In one swoop, everything holding up artillery rates of fire vanished with the added bonus of such a long range the gun crews could no longer see where the round landed.

This occurred in 1897 in France and within about three years every major power had its own version of the French 75mm with more or less the same capabilities. Where everyone had a chance to be different was in HOW they used these guns. The French had wanted a peice that could use rapid firepower to blast enemy lines into plup which would allow the infantry or cavarly to break through. The British also wanted mobile guns that could keep up with rapid movements and be used to overwhelm forces with firepower (especially for duty in the Empire). Most other powers wanted the same thing initially, but some (the ones with a much more professional outlook) started to think beyond the smaller units (regiments or brigades). Germany was argueably the first major power to realize that with the increased range you could effect the battlefield with artillery without having the guns actually there.

Longer range meant DEPTH. Germany realized that these new guns (and even bigger ones on the drawing board) could be used to influence the battlefield from a distance. Either their own guns could be safely away from the actual bullets (unlike what the British and French were doing) or they could be knocking out targets behind the enemy so that while the initial fight was going good the follow on was already lost (reinforcements, lines of communications, HQs, supplies could be destroyed or delayed via this long range artillery fire).

While this rocked in theory, it led to other issues. How does one control these fires? How can you make sure that your rounds are hitting the right place? How do you adjust the fire, how do you move it if you find out that the target moved, or if a new one shows up? The Germans used a top down plan to control the fires. "Top Down" means that the higher HQs made the plan, controlled the artillery and selected targets to support the ground forces. The problem with this was that for a fluid situation adjustments were hard make on the fly and the Germans discovered that COMMUNICATIONS were now a major issue. Remember, the French 75 came out before radios did.

The French and British did not have a very professional approach to their artillery control. Their focus was on the mobility and firepower aspect. In short, keep the guns close to maneuver forces, when the battle starts you move up to the unit you support and take commands from the guy on the ground. Now this works great on a small scale battle. For the British in the Empire this was a perfect method for fighting (also the French). But the breakdown was when you were NOT fighting in the bush leagues. Battles against another Great Power involve hundreds of thousands of men over huge areas and lasted days. Being subordinated to a infantry brigade meant that you could not easily bring one set of artillery to aid another. No cross-talk, no real higher artillery HQs to coordinate, no method of communicating. Worse, the artillery was often pushed up to the front with the infantry for direct fire use.

Now, some may say "WWI had not happened yet, so how could anyone know any of this?" True, the BIG ONE had not kicked off, but there had been several smaller wars that gave excellent pointers as to how this stuff could work. And everyone had observed them. We had the Boer War, the Russo-Japanese War, and the Balkins War. All of these wars involved major powers and the modern weapons and every one of them hinted to the problems the new artillery faced and also its new strengths.

The really interesting thing is that everyone did learn something from these wars. No one was able to put everything together for a perfect setup (that wouldn't happen until 1940 when the US Army finally got everything set up), but the contrast as to how everyone envisioned the use of the new artillery was VERY educational.

The British and French didn't really learn a whole lot. One could argue that the British actually unlearned artillery lessons from the Boer War and tried some ideas that had been proven WRONG during the fight (namely: don't use direct fire on a dug in enemy you can't see). The Germans learned that a centralized fire plan was doable, but you had major issues in adjustments and that you needed LOTS of ammo. The Russians learned they needed better coordination and more modern gear, but they had Czar Nicholas and he was a moron so no fixing got done. The Japanese started with a great artillery plan, focused on indirect fire linked to forward observers. But the Russians were so inept that the Japanese learned that using new artillery in direct fire would work and that they really didn't need to coordinate outside of the immediate unit (that would bit them badly in WWII).

The Americans amazingly learned a huge amount. From the Russo-Japanese War the US determined that Indirect Fire would work, and that it was preferable to direct fire. The US then started a heavy focus on the communication problem (flags, phones and eventually radios) and the idea that if you can communicate with ANY unit, you should be able to support them regardless of what maneuver unit you belong to. Which meant that some type of central HQs would be needed. Where the US really differed was in the fact that they were actively seeking the "happy medium" between the British/French direct support for maneuver (great for the commander on the spot), and the German "Top-Down Plan" (great for the greater whole or overall scheme of maneuver). The US realized it wasn't there yet. Further doctrinal devlopment in the US was hampered by the small size of the US Army and the fact that anything bigger than a Brigade didn't exist so much of what was worked on was pure theory. But they were the only ones thinking that going into WWI.

One thing which everyone did miss (except Bulgaria if you can believe that) was that ammunitions supplies needed to be drastically increased. The Germans realized that some increase was needed, but were still way short going into WWI.


  1. It caught my attention that within 3 years of the 75 being revealed that eventually everyone had their own version. So was that due to espionage or due to parallel developments by each of the respective powers and the French got it first?

    Also in regards to the communication issue I kind of gather that the Army got it first - or was their any work by the Navy in developing forward observation techniques and technology?

  2. Parallel development. Oddly enough (or not considering) the idea for the recoil system was originally tried by Krupp. They couldn't make it work. The French did due to some machining tricks and some chemical works (got the hydrallic fluid that worked and didn't cause leaks by eating the seals).

    The commo issue was pretty much a army development. The navy didn't really have the issues as the observers and the gunners were usually on the same platform. Radios on plnes didn't really happen until WWI started so over the horizon firing wasn't really an option until about 1915 (and that was really a rough version, they hadn't made it work quite well enough to use at Jutland for instance).

    The really big commo issue on land was the left and right situation. Could you get in touch with guns on your left and right flanks for help or to offer help? Not initially for anyone. The British and French were really onto the combined arms/small unit fighting ideal we try for today, but the tech wasn't there. Until you can talk to everyone and tie together, your small unit (no matter how well balanced) is fighting alone. Against someone like the Germans who had such a great staff and fought battles at army level, that was a major no go.

    The interesting "what if" is really radio tech. What if radios had been 10 years more developed? Going off of that, the INITIAL British/French method would have been much more deadly. The British and French became more German in method as the war continued, and the Germans, while still keeping the great planning together, also really got into small(er) unit combat.

    But that is another post...

  3. Good to see you getting this out there....

  4. Yeah, bit by bit. I get going and it flows, but I have to keep focused. Glad to see you are reading it though.