Saturday, September 26, 2009

Initial Lessons Learned

This is the next bit on artillery evolution in WWI.

In my last post I discussed the initial doctrines of the various world powers going into WWI. 1914 saw the only true bit of maneuver warfare on the Western Front until late 1918. For the rest of this time, it was "static" or "trench" warfare. It was in this arena that the concepts of true modern artillery came to be as the various grey areas that had been discovered were eliminated through often painful real world experience. We are going to talk about the Central Powers first (aka Germany).

For the Germans, the major breakthroughs were actually not many. Their concepts of centralized fire planning (that is artilley planning) were actually very much ahead of the allies and given the large battles being fought (we are talking whole armies worth here numbering in the hundreds of thousands), this was actually very successful. Being able to control and mass your artillery to support the decisive effort (the main push if you will) was often key in the German victories. It also greatly helped the Germans that they were on the defensive on the Western Front until the spring of 1918. In defending, the Germans were able to avoid the communications issues that still plagued the offensive (they had dug in phone lines).

Where the Germans did make advances were in Chemical Warfare. The Germans were the first to use Poison Gas, and rapidly discovered that artillery shells were much more effective in dispersing it. Just releasing gas from a cannister only made a cloud that could blow back on you or dissipate rapidly. But with artillery shells you could keep pumping gas into the cloud, put the chemicals were you wanted them and you could put them FAR to the rear of the enemy. The biggest military benefit of Chemical weapons isn't actually their killing power, its their staying power. Soldiers can function in protective gear in a chemical environment, but everything takes longer and you tire quicker. But the Gas is persistant, even stuff like Chlorine gas can linger for over 24 hours in certain places. When confronted with this, often time military units will just place the area off limits or go around it. This great for area denial, or for helping cover your flanks or rapidly plug gaps. Or for contaiminating a logistical node or railhead. Even 12 hours can be critical if the area off limits is a key road intersection for instance.

In utilizing gas, the Germans discovered the weather played a huge roll in how this weapon was used. Not only in how the chemicals were effected, but in how accurate their deep artillery fire was. Meteological data (or MET as we call it) has a major impact on how artillery shells fly through the air and even how the shells react (i.e. go boom or not). First there is the wind, which the Germans (and also the allies) discovered can be at different directions at different altitudes. This can throw a shell off by hundreds of meters at long distances (such as in a deep chemical strike). There is temperature. This can also effect the shell's trajectory, but it can also effect the mechanics of the shell. Certain mechanical timers would freeze or become brittle in cold weather which would make a dud or might set the shell off early (bad that). Certain shell loads could melt or freeze which would effect the shell's rotation and cause it to literally spin off course (this mostly happened in White Phosphorous Rounds, but also chemical rounds). And of course the weather in general would effect how well the chemicals would work. Rain would wash away most persistant agents, but cold, snow and even sun effected them. Rain could even set off shells early if the fuze (set for point impact) hit a raindrop when flying through the air.

The Germans discovered that by gathering accurate MET data, they could adjust the artillery computations using mathmatical formulas in computing firing data. Through some trial and error, they learned certain methods of storing ammunition that would cut down on weather effects (such as covering ammo when it rained, keeping it off the ground, not stacking it but placing it on its base). They also fixed the mechanical problems for most fuzes (although the rain drop one was only fixed in 1986).

In fixing these issues the Germans refined their methods of Map Firing. Map Firing is basically shooting blind without someone observing where your artillery actually landed. The Germans had figured out by late 1915 that with a accurate map and accurate data, you could do this successfully (more or less, we are not talking 1 shot with a Tomohawk missile, we are talking 500 guns taking out a square mile or two). Since they were standing on the defensive, they could survey in all their controlled territory, and zero their targets. This was one of the main reasons why the Western Front was so bloody, the Germans were often times shooting fish in a barrel.

The other major area of German Artillery development was in heavy artillery. While the Allies were focused on the lighter, more mobile stuff. The Germans focused on the BIG guns. The Germans had more heavy artillery per division than any Allied division, and they had corps and army level artillery commands to use it properly. Krupp (those lovable German arms makers) specialized in heavy guns. 6 and 8 inch guns and howitzers were the norm in the German Army of WWI. Please note I said howitzers. Unlike the Allies, the Germans liked using howitzers because of the range and ability to hit entrenched troops. The Germans quickly learned something with their heavy guns and that was DEPTH. The German battle plans throughout the war (and this includes the early years) always had artillery hitting the enemy key areas as far back as they could. While the Allies intially had a very short view of the battlefield, the Germans realized that with long range weapons you could hit things behind the lines that would effect the actual battle. This was one of the driving forces to get Chemical Weapons modified for artillery use. The Germans were really the first group to get a truely 2 dimensional view of the battlefield (length AND depth). And this led to the REALLY big guns.

I am going to stop here as the really heavy artillery I am going to cover separately (the Big Berthas and so on). Next time we will hit the Allies (no pun intended).


  1. The map firing I really understand - but thank you for putting it into context.
    But the rain drop issue for fuzes - that one confuses me. Does this mean that before 1986 if you fired your artillery in the rain it was likely to prevent the round from going off on impact?

  2. Nope, it meant your round was going to go off right then. The rain drop was dense enough that when hit a the speed an FA shell was traveling it simulated solid ground. That would detonate a point-detonation fuze or start the timer on a point impact delay fuze. Time fuzes were unaffected.

  3. So how many people got blown up the minute they fired the point-detonation fuzes in the rain? I imagine that it must have taken awhile to figure this out in WWI - or did they just chalk it up to faulty shells?

  4. Faulty shells mostly. The rain drop problem didn't get found out until WWII if I recall correctly. And there was a lot of other unknowns they were dealing with in the advanced artillery design. The whole "gun versus howitzer" argument carried over to the shells. A 155m gun shell couldn't be used in a howitzer and vice versa. A big mess really in terms of figuring out what was the problem in ammo. The Germans were best at figuring out things given their General Staff was much more effective and organized so they could actually ID problems quicker. Not to say the Allies didn't too, but it usually took a bit longer.

  5. I don't suppose you can explain technically how you fool a fuze that impact against a fat raindrop isn't the same as impact against a surface, can you? Or is that classified? I'm wondering if it was a better force sensor or if it was some combination of moisture sensor and force sensor for the fuze.
    Strictly technical curiousity here in understanding how things work. Ignore if it's too much to answer here.

  6. Not classified, but beyond my technical understanding and ability to explain. Something about built up resistance over distance and time (i.e. a raindrop is there and gone, dirt it there and stays). Of course we are talking fractions of a second and distances less than millimeters.