Sunday, September 13, 2009

Into the Wilderness

After a bit of hiatus, I am going to continue with my artillery historic posts. I am picking up with the start of WWI.

August 1914 saw the start of the First World War. Artillery-wise every major combatant (even the US) was equipped with roughly the same types of artillery. Recoilless, long ranged (as in over 6 kms), rapid firing, and using self-contained ammo (i.e. you put in one shell at a time and fire away instead of loading powder, then shell, then primer). Everyone was WAY short on ammo stocks (everyone was thinking a short war). Where the difference lay was doctrine and number of gun types.

The Allies (Britian, France, Russia and a host of smaller nations) had a focus on lighter, more "mobile" rapid firing guns. Heavy guns and howitzers existed, but were much rarer. The British actually had to use dismounted naval guns for heavy artillery (4.7 inch and 6 inch) due to the shortage. The basic tactical doctrine for the allies was to splice out your artillery to maneuver units (usually the regiment or a brigade) and have them provide on the spot artillery in support of the tactical maneuver unit. Great for small unit warfare, bad when its not just small units. Where this system had problems was when you attempted to mass your fires of several artillery units on one target. Without a higher artillery headquarters or a doctrine for controlling hundreds of guns (and we do mean hundreds) you had major issues of command and control, and it was an absolute mess getting the guns to obey you instead of the local commander.

The Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) were pretty much the exact opposite. Centralized control and massed fires were their method and it was pretty damn effective too. The German General Staff was arguably the only military group who had actually been working on war plans that focused on whole armies instead of smaller units. They were very much "Big Picture" guys and their fire doctrine reflected it. An operations order would contain very detailed instructions on how to use your artillery and it was massed to provide the maximum amount of fire support for the key operations and the decisive (or main) effort. Instead of everyone getting some fire support, the most important effort got everything and then some. This worked great but its weak spot was in being able to adjust when things went wrong. If some defensive points were missed, it was incredibly hard to get fire support to take them out if it was not in the plan. Since a couple of machine guns could hold up entire regiments, this was not a minor problem.

Both sides had one shared major issue: communications. Fires could be adjusted, new targets plotted and changes made IF YOU COULD TALK. But this was very hard in an era of no radio and unreliable telephones. Once battles started, unless you could keep up with messengers (not bloody likely), pigeons (yep, they were used), flags, or phone, you were gong off the plan. If you were allied you couldn't help nearby units in trouble and if you were central you couldn't get help to knock out a missed machine gun nest.

So how did everyone do and how did they adjust?

That will be in the next article.


  1. They must have made some adjustments since they later in WWI had massive rolling barrages as precursors to calling up the troops to go over the trench wall into no-man's land.
    I'm going to wonder out loud how other munitions (gas rounds) that required ideal wind direction affected all of this, especially on the German side.
    So of course I'm looking forward to the next post.