Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Allies

Greetings all, this is the next part on my little series on artillery evolution. This focuses on the Allied Forces. We are mostly discussing the British and French, with a bit of Japanese. No Russians (they really didn't add much for this war in anything, but learned a lot), and not really anything from the US (I'll hit the Yanks later for a special reason).

The Allied forces were mobility focused in their artillery concepts. Lighter guns, rapid firing, able to keep up with the maneuver forces. When you hit the enemy you smother him with firepower allowing your infantry (sometimes cavalry) to then rapidly overwhelm him. This concept had developed from two main experiences. For the French it was the concepts of Napoleon and the experiences of the Franco-Prussian War. Maneuver was the key to victory, massed firepower allowed you to break through and keep moving. So the guns had to keep up, and you had to use them to provide DIRECT support to the infantry. If you study Napoleon, you see his use of artillery in mass as key in many of his fights. For the British, the concept was similar. Mobile guns, direct support. This concept came from the "Small Wars of Empire" that they had been fighting for decades. Artillery slaughtered the natives in direct usage because they had nothing to hit back with.

As the saying goes "Works in Theory"...

The sad part of this whole concept is that both the French and British had some very close examples of why this theory was no longer the case and that they were dangerously behind in artillery theory, if not actual equipment (their guns were actually quite good). For the French, the reorganizations that followed the Franco-Prussian War were not actually very good in certain areas. The big point the French completely missed was that their new rapid firing guns still needed to be massed for maximum effectiveness. The French created a huge army with a reserve system, but they did not create an integrated method to fight it. Once you got down to it, the French were fighting battles like they were hundreds of little regiment on regiment fights with almost zero coordination. You could have three units within a few miles of each other and would be in a practical vacuum, unable (or unwilling) to help the flank unit. Now, the communications problems still existed for everyone (no radio, phones were crude) but the Germans continually worked on these issues so they had an understanding of what they faced. Not so much the French. The really bad part for the French was that because of poor coordination, their wonderful artillery was parcelled out and unable to mass to support the key operation. There were some seriously bad strategic thinking going on too but that goes beyond what I am looking at.

The British were in the same situation. No centralized fire control for artillery, and an absolute archaic theory on its use (drive it to the sound of firing, roll up to the front of the lines, and start shooting direct fire and whatever moves). Worse, the British had very recent experience with the Boer War against people who were as well equipped as them (the Boers had Krupp artillery, Mauser Rifles and Machine Guns) and had seen what that theory got them (lots of dead artillerymen and lost guns).

Both the British and French lacked in heavy artillery and had no concepts about using deep fires to disrupt enemy forces beyond the front lines.

But as learning curves go, the British and French actually outpaced the Germans in this case. They started farther back in theory, weapons and development and they pulled even and even ahead by the wars end.

First, the Allies rapidly learned that the concept of firepower usage had changed. Simply rolling up the guns and blasting the nearest front line no longer worked. Even rapid breechloading guns could not win the firepower war against hidden machine guns in a direct firefight. So they rapidly learned that the new long ranges had to be used to make the guns survivable and effective. More guns were needed to hit an area, even with 15 rounds a minute a battery could not effectively support a regimental attack. So habitual relationships (battery to a infantry regiment) were broken up and artillery centralized control was set up to mass and control the growing numbers of guns needed.

With the creation of Central Fire Control for the Allies, the next big developments were in observed and unobserved firing. With newer phones, the Allies set up OP (Observation Posts) that could spot artillery and adjust the rounds on to target. Ground units alone could not see everything so the airplane (equipped with new wireless radio) and the balloon were used to spot artillery (this led to more air to air combat as each side was trying to shoot down the other sides observers, but that is another story). The Allies got to be very good at this as the Germans stood on the defensive for 3 years and had dug in on the best defensive terrain (highest ground).

As this was going on the Allies started bringing in heavier guns. The French had the 155mm howitzers and the British had the 4.7 in and 6 in guns and howitzers. These heavier guns led the Allies to discover the concepts of depth in the battlefield. These guns could hit the German rear areas and disrupt transportation and the movement of reserves. But often this was in areas they could not see or get observation planes over. Which led to the development of Map Firing.

Map Firing was simply the process of hitting a target using a map only. Sounds simple but it is actually VERY complicated. The Germans never quite got it, but the Allies did after much trial and error. First, the Allies fixed surveying problems and designed new mapping methods that finally created maps with modern levels of accuracy. In doing this, they discovered the issues involved with making a square map work when you are dealing with a round area (the world is round remember?). Azimuth adjustments, curvature of the earth, height of sea level (for both the target and the guns), actual versus magnetic north. And once these were fixed the Allies then discovered how weather effected long range firing (wind direction, air temperature, the possiblity of different wind directions at different altitudes). The Germans also did some work on this, but the Allies were the ones that really ran with it. The Germans focused this on their heavy guns, the Allies realized that this effected ALL artillery and used it as such.

The final problem that the Allies (as well as the Germans) ran into was the tying in. Making your artillery hit where and when it had to sounds simple enough, but how do you do that without a radio? ONce the infantry moved out, they were almost immediately out of contact with higher HQs. There were no man portable radios, runners were slow and had a bad habit of dying, wire got cut or shorted out or ran out, and pigeons often times got lost. So what happens if you are 10 minutes late to a location and the artillery fire has stopped firing suppression? You get mowed down by unsurpressed MG fire. Various Tactics were developed to deal with this. The "Creeping Barrage" was an Allied invention that more or less worked, but still had issues. A Wall of Artillery fire moves forward at so many meters per minute, the infantry walks behind it and in theory arrives at the target just after the FA fire lifts. But what happens if you get delayed (happened a lot), or you missed something like a concrete bunker that wasn't knocked out? You fall behind and your artillery fire outruns you. And you get mowed down. This problem was never quite solved in WWI by either side.

The Allies ended up with a huge learning leap in WWI in terms of artillery. Becuase of this the artillery became the key component of the War for them, the French Army went from being insanely gung ho to incredibly methodical (which bites them in WWII). The British were much slower learners and it wasn't until 1917 that they really started getting the ideas down. And this was actually lost lessons in many cases due to some rather stupid attacks in 1917.

Next time we start talking about the end of WWI and what everyone started taking away from it for the next round.

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