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Artillery and the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front


There is still a misconception by some of the British general public that gun-shot wounds (ie from rifles and machine-guns) were the principal cause of the casualties suffered by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front in the Great War. The British official military medical statistics make it clear that, to the contrary, there is absolutely no doubt that artillery fire was by far and away the principal cause of both wounds and death in the BEF. Informed estimates range from 60% to 80%; a more specific figure for casualties in the Great War solely due to shellfire and mortars was 58.5%.

This article will look at how artillery fire was sustained on the Western Front and the profiles of those projectiles which ultimately caused all these casualties.

The artillery used in the Great War could be broadly classified as guns, howitzers and mortars (plus rather specialised rockets); on the Western Front all the three former types were extensively used whilst the latter was certainly commonplace for signalling.

The artillery of the BEF

At the beginning of the Great War, the artillery of the Regular British Army was organised into batteries (a battery had strength of about 5 officers and 200 gunners) of the Royal Horse Artillery (RHA) and the Royal Field Artillery (RFA). In principle, the Regular RHA battery deployed the lighter calibre field guns (six 13-pounders) that were normally attached to the cavalry. But, due to the limited possibilities of the operational deployment of the cavalry generally on the Western Front, as the war progressed, elements of the RHA were also widely used to support the RFA. The Regular RFA had batteries with the heavier field guns or howitzers (six 18-pounders, or 4.5-inch howitzers).

In the early years of the war the Territorial and New Army batteries only had four 15-pounder guns or four 5-inch howitzers. In 1916 there was a general re-equipment and all field batteries were given six up-to-date 18-pounders. The redundant field guns were recycled for training purposes in the UK.

These two corps of artillery were made mobile by the use of teams of horses of appropriate numbers and stature and, increasingly, by motorised transport.

Additionally, some of the heavier calibre guns, howitzers and mountain guns of the Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA) were deployed in a strongly supportive role from two miles, or more, behind the Front Line. Logically, the RHA and the RFA were called the Mounted Branch of the Royal Regiment of Artillery and the RGA the Dismounted Branch.

As the war progressed, these simple classifications of artillery ‘guns' became a bit muddied as new weapons were introduced. For example, more mobile artillery fire-power for the use of the infantry at the divisional and battalion level was also developed in the form of simple, tube-like, trench motors and canister projectors. Because of their low cost, and dispensability, they were produced in large numbers (particularly the latter) and provided significant - if somewhat less accurate - bombardments of the enemy trench works using purpose-made, but relatively cheap, mortar bombs and projection canisters.

The light artillery (2 x 6-pdr) that was mounted in sponsons (turret-like gun platforms) on some BEF tanks, only played a very minor part in the artillery war from 1916 onwards, whilst both specialised and improvised anti-aircraft guns became increasingly deployed on both the Western and Home Front. In the latter case a ferocious campaign was launched from both the ground and the air against the German rigid-airship strategic bombers (Zeppelins) and heavier-than-air bomber aircraft (Gotha two-engine models G1V and GV and Friedrichshafen four-engine GIII and GIIIa) during their bombing forays over London and the western counties of Great Britain.

List of artillery field guns in active service on the Western Front

BL = Breech loader - as opposed to muzzle loader - either with integral shell/propellant (projectile and propellant in single ‘fixed' casing), or separate shell and propellant bag(s).

QF = Quick Firing. The rate of firing of these guns was speeded-up (eg six rounds, or more, per minute) by a gun barrel recoil and recuperation mechanism, (it absorbed the recoil of the gun-barrel and stabilised the gun when it was fired) and shells with integral projectile and propellant single ‘fixed' casing to facilitate manipulation and firing speed.

BLC = Converted breech mechanism.

Calibre = Inner diameter of gun barrel in inches.

Range = Normally, indicating the maximum distance a shell could be propelled, but this varied depending on the type of projectile fired e.g. shrapnel, H.E., gas etc.

Projectiles = Types of shells usually fired from a field gun in action.

Artillery field guns

  • QF 4.7-inch Mark I field gun. Range = 10,000-yards. Projectiles = Shrapnel, H.E. and gas.
  • QF 13-pdr Mark I and II field gun. Calibre = 3-inch. Range = 5,900-yards. Projectiles = Shrapnel and H.E.
  • QF 15-pdr Mark I field gun (The Ehrhardt). Calibre 3-inch. Range = 6,400- yards. Projectile = Shrapnel.
  • QF 18-pdr Mark I and II field gun. Calibre = 3.3-inch. Range = 6,535-yards. Projectile = Shrapnel, H.E., smoke, incendiary and gas
  • QF 18-pdr Mark IV field gun. Calibre = 3.3-inch. Range = 9,300-yards. Projectiles = Shrapnel, H.E. and smoke.
  • QF 4.5-inch Mark I field howitzer. Range = 7,300-yards. Projectiles = Shrapnel, H.E., smoke, incendiary, gas and star-shell.
  • BL 2.75-in Mark I mountain gun. Range = 5,600 - 5,800-yards. Projectiles = Shrapnel and H.E.
  • BL 60-pdr Mark I field gun. Calibre = 5-inch. Range = 10,300 -12,300- yards. Projectiles = Shrapnel, H.E., smoke and gas.
  • BL-C 15-pdr Mark I and II field gun. Calibre = 3-inch. Range = 5,750-yards. Projectile = Shrapnel.

Effectively, in 1914, neither the British nor the French had any of the specialised weapons which became known as trench mortars, whilst the Germans, with their usual foresight - and after intensive ‘post-mortem' study of the Russo-Japanese War - had developed a whole range of ‘mine launchers' (Minenwerfer) as close quarter support for the infantry. These projectiles ranged from the huge 42cm (17 inch) Morser to the highly portable 7.58cm (3-inch) model.

Bitter battlefield experience quickly taught the BEF that it urgently required versions of these weapons for trench warfare. But it wasn't until mid-1915 that a tried and tested weapon emerged. It was designated as the 2-inch Bomb H E Trench Mortar - or ‘Toffee Apple'- in recognition of its globular bomb mounted on a steel tube.

Artillery shells
The classic field artillery shell of the Great War was completely self-contained in that the projectile and the propellant were sealed (fixed) into a single unit as is the standard rifle or machine gun bullet. The short-barrelled howitzer and mortar type artillery pieces were usually said to project shells, although mortar ‘bombs' were often referred to. However, both howitzer and mortars were fired with their barrels inclined at an angle of 45% or more (the artillery gun had a maximum elevation of 35%) that had quite different ballistic characteristics from the standard artillery shell. Indeed, some mortar bombs had fins to provide stability in flight.

Shrapnel shells: When the BEF first went to France in 1914, the shrapnel shell was by far the most frequently projectile that was deployed: both the 18- and 13-pounder (pdr) field guns (3.3-inch and 3-inch respectively) fired shrapnel shells exclusively.

The shrapnel shell was an empty metal casing (known as a carrier shell) filled with spherical lead/antimony balls (0.5-inch, or more, in diameter), and an explosive burster charge. At the designated distance and height above the target, this charge exploded expelling the shrapnel balls forwards and downwards in a 100-yard cone, rather like that of a shot-gun blast.

The shrapnel shell of the British 18-pdr artillery gun contained 375 shrapnel balls and the 13-pdr had 236. It was activated by a percussion-time fuse (usually a No 80) located in the nose of the shrapnel shell, and pre-set before firing by one of the gunners according to the ballistic criteria established by the field artillery commander.

The shrapnel shell was patently an anti-personnel weapon, and the British Brodie steel helmet, introduced on the Western Front in 1916, was expressly designed to protect the head, face and neck from the equivalent projectiles of the enemy. The efficacy of the shrapnel was dependent on the proximity of the ground- or aerial-burst to the intended target. Ground bursts were particularly effective when the shrapnel caught its victims at close range in open country.

However, the shrapnel shell was also extensively used against specific other targets - particularly barbed-wire concentrations - with highly variable and unpredictable results that caused frequent operational set-backs to the advancing infantry. Notoriously so on the first day of the British Somme offensive on 1 July 1916, when the failure of shrapnel to break up the dense and extensive concentrations of the German barbed-wire defences caused considerable casualties among the advancing British infantry. (Other uses of carrier shells will be dealt with later).

High explosive (HE) shells: High explosive shells with impact fuses had several operational purposes on the Western Front. For example, they could: seriously damage, or even obliterate trench works and dugouts, often killing or burying alive their occupants; destroy civilian residential and commercial buildings preventing their use as strong-points, areas of troop concentration and defence nuclei; break-up concentrations of barbed wire or fortified purpose-made strong-points (particularly the 18-pdr); eliminate huge numbers of the draft animals involved in all kinds of military activity including transportation of weapons, munitions and the essential commodities required for the prosecution of the war-effort.

Specialised heavy artillery - notably the heavier howitzers - was also successful in the destruction of formerly impregnable garrison fortresses, such as those at Liège and Namur, Belgium (co-incidentally aided by the use of inferior concrete in the pre-1914 Belgian fortress renovation work).

But, perhaps most importantly, the HE shells were highly effective against the troops themselves on the battle-field. Apart from the highly destructive effect of the blast of the HE itself, which could itself maim or completely disintegrate the human body, the sturdy metal casing of the HE shell would be reduced to fragments (frequently called shrapnel, but more correctly described as ‘splinters'). These ragged metal splinters were hurled by the gas produced by the explosion of the HE at tremendous velocities - typically several thousand miles an hour - to a considerable distance from the point of the explosion. They caused all manner of frightful injuries, even total dismemberment of humans and military animals alike which, along with the trauma of the explosion itself, were the cause of much of the psychological distress suffered by so many soldiers on active service on the Western Front. Indeed, ‘shell shock' was initially described as ‘shell concussion' since the condition was thought to be brought on by close proximity to a shell explosion - ie a ‘near miss'. Add to this the trauma of being buried alive, or plastered from head-to-toe by the pulverised remains of one's former comrades, and the shock reaction is not difficult to understand.

Initially, the HE larger calibre shells supplied to the BEF contained a relatively old (Boer War era) explosive compound called lyddite (picric acid) and cordite (a mixture of nitro-cellulose, nitro-glycerine and a mineral jelly - Vaseline) as the propellant.

But, by the Battle of the First Ypres in October 1915, virtually all new British HE shells contained ammonal (a mixture of: ammonium nitrate [59%]; aluminium powder [21%]; TNT [18%] and charcoal [2%], and cordite, combined with a nose mounted fuse No 100. This fuse could be calibrated to explode on contact, or after a brief delay. However, to allow these shells to penetrate a target more readily, some HE shells were provided with a hardened nose-cone and the fuse relocated at the base of the shell. Modifications were also made so that other HE shells could more reliably and effectively penetrate barbed-wire concentrations before exploding and so destroy them more effectively.

An even more efficacious fuse, the No 106 contact fuse (even better at destroying barbed wire and humans alike), was introduced in 1916 and became widely used on the Western Front from 1917 onwards.

Problems with ammunition and munitions
The numbers of shells of all kinds available to the BEF in 1914-15 were strictly limited. When the Great War began in 1914 the total stocks of shells available to the BEF from all the various storage sites only numbered about 1,000 per gun. By 15 February 1915, the BEF had fired a million shells and the individual stocks of many guns and howitzers were down to single figures. The problem was that the UK's munitions manufacturing base for the army (the navy was another story) was surprisingly small, and putative alternative foreign sources had only limited current production.

However, from these very limited beginnings, an amazing transformation of the British Empire and foreign munitions industry took place, much stimulated by the notorious Shell (shortage) Scandal. This started in late 1914 when the British artillery on the Western suffered from strict rationing for several months and a persistently high (30%) Dud Shell problem. Powerful press interests dramatized the situation and it became a febrile political issue. The appointment of Lloyd George to the post of Munitions Minister in May 1915 created a new era of governmental control of the munitions industry, and these production problems were largely resolved by the end of 1916, when domestic shell production attained 50,000 with further increased output from Empire and foreign sources. By the Armistice in 1918, the artillery arsenal of the BEF on the Western Front exceeded 10,000 artillery pieces along with six million shells of all calibres

Other uses of ‘canister' shells: From the outset of the Great War, canister shells were widely used on the Western Front to project illumination, smoke, and incendiary material onto targets across the battlefield. Starting from 1915, poisonous gas shells were increasingly used on the Western Front. Initially, the Germans intended them as a replacement for H.E.shells and as a more efficient way of delivering gas than the weather sensitive gas cylinder system. The Germans introduced coded gas shells to deliver large volumes of several toxic gases with mustard gas taking a dominating role as the war progressed. Whole areas of the battle zone became literally drenched in this gas during 1917/18, making it virtually inhabitable without sophisticated protective clothing and gas-masks.

The British only retaliated with mustard gas shelling in September 1918, although they had previously used captured German mustard shells.

Howitzer shells and mortar bombs: Projectiles for these two forms of ordnance were quite different from the classic self-contained artillery shell. The object was to hurl a projectile containing shrapnel, high explosive or gas, at a high trajectory so it would clear any intervening obstacle and vertically penetrate the trench works of the enemy. The shells varied greatly in weight and calibre; particularly so with the howitzer which was also twice as efficient in terms of pay load - weight for weight - than the average field gun, albeit that the mortar had a shorter range.

British howitzers generally used on the Western Front ranged from to 5.4-inch (35-lbs) to12-inch (750-lbs) and were used with a propellant bag(s) that was separate from the shell. But, as in most matters concerning the British Army, there was a non-standard exception - a truly gigantic siege howitzer (94-tons when installed on-site) that had a limited production run (12) before production ended. Originally, this was an up-scaled version of the 9.2-inch Siege Howitzer and especially designed for the Royal Navy. Ten pieces of this 15-incher (soubriquet, Granny) were offered to the BEF in 1916. Manned initially by Royal Navy personnel, it took part in the larger set-battles of Loos, the Somme and Paschendaele, as well as some of the battles of the Final Hundred Days Campaign. Over 25,000 of its 800-pdr shells were fired in action on the Western Front, but for many of the artillerymen involved, its sheer mass and vulnerability to counter-fire, made it somewhat of a mixed blessing.

The mortar was a much simpler device than the howitzer. It fired mainly self- contained shells, or bombs. It was also generally portable, ranging in size from 2-inch to 12-inch-inch; notably, the 3- and 4-inch Stokes could be routinely fired from within the trench itself. Its relatively light construction, limited range and low propellant pressure made it possible to have a ratio of charge to weight of the mortar bomb three, or more, times greater than the self-contained (‘fixed') shell of the same calibre.

All British mortars used on the Western Front were smooth-bored as opposed to the Germans' which were mostly rifled and, therefore, somewhat more accurate.

Deployment of artillery guns on the Western Front

Direct fire: Long before the Great War, and as a result of field experience in the Boer War, British artillerymen had seriously queried the utility of the deployment of the field guns to provide ‘direct-fire' at the enemy, ie the gunners, could literally see each across the battlefield. Increasingly, it was proposed that ‘indirect fire' was both practical and less dangerous to the guns and their gunners.

In ‘indirect fire' gunners would be out of sight of the enemy guns and based on artillery observers reports, skilful map plotting, trigonometry and visual aids, such as aiming posts and dial sights, the guns would be aligned to fire onto their out of sight targets. But attitudes amongst many British senior gunnery officers were hard to change, despite the terrible casualties suffered by the gunner teams in these forward positions (Colenso, in the Boer War being an oft-quoted example of the hazards of riflemen and machine gunners to direct-fire gunners). Indeed, it has been opined that an artilleryman from the Napoleonic wars in the Nineteen Century, would have been quite at home in the earlier years of the Great War, when he saw how the guns were generally deployed as firing ‘over-the-sights' or ‘direct fire', ie the opposing guns were placed well forward in sight of each other.

Many of the BEF's guns were fitted with a steel shield to protect the gunners from rifle- and machine gun-fire - as well as projectiles from the odd exploding shell - when using direct-fire. One report states that such was the pounding that these gun-shields were often exposed to by counter-fire from enemy rifles and machine-guns in the direct-fire situation that whole swathes of the coating of paint on the gun-shields was blasted away to lay bare the shining metal beneath.

Indirect fire: Eventually, it became obvious to even the most conservative and obdurate of the BEF gunnery commanders that in modern industrialised warfare direct-fire was no longer a feasible concept of gunnery.

This shift in attitude was considerably assisted by the incredible flow of military invention that took place during the Great War when changes in almost every field of military endeavour rapidly occurred.

With the use of more accurate ordnance survey maps, trigonometry and various aids such as gun-barrel flash detection, sound ranging, aerial radio and photo-reconnaissance, spotting from observation balloons, regular calibration of the guns, and the almost indispensable artillery observers on the ground, it was found possible to withdraw the British guns to a position under cover but out of sight of the enemy - on the other side of the hill, as it were. From this safer location it was possible to plot the target onto a grid map with considerable precision. The map co-ordinates of the target were read off and the battery/brigade guns registered onto the target. The guns would then remain silent. At the designated time the guns would be fired at the unsuspecting target - ie no pre-registration rounds of artillery fire would be required.

All these new techniques also facilitated the routine activity of counter-battery fire whereby the artillery of the BEF consistently attempted to neutralise the opposing batteries of guns of the enemy. In 1916, the new technology of gun muzzle flash-spotting, range-spotting, improved aerial-photoreconnaissance, advanced survey techniques and map-making on a huge scale by the British Field Survey Companies and the Map Production units, brought even more precision to British efforts and gained for the BEF a marked superiority over the Germans in this field in the later years of the war on the Western Front.

Another beneficiary of this improved technology was the development in the efficacy of the ‘creeping barrage' from 1916 onwards that largely eliminated the need for the notorious ‘curtain' or ‘barrier' bombardments' that caused so many ‘friendly casualties' to the infantry of the BEF.

New technology in mortars
Prominent inventions in the munitions field were the development of mortar and canister projector designs by the British designers Stokes and Livens. These put the use of high explosive and gas shells directly into the hands of the infantry at the battalion level and greatly facilitated their ability to hit back at the enemy in their own backyard.

Stokes mortars: From the outset of the war the Germans extensively used the former mortar-like siege weapons, finding that the high trajectory shells particularly useful when the war on the Western Front turned into the static war of the trenches. In 1915, British-made trench mortars - a 2 inch (toffee-apple), a 3.5 inch (two models, rifled and smooth bore) and a 4 inch - were supplied to the Western Front to compete with the Germans. But, at best, their success in action was mixed. With the need for reliable trench mortars for the BEF becoming increasingly evident and urgent, a whole range of both weird and wonderful candidate models had been submitted to testing without a really successful and practicable trench mortar being found.

Meanwhile, from simple beginnings in late1914, Fredrick Wilfred Stokes, the director of an English engineering company, manufacturing cranes for industry, developed an interest in the very weapon that the Germans had but the British did not at that time: the trench mortar.

To cut a very long story short, Stokes - without much encouragement from the British military, and using mainly his own money - developed a relatively simple and readily portable (36-lb), 3 inch trench mortar (Mr Stokes' Drain-pipe). It was successfully field-tested on the Western Front in early 1915 and, after a few minor modifications, went into production later that year and was in use on the Western Front by Spring 1916. It was predominately used to deliver HE and smoke. Field use encouraged further design improvements and a 4 inch model was also deployed exclusively for gas, smoke and incendiaries. Eventually, over 12,000 pieces of these two mortars were produced for the Great War. In 1917, a Newton-Stokes 6 inch derivation was also introduced and an even larger 9.45 inch in due course. The three earlier Stokes' type models of trench mortar were used as standard throughout the remainder of the Great War, but problems with the Newton-Stokes 9.45 inch remained persistent. .
Livens projector: Another important inventor in the field artillery category was Captain William Howard Livens: a serving British Army Officer. After a rather unsuccessful exercise in 1915 to develop flame-throwers for the Western Front, he put his inventing skills to the test in 1916 in developing a device to deliver poisonous gas. He came up with a mortar-like weapon which came to be called a Livens Projector. This electrically fired, tube-like, mortar, which was partially buried in the ground at an appropriate angle immediately behind the British lines, successfully delivered large numbers of canisters of poisonous gas to the German trenches more efficiently than the steel gas-cylinder technique. Although the individual projector was not very accurate, its comparatively low cost meant that literally hundreds of them could be concentrated to deliver huge amounts of gas over a limited area. Around 140,000 Livens Projectors were produced and it was widely used on the Western Front for the remainder of the Great War.

The complexity of the logistics, ballistics and organisation required to take the BEF Field (and Siege) Artillery to war on the Western Front can only be implied in an article of limited scope such as this. Even so, the ability of the largely volunteer and conscript troops of the BEF to master the necessary skills of the artillery at war is self-evident. Indeed, such was the extent of their mastery of these complex skills that by mid-1918 it became possible for the BEF to out-gun and outwit the patently more professional German Army artilleryman. And, so doing, become a major factor in winning the war on the Western Front.

Further reading

  • British Artillery 1914-1918: Field Artillery. Dale Clarke. (2004). Osprey Publishing, £9.99. Lavishly illustrated (some in colour), volume of 48 pages in the classic Osprey style.
  • The Guns 1914-1918: WW1 Artillery. Ian V. Hogg. (1971). Ballantine Books Inc. (Currently out of print, used copies available at AbeBooks.co.uk from £12.00). It contains many contemporary monochrome photographs and some line illustrations, but strangely no maps or index).
  • Artillery in the Great War: Paul Strong and Sanders Marble. (2011). Pen and Sword Books. £19.99. (Extensive supporting notes, 8 useful maps and 22 monochrome contemporary photographs and illustrations).



Article contributed by Dr David Payne, WFA South Wales

Images courtesy Wikipedia




Last Updated ( Sunday, 29 July 2012 21:21 )  

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