The thunder of the guns: The First World War and the development of artillery

Artillery wrench, 1915, Collections CCGW/CCGG, 2015.06.03.00002.
Artillery wrench, 1915, Collections CCGW/CCGG, 2015.06.03.00002.

By the end of 1914 it had become clear that the war had become a war of materiel; the winner would have the most guns and the most shells, with the infantry numbers to continually replace those lost in the giant artillery battles that characterised the war’s later years. At the outbreak, artillery, particularly heavy artillery was still considered to have a relatively limited role in a war of movement. Older generals, many of whom began their careers in the Victorian period, viewed even machine guns with suspicion and in some cases, downright contempt. But, by 1916, after the Battle of Loos when the BEF was crippled by shell shortages, artillery and the Royal Field Artillery were accepted parts of the Dominion armies.

Guns ranged in size from small Stokes trench mortars, that could be fired from the front line and operated by a two or three person crew to the famed “big Bertha” mortar build by the Krupp Company in 1914. The big Bertha could fire a 1000lb shell a distance of over 12km and was used to destroy the large Belgian forts at Liège and Namur in the first weeks of the war. Though these guns in many ways came to symbolise the new mechanised warfare, there were in fact less than 30 in total operational throughout the war; they were simply too large to transport effectively and required weeks to set up. Wyndham Lewis, the vorticist and writer, spent his time on the front manning a naval gun on the Belgian border, the British equivalent of the big Bertha, and writes of the nearly constant, targeted shelling that large gun crews came under to prevent them making their guns operational.

The Canadian counterpart of the RFA, the Canadian Field Artillery, played a considerable role in the latter years of the war, after 1916. The CFA, begun after Confederation in 1867, originally consisted of five batteries; by 1918, it had expanded to 65 batteries, most of which were attached to the 4 division on the Western Front, as well as several supply columns and motorised batteries. The introduction, largely in 1917, of close coordination between the infantry and the artillery, as well as scientific targeting methods, made the CFA an essential part of the Canadian victories of 1917 and 1918. Batteries provided closely timed covering barrages and efficiently targeted enemy artillery emplacements, effectively knocking out the German guns before the battle even began. This is not to say that going over the top was improved, it was still an incredibly dangerous moment in a soldier`s career, but artillery support allowed soldiers to have the confidence that there was a good chance that they would not face unopposed machine gun fire right away. A weapon of destruction, the creeping barrage also was a weapon of protection; the closer a soldier clung to its front edge, the less deadly answering fire became.

Artillery was a result of mechanised warfare; shell production became one of the most important types of war work a civilian could do and thousands of women were mobilised on both sides of the conflict to produce the shells needed to win the war. In 1914, France was producing roughly 10 000 shells a year; by the end of the war, Britain would be producing more than 10 000 shells a day; a typical attack could use hundreds of thousands of shells on its opening day alone.  Like other siege wars before it, the First World War became victory that went to the aggressor that held on the longest and by the fall of 1918, after the German army was over-extended during Operation Michael, it became clear that the Allies, with nearly unlimited shells and guns pouring in from the United States, would win the war.

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