The First World War has often been described as an ‘Artillery War’. Particularly after the war on the western front descended into stalemate, all belligerents turned to heavier and heavier guns to try and break down their opponents.
The British Army in particular started the war in 1914 with its artillery configured for imperial policing – small, mobile guns that could follow behind infantry or cavalry easily. The French, with their offensive spirit, held to a similar approach. But by the end of the war, all sides were fielding huge cannons, some of which could only be moved by Railway.
Major attacks on the Somme and at Passchendale were heralded by huge artillery barrages, some of which, it was said, could be heard from London.The barrage before the Somme lasted for days. But was this massive firepower worth the loss of the element of surprise? It probably didnt take much for the German defenders to work out that a weeks artillery barrage would lead to a major offensive. In any case, the artillery rarely achieved what was hoped – to cut barbed wire and destroy enemy fortifications. In too many instances neither was achieved.
Not only did technology change, but theory too. At Le Cateau in 1914, British gunners were firing over open sights, much as their ancestors had done at Waterloo a hundred years earlier. Once trench warfare ensued, indirect fire became the norm, with more complex fire plans. A certain Major Alan Brooke is credited with creating the creeping barrage. The question of control was also raised. Should artillery barrages be controlled at Army, Corps or Division level? And at what level should artillery be commanded? This issue was all the more acute, considering that many General officers lacked the aptitude to use artillery to its potential.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of the use of artillery between 1914 and 1918 is the impact that it had on its use in the Second World War. At Alamein, and in Normandy, Montgomery prepared for every major set piece battle with a detailed, preliminary barrage. Between 1939 and 1945 the Royal Artillery was seen as perhaps the most crucial corps in the British Army, in breaking up attacks and wearing down the enemy. This use of firepower was all the more important, with Britain suffering acute manpower shortages, and fielding inferor small arms and tanks.