History / Warfare

The July Crisis: Modern Guns and Explosives

In my previous posting, I asked why defensive warfare became dominant during the First World War. It might be advisable for me to explain my answer:

Answer: the weaponry. I’ve made the argument “war is a political decision made for military reasons.” When combatants don’t understand their weapons to the degree that opposing soldiers were confused in 1914, horrific wars that seem devoid of meaning occur.

My answer was not flippant. The British and French militaries considered the machine gun worthless prior to 1914:

Hiram Maxim, who designed the machine gun which bore his name in 1884, first offered use of the machine to Britain.  Although rapid-firing weapons, such as the 0.50-inch calibre Gatling Gun (invented in 1862), existed many years prior to Maxim’s invention, all required some form of manual intervention, e.g. hand cranking.

Unfortunately for Maxim the British army high command could see no real use for the oil-cooled machine gun he demonstrated to them in 1885; other officers even regarded the weapon as an improper form of warfare.

Not so the German army which quickly produced a version of Maxim’s invention (the Maschinengewehr 08) in large quantities at a Spandau arsenal; by the time war broke out in August 1914 the Germans had 12,000 at their disposal, a number which eventually ballooned to 100,000.

In contrast the British and French had access to a mere few hundred equivalents when war began.

Needless to say, rejecting the machine gun was a poor policy choice:

When established in fixed strong-points sited specifically to cover potential enemy attack routes, the machine gun proved a fearsome defensive weapon.  Enemy infantry assaults upon such positions invariably proved highly costly.

The French in particular found to their cost that the technology of defensive warfare was more advanced than that of offensive warfare.  The French pre-war military blueprint, Plan XVII, was founded upon a fundamental assumption of an ‘offensive spirit’, one which envisaged a rapid war of movement.

These People Rejected the Machine Gun???

Sun Tzu’s famous quotation “invincibility lies in the defense; the possibility of victory in the attack” is commonly shortened to conflating victory with attack (American football is fond of stating “the best defense is a good offense“). The Art of War warns at length that there are many circumstances when not to attack, but the prewar French Army lived and breathed élan vital, an imbuement of “offensive spirit” that reflected in their disastrous Plan XVII. The odd Entente prewar rejection of the machine gun extended to other weapons:

Grenade Supplies in 1914

Regarded as practical for siege operations only since Napoleonic times however, the grenade came to the attention of German army planners (notable among others) during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.

As with most things at the start of the war in August 1914, the Germans were ahead of the pack in terms of grenade development.  Even as war began the Germans had 70,000 hand grenades in readiness, along with a further 106,000 rifle grenades.

Curiously, when many, perhaps most, people are asked to consider the means of trench attack most popular during the First World War, the rifle or bayonet is often suggested as the most likely answer.

Bombing Parties

In fact both of these weapons were to be used chiefly to defend the grenadiers: those men tasked with the bombing of trenches and positions using grenades of various types.  Bombing parties grew in number and frequency as the war progressed and formed a major component of any infantry attack by the war’s close (although US forces used them less, chiefly on account of supply shortages).

The British bombing team usually consisted of nine men at a time: an NCO, two throwers, two carriers, two bayonet-men to defend the team and two ‘spare’ men for use when casualties were incurred.

As an attack or raid reached an enemy trench the grenadiers would be responsible for racing down the trench and throwing grenades into each dugout they passed: this invariably succeeded in purging dugouts of their human occupants in an attempt at surrender (often not accepted as they were promptly shot or stabbed).

Not that this was always the case during the war.  When Britain entered the war on 4 August it did so with just one type of grenade in its armoury (suitably named ‘Mark 1’), and not very many of those.  As with the machine gun the British high command could not see much use for the hand grenade.

Even stranger, the Entente initially rejected a powerful weapon that is a cross between grenades and artillery:

A mortar is essentially a short, stumpy tube designed to fire a projectile at a steep angle (by definition higher than 45 degrees) so that it falls straight down on the enemy.

From this simple description it will be immediately apparent that the mortar was ideally suited for trench warfare, hence the common application of the ‘trench’ prefix.

Its Advantages Over Artillery

The chief advantage of the mortar was that it could be fired from the (relative) safety of the trench, avoiding exposure of the mortar crews to the enemy.  Furthermore, it was notably lighter and more mobile than other, larger artillery pieces.  And, of course, the very fact that the mortar bomb fell almost straight down meant that it would (with luck) land smack in the enemy trench.

Just as the mortar was another example of an ancient weapon given fresh reign, so too it was predictable that the German army, so better prepared for war than any of its counterparts in 1914, should have spotted the enormous potential of the mortar some years ahead of the Great War.

The State of Mortar Readiness in 1914

Indeed, German military observers of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 not only came away with a new respect for hand grenades, but with fresh ideas for the use of the mortar bomb they had seen deployed.

In fairness to the Allied powers the Germans had a specific use for the mortar when they began to stockpile it in the immediate pre-war years.  In short, they envisaged its use against France’s eastern fortresses.  Consequently by the time war arrived in August 1914 the Germans had some 150 mortars available.

And what of the French themselves?  The re-birth of the mortar caught the French army entirely by surprise, as it did the British.  At least the French could scramble to put into use ancient century-old Napoleonic mortars (referred to by the British as Toby mortars in honour of the British officer who had been struck with the idea of securing such old stockpiles of the weapon from the French).

The British however were entirely without supplies of the mortar, it having not been used at all during the South African War of 1899-1902.  Even once its merits had been demonstrated by the Germans there were elements within the British high command who argued that it was without much worth.  It took David Lloyd George (Prime Minister from late 1915) to push through manufacture of the weapon for it to be taken seriously.

One would hope the effectiveness of enemy mortars killing BEF soldiers would be enough to convince the British to take the weapon seriously, but I digress. The German superiority in August 1914 also extended to artillery:

In the first days of World War I, Germany unveiled a secret weapon—the mobile 42cm (16.5 inch) M-Gerāt howitzer. At the outbreak of the war, two prototype guns were rushed from the factory where they were still undergoing pre-production modifications to the Belgian fortress of Liège. There, they handily demolished two of the forts; one of which—Loncin—blew up in a catastrophic explosion, effectively ending the siege.

I’ll say

By 15 August 1914 German gunners were mounting a intensive barrage on Loncin – between 12 and 15 August more than 15,000 rounds rained down on the garrison.

Around 500 men were crammed into the barracks and corridors of the fortress. As their resistance continued and the bombardment increased, the place became increasingly uninhabitable.

The soldiers were short of food of water and the atmosphere in the fortress became increasingly unpleasant. Smoke from its own guns leaked down into the passageways and rooms and, combined with the stench from broken sewers, the air became increasingly difficult to breathe.

The fort’s commander, colonel Victor Naessens, wrote: ‘By the 14th August all our phone lines had been cut beyond repair under the hail of shells. In the evening, most of the soldiers abandoned their quarters and assembled in the central chamber of the fort.’

Here at least there was some ventilation and the air was easier to breathe. The troops readied themselves for an imminent attack by German infantry as acetylene lights flickered and the ground shook with the impacts of high-explosive shells.

In a break in the bombardment, Naessens dispatched an officer to inspect the damage done to the fort’s defences. He soon returned to tell his commander he had discovered an enormous, unexploded bomb in one of the ditches.

Memorial in Fort Loncin, one pair of boots represents a soldier buried there

The final moments

As Naessens may well have realised, the Germans had unleashed a weapon of which the engineers of the 19th century could not have dreamed – the Big Bertha. Known officially as the Kurze Marine-Kanone, this was a long-range artillery piece capable of firing a shell weighing 1,160kg nine and a half miles – a mile and half further than the fort’s biggest guns could shoot back. 

‘Around 5pm the bombardment became appalling,’ recalled Naessens, ‘a few minutes later I saw a huge flash and fainted.’

A shell from the Big Bertha had exploded in the fort’s powder magazine, the roof above the main chamber collapsed and a blast of searing air and flame shot along the passageways. All those sheltering in the main chamber were killed and many others were badly burned or overcome by fumes.

Only around 40 men in outlying turrets and bunkers managed to escape, while a similar number were taken prisoner.

Amongst them was the Belgian commander of all twelve Liege forts, General Gerard Leman:

Leman, who had both legs crushed during the defense of Liege, and who was finally carried from the fallen forts unconscious on a stretcher, subsequently wrote to King Albert I that he would rather have died than surrender the forts.

The shock of these siege guns shook the Entente to the core…

Shrouded in secrecy, the existence of mobile 42cm howitzers came as a shocking surprise to the Allied Armies. After Liege fell, wild rumors circulated about the guns, and the name “Big Bertha” was commonly used to refer to any large-calibre German artillery piece. Misinformation flourished and the mythology of “Big Bertha” grew, spawning several falsehoods that live on to this day in English-language histories of the war.

…and lulled the Germans into a sense of superiority that would soon be cut down by the murderous fire from French 75mm artillery pieces.

Artillery is the God of War

Joseph Stalin’s quotation is quick and to the point, up there with Winston Churchill’s famous quotation “renown awaits the commander who first restores artillery to its prime importance on the battlefield” along with Napoleon Bonaparte’s “God is on the side with the best artillery.” God wasn’t on the side of Big Bertha:

Big Bertha was the 420mm (16.5-in.) howitzer used by German forces advancing through Belgium in 1914. They were nicknamed for the Krupp arms works matriarch Bertha Krupp von Bohlen. Transported in pieces, moved by rail and assembled in place, they proved devastating in destroying Belgian forts. They were somewhat less effective against French Forts of sturdier design. The howitzers were also used as siege weapons on the eastern front. By 1917, less accurate due to wear on the barrels and extremely vulnerable to counter battery fire once located, they were phased out of operation.

The 42cm howitzer wasn’t very wieldy in combat (usually weapons of such calibers are mounted on 35,000 ton battleships). In fact, rather than producing good field guns Krupp was more of a terror weapon manufacturer:

The term “Big Bertha” is sometimes applied to the Krupp manufactured artillery piece of completely different design that shelled Paris in 1918 from the phenomenal range of 75 miles. This later weapon, however, is more commonly known as the “Paris Gun”.

When it came to field artillery, the French military had not forgotten the maxims of its most renowned soldier. Given the stupidity of 1914 élan vital in the face of Maxim machine guns, the French Army surprisingly fielded far better antipersonnel cannons than their allies and enemies:


The French 75 Mdle 1897 was a 75mm field gun used by the French Army during World War I. It was the first cannon to feature a hydro-pneumatic recoil mechanism, which made it possible to keep the gun trained on the target after it has been fired. Designed by army engineers Albert Deport and Etienne Sainte-Claire Deville, the French 75mm was produced by the French government arsenals from 1897, and, by the time the Great War broke out in 1914, the French Army had thousands of them in their arsenals. The American Expeditionary Forces were also issued with the 75mm Mdle 1897. A battery of four 75mm guns was manned by a well-trained crew of 24 men commanded by 4 officers recruited among graduates of engineering schools. The contribution of the 75mm gun to the French Army was very important, especially during the First Battle of the Marne and the Battle of Verdun. During the latter engagement, over 1,000 French 75mm guns were constantly in action, night and day, on the battlefield during a period of eight months. From February 21 to September 30, 1916, almost 17 million 75mm shells had been fired on the German positions.

While the French 75 is not without its detractors, the weapon still was instrumental in halting the German advance on Paris. Without it, the Western Front might well have collapsed and the Germans have conquered France in September 1914. Instead, soldiers on both sides huddled in dugouts…

Dug-outs, usually sited close to the trench line – often within or below the trench wall – were used as a form of underground shelter and rest for both troops and officers.  Occupants of dug-outs would eat their meals, arrange meetings and often make their bed there.

Dug-outs were considered much safer than resting or lying in the open since they afforded some form of protection against not only the weather but, far more critically, from enemy shell-fire.

…to try to escape the God of War.

The Dugout Conundrum

“Invincibility lies in the defense; the possibility of victory in the attack”—for the rest of the war, both sides were bedeviled by Sun Tzu’s prescience. Though defenders felt far from invincible

Death was a constant companion to those serving in the line, even when no raid or attack was launched or defended against.  In busy sectors the constant shellfire directed by the enemy brought random death, whether their victims were lounging in a trench or lying in a dugout (many men were buried as a consequence of such large shell-bursts).

Similarly, novices were cautioned against their natural inclination to peer over the parapet of the trench into No Man’s Land.

Many men died on their first day in the trenches as a consequence of a precisely aimed sniper’s bullet.

It has been estimated that up to one third of Allied casualties on the Western Front were actually sustained in the trenches.  Aside from enemy injuries, disease wrought a heavy toll.

…then there was going over the top:

Today we use the expression ‘over the top’ to mean something that is extreme, outrageous or inappropriate. Most soldiers in the Great War must have felt the same way about orders to go ‘over the top’. For them it meant leaving the safety of their trenches and attacking the enemy.

The usual approach began with a huge artillery barrage designed to smash enemy defences and kill defending troops. This was followed by a charge across ‘no man’s land’, which might be a few kilometres or could be as little as 30 metres. Going over the top could be a devastating experience. If the artillery had done its job, the enemy’s barbed wire fences would be shredded and the defenders killed. But all too often this was not the case. German defences were extremely deep and strong. The Hindenburg line of fortifications was reinforced with concrete dugouts, which offered excellent protection from shells. Artillery bombardments, barbed wire and machine guns made it very difficult to capture ground and hold on to it.

For most troops, being in combat did not mean going over the top. It was much more common to be involved in nighttime patrols and raids on enemy trenches. The point of raids was to find out about enemy defences and take prisoners who could be interrogated. It was also to wear down the enemy by killing soldiers and to damage defences by throwing grenades and setting up mortars. However, in the big battles there would be occasions when large numbers of troops would have to go over the top.

Forgive me if I feel the National Archives is still downplaying the likelihood of being ordered Over the Top a century on…

I always said a prayer before going over the top. Six times – on six occasions on some bigger attacks and smaller attacks for some reason or other. I always used to stand when we’re all lined up with us rifles and bayonet all fixed for going over with, over with the lads. Our heart would be cursing and there would be all sorts of stuff going up in fright.

But I always used to just stand still for a minute and just say this little prayer. I’ll never forget it. ‘Dear God, I am going into grave danger. Please help me to act like a man and come back safe.’

Arthur Barraclough lived to be 106, but millions of his fellow British, Belgian and French soldiers died on those blood-soaked fields. Some of the blood is fresh:

British and German forces launched more than a billion shells and bombs at each other as they fought in vain to break the stalemate in the mud on the Western Front.

The lethal ordnance killed millions on both sides during the First World War – and it continues to do so to this day.

Nearly 100 years since the conflict ended, an estimated 300 million unexploded bombs lie buried under farmland of Northern France and Belgium. As recently as March, two construction workers in Ypres died when a shell exploded.

The Belgians call it the iron harvest, and there is a team of army bomb disposal experts permanently stationed here.

A billion shells—which are killing people 100 years after being fired–amidst an “iron harvest.” How is this possible—years of stalemate amidst such firepower? Well, consider the Somme:

The Western Front was in deadlock, with machine guns and artillery making infantry attacks costly and unsuccessful.  Not even poison gas could not force a decisive breakthrough.  Perhaps another way would be successful.  If enough artillery could be assembled, and if they could fire for long enough, the German artillery and machine guns could be largely destroyed.  Then it would be relatively simple for the infantry to move forward and occupy the German trenches.  The army commander, Rawlinson, had planned for a “bite and hold” attack on the German first line, then a consolidation with the artillery moved forward to support an attack on the second line.  Douglas Haig, the BEF commander, overruled Rawlinson and ordered a bombardment on both the German first and second lines followed by what he hoped would be a breakthrough attack.  For “The Big Push” to be decisive, cavalry was ready to exploit the expected gaps in the German defenses.  

A five day bombardment was planned.  After the attack was delayed, the bombardment was extended to a week.  Surely the German defenders would be shattered.

The bombardment was less effective than expected.  Compared to French Army practice, there were fewer and smaller guns for any given section of the front.  Many of the rounds fired were anti-personnel rounds which were of little use considering the vast majority of the Germans had taken cover in dugouts deep underground.  The largest of the British artillery was unable to penetrate enough earth to destroy these dugouts.  It was hoped that the bombardment would destroy the barbed wire in front of the German trenches.  Much of the wire was still intact.  Lower levels within the army reported their discoveries of intact wire and of hearing Germans singing inside their dugouts, but the top-down command system discouraged the upward flow of information, and the high command tried to force an optimistic view on the army.  When the bombardment lifted on the morning of July 1st, the Germans eagerly left their dugouts to return to their positions in the trenches.  Expecting the bombardment to have smashed the enemy, the attacking British infantry for the most part advanced carrying heavy packs, slowly in line in order to maintain order.

The infantry were slaughtered. Casualties would number over 1,000,000 during the four month-long battle, including over 300,000 KIA on both sides. This was despite attempting to develop weapons that would make assaulting soldiers far more lethal:

The first of these new notions was a lighter and more portable machine gun which could be carried forward more easily to support an infantry attack. Such weapons were fed from a drum or box rather than fiddly loose belts of ammo, and they dispensed with water-cooling. They still used full-power rifle cartridges, so they realistically had to be fired from a bipod; and in short bursts only so as to prevent the barrel overheating.

This innovation produced the Chauchat, so results may vary.

The second innovation was the sub-machine-gun. This was essentially a bigger pistol with a shoulder stock, holding a lot more bullets and able to fire full auto like a machine gun. The use of low-power pistol ammo means that submachineguns’ useful range is well inside a hundred metres, but they are short and handy – ideal for use inside buildings, trenches or bunkers – and they offer devastating closeup firepower. Submachineguns can also be very cheap to make.

These two new weapons – especially the submachinegun, or “machine pistol” in German usage – were used to good effect by the elite German assault units formed at the end of the war, which succeeded in breaking the Allied trench lines in a last-gasp 1918 push.

The Germans success with submachineguns, however, didn’t deal with the primary threat. Advancing infantry, especially concentrated like the BEF troops were on 1 July 1916, were easy targets for rifles and machine guns but especially artillery:

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%.

So, what was the solution?


Put artillery (the 75mm 1897 in this case) and machine guns on armored vehicles.


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