Friday, 24 January 2014

Ask a stupid question....(1)

Artillery in France 1914 

I have a long standing interest in the First World War and recently read a new book by Ian Senior “Home Before the Leaves Fall” (Osprey 2012). I found this a very well written and informative book that describes in a good level of detail the military events of 1914. Of particular interest is how the author describes the actions of the BEF in the context of the joint operations with the French. Whilst the BEF was not unimportant, it was a pretty minor cog in a big French machine and one which was not perhaps as reliable or useful as we might like to think. 
"75"s at the Marne
The stupid question arising from this book is about the relative weight and effectiveness of French, German and British artillery support. What caught my eye was that a standard French infantry division had only three groups of artillery each of 3 batteries of four guns i.e. 36 guns in total. Even though these are the renowned “75”s, this looked a little thin compared to equivalent German and British organisations which are both twice as big. The question therefore is, did the German army have a significant artillery advantage in 1914 over their most important opponent on the western front? 

There isn’t a short answer and a long answer is actually difficult to find. However, in researching this question I have found some really interesting material. I have recorded this and my thoughts on the matter in the attached PDF.

It has taken me over a year to reach some conclusions, the main problem being the lack of a consistent set of data covering organisations, OOBs and weapons characteristics. So it has been a frustrating journey. Nevertheless I have reached a conclusion. The evidence may not be to criminal standard but, for me, it allows a decision on the basis of balance of probability. 

So, returning to the original question therefore, did the German army have a significant artillery advantage in 1914 over their most important opponent on the western front? The simple answer is no. 
Brilliant shot of US troops using a "75" at full pelt
French forces could generate significant firepower. Divisional commanders and corps commanders could take on their equivalent German foes without major disadvantage. The key area of French disadvantage was their over reliance on one weapon type allowing neither tactical flexibility in the use of howitzers or the ability to destroy hard targets using higher calibre weapons. These problems would become more pronounced as soon as the fighting became more static and entrenchments came into play along the front. 

British forces could also compete equally with the Germans in terms of artillery support. The Germans, however, did have the full range of weapons available giving them tactical flexibility and also the tools to deal with heavy fortifications. 

Note: Having encountered some technical problems with my original post I have revisited this and upgraded the main document to PDF status. This should work OK but takes time to load. Let me know if it doesn't work.