Tommy, p.46Richard Holmes
A young gunner Subaltern was on his way up to observe a machine-gun position. Just as he got outside my door a shrapnel shell burst full in front of him. The poor fellow was brought in to me absolutely riddled. He lay in my arms until he died, shrieking in his agony and said he hoped I would excuse him for making such a noise as he really could not help it. Pitiful as nothing could be done for him except an injection of morphia. I will always remember that incident, particularly as he was such a fine looking boy, not more than nineteen.69
Higher-bursting shrapnel was more capricious. The Reverend Julian Bickersteth heard that his brother Ralph, a lieutenant in the Leeds Pals, had:
looked round to see if there was any support from the trenches behind and at that moment a shrapnel bullet struck him in the back of the head; a second later another bullet passed through his head, coming out through his forehead. He just rolled over without a word or a sound, and Bateman was able to see that he was quite dead, killed instantly.70
Very high-bursting shrapnel caused experienced soldiers little concern. In 1914 Arthur Osburn encountered some which was ‘prompt and accurate enough, but bursting much too high; the bullets rattling off our boots harmlessly’.71 Once the steel helmet was in service, the approved defence against high shrapnel was to tilt one’s head in the direction of the burst. But here too caprice spun its dice. Lieutenant Julian Tyndale-Biscoe, regarding a 60-foot burst as little more than punctuation to his conversation, found that it mortally wounded an officer and the battery clerk: ‘They both died within a minute – very sad – they had only one bullet each.’ Gerald Burgoyne recalled an incident where the medical officer of a Wiltshire battalion was bending down dressing a wound in a crowded aid post: ‘a piece [of shrapnel] entering the room, killed the doctor at once. The room was crowded at the time, but he was the only person hit.’72
High explosive, initially known as Lyddite after its filling, developed at the south-coast artillery ranges at Lydd in Kent, was available to British heavy guns and howitzer batteries in August 1914, but not to 13-pounders and 18-pounders. However, the abundant evidence that it was required for field guns too saw the first new high-explosive shells arrive during First Ypres. These consisted of a steel body filled with explosive, increasingly ammonal. Most were fitted with a fuse on the nosecap, which could be adjusted to give an instantaneous burst or a brief delay. However, in order to obtain the longer delay required to penetrate overhead cover, some heavy high-explosive shells were fused at their base and had hardened steel nosecaps, technology borrowed from naval warfare. They would go through the roofs of some dugouts to burst inside them, but very deep German dugouts were always too much for them.
A more serious problem was producing fuses that burst on the slightest touch, either against wire or the surface of the ground. This was not a simple matter, for such a fuse had to be stable enough to accelerate swiftly when the shell was fired, perhaps brush a camouflage net or branch near the gun muzzle, and then burst at the instant when it reached its target. The British ‘No. 100 Fuse’ was safe enough but, because it had an infinitesimal delay, made only a slight crater, and in wet ground might lose much of its effect. The No. 106 fuse was introduced in 1916 and was available in large numbers in 1917. It made no crater, but expended all its explosive force by bursting flat: it was not only more effective for wire-cutting than even the best low shrapnel, it was also shockingly lethal against troops. The Germans developed a similar fuse at much the same time. ‘The Germans have a new extraordinarily sensitive contact fuse,’ wrote James Dunn in June 1917. ‘A shell makes scarcely any shell hole, so the horizontal burst is not lost; a fair-sized splinter, which hit a man beside me below the knee, had carried the better part of 200 yards with a nearly flat trajectory.’73
High-explosive shells sometimes killed by blast alone: a direct hit might disintegrate a body altogether, showering those nearby with a dreadful rain of flesh, blood and stomach contents. Ernest Shephard saw how ‘Pte Tibbie (a nice sociable man) was blown to pieces,’ and later ‘Pte Adams 8080 (a quiet, nice lad) and Cpl Hodges (a good chum) were blown to pieces.’74 But blast could equally well kill by sucking the oxygen from a man’s lungs and leaving his body intact. ‘One 4.2 [inch] that burst among 3 men sitting in a shell hole killed them with no more visible mark than some singeing of their clothing,’ recalled Captain Dunn.75 Or men might be literally blown up, flung, whole or in fragments, for a considerable distance. When Ernest Shephard’s company was hit by heavy howitzers in July 1915 the effects were appalling.
We found two machine gunners belonging to our company who had been blown from the trench over the railway bank into a deep pool of water, a distance of 70 yards. One man, Pte Woods, was found in 8 pieces, while others were ghastly sights, stomachs blown open, some headless, limbs off, etc. Up to the present we have found 17 and buried them.76
A subaltern of 7/Royal Innisikilling Fusiliers, attacking Ginchy in August 1916, saw how a shell:
landed in the midst of a bunch of men about seventy yards away on my right. I have a most vivid recollection of seeing a most tremendous burst of clay and earth go shooting up in the air – yes, even parts of human bodies – and then when the smoke cleared there was nothing left. I shall never forget that horrifying spectacle as long as I live, but I remember it as a sight only, for I can associate no sound with it.77
James Dunn saw a shell fall just ahead of him near Polygon Wood in September 1917:
two men suddenly rose into the air vertically, 15 feet perhaps, amid a spurt of soil about 150 yards ahead. They rose and fell with the easy, graceful poise of acrobats. A rifle, revolving slowly, rose high above them before, still revolving, it fell. The sight recalled, even in those surroundings, a memory of boyhood: a turn that thrilled me in the travelling circus at St Andrews.78
Small shell fragments inflicted wounds of almost surgical precision. An Irish medical officer fainted when the wounded man on his stretcher had his face sliced neatly off and hurled, like a rubber mask, against the side of the trench. C. P. Blacker saw a similar sort of wound, when a man had his face removed, ‘the soft parts being detached from the front of his skull from a blow upwards … The image of this groping sightless figure, kneeling and pawing the air, has often come back to me since.’79 Larger fragments behaved like the axe or bludgeon of a medieval executioner, lopping off limbs or cutting men in half. The cumulative effect of death by shellfire was all too well remembered by Harry Ogle:
Entangled in or sprawling across the barbed wire, slumped over the remains of trench parapets, or half buried in the ruined trenches, were corpses, both grey-green and khaki-clad; and overall lay a covering of chalk dust and flies which never had time to settle before being raised by the next explosion. Amongst the wreckage crept wreaths and coils of smoke which hardly vanished before another shell obstructed the scene and added worse confusion. The days were hot and windless. The dead remained where they had fallen and suffered alternate burial and disinterment by shellfire … In many places were mounds which indicated corpses with here and there an exposed head or knee. Across the parapet and parados were bodies either lying where they had fallen or slung there out of the way. I never had a strong stomach and smoked Digger Mixture in a corn cob until my mouth felt like pickled leather.80
It would have required great prescience to have predicted, before the war, that artillery would wield such destructive power. Guns increased in number and in calibre, and the quantity of ammunition at their disposal grew beyond all measure. In August 1914 British field guns had just 1,000 rounds per gun available in limbers and ammunition wagons at the front line, ammunition parks in the lines of communication and depots at the base. In June 1916 each 18-pounder actually had 1,000 rounds ready on its gun position, and in the summer of 1917 expenditure of 18-pounder ammunition (one type among many) regularly exceeded a million rounds a week. A single 6-inch howitzer, which arrived at the front in June 1917, had fired 20,789 rounds by the armistice, fifty-six times the rounds per gun available
Doctrine evolved as the weight of metal grew. Field Service Regulations 1909, which remained the army’s capstone doctrine pamphlet throughout the war, had always emphasised that the gaining of superiority of fire was essential for a successful attack, and that ‘the greater the difficulties of the infantry, the more fully should the fire power of the artillery be developed’.82 Direct fire was still favoured, the guns simply furnished support in the way that rifle or machine gun fire might have done, albeit on a heavier scale. During the first two years of the war there was (with exceptions like Neuve Chapelle, when shortage of ammunition did not permit a lengthy bombardment) a general belief that artillery should strive to destroy both enemy trenches and gun positions, by elaborate preliminary bombardment if necessary. It became apparent, however, that even the heaviest bombardment could not inflict total physical destruction. From the Somme onwards doctrine changed, with an increasing emphasis on fire which sought to neutralise – that is, to make the enemy incapable of offering resistance for a specified time – rather than to wholly destroy him. Artillery would fire a preparatory bombardment, cutting wire, neutralising hostile gun positions, and rendering the defending infantry incapable of manning their positions then the attacking infantry (itself, as we have just seen, becoming increasingly flexible) would exploit, with a creeping barrage moving in front of it.
The quicker the bombardment arrived, the better it worked. Indeed, one of the reasons why the bombardment at Neuve Chapelle had worked so well was the rapidity of its delivery. A later study suggested that a 90 percent erosion of the enemy’s will to fight could be produced by six hours of bombardment with 0.1lb of shell yard of front, or six minutes with 1lb of shell per yard. From mid-1916 there was increasing emphasis on rapid bombardment, both retaining tactical surprise and ensuring that the defenders were subjected to a pounding whose weight and suddenness broke their will even if it left their bodies intact. German artillery doctrine moved in exactly the same direction, attaining its apotheosis in the spring offensive of 1918. Small wonder that when the German bombardment began on 21 March, Lieutenant William Carr of 377th Battery RFA was simply stunned:
Think of the loudest clap of thunder you have ever heard, then imagine what it would be like if it continued without stopping. That was the noise which woke us at 4.40 am on Thursday, 21 March. I have never before or since heard anything like it.83
At precisely the same time Lieutenant Arthur Behrend, asleep well behind the front, in a dugout in the headquarters of a heavy artillery brigade,
awoke with a tremendous start, conscious of noise, incessant and almost musical, so intense that it seemed as if a hundred devils were hammering in my brain. Everything seemed to be vibrating – the ground, my dugout, my bed …
I do not know how long I remained in bed – it must have been nearly five minutes. I was trembling with excitement – or was it fear? – and I felt powerless to move. Besides, what was the use? There was nothing to do, and one might as well be killed decently in bed instead of half naked while struggling into one’s shirt.84
From mid-1916 British artillery was capable of delivering fire which had exactly this sort of effect, and it became increasingly able to do so in the next two years as techniques improved and the quantities of guns and ammunition grew.
Even by 1916 it was commonplace for German prisoners, enduring, when in British hands, the fire of their own artillery, to observe that it did not begin to equal the savagery of a British bombardment. Captain Rudolf Binding, a German staff officer, saw that British bombardments drove men, quite literally, to drink: ‘They have a craving for brandy which can hardly be satisfied, and which shows how badly they yearn to lose the faculty for feeling.’85 Lieutenant Ernst Junger wrote of the Somme that:
The power of logical thought and the force of gravity seemed alike to be suspended. One had the sense of something as inescapable and unconditionally fated as a catastrophe of nature. An NCO of No. 3 Platoon went mad.86
The caprice which guided German shells also inspired the British. In 1914 the German soldier Stephen Westmann stepped aside from his company, resting on the line of march, to relieve himself. An incoming British shell, probably from a 60-pounder, killed or wounded forty-two of his comrades and put a splinter clean through his pack, where his head had rested a minute before. And although the pre-Somme bombardment lacked the rapidity which later shelling acquired, it was still terrible to suffer beneath it.
Again and again we had to dig ourselves and our comrades out of masses of blackened earth and splintered wooden beams. Often we found bodies crushed to pulp, or bunks full of suffocated soldiers. The ‘drum fire’ never ceased. No food or water reached us. Down below, men became hysterical and their comrades had to knock them out, so as to prevent them from running away and exposing themselves to the deadly shell splinters. Even the rats panicked and sought refuge in our flimsy shelters; they ran up the walls, and we had to kill them with our spades.87
The preliminary bombardment, long or short, focused on specific targets, but a creeping barrage was wholly different. It moved just ahead of the infantry, and although it was possible for the artillery to concentrate it so as to follow the outline of the German defensive system, it usually moved as a ‘straight barrage’ parallel with the infantry. It was first used on a large scale on the first day of the Somme, when it generally failed because it moved ahead of the infantry too quickly, allowing defenders to pop up between the departing barrage as it thundered away across the landscape, and the attacking infantry, heavily laden and moving in lines. Limited communications made it impossible to introduce flexibility into the plan below corps level, and in the early days of the Somme it was often evident that the barrage was out of kilter with the infantry attack. ‘In spite of the infantry being mown down,’ wrote Walter Guinness, who was then second in command of an infantry battalion, ‘the prearranged attacking barrages must be followed: they are the laws of the Medes and Persians.’88
But in the British night attack on 13/14 July, the artillery fireplan was much more successful, largely because there were more guns per yard of front than there had been on 1 July: the preliminary bombardment was short; and the attacking infantry were ‘leaning on the barrage’, not trudging far behind it. Indeed, although General Rawlinson was entitled to claim credit for championing the night attack (against serious opposition from Haig, who argued that troops and staff alike were insufficiently ‘experienced in such work’), after he had walked the ground he declared:
There is no doubt that the success of the enterprise must be attributed in a very large measure to the accuracy and volume of the artillery bombardment. The enemy’s wire, as well as his front and second line trenches, were smashed to pieces. The morale of the defenders had been greatly reduced by the din and concussion of the constant explosions, and it was clear from the number of dead that were found in the trenches that he had likewise suffered very heavy casualties from the artillery bombardment.89
Sadly, no clear and even learning curve was ascended by the British army that summer, and there were still too many times when the same objectives were attacked, time and time again, by too few soldiers behind too thin a barrage. However, the right lessons were undoubtedly learnt, although at a price. The December 1916 publication SS 135: Instructions for the Training of Divisions in Offensive Action (later re-issued with modifications as The Division in Attack) – the army’s offensive bible for the rest of the war – clearly laid down the functions of the preliminary bombardment and the creeping barrage. It is full of good sense. The timing of the barrage was crucial, but ‘must be regulated entirely by local conditions’, from 75 yards a minute in good conditions to 15 in very poor ones. It should certainly move more slo
In 1917 Lieutenant Colonel Rowland Feilding affirmed that:
It is generally better to risk a few casualties from our own fire than that the artillery should shoot too much for safety. More casualties may easily be caused in the attack by machine guns of the enemy remaining in action between the infantry and the barrage than are ever likely to result from accidents from closer shooting.
However, he warned that a barrage rarely looked the same in practice as it did in theory:
The so-called barrage ‘line’ is in reality an irregular and varying belt, perhaps 150 yards in width, and it requires much individual judgement on behalf of the men to advance at exactly the proper speed. It is a difficult business in daylight, and much more so in the dark, especially in the heat and turmoil of an engagement.90
It was officially advised that men should keep 50 yards behind an 18-pounder barrage. Varying standards of shell manufacture, and the fact that gun barrels lost minuscule amounts of rifling each time they fired a shell, thus becoming less accurate with each shot until their ‘barrel life’ was expired, helped widen the ‘zone’ of the gun, the cigar-shaped area into which its shells would fall even if it was perfectly laid for each shot. Nevertheless, many experienced infantry officers thought it worth closing up to a mere 20 yards behind the rear edge of the barrage.
It was all but impossible, even at the end of the war, to vary the speed of a creeping barrage once it had begun, so careful liaison between infantry and gunners was required in the first place. Shrapnel was originally the preferred projectile for creeping barrages, but, on 14 July 1916, 9th Scottish Division used high explosive to good effect, keeping the Germans in their dugouts until the infantry had arrived. In 1917 the new, quick-acting 106 Fuse was popular, and adding smoke shells to the barrage, first tried at Arras in April 1917, produced good results, not least because the defenders, unsure whether it was smoke or gas, donned their gas masks and lost fighting efficiency.
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