Tommy, p.47Richard Holmes
Defensive artillery tactics evolved in tandem with offensive tactics, with the box barrage as a common feature. This, as its name suggests, boxed off a sector of the front. It could either be an open-sided box, with friendly troops attacking into the open end, or a solid box which completely surrounded a hostile unit – for instance, a counter attack division moving up at Ypres in 1917. A standing barrage, maintained on a particular feature for a specified time, acted like a breakwater, diverting or canalising an enemy attack or protecting a friendly flank.
This steady improvement of artillery technique owed much, as we have seen, to the development of artillery staffs at division, corps and army level. It also reflected the growing expertise of artillery observers, who were so much harder to train than gun numbers. They had to know precisely where they were, no easy task in an unfamiliar trench, and if an observer’s assessment of his own position was wrong his fire control was certain to be wrong too. Walter Guinness complained, in August 1916, that: ‘Our gunners seem not to be a patch on the French. It is of course impossible to train artillery in a few months and I suspect that some of the trouble is due to bad work on the part of the FOOs [forward observation officers].’91
An artillery battery – horse, field or heavy – would always deploy with its gun-line some distance behind the trenches in a defensive battle, or the forward elements of advancing troops in an advance. Guns needed to be far enough forward to make the best use of their range – 6,525 yards for an 18-pounder and 7,300 for a 4.5-inch howitzer – but not so close to the front as to become involved in the infantry battle. For much of the war the 18-pounders and 4.5-inch howitzers would be perhaps two miles behind the front, with medium guns (such as 6-inch and 8-inch) further back, and heavies such as the 9.2-inch howitzer, tractor-drawn and transported in three large sections, up to five miles behind the front. Lieutenant R. B. Talbot Kelly emphasised that it was no use for an 18-pounder battery to be 3,700 yards from German trenches, as his was in early 1917: ‘we were often unable to do anything with tantalising targets behind German lines that we saw from our OP [observation post].’92
Field batteries had six guns, in three two-gun sections – left, right and centre – each commanded by a subaltern, and generally deployed with the whole battery together, under the command of its major – although it was possible to detach sections, or more rarely individual guns, for specific tasks. Two to three miles behind the gun-line were the wagon-lines, commanded by the battery’s second in command, the battery captain. The battery’s horses, wagons and administrative staff – its sergeant-major, clerk, shoeing-smith, veterinary sergeant, storemen and cooks – were to be found there. Signallers, that special tribe with their own rights, privileges and language, were split between gun-and wagon-lines, and responsible for keeping the telephone wire going forward in good repair, and in assisting signallers from brigade to maintain those running back. ‘They were a group of men apart,’ wrote David Jones,
of singular independence and resource. Excused fatigues, generally speaking, and envied by the ordinary … soldier. Accustomed as they were to lonely nocturnal searchings for broken telephone wires, they usually knew the geography of the trenches better than most of us. They tended to a certain clannishness and were suspected of using the mysteries of their trade as a cloak for idling. They also had the reputation of procuring better rations … and knowing ways and means of procuring extra comforts – such as officers’ whisky, spare blankets, etc. Always, of course, consulted as to any likely new move or turn of events, because of their access to ‘the wires’.93
Subalterns and gunners were rotated between gun and wagon-lines to rest them, and very often the battery commander and his captain swapped for the same reason. Wagon-lines were places of comparative comfort and relative safety, usually with huts and dugouts for officers and men and hard standing for the horses. Officers messed together, and in a quiet sector one battery captain made the point that the Royal Regiment could show form even in the midst of a major war by dining nightly in his blue patrol jacket, with high-collared tunic and tight red-striped overalls.
In 1917 Second Lieutenant P.J. Campbell had just joined a battery still recognisably composed of Yorkshire territorials. His chronicling of his first few weeks with his battery, learning the rules in the wagon-lines, gives a clear picture of the pattern of a gunner’s life. First, there was the element of risk, rarely wholly absent. A whiz-bang, the German 77mm (roughly equivalent to the 18-pounder) was unlikely to hurt you if it landed more than 20–30 yards away. Decent overhead cover would keep out a 4.2-inch shell, but the 5.9-inch, the ‘five-nine’, workhorse of German medium guns, was an unwelcome visitor, and one falling even 100 yards away would wreck many defences. Big guns like the 8-inch and 11-inch were far worse, but the Germans tended to use them only against British heavy gun positions further back.
Campbell was given command of the left section of his battery, with two experienced sergeants, Denmark and Feuerbach (the latter’s German-sounding name had, it was said, prevented him from getting a commission), two 18-pounders, fifty gunners and drivers and fifty horses. Sergeant Denmark quickly put him in the picture: ‘all in all the battery is good, Sir … I don’t believe there’s a better one in France. Officers and men have always worked together, they trust one another, you’ll never be let down by anyone in C Battery.’94 Sergeant Thirsk, the battery’s signals sergeant, was ‘one of the best non-commissioned officers in the battery and one of the nicest of men. I never heard him raise his voice or speak angrily, but his signallers were so well trained and so devoted to him that they knew what to do before they were told.’95
Campbell was given the nightly task of taking ammunition forward to the battery, just as a subaltern’s detachment from the divisional ammunition column (his previous posting on the Western Front) unloaded its ammunition at the battery’s wagon-lines. He was relieved to be able to cope with being shelled, welcomed the strength and confidence of his men, and marvelled at the way his battery commander seemed to know everybody’s name and chatted with an easy familiarity without ever compromising his authority. Campbell read his letters at breakfast after a busy night. ‘I was as happy as I had ever been,’ he wrote.
I could not help it. Happy to be where I was and with the night’s work safely behind me, and happy because of my home, which my letter brought so clearly before me. They took me away from Ypres, and I was relieved to be in England as I read.
He was glad to have been brought into the war so gradually, and the gun-line held few terrors when he reached it. His first task was to fire harassing missions of 250 rounds per night: bearings and elevations to random targets were worked out, and then passed to his Nos 1. This did not please the battery commander. ‘Chuck the stuff where you like,’ he ordered. ‘You’re just as likely to hit Fritzes in one place as in another. But don’t take any risks with the range, don’t shoot short, that’s the only thing for which there is no forgiveness.’ And he was to get it all over by 2.00 am: ‘It’s the Fritzes who are to be harassed, not us.’96
Finally, Campbell accompanied Edward, the senior subaltern, to an observation post, just behind the forward trenches, where Edward shot the battery to ensure that lines of fire were parallel and to record targets with individual corrections for each gun. His helmet protectively tilted low over his eyes, Campbell saw his first view of the front:
There was not much to see. Only trenches in the foreground. I could not tell where ours ended and the enemy’s began. Nothing was to be seen in any of them, just a succession of trenches. But in the distance, about a mile away, country began again, and colour. I could see grass and trees on the top of a low ridge, red-brick houses and the tower of a church looking almost undamaged. It was a pleasure as well as a surprise to see these ordinary things … The village was Passchendaele, Edward told me, but the name meant nothing to either of us.
Forward observers, the eyes of the guns behind them, might spend their time in a purpose-built or improvised observati
From our OP I could see a Boisselle and could see the Divn. on our right who were practically bombing along through the village. There are practically no houses and the place is simply a side of a hill honeycombed with [mine] craters and dugouts. I saw some Bosches there so I got one of our guns switched round and did a bit of sniping …
Next day I had the time of my life. I got on to Bosche bombing parties at short range and fairly blew hell out of them with shrapnel whenever they showed. I and the ‘Hows’ next door fairly stopped a counter attack which made our people give some ground, and I believe I made a bag of about 20 Huns with one round … One time I saw a Bosche bombing-party appear over the parapet and I hit one man plumb with a percussion [fuse], disintegrating him and his pal alongside. Another time I got into the middle of six or seven firing over the parapet and the whole lot dropped, tho’ whether all were hit I could not tell. Anyhow I had a real hectic day.97
In describing the same incident to his mother Stanford apologised for sounding ‘very beastly and bloodthirsty’, but ‘the whole thing is so impersonal that one thinks no more of it at the time than shooting rabbits. It is only afterwards, when you hear our wounded calling for help in no-man’s land that you realise the horror of it…’98
Stanford was using established communications to a well-prepared gun-line. The German spring offensives of 1918 bit deep into the British positions, disrupting the communications on which effective indirect fire depended, and causing some battery commanders to look over their shoulders earlier than they might. Lieutenant Campbell was sent forward as an observer on 21 March and felt unusually frightened, not just because of the shelling. ‘That was nothing,’ he wrote, ‘that stopped as soon as the shelling stopped. This was a new fear and it was not going to stop, it lasted for more than four months, it was the fear of the unknown’. There was visible panic amongst some of the infantry, who told him: ‘Jerry’s through. He’s in Epéhy; we’ve got no officers left.’ Gunner Aubrey Wade, in another battery, saw broken infantry ‘throwing away their rifles as they ran, coming down through the guns at the double in two and threes, hatless and wholly demoralised, calling out to us as they passed that Jerry was through and it was all over …’99
Then Campbell saw wave after wave of Germans coming in in good order, but his battery commander was reluctant to engage because he sensed the need to withdraw. Eventually Campbell was given just two guns. ‘Shrapnel was the right weapon to use against enemy troops in the open,’ he wrote, ‘but the shells should burst fifteen feet above them, not a hundred. I corrected the fire. I had to make use of three or four corrections before the shells were bursting at the right height.’ He was awarded the MC for his action that day, but for months the sight of its ribbon made him unhappy: he felt that the battery could have done better.100
The story was repeated all along 5th Army’s front, with indirect fire first losing much effectiveness as communications were cut, and then becoming impossible as batteries were pushed off their maps. Campbell saw the men of a 60-pounder battery on their way back, and an officer told him that they would have to use the Daily Mail war map if they wanted to use indirect fire: they had nothing else. But good batteries kept trying. The three surviving guns of a field battery came into action near Arthur Behrend’s headquarters, quickly laid out their lines of fire and ‘ten minutes later they were shooting madly away’. The battery commander, a subaltern, looked so dazed that Behrend’s comrades gave him a good feed. He spoke to the youngster: ‘The Germans had overrun them early in the day, he said, but not before the gunners had twice repulsed them with rifles and Lewis guns. How they managed to get any guns away he didn’t know – only three had been fit to move and the other three were lying smashed on the position.’ When he left Behrend looked back: ‘and saw the vivid flashes from the field guns firing away in the midst of our once spotless headquarters it seemed – as it so nearly was – the beginning of the end of all things’.101
A gunner officer sent forward with an attack would be well aware that his was a vital but dangerous job. Julian Tyndale-Biscoe was detailed to accompany an infantry attack in mid-August 1916, controlling the fire of two artillery brigades. His commanding officer told him frankly that ‘the longer you stay alive the greater use you will be’, and he stuffed his pockets with biscuits and raisins before setting off with two good signallers, both volunteers, and half a mile of cable on drums. He directed fire as long as he could until a sharp counterattack came in ‘with German infantry zigzagging like rabbits … [I] picked up a rifle and had some pot shots … I saw several bowled over’. But by now the barrage had outdistanced the assault, and ‘up popped the machine guns, with our men only half way across, and several stout Germans, standing waist-high, poured fire upon them, this holding up the whole attack’. The telephone wire had been cut, but Tyndale-Biscoe managed to save the day by telling his guns to reduce their range by flashing Morse code with an old petrol tin rigged to a rifle and bayonet. He was shot through the shoulder minutes later, but the episode earned him an MC, and MMs for the two signallers – often the unsung heroes of such stories.102
The other unsung heroes toiled on the gun-line, servants of machinery in the age of industrialised war, converting the shells that arrived from the wagon-lines each night into heaps of empty brass cases, recovered and sent off to the base for recycling. An infantry officer watched a field battery at work on the Somme –
the gunners stripped and sweating, each crew working like a machine, the swing and smack of the breech blocks as clean and sweet as a kiss, and a six-foot stream of flame from the muzzle, a thunderclap of sound, and away tore the shell over the hills to the Boche trenches 5,000 yards away.103
There was a clear understanding in many batteries that officers concerned themselves with things like fireplans and tactics, but that NCOs looked after daily routine. A No. 1 was very busy: he was not simply responsible for the gunners, horses, limber and wagon in his subsection, but had to do a myriad of other tasks in action, such as keeping an eye on the length of recoil every time his gun fired to ensure that the recuperator band was not too worn, watching the breech in prolonged firing so that it did not get so hot as to ‘cook-off’ a newly-loaded round, and monitoring the run-out adjusting valve to ensure that the barrel ran out smoothly.
Good Nos 1 jealously guarded their authority over their gunners. When Second Lieutenant Campbell tried to sort out a minor accident, Sergeant Denmark turned on him with a face like thunder: ‘Who’s taking charge here, are you, Sir, or am I?’ He later explained: ‘Don’t be daft. Officers have their own responsibilities … How do you think it’s going to help us or anyone else if you go asking to be hit?’104 When the battery joined the preparatory bombardment for Third Ypres everybody was clear what had to be done. The creeping barrage would increase by 100 yards every four minutes, and the Nos 1 were responsible for ordering the lifts. ‘There was very little talking,’ recalled Campbell. ‘Everyone was alert, each man had his work to do and he was doing it; he did not want to be distracted.’105
The layers who aimed the guns were also important men, for they needed to be able to set their sights quickly and accurately, perhaps with gas masks on or hostile counter-battery fire crashing down, so that the barrage moved at the right pace. They practised regularly, because:
Orders came to them in degrees and minutes, and may change very suddenly when in the middle of a battle and when under fire (eg: from 3° 15’ right of zero to 1° 45’ left of zero, and so on). Layers are trained against a stopwatch and the figures on the gun’s sights checked.
By 1918 layers were often nineteen-year-olds, with the nimbl
The Royal Artillery attracted a good proportion of steady, slightly introspective men who would never have joined the army in normal times, but took themselves and their new profession seriously. At Arthur Behrend’s brigade headquarters was Gunner Freshwater, ‘the hardest of hard-workers and a first-rate handyman.’ He once refused to move when an officer shouted: ‘Come here, carpenter.’ ‘Yes, I heard you,’ he acknowledged. ‘But I’m not a carpenter. I am Gunner Freshwater.’ His devotion to his mundane duties could only have one end. On 21 March 1918 he went on with his work despite the bombardment: a shell fell nearby, and ‘when the smoke and dust had cleared away we could see him lying dead on the road with his overturned barrow beside him’.107 But there were moments when very junior soldiers simply had to carry on. At Third Ypres 134th Battery RFA was so hard hit by gas and shell that only two of its men, Acting Lance Bombardier Fisher and Gunner Monchie, were left on their feet. They knew that they were the battery, and that the infantry relied on them. They opened fire with a single gun at the appointed hour, and maintained the barrage lifts on their own until help arrived and Fisher, badly gassed, was carried away.108
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