The Context: The British Army’s Response to Deadlock on the Western Front
Understanding the basic problem that had led to the war deteriorating into a line of trenches stretching from the Belgian coast to the swiss border, with the belligerent armies unable to move forward or repel the enemy, is critical to understanding the importance of the contribution of any army fighting there. The First World War ground to a standstill on the Western Front only two months after it began as a result of the unprecedented firepower of modern weaponry. Despite the predictions of many of the greatest military minds of the pre-war era, weapons such as modern artillery and machine guns proved to be more effective in defence than offence—instead of attackers cutting through defending troops with little effort, the defending troops had the upper hand in stopping any attack. Fire from these new high- powered weapons did not even need to be particularly accurate; simply laying a barrage of artillery shells, or even machine gun fire, could keep defenders under cover.2 Even in the immediate field of battle, for example, two machine guns crossing fire could stop an attacking company of infantry at five hundred metres in only average visibility, while artillery fire, coming from kilometres behind the line, accounted for as much as sixty per cent of casualties on the Western Front.3
As the war settled into stalemate, the Germans deliberately adopted a defensive policy. This enabled a “carefully considered assessment of terrain, and if necessary, strategic withdrawal,” giving them in most cases tactically superior positions.4 The deep German defences were resistant to shrapnel fire, and their dominating view made gun positions for the British and French artillery difficult to establish.5 The enormous size of the armies involved meant there were no flanks to the line, which removed the option of flanking manoeuvres to by-pass the strong German defences. The allies, committed to an offensive policy, had to attack strongly fortified defences in frontal assaults. At its core, the war on the Western Front involved trying to solve this puzzle. France’s army, struggling with low morale as a result of horrific casualty rates, took on an increasingly defensive role. German commanders were learning the wrong kind of lessons that would result in a series of failed offensives in 1918. It was the British— and their Dominion troops—that led the way in breaking the deadlock in a manner so as to bring about the end of the war.
The British answer was dependent on continued and systematic technological advancements to support the firepower of both the artillery and the infantry. The heavy firepower of the artillery was critical because it provided the overarching support for an attack. Before having any chance of using the firepower of their artillery effectively, the British had to have sufficient quantity of armaments of an appropriate quality. The Royal Artillery (RA) began the war significantly under-armed in artillery power, both in number and quality of pieces and quality of shell. Armed with light field artillery pieces for a mobile war, British battle plans assumed that the enemy infantry would be in plain view and susceptible to shrapnel fire. But before the end of 1914, RA officers realised that this war would be different from expectations and that many more guns of a much heavier calibre were required.6 Production in the United Kingdom and by suppliers in the USA was increased to deliver the guns and ammunition needed for the new increased reliance on heavy fire-power, and in 1916 problems of quality and supply began to be resolved and new firing techniques began to have a significant effect on the manner in which the British used their artillery in attack.
As the artillery became better armed, battle plans became increasingly reliant on their firepower. From as early as 1916 the French, Germans and the British all experimented with some kind of timetabled barrage lifting to protect their advancing troops. Within the British armies, different corps experimented separately to create a moving curtain of shells to protect infantry. These lifting barrages developed into creeping barrages that made smaller lifts timed specifically for the infantry to follow. Standing barrages would also be timed into the lifts to protect the infantry while they consolidated any ground taken. When the infantry followed the curtain of shells very closely, they were much more likely to succeed. These were a refinement of the previous artillery firing plans aimed simply at obliterating the German trenches. By keeping enemy machine gunners in their dugouts until the attacking infantry were across No Man’s Land, creeping barrages provided ‘neutralisation’ of the enemy firepower and formed a “barrage in the true sense of the word—a barrier or dam” which prevented enemy reinforcements moving into the forward trenches.7
Further technical development was required to reach the level of accuracy in artillery fire needed to hit distant German batteries. In their quest for greater accuracy, artillery officers began to understand the importance of gun calibration—“the process of finding, by shooting, the m[uzzle] v[elocity] of the different guns of a battery, relative to the range table.”8 Gun wear had an ongoing effect on the muzzle velocity of a particular gun, and therefore ranging. Previous experience of this was restricted to naval guns, which were calibrated once a year but were rarely fired and so experienced little wear. On the Western Front, guns had to be withdrawn regularly to undergo calibration. Initially this involved measurements taken from several shots—a process which in itself caused wear—however in the later years of the war, new techniques were developed whereby a gun could be accurately calibrated by firing one shot through two electrical screens. Aside from wear, other factors also affected the accuracy of fire. Experience began to demonstrate that different weather conditions could affect the flight of a shell, and meteorological reports thus became increasingly necessary as officers began to understand the effects of altitudinal winds and barometric pressure on firing. The British Expeditionary Force created a meteorological section to measure these conditions; by 1917 they issued up to six reports a day to gun batteries. Technological refinements such as these were critical in increasing the ability of the artillery to fire accurately on distant targets.
Accurate indirect fire on German batteries and back lines was also seriously hampered by the lack of detailed maps of the battlefield. The only maps available in 1914 were on a scale of 1:80,000, which showed “topography in enough detail for the wars of the past”—that is, wars of movement. But in this stagnant war of firepower detailed mapping was
“an absolute necessity to the gunner.”9 The British Army began the war with two officers, two clerks and one Printing Company dedicated to map production, and ended with five Field Survey Battalions 800-1,000 strong.10 Information was provided from aerial photographic reconnaissance, trench raids, prisoners of war and other intelligence sources, and was overlaid in red ink onto a basic gridded map. The survey formations produced a staggering number of maps over the course of the war. Estimates suggest up to a total of thirty-two million maps were sent from England to France, including 8.8 million maps produced in the last full British financial year of the war, 1 April 1917 to 31 March 1918.11 The increasingly accurate maps were readily available to artillery and infantry alike, and were an integral part of organisation on the battlefield. However, their most important role was in the development of indirect firing techniques, which brought to bear much greater accuracy in artillery fire.
German artillery batteries were invariably hidden from the allies’ direct sight behind hills or the horizon. Locating them and accurately plotting their location onto a map was not a simple task. Aerial observation was useful, but without an experienced pilot and observer it could only approximately fix the position of a gun. As a result, two more scientific methods were employed by observation sections of the Field Survey Companies, Royal Engineers (FSC, RE) from 1915 onwards. The first was ‘flash-spotting,’ a relatively simple method of observing the flash of a German gun (or the reflection of a flash on a cloud) and plotting a line towards it. With two, or preferably three or more, lines of observation plotted the gun could be accurately located at the point at which the lines met. All armies on the Western Front used variations of this method. The other method of detecting enemy artillery batteries that underwent enormous development by the British during the war was sound ranging. This was initially developed by the French, who were experimenting with “at least five practical methods well advanced” in January 1915.12 Major Willy Bragg of the Leicestershire Royal Horse Artillery—later Sir William Lawrence Bragg—was seconded to the FSC, RE in 1915 to begin development on one of these French methods.13 The Australian-born physicist was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics with his father in the same year for their work on X-rays, and it was under his supervision that sound ranging become an extremely effective method of locating enemy batteries independently of visual observation. Sound ranging used microphones to electronically record the reception of a gun report. By comparing the time the sound took to reach three to six separate microphones, it was possible to determine the location of the gun. These methods increased in efficacy throughout 1916 and 1917, and provided intelligence increasingly accepted and relied upon by artillery command. The continued development of sound ranging throughout the war ultimately meant that the British counter-battery measures were “infinitely superior to what was happening either on the French or American sectors” and had a direct bearing on their performance in 1918.14
Although artillery provided the overarching support for an attack, as Paddy Griffith has noted “only infantry equipped with boots, backpacks, rifles and bayonets—and perhaps even with bombs—could really clear up a battlefield after all this high technology had done its work.”15 It quickly became apparent in the early months of the war that the infantry could not function outside of a framework of fire support. In order to capture ground the infantry had to occupy it, which meant crossing No Man’s Land and accounting for dug-in enemy troops. As such, the infantry was equipped with firepower of its own. Even at the infantry’s lowest level of minor tactics—that of the platoon—there was a strong reliance on firepower to achieve objectives. Hand grenades increasingly became a staple of platoon tactics. The British Army had begun the war without a reliable, throwable high-explosive device. Until a time fuse was developed with the Mills bomb, bombers had to light a length of Bickford ‘safety’ fuse manually and throw the bomb before it exploded at a dangerously unspecified length of time.16 By 1917 hand grenades, with their perfected fusing systems, had become widely available. Originally their range was only as far as a man could throw, but this was vastly improved by the advent of the rifle grenade, which could project a small bomb up to two hundred yards.17 A mobile automatic rifle, the Lewis gun, had been in production before the war, and also became more useful as an offensive weapon in accompanying troop formations in the attack. By 1918 each platoon had one or two Lewis guns, which were to precede the forward waves of infantry.18 Reserve Lewis gun detachments worked in conjunction with bombing detachments to provide cover for the bombers as they worked their way up the trench. This combination was able to deal with hostile machine guns that had survived preceding artillery bombardment. Covering fire within platoons was provided by a similar combination of Lewis gunners and rifle grenadiers protecting the assault team of riflemen and bomb throwers.
The infantry also used several sources of firepower that were less mobile than grenades and Lewis guns. These were slightly removed from their immediate tactical control, but performed a close support role. One of these less mobile weapons was the Vickers machine gun, formed into Machine Gun Companies from late 1915. The British infantry initially went to war with one Vickers machine gun per company, but as the size of the army increased, so the numbers of these guns increased to the point that they outran the growth of the army. They were not weapons of easy mobility, as they required a crew to keep them supplied with ammunition and water for the cooling mechanism. However, the Vickers was effective and needed little development during the course of the war. At two thousand yards range, machine gun bullets would fire at such a steep trajectory that they could penetrate shell-hole defences to reach troops covering there.19 Importantly, machine gunners were placed so far forward that they could switch from firing barrages to direct fire as needed to support infantry in trouble or to cover for specific attacks.
The trench mortar, a light form of artillery, provided the infantry with readily accessible high-explosive firepower. These were small, muzzleloading bomb-throwing devices that had a high trajectory and could send small projectiles up and over into enemy trench lines. At the beginning of 1916 the British had developed and standardised three kinds of trench mortar: light; medium and heavy. The light Stokes trench mortar was the only one small enough to accompany the infantry into the trenches. It could fire up to thirty rounds per minute and was so simple to use that troops could be trained to operate it within a week. The mortar was used to help advancing infantry deal with threats from machine-gun fire and enemy strong points, and to provide cover under which platoon bombers and Lewis gunners could get into position.20 Trench mortars’ high degree of local tactical flexibility inextricably linked them with the infantry, and their role was always to provide greater firepower for the men advancing across No Man’s Land.
The infantry also increasingly benefited from the extra protection provided by tanks. Tanks were developed from armoured cars used by the Royal Naval Air Service, and the first Mark I tracked vehicle was available for use at the battle of Flers-Courcelette in September 1916.21 The Mark I suffered from serious design faults. Access to the interior was difficult, and observation from inside was very poor. It had a gravity-fed petrol system that would cut off if the tank ditched, and the petrol tank itself was vulnerable to hostile fire. The Marks II and III were similar, albeit with mild improvements, but were not produced in large numbers.22 The much-improved Mark IV became the standard fighting machine of the Tank Corps in 1917, and the Mark V and Mark V Star tanks, available in large numbers from mid-1918, improved on the “all-round speed, manoeuvre, radius of action, simplicity of control and feasibility of observation” of the previous models. The Mark V could go as fast as 4.6 miles per hour in optimal conditions, and the Mark V Star tanks had the added capability of carrying twenty to twenty-five men—two Lewis gun sections— into battle. A light tank, the Medium Mark A, or Whippet, also became available in 1918. It was much faster than the larger version but, at 8.3 miles per hour on the open road, was still very slow. Tanks were a valuable addition to the infantry’s arsenal and protection, but were always vulnerable to artillery fire, anti-tank mines and armour-piercing machine gun bullets. They were regularly bogged down by mud, stranded in big shell holes or bellied on tree stumps. Their acceptance was “by no means unanimous” by High Command, but by 1918 they had become a regular constituent of any
By late 1917, then, the British had the broad basis for a technologically advanced weapons system. The RA had resolved the shortcomings of heavy guns, poor-quality shells and high explosives, and older, worn weapons were weeded out entirely by the March of that year. Shells had a detonation rate of 99 per cent—completely removing the problem of duds—and premature rounds occurred only once in every 317,000 rounds.24 This enabled the artillery to provide immediate protection in the form of creeping and standing barrages around exposed attacking infantry in the field, shielding them against rifle and machine-gun fire from the enemy defenders. The artillery could also approach the primary problem of the German heavy firepower by using a variety of methods to locate enemy artillery batteries and accurately plot them on a map. Allied guns were then able to accurately shoot at these batteries without having to see the target, or to fire registration shots to aim their guns. Moreover, the infantry had immediate access to firepower of their own in the form of trench mortars, machine guns and rifle and hand grenades. The tank, too, showed increasing signs of promise as armoured support on the battlefield. In early 1918, the building blocks of the British weapons system were in place and ready to be applied in collaboration with each other.