Artillery Combat in the First World War

Artillery Combat In World War 1 First

Artillery Combat in the First World War


World War 1 is often seen as a mindless slaughter fest that saw little tactical innovation nor major methodical advancements. There are many reasons for this ranging from anti-war literature to military writers that were directly affected by the war. And of course the so called “Great War” was overshadowed by its bigger brother the Second World War, which saw the widespread and revolutionary use of tanks, the rise of air power and the end of the battleship. Yet, many of these revolutionary tactics, doctrines and vehicles can be traced back to World War 1. Although in 1914 many tactics and approaches were quite blunt and obsolete, by 1918 a lot of innovations took hold or were fully implemented already. (Steel Wind: p. 1-2 (amazon affiliate link))

Artillery tactics 1914-1918

This video will focus on how the use of Artillery changed throughout the war and cover some of the many major innovations. Artillery tactics changed to a large degree from 1914 to 1918, whereas in 1914 the use of artillery in tactics and techniques had still a strong resemblance to the Napoleonic era, in 1918 the foundations of a modern artillery is clearly recognizable. Although the basic principles of indirect fire, massed fire, counter-battery fire, calibration and meteorological corrections and combined arms were known, they were usually not applied on the field in 1914, yet in 1918 these principles were used consistently and to a large degree by all sides. (Steel Wind: p. 2-3)

The situation prior to the War

Let’s begin, prior to 1914 all sides envisioned a highly mobile war with a strong focus on offensive operations. Furthermore, artillery was mostly seen as a direct fire weapon that would be brought forward with galloping horses at crucial moments and support the attack of the infantry.
Yet, this wasn’t possible at all, because the increase in firepower was enormous, not only from machine guns, but also from regular rifles, because their ranges usually could reach artillery that was using direct fire. Furthermore, the combined fire power of artillery, rifles and machine guns forced the infantry into trenches, but direct fire artillery against trenches doesn’t work. Hence, the traditional artillery used in a direct fire role was suddenly both vulnerable and quite ineffective in the early stages of the war. (Steel Wind: p. 5-6)

The four phases of artillery employment according to J.B.A. Bailey

So let’s take a look at the different phases and challenges the artillery faced during the First World War. The four major phases as described by the British Colonel J.B.A. Bailey are as follows:
Inadequacy (1914), Experimentation and Build-up (1915), Destruction (1916-1917) and finally Neutralization (1917-1918)

Inadequacy (1914)

In the beginning of the war the artillery was mostly an auxiliary arm, it should support the infantry, but there was little training or doctrine available in order to coordinate such efforts. This often led to friendly fire incidents. In terms of coordination of artillery itself, there were major limits too. The highest level for coordination was the division and in some cases it was only at battalion level. (Steel Wind: p. 5-7)

The massing of artillery was still performed like in Napoleons time, a large number of guns was placed next to each other in an area as close to the front as possible. The use of the artillery as a direct fire weapon was still the common approach, although the Russo- Japanese War (1904-1905) already showed that indirect fire was necessary due to the increased firepower of small arms that forced the artillery further behind the front line. Additionally in 1914, there was no real concept nor focus on counter-battery fire, some doctrines even forbade using artillery against enemy artillery. (Steel Wind: p. 5-7)

Due to the focus on mobility and offensive operations prior to the war, field artillery was first and foremost light. As a result these guns were too light to do real damage against field fortifications and trenches. Additionally, they were setup for a low trajectory line of fire and limited range. As Zabecki notes exemplary about the French:

“Prewar French doctrine envisioned using the 75-mm gun to maximum ranges of only 4,500 meters. The gun itself could fire out to 9,000 meters; but to conform to doctrine, the carriage and fire control instruments were constructed for a maximum range of only 6,000 meters.” (Steel Wind: p. 7)

Ammo Problems

The Inadequacy was also a problem in terms of supplies, especially when it came to ammo. All armies had far too less ammo stockpiled. Let’s take a look at the ammo consumption rates of artillery rounds per month from 1866 onward:(Steel Wind: p. 6-8, Table 2.1)

Year War Army Rounds
1866 Austro-Prussian German 20 000
1870 Franco-Prussian German 81 000
1904 Russo-Japanese Russian 87 000
1912 First Balkan Bulgarian 254 000
1914 World War I French 900 000
1916 World War I French 4 500 000
1918 World War I German 8 000 000

As you can clearly see there was a constant increase. Now let’s take a look at the consumption rate in the Great War.
Yet, the national stockpiles and industries weren’t sufficient for this amount of ammo consumption.
The French assumed a consumption of 100 000 rounds per month, but used 900 000 rounds, considering that in the First Balkan war 254 000 rounds were used per month, this number was either dated or didn’t take into account the latest developments. Thus, at beginning of the war in 1914 the French Army had less than 5 million rounds in stock. The Russians had 12 million. The Germans more than 20 million, but they also had more artillery than the French.

Besides the shortage of ammo, there was another problem, the main type of ammo in 1914 was the shrapnel round. A shrapnel round was filled with iron balls that extended in a cone-shaped pattern when it exploded (The Field Artillery – History & Sourcebook p. 48), so in a way it acted like a flying shotgun. It could cover an area of about 25 meters (82 ft) wide and 150 meters (492 ft) long (values for a 75mm gun). Shrapnel was only useful against troops on open ground, because it was quite ineffective against dug in troops and basically useless against fortifications.
The alternative were high explosive shells which killed by tiny steel fragments and air burst. (The Field Artillery – History & Sourcebook p. 48) Furthermore, it allowed to destroy and damage field fortifications and entrenchments, something the shrapnel round was unable to do. Thus, the high explosive (HE) round became the most important round, which at the end of the war was almost as deadly against troops in the open as shrapnel. (Steel Wind: p. 7-9)

Lack of Large Guns and/or Lack of Doctrine for them

Although ammo was a major problem for all nations, when it came to heavier guns like howitzers, there was a clear difference between France, the German and the British Empire. The French fielded an excellent 75mm field gun the M1897, but they assumed it would be able to deal with all targets, thus there was only a very small amount of heavy long-range artillery available. In contrast the Germans took lessons from the Russo-Japanese (1904-1905) war and had a larger number of heavy guns, but their doctrine was lacking and thus couldn’t really exploit the numerical superiority in heavy artillery. The British had taken lessons from the Second Boer War (1899-1902) and had a large number of heavier guns, yet the British Expeditionary Force that landed in France 1914 had only a small amount of these heavy guns with them. (Steel Wind: p. 10 -11) Hence, every side had its own far share of limitations, but let’s take a closer look at the numbers.

In 1914 the French had 3840 75 mm guns, but they only had 308 guns with a larger caliber than 75mm. In comparison the Germans in 1914 had 5086 77mm field guns and 2280 larger artillery guns, whereas the British in 1914 had 1608 light guns and 1248 heavy guns in total, but only a small portion in the British Expeditionary Force in France.
By 1918 these numbers changed quite considerably, the French in November 1918 had 4968 field guns and 5128 artillery pieces above 75 mm. Thus, they had more than 10 times the heavy artillery than in 1914. But let’s look at the Germans, in 1918 they fielded 6764 field and guns and 12 286 artillery pieces above 77 mm. Thus still outgunning the French in heavy artillery. Although, if we add the British guns of 1918, with 3242 light guns and 3195 heavy guns in France, the gap in heavy artillery gets smaller but is still significant. (Steel Wind: p. 10 -11)

Experimentation and Build-up (1915)

Now, back to 1915, after the war reached a static stalemate on the Western Front the Armies began to adapt their techniques. The artillery units also faced a major leadership problem, due to the rapid expansion in 1914 and 1915. This was especially true for the French artillery, because many artillery NCOs were transferred to the machine-gun units. (Steel Wind: p. 12-13) Thus, many of the techniques needed to kept simple.

Methods of indirect fire

One of the major changes was to shift to effective indirect fire. Since Napoleon the basic technique was to mass fire, but due the increase in firepower from small arms and machine guns, the artillery needed to be deployed behind the front lines. Hence, the only possibility to mass fire was by using indirect fire. Basically, two approaches for indirect fire were developed and used in the Great War: Observed fire and unobserved fire.

Observed fire

Observed fire as the name suggest needs an artillery observer, he locates the target and communicates the coordinates accordingly, furthermore if necessary information to adjust range or direction is passed on.

There were several disadvantages with this approach:
1) The Observer needs a line of sight to the target.
2) Any adjustment of the firing solution would result in sacrificing any surprise, which allowed troops to either move out of the area or take cover. It should be noted that taking cover considerable lowered the effectiveness of an artillery strike, something that is usually not well portrayed in movies nor computer games. (Steel Wind: p. 13-14)
3) The observer needs a reliable line of communication, which was usually not possibly due to technical limitations and/or battle damage. (The Field Artillery – History & Sourcebook p. 46-47)

Unobserved fire

The alternative to observed fire was unobserved fire, yet it relied on maps and was done without adjustments. This is one of the reasons why modern military maps are usually way more accurate and full of elevation information, but at the beginning of the war that information was usually not available. Another problem was, that since no adjustments were performed the fire would also be incorrect, due to the fact that firing tables were based on standard data, which relied on standard conditions and well, you don’t have standard conditions in real life. Factors like weather, the conditions of the gun tubes and the different quality of ammo lead to inaccurate unobserved fire even if the maps were precise enough. (Steel Wind: p. 12-13) To address these challenges various methods like registration and other techniques were developed during the war to allow for more precise unobserved fire.

Standing & Creeping Barrage

Another area of improvement was the change from Standing Barrages to Creeping Barrages. In the beginning the basic attack pattern was a standing barrage. This meant that the enemy line was shelled for a certain period of time, during that time the defending units often moved away from their defensive position or into secured underground shelters. After the artillery attack ended, the units moved back into position, thus when the infantry began its attack it would usually still face strong opposition from the defending infantry. (Steel Wind: p. 14)

To counter these, the so called creeping barrage was developed, which slowly moved ahead of an infantry attack, first shelling the target area and then moving to the next area. The problem with the creeping barrage is that the attacking infantry had to move through heavily shelled terrain during their advance. (Steel Wind: p. 14) To put it simply, in 1915 the armies developed or consolidated their abilities in indirect fire and basic artillery coordination.

Focus on Destruction (1916-1917)

Now, the time period of 1916 to 1917 saw the artillery becoming “a blunt instrument of the indiscriminate hammering of entire patches of real estate.” (Steel Wind: p. 14)
The main goal during this period was to destroy enemy infantry and enemy fortifications. Additionally, artillery should serve as wire cutter by destroying enemy barb wire through extensive shelling. If you think this might be a quite a loud and expensive way to cut wire, well you might be right:
4 75mm field guns at a range of 2500 meters needed about 600 rounds to sufficiently destroy an area of 25 by 30 meters of barbed wire. Of course the number of shells increased at a range of 7000 meters the amount of rounds doubled to 1200. (Steel Wind: p. 14) Now, destroying barb wire was not some rare objective.
The artillery basically became a tool for almost anything, no matter how suited or unsuited it was. This lead to extensive shelling of enemy positions prior to attacks.

April-June 1917 Field Artillery Journal of the United States Field Artillery Association
Zabecki points out that the April-June 1917 issue of Field Artillery Journal of the United States Field Artillery Association, gives a very good picture of the prevailing doctrine at the time. It summarizes the steps for an attack the following way:

No attack is possible until after an intense and effective artillery preparation, which has for its objects:
(a) To destroy the enemy’s barbed wire;
(b) To disintegrate and destroy enemy’s trenches and dugouts, and to destroy or annihilate their defenders;
(c) To prevent, or at least to interfere with, hostile artillery action;
(d) To prevent the passage of the enemy’s reserves by curtain (barrage) fire; and
(e) To destroy the machine guns wherever they can be located.


In short, the artillery should basically do almost everything besides moving into the enemy trenches. Notice that the first objective was destroying the barbed wire, only on the third and fifth objective were the enemy artillery and machine guns. The problem was the success of these artillery attacks was limited, any surprise was lost during the long shelling of the enemy position, during that time the enemy could prepare counter-measures and move troops into positions. Additionally, many troops moved into secured concrete bunkers or left the attacked positions. Even if the barb wire was destroyed, the terrain was usually also hard to traverse for infantry and especially for any artillery or guns that would be needed to support any deeper advancement into the enemy lines. (Steel Wind: p. 15-16)

The limited effectiveness of a long preparation attack can probably best illustrated by taking a look at the British attack at the Somme in June/July 1916. They performed a 7 day preparation attack in which about 1500 (1537) guns fired about 1,6 million shells ( 1 627 824) at the German positions, as reminder the French started the war with about 5 million shells.
After these prolonged and extensive shelling some generals believed that nothing could have survived the bombardment, but after the artillery stopped the Germans moved into positions and the British Army took the largest single-day loss in British History with more than 57 000 (57 470) men wounded, dead or missing. (Steel Wind: p. 16)

I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
When you joined the great fall-in in Nineteen-Sixteen.
I hoped you died well, and I hoped you died clean,
Or young Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?

-Green Fields of France / No Man’s Land – Eric Bogle

Neutralization – Suppression (1917-18)

In the final phase of the artillery warfare that started around the winter of 1917 there was a shift towards how artillery was used to support an attack, instead of trying to destroy the enemy troops and fortification it shifted towards neutralizing the enemy, whereas neutralizing in this case means basically suppressing the enemy. The suppression should prevent the enemy from using his weapons effectively, thus the destruction of the enemies troops and equipment was not the primary objective of the artillery attack anymore. (The European Powers in the first World War: p. 74-76; BRITISH ARTILLERY IN WORLD WAR 2 )

The aim was to stun the enemy by a short preparation attack that lasted “only” hours instead of days. To achieve this the Germans used a three phase attacks the first attack was against the communication, command and control, the second phase aimed at the enemy artillery and the third phase was directed against the enemy infantry defending the front. The use of different types of gas shells and different types of artillery for specific targets increased the effectiveness of these attacks. After the successful applications of these techniques on the Eastern Front, they were used also in the German offensives in 1918. Soon all Western Allies adopted the German artillery techniques. (The European Powers in the first World War: p. 74-76)

Generally, the French usually were several step behind the German innovations, quite in contrast to the British, which in certain areas were actually were more advanced than the Germans. (The European Powers in the first World War: p. 75-76) The British seemed to have developed independently to the Germans similar ideas on neutralizing the enemy with the use of gas and other means, although some these principles were not used or delayed due to prejudices of the Commander-in-Chief. Probably most notable is the battle of Cambrai in November 1917, where the British used their artillery in a new way. They use gas and smoke to neutralize the enemy and at the same time achieved surprise by moving the guns at night and proper camouflage. Unlike the Germans the British used large-scale tank attacks and adapted their tactics for supporting tanks accordingly. (Steel Wind: p. 114-116)

Summary / Conclusion

To summarize, the First World War saw an extensive change in the use of artillery, first it was deployed and used almost like in Napoleonic times, yet soon it was forced off the front lines due to overwhelming fire power. This resulted in a switch to indirect fire, which the armies were mostly not adequately equipped nor trained for. After adapting indirect fire, the artillery was seen as a tool for everything from destroying enemy obstacles to annihilating enemy troops, a task that it was not suited for.In the final phase it was deployed and used with a clear focus on its abilities and usefulness against specific targets, which resulted in major success and the establishment of effective principles. These principles to a large degree are still the core of modern day artillery to this day.


Zabecki, David T.: Steel Wind – Colonel Georg Bruchmüller and the Birth of Modern Artillery ( affiliate link)

Zabecki, David T.: Artillery in The European Powers in the First World War ( affiliate link)

Dastrup, Boyd L.: The field artillery: history and sourcebook ( affiliate link)


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Online Resources


Marble, Sanders: the Infantry cannot do with a gun less – The Place of the Artillery in the BEF, 1914-1918f

My favorite Version of Green Fields of France by Dropkick Murphys:

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