The book The Infantry cannot do with a gun less written by Sanders Marble traces the evolution of the British Royal Artillery during World War I from its pre-war roots as a supporting arm to the infantry to becoming an integral part of the British Expeditionary Force’s combined arms doctrine at the end of the war.
Pre-war doctrine for the Royal Artillery stressed mobile warfare where gunners advanced closely with infantry and fired deadly sharpnel rounds directly over open sights – suitable for an era where massed infantry fought in the open and won battles with proper indoctrination on “strong offensive spirit”, sheer will and the sharp ends of their bayonets. Tactics were thus relatively unsophisticated and technical gunnery skills found little favour with artillerymen at the start of World War I.
The horrendous casualties for both the Allies and Central Powers early in the war resulted from both sides repeatedly attempting to reuse outdated offensive tactics as the war on the Western Front gradually transformed into the infamous deadlock of trench warfare, while blindly ignoring the fact that technological progress now heavily favored the entrenched defenders. The book explains how unwieldy chains of command, primitive communication channels together with unrealistic expectations of gun and shell capabilities and a serious lack of shells affected to the Royal Artillery’s ability to fully support the infantry in the attack.
As the war progressed, the Royal Artillery sought new and better ways to fulfill its primary objective : to kill, suppress and demoralize the enemy infantry and machinegunners in the trenches so as to allow the British infantry to succesfully close into assault range.
The need for a heavy and sustained artillery bombardment before any major assault to destroy enemy trenches, strongpoints and barbed wire obstacles meant giving the Germans early warning of an impending offensive, a problem that had no satisfactory solution despite the best attempts of the British Expeditionary Force. I always thought that the massive artillery bombardment was to neutralize enemy machinegunners waiting in the trenches, having read much about the fearsome toll that machineguns exacted on attacking infantry, but the artillery served a far more important purpose – to blast passages through the dense barbed wire obstacles that could effectively prevent infantry from reaching the enemy trenches.
Photo of 8-inch howitzers from the 39th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery taken from Wikipedia Commons.
It was not until the advent of the tank which could easily crush barbed wire under its steel tracks and create gaps for the following infantry that the preliminary wire-cutting bombardment could be entirely eliminated. (see www.webmatters.net for a very detailed explanation on how these early tanks revolutionized the tactics for trench assault). Tanks did not entirely eliminate the need for artillery as they still needed the gunners to assist in destroying enemy artillery which could easily knock them out. Pilots from the Royal Flying Corps (the forerunner of the Royal Air Force) assisted in the Royal Artillery’s counter-battery role by spotting and relaying the positions of enemy guns.
Near the end of the war, the increased focus on technical skills for gunners allowed more effective usage of artillery as the guns and howitzers could be calibrated without the need to fire ranging shots and then manually adjusting fire (and warning the enemy). Improved organization of artillery assets also meant that heavy firepower could be concentrated and delivered to critical points along the front both offensively and defensively. Creeping and lifting barrages were also developed late in the war by the Allies to pour down a withering storm of shells to keep enemy infantry inside their trenches until the attacking troops were almost on top of them.
These improved tactics and techniques were used to good effect at the start of the Battle of Cambrai on 20 November 1917 as 1,003 guns blasted German defences in a sudden barrage as 381 tanks rumbled towards the enemy trenches with infantry in tow. The resulting tactical surprise led to a far more successful initial advance than conventional attacks with larger gains and comparatively fewer casualties. (once again, refer to www.webmatters.net for an excellent account about this battle). 1,003 artillery pieces might seem a lot but the Third Battle of Ypres several months year utilized even more – over 2,000 pieces – and for a two-week long bombardment before commencing the actual attack.
The history lessons that I took years ago only mentioned how combat arms like the infantry and armour won battles with the effective support of the Royal Artillery and its dominance over its German counterpart late in the war. This book is particularly interesting for me then as it fills some of the gaps in my history texts and might probably be equally useful to students of the Great War.
Read The Infantry cannot do with a gun less online or download as a series of PDFs. You can join the downloaded PDFs into a single PDF using the freeware PDFTKBuilder.
MORE @ THE DOWNLOAD MUNKEY:
A Simulation of Trench Warfare : Warfare 1917
War and Game – Military History Blog
Iron Grip : Warlord Demo Impressions
US Army Center of Military History Prints
Firefight – WWII Infantry Tactics Simulator
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