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Thursday, 16 August 2012

BEF & CEF Artillery Units & Weapons

From the early days of the war, Canadian soldiers enlisted in artillery units that supported British, Canadian and other Allied troops on the Western Front.  Soldiers who enlisted during the first year of the war served in artillery units attached to the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).  With the creation of the Canadian Corps in September 1915, each Canadian Infantry Division contained artillery units composed of Canadian officers and soldiers.  As the war progressed, artillery units underwent significant changes in both organization and weaponry.

Before the war, "heavy batteries" fulfilled the role of "general purpose heavy artillery" and were considered the most important artillery units in the British army.  Twenty-six heavy battery units existed at war's outbreak.  In contrast, the lighter-armed "siege batteries" were regarded as "specialized units" to be utilized only in specific situations.  Only eight siege batteries existed prior to the war's outbreak, and none accompanied the British forces that departed for France in August 1914.

Heavy battery in action on the Western Front.
As the BEF engaged German forces along the Western Front, the heavy battery's shortcomings soon became apparent.  Their long-range, heavy guns - mainly the British-manufactured "60 pounder" - proved ineffective in destroying enemy trenches, as well as the barbed wire strewn across the battlefield.  Nor were they effective in silencing rival German artillery batteries.  A dramatic reversal of roles occurred during the first two years of the war.  By mid-1916, the more lightly equipped and mobile "siege battery" replaced the "heavy battery" as the preferred artillery unit, playing an increasingly significant role in the battles fought during the war's last two years.

The siege battery thus became the most common field artillery unit created during the war.  A total of six units were mobilized in August 1914.  By 1916, there were 221 siege batteries in existence.  In comparison, the number of heavy batteries increased at a much more modest pace - from the initial 26 to approximately 130 -over the same time period.  As the war moved into its final two years, the BEF actually disbanded several heavy battery units in order to create additional siege batteries.

CEF siege battery on the Western Front.
An examination of the weaponry used by each battery type helps explain this dramatic shift.  Heavy batteries relied upon two weapons, both of which proved ineffective in combat along the Western Front.  The traditional heavy artillery weapon was the British-manufactured QF 4.7 inch gun.  Initially deployed as naval and coastal defence weapons during the late 1880s and 1890s, the gun was simply mounted on a wheeled carriage to create a long range gun for the British Army.  Its precise bore measurement was 120 mm - approximately 4.7 inches in its British designation.

QF 4.7 inch gun mounted on a carriage.
Ninety-two QF 4.7 inch guns were used by the Royal Garrison Artillery during the first three years of the war, significantly outnumbering their more modern counterpart - the "60 pounder" - in the early battles.  Their primary role was to counter enemy artillery fire, but repeated use in combat soon revealed serious flaws.  The guns became increasingly inaccurate through wear, and their relatively light artillery shells inflicted little damage on well-fortified German trenches.  By 1916, the 4.7 inch was gradually replaced by the more modern "60 pounder" as the latter became available, and the weapon was completely removed from Western Front artillery units by April 1917.

The "60 pounder" BL Mk I field gun became the preferred heavy artillery weapon of the war.  It was first introduced in 1904 after the Boer War demonstrated the need for a heavy, long-range support weapon.  Its 127 mm barrel could fire a 27.3 kg shell - shrapnel or HE (high explosive) - a maximum distance of 9.4 kilometres.  However, the weapon was available only in limited numbers during the first two years of the war.

BL Mk I "60 pounder" in action at Gallipoli, June 1915.
The 60 pounder's gun and cradle could be pulled back onto its "box trail" for better weight distribution during transport, although its 4.47 ton weight made rapid redeployment a challenge.  During the war, revised shell design increased its range to 11.2 kilometres.  By 1916, an improved model - the Mk II -  was developed.  A longer barrel and increased elevation expanded its range to 14.1 kilometres.  This new model, however, did not see service during World War I, but was used extensively throughout the early years of the Second World War.

The long range capability of the heavy battery's weapons proved effective in targeting areas behind the German front lines, disrupting the flow of supplies and reinforcements.  However, the difficulty of dismantling and transporting such large guns made them much less effective on the battlefield.  In addition, the 60 pounder, like all "high velocity" weapons, was most effective in attacking "point targets" that possessed "a pronounced vertical face", such as buildings or high walls.  They were not suited for the task of destroying such "flat" targets as trenches, barbed wire and artillery positions.  These weaknesses explain the gradual but dramatic shift away from heavy batteries toward siege batteries during the first two years of the war.  The siege battery's main weapons - the 6 inch and 9.2 inch howitzer - proved to be much more effective on the battlefield.

At the beginning of the war, the BL 6 inch 30cwt howitzer was the most common weapon deployed by siege batteries.  First introduced in 1896, the "back loaded" (BL) medium howitzer was quickly adopted by the British Army.  The designation "30cwt" refers to the weight of the barrel and breach - 3507 kg.  The gun utilized a recoil system of springs mounted beneath the barrel.  Placed on a simple gun carriage (an axle and two wheels), it had no "traverse" (side to side) capability without physically moving the entire unit.  Maximum barrel elevation was  35 degrees, which limited its range.

BL 6 inch 30cwt howitzer.
The 6 inch howitzer fired a 53.75 kg shell a maximum distance of 4755 meters.  It was initially designed to fulfil two different roles on the battlefield.  As a field gun, it could be mounted on a short, conventional two-wheel carriage.  As a siege gun, where a higher firing angle and "plunging fire" were required, the wheels were removed and the gun carriage was mounted on a heavy wooden platform measuring 3.6 meters square.  Three layers of planks were placed into the ground and bolted together, and the gun was then attached to the platform.  This deployment increased elevation to 70 degrees and range to 6400 meters.

An improved design - the 6 inch 26cwt howitzer - was developed in 1915 to replace the older 30cwt.  While only slightly lighter, the new model featured an improved hydro-pneumatic recoil system, a traverse that allowed the gun to rotate 4 degrees to the left or right, and an elevation range from 0 to 45 degrees.  The 26cwt was capable of firing a 45 kg shrapnel shell a distance of 8.7 kilometers.  Lighter weight, 39 kg shells increased the range to 10.4 km.  The weapon was also capable of firing a pure HE shell, previously used only in heavy battery weapons.

6 inch 26cwt howitzer in action (1918).
The 26cwt howitzer made its debut during the Battle of the Somme, the major British offensive launched on July 1, 1916.  It proved to be one of the few weapons capable of cutting through the enemy's barbed wire and was equally effective in destroying German front line dugouts.  Its weight, however, meant that large teams of horses were required to move the weapon.  Mechanized vehicles - particularly the Holt tractor - were therefore used for transportation whenever possible. 

The 6 inch 26cwt howitzer became the "work horse" of British artillery, firing a total of 22.4 million rounds on the Western Front.  It was used well into World War II before being replaced by more modern guns.  While the 6 inch howitzer was a vital resource on the battlefield, as the war progressed it was gradually replaced by a newer, more effective gun - the BL 9.2 inch howitzer.

Based on the German-designed Skoda 9.45 inch gun used during the Boer War, the BL 9.2 inch howitzer became the main "counter-battery" weapon employed by British forces during the First World War.  British industry began work on a redesigned model in 1910, with the focus on reducing the Skoda's high minimum elevation.  The first British prototype was tested in Wales in 1914 and production commencing the following year.  The prototype, affectionately nicknamed "Mother",  was shipped to France in August 1914 and put into action early the following year.  By the end of 1915, the 9.2 inch howitzer had become the weapon of choice for front line siege batteries.

9.2 inch BL Mk I howitzer in action (1917).
Like its German counterpart, the British model was transported in three parts - body and cradle, bed and barrel - each moved on a separate wagon either by horse or Holt tractor.  Its main disadvantages were connected to this design feature.  First, the 9.2 inch howitzer could not be fired directly from its travelling carriage, unlike similar weapons - the 8 inch howitzer, for example.  The fact that it had to be dismantled and re-assembled increased the time and effort required for relocation.  These weaknesses, however, were tolerated because of its main advantage.  When properly mounted, it proved to be the most accurate of the heavy howitzers used during the war.

The 9.2 inch howitzer also employed a newly designed, hydro-pneumatic recoil system that quickly became the standard for subsequent British artillery guns.  While the initial Mk I model had a relatively limited range of 9186 meters, an improved Mk II model employed a longer barrel and heavier maximum propellant charge, increasing range to 12 800 meters.  The gun's shorter barrel length, adopted to make the weapon more mobile, meant that it rose into the air when fired.  To compensate for this problem, an "earth box" was attached to its front and filled with 9 tons of soil.

By the end of 1916, 230 of the newly designed 9.2 inch howitzers had been delivered to artillery units in France.  The gun gradually replaced the 6 inch howitzer as the preferred siege battery weapon, and was capable of firing an estimated 2 rounds a minute.  The barrel of the Mk I model had a predicted life of 6000 combat rounds, while the improved Mk II model fired a higher velocity shell that reduced its lifespan to 3500 rounds.  Both guns fired HE (high explosive) shells filled with Amatol, Trotyl (TNT) or Lyddite, weighing 290 pounds (132 kg) apiece.  During the last year of the war, the 9.2 was also used to fire mustard gas shells, although only a small quantity - 7000 shells - was produced. 



Artillery of the Great War.  Landships.  Available online.

BL 9.2 inch Howitzer.  Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.  Available online.

Gudmundson, Bruce.  The British Army on the Western Front 1916.  Oxford, England: Osprey Publishing (2005).

QF 4.7 inch Gun Mk I - IV.  Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.  Available online

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