Learning Curve, The Great War
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Useful notes: Source1
Extracts from British Army handbooks showing different artillery pieces
(Catalogue ref: a. MUN 5/124/1000/47, b. MUN 5/124/1000/49, c. WO 33/934)
  • Sources 1a-b show just two examples of the hundreds of different types of artillery that were developed and used during the Great War. The reference to inches describes the width of the gun barrel and therefore the size of the shell.
  • Howitzers were heavy weapons designed to destroy trenches and other defences. Their main characteristics were that they fired large explosive shells in a high arc so that they came down with devastating effect. There were other types of heavy guns as well, which fired shells in a slightly flatter arc. Their job was to destroy defences and trenches, but also to destroy the enemy's guns.
  • The other main types of guns were field guns. These were smaller and easier to move around. They were used at closer ranges than the big guns to fire high explosive but also shrapnel shells (which exploded in the air sending out a lethal spray of tiny metal bullets). Field guns also fired smoke and gas shells. Smoke and gas were generally used to help cover an attack by the infantry.
  • Artillery became increasingly powerful and reliable. In the early stages of the war, German artillery was generally superior to British and French. From 1914-16, British forces were plagued by guns that blew up or were inaccurate. They also suffered from shortages of shells. Another problem was faulty shells that did not explode.
  • By 1917, many of the early problems had been solved. British artillery was accurate and effective. Gunners could give maximum protection to advancing troops as well as accurately smashing enemy defences. They used smoke and gas effectively. They also used split second timing and information from aircraft to cover troops and attack defensive positions. British artillery became more than a match for German artillery in terms of numbers of guns, accuracy and power.
  • It is a common belief that the main cause of casualties in the Great War was machine gun fire. This is not true. Artillery bombardments were by far the main cause of casualties for both attackers and defenders. In addition to the direct effect of bombardment, many soldiers suffered psychological damage from the fear of bombardments and also the noise of their own and enemy guns.
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