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Weapons of World War One:
Smoothbore cannons, which began as a battlefield novelty in 14th century Europe, eventually became an essential part of combined arm tactics. Changes to their design however were only modest until the 19th century when the rifling of gun barrels, and rear gun breaches were introduced. Smokeless high explosives had also replaced brown powder allowing guns to fire larger and more deadly shells. By World War One technological advances in both guns, explosives, and shells had rendered artillery far more destructive to both men and property than anyone realized was possible. The majority of casualties from this War would be caused by artillery fire.
Artillery was used in different ways for different purposes, which required a variety of gun types to be manufactured. The traditional use was to have multiple guns organized into batteries for infantry support in both offensive and defensive actions. These field guns, operating on the battlefield were common to all armies and many different types were illustrated on postcards. Two types of guns in particular, the French 75mm and the German howitzer, exemplify the changing technologies of the times; and they are both well illustrated on postcards.
The French 155mm gun, designed in 1877 was made in short and long barreled models. At the time it was the most modern of weapons but already an antique by the 20th century. The carriage holding it was massive for it needed to be able to absorb the powerful recoil of the gun when fired. Even with this weight holding it down, the gun would be thrown out of position with every round expended requiring the following shot to be carefully re-aimed. This severely limited its rate of fire, and its great weight cut down on the gun’s mobility. They were still used extensively in the Great War but usually placed in defensive positions.
The French 75mm field gun by contrast was one of the best designed. It was the first in 1897 to be fitted with a long piston recoil mechanism, meaning that only the gun barrel would slide backwards after firing. The gun left sitting in its original position made it possible for it to be fired again without re-aiming. This allowed for more accuracy and a faster rate of fire that could more easily cut down advancing infantry. This gun however was hand made, and before the end of 1914 they were being lost to wear faster than they could be replaced.
The power and efficiency of the French 75mm guns made them well trusted among their crews, which earned them a particular affection. They were dubbed Mademoiselle Soixante-Quinze (Miss Seventy-five) and appear on numerous French propaganda cards. They do not just take part in battle but are often shown as the guarantor of victory and the savior of France. Their great reputation however helped cause the production of other types of guns that were needed to be overlooked. Due to the highly politicized and inefficient nature of the Supreme War Council, France would lack the artillery to fight a modern war in 1914.
While the French 75 was an outstanding weapon, it soon encountered difficulties once the Western Front transformed from an open battlefield to a static defense. It was designed to directly fire into an enemy line but when placed in a forward trench it became too vulnerable to enemy fire. This caused these guns to be placed further back out of the enemy’s sight, but now the gunners could no longer see their enemy requiring forward observers to aim for them. This solution proved problematic for communication was always tenuous during a battle. Another problem with this gun was its inadequate angle of elevation. Where it could easily cut down men in an open field, its close to flat trajectory had little effect against defenders of entrenchments.
Since artillery generally functioned at long ranges, it was important for them to work with observers who would carefully monitor the results of each shot and call out the adjustments needed to allow more accurate fire. This was often a difficult task before smokeless black powder was developed in the 1890’s as battlefields often became obscured. Height always gave an advantage to observation so a number of devices, including the gunís own caisson were often employed for these purposes. Many of these were only practical out on maneuvers since they provided a very tempting target for enemy gunners. Eventually most observers used steeples or were hidden away in trees or haystacks. The more unusual the observation post, the more likely it was to be depicted on postcards.
Accurate observation combined with rapid communication became critical when indirect long range artillery was introduced. Many postcards of all nations capture the lengths that observers would go to in order to get a clear line of sight to the target. This was dangerous work as the enemy was always on the lookout to destroy such positions, so these cards sometimes depict camouflaged observation posts as well as observers getting shot. Eventually acoustic sound detectors were developed for locating enemy guns that could be kept out of sight. This was extremely important after the Germans started using flashless powders in 1917 that did not give away their position. With the aid of trigonometry, multiple devices could be used to triangulate the position of a firing gun, and then this information could be used for accurate counter battery fire. To counter this method of detection, multiple batteries sometimes used telephones to coordinate firing their guns simultaneously.
It was not always easy to determine enemy dispositions from a distance. Making accurate judgements was often a matter of life and death to many, but the need did not always guarantee ability. Each side try to give away as little as possible by hiding equipment in underground bunkers and through the use of camouflage, which was turned into a science. Occasionally more primitive methods were used such as constructing dummy guns from wood. This could give the enemy the impression that positions were more highly defended than they actually were. Sometimes such a ruse was used to make the enemy believe that a line was still stubbornly held when a withdrawal had been made. While many of these dummy guns were presented on postcards in humorous ways, some cards reproduce actual front line sketches of them.
Germany had concentrated on manufacturing high trajectory guns that were easier to conceal and whose shells had the ability to fall into forts or trenches. Traditionally these weapons were not considered suitable for anything but siege warfare because their downward recoil required them to be mounted on sturdy platforms. This problem however had been surmounted before the War so that 105mm howitzers became the standard issue for all German field units. While these guns were relatively small and had a shorter range, this allowed their shells to be designed to carry a higher ratio of high explosives thus delivering more destructive power.
France Entered the War with a severe shortage in heavy artillery, and steps to correct the situation were fraught with many problems. An interim solution was developed by Schneider who began producing a 155mm howitzer in 1915. Like the famed 75mm gun it had an effective recoil mechanism but it could be used for both direct and indirect fire. Its short gun barrel also aided its mobility. The French continued to refine this gun during the war, and it found use within American, Belgian, Italian, and Russian armies.
When 150mm and 210mm howitzers were redesigned to be lighter, they were able to be moved on roads and accompanied German units to the front. While still highly effective against fortifications, they suffered from their short range. Even so they often gave German troops a decisive edge in offensive actions. These heavy guns were widely used by the German army.
The Austrians and Germans also designed very large howitzers ranging from 210mm to 420mm. While these guns required platforms to be built to handle their massive recoil, they were far more mobile than the Allies anticipated. Their firepower proved essential in reducing the older forts on both the Eastern and Western Fronts that were thought impregnable. Batteries usually consisted of two guns, but they took 250 men to transport and operate. These guns were very popular subjects for postcards, often depicted to emphasize their ability to strike the enemy over long distances.
Though only the 420mm gun produced by Krupp was initially nicknamed Big Bertha, the term eventually came to be applied to all large German and Austrian guns. This wording can be found on many postcards, especially by Allied publishers.
The effectiveness of large howitzers quickly put them in the news and from there an audience grew seeking images of them. Postcard publishers obliged but not always in the same manner. Many guns were placed on real photo and photo-based cards, but if depicted in an action shot it is most likely simulated. Often these compositions are posed with the gunners carefully arranged around the perfect backdrop.
Sometimes crews are captured holding their ears as if the gun is about to fire. Even though most of these images were published as real photo cards, they demonstrate how far a photograph can be from capturing the truth. In reality the energy released from the recoil of a very big gun was powerful enough to kill. Gunners often wore protective padded clothing to protect their vital organs from being damaged through concussion, and stood a great distance back when the gun was to be fired through an electric switch.
Artists always had the luxury of depicting howitzers in action from their own imagination, and they did so in large numbers. These were usually more than just attempts to render an accurate narrative; the compositions tended to be overly dramatic often with flashes of fire against a night sky to increase the appeal of the card, thus increasing sales. This dynamic also had the consequence of increasing the romance forming around these weapons. Despite unlimited artistic license, no image seems to capture the awe inspiring experience people describe upon seeing these guns in action.
Early in the Great War the Allies expected that their large complexes of forts in Belgium would delay the German advance long enough to give them time to continue mobilizing their armies. When the large German guns began reducing these forts faster than expected, the Allied high command did not adjust to the changing situation, they just denied the guns that could do this existed. Troops on the ground could not help but face this harsher reality, and some became reluctant to man defenses that were up against these guns. While Allied propaganda cards derided the feeble German advance, German propaganda cards told a different story that often highlighted their big guns.
There seems to be countless French postcards not only praising their 75mm field gun but romanticizing it to mythic proportions. It may very well appear on more propaganda cards than those plainly displaying military equipment. While German publishers also glorified their guns, there is no real equivalent in attitude. The closest similarity is in depictions of their largest guns, but even here the representation is usually matter of fact. There are of course exceptions as on more generic patriotic cards. Occasionally German soldiers will be shown giving their gratitude to these big guns or their shells that can soften up enemy fortifications before an attack.
The largest howitzers weighed about 47 tons but they were made mobile if disassembled and moved as five separate pieces. This requirement was built into their design so that special carriages and tractors were readily available to move them. They also only took a relatively short time, about six hours, for an experienced crew to reassemble before they were ready for action. The uniqueness of these large guns created much curiosity, and postcards of them in transport are nearly as common as those of them in battle.
Though not as large as the German and Austro-Hungarian guns, the French finally began making up for their shortage in heavy artillery in 1917 when Schneider introduced the 155mm Canon de Grande Puissance Filloux. These guns began being put into service as soon as they left the factory, and production was also initiated in the United States once they entered the conflict. This gun became the standard heavy field gun of the French and Army in the latter half of the War. Their heavy weight mad them very cumbersome to move, and many were captured by the Germans during their spring offensive in 1918. While these guns are portrayed on many real photo cards and even photo-based cards, there are few artist renderings of this weapon. This may be at least partially due to shrinking public interest in the minutia of weaponry in the later years of the War.
Field guns were traditionally attached to a caisson that held their powder and ammunition, and both were pulled by a large teem of horses. There are numerous depictions in art of field artillery rushing into battle while under fire. The narrative is usually one expressing heroism as these men, not equipped for close combat, put themselves into extraordinary danger to close a gap the enemy might exploit. While such events took place they became a common theme in military painting, and the tradition was carried forward on postcards from the Great War.
While field guns were sometimes rushed into battle, this was not possible with the many large guns that were put into common use during World War One. It was difficult to move these guns under normal circumstances when transported by rail or by road, but the front lines proved quite different from traditional depictions. Not only was much of this terrain chopped up by long term artillery bombardment, it was very often a sea of mud. Very large teams of horses were usually employed just to get a large gun to creep along, and additional help was often needed from any soldier they could muster. While the reality of gun deployment was a far cry from the romantic tradition, such depictions eventually found their way onto postcards because it made the public at home appreciate the hardships that the troops at the front were facing while displaying the determination of their army.
The first tractors were steam powered farm vehicles with solid metal wheels developed in the early 19th century. Their ability to deliver high torque at slow speeds made them ideal for plowing. In 1906 Benjamin Holt replaced the wheels of the modern gasoline powered tractor with two sets of continuous belted tracks. The tracks were basically chains wrapped around wheels to which wide metal pads were attached to prevent the heavy vehicle from sinking into soft ground. Various types of caterpillar tractors were employed in the Great War for hauling supplies and heavy guns through the churned up muddy soil at the front lines. Though they proved very useful, their numbers were small compared to their need, and most hauling continued to be assigned to horses.
Tractors seemed to work miracles on muddy battlefields, but even they could not stand up to terrain churned up by massive bombardments and subsequently flooded by heavy rain. Often they were just left where they got stuck to become battlefield curiosities thus subject matter for photographers.
Guns in forts were often mounted in place but most other guns were equipped with iron wheels for mobility. Mobility of course is a relative term as it was always difficult to move heavy artillery. Wheels work fine on paved roads or even on packed dirt but these were not always available where guns needed to go. Caterpillar tractors were sometimes employed to move guns through rough terrain but they were not always available. It was found that the same principal behind their tracks could be applied directly to the wheels on artillery. They helped with mobility in muddy conditions while reducing the tendency of guns to roll when fired. These tracks were often chained onto the guns so that they could easily be removed should it ever return to a good road. Other guns had special extra wide wheels made for them that were deeply grooved.
If caterpillar tractors had the ability to pull large guns through difficult terrain, the next logical step was to create guns not only with tractor-like wheels but ones that were totally self-propelled. Light guns were already being mounted on the backs of trucks to give them greater mobility, but these vehicles were still confined to good roads and their tires could only take so much weight. By incorporating belted tracks in the design of self-propelled guns they not only gained greater mobility, it allowed larger guns to be mounted and deployed. Such designs however only came into production towards the end of the War and few saw any service.
Anti-aircraft guns began being mounted on the backs of trucks prior to World War One. Larger guns were latter mounted on vehicles known as auto cannons or auto artillery, particularly in Italy. Since many of these weapons were only produced in small numbers, they did not necessarily receive much attention in their time and are often overlooked today. Many of the cards that do represent unusual weapons were published by their manufacturers for publicity. It is not beyond reason to say that postcards might be the only medium that some weapons are recorded on.
It was not just a matter of getting guns to the front lines, ammunition for them had to be transported as well. This task was largely preformed by horse pulled carts though trucks, sleds, narrow gauge railroads, and motorized vehicles were also used. While an extremely common sight on the front, the transport of shells is rarely depicted on postcards.
Once ammunition was transported to the front it still had to reach individual guns. Winding and narrow trench lines usually prevented quantities being carried in by convenient means. Sometimes it came down to transport by hand. Special coats were developed so that a single soldier could carry two reasonably sized shells in its oversized pockets. Even when ammunition managed to be stockpiled, getting large heavy shells to a gun was a difficult task. This had to be done in a hurry if a high rate of effectual fire was to be achieved. Tracks were often laid between each gun and the ammunition pile that accommodated a small carriage that could be pulled by hand. While rarely the subject of postcards, these laid tracks can often be spotted in portrayals of big gun batteries.
Heavy artillery bombardments were usually called up before a major attack. These could last for only a few hours but they more often lasted for many days. The amount of shells eaten up by such bombardments was enormous, and ammunition had to be stockpiled long before an attack took place. The length of time involved was not just tied to production but the ability of the local transportation network to get it to where it was needed. Because of its weight, most ammunition traveled from the munitions factory to the front by rail. This meant that offensive action was always hampered on the Eastern Front by Russia’s poor rail network. Industrial capacity also mattered. The French could not produce as much ammunition as they needed and they quickly became dependent of American supplies.
The great use of artillery in World War One led to an unprecedented amount of killing through indirect means. While gunners surly knew they were killing people, they rarely saw the harvest of their labor. Some claim this divorce between actions and results makes it easier for men to kill, but it also reduces the satisfaction of killing. Not all soldiers go off to war with bloodlust in their hearts, but there were many in and out of uniform who cried for death and revenge. One mildly expressive way of exercising these demons was for gunner to write messages to the enemy on shells before firing them. British postcards depicted shells with rude messages on them addressed to the Kaiser as a form of black humor.
On some fronts the terrain was so difficult that the use of any sort of vehicle for transporting both guns and ammunition was out of the question. While logic might dictate that artillery should not be used under these condition, its presence where it was difficult to deploy presented an advantage that could not be ignored. Guns were often disassembled and hauled up mountainsides by pack animals followed by caravans carrying artillery shells. In some places like the Dolomites separating Italy from Austria, the terrain was so steep and treacherous that even pack animals could not negotiate the terrain; but artillery was still brought in by manpower alone. Cards that depict such scenes are not meant to document as much as send the message that our troops can persevere in all circumstances.