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Weapons of World War One:
Artillery  pt2


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When the Western Front bogged down into trench warfare, long range guns became more useful. These large caliber weapons were often the only way to destroy concrete bunkers. Their weight however was detrimental to their mobility as they had to be set into concrete platforms to deal with their massive recoil. These problems were at least partially solved by mounting them onto trains that were already designed to carry extreme weights and could slide back down the rail on a rolling recoil when the gun was fired. There is a long history of mounting guns onto trains. When they were to be used in forward position and directly engage the enemy they were usually armored, but most of these railway guns were only used to bombard enemy positions while situated far behind the front lines.

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Typically railway guns were of the size that would normally only be carried on battleships. There were already quite a number of surplus guns in the U.S. Navy’s arsenal, having been manufactured but prohibited from mounting on ships due to treaty restrictions. Some of these were used in coastal defense, but others began being shipped to France once America entered the War. The sturdiness and consistent reliability of the rail system allowed these heavy guns to be transported where no road could ever take them. Their exceptionally long range allowed them to bombard enemy positions while remaining out of enemy counter-battery fire. Unfortunately the long barrels of these guns had a very short lifespan as the bore expanded with every round fired. Barrels constantly needed to be replaced, which was no small task on a gun this size.

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The French and the Germans both deployed railway guns. The French 400mm railway howitzer was introduced in 1916 and used until the end of the war to pound at German bunkers. Railway guns were not always easy to use as the gunners could not see their targets and were dependent on forward observers. Despite developing various methods to control their stability, the great recoil of these guns could still shift a railcar’s position, which also added to problems with aiming. They were at their best when firing at large targets that did not require precision accuracy. They could hit a city but not a specific building in that city. In general they were more useful as psychological weapons by raising fear in people who thought they were safe.

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In 1918 the Germans manufactured a naval gun so powerful it was able to bombard Paris from a distance of 81 miles, and was subsequently nicknamed The Paris Gun (Pariskanone). Though mounted on a rail car it was still manned by a naval crew. The trajectory of its shell reached heights that were not surpassed until the space age. While it caused panic in the streets, it use was rather pointless as it played no strategic role in the War. The damage it caused to the city was displayed on many French postcards; another example of German barbarity. The Paris Gun was one of the few to which actual credit was given for the destruction depicted on postcards.

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There are countless scenes of ruins portrayed on postcards from World War One, most no doubt created thorough the use of artillery. It is the rare card however that makes a direct link between damage and its cause. These curiosities were more appealing to publishers when damage from a single shell can be visually isolated for it provides a better understanding of the power of large guns.

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Large railway guns appear much more often on real photo postcards than on drawn ones. Many of these cards also show them on display after their capture. While railway guns were less prone to capture than those mounted on stationary platforms, it became impossible for the Germans to pull many of these guns back with their retreating troops near the end of the war once rail lines were cut by bombardment or air raids.

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As the usefulness of high trajectory weapons became apparent, all sides began producing more of these weapons. Ammunition for them had also changed shifting from shrapnel towards high explosives. These shells usually detonated on contact making them deadlier within a confined space like a trench; and they were also more effective in clearing tangles of barbed wire. By 1915 the Allies began experimenting with the creeping barrage; a heavy concentrated bombardment laded down in a line that would advance toward the enemy with infantry following close behind on the attack. While it was never able to completely destroy everything in its path as expected, it did weaken defenses considerably and made it very difficult to reinforce forward positions to launch counter attacks. By 1918 it became standard practice to initiate a creeping barrage whenever an attack was made, and increasing Allied fire power made it all the more effective.

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While the centuries old use of gunpowder was still used as a propellant to fire artillery rounds during World War One, it proved inadequate as the explosive packed inside of a modern shell. As guns grew larger so did the shells they fired; but exploding gunpowder did not have the power to properly blast these large shells apart in a way that would cause serious damage. Trinitate based explosives would detonate all at once releasing far more energy but these substances were very volatile and dangerous to handle. The larger charge needed to fire these heavier shells had a tendency to set off the powder in the shell while still in the barrel of the gun. This problem was solved by Eugene Turpin in 1885 when he found a way to properly weaponize trinitates into a stable high explosive called Melinite. The formula for high explosives continued to evolve differently in different nations, sometimes subject to the resources available to them; but this discovery allowed all to use larger guns to deadlier effect in the Great War than ever seen before.

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As guns grew larger, the shells fired from them almost became as great a curiosity. The public was familiar with older type shells and cannonballs that were heavy but could still be lifted by a single man. These new behemoths were almost impossible to comprehend. Since small and large shells have roughly the same shape, it is usually difficult to ascertain their true proportions without something to reference it to. Soldiers or artillery men can often be found posing with shells. A favorite of photographers seems to have been to pose small children next to these monsters. Not only did they enhance the sense of scale, the pairing creates an immediate emotional discord. One cannot help but think of the deaths of innocent children caused by the explosive power of these weapons.

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Before an infantry attack began it was proceeded by an artillery barrage to soften up the enemy line. The effectiveness of this fire was usually critical to the success of an offensive, but it rarely met expectations even after days or weeks of bombardment. Attempts were made at improving strategy, but too often the wrong type of ammunitions was used to achieve the task at hand, and faulty detonators resulted in excessive duds that failed to saturate targets. The Germans learned to keep their front line lightly manned sending most of their troops down into deep protective bunkers so they would be ready for the enemy when they poured into no manís land. It was said that those in London knew when an attack on the Western Front was coming despite the lack of reporting because they could hear the intense artillery fire over the Channel. It is not really possible to capture the scale of these bombardments through postcards, though some try.

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Despite the fact that photographers tended not to work on the battlefront, and few would venture out of shelters to observe a artillery barrage, there are a fair amount of postcards that capture explosions. They are rarely put into any sort of context as to time or place or even what we are looking at. This makes most of these images of single explosions are suspect for they also tend to be well composed as if the photographer was waiting for the shot. What is captured on these cards may be nothing more than practice shots or planned detonations of unexploded shells. Considering the amount of shell fire and private cameras around, there is however a great probability that at least some of these images were produced during actual combat. The rawness of some compositions can enhance this belief. There is also a danger of confusing war scenes with cards produced from movie stills in postwar years.

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The damage caused by artillery fire on the front lines was commonly reproduced on postcards, especially on real photos. There are countless pictures of ruins, shell holes, torn up trenches, and even shells exploding. One hole in the ground however looks a lot like the next, and the makeshift nature of many trenches did not express this type of damage well. The focus of photographers often shifted to the damage inflicted on trees because of this. While trees could only be hit in so many ways and still left standing, the variety of wild displays of splintered wood sculptured by a passing shell sometimes seems endless.

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As a massive wartime effort went into manufacturing ammunition, many of the fuses needed to detonate artillery shells were rushed into production. This resulted in many faulty fuses that account for the vast majority of unexploded shells that littered the battlefields. Other shells were designed only to explode on contact with a hard surface, which muddy battlefields did not always supply. Of the hundreds of millions of shells fired, about thirty percent were duds that failed to explode. Most of these buried themselves deep into the earth and are yet to be found, but depending on their trajectory many just wound up laying spent on the ground or embedded in tree trunks. This subject seemed to fascinate photographers of all nations.

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While some shells were informally collected as souvenirs, others were specifically gathered for reuse. Shells that did not detonate still contained valuable high explosives that could be put to other uses or the entire shell might be reused if fitted with a new fuse. The large amount of unexploded shells strewn across battlefields made this a worthwhile activity. Shells from enemy guns were often of the wrong caliber, but rounds fired from trench mortars could more easily be reused. They also needed to be cleared from back areas to avoid accidental detonations during the course of everyday activities.

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Duds were the subject of many postcards, lying harmlessly on the ground, and a favorite accompaniment to photo portraits of soldiers if they lived to send the card. It is of course impossible to know the true status of the shells pictured on postcards or how knowledgeable were the men posing with them. Were these unexploded shells or were they disarmed? Handling an unexploded shell was and remains dangerous as jammed fuses can unexpectedly release. Many solders seeking war trophies were killed by these shells or by their fuses. Unexploded ordinance remains a huge hazard in Europe today, still killing and maiming people every year.

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Since artillery shells were readily available to all armies, they became an informal convenience for transporting high explosives when needed for other purposes. Shells were most often used in demolition work when other explosives were not available. Sometimes they were also rigged to perform as booby traps by retreating troops.

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Though anti-personnel mines were not yet massed produced during World War One, makeshift models had been around for centuries. The Germans adapted such mines from artillery shells that they buried upright close to the surface of the ground. Much pressure was still needed to detonate them, so special fuses designed to make shells more sensitive were inserted when they were deployed this way. While these types of mines were not widely used, it was impossible to survive an encounter with one.

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Barbara became a venerated Saint in the third century after being beheaded by her pagan father Dioscorous for converting to Christianity. After the execution Dioscorous was struck by a bolt of lightning and consumed by fire. When early cannons were developed they were less than reliable weapons, often exploding and killing the gunners. It then became common for gunners to evoke St. Barbara for protection against sudden death by explosions. By World War One the danger of a gun accidentally exploding while being fired was greatly lessened but not eliminated. St. Barbara was still invoked for protection, and she had become the patron saint of artillery.

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While there seems to be countless cards that depict small and large guns alike, they don’t always capture their true essence. Artillery quickly became the terror of the battlefield during the Great War, causing the greatest amount of casualties. Combat scenes can show the drama of these guns in action in an attempt to evoke a thrilling response from the viewer but they do not necessarily express the feelings of soldiers who lived to experienced the results. Some cards that take a more symbolic approach in their rendition of guns create a sort of dark poetry. On some cards we find death co-inhabiting the trenches with soldiers as they do their dirty work together. By associating oneself with death, it is possible to establish a feeling of immunity from it.

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Although the use of artillery caused a great loss of life, living under constant bombardment and the fear of dying also led to psychological trauma that the men in the trenches termed shell shock. Symptoms included fatigue, tremors, confusion, nightmares and impaired sight and hearing (it should not be confused with Post Traumatic Syndrome). The condition was not well understood at the time with some so called professionals seeing it as an emotional issue while others thought it stemmed from actual brain injury. Many in the military refused to explain it away and they put shell shock victims on trial for cowardice; some being executed as a result. This is not a topic that officials wanted publicized back home, nor was it something that could easily be depicted on a postcard in any tangible form. Some however tried, and the most successful were satirical illustrators who presented the topic through black humor.

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Nenette and Rintintin are two cartoon-like characters that often show up on French postcards. They seem rather peculiar until you realize they represent handmade woolen dolls. These dolls were made by children as magical talismans, and passed on to family members as they went off to war. As civilians began suffering from the effects of war, many children began hanging these dolls from their bed at night so they would not be blown up by artillery while they slept. These dolls became a craze and depictions of them were soon placed on postcards. The postcard containing their image was then transformed into a good luck charm. French children would sometimes pass these cards out to Allied soldiers marching down their streets.

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Although European cities had grown too large by the 20th century to be surrounded by massive stone walls, they were often still protected by a series of forts that ringed them. These defensive works were usually placed so that one could support the next with overlapping fields of fire, or at the very least they controlled all major access points. The earliest of these fortifications had become outdated when high explosive shells capable of destroying them were introduced in 1885. Most of these had been modified by replacing brick with concrete and building underground chambers when the Great War started, though not all on the same level. Items such as large guns placed in revolving steel turrets were expensive to manufacture, so they were incorporated sparingly. It was still believed that forts could serve their main purpose; hold the enemy at bay until an army could be brought up to meet them in battle.

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The large guns in some of these forts were mounted in steel turrets similar to those found on modern warships. While they protected their crews, the gun barrel could still be easily damaged. This problem was solved by designing them to rest deep within the massive stone walls of the fortress (tourelle a eclipse). When a gun was ready to fire, a hydraulic system would raise the turret up above the wall, then lower it back into its protected position. To keep these turrets a manageable size, the ends of the gun barrels were cut off so the entire gun would fit inside. This meant a reduction in range but it was considered an acceptable compromise. A thick steel cap protected it from incoming fire, but a direct hit from the largest German guns would rip apart the bodies of the gun crew inside from the concussion alone.

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Though great hopes rested on these massive fortifications, the most outdated could not stand up to a prolonged bombardment by the new heavy caliber howitzers. German publishers produced many postcards showing the effect that their artillery had on these fortifications, often including gun turrets that were either shattered or displaced.

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Many artist drawn cards depict the battles for these forts, while real photo and photo-based cards tend to show their ruins afterward. The crumbled pieces of these massive fortification are often such a jumble that they posed a real challenge to photographers to capture them in any meaningful way. While some cards do a good job in presenting the subject, most are too abstract to inform the uneducated eye to what they are looking at. Posing soldiers are often included just to give some sense of scale.

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The best constructed forts of reinforced concrete were hardly antiquated, and it was shown that they were capable of offering a tremendous defense. When they fell it was often due to the poor use of them. They were not always properly garrisoned or supported by infantry, which allowed enemy guns to get in too close. Nearly all had design flaws that added to their downfall. Some had no source of water while others were constantly flooded. The biggest problem by far was the lack of adequate ventilation. White their confined chambers provided safety, the heat inside could become unbearable. If filled with fumes and smoke from exploding shells, confinement could be literally suffocating.

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When protecting a harbor or a coastline, mobility is usually not an issue when it comes to placing artillery. Guns always have to be aimed at natural approaches to a guarded waterway forcing permanent batteries to be placed at strategic points. A variety of gun types are needed to deal with a variety of ships, but here there was no limit on the size that could be used. Large mounted guns were used for coastal defense in Europe, which were often armored and performed like a gun turret on a battleship. The construction of some of these coastal batteries during the war can be found on German artist drawn cards, but most of the actual guns seem to have been captured on photo-based or real photos cards produced after the War.

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The exact location of gun batteries were seldom indicated on cards printed during the War, but this changed once the conflict ended and cards were sold as souvenirs. Coastal batteries were placed where they would be of military value, which means some were built in the middle of nowhere while others were in placed highly populated areas. Belgian publishers depicted many of the damaged guns at Ostend because it returned to being a popular resort in postwar years, a place where postcards were normally sold in number.

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The greatest number of coastal defense postcards depict guns that were never fired against their enemies in the War. The United States had developed a massive coastal defense system due to its long coastline and long tradition against maintaining a standing army. These forts and batteries only needed to be manned if war was declared. While the United States has an enormous coastline, most of it is unsuitable for an amphibious invasion. Ports need to be captured in order to supply an invading army and so fortifications were concentrated around them or at choke point leading to them. This system had been recently enlarged and modernized due to the fears of an attack during the Spanish-American War.

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While a wide variety of guns were mounted in American forts, two became prominent and were widely reproduced on postcards. The first was the disappearing gun, issued in 8-, 10-, and 12-inch caliber. The largest gun could throw a 1000-pound shell up to eight miles. These guns were mounted on open barbette platforms but the walls of these new batteries were made of 20 feet of poured concrete faced with another 30 feet of earth. This offered great protection for the gun and its crew for the high parapet was impenetrable to all direct incoming fire. The gun itself was designed to be raised above it only when it was ready to fire, and then its recoil would jolt it back down to disappear from the enemies sight.

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Mortars were also often used as part of an overall defensive strategy in American forts. These 12-inch guns, usually placed in groups of four, would fire out from deep pits surrounded by massive walls Batteries would generally consist of two to four pits. The scheme was to fire all guns simultaneously at a single vessel, and if the aim were accurate, the ship’s deck would be peppered with 700-pound high explosive shells. While thick armor plating was designed to protect a ship’s hull from direct enemy fire, its weight also slowed its speed and increased its fuel consumption. To compensate for this burden most armored ships continued to be built with wooden decks that would normally be out of site to enemy guns. The high arc of a mortar shell however allowed it to plunge nearly straight down hitting a ship at its most vulnerable locations, and possibly even explode below deck.

(See Defending New York dated October 16, 2011, in the archive of the websites Blog section for more information on American coastal defense systems)




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