You hooked your lanyard into that and when you pulled that this caused a flash – almost like striking a match – and the flash went through and impinged on the red end of the cartridge, thereby igniting the cartridge, and that blew the shell out…

Listen to the voices of those who were there or read the podcast transcript below.

Artillery played a huge role in the First World War and helped to shape how it was fought. Guns were used for a range of vital work – during battles and quiet periods; offensively and defensively. New wartime recruits to the Royal Artillery underwent training before being sent to the front. For commissioned officers, this was carried out at The Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. Although it was tough, Murray Rymer-Jones of the Royal Field Artillery enjoyed his time there.

You were nearly always on first parade, it was down at the riding school for riding. That was very popular in itself, because you must remember that all that first part and in the war, we practically lived on horses when we weren’t actually in action with the guns. But you went on with every sort of thing: classroom work; drill of course – particularly in the first part you passed out at drill and that was always my joy. I was always top at drill and in the gym. But you were very tired but you loved every moment of it.

In Germany, likewise, Paul Oestreicher found training with the Bavarian 4th Field Artillery Regiment at Augsburg to be hard-going.

The training changed from, say, being at the gun in the early morning at four o’clock – we went out with the guns to be trained there. In the afternoon we had horse cleaning and horse riding. Everything was quite pleasant but it was very hard for a boy who was not used to anything of the kind.  And the volunteers were really ridiculed and said they were just considered as human beings second class. ‘How could one be so stupid as to join voluntarily?’ these people said.

Operating an artillery piece was a complicated, technical process. Leonard Ounsworth, of the Royal Garrison Artillery, outlined the method of loading and firing a 60 pounder heavy field gun.

First of all you put the shell into the breech, then you have a long ramming tool, a drift they called it; you stand with your back to the gun and ram it home. When you’d put that in, you put the cartridge in. Then you closed the breech, which closed the breech block itself, had threads on it. Well then the lever had a link connecting it from the lever itself to the bottom of the breech block, and when you’ve closed the breech lever further, that link caused the breech block to revolve by sixty degrees, thereby locking all the threads together. Well then there was a hole right through the breech block by which means you ignited the cartridge.  You put in a little tube, revolved it ninety degrees, which locked it, and then there was a little loop on that, metal ring on that, and you hooked your lanyard into that and when you pulled that this caused a flash – almost like striking a match – and the flash went through and impinged on the red end of the cartridge, thereby igniting the cartridge, and that blew the shell out.

There was an inherent danger associated with working with guns. As S Baker of the Royal Garrison Artillery found, one threat to gunners was from shells that exploded too soon.

We got back to our rear billets and, before we got into the place where we were, a phone call come down and said that there was a terrible premature. There was two killed and one wounded. We went next day, had to pick up all the pieces. The poor bombardier that was in charge of that team, the camouflage was covered with flesh: he had the full lot of it. That was the only premature we had, thank God. I wouldn’t like… I don’t like them, not prematures.

There were a number of different types of shell, each with a specific use. British gunner Tom Brennan described those that he worked with.

There were four kinds of shells. There was a DA, direct action; there was a shell they used for blowing up billets and that which didn’t go off for a minute or so, it sunk in the ground before it went off, delayed action; then the third one was shrapnel; and the fourth was poison gas. They were all painted a different colour so that you’d know which one was which. At night time, if it was dark, you would know which shells you were going to fire.

The shells were very heavy, and had to be carried up by animals or men to the guns. William Towers of the Royal Field Artillery remembered the ill-fitting equipment he was given for doing this.

We had what we call a saddle thing, a big thing that went round your neck, and it had two leather handles and pockets in you could put shells in and then you’d carry them. But they were made for six foot-odd men and we wasn’t that, so your neck wasn’t carrying anything, you were carrying it all in your hands. Perhaps three or four shells and of course they weighed a bit and you wasn’t on carpeted floor, it were rough land and it was hard work especially if you were short. Because everything in the Army in those days was made for six footers. You see, they had to be a certain height before they’d take you in the Army, but now anybody goes in – during the war – anybody went in, but they didn’t think to alter these things. You were lucky if you got a tunic to fit you!

Ammunition Supply. An ammunition dump at a broad gauge and metro gauge railhead. Lorries loading to take ammunition to forward dump. © IWM (Q 10451)
An ammunition dump at a railhead. Lorries wait to take ammunition to a forward dump.

There was an issue with the reliability of ammunition. British artillery officer Maurice Laws explained the reason for this.

Early on, the shells were Lyddite filled and Lyddite was very good when you got it to detonate. But I don’t know whether it was fuses were bad or something was wrong, but we found that we did have quite a number of shells that didn’t detonate… exploded. Later of course they were all amatol fuelled and when they went off they were good. But the early, the sort of flood of shells started coming out, the early ones; there were an awful lot of duds. And on the Somme, 1916, I remember walking over and the place was littered with our shells which hadn’t gone off! That was bad fuses. But that was put right later on; they were very good.

In 1915, Britain was shaken by a ‘Shell Crisis’ which resulted in a shortage of ammunition at the front. British officer A Fletcher recalled the impact this had on his work at the Rouen Ammunition Depot that year.

The total stock couldn’t have exceeded about 2,000 rounds of ammunition, of all kinds. We used to issue it in half dozens, dozens, and sometimes single rounds to some of the bigger batteries, and I suppose one day’s loading would be a couple of railway trucks and of course it was perfectly absurd. The ammunition we had was treated as if it were gold ingots. It was laid out in very neat rows as it had to be counted every day and lined every day and dusted every day!

One of the most effective types of gun employed during the war was the howitzer. Royal Garrison Artillery officer Monty Cleeve outlined what the howitzer could do.

A howitzer fires upwards in a rather curved trajectory, so that when it arrives at the target it drops rather from the sky, so to speak, instead of the flatter trajectory of a gun which doesn’t rise quite so much. And a gun, shall we say, is superb for shooting at a battleship and a howitzer is superb for shooting at targets which are behind a hill, shall we say, or something like that. A lot of the enemy batteries were behind hills, so howitzers were ideal for that purpose and also for dropping down into trenches where there were minenwerfers and things like that, machine guns. A gun couldn’t touch a machine gun but we howitzers could.

Such was the high arc followed by howitzer shells that Royal Flying Corps pilot Cecil Lewis clearly remembered seeing one in flight.

Just as we were coming up towards Pozieres, I saw something moving like a lump. I really didn’t know what the devil it was. It was a mystifying sort of effect. Then I looked again and focused and about a hundred yards ahead, there was what was, in fact, the business part of a 9-inch howitzer shell, right at the top of its trajectory. It had come up like a lobbed tennis ball right up and down again and right at the top it was going quite slowly and it was a pretty hefty bit of metal, and it was turning in this sort of way before it gathered speed again just on the top of the trajectory and then it would go down. And this was such an extraordinary thing to see because no one imagined somehow you’d ever see a shell, you know. However, there it was. And I was able after having spotted it and there were two or three – the battery was evidently firing and we saw two or three shells – and you could even actually when you’d once caught them, you could follow them right down to burst.

Each gun was operated by a team of men, who had a specific role. Leonard Ounsworth described the members of his crew.

There was a sergeant in charge, he was regarded as No 1 – he was generally called No 1, you see. There was the limber gunner who opened and closed the breech when you were in action, and in normal times he serviced the gun, you know, he was in charge of cleaning it and all that sort of thing. Then there was the gun layer who of course he aimed the gun every time, and then the rest were ammunition numbers. There’s supposed to be a total of eight in the crew, but of course that was in theory because very often we didn’t have sufficient people on hand.

One vital aspect of a gun crew’s work was the registering of the guns on specific targets. Leslie Briggs explained why this was important.

Registration had to take place invariably when a battery moved from one position to another – or from one front to another – in order that the battery commander would know exactly where he stood in relation to the enemy’s positions, his trenches and so on. In other words, to definitely register and calibrate his guns, so that the figures were known there immediately if any S.O.S. was put up by the infantry, or if there was a call for a barrage. He would know exactly where to put that down because he had pre-registered it all. His calibrations were all there in his battery office. He knew to get to a certain line he had got to correct his guns to that for deflection, elevation for range and so on.

Guns were located in gun pits, where they had a good field of fire but could be hidden out of the direct sight of the enemy. They were difficult to manoeuvre into position, particularly in waterlogged ground – as Cyril Dennys found out at Passchendaele in 1917.

They used to have to lay a platform – this was the great trouble – because the guns were very heavy and the ground was absolutely a bloody bog, we used to call it. Consequently they used to have to get tree trunks and things and make a platform. So we built for each of the four howitzers, we built a platform. You wanted – and of course you always had in normal battle – the gun in a pit, but at Ypres you very often couldn’t do that because the water level was too high. So we used to make a sandbag, or double sandbag, wall around them, round the edges of the gun pit and hope that we didn’t get too near or close a round.

Artillery pieces were extremely cumbersome, and were transported by horses or motorised vehicles. But guns often became stuck. This happened to Royal Field Artillery driver T Berry while he was serving in Mesopotamia.

Well, we got to this bog three days from Basra and the ground seemed to be getting softer as we went along. We started off in well-dug sand, you see, and finally we got too bad that we couldn’t shift any more. The further we tried to get along just the worse we were going. It got so bad we got down over the axels. The horses wanted food, fodder, we didn’t carry… the transports couldn’t come, you see, behind to follow us up. I think we tried the next day… we bogged down for the night anyhow – couldn’t do much about it. So I think we tried the next day.  We tried a dozen horses at first, the gun was 50 hundredweight: she was a lot to pull out of a deep marsh. But a dozen was not quite sufficient, so finally I think we done it with 22 horses. So of course that took us an all day’s job to pull ourselves out of it, until finally we got out.

Observation of enemy activity determined where gunners directed their fire. British officer Kenneth Page recalled how this was arranged.

Well the observation organisation at this time was that every battery had its day O.P. and during active operations it was invariably manned all day, or most of the day, by the battery commander. He’d probably take a subaltern with him and give him a bit of relief and so on but by and large the B.C. lived at O.P. by day.  At night – when after all there wasn’t much to be seen – at night one had one brigade O.P. from dusk to dawn where there was nothing you could do except sit it out and hope that you didn’t see any S.O.S. rockets, or report them when you did.  Then every battalion in the line normally had a liaison officer, who spent the night with them again for communications purposes and in case they had an alarm, to call on artillery fire when wanted. During active operations you had the forward observation officer, the F.O.O.

Aerial observation of enemy positions also took place. Pilot Alan Jackson was just one of those who carried out this key role.

You went up for an hour or an hour and a half, whatever time was allotted to you, with the object of spotting enemy guns firing. You looked out across the lines into enemy territory and, if a gun was operating, you’d see a flash and then smoke, white smoke, would be visible and you’d realise then that there was an enemy battery. On the map that you were carrying – a large scale map – you would make a note of the exact position. And during the period of that reconnaissance you might discover two or three batteries, and you did the same thing for each case.

Of course, the Germans were also carrying out their own aerial observation. This meant there was an ever-present danger to serving in a gun battery, as E Stoneham – a howitzer battery commander – found out.

I remember once we were sitting in a dugout where we were being shelled and we learnt from our telephonist that a German aeroplane was observing for a German battery and directing its fire on to us. And after a few shells had fallen we found that when our telephonist received the signal from the German aeroplane, the signal which the German aviator was sending to his battery, it was an S.S.S. signal. As soon as that was received, it took 17 seconds for the shell to reach us. After that we knew exactly when the shells were coming and as soon as you got the buzz from the telephonist you had counted up to 17 seconds and of course the 17 seconds – crump – and the shell fell outside. Fortunately we were in a pretty good dugout.

Artillery was employed in battle from the very first days of the war. During the confusion of one of the earliest actions, at Mons in August 1914, A Gare served with the Royal Horse Artillery.

We hadn’t been in action very long before the order came to move, which we did, we moved back again. And on our journey back, we went through a grove of trees which was being heavily shelled. In the midst of this shelling, we lost one gun – the lead horses and the ascent horses had been detached, leaving the wheel driver with his gun. When we got to this new position – we moved to a new position – we hadn’t been there very long before they asked for volunteers to go and recover the gun. The volunteers went and recovered the gun and they recovered it and brought it back and it went into position with the others. We hadn’t been in position very long before a voice behind the position shouted out, ‘Who hell put you there? Get out of it at once!’ which we eventually did.

One of the most important artillery jobs was counter battery work – trying to knock out the enemy guns. Royal Artillery officer S Goldsmith described how this worked.

Our job at that time was counter battery work. If there was a German battery in action, we had to engage it – helped at times by aeroplanes. But the weather was so bad, the planes couldn’t fly very often and we had to rely on visual observation from the ground. Well that was done by one of the junior officers in the battery which in most cases was me! We lost most of our young officers a very short time after we got there. That left just the captain and myself to fight the battery. So I often had to go up to Sanctuary Wood – which was as far as we could go for observation purposes – and get what information I could and control the fire from there. I went up with two telephonists who ran out wires as we went and they connected their telephones and communicated with the battery. Well it was all visual and it wasn’t very, very nice.

Another key role – particularly on the Western Front – was laying down lengthy bombardments on the enemy positions. The preliminary bombardment before the Battle of the Somme was a notorious example of this. W Walter-Symons of the 57th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, explained the purpose of it.

In a howitzer battery we were given daily programmes of destruction of earthworks; portions of trenches which had to be carefully ranged on and subsequently annihilated.The task was carried out each day and meanwhile, while the heavier guns were annihilating earthworks, the field artillery were very busy cutting the very dense wire protecting the German front line, endeavouring to cut paths through for our assaulting infantry at zero hour. We fired usually about 800 to 1,000 rounds per day. It was not incessant; we had broken periods during the day. It took 12 men to man an 8-inch howitzer, the shell of which weighed 200 pounds and the matter of manpower and the preservation of manpower necessitated careful reliefs which took place approximately every four hours.

Crew of the 6-inch 26cwt howitzer battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery, stripped to the waist, moving the howitzer on to a new target. Near Achicourt, 27 May 1918. © IWM (Q 11026)
Crew of a 6 inch 26 cwt howitzer moving the howitzer on to a new target, 1918.

French artillery observer Henri Lacorne remembered the terrifying sights and sounds of being under such a bombardment during the Battle of Verdun in 1916.

You could see, especially at night in the dark, the light of the German guns and the light of the shells exploding. The noise was more terrific when a shell instead of exploding on the ground exploded in a tree. It made a tremendous roar. You could see clouds of black smoke from the explosions – coming from the explosions – and various colours from blue; the red; the yellow; the orange; any kind. It looked like fireworks.

Artillery could be used to devastating effect against enemy troops. But if the gunners fired short, their shells posed a lethal threat to the men of their own side too, as British bombardier William Muir discovered during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

I sent a signaller out in front of the wire; he went out and while he was out we were making do and have something to eat. Then, of course, our 18 pounders were firing short, you know, they couldn’t get the distance. They went as far as they could and they were still firing; the 18 pounder gunners were falling short among us. And then we got the wind up because we didn’t know if one of us was going to get it and it wasn’t long before one of us got it. When he died he just fell forward in front of me and his head was blown off – the top of the head – and the blood drenched me with his blood.

Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there. 

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