This article is an edited transcript of The Battle of Vimy Ridge with Paul Reed on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 19 April 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
Artillery was the king and queen of the battlefield in World War One. Most soldiers were killed or wounded by shell fire. Not by bullets, not by bayonets and not by grenades.
Berlin by Christmas
Artillery was still a blunt instrument at the beginning of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. Britain hoped that, simply by launching millions of shells at the Germans, you could move forward, occupy, smash ground and break through towns behind the German line by nightfall.
The good old phrase “Berlin by Christmas” comes to mind.
But the Somme proved that wasn’t possible – you had to use artillery in a more intelligent manner. Which is exactly what happened at Arras in 1917.
The changing role of artillery at Arras
The Battle of Arras saw artillery being used as part of the overall army battle plan, rather than as a separate weapon.
Infantry attacks were only as good as the artillery that supported them. The artillery had to be more precise, more direct, and it had to enable the infantry to get to its target without being machine-gunned to bits in No Man’s Land.
This meant using aircraft to identify individual German gun positions, trying to take them out and counter battery fire while effectively creating a wall of fire and supersonic steel that advanced at the same speed as your infantry.
It also entailed the continued bombardment of German positions until the infantry arrived at them. Previously, artillery would fire at a German trench for a certain amount of time before moving on to another target.
Then the infantry would go over the top, walk across No Man’s Land and attack the trench. That typically gave the Germans a window of 10 to 15 minutes to come up out of their positions and set up with weapons that could mow down the British as they approached.
The difference at Arras was that artillery fire was scheduled to continue right up to the moment that British troops arrived at the trench they were attacking.
It was a risky tactic, however, because firing thousands of rounds from an artillery piece is not a precise science. Due to the degradation of the barrel, accuracy eventually started to become compromised, so there was a risk of the shells dropping onto attacking troops, causing “friendly-fire” casualties, as we call them now.
But it was a risk worth taking. It meant that, when the barrage lifted, the Germans began to come out of their dugouts and positions thinking they had time to set up and mow down the advancing British infantry, but actually the infantry were already there, having avoided being cut down in the open ground of No Man’s Land.
Such advances in the way that artillery was used over the course of World War One changed the battlefield landscape quite literally.