Topic: AIF - DMC - British
The Nature of the British Army prior to 1914
Part 3, Down in the lead with the wheel at the flog
An extract from Holmes, R., Riding the Retreat, London, 1995, pp. 50 - 55.
Down in the lead with the wheel at the flog
The division is a well-balanced instrument. Of its war establishment of 18,000 all ranks, 12,000 are infantrymen, marching in the twelve battalions of its three brigades. The 4,000 gunners serve seventy-six guns: fifty-four 18-pdrs, eighteen 4.5 inch howitzers and four 60pdrs. For all the lethality of the infantry's musketry, these guns will do much of the killing in the weeks that follow, and as the war goes on will drench the ever-deepening battlefield with their iron torrent.
Between 1899 and 1924, the Royal Regiment of Artillery had three branches, the Royal Horse Artillery (RHA), manning guns intended to support the cavalry; the Royal Field Artillery (RFA) serving field guns and howitzers, and the Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA) with heavy guns. There was a sharp cultural divide between horse and field, both mounted branches, and garrison gunners. The latter were unkindly nicknamed 'Gambardiers', but were taking a lively interest in indirect fire and the effect of meteorology on ballistics long before the war. In contrast, in the judgement of one modem artillery officer, the RFA was `renowned for its unscientific approach to gunnery, admiring intuition and subjective judgement, not calculation, when opening fire'. We should not be too hard on it. In 1899, British field guns achieved a mere 2,00o yards, and the middle-piece gunner officers of 1914 had been brought up in a world where getting into action briskly, smacking shells down-range and standing the enemy's pounding were really what mattered.
The battery was the gunner's spiritual home. In 1914, batteries were combined into brigades, a source of potential confusion, for an artillery brigade - RFA brigades. had three batteries and an ammunition column, RHA brigades two batteries and an ammunition column - was a lieutenant-colonel's command. Introduction of the term regiment, long after the war, ended the ambiguity. Field artillery batteries were numbered, and RHA batteries had distinguishing letters. A division's artillery comprised three brigades of 18-pdrs, one brigade of 5.4 inch howitzers and a battery of 6o-pdr heavies, the whole under the command of the Brigadier-General Royal Artillery, assisted by his Brigade Major Royal Artillery. These posts had been instituted in 1912 and 1913 respectively, and their occupants confronted a sharp learning curve as centralised control of artillery became increasingly important. They were not helped by the fact that they had no communications whatever, and we should not be surprised to discover that Brigadier-General N. G. Findlay, BGRA 1st Division, was the first British general to fall in the war, killed as he went up to his batteries.
The 18-pdrs of the RFA and the 13-pdrs of the RHA were quick-firers, very much the state of the art in 194- For centuries, guns had bounded backwards on firing as recoil was transmitting through carriage wheels, imperilling the toes of unwary gunners and compelling the detachment to heave the weapon back into position. The development of hydraulic buffers enabled recoil to be absorbed by the top carriage, which meant that the layer, crouched over his sight, might need to make only a tiny adjustment before the next round was fired. The ammunition was `fixed', the shell fitting into a brass shell-case, which greatly simplified the business of loading. The famous French 75mm, introduced in 1897, was first in the field, but in 194 there was little to choose between it and either the 18pdr or the German 77mm. At the beginning of the war British field guns had a range of some 6,500 yards, which could be increased to 7,500 by digging in the trail to give extra elevation. The 4, S howitzer's 35lb shell had a similar range, while the 60-pdr threw its shell to 10,300 yards.
British horse and field artillery fired only shrapnel until October 1914. The shrapnel shell was a hollow iron canister with a brass fuse at its tip. Its upper half was filled with lead balls about the size of a marble. A thin tube,. passing through them, connected the fuse to the burster charge at the base of the shell. The forward observation officer's target information was converted, on the gun position, into an elevation and bearing on which the gun should be laid, and a fuse setting. The object was to burst the shell above and in front of its target; the shell-case acted like the barrel of a stubby shotgun, and the balls whistled down to kill and maim.
British affection for shrapnel dated back to the Boer War, when air-bust rounds had been ideal for, use against scattered riflemen. It had limitations in 1914, for shrapnel was all but useless against buildings and trenches with overhead cover. Field howitzers and heavy guns fired high explosive (HE) rounds, filled with Lyddite and fitted with a fuse which burst them when they hit the ground. As the war became static high explosive was the real killer, and even in the summer of 1914 the most profoundly shocking results of artillery fire were produced by HE. Captain Arthur Osburn, medical officer of the 4th Dragoon Guards, heard a single heavy shell smash squarely into a nearby farmyard full of troops.
Fragments of stone, manure, pieces of clothing and hair came falling about me as I ran through an archway into the yard and beheld one of the most heartrending sights I have ever seen, even in war. The detachment of 9th Lancers had almost completely disappeared. In the centre of the yard where I had seen them but a moment before, there was now a mound four or five feet high of dead men and horses ... Around this central heap of dead men the wounded lay on all sides. Some had been blown to the other end of the yard, their backs broken. One sat up dazed and whimpering, his back against a wall, holding part of his intestines in his hand.
Catastrophes like this provided combatants with the sternest test of courage. Capricious death and butcher-shop mutilation rustled overhead, pulverised trenches, headquarters and horse-lines, snatched a latrine queue here and a gambling school there, levelled woods and villages, and stove in caves and crypts. The British cursed the German heavies, whose black-bursting shells were nicknamed 'coal-boxes' or (after the negro boxer) ‘Jack Johnsons'. The Germans were certainly better provided with heavy guns than their opponents. They had formidable 150mm and 210mm howitzers at corps and army level. Their super-heavy weapons, like the 305mm and 420mm siege mortars, were intended for use against fortresses but might be deployed, with earthquake-producing effects, against strong-points in the field.
Even in 1914, before many heavy guns were available to the British, the long arm of the RGA reached out to search German back areas. Captain Rudolf Binding, commanding a German divisional cavalry squadron, met a much-decorated infantry officer who could not even bring himself to describe heavy shelling. ‘The history of this War will never be written,' reflected Binding. `Those who could write it will remain silent. Those who write it have not experienced it.'
Modern in its effect, but ancient in its appearance. Let us watch a battery of British horse artillery clipping across beet-field and stubble at a belly-to-ground gallop, its six guns - which, with their limbers, weigh a ton and a half apiece - bounding from furrow and tussock. The battery commander, a major, is going like a good 'un, one eye on the ground well ahead and the other on his map-case; his horse-holder is a stride or two behind. A few yards further back hurtle the battery sergeant-major and a handful of signallers: they will eventually set up the battery command post and establish communications with the observation officers. The three subalterns gallop ahead of their two-gun sections, watching for ruts or bumps which, taken at this speed, may flip a gun onto its back.
The gunners pound along behind. As this is an RHA battery, expected to keep up with galloping cavalry, all are mounted: RFA gunners sat on limbers and in wagons. A team of six useful-looking horses pulls each 13-pdr. The Board of Agriculture's remount manual describes a model artillery horse as: `A bay gelding 15.3, thirteen years old. Can gallop and looks as if he should have spent his life as a hunter, short legs, deep through the heart and a good shoulder.' A driver bestrides the nearside horse of each pair. His is an undramatic title for a white-knuckled job, for he has to control his own mount and lean across with his whip to keep the offside horse in order. His right boot has a steel reinforce to give some protection from the jabbing and jostling which goes on in the best of teams, especially at corners. If he comes off he can expect scant mercy from the iron-shod wheels behind him:
But down in the lead with the wheel at the flog Turns the bold Bombardier to a little whipped dog.
Although horses are expected to be interchangeable, the gun's No. I, a sergeant, will have his own favourites for the very different jobs that need to be done. The front pair - the leaders - must above all be plucky, and their driver needs nerves of iron. The centre pair matter less, but must be good honest workmen. The rear pair - the wheelers - ought to have more wit than most, for they are in effect the brakes. All the horses transmit motive power through breast harness connected to the traces which pull limber and gun. But the wheelers also have breeching, a wide belt fastened about a foot below the root of the tail and connected to the end of the limber-pole. The gun is braked when the wheelers slow down and bring their weight to bear on the breeching. When it goes down hill they will be `sitting on the breeching' and much depends on their good sense and their driver's skill.
To bring his battery into action, our galloping major spurs ahead and selects a suitable gun position. Artillery Training 1914 tells him that it will be `covered, semi-covered or open'. In the former, the gun and its flashes are concealed from enemy. A semi-covered position shields the gun but not its flashes, and an open position is in full view of the enemy. Ideally, he will seek a reverse slope, where the ground ahead rises sharply enough to offer protection but not so steeply as to limit the battery's fire. This is a counsel of perfection, for his room for manoeuvre will be limited by his brigade commander's orders and the presence of other troops.
The observation officers have gone forward in an effort to get the best available view. `The use of haystacks, buildings etc was recommended,' ' wrote one gunner officer, `but ... these rarely obliged by situating themselves in the right places …' Observation officers have to be dose enough-to the guns for their signaller to run cable back to the command post or, failing that, to attract its attention with semaphore. In practice, they are often very close to the gun-line - sometimes up a ladder attached to an ammunition wagon. In some actions we will see them almost redundant as the guns engage over open sights, firing from-open positions at an enemy who is all too visible.
The guns are brought into action twenty yards apart, with a limber and its twenty-four rounds or an ammunition wagon alongside each gun. Using dial sights, a military theodolite called a Director, and basic trigonometry the guns are laid so that their lines of fire are parallel. A target hit by any single gun can now be taken on by the whole battery without the need for every gun to register its fire.
The teams and most of the officers' and gunners' horses go back to the wagon lines, a safe distance behind the guns, where they wait under the direction of the battery captain. He has the task of keeping the guns supplied with ammunition, and will do this by sending wagons - they-hold another 152 rounds for each gun - -forward as the situation demands. When the time comes to bring the battery out of action, he takes the teams forward and the guns are hooked in and brought away.
Easy to describe: hard to accomplish. Infantry Training 1914 emphasised that: `Artillery coming into action, limbering up or in movement is a vulnerable target against which rapid fire or even fire at long infantry ranges is justifiable'. Getting a battery out of action during the retreat often meant galloping teams onto a position that was being shelled and was threatened by German infantry into the bargain. The sight contrasts all too poignantly with our earlier vision of a battery changing ground. Some guns have been hit and there are dead and wounded beside those still in action. As the teams gallop up, the drivers have no time to spare more than a glance for their chums, though there is a heart-stopping moment as the drivers of A Subsection, on the right of the line, realise that theirs is a fruitless journey. Their gun is on its side - an incoming 77mm has caught it square on the axle-tree - with old Sergeant Brown and his lads in a dreadful jumble around it.
As he gallops in, the lead driver has to swing his team so that the hook on the limber is as close as possible to the towing-eye on the gun's trail. German infantrymen, now very dose, rise to their feet, lean into their rifle-butts and try to bring down the wheelers. Horses fall here and there. The harness has quick-release fittings, but cutting out a wounded horse still takes time, with bullets kicking earth out of the stubble all around. You are expected to shoot it - the manual generously explains that you put the bullet through the centre of an imaginary cross connecting ears and eyes - but there is simply no time. Yet it is an old friend, and leaving it trying to hobble on behind as the team lurches off to safety is perhaps the worst moment in a ghastly day.
Citation: The Nature of the British Army prior to 1914, Down in the lead with the wheel at the flog, Part 3