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The Devastating Power of Artillery in World War 1

Artillery was the undisputed king of the battlefield in the First World War. Never before had belligerents in a conflict deployed such enormous numbers of increasingly powerful and technologically advanced artillery pieces, which unleashed unimaginable destruction upon each other along the static fronts. Conservative estimates hold that about 60% of military casualties in the war were inflicted by artillery fire. Historian Paul Fussell has suggested the figure could be as high as 75%.

The Emergence of Artillery Dominance

In wars prior to 1914, artillery had largely played a secondary, infantry support role. Batteries of relatively light field guns would be employed alongside the infantry to provide additional mobile firepower. The expectation was that rifle and machine gun-armed infantry, and often cavalry as well, would carry the day in offensive actions.

However, the nature of the fighting in World War 1, particularly the stagnant trench warfare that characterized the Western Front, upended these previous doctrines. Infantry attacks, even when preceded by artillery bombardments, tended to fail bloodily in the face of modern defensive firepower. Massed rifle fire, machine guns, and above all, artillery, shattered offensive after offensive. It quickly became apparent that artillery had emerged as the dominant weapon of the conflict.

Artillery in the Great Battles

The great battles of the Western Front all underscored the decisive power of artillery. At Verdun in 1916, the Germans planned to bleed the French dry in a battle of attrition in which artillery would play the central role. Over the course of the 10-month battle, the Germans and French fired an estimated 10 million and 12 million shells respectively in an area of just 10 square kilometers. The landscape was pulverized.

Similarly, the Battle of the Somme in 1916 opened with a week-long preliminary bombardment in which the British fired over 1.5 million shells at the German positions. But this proved insufficient to neutralize the defenders. When the infantry went over the top on July 1, they were mowed down in horrific numbers, suffering nearly 60,000 casualties that day alone, the bloodiest in British military history.

The story was much the same in the muddy hell of Passchendaele in 1917. Artillery churned the battlefield into a barren moonscape pocked by water-filled craters in one of the greatest artillery duels of the war. British gunners fired over 4.25 million shells in the preliminary bombardment – nearly 3,000 tons of explosives per day.

The Arsenal of Artillery

The belligerents deployed an enormous arsenal of artillery pieces of various calibers. The standard field gun was typically a 75mm to 77mm piece with a range of 8,000-11,000 yards. These mobile guns could support the infantry with direct fire.

Heavier guns in the 100mm to 155mm range were employed for counter-battery fire and longer-range indirect fire. The largest calibers, like the German 420mm Big Bertha and the French 520mm railway gun, could hurl shells weighing over a ton for distances up to 25 miles. These behemoths were used for special missions like bombarding fortresses or terrorizing cities far behind the lines.

Over the course of the war, the number of guns deployed reached staggering heights. The following table shows the growth in artillery strength of the belligerents:

Country 1914 1918
France 4,300 12,000
Germany 9,300 16,000
Russia 7,100 12,000
Britain 1,600 6,400
Austria-Hungary 3,000 6,800
Italy 2,200 7,700

Artillery pieces in service, 1914-1918 (Source: John Terraine, White Heat)

Artillery Tactics Evolve

As the war progressed, both sides developed increasingly sophisticated artillery tactics to overcome the dominance of firepower on defense. Simple pre-planned bombardments gave way to complex fire plans coordinated with the infantry attack.

The creeping barrage became a standard method. Gunners would calculate the rate of advance of their infantry and adjust their aim to have the barrage move forward slowly, typically 100 yards every few minutes. The attacking infantry would follow close behind this moving wall of fire and steel, which ideally would keep the defenders suppressed until the last possible moment.

Other specialized artillery tactics emerged as well:

  • Box barrages – shells fired in a box pattern around a friendly position to isolate it from enemy reinforcement
  • SOS calls – flares sent up by infantry to call for defensive artillery fire during an enemy attack
  • Counter-preparation fire – bombardments targeted on likely enemy assembly areas before an attack
  • Gas and smoke shells – chemical weapons delivered by artillery for tactical effect

To direct this massed fire as intelligently as possible, both sides employed a variety of techniques to locate the enemy‘s artillery. These included aerial spotting by aircraft or balloons, flash spotting (observing muzzle flashes), and sound ranging (using the sound of a gun‘s report to calculate its position). With these methods, batteries could be systematically targeted for counter-battery fire.

The Human Cost

The intensity of the artillery fire in World War 1 took an enormous toll on the soldiers at the front, both physically and mentally. In addition to the huge numbers of dead and maimed, many men suffered from "shell shock" – psychological trauma induced by the strain of constant bombardment. Symptoms ranged from uncontrollable shaking to complete mental breakdown. It‘s estimated that the British Army alone suffered 80,000 cases of shell shock.

The experience of facing such artillery fire was often described in apocalyptic terms by the men who endured it. A German soldier on the Somme, for instance, wrote:

"The earth shook, the sky seemed to be bursting above us. Hundreds of heavy batteries were crashing away round us, an incessant din that strained the nerves to breaking point… How long could we hold out against this raging frenzy?"


The unprecedented use of artillery in World War 1 had a lasting impact on military doctrine. Most notably, it spurred the development of tanks as a means to protect attacking infantry from artillery and break through enemy lines. And in World War 2, the use of combined arms mechanized warfare was in part an attempt to restore mobility to the battlefield in the face of massed defensive firepower.

But perhaps the most important legacy of World War 1 artillery was the grim lesson it imparted about the raw destructive power of modern industrial warfare. Never before had so much sheer explosive force been unleashed so constantly upon soldiers and the landscape they fought over. The death and devastation wrought by the guns of the Great War would remain seared into human memory long after they finally fell silent in 1918.