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18 September 2014
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From the Field Gun to the Tank

By Professor Richard Holmes
Catastrophe of nature

Image of British soldiers washing and shaving in a hole made by a heavy shell on Mount Kemmel, September 1918
British soldiers washing and shaving in a hole made by a heavy shell on Mount Kemmel, September 1918 ©
Although the Germans initially had an advantage in heavy guns, by 1916 there was little to choose between the combatants, and shellfire made life ghastly for soldiers at the front regardless of the colour of their uniforms.

When considering the war on the Western Front, British historians sometimes pay too little attention to the efforts of their French and Belgian allies – or their German opponents. Corroboration of the power of the gun comes from a German, Lieutenant Ernst Junger, who described the effect of British shell-fire on the Somme:

The sunken road now appeared as nothing but a series of enormous shell-holes filled with pieces of uniform, weapons and dead bodies. The ground all around, as far as the eye could see, was ploughed by shells… Among the living lay the dead. As we dug ourselves in we found them in layers stacked one on top of the other. One company after another had been shoved into the drum-fire and steadily annihilated.

Shellfire like this, he recalled, was somehow superhuman: it was like ‘a catastrophe of nature’. The German offensive of spring 1918, which began on 21st March, was heralded by what was then the most savage bombardment in military history.

Captain Arthur Behrend was adjutant of a brigade of four batteries of heavy howitzers, and although not even in the path of the main German attack that morning he recalled that:

I awoke with a tremendous start conscious of noise, incessant and almost musical, so intense that it seemed as if a hundred devils were dancing in my brain. Everything seemed to be vibrating – the ground, my dug-out, my bed… The great offensive had begun.
Arthur Behrend, As From Kemmel Hill

'Many of the casualties inflicted by shells came from shrapnel balls ...'

The fact that shells caused so many casualties had a variety of implications. Psychiatric reaction to the stress of battle because known as shell-shock. Personal accounts testify to the penetrating fear of death by shellfire, a death which so often brought with it capricious mutilation. Many of the casualties inflicted by shells came from shrapnel balls or small steel splinters, and the threat they posed by the shell gave impetus to the re-invention of armour.

In 1915-16 major combatants introduced steel helmets, and the British steel helmet, with the broad rim which gave it the nickname ‘battle bowler’ was specifically designed to keep shrapnel, bursting overhead, from hitting face and neck.

And when designers experimented with machines which could cope with the terrible terrain of the Western Front they did not simply consider the mobility afforded by broad caterpillar tracks, and the firepower furnished by machine guns or light cannon: they also sought armoured protection.

Published: 2005-03-01

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