From the Field Gun to the Tank

By Professor Richard Holmes
The battleground changed forever as soldiers faced devastating attacks from afar. Is it any wonder the Germans referred to tanks as the 'The Devil's Chariot'?
A heavy gun in action on the Italian front in 1917 

Indirect fire

Until the beginning of World War One most soldiers killed or wounded in battle had been hit by weapons plied, or missiles aimed, by enemies within sight of them: battle was, in the cruellest of ways, ‘up close and personal’ for most of its combatants, and the personal weapon, like the musket or rifle, was the principal killer.

But World War One began a period in which the ‘indirect fire’ of artillery and mortars, directed by an observer in contact with his guns, first by telephone and later by radio, caused the majority of battle casualties. Death often came from afar, in unpredictable and dehumanising ways.

Combined army

Image of Mark V tanks attached to 5th Australian Division for its crossing of the Hindenburg Line in September 1918
Mark V tanks attached to the 5th Australian Division for its crossing of the Hindenburg Line in September 1918
As the character of battle changed the distinctions between the traditional arms of the service, infantry, cavalry and artillery, became blurred.

Although the skilful combination of these arms had always been important, the threads of the modern combined arms battle had emerged by the end of World War One and were knotted together firmly during World War Two.

'Air power ... became entwined with the combined-arms battle on the ground.'

As weapons grew more complex and their appetite for ammunition increased, so more soldiers were concerned with supply, maintenance and repair. Those actually doing duty at ‘the sharp end of war’ became a smaller proportion of the whole army, and their personal accounts often emphasise the sharp contrast between the old-fashioned savagery of their lives and the more comfortable ‘world of the rear’.

During World War Two growing numbers of armoured vehicles appeared on the battlefield, some of them tanks, mounting guns designed to destroy other tanks; some were armoured personnel carriers, giving infantry the protection of armour, and others were self-propelled guns, artillery pieces with their own inherent mobility and protection. Air power, which had effectively made its debut in World War One, became entwined with the combined-arms battle on the ground.

Of course personal weapons remained important, and there were theatres of war like Burma when terrain and climate gave them added importance. But in the second half of the 20th century the crew-served weapon – like the artillery piece, anti-tank gun and machine gun – vied with the armoured vehicle to dominate the battlefield.

Shellfire and concrete

Image of a 77-mm field gun of an infantry providing support to attacking stormtroops
A 77-mm field gun of an infantry provides support to attacking stormtroops
The same technological advances which had transformed infantry weapons had also revolutionised artillery.

For centuries cannon, like infantry weapons, had used black powder. The cannon’s charge and projectile were rammed into its muzzle, and the weapon jumped back sharply when fired, a point often missed by Hollywood.

'... the French introduced a 75mm field gun that embodied the best of modern technology'

Just as infantry weapons became both rifled and breech-loading in the second half of the 19th century, so too did cannon, and they also made good use of the new smokeless powder. One particular gun pointed the way ahead.

In 1897, the French introduced a 75mm field gun that embodied the best of modern technology. It was a breech-loader, and used ‘fixed’ ammunition, with its explosive shell fitting into a brass shell-case containing a smokeless propellant.

The gun no longer leapt back on its wheels, because hydraulic buffers absorbed much of the recoil, so that while the barrel recoiled sharply the rest of the gun did not. This helped make the gun quicker to fire, because the layer, who aimed it, might have to make only a small adjustment before the next round was fired.

High explosives

Image of soldiers digging  a trench below Aubers Ridge in November 1914
Soldiers digging out a trench below Aubers Ridge in November 1914
For much of history cannon had fired roundshot, iron projectiles whose weight classified the gun: a 9-pdr, for instance, fired a shot weighting nine pounds.

Some weapons, though, like 6 inch or 9.2 inch guns, were classified by the diameter of their bore. Both mortars (short, stubby weapons usually used in siege operations) and howitzers (which, like mortars, tended to fire their shells at a high angle) fired explosive shells, iron spheres filled with black powder ignited by a slow-burning fuse.

Cannon fired canister at close-range targets. This consisted of a tin filled with balls about the size of a thumb-nail: the tin split as it left the muzzle, turning the cannon into a gigantic shotgun.

'The Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) had persuaded the British to issue only shrapnel shells for its 18-pounders ...'

The 75mm and the guns it inspired fired shells which now contained high explosive, a far more effective compound than the old black powder. Some of these shells had fuses which burst them when they struck the ground, or might delay the burst long enough for the shell to penetrate overhead cover.

Others – which took their name, in the British service, from their inventor Henry Shrapnel – were packed with lead balls and exploded in the air over the target.

At the start of the war the 18-pounder field gun, with a range of some 6,500 yards, was the mainstay of British field artillery, backed by the 4.5 inch howitzer, with a range of 7,200 yards and a few 60-pdr heavy guns with a range of 9,500 yards. The Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) had persuaded the British to issue only shrapnel shells for its 18-pounders, but it soon became clear that high explosive shells were far more useful in trench warfare.

Concrete pill-boxes and deep dugouts favoured by the Germans could only be destroyed by high explosive shells fire by the heaviest guns: they would simply shrug off direct hits by 18-pdrs.

The age of industrialised war

Image of captured German officers outside their concrete bunker, near Langemarck, October 1917
Captured German officers outside their concrete bunker, near Langemarck, October 1917
During the Napoleonic Wars most soldiers had been musket-carrying infantry. In World War One, an increasing number were artillerymen, servants of machinery in the age of industrialised war.

Aubrey Wade went to war as a signaller in a Territorial horse artillery unit. In the summer of 1917 he was near the Belgian town of Ypres, where his battery was supporting infantry trying to break through robust German defences.

Officially this was the Third Battle of Ypres, but it is often known by the name of one of its component battles – Passchendaele:

A few yards away the guns were monotonously firing, their barrels red-hot, their breechblocks jamming and having to be opened by pickaxes for the next round; the gunners, faces blackened with oil-splashes and smoke, mechanically slamming home the shells and staring sore-eyed through the sights. Midday found us still at it. The infantry had evidently failed again in their attack on Poelcapelle, although some slight advance had been made.
Those terrible pill-boxes were holding them up. Shelling had practically no effect on these six-foot-thick blocks of concrete, and the murderous machine guns caused havoc in the ranks of the attackers. Urgent messages kept coming through asking us to concentrate on certain spots where wave after wave of infantry had been hurled back by the storm of bullets. The Fritzes must be fighting like the very demons of hell.
Aubrey Wade, The War of the Guns

Fire control

Image of British soldiers in action on the Somme with a 15-inch howitzer gun, July 1916
British soldiers in action on the Somme with a 15-inch howitzer gun, July 1916
Increasingly the key to the effectiveness of artillery lay in the control of its fire. Artillerymen had traditionally used what was called direct fire; engaging a target that they could see and standing the enemy’s return fire.

Primitive indirect fire, in which guns took on a target they could not see, had been employed occasionally, with stakes or other markers linking the guns to their target.

'... for an attack to succeed, the enemy’s barbed wire ... had to be cut.'

In the 1890s the development of the dial sight enabled guns to be pointed towards a target identified on the map, whose range could be calculated from range tables. Forward observers could send fire control orders back to the guns firstly by semaphore flags but soon by telephone and latterly by radio.

Powerful though the new high explosive shells were, an enemy who was well dug in was hard to destroy. And for an attack to succeed, the enemy’s barbed wire - coil upon coil in front of his trenches - had to be cut.

The infantry might have to do this with wire-cutters, but artillery could be quicker and more effective – if, that is, its fire was properly controlled. Skilled observation officers could cut barbed wire with shrapnel, but high explosive, when eventually fitted with a fuse that burst when it grazed the surface of the ground, was much better.

In August 1916 Lieutenant Julian Tyndale-Biscoe was FOO (Forward Observation Officer) for a battery of 18-pdrs on the Somme. He describes how:

A day or two later, we had orders to cut the German wire. The Captain went down for the first half of the day, and I did the second half. It was ticklish work, since our guns were so close that the shells, to be effective, had to burst [they were using shrapnel] about three yards over our heads. The two signallers and I were in a front sap which had been cleared of Infantry as there were bound to be some short bursts which might spray the place.
Later on, the Infantry came into the sap, and so, to avoid casualties, I had to change to H[igh] E[xplosive] that only burst on impact. It was not so effective in cutting the wire, blowing it up and knocking it down again. All went well for a bit. Beautiful bursts right into the wire. The signaller each time reported ‘Battery fired’, and the next moment – bang – up went the wire. We could not hear the shells coming because, with the very close range, they travelled faster than sound.
Suddenly, with the next salvo, I was caught in the back with a clod of earth and thought one of our shells had burst short. We were about to continue when, to my surprise, I saw at my feet the shell lying unexploded ... It had apparently hit the ground behind me and hurtled on base first, hitting the parapet, after ripping my gas helmet from my side, and dropped into the trench.
Julian Tyndale-Biscoe, Gunner Subaltern

Shells frequently failed to explode, often because the rifling of the gun which fired them was worn, so that instead of spinning straight they tipped over and over in flight and failed to land nose first, and often because fuses, mass produced as swiftly as possible, were faulty. Unexploded shells still litter the battlefields of World War One.

Shell by the million

Image of Japanese infantry outside the Russian fortress and naval base of Port Arthur in 1904
Japanese infantry outside the Russian fortress and naval base of Port Arthur in 1904
Even today, almost 90 years after the outbreak of World War One, there is still abundant evidence of the fact that it became a gunner’s war.

The French farmers call it the iron harvest. Every year they plough up more shells, which are dumped where farm tracks meet the road to be collected and blown up.

There are hand-grenades, often still primed; trench mortar bombs, both little flat-nosed ones and big bulbous projectiles which earned the nickname toffee apples; and there are shells, the most common from field guns like the 75mm and 18-pdr, on up to the extraordinarily rare 1,980 lb shell for the huge French 320mm railway gun.

'As World War One went on, guns grew in numbers and calibre ...'

Simply seeing just how many shells have survived into the 21st century emphasises why so many veterans saw the war as a conflict between man and gun. As World War One went on, guns grew in numbers and calibre, and were abetted by short-range trench mortars, all of which consumed ammunition on a vast scale.

In the two and a half years of the Boer War the British Army fired 273,000 shells, and in the first six months of World War One it fired a million. In the week’s bombardment before the battle of the Somme in 1916 it fired a million and a quarter. During the Third Battle of Ypres, a year later, there were times when daily expenditure exceeded two million shells.

'... some of the monster guns used by both sides blew defences and their occupants to tatters.'

This weight of fire did not simply create the ‘artillery landscape’, its villages and woods pulverised by shellfire so characteristic of parts of the Western Front, but it helped transform domestic industry. In the spring of 1916, 61 per cent of the male workforce was involved in war work, and women were drawn into it to an unprecedented extent: there were less than 100 women employed at Woolwich arsenal in November 1916, but 30,000 a year later.

This avalanche of shells did not simply change the landscape, but it transformed the experience of battle for most of its participants. They lived a troglodyte existence, in trenches and dugouts, but while these might kept out shells like those fired by the 18-pdr, some of the monster guns used by both sides blew defences and their occupants to tatters. By 1916, it was clear that heavy guns, like the 9.2 inch guns widely used by the British Army, had a key role to play. Shellfire had a horrifying effect on body and mind alike.

In 1914 Captain Arthur Osburn, a medical officer, ran into a farm courtyard just after a German heavy shell had hit it:

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 heart-rending sights I had 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.
Arthur Osburn, Unwilling Passenger

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.

Brazen chariots

Image of British soldiers observing a ditched British tank
British soldiers observing a ditched British tank
Early in World War One several individuals recognised the potential advantages that could be conferred by armoured fighting vehicles.

In June 1915 Lord Cavan, commanding a brigade in France, told Colonel Ernest Swinton, author of a scheme for such things, that:

I welcome any suggestion in this extraordinary war that will help to take an enemy’s trench without a cost of 50 per cent of the leading company and 75 per cent of that company’s officers – for this is what the present day assault amounts to – even with every precaution… The great and serious trouble is that one cannot tell, especially now in high crops – whether the enemy’s wire is cut – or not. Here comes in your ‘Juggernaut’. We know that if five ‘Juggernauts’ have passed through then the wire is no more. This is a saving of hundreds of lives and a fat legacy to ‘morale’.
John Glanfield, The Devil's Chariots

'... the horrified Germans called them the ‘Devil’s chariots’ ...'

Swinton played an important part in the development of the ‘landships’ that went into large-scale production early in 1916. To preserve secrecy the armoured hulls were designated ‘Water Carriers for Mesopotamia’ but workmen called them ‘tanks’, and the nickname became official.

Tanks made their debut on the Somme in September 1916, when the horrified Germans called them the ‘Devil’s chariots’. They fought in much greater strength at Cambrai in November 1917, and were used on a large scale by the Allies in the war-winning offensive of August-November 1918.

Although the British enjoyed an early lead in the development of tanks and their tactics, this was lost during the cut-backs of the 1920s and early 1930s. The Germans, in contrast, took the development of tanks very seriously, and before Hitler’s 1936 repudiation of the Treaty of Versailles (which included tanks amongst the war material prohibited to Germany) carried out tank training in Russia.

Tommy cookers

Image of the American Sherman tank - an important resource to the Allies in World War Two
The American Sherman tank - an important resource to the Allies in World War Two
Despite is inherent dangers, it is a quirk of psychology that most tank crewmen preferred their own job to being in the infantry, while most infantrymen were grateful not to be in tanks.

The tank conferred several advantages. Its armour not only kept out rifle and machine gun fire, but also resisted shell splinters and even direct hits from many types of shell. Crewmen did not have to march long distances or carry heavy weights, the stock-in-trade of the infantry, and with experience could live comfortably in and around their tanks.

'One made his jump and hit the ground with all his clothing aflame but otherwise uninjured.'

But there was a shocking downside. The Sherman tank, so important to the Allies in World War Two, had an unpleasant tendency to burst into flames when hit: in dark humour it was sometimes called a ‘Ronson’ (after the cigarette lighter) by its crews or ‘Tommy cooker’ by the Germans.

Ken Tout thought of how he would get out of a burning tank:

'...hoping to avoid the blazing hell which the back of the tank has become even whilst I am making my leap. It has happened to two of my friends who were gunners. One made his jump and hit the ground with all his clothing aflame but otherwise uninjured. He said that it all happened so quickly that he did not have enough time to be afraid. The other gunner did not move quickly enough. He was caught inside the tank.
The explosions of the ammunition, sufficient to knock out fifty tanks, served as a humane killer before the furnace began to grill him where he sat. Something in my being revolts more against the slow grilling of my flesh after death than against the sudden swift shattering of mind and body in a massive explosion.’
Ken Tout, 40 Hours of Battle

Towards a digitised battlefield

Image of a wounded British soldier passing through the Franco-British outpost line, March 1918
A wounded British soldier passing through the Franco-British outpost line, March 1918
As the 20th century neared its end, there were increasing suggestions that the day of the tank was over, and that such heavy and expensive weapons were not only difficult to transport to many of the world’s trouble-spots but easily destroyed by new technology like the anti-tank helicopter.

Yet the jury is still out: the tank played an important role in the Gulf War, and the Warrior mechanised infantry combat vehicle, originally designed to serve alongside the tanks in the unfought battle against the Warsaw Pact, has proved useful in peace-enforcement missions in the Balkans.

'Some of the British Army’s greatest successes in the past decade have stemmed from qualities like cohesion ...'

There is growing evidence of the central role of information technology, whether in terms of communications, target surveillance and acquisition, or navigation, and we are within measurable distance of the ‘digitised battlefield’ on which every soldier can communicate by radio, and both he and his commanders will know precisely where he is.

Yet a balance must be struck between man and machine. Some of the British Army’s greatest successes in the past decade have stemmed from qualities like cohesion, unit pride and training which would have been understood in the age of horse and musket, reinforced by support from families and friends at home.

Air power and indirect fire unquestionably have their place, but often the risk of collateral damage and the need to win hearts and minds means that it is the soldier on the ground who must clinch the deal set up by technology. Ultimately, doctrine can be taught and equipment can be bought. But without soldiers who are prepared to risk their lives, often miles from home, in a cause which may have little of the ‘Queen and Country’ resonance of yesteryear, no army can hope to prosper.

Although the Duke of Wellington had a low opinion of the men who joined the army in his day, he recognised that in the last analysis everything hinged upon them. In 1815, not long before Waterloo he pointed out to the diarist Thomas Creevey a British soldier walking through a Brussels park. "It all depends upon that article there," he said. "Give me enough of it and I am sure."

Social values and educational standards have changed, but the Duke’s emphasis on the importance of the individual has a clear resonance into our own age.

Published on BBC History: 2005-03-01
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