Home' Army News : February 9th 2017 Contents 7
February 9, 2017
Big guns dominate Great War
INADEQUACIES in British Expeditionary
Force (BEF) logistics, coupled with an
increasing demand for artillery shells,
threatened the collapse of the entire resup-
ply system during the 1916 Battle of the
Somme, according to AAHU historian Maj
Maj Finlayson said the artillery arm of the
BEF operated under significant limitations
during those battles of 1916.
“These limitations derived from a number
of factors,” he said.
“They included Britain’s lack of prepara-
tion for industrial warfare, the rapid expansion
of the BEF, the failure of BEF administrative
doctrine to keep pace with modern warfare,
and the collapse of the BEF transportation sys-
tem under the demands of munitions resupply.
“While industry shortages constrained the
supply of artillery munitions in 1915, by 1916
these shortages were overcome.”
Maj Finlayson said the BEF’s minimum
weekly requirement for 18-pounder rounds
rose from 340,000 in July 1915 to 700,000 in
However, he said not all of the munitions
delivered were required.
“At the outbreak of the war, 70 per cent of
4.5-inch howitzer rounds were shrapnel, with
only 30 per cent high explosive.
“All 18-pounder shells were shrapnel, and
experience was to soon show shrapnel shells
contained insufficient explosives to demolish
“Munitions for the six-inch howitzer rose
from 56,000 to 204,000 over the same period,
but heavy shells required much more effort to
manufacture and transportation for these shells
was often in short supply.”
The requirements of additional munitions
and artillery weren’t just limited to the British
Army as the Dominion forces relied on British
industry for much of their equipment.
“By the end of 1915, two Canadian, one
Australian, one Australian/New Zealand, one
South African and three Indian divisions had
been formed alongside that of the New Army,”
Maj Finlayson said.
“Inevitably, these Dominion divisions suf-
fered the same shortages and constraints.
“For example, within the AIF the expan-
sion of artillery units was limited by a lack of
guns and qualified gunners.
“Nor was there any prospect of buying
guns from Great Britain or having them manu-
factured in Australia.”
Maj Finlayson said while the Dominion
forces would never achieve the mass of the
British Army, the growth in their artillery arms
was a significant impost on British industry.
“In field artillery alone, by 1917 the
AIF had 20 field artillery brigades and the
Canadian Army 12,” he said.
By 1916 artillery munitions of all calibres
were being produced in ever-increasing quan-
Maj Finlayson said the problem of muni-
tions supply was slowly shifting from one of
a shortage of industrial capacity to that of a
crisis in the means of distribution.
“It would be the near collapse of BEF
logistics system, rather than the availability
of munitions, which would explain the shell
shortage during the Battle of the Somme,
which started on July 1,” he said.
“Until mid-June, some five-to-12 train-
loads of munitions each week were sufficient
to meet the BEF’s needs, but by late June the
number of trains required rose to between
40-90 trains per week.”
The increase in heavy artillery also caused
problems, as, while one million 18-pounder
shells could be moved by 25 trains, 100,000
60-pounder shells required seven.
The rail system could not cope with the
increase in munitions above and beyond those
already required for divisional packs provid-
ing general stores, food, fodder and engineer
The lack of train drivers, coal, rolling stock
and carrying capacity on trunk lines, and a
shortage of maintenance workers, all added to
a rail network which was over-stressed.
The aggregate result was a breakdown in
the ability of the rail network to clear the
Quays and wharfs became congested
with all natures of supplies that could not be
cleared, leaving ships in port unable to unload
due to lack of space on the docks.
Maj Finlayson said in an effort to rectify
the administrative problems, Sir Eric Geddes
was appointed as Director-General of Military
Railways under the QMG at the War Office in
“Geddes had extensive experience in
running railways, was a former manager of
British North-Eastern Railway, a lieutenant
colonel on the Engineer and Railway Staff
Corps and had worked under British Prime
Minister Lloyd George in the Ministry of
“The Geddes reforms not only ensured an
uninterrupted flow of munitions to the artillery
but, in doing so, released the constraints on
the development of artillery tactics that would
provide the basis of the victories of 1918.”
WHILE artillery and indirect fire were relatively
mature concepts by WWI, aircraft were a relatively
modern invention, with the Great War being the
first conflict in which they played a significant part.
Col Chris Hunter (retd) said the aircraft of
1914 were slow flimsy machines that no general
had really thought about how to use.
“Air defence, starting from a zero base, had
to advance more quickly than any other branch
of military science,” he said.
“The anti-aircraft gunners faced a novel
problem, for not only did their targets move at
a rate considerably greater than anything previ-
ously encountered, but they could move in three
dimensions, all of which affected the gunnery
Col Hunter said enemy air activity at Gallipoli
was slight throughout the campaign and since
the Anzac position had no anti-aircraft guns at
first, special emplacements were constructed to
allow 18-pounders to shoot at aircraft.
“The method was simple: a hole was dug in
the ground and the trail of the gun lowered into it
so the muzzle pointed up in the air,” he said.
“In late-August, three three-pounder
Hotchkiss anti-aircraft guns arrived.
“All the manuals were in Japanese, but for-
tunately a Japanese-speaking digger was found
to translate the manuals and produce range
A coordinated anti-aircraft defence with
machine guns was organised.
Col Hunter said each of the four divisions
then holding the line around Anzac Cove des-
ignated two machine guns for anti-aircraft use,
emplacing them so as to cover the entire posi-
“Despite the effort, no enemy aircraft were
shot down by anti-aircraft fire over Anzac,” he
When the AIF arrived in France in 1916,
defence against enemy aircraft was provided by
anti-aircraft units of other Allied forces.
Col Hunter said despite this, most Australian
units had personnel nominated for anti-aircraft
“Australian field artillery batteries had two
Lewis guns on a special tripod mounting for use
against any enemy planes which might attack
the battery position,” he said.
“In 1918, the famous German ace, the Red
Baron, met his doom at the hands of Gnr Robert
Buie, an anti-aircraft gunner with 53 Fd Bty,
who was credited with being responsible for his
By war’s end in 1918 there were 225 anti-
aircraft sections with twenty 13-pounder 6cwt
guns, 306 thirteen-pounder 9cwt guns, and 373
three-inch 20cwt guns.
WWI ended with aircraft in the ascendancy
and, while air defence had come a long way,
there was still a large gap between desired and
Like much of the post-war Australian Army,
anti-aircraft defences were placed on the back
burner and it was 1925 before the first AA bat-
tery in the Royal Australian Artillery was raised.
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Patients and medical staff in a ward at the Australian Auxiliary Hospital in Kent in 1916.
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