One hundred years ago, the Germans had a chance of turning the Allied flank and forcing an armistice in France. They would then have achieved victory in the west as well as the east. April 6th proved to be a watershed, and gradually the tide began to turn.
By March 31st, the Germans had advanced 52 kilometres across the well-defended territory of the Somme. There was a pause and then on April 4th, they continued their advance. They reached Villers-Bretonneux, 16 km from Amiens. Around there and Hangard, also within reach of Amiens, there was fierce fighting, but they could not quite make it to Amiens and cut the Allied communications in Northern France.
|Behind the Western Front ran locomotives such as this Baldwin 4-6-0T (British WD) and behind it a French 0-6-0. These preserved examples were pictured at Apedale, Staffs.|
The ‘break-through’ doctrine had not worked. When the Allies were forced out of one position, they reformed further back. Worse still, fresh troops appeared to counter-attack, threatening the flanks of the German advance. The troops who were thrown back were British, fresh troops were French. The British 5th Army was in retreat. The French should be given credit for bringing in reinforcements. Pétain, quick to grasp the situation, had sent in the First and Third French Armies.
By this stage in the War, there were thousands of kilometres of 60cm trench railways serving the French, British and Germans. These railways were vital for communication. During the retreat, as many wagons and locomotives as possible were salvaged; track was lifted. Within days, they could be put back into business.
In practice this did not work for the British 5th Army. Apart from an escape line running to the French sector, the network was unfinished. There were almost no tracks leading to safety. Locomotives in their hundreds and wagons in their thousands were destroyed to stop them falling into German hands. As both railways systems ran on 60cm gauge, the material would have been useful to the enemy.
Yet the Germans loosed fresh waves of assaults on the Western Front. Up until April 1918, they had outmatched the Allies in many ways. Their material on the whole was superior and their generals on the whole showed more common sense. After April 6th, a watershed was past. Further offensives were quite literally a bloody waste of time.
|The magnificent French 155mm gun dwarfs its operators. It suffered from certain disadvantages. Photo from Illustration Magazine coourtesy MD Wright|
Our memories of World War 1 are clouded with hindsight. The Allies won, so their generalship and equipment must have been better. Right? Well, er, not always.
|The very smallest calibre of Minenwerfer could be transported by four Pioniere. Photo from Illustration Magazine courtesy of MD Wright|
In May and June 1918, the Allies captured increasing amounts of German equipment. This was gleefully portrayed in the French, British and US media.
|French light tank 1918. THere was no slogging through the mud for these soldiers. Photo from Illustration magazine courtesy MD Wright|
The official message was ‘Look how small and primitive compared with ours!’ The French newspapers contrasted their char d’assaut/light tank with German machine-guns and the minenwerfer. These were depicted being hauled by soldiers while the tank, petrol- powered, ambles along a French country lane. French artillery are shown, the 75mm and the 155mmm guns, magnificent beasts which dwarf their operators.
The lesson which should be learned is perhaps different. Bad things can come in small packages.
The German Minenwerfer/howitzer may look like a humble machine. It could be transported without effort by the gunners. The French and British soldiers who had experience of its fire-power had learned a grudging respect. General Alan Beith, writing as Ian Hay, described her with whimsical military humour as ‘Minnie’, and the trench from which she was operated as ‘Unter den Linden’. Yet the military humour could not disguise the fear. Of all the sounds in the trenches, hers was the most dreaded.
|Small calibre Minenwerferready to be fired. It was not designed for long range but it was effective. Photo from Illustration magazine Courtesy MD Wright|
The Minenwerfer had a short range and was operated, not by the Artillery but by Pioniere working in the German trenches, taking advantage of local knowledge. Worse was the fact that it was fired upwards in a trajectory that brought the shell down on to the heads of the enemy sheltering in their trenches. Worst of all was the explosive charge. The 105mm version delivered 1kg of explosive, the 150 6kg. These were in common use. The one pictured here is smaller, but the same applies. There were others with even more punch.
John Buchan also had experience of the Front and described waiting for a powerful bombardment.
‘A man’s thoughts at a time like that seem to be double powered and the memory seems sharp and clear. I don’t know what was in the others’ minds, but I knew what was in my own. I watched every detail of the landscape as little by little it appeared in the revealing daybreak’
Then came the first shot.
‘The earth seemed to split beside me and I was pitched forward.’
This was just range-finding.
‘The charge must have been short. The next was better and crashed on the parapet, carving a great hole. This time my arm hung limp, but I felt no pain’ (Greenmantle, first published 1916)
The French 75mm in contrast was a huge gun. It was developed for long and accurate range. The angle of fire was restricted, making it all but impossible to drop explosives into enemy trenches. In spite of its impressive size, the actual weight of explosive delivered was two thirds of a kilogram, less than the standard Minenwerfer. The long barrel, so useful for accurate firing over a range of a couple of kilometres, tended to get hot, so the rate of fire had to be restricted.
|The 75mm French gun was developed in response to the defeat of 1870-1. Photo from Illustration magazine courtesy of MD Wright|
The same comments apply to the 155mm gun, except that it was even bigger.
Because of their great size, and the unwieldy gun barrels, they were difficult to move into position on a battlefield. This was why Prosper Péchot invented elaborate gun conveyances for his ground-breaking portable railway system. The largest of his beautifully engineered bogies could take weights of up to twelve tonnes and could be combined to carry a gun barrel up to 48 tonnes in weight. If each axle could support 3.5 tonnes, then a four-wheel bogie could safely carry five tonnes, a six-wheeler could be rated at nine tonnes and eight wheels at twelve tonnes. Ten tonnes could be carried by two five tonne bogies, and ingeniously engineered combinations could be employed for progressively greater weights.
His system was a marvel. It was adopted by the French Army in 1888, was copied by the Prussians soon after. The rest of the German States copied the Prussians. I describe the process in ‘Colonel Péchot: Tracks To The Trenches’
The Germans imitated the 60cm gauge, engine design and the ten tonne bogie wagons. They did not imitate the massive bogies designed to carry guns. They did not need to. Their artillery staples could be manoeuvred in the field by a few men.
Plenty of Péchot designed bogie wagons survive to this day. Thousands of examples of the German Brigadewagen were built. Most succumbed to wear and tear. So few have survived that it has been hard for me to source a photo (see above).
|One hundred years old Péchot wagon, fairly complete except for one brake wheel. Photo S. Wright|
Yet the two contrasting designs show that the German bogie wagon was not worse than the French one. It did what was required. If it turned out to suffer from built-in obsolescence, that was not all bad. The needs of the military keep changing.
In the same way, the German howitzer proved that, for the War that was being fought, small was, if not exactly beautiful, beautifully effective.