“Praise the lord and pass the ammunition.” - a short history of the Artillery
In the history of warfare almost all the Branches of the Army, Navy and later Air Force of any country have been given the credit they deserve, have been enshrined in history. For the Infantry it's Alamo or Rouke's Drift, for the Tanks it's the Battle of France or Kursk, for the Navy it's Trafalgar and Midway, for the Air Force we have the Battle of Britain. One branch however is often overlooked, cast aside, really. While Infantry may be the Queen of the Battlefield, the King is someone else: Artillery. While Artillery played an important role, especially in World War One, the battles where it was predominant over any other weapon except perhaps the Machine Gun, they are rightfully remembered for the casualty rates first. Still it took a long time to reach the M777 Howitzer in the picture above. Artillery as we understand it, using a barrel, gunpowder and some sort of shot, was first documented to be used in 12th Century China, when some sort of primitive siege gun was used to break down the walls of a besieged city. By the 13th century the new weapon had filtered through to Europe, and was first used in numbers during the hundred-years war. In the beginning however they were hampered by the fact that early guns were notoriously inaccurate and also extremely weak, so that for several decades guns were mainly used to defend besieged castles against enemy siege machines. Only in the 1420s did guns get powerful enough to do more than knocking in the roof of a house. Barrels were elongated and new recipes for gunpowder developed, and the traditional formula in which the defender had the advantage dissipated, as now guns could be used to knock down walls and fortifications, hence giving birth to the siege artillery. For the next four centuries all guns followed the same basic principle: a heavy, smoothbore barrel mounted on a wooden carriage. The basic principles were all the same, although there were many varied types of Artillery in use at the time
Firstly, there is the bombard, a gun designed to batter enemy positions and fortifications into oblivion, as the name suggests. Immobile and notoriously unreliable, so unreliable in fact that the Scots lost their King James II to an exploding one, they were emplaced and could not be moved once in position. The most famous example of a bombard was used by the Ottomans during the 1453, weighing 19 tons and taking two-hundred men to emplace and fire seven times a day. Secondly, there is the cannon, or more a field gun by more modern terminology. First coined in the 15th century, it was used to describe a smaller, lighter and mobile artillery piece, mounted to a wheeled wooden carriage and drawn by animals. These lighter pieces were to accompany the Infantry forward and give support, however with the rise of musket weaponry for the Infantry, these designs became too slow and cumbersome to be able to follow the Infantry forward, leading to the almost total disappearance of cannons from the Battlefield. Artillery remained important, but the day itself was still won or lost by the clash of the Infantry. Over the next years the basic principle remained the same, and during the 1620s the cartridge as we know it, meaning a combination of propellant, in this case powder, and the projectile, was invented, and many specialized types of artillery were invented, splitting the branch into ship-borne Artillery and many others that should be well known enough to the readership of the AARlander, among them many esoteric designs like the Polish multi-barrel cannon shown below.
In 1650 the book "Artis Magnae Artilleriae pars prima" sort of standardized gun design and doctrine, hence it was used as the Artillery handbook until the 19th century.
Surprisingly enough the French were the first to turn Artillery into a battle-winning weapon. In the 18th century by standardizing certain parts and mechanism, turning heavy artillery from a plaything for the rich warlords into a mass-producable weapon. At the same time technical changes made the Artillery much more reliable by introducing, amongst other things, a flintlock mechanism similar to that on contemporary muskets and rifles, doing away with the touchhole, where a small quantity of powder needed to be lit with a match. This had been very vulnerable to weather, and too big a charge might make the cannon explode instead of pushing the shot out of the muzzle. Much of the early conquests of Napoleon are partly credited to this technology. In the 19th century Artillery was sped along with even more technological innovations, among them the introduction of rifling, which made the Artillery even more precise and longer ranged.
Rifling in a 19th Century French Cannon
Another leap was the distinction between light and heavy Artillery, and by the end of the 19th century the invention of smokeless propellants, mostly cordite, in the United Kingdom which did away with the Gunpowder set the stage for the horrible artillery bombardments of World War One and World War Two.
In 1914 Artillery had become the primary 'Steel Fist' of the Armies, a role today taken by everyone's favourite, the Panzer. Calibres ranged from the usual field guns to monsters like the Big Bertha, designed to bombard Paris. For the next four years hours upon hours of constant fire from the biggest pieces became the norm, rendering huge stretches of land unrecognisable.
After the war Artillery was rightfully recognized as the nemesis of Infantry, although it was threatened to be outpaced by the tank. In the early stages of World War Two, especially during the Battle of France and the early parts of Barbarossa, it became clear that traditional artillery, even when dragged by motorized vehicles, had trouble keeping up with the rapid speed of the advance. This led to the latest revolutionizing invention in tube artillery this side of GPS: The self-propelled gun. It ranged from support artillery like the Sturmtiger or Brumbär over Anti-Tank Artillery like the SU-152 to ordinary, run of the mill “Let's pound them into dust” heavy Artillery. After the war though Artillery once again seemed to be outpaced by technological advances, as the missile threatened to take over the job, and Anti-Tank guns were the first to disappear. Conventional guns however kept their place and were even adapted to new duties. The best example for this is the M65, or Atomic Annie, which was a gun loosely based on the German K5 Railway guns of the War, and became the first and only gun ever to fire an Atomic tipped shell, with about 15 kilo-tons of explosive power. It was however made obsolete when Nuclear Weapons became small enough to be fitted on tactical Aircraft and missiles.
Today traditional tube Artillery, both propelled and not, remains a pillar of the support for the troops. Precision, speed of fire and movement and relative inexpensiveness make it an ideal arm to support the troops at close and intermediate range, letting the heart of yours truly, who still regrets the demise of the Battleship, beat higher, because here the fine and old art of gunnery is still exercised as if nothing had changed. And almost nothing has. ( Except for fire control, shells and the fact that the guns aren't dragged by horses. )
German Panzerhaubitze 2000 SPG fires
trekaddict is the author of “Against all Odds: The British Empire in World War Two”