Monday, 1 August 2016
The Weapon of Offence
Part IV of ‘With Canadians at the Front’
By W. Lacey Amy
From The Canadian Magazine, December 1916.
At different stages of the Great War different conclusions have been arrived at concerning the respective values of the various branches of the offensive weapon. Away back when Belgium was standing off the Germans single-handed until the Allies could collect an army, as well as during the following weeks ending at the battle of the Marne, while the British and French were trying to get their breath, there was only one thought in the minds of the experts—guns, guns, and of the largest calibre! Before the great German guns forts previously considered impregnable were reduced to powder. The Allies kept dropping back, crying not so much for men as against the unopposable might of the German artillery.
Then came the turn. The Allies, rallying before Paris, with the Germans puffing from their pursuit and weakened in guns and ammunition by the impetuosity of their advance, stood their ground and fought the enemy to a standstill. The retreat of Mons developed into the victory of the Marne, and trenches began to wind from the sea to the borders of Switzerland. It was then, when Germany stood with her back to her homes, when attack and counter-attack seemed to be deciding between Calais and Berlin, that the critics cooled down and determined that, after all, it amounted to men, not guns.
But when trench warfare seemed to be leading to that stalemate so confidently predicted by German sympathizers and so feared by the Allies a new era dawned. What human waves could not accomplish might be done by a more violent agency. England, Russia, France crowded on steam in the munitions factories and guns began to pour to the front to compete with the German military machine that had been building for three-quarters of a century. At St. Julien it switched from the moment from guns and men to gas. Now and then liquid fire has figured. But for more than a year the swing of the critical pendulum has been once more towards guns; and at guns it promises to stay for the remainder of the war.
There is no chance of the infantry missing its dues. Guns without men to follow up would be no more use towards ending the war than Zeppelin raids. But men without the guns! That is where Russia stood in June 1915, when her hordes were powerless against the rain of German shells that poured death on them from a safe distance.
Canada has not attempted to maintain her share of the field guns necessary to the support of the number of men she has sent to the front. She has contributed that which she was in a position to give in the quickest time. England, from her greater resources and experience, has added the greater part of the batteries of larger calibre now considered wise for the completion of the force in the field.
Canada has contributed at least three of what are called heavy batteries. Cobourg, Ontario, perhaps the most famous, saw emergency service early in the war. As the only heavy battery available it was hustled about Canada wherever attack from German cruisers threatened. Right across to Victoria it tore in anticipation of the Pacific squadron that never came, and when the danger was over it was recalled to other active duties.
But Canada’s heavy batteries, consisting only of 4.7 guns, are light compared with the guns now doing duty behind the lines on both sides. A 4.7 gun, throwing a sixty-pound shell, does a lot of destruction with its “coal-box”, but it is when sixteen-inch shells are dropping about that “heaviness” begins to reach the limit. The vast majority of guns are much smaller than either of these. Canada’s batteries, and the most convenient size in use by all the armies in the organized batteries, are thirteen-pounders for the horse artillery and eighteen-pounders for the field artillery.
There is as yet in this war no difference in the uses of horse and field artillery, as there is none between the mounted rifles and the infantry. All are doing trench work. And their shells, usually called by the soldiers “whizz-bangs”, do perhaps more destruction in the aggregate than all the larger calibres put together. They are exceedingly mobile and that characteristic has saved the day scores of times when the larger guns would have been useless, perhaps even captured.
On many occasions they have proved their worth in emergency to the cost of the Germans. Once—it was at Loos—an eighteen-pounder was rushed right to the front lines. There, at a distance of 175 yards, it was turned on the advancing enemy at point-blank range. Eighty shells it sent tearing into the oncoming ranks; and then the Germans concluded they shouldn’t ask too much and retired. When the British lost Messines the Germans began immediately to erect a barricade across the road. Counter-attack after counter-attack had failed and bombing parties had paid the penalty of their bravery. That night a horse artillery gun was rushed up by an armoured motor car. With a few shells the barricade was blown to bits, while the big German shells vainly tried to reply effectively. Right in the middle of the road the gunners stood behind their gun, while the German guns, far back where they could not see, showered the fields on either side, not suspecting that any enemy would dare the easiest location. In thirty minutes the Canadian gun was back in its old place sending over occasional shells at its former range to prevent the Germans enjoying the night. Of course, there were some little wrinkles in the operation which are not for public print, and which have been, and will be, used again as occasion requires.
The placing of the guns is an art in itself. They must be sufficiently near to cover a varied range within the German lines, while far enough back to be safe from sudden raids. Roughly, these smaller guns are placed at 1,500 yards from their target, and at that distance they can search out the front, support and communication trenches with disastrous effect. Their concealment is as necessary as their use, since one well-placed shell from the enemy may clean out the entire crew and disable the gun. In the preparation of their emplacement sandbags figure, as they do everywhere about the front. These bags are built up about the gun, and over them a galvanized roof is built. The roof is covered with sod or clay, according to the nature of the surrounding ground, in order to render it invisible from the air. The sandbags are rubbed with clay or painted green, under similar conditions, that the place may not be discernible from the front. But that is not sufficient. Now that the shelter is complete, no one is permitted to walk behind it, as it would reveal its existence by momentarily hiding him. Usually there is constructed in the rear a hedge, kept green by being rebuilt each day. Only behind that hedge may one pass. There are a hundred such dodges utilized by both sides in the ordinary course of the day’s work, and only the most common of these are described. Upon the ingenuity of his concealment depends the gunner’s effectiveness and safety.
In connection with every gun is a number of horses, under the care of men who face much of the same danger as the gunners without the satisfaction of getting even. To each gun are six horses and three drivers. In the field artillery the gunners ride on the limbers; in the horse artillery they have horses of their own. As each gun goes into its place for action it is followed by its ammunition wagons, and as required these wagons—almost always by night, of course—replenish the supply of ammunition. In this work there are two stages. From the rear the ammunition column, in comparative safety, carries the ammunition forward to a given point, where it is reloaded into the wagons in direct touch with the guns, and these are taken to the front by the drivers and ammunition carriers. In case of injury to the gunners, the carriers take their places.
While the artillery, owing to its distance behind the front, is not considered as dangerous a sphere of action as the infantry, or its immediate branches, there are times when the gunner is subjected to a shelling which partakes not at all of the desultory nature of front-line shelling. As the aim of every battery is to locate the guns of the enemy, and in this they are aided by an air service that pays little attention to anything else, immediately a gun is located it is shelled into helplessness; and in these days of marksmanship the fate of a discovered gun or battery is unenviable.
Corporal Y., a St. Catharines gunner, a member of the 10th battery of the 3rd brigade, was the victim of another danger to which gunners are exposed. Everywhere through the lines, even far behind the front lines, the Germans have managed to maintain a sniping force that has been of special menace to those whose operations are carried on beyond the reach of the constant rifle firing across No Man’s Land. While this menace is decreasing day by day, owing to improved organization and greater care for its extermination, no one is safe. In the comparative retirement of the gun crews these snipers find their most telling opportunity. There have been instances, one to my own knowledge, where an entire crew was wiped out without the discovery of the sniper. Corporal Y., a husky Canadian of six feet, two, received his “blighty” in the foot through this means. Before that he had passed through the usual narrow escapes without a scratch. Once a shell passed right through his gun shelter without exploding. At Wolveringham the battery was shelled out, two shells coming through the officers’ mess without doing more damage than the wounding of the major.
Private G., from Sherbrooke, Quebec, a member of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, an ammunition carrier and general utility man on account of his knowledge of French and English, is another sample of the powerful Canuck who reached the hospital with a leg injury. When not engaged in carrying ammunition he was back at the rear with the horse artillery as interpreter, a duty assigned to many Canadians from Quebec.
Driver H., Kingston, A Battery, had been at the front a long time without injury, although he had been in the thick of it around Plug Street, where the mud hampered no other branch of the service so much as the artillery drivers. Frequently they were forced to attach ten horses to each limber, and even then stuck. All last winter he was engaged in the delightful task of hauling ammunition right up to the guns through a narrow valley full of shell-holes. Filled with water, these holes froze over, cutting the horses and making the road not only almost impassable, but positively dangerous to horse and man. Floundering in the dark, with shells searching them out, the drivers had to keep the supply up over a road whose unevenness and depths they could never see nor even guess until the horses sank into them.
Ask a soldier what he dreads most at the front, and, after the cold, he will name the trench mortar. These light but powerful weapons are everywhere, dealing out death in terrible doses. Standing right in the front trenches often, they toss hideous projectiles across No Man’s Land into the enemy trenches as one would throw a baseball. Time was at the beginning of the war when the trench mortar crew was as unwelcome in a bay (one of the sections into which the trenches are divided) as a fifteen, inch shell. From bay to bay the trench mortar was cursed, and only when it arrived where the N.C.O. in charge had not the strength to insist upon its removal was it allowed to get in its work. For a mortar was certain to draw a heavy bombardment from the enemy. Now, with the organization of trench warfare, this has changed. The mortar is placed under orders, and no local objections have weight. Which does not modify the local cursing.
The trench mortar is portable. Therein lies its efficiency. It is built on a base that is covered with sand-bags to hold it firm while it throws its bombs over at the enemy. The old mortar threw a sixty-pound shell that had a range of 280 yards. From that the size grew to 192-pounds, throwing across 800 yards and making a hole twenty-eight feet deep, it is said, and twenty-six feet square. It was a miniature earthquake when it struck, and it was little wonder its presence brought the attention of the enemy artillery of all sizes. The latest development is a small affair, called the Stokes gun, weighing but fifty-two pounds complete, and presenting the enemy with an eleven-pound high-explosive. The war is passing more and more to high explosives.
The Stokes gun looks like a bit of stovepipe, and is most useful for sniper’s plates and gun emplacements. One of its advantages is that it is even more silent and unseen than the other mortars, all of which emit little noise, and only a few sparks at night. Its thirty-two shots a minute are sure destruction to a wide section of trench. The secret of the new mortar was long zealously guarded. There were standing orders to destroy it at any cost before capture, one shell being carried solely for this purpose. It is reported that the Australians failed, losing two to the enemy.
The projectile of the trench mortar is more a bomb than a shell, with a tail to guide it, bursting either by time fuse or concussion. In the latest designs the shell carries its own charge for propulsion. The Germans, early in the war, had this style of warfare much their own way, but, as in everything else, the Allies caught up. The aerial torpedo of the Germans was for a long time the special terror of our soldiers. Passing very high, it dropped square into our trenches and did much destruction. For a long time there was a special reward of six months’ leave and £50 offered to the soldier who would bring one in unexploded. The nearest to success was a British soldier, who loaded one on a transport—and himself, horses and wagon paid the penalty. Of late the Allies have ceased to worry about it since they have something more effective. The ordinary bomb from the trench mortar is clearly visible through the air in the daytime. It is at night that its silent “puff”, in disproportion to its execution, is most dreaded.
Private P., Montreal, of the 2nd Division trench mortars, is one of but seventeen remaining of the original 142. His appearance in the casualty list was due to losing his way and thereby coming under the shellfire of the enemy. With fifteen others he was carrying up ammunition by night to a new trench mortar position. Each with his sixty-pound shell, led by a corporal, who alone knew the location of the gun, they found themselves in the German trenches. On their way back they were discovered by a listening post. A shell dropped among them and twelve of the sixteen were killed. P. managed to crawl away, but another shell buried him. While not seriously injured, the not unusual shellshock following burial resulted.
If the Germans have taught us one thing more than another it is that machine guns can take the place of armies in many of the operations. We were slow to realize this fact, as we have been slow to show our willingness to learn many of the other valuable things so apparent from the first of the war. Now we are catching up even in this branch of offensive service. Without machine guns, even with the most powerful artillery, it is doubtful if an attacking force of determined nature could be stopped. The usefulness of the artillery stops a hundred yards or more in front of one’s own lines. Rifle fire, while necessary and deadly, is inadequate. A dozen riflemen and a machine gun are almost as effective as one hundred rifle-armed men. It was a knowledge of this that enabled the Germans to make such serious opposition to the Allied advance in July. It is said that there have long been sections of the German front manned by entirely inadequate numbers, but made efficient by machine guns, a product of factories not affected by the “policy of attrition” so confidently adopted by the Allies for the first two years of the war.
The fact that Canada’s eager contribution of funds for machine guns did not develop into what was hoped for, is no proof that the guns were not needed. While not of much service for active attack, they are indispensable for stopping the counter-attacks whereby we hoped to make the enemy suffer even more than by our artillery. There is no doubt that the rifle of the future will be a miniature machine gun.
The Canadians have been armed with three kinds of machine guns, the Colt, the Vickers, and the Lewis. The former, an American gun, has been almost superseded by the Vickers, an English production, and at the time of writing a still newer style is under test and the new machine gunners are being trained to its use.
The Vickers is a large gun, requiring an emplacement, and while portable, is beyond the strength of one man. It is now built with a tripod, which facilitates its use under conditions impossible to the old style. It is a powerful gun, firing from belts at the rate of about 500 a minute. Machine guns of this nature are fired from prepared positions. While often brought right into the front trenches, they are usually operated from a support trench or from an emplacement some yards in the rear. As in the case of artillery, concealment is an absolute essential.
When used in the front lines, an emplacement is built up so that the gun is above the level, and the parapet is left before it as before the rest of the trench. When operated from the rear, a more elaborate shelter is constructed. The general design of the shelter is a trench-like excavation on three sides of a square. On the higher centre the gun is placed, and in the trench, so that they are able to work the gun with ease and be partly protected, the gunners stand. In front sandbags are heaped, finished off to resemble the surrounding ground, and overhead, as a protection from the prying eyes of the aeroplanes, a roof covered with grass or mud is erected.
Except under attack, machine guns are operated only by night. The location of one of them meets instantly with a severe shelling, or when in the front lines, with the German aerial torpedoes. In the daytime the gun is entirely concealed and silent, but the crew may be engaged in obtaining their sights for the night work. It may be a sniper’s shelter or an emplacement, or a bit of new work that is to be destroyed. When darkness comes the concealing sandbags are removed and the gun is fired through a bag of grass to hide the flash. In the use of the machine gun the range is sometimes almost as important as with the artillery. For its ordinary night operations of destroying work observed in the daytime, its aim must be accurate. Frequently an emergency calls for the temporary use of the gun elsewhere. In order that this might not nullify the range secured, perhaps with much daring, the gunners have invented various range-keeping devices that enable them to pick up the range again upon their return. A box, a sheet of paper with a hole in it, and a candle form one of the simplest and surest of these devices.
One of the most effective uses of the machine gun is the night firing in the direction of a suspected exposed foe. Thousands of the Canadians have been caught by this blind firing. By some noise, or by a flare, a patrol or wiring party is suspected. Instantly a machine gun is turned in the general direction, and the sweep of bullets turned loose over the whole area. Only by lying down is there escape, for a machine gun turned slowly will cover the ground so closely that scarcely a fly could escape on the proper level.
Machine Gunner B., Toronto, one of the 1st Canadian Motor Machine Gun Company, outfitted, I think, by Clifford Sifton, has experienced the lot of the men recruited for a service not adapted to the present style of warfare. Like the cavalry and the mounted rifles, they were forced to get down and fight in the trenches like the infantrymen. The machine guns were removed from the cars and taken into the trenches, but the cars found sufficient service in other ways to make them valuable. The machine gunners’ turn in the front is much longer than that of the other soldiers. Sometimes they are on duty sixteen days, with seven days’ rest. It is not implied that their work is any harder on that account, for the duration of duty has been graded as nearly as possible to the work and exposure and danger endured. B.’s “wound” was shellshock, his convalescence being delayed by an attack of gastritis. His fourteen months in the trenches earned him the rest in the hospitals.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.