My intention was to publish this entry yesterday on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Mons. However, as Robert Burns wrote, "The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley." That applies to combat operations plans as well. No plan survives enemy contact. This special issue of Artillery in the First World War will also further delay publishing "Artillery in the First World War: Russia – The Tsar’s Cannons." In the meantime, another special issue has already been submitted for publication, "Artillery in the First World War: Special Issue – Belgium’s Artillery and the Battle of Liege, 1914." Hopefully, you will be reading that entry very soon. In the meantime, here is a short piece on Britian's Royal Artillery and the Battle of Mons.
So, much has already been discussed and published regarding the British Army during the First World War, especially the British Expeditionary Force’s first battle at Mons in August 1914, that any short article about the Royal Artillery during the First World War would be profoundly superficial. Nevertheless, a modest purpose of this GMIC article series on Artillery in the First World War is to encourage further reading and discussion on the topic; thus, a short refresher on the Royal Artillery’s role at Mons seems to be in order on this 100th anniversary.
Royal Artillery Gunner
The British Expeditionary Force first landed in France on 9 August 1914 and by the Battle of Mons numbered four infantry divisions and five cavalry brigades. (Two additional divisions would arrive by the end of August.) Each infantry division had three field artillery brigades equipped with 54 18-pounder guns, one field howitzer brigade with 18 4.5 in howitzers, and one heavy artillery battery with 4 60-pounder guns. Each cavalry brigade had one battery of Royal Horse Artillery; each battery being equipped with 6 13-pounder field guns, for a total of 30 13-pounders.
1st Cavalry Division (4 brigades): D Battery, E Battery, I Battery, J Battery, RHA 5th Cavalry Brigade (independent): L Battery, RHA
The Battle of Mons was part of a larger campaign later called the Battle of the Frontiers, the result of France implementing its Plan XVII and Britain deploying the BEF in response to Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality. After conquering the fortresses of Liege and Namur, the German Army continued its advance toward France in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan. Generaloberst Alexander von Kluck’s 1. Armee advanced toward the French border and encountered the BEF near the Belgian town of Mons. The BEF had taken up positions along the Mons–Condé Canal in order to delay the advance of the 1. Armee and protect the left flank of the French Army as it prepared to meet the oncoming German assault. While the canal provided a useful obstacle for defensive positions, some British accounts after the war related that the surrounding terrain was difficult from an artillery perspective. There were some good locations for siting batteries on the high ground south of the canal, but for the most part along the line, artillery officers had difficulty in finding suitable positions for batteries or even for single guns, as well as in finding proper positions for observation posts. At the time, artillery tactics dictated pushing the field batteries or gun sections as close as possible to the infantry positions to provide supporting defensive fire, and to keep the mass of the artillery, including the heavy battery, on the flanks, where the guns could cover all the open ground and prevent a turning movement.
The BEF first engaged the 1. Armee on 22 August in a cavalry skirmish that also included an exchange of artillery fire. The 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards, along with E Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, exchanged fire with the German Kürassier-Regiment Königin (Pommersches) Nr.2. No. 4 Gun, E Btry, RHA earned the honor of firing the first British artillery round of the First World War in the vicinity of Bray, along the Mons- Charleroi road. Additionally, on 22 August, two RFA batteries of the British I. Corps came under fire from German batteries of the 17. Infantrie Division, causing some of the first British casualties of the war.
Ordnance QF 13-pounder Light Gun; No. 4 Gun, E Btry, RHA – Imperial War Museum (Wikipedia)
On 23 August shortly before 9a.m., German field guns took up positions on the high ground north of the canal and began heavy shelling of the British line. Battery after battery from from 1. Armee moved forward and joined the barrage; the Germans gradually achieved almost a 2:1 advantage in artillery during the battle. Throughout the day, German infantry regiments attacked the British line with direct support from their own field artillery. The British infantry stubbornly resisted the attacks with equally effective close support from its Royal Field Artillery batteries. At one point during the battle, Grenadier-Regiment Prinz Karl von Preußen (2. Brandenburgisches) Nr. 12 from the 5. Infantrie Division, supported by up to five batteries of field artillery, pushed hard against positions of the 1st West Kent and 2nd King’s Own Scottish Borderers Regiments. The 120th Battery, RFA, had significant effect in support; however, the battery was eventually forced to withdraw with the loss of two guns, abandoned in their exposed position on the canal at St. Ghislain. Further along the line, 107th Battery, RFA, provided equally effective fire in support of a company of 4th Royal Fusiliers defending the Nimy Bridge, largely due to the accuracy of artillery observers entrenched with the infantry. Eventually, the BEF was forced to withdraw from its positions; Royal Artillery batteries up and down the line gallantly covered the deliberate withdrawal of their infantry brothers. Supporting the rearguard action of the 2nd South Lancashire and 1st Lincolnshire Regiments near Ciply/Frameries, 109th Battery, RFA provided devastating fire which helped break the assault of three German regiments of the 6. Infantrie Division. Reportedly, 37th Battery, RFA, fired its howitzers “as if they were machine guns.” (Lomas) Despite giving up terrain, Mons can be considered a tactical success for the BEF, especially in terms of artillery support to the infantry. Up and down the British line in the defense, as well as during the withdrawal, the action of the Royal Artillery at Mons provided a text book study of field artillery in close support of infantry.
Works Cited: The vignettes and histories related in these articles have been compiled from various sources found on the internet, as well as many published references. They are meant only to provide a snapshot and encourage further research of artillery in the First World War. Any inaccuracies, misquotes, or dropped citations are unintentional and if brought to my attention, will be corrected immediately.
Chandler, David and Ian Beckett. Ed. The Oxford History of the British Army. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Web. 23 August 2014.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The British Campaign in France and Flanders 1914. New York: George H. Doran, Co., 1918. Web (CGSC.edu). 23 August 2014.
Edmonds, James E. The Battle of Mons: Military Operations France and Belgium 1914. New York: Macmillan, 1933. Web. 23 August 2014. Hamilton, Ernest W. The First Seven Divisions: Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres. Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1916. eBook. 24 August 2014.
Lomas, David. Mons 1914: The BEF’s Tactical Triumph. London: Osprey, 2014. Web. 24 August 2014.
The third article in the series Artillery in the First World War has now been published.
Artillery in the First World War: Belgium’s Artillery and the Battle of Liege, 1914
The Tsar's Cannons, the Russian entry to the series, is still in rough draft and likely will be delayed further. Summer on the Bay is full of distractions; kayaking, fishing, crabbing, barbeques, beer drinking, gardening. And those are only the things I put on my "to-do list". Of course, the Commander-in-Chief (aka wife) is free to edit, amend, re-write, add, delete or otherwise re-prioritize my daily activities. (For further reading on this postulate see Brian Wolfe's News From The Home Office What Women Don't Know (About Men). Make coffee first.)
I have also been diverted by researching individual German artillery regiments (See my partner blog series: Imperial German Artillery Regiments). The good news about this is it gives me a smoke screen for searching internet auction and sales sites. Case in point:
Herself says "Why are you looking at that auction site? I thought we agreed that buying militaria wasn't a budget priority right now." *arms crossed, scowling*
Himself says: "Oh, I'm not buying. I'm researching another article." *quickly pulling up the rough draft document, avoiding eye contact* "Of course, if an unusual item pops up, I can always dip into the beer budget."
Herself says: "I'm going for a manicure." *eyes rolling*
So, you see, writing these articles serves multiple purposes. Give it a try. Oh, and keep posting in "Me and My Beer" thread; it's nice to see how the rest of the world lives.
New Year's Day is a time for reflection. One cannot help but wonder what thoughts went through the minds of the Kaiser's Gunners as the New Year opened on 1 January 1915. Or what were the thoughts of their comrades in the Austro-Hungarian artillery or of the allied gunners pouring counterfire down on German positions. The Centenary of the First World War in the second half of 2014 was marked publicly by solemn ceremonies and reflective discussion. But from my opinion it still was a bit subdued. Of course, the crises of the day rightfully are the priority; not to mention the day-to-day grind of simply making one's way in this complicated world. Who has time to remember the troubles of 100 years ago? What significance do bits and baubles of leftover metal, enamel, ribbon, canvas, steel or leather have today? Since so few pieces of personal documents have survived, surely they cannot be of any significance.
But to serious collectors like those of us here at GMIC, these things do matter. Sometimes I think we collect - and remember - both the heroic and the mundane (not only of the First World War, but from all the periods in which we find our collecting interest), with the simple hope that one day, we too will be remembered. History is often looked down upon by many (especially school children and students) as just old things and dead people in a book. Okay, well maybe as just old things and dead people on a Wikipedia web page. They fail to see that post cards from a soldier in the trench were the Twitter feed of today. They fail to see that hand-written diaries are the equivalent of a Facebook page. More importantly, they fail to see that history is around them every day: in the news, in their neighborhood, in their neighbors' lives, and in their own lives. Students understandably question why they should learn about people, places, and events in the past; we as "historians" and "teachers" have failed to show them relevancy. As a collective society, we must inspire each other to have a natural curiosity and awareness about the past so that we see how it affects the present. Perhaps then, armed with this knowledge, we can become active participants in shaping a better future for our communities, both locally and globally. This is why I believe the discussion we had earlier on GMIC about the causes of the First World War was so important.
And this also is why these bits and baubles we collect are so important. They are tangible. They are a spark for curiosity. As collectors, I do believe that we serve a larger purpose of preserving history. One trend that continued in 2014 is especially troubling: the closing of brick-and-mortar museums. The scaling back in the scope of the Royal Artillery Museum "Firepower" in Woolwich, England due to budget issues announced in May 2014 is only one example. (Unfortunately, this trend started long ago in the United States with the scraping of the US Army Ordnance Museum in 2007.) It is perhaps inevitable. Reflecting on my own collecting past of 2014, I too scaled back due to budget. In 2014, I continued in earnest my transition from a lucrative consulting career to a career in education, with its corresponding scale back in remuneration. Consequently, my largest single collecting purchase in 2014 cost less than $100; a 1914 Mons Star to a Royal Artillery Gunner. It did not cost a great deal, but it means a great deal to me in terms of my current collecting motivation - history. I did not previously have a 1914 Star in my collection; adding one in 2014 seemed most appropriate. I have yet to research the medal; nonetheless, that brings me to my next reflection and moves this rambling tome on to its next phase - resolution.
I didn’t collect much in 2014; I only added 10 new regiments in my effort to collect something representing every Imperial German artillery regiments. On the other hand, I researched more of the history behind my items. While quite basic, I enjoyed researching and writing the first four articles in the series “Artillery of the First World War” for GMIC Articles: Germany, France, Belgium, and Russia. I also wrote a special edition, “The Royal Artillery at Mons” and a piece on the “Königlich Bayerisches 12. Feldartillerie-Regiment (12. bFAR).” An article on the effect of large scale artillery bombardments in the First World War is in very rough draft. So, I resolve to spend less money on stuff and more time on research and writing in 2015. I am certain that The Chancellor of the Household Exchequer will ensure I keep this resolution! Like many of us, my collection rambles outside the boundaries of my main focus on artillery in the First World War. So, I also resolve to liquidate some of the more far-flung pieces; of course, if I can construe even the slightest connection to artillery, it will stay. The Chancellor may have to intervene to enforce rigor and discipline in the culling process.
Realizing that one well-aimed shot can be more effective than several hundred tons of high explosive, I will wrap up this New Year's missive with one simple challenge: share your collecting reflections and resolutions for 2015.
After a lengthy delay in finishing the piece, the fourth article in the series Artillery in the First World War has now been published.
Artillery in the First World War: Russia – The Tsar’s Cannons
Summertime distractions on the Chesapeake have given way to requisite autumn maintenance tasks in the garden; cleaning out dead foliage from the flower beds, raking leaves, putting away the kayak, preparing the house for the onslaught of Nor'easters. While there is much to be done, this time of year also brings a lot of rain. And rainy days are made for research. A couple wet days in a row gave me just the time I needed to finish writing the Russian piece. Part of the challenge in writing this article was finding sufficient detailed resources in English, particularly regarding the period between the Russo-Japanese War 1904-1905 and the start of the First World War. This challenge reinforces one of my main purposes for writing these articles in the first place - that is to bring together scattered nuggets of gold into single ingot.
Interestingly, several New York Times articles of the period painted a very optimistic image of Russian artillery and its expected performance in the coming war. Perhaps that was born of optimism for a future ally against what was becoming increasingly seen as a vile enemy in Germany.
"Russia's New Army"
"Will Try Our Siege Guns"
"Russian Guns Deadly"
This article shows the reality was somewhat different. Perhaps the benefit of hindsight and analysis after the war allows reality to be clearly seen.
Either way, taken together here, both the view of contemporary news articles or the view of historical reflection, hopefully represent a useful ingot in the treasury of information regarding Artillery in the First World War.
Special issues regarding artillery at the Battle of the Marne and the Battle of Tannenberg are planned next in the series, as well as starting work on the "Kaiserlich und Königlich" artillery of Austria-Hungary.
It's been raining all day, hindering my efforts to get some last standing chores completed in the garden before the onset of winter makes all horticulture efforts moot. Now in the evening, the rain continues to fall, and there is nothing more fruitful to do on a dreary day and evening than to get to some of that long neglected research. Edgar Allan Poe, one of America's great poets, is buried in Baltimore, not far up the Chesapeake Bay from my current abode. And the opening of his poem, The Raven, is an apt sub-title for my labor. “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore..."
But unlike Poe, I have the internet rather than some "curious volume of forgotten lore." Google really is a wonderful tool. Just when you think you've found everything there is to find on a particular topic, a random search using some old familiar terms yields something you've not seen before. Finding these nuggets is exactly why I've started to write articles (and begin work on a website); there is so much information out there and I hope to smelt many of the nuggets into valuable ingots.
So, what did I find this time you ask... Before you cry "nevermore..."
On the History channel's website, I found a show called "Museum's Secrets." The premise is this: "Recent productions include three seasons of the international hit TV series Museum Secrets, filmed at the great museums of the world and now broadcast in 50 countries."
And like Poe could not ignore the Raven, I could not ignore a video focusing on the Imperial War Museum entitled: "Neutralizing the Kaiser's Guns"
I won't steal all of its thunder (did you like how I slipped in another dreary rainy metaphor in there?); but it's about British sound-ranging efforts to locate German artillery. It's inventor even won a Nobel Prize for physics.
So, literature, history, and science all here on GMIC. Nick should be awarding diplomas.
PS: Just in case you want to read the entire poem: The Raven
Sources vary and exact figures are difficult to achieve; however, consensus is that artillery caused the majority (something close to 60 percent) of combat casualties in the First World War. Add in the effects of constant harassing fire, reaching far behind the lines with large caliber weapons, as well as those of artillery-delivered gas attacks, and there can be no doubt that artillery was an effective killer. German production of artillery shells went from 1.36 million in 1914 to 36 million in 1916. Certainly, many (if not most) of those were fired across no-man’s land into allied positions. On the other side, Britain’s Royal Artillery fired 170 million shells by the war’s end, sometimes in barrages that would last for days. The sheer volume of artillery ammunition expended during the First World War certainly made life on the battlefield very dangerous.
Given the importance of artillery to the First World War and the centenary of the war, a broad survey of the topic seems in order. Ideally, over the course of the centenary, I will periodically add installments to this space. While I spent over 10 years as a professional artilleryman, I am only an amateur historian; therefore, I do not presume I will add anything new to the wealth of information already written about artillery in the multitude of volumes on the First World War, including several texts dealing exclusively with the subject. There are also some very detailed and worthwhile websites on the topic. However, I have noted that this wealth of information is a lot like disconnected pockets of gold in a mine. By bringing together some basic facts and interesting information from both the printed works and these websites, my goal is to provide a useful starting point for discussion and further research for those with an interest in artillery during the First World War. I also will try to bring the topic to the soldier’s level by tying in post cards, documents, and other items related to artillery in the First World War that I have collected over the years. This also will allow me to try and focus the discussion more on the tactical level of regiment and below rather than on the strategic and operational levels above divisions.
The series started with two articles introducing Germany and France's artillery. These have already been published in GMIC Articles. (The above paragraphs are copied from the introduction of the "The Kaiser's Guns," the first in the series.) They are survey articles looking at the topic from a pre-war and macro level.
Artillery in the First World War: The Kaiser’s Guns
Artillery in the First World War: France - Vive la Soixante-Quinze
The next article in the series will be "Artillery in the First World War: Russia – The Tsar’s Cannons" This article will not only be a survey of Russian artillery from a pre-war and macro level, but will also delve into Russian artillery at the Battle of Tannenberg. This should be published to coincide with the 100th Anniversary of the battle, 26-30 August. Hopefully, an article delving into both French and German artillery at the First Battle of the Marne, 5-12 September, will quickly follow. The series will then pick back up with survey articles on British, Austro-Hungarian, and Turkish artillery, as well as on the artillery of the smaller combatant nations.
In the meantime, enjoy this video I found while researching the Russian artillery article: