Field Artillery Brigades AIF

Normal normal 18 pounder near zonnebeke 1917 1

About This Unit

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Field Artillery Brigades

This is a generic listing that embraces men who were enlisted and embarked as reinforcements for the Field Artillery Brigades (FAB).  On arrival in England they would have been assigned to one of 20 Field Artillery Brigades (FAB) across the AIF.  

Artillery units had arguably the least intuitive structure and organisation of any of the major Corps in the AIF.  Changing organisation and structure reflected a process of evolution and adaptation to equipment, the phase of war in which they were operating, Command and Control (C2) and the application of emerging technology such as aircraft, radio and sound ranging.

Time Line

At the outbreak of the War, Australian Artillery was in short supply in both quantitative and qualitative terms. 

The standard 'fire unit' of artillery is a Battery comprising variously four to six guns, described as light medium or heavy depending on the equipment, calibre and weight of shell.  There were initially three x four gun batteries of ‘field guns’ in each FAB.

The standard field gun was the British 18 pounder (so-called because of the weight of the high explosive shell).  The term ‘field’ essentially equates to ‘light’ artillery in terms of relative mobility, range and weight of shell. 

When the AIF embarked, its artillery was also ‘light-on’ in terms of both the type of gun and the numbers of them.  There was no medium or heavy artillery or any mortars in the AIF equipment inventory at that time.

The Gallipoli Gunners dilemma.  The flat trajectory of guns in hilly terrain is a serious impediment because of 'terrain masking'.

As it turned out, the scope to use artillery at Gallipoli was extremely constrained anyway.  It was man-handled rather than horse drawn, and was complemented by Royal Navy warship Naval Gunfire Support (NGS), the effect of which (as was the case with the 18 pounders) was severely impacted by what is known as 'terrain masking'.  The AIF Artillery stuctural deficiencies mattered less at Gallipoli than had the AIF gone straight to Europe, where artillery was the definitive feature of the battlefield. 

The No. 4 gun, an 18 pound field gun of B sub-section, 9th Battery, in action during a Turkish attack. They are firing from McCay's [M'Cay's] Hill towards the Olive Grove, targetting a Turkish supply train about to enter a sunken road. The gun is camouflaged with leaves attached to netting. The fixed amunition of the 18 pounder can be seen in the hands of the bare-chested gun number.  Probably the most famous photo of Australian WW1 Artillery in action http://static.awm.gov.au/images/collection/items/ACCNUM_SCREEN/A00830.JPG

At ANZAC, guns were deployed singly purely because the terrain caused a lack of suitable fire positions.  The 18 pounders were later complemented by an improvised heavy Battery with two  6 inch (150mm) howitzers and a 4.7 inch (120mm) Naval Quick Firing (QF) gun.  QF in British parlance means it fires a fixed cartridge case / projectile loaded as one piece, as opposed to a 'bag charge' where the propellant is uncased and loaded separately to the shell. 

Gallipoli revealed the need for howitzers, a realisation that had already occurred on the Western Front.  There was initially a lack of howitzers available to meet the establishment.   The other major difference on the Western Font was the huge numbers of horses, handlers and the massive fodder requirements needed to sustain the horses required to move the guns and ammunition on the battlefield.

As the war progressed, concentration, to facilitate command and control at the highest level, became a defining characteristic of the structure of artillery units.  Specialised sub units (Independent Batteries equipped with weapons like Siege Artillery, Heavy Howitzers and Medium and Heavy Mortars) were raised and allocated across the AIF, generally at Division and Corps level.  The allocation of their fire support was similarly controlled.

Organisation

The standard organisation ‘unit’ was the Field Artillery Brigade which were formed to support infantry divisions. In 1914, the First Division had four Infantry Brigades numbered 1-4.  The 4th Brigade was detached under command of the ANZAC Division in order to conform to the British structure of three Infantry Brigade per Division which the AIF retained for the rest of the War.  

Once the AIF returned to Egypt in early 1916, and  the AIF was expanded to Five Divisions, each of three Brigades.  A FAB, each of three batteries of 18 pounder guns, was raised and numbered correspondingly, for each Infantry Brigade, totalling 15 in all (ie the 1st FAB was allocated to the 1st Infantry Brigade and so on).

At the same time a Howitzer Brigade was raised for each division numbered 21-25, with 12 x 4.5 inch howitzers each.    21 FAB was attached to the 1st Division, 22 to the 2nd and so on, meaning each of the five Divisions had three FAB and one Howitzer (although still called a FAB) equipped Brigade each.  Somewhat confusingly, 16-20 FAB were never raised. Due to equipment supply constraints, the Howitzer Brigades were broken up and their 4.5's materialised as an extra (Howitzer) Battery in each FAB, equipped with 4 x 4.5 inch Howitzers.

In January 1917, batteries were increased in size to 6 guns and the number of FAB in each division was reduced to two, in order to economise on headquarters structures.  Some FAB were allocated to Divisional or Corps Artillery.  The direct connection between Infantry Brigades and a designated FAB was broken.

Equipment

            Gun or Howitzer or Mortar?

A gun fires its projectile on a relatively flat, ‘low angle’ trajectory.  Maximum range is achieved by elevating the barrel to about 45 degrees above horizontal. Projectiles impact the ground at a shallower angle than a howitzer or mortar, and were often fuzed to burst in the air, overhead the target.

A howitzer fires at both a conventional and a ‘high angle’ trajectory (ie above 45 degrees), which is its most important attribute.  Maximum range is still at or about 45 degrees but shorter range is achieved by elevating the barrel higher.  This means it effectively ‘drops’ its shell onto the target.  With a heavier weight of shell and delay-action fusing, so the shell bursts under the surface of the ground, they were much more effective at reducing defences such as trenches, pillboxes and bunkers.  They can also fire from behind cover which also helps to mask firing signature from enemy observation, and affords a degreee of protection from enemy Forward Observers and fire.

Mortars fire at high angle only. Mortars in the Great War were generally muzzle loaded, smooth (rather than rifled or ‘twist’) bore firing a relatively heavy projectile over shorter distances than guns.   Fin-stabilised projectiles came later.  

The 18 pounder Quick Firing (QF) was an excellent light field gun capable of high rates of fire.  However its effect against defensive earthworks was soon found wanting in terms of trajectory and weight of shell. Howitzers, medium and heavy artillery and mortars were the solution.

The 18 pounder had a range of about 6,500 yards (almost 6km) they fired a range of ammunition natures including High Explosive fragmentation, Shrapnel, Smoke, Gas, Star (illumination) and Armour Piercing projectiles.

The standard British 18 Pounder Mk I or II field gun and its 'limber' or ammunition carrier behind.  Note the pole trail, the limitations of which are explained below.  The barrel is below the 'equilibrator' which is in essence a shock absorber to absorb the recoil of the gun on firing so that the gun carriage is not propelled backwards.

It was initially distinguished by its ‘pole trail’,  effectively a draw bar from the carriage, with an eye at the end for hitching to an ammunition  ‘limber’ and horse team.  The pole trail limited the extent to which the muzzle could be elevated because the breech fouled on the pole trail preventing full elevation of the gun.  To increase elevation they could dig a hole into which they could drop the trail.  This was modified late in the war in the Mk III and IV by replacing the pole with a ‘box trail’ of hollow square section steel plate,  with a cut-out into which the breech could recoil at higher angles. The additional elevation that could be achieved added an extra 3,000 yards to its range.  With a special streamlined shell, the later Mks could achieve 11,000 yards, nearly doubling its original range.   

The 4.5 inch Howitzer rendered long and effective service in the Royal Australian Artillery. following its introduction after Gallipoli in 1916.  It served into WW2 until replaced by the legendary 25 pounder gun/howitzer.  Initially constrained by lack of supply, the establishment was chopped and changed to reflect what was actually able to be issued.  It had a box trail and  a range of 6,600 yards and fired a QF 35 pound (16kg) shell (almost double that of the 18 pounder).

The 4.5 inch Howitzers of 108 Battery of the 8th FAB deployed behind an elevated road which provides cover from enemy observation and field artillery fire , in action on the 8th August 1918.

The following weapon systems were not operated by FAB but are included for context.

Heavy artillery took the form of the 8 inch (240mm) wheeled howitzer and the 9.45 inch howitzer which was a fixed position weapon with zero tactical mobility.  No. 54 and 55 Batteries of the 36th Heavy Artillery Group (/explore/units/270) operated these in the AIF Artillery.

An 8inch howitzer of the 54th Battery in action near Ypres in 1917.  Note the box trail.  This is taken from movie footage shot by Frank Hurley and George (later Sir Hubert) Wilkins 

Medium and Heavy Mortar Batteries (/explore/units/267) were also manned by Artillery Troops.  The medium mortar took two forms.  Early on an 'over-bore' (meaning the projectile diameter is greater than the bore diameter and is thus launched on a spigot) ‘Toffee Apple' mortar filled this niche but it was soon replaced by the much more effective and longer-ranged ‘Newton’ mortar of 120mm bore.  The heavy mortar was somewhat ungraciously nicknamed ‘The Flying Pig’ (/explore/units/373) because of the enormous 9.5 inch bomb, which could be seen flying through the air. 

Infantry Brigade Light Trench Mortar (/explore/units/27)batteries were equipped with the Stokes mortar, a simple but very effective weapon and the grandfather of all modern infantry mortars.  They fired a cylindrical bomb of about 3 inches / 80mm in diameter.  It had a relatively short range intially of only 800m or so (later with improved bomb design, out to 1500m) and so was deployed in or very close to the Front Line.  They were unwelcome lodgers because they invariably drew a lot of enemy attention.

Target Effect

Gunners take delight in pointing out that the ‘weapon’ in the artillery equation is the projectile or shell; the gun itself is ‘just’ a means of delivery.  The target defines the ammunition type or 'nature' requirement.

When the war on the Western Front opened, the British in particular, found themselves under-gunned compared to the Germans, with little medium or heavy artillery.

Artillery largely defined the landscape and shaped the physical environment of the Western Front.

Napoleon Bonaparte famously described Artillery as "the God of War" because of the effect that its fire can bring to bear on the battlefield.  In WW 1 on the Western Front, artillery dominated and defined the battlefield. In concert with the weather, it turned the terrain into the pulverised, devastated quagmire that is so synonymous with that period and place. 

Artillery, of all weapon systems on the battlefield, inflicted the most casualties and battle space damage.  It instilled the most fear among opposing forces. Its effect was both physical and psychological, with the term 'shell shock' coming into general use early in the war.  It was most effective when employed 'en masse'.

Different natures of ammunition were optimised for target effect.  Examples are described below:

            Personnel / horses in the open or without overhead cover - Shrapnel Shells and High Explosive (HE) fragmentation with airburst fuzing. 

A sectioned 18 pounder cartridge and shrapnel shell.  The brass cartridge casing contains the 'stick' cordite propellant.  The shrapnel shell is basically a tube designed to detonate in the air at a point determined by the fuze (the brass point of the shell).  The shell does not fragment; it is just a 'carrier'.   The fuze is a complex machined brass timer strong enough to withstand the G-forces of launch and using a burning powder train, set by the gunners using a 'key' or wrench to index it against a time scale engraved on the fuze.  The setting is derived from firing tables and communicated from the command post. Ignited on firing, when the fuze reaches 'time' it ignites the bursting charge at the back of the shell through the flash tube and the lead balls are projected through the front of the shell casing, like a shotgun shell.  The wound effect is very similar to a bullet, and indeed the medical description of the resultant injuries 'GSW', can apply to either General Shrapnel or Gun Shot Wound.

            Barbed Wire entanglements – HE fragmentation fuzed to burst on impact with the ground. It has both a blast and splinter effect.

            Defensive field works – high angle, high explosive fragmentation with delay-action fuzing to burst sub surface.  Field guns were found to be of very limited effect. Charge weight matters.

            Battlefield Illumination at night – Illumination (parachute flare) or star shell

            Battlefield obscuration – smoke, either White Phosphorous (which also had an incendiary effect) or chemical smoke.

            Signalling – star shells of different colours.

            Gas – shells need to be large to accommodate a useful payload and so were not an effective field gun capability. 

            Tanks (late in the war).  Armoured vehicles were vulnerable to direct fire (ie by the gun pointing straight at them) by field guns firing HE ammunition. 

The Gunners did not have it all their own way.

‘The ammunition crisis’ of 1915 saw only one in three British shells function correctly.  This required a massive manufacturing quality improvement process to improve reliability.

Artillery drew the enemy’s attention in the form of counter battery fire, generally from medium or heavy artillery.

Command and Control

Artillery started life alongside the infantry it was supporting.  As technology imroved range, target effect and communications, artillery moved from direct fire into 'indirect fire', whereby the guns and their targets were no longer in direct 'line of sight'. 

By the start of WW1, hitting the target that was likely out of sight, now required precise knowledge of where the guns were located (by survey),  an intermediate observer whose location was also accurate, and a means to determine a reasonably accurate location of the target, which was identified by a map 'Grid' reference.  The 'Forward' observer was needed in order to direct and adjust fire on to the target, and thus had to able to see it.  Vantage points included high ground, observation balloons and fixed wing aircraft. They required a means of communication to the gunline, which now,  because of increased range,  could be sited well behind the front line.  Field telephone (not much use in the air!), even semaphore were used and then late in the war radio was introduced.  Indirect artillery fire requires complex calculations (basically a form or weather-affected 3D trigonometry with a host of variables!), precision-engineered arms and ammunition and good communications.

 

This in turn led to more sophisticated processes to deploy, site, and control the firepower of artillery units.

So, whereas Infantry Brigades started the war with a dedicated Field Artillery Brigade, the guns progressively came under higher levels of C2 (Division and above) so their fire could be prioritised across other parts of the Front.  Weight of fire mattered, and the best way to achieve that was concentration of as many guns as were available.

The trend in the AIF Artillery, simplistically, was based on the principle that 'most guns wins',  thus in January 1917, Batteries were increased from four to six guns and the third FAB in ech Division was disbanded and its guns re-allocated.  This consolidated firepower, and saved on the manning requirements of successive headquarters.  

By the middle of 1918 and first demonstrated to full effect by the Australian Corps at le Hamel under General Monash, Artillery had become the lynch pin of 'Combined Arms' tactics and strategy, using all available resources (aircraft, tanks, artillery, engineers and enhanced communications) to assist infantry by neutralising the defenders' capacity to engage and counter the attackers successfully.

It culminated on the 8th August 1918, when an Allied Artillery firestorm of pre H-Hour counter battery fire destroyed or neutralised the enemy's artillery positions, which had been located by very accurate 'sound ranging' technology, developed by Adelaide born Professor Lawrence Bragggun line officer in the Royal Artillery.  Bragg's invention enabled the  position of enemy heavy guns to be determined to wtihin 25m allowing very precise counter battery fire without any warning. 

 

A graphic representation of the Counter Battery fire plan pre H Hour for the Battle of Amiens on 8th August 1918.  The enemy medium and heavy guns had been sound-ranged in advance and so comprehensive was the counter battery fire that no German artillery was able to respond effectively.

At H Hour, the infantry's advance was covered by a rolling barrage where the fire of the guns was applied across a front forward of and parallel to the advancing infantry.  It lifted 100m every three minutes to keep ahead of the advance.  This was totally 'predicted fire' to a very precise schedule and required enormously complex coordination to get the fall of shot from hundreds of guns sited in multiple locations all falling in a contiguous linear pattern along a front four-plus kilometers wide.  The infantry advanced behind medium tanks while light tanks and armoured cars (the new cavalry) were able to exploit gaps forming in the enemy's defensive lines and range into their rear and headquarters areas, adding to the chaos and confusion. 

Logistics

The 'God of War' had an insatiable appetite for ammunition.  It was the single most signficant payload of all forms of transport on the Western Front, and in total war, remains so in the 21st century.

Recycling in WW1.  Fired 18 pounder cartridge cases at a a massive dump, being salvaged for return and re-use, along with the very substantial packaging.

Satisfying its prodigious appetite was the role of successive layers of transport from the point of manufacture to the gun line.  Sea, rail and finally horse drawn and motor transport all played a role in transporting their very dangerous goods.

Each Division and Artillery Brigade had an Ammunition Column, the sole object of which was to keep ammunition up to the guns by whatever means were available; vehicle, light and medium rail and horse drawn wagons.  They were responsible for moving ammunition forward of Ordnance and Supply parks established in rear areas and had the unenviable job of getting the ammunition to the gun line and often came under enemy artillery fire in the process. 

The 6th Field Artillery Brigade's Ammunition Column, probably supporting operations at Pozieres / Mouquet Farm in 1916.  They have unpacked the individual rounds of ammunition for what appears to be delivery direct into the gun line, to save the gunner's time and available space on receipt of the ammunition.  It would be passed by 'human chain' straight into the individual gun pits. IWM (UK) image

 

There was also a large maintenance and repair infrastructure sitting behind the Artillery front line to supply, maintain, repair and salvage artillery equipment.

 

 

(c) Steve Larkins Nov 2014  Updated 2020/21

In an earlier life, Steve was an Infantry Mortar Line Officer and a student of the Royal Military College of Science (UK) before working in technical staff roles.

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