Trench Food

Most of the US new is passing over the World War I centennial, but for Britain, it was such a powerful force in their history, their papers are covering it in somewhat continuous detail.

And one interesting piece was on the feeding of Tommy throughout the war.

They say an army marches on its stomach, so feeding the two million men who were in the trenches at the height of the First World War was some task. It was a great achievement that in the entire conflict not one British soldier starved to death.

Yet no one should think that the Tommies enjoyed the food that was served up by the military. According to the wags on the frontline, the biggest threat to life was not German bullets but the appalling rations.

Most despised was Maconochie, named after the company in Aberdeen that made this concoction of barely recognisable chunks of fatty meat and vegetables in thin gravy.

When served hot, as per the instructions on the tin, it was said to be barely edible. Eaten cold for days on end in the trenches, where a warm meal was usually no more than a fantasy, it was said to be disgusting.

It was the stated aim of the British Army that each soldier should consume 4,000 calories a day. At the frontline, where conditions were frequently appalling, daily rations comprised 9oz of tinned meat (today it would be known as corned beef but during the First World War it was called bully beef) or the hated Maconochie.

Additionally the men received biscuits (made from salt, flour and water and likened by the long-suffering troops to dog biscuits). They were produced under government contract by Huntley & Palmers, which in 1914 was the world’s largest biscuit manufacturer. The notoriously hard biscuits could crack teeth if they were not first soaked in tea or water.

Simply adding tinned beef that could be issued to individuals was something of a major advance in ration technology. On the other hand, the Brits have never been famous for their cuisine, and such a limited menu would quickly become very monotonous. Coupled with the difficulties in heating the food, it’s not hard to see why the average Tommy was disappointed with his rations.

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When we think of a military ration today, the MRE springs to mind. In fact, the term ration is a technical one, meaning all the food intended for one soldier, for one complete day. Back in the days before the MRE, the C-Ration or the K-Ration, when the Quartermaster delivered food to a troop unit, it was fresh or canned food in bulk. How much food to deliver was computed by multiplying the daily ration for, say, beef, by the number of troops in a given unit. For instance, if the ration called for 1-1/4 pounds of fresh meat per day, per soldier, and a rifle company had 150 troops, the Quartermaster knew to deliver 187.5 pounds of meat.

As the article notes, how the troops might be expected to cook such a ration was their problem, not the Quartermaster’s.  Obviously, that changed over the course of the war.  The US Army faced many of the same challenges in feeding its troops in World War I. As a result of the dissatisfaction with field feeding in the Great War, a truly massive effort was put into improving the Army’s field feeding in World War II, resulting not just in the aforementioned C-Ration and K-Ration, but improved methods of transporting fresh and frozen foods, a much improved Army wide methodology of procuring rations, increased numbers of cooks, vastly improved field kitchens, and means of transporting hot foods forward.

Tales from a forgotten front

Craig tipped me to this piece on a little known slice of history.

When we think of World War I, most of us think the epic bloodshed on the nearly static Western Front, with French and British troops, and later Americans, facing off across No Man’s Land against the Germans of the Kaiser. I’ll leave it to URR to tell the tale of the horrendous slaughter that occurred on the Eastern Front.

A less well known theater was the mountaintop struggle between Italy and Austria-Hungary. Fighting in an environment that could easily have inspired Lucas’s vision of the Battle of Hoth, both sides suffered the horrors of war compounded by some of the most inhospitable terrain and weather possible. And so many of the dead were to lay* where they fell.

Now, after almost a century, glacial retreat is exposing some of these fallen.

This became clear in 2004, when Maurizio Vicenzi, a local mountain guide and the director of Peio’s war museum, whose own family fought for the Austrians, stumbled on the mummified remains of three Hapsburg soldiers hanging upside down out of an ice wall near San Matteo — at 12,000ft, scene of some of the highest battles in history. The three were unarmed and had bandages in their pockets, suggesting they may have been stretcher-bearers who died in the last battle for the mountain, on September 3 1918. When a pathologist was granted permission to study one of the bodies, to try to understand the mummification process, there was an outcry among local people who felt that the dead were being profaned.

*It’s early, I haven’t had my coffee. Lie? Lay?

On Being a Veteran: SGT York

Originally posted this two years ago on my Civil War blog, save for a few updates as to the year marks, this still comes closest to capturing what I think being a veteran means:

Today being Veterans Day, I’ve spend time walking through my old papers and files from “my history” a bit. But in the end, I started pulling out the folders on World War I. We’ve put several coats of paint on this calendar day in the last 93 years [Now 95], but it’s still the eleventh day of the eleventh month. And in my mind, the man who stands tall when I think of World War I is Alvin C. York.

In spite of his somewhat un-military (and under educated) background, York offered one of the best explanations why a nation such as the United States must have soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. On Memorial Day, 1941, York gave these thoughts while speaking at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington:

There are those in this country today who ask me and other veterans of World War Number One, ‘What did it get for you?’ … The thing they forget is that liberty and freedom and democracy are so very precious that you do not fight to win them once and stop. You do not do that. Liberty and freedom and democracy are prizes awarded only to those people who fight to win them and then keep fighting eternally to hold them!*

President Franklin D. Roosevelt later used portions of York’s speech in his Armistice Day address later that same year. So perhaps it is fitting that I cite it here on Veterans Day.


* This portion of York’s Memorial Day is cited in Sergeant York: An American Hero, by David Lee (University Press of Kentucky, 2002).

Battleship Texas

A while back, friend of the blog Aggiesprite went to visit the Battleship Texas Memorial, and kindly shared a few pics with us. I thought I’d posted them, but they got stuck in draft limbo somehow. I was reminded when our other friend of the blog Zekexas posted pics of his trip to BBTXM today.  Zekexas is a pretty good photog, so go take a look.

At any event, since Aggie went to all the trouble of taking pics of the old grey gal for me, I should post them.

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USS Texas, BB-35, was commissioned in 1914, and served in both World War I and World War II. She was decommissioned and stricken from the register in 1948.

She’s the only American example of a Dreadnought battleship remaining. At the time, the 27,000 ton New York class battleships were among the largest warships ever built. Mind you, today the  Gerald R. Ford is under construction, and will weigh in around 100,000 tons. And huge numbers of merchant ships displace far, far more.

Still, her ten 14”/45cal guns, in five twin turrets, were quite powerful, and were put to good use fighting during the invasion of North Africa in 1942,and the Normandy landings of June 6, 1944.  In 34 minutes of sustained fire, she placed 255 14” shells on the Pointe du Hoc emplacements thought to contain a battery of 155mm guns. The Rangers assault on Pointe du Hoc is one of the more famous events of that incredible day.

Texas would also engage in a duel with the shore batteries of Cherbourg*, the Dragoon invasion of Southern France, and the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Texas was an innovative ship. She was among the second generation of US Dreadnought battleships, shifting from 12” to 14” guns. She also was the first to implement modern fire controls such as rangefinders, directors and rangekeepers** She was the first US battleship to operate and airplane, and was a pioneer in the use of aircraft as spotters for gunfire, greatly improving accuracy at long ranges. She was also an early adopter of radar, mounting the Navy’s first operational air search set, the CXAM-1.

Almost immediately after the war, the state of Texas sought to turn their namesake into a museum. By 1948, she’d been pulled out of reserve, towed to Texas, laid up.  But time has not been kind to the flagship of the Texas Navy. She languished in disrepair until by 1988, she was in great danger of sinking. Indeed, when she was under tow to a drydock, leaks were so bad she was almost unable to be docked. A two year refurbishment brought her back to a much better state, but her advanced age and riveted hull means she still suffers from significant leaks, making the battle to keep her open an ongoing and costly one. Currently Texas is trying to convert her to a permanent dry berth, which hopefully will be complete by 2017.

In the meantime, at 99-1/2 years old, she’s still proud to represent Texas.

For some interior shots, MurdocOnline went on the rare hard-hat tour of her back in 2007.

*She was hit twice by 240mm shells, with 11 wounded, one later succumbing to his wounds.

**A rangekeeper was an early analog fire control computer used not just to plot the present location of a target, but to predict its future range and bearing to account for the time of flight of the ships guns projectiles.


The small armies of Australia and New Zealand, during World War I sent  troops to serve with the British Army. Formed into the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps, they quickly became known as ANZACs. Soon their wartime prowess earned them the reputation as the shock troops of the British Empire.

In World War II, both nations again provided key infusions of manpower into the imperial forces, and struggled to fight campaigns alongside the United States in the Pacific to achieve their own strategic goals.

And in virtually every major US campaign since World War II, troops from the antipodean nations have served alongside our soldiers and Marines.

Both Australia, and particularly New Zealand are small countries, with small armies. But both are highly respected for their professionalism, gallantry, and heritage. And so it is appropriate that we take a moment to remember the shared sacrifices of our allied neighbors from the other hemisphere as they celebrate ANAZC Day.

Head over to CDR Salamander’s for some excellent video of these warriors in action throughout the years.

Artillery Evolutions: Anti-Tank Guns and their German Origins

From World War I until the end of World War II, from the standpoint of doctrine, the preferred way to deal with enemy tanks was an anti-tank gun. During World War I, only one of the belligerents developed a significant anti-tank capability – the Germans.  Ironically, when you consider World War II, the Germans fielded around fifty tanks including captured types during the war.  Facing thousands of allied tanks on the Western Front, anti-tank tactics were a matter of necessity for the Germans.

Although the American Expeditionary Force in France included a substantial armored force, few, if any, American troops faced a German tank in combat.  In the immediate post war period, while theorists debated the full potential of the armored fighting vehicle (A.F.V.), all agreed modern armies needed some anti-tank weapons.  Naturally, the Americans looked to the German experience as a foundation for anti-tank tactics and when selecting anti-tank weapons.  So was the German reaction to allied tanks during the Great War?

After the combat debut of the British tanks on September 15, 1916, the Germans turned to combined arms tactics and adapted existing weapons to counter to the tanks.  The infantry received steel cored bullets for the MG 08 machine guns.  In addition, for close range defense, the Germans issued package charges and bundled grenades.  The engineers studied tank movements and improved obstacles.  As is the case today, they also found mines effective against the tracks.  Engineers also trained to use flamethrowers against vulnerable openings in the hulls.  The artillery was at that time fielding light-weight versions of the standard 7.7-cm FK 96 n/A as an infantry accompanying gun.  These guns, along with smaller 57mm and 37mm guns offered decent performance against the early tanks.  Even the 7.58-cm leichte Minenwerfer (lMW) mortar  penetrated 10 mm of armor at close ranges.  Where these close range weapons failed to work, the Germans planned indirect fire and, where possible, aircraft strafing with armored piercing bullets.

7.58-cm Minenwerfer

The initial response to the tank worked well for about a year.  Allied employment of the tank was premature and tactically flawed.  Not only did the German high command believe their counter-tactics sufficient, they considered the tank of only limited value overall (explaining the limited German use of AFVs during the war).  This attitude changed after November 20, 1917 with the initial assaults in the Battle of Cambrai using between 430  and 480 tanks.  In the initial stages, British tactics, which included liberal use of smoke screens, confounded the German anti-tank efforts.    Slightly thicker armor on the Mark IV tanks resisted the German armor-piercing bullets.  Yet poor reliability and cross-country performance, along with evolving tactics, still proved the undoing of the British tanks.  After substantial gains, the tanks out ran their supports.  The British had squandered an opportunity.

British Mk IV tank knocked out at Cambrai

Still the Battle of Cambrai marked the first of many swings of the tank vs. anti-tank pendulum.  Faced with improved allied tanks, particularly the light French FT-17 (debuting at the same time, but not in the battle that is), the Germans started a crash program to produce a viable anti-tank weapon.  One weapon that offered promise was a converted 2-cm aircraft cannon.  With new armor-piercing ammunition, these cut through 13mm of armor at 250 meters.  But the German high command apparently preferred the standard 7.92mm machine guns.  Also heavier 13mm machine guns, then used as anti-aircraft weapons, received armor-piercing ammunition to improve utility of that type. Designated 13mm MG08 TuF, these saw limited service.

Foreshadowing the anti-tank rifles used in World War II, and perhaps even the modern lightweight anti-tank rockets, the Germans turned out a 13-mm Tankgewehr (T-Gewehr or anti-tank rifle) for issue to infantry units.  The T-Gewehr used an enlarged version of the standard Mauser bolt-action and had a bi-pod from a light machine gun.  The gun used the same cartridge as the MG 08 TuF, and was actually 13.2 mm for those with an eye for detail. Penetration reached 20mm at 500 meters.

Mauser 13.2mm T-Gewehr

But weighing nearly 40 pounds and possessing the kick of a full team of mules, the T-Gewehr had several tactical drawbacks.  Worse, the penetration figures were in “best case” scenarios.  At many tactical angles, the T-Gewehr could not penetrate the armor of the FT-17, the most common allied tank.   (As a side note, many references say the American John Browning copied the German 13mm cartridge when designing the famous M2 .50 caliber machine gun.  Although sharing a similar half-inch caliber, the two cartridges are actually different.  The Germans used a semi-rimed case while Browning opted for a fully rimmed case for easier extraction.  Truth is Browning designed the .50 caliber cartridge as an enlarged .30-06 cartridge, with development starting in 1910 without any help from the Germans.)

While the light infantry-carried weapons proved less than satisfactory, on the other end of the scale the Germans received favorable reports of 7.7-cm guns used against tanks.  While the infantry-accompanying guns did well, they lacked the mobility to react to tank thrusts.  More useful were the 7.7-cm Kraftwagenflak.  Yes… FLAK.  These were just light field guns on a turntable mount on the back of trucks.  Unarmored, but mobile, these guns were designed for defending captive observation balloons from allied aircraft.  But just as the 8.8cm FLAK turned against a later generation of British tanks in 1940, the 7.7-cm FLAK guns proved the better of those British tanks in 1918.  Trouble was the Germans were just not able to make enough gun tubes or trucks to meet the need – both anti-aircraft or anti-tank.

In the last months of the war, the Germans produced the 3.7cm Tankabwehrkanonen (or TaK).  The gun itself was the lash-up of a barrel from an old fortress gun (a Hotchkiss revolving cannon somewhat like the American Gatling gun in concept, thus one old gun made five new TaKs).  With a small wheeled carriage, the four man crew of the TaK could follow the infantry into battle.  But armor penetration was only 15mm at 500 meters.

3.7cm TaK, note the high sight line

As the war situation for Germany entered a more desperate stage in the fall of 1918, the Army called for an improved anti-tank gun.  Had the war continued, a 5-cm TaK may have seen service, which designers estimated would penetrate a full 50mm (two inches) of armor at 500 meters.  As mentioned earlier the tank vs. anti-tank pendulum was in full swing.

In summary, the German experience from 1916 to 1918 fighting tanks demonstrated the tank was best met with combined-arms tactics.  The experience also showed the need for weapons with increasing armor penetration.  These German lessons, gathered through post-war analysis, figured prominently as American officers drafted doctrine and considered new weapons through the 1920s and 1930s.  I’ll discuss the American interpretation of the German lessons in the next post of this series.

Artillery Evolutions: More French – Grande Puissance Filloux

Can we say that without getting a mature rating?  Sure!  Grande Puissance Filloux is the “friendly” name given by the French to the “Canon de 155mm mle 1917 G.P.F.”  In the last Artillery Evolutions post, I mentioned the French 155mm gun pressed in to service by the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) during World War I.  This wonderful cannon became the basis for later American designs, vestiges of which are still seen on current service types.

Canon de 155mm mle 1917 G.P.F.

This particular make of gun came about due to the shortage of heavy field guns in the French inventory at the start of World War I.  In the void, the French pushed several expedients into service.  These ranged from ancient guns dating to the 1870s to more modern seacoast guns, in calibers ranging from 145mm to 155mm. The better of these guns was a 145mm seacoast gun mounted on a field carriage.  While providing a useful range over 20,000 yards, the 13.5 ton weight was cumbersome for a field gun.  Here’s a Canon de 145mm mle 1916 in action, but under new owners, circa 1942.

Canon de 145mm mle 1916 in German Service

During World War I, many of these returned to the shop with worn out barrels.  The French in turn rebored these to 155mm, conforming to the standard field caliber, and increased the range to over 23,000 yards.  While the French were happy with this heavy weapon for the static warfare of the Western Front, they looked to more mobile heavy artillery piece.  In an effort to improve the field handling, the government run Puteaux arsenal started work on a fresh design in 1916.  Part way through the project, Lieutenant Colonel L.J.F. Filloux pushed for a split trail carriage in order to allow higher angles of fire, wider arcs of traverse, and easier handling.  As result of his successful argument on this point the gun became the “High Power, Filloux” or “Grand Puissance, Filloux” gun, abbreviated to G.P.F. when the type was adopted in 1917.  On the carriage, the gun had an elevation up to 35° with a traverse of 60°.  Overall the gun on carriage weighed just under 10 tons.

G.P.F. in American use showing split trail and elevation

Aside from the carriage, the gun used rather conventional practices.   The breech and firing mechanism used was the standard Schneider type and similar to that of the 155mm howitzers.  The barrel was a built-up construction, externally appearing as an enlarged 75mm gun.  The recoil mechanism was also similar to the 75mm, but with a new twist – variable recoil.  At the maximum elevation, a conventional recoil system allowed the breech to bottom out.  Other guns of the time period required the crews to dig out a pit in order to deal with this problem.  What the G.P.F. introduced was a system to automatically adjust the resistance in the recoil system as the gun was elevated.

That’s the concept.  In use that meant the crew didn’t have to dig a pit for the gun.  And they could even put down some planking out to keep out of the mud(!).  Although I would add that some diagrams in the manuals still indicated pits were used.

American M1918 155mm with firing platform

For movement, the G.P.F. used a two wheel limber.  In traveling order, the setup weighed about 11.5 tons.  While heavy, still handier than contemporary weapons of the caliber.  The recoil system disengaged to allow the breech to ride closer to the limber.

G.P.F. in traveling order with "caterpillar" shoes

In the photo above, the guy at the front is not driving the gun.  Rather he’s handling the brakes.  The G.P.F. was perhaps among the first artillery pieces designed with mechanization in mind… but air-brakes were a thing of the future.

Although the G.P.F. introduced several advanced features, it’s range dropped to 17,700 yards when compared to the earlier 155mm mle 1916 mentioned above.  In order to improve field handling the G.P.F. sacrificed range for a shorter barrel and lower maximum elevation.  On the other hand, with ten times the traverse, a G.P.F. could command significantly more battlefield than the earlier gun.

The French built over 700 of the G.P.F. guns starting in late 1916.  The combat debut occurred in August 1917.  The gun’s arrival coincided with America’s entry into the war.  Starting in September 1917 the French supplied quantities of the G.P.F. to the A.E.F.  By the time of the armistice, the A.E.F. received over 200 French built guns of this type. The guns supplied by France became the M1917 155mm field gun in American use.  I think the example displayed at the Ordnance Museum (was at Aberdeen, Maryland, but moving to Fort Lee, Virginia) is one of those guns.

M1917(?) 155mm Field Gun at Aberdeen, MD

But of course with the massive American buildup, French sources would be insufficient for war plans extending into 1919.  So just as with the other French guns, the Americans opted for domestic production.  In 1917 the Ordnance Department translated French plans and tabulated them for American standard measures.  In November 1917, the Army set contracts for production a couple thousand of these guns, broken out – as we’ve seen with other guns – into sub-components.  Watervliet Arsenal and Bullard Engineering Works produced the gun tube; Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Company produced the carriages and limbers; and Dodge Brothers produced the recoil components in a Detroit factory.

155mm Gun barrels in the factory

Like the smaller guns, G.P.F. production lagged due to difficulty producing the French recoil system.  However, the Army had ordered Dodge to put priority on the howitzer component production through 1918.  So by the time they turned to the G.P.F. most of the kinks were worked out, but the first rolled out of the factory in October 1918. Thus many American-built G.P.F. guns were fitted with French built recouperators.   Production of the carriage slowed as Americans had to adapt factories to the large castings required.  But the gun tube itself speed through production.  The Americans actually improved the design, adding a better system to lock the jacket in place and a spring operated breech mechanism.  As built, this became the M1918 155mm Field gun.

M1918 155mm Field Gun at Fort Morgan, AL

With the delays, only sixteen complete American-built guns got to the A.E.F. before the Armistice.  But, impressed with the gun’s performance, the Americans kept the gun in production into 1920.  Not only was the gun deemed the best corps level gun, it was also found useful for the coastal artillery.  In the inter-war period, the Army built “Panama Mounts” to allow these field guns to defend coastlines, particularly in overseas possessions. The gun also received pneumatic tires and air brakes on an improved carriage.

A G.P.F. gun on a Panama Mount during World War II

The Army would further refine the G.P.F. concept during the inter-war period, with the familiar M1 and M2 series as the result.  During World War II, several M1918 guns went onto a modified medium tank chassis to become the M12 Gun Motor Carriage.  But the G.P.F.’s long reaching legacy was a carriage layout which persisted in American artillery down to the M198 155mm howitzer.

Artillery Evolutions: Counter Battery Fire with the 4.7-inch Gun

As mentioned earlier, when the U.S. expanded the field artillery arm to support American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) going to France in 1917, planners saw the need for a medium caliber gun to provide counter-battery fire.   Unlike the other artillery types, the Americans had a weapon on hand to fill this need – the Model 1906 4.7-inch Field Gun.

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Well Restored M1906 4.7-inch Field Gun

The Ordnance Department developed the M1906 4.7-inch Field Gun in the decade before World War I.   The Army had sixty of these guns on hand when the U.S. declared war in 1917.  These were among the few American designed guns to see service in France during the war.

Overall the gun reflected conventional design thoughts.  The gun itself was of built up composition with a jacket extending beyond the breech. The jacket attached to a recoil lug.

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Rear of gun showing recoil lug, rods, and cylinders

The gun tube sat upon a cradle with two cylinders underneath housing the long-recoil, hydro-spring system.

The service manual described the recoil action:

The gun moves to the rear 70 inches on the cradle ways, carrying with it the piston rod, spring rods, and spring-rod yoke and compressing the counter-recoil springs.  As the recoil cylinder remains stationary the oil behind the piston must pass to its forward side.  The energy of the recoil of the gun is absorbed by the resistance which the oil offers to being forced through small openings past the piston and by the resistance of the counter-recoil springs.  The energy stored up by the springs returns the gun to its firing position.  This return movement is eased and regulated by the counter-recoil buffer.  The piston-rod pull and spring resistance are transmitted to the carriage, but owing to its weight and the resistance opposed to the trail spade by the earth the carriage remains stationary.

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Trail spade in "up" or traveling position
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Spade in the "down" position - note maneuvering spikes

The breech was a standard interrupted screw with four flats.  A handle swung from left to right, rotating the block, in one continuous pull.  An extractor ejected the empty casing.

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Partly Open Breechblock

Although the gun could fire out to 11,000 yards at 25° elevation, the carriage restricted elevation to 15° and 7,500 yards with a 60 pound high explosive shell.  Traverse was just under 8°, constraining the arc of fire.  But the sighting system borrowed from the successful setup on the M1903 3-inch gun. The gun fired a common high explosive shell containing 3.36 pounds of TNT.

The shrapnel shell contained 711 half-inch steel balls.

In addition the Army fielded gas projectiles during the war.  All rounds for the 4.7-inch gun were fixed, meaning attached to the brass cartridge case, enabling a relatively high rate of fire.

Like the smaller divisional guns, the 4.7-inch gun’s box-trail carriage used a two wheel limber for movement.  With the limber the gun weighed 9,800 pounds, requiring an eight horse team.  This is one reason the U.S. Army set its eye on mechanical prime movers.

At the start of the war, the Army ordered new production batches of the M1906 in order to fill the anticipated need.  As we have seen with the lighter field guns, the Production Board spread the manufacture of the gun out by components.  Rock Island Arsenal, Studebaker Corporation, and Walter Scott Company produced gun carriages to include the recoil system;  American Car & Foundry Company and Maxwell Motor Company produced the limbers;  Northwestern Gun Company and Watervliet Arsenal produced the guns themselves.  In addition American Car & Foundry Company and Ford Motor Company produced caissons.  All told the Army ordered around 750 complete guns.

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Muzzle markings indicating Watervliet manufacture

A well established product entering mass production – nothing to worry about right?  Well three issues (I won’t say problems) arose which limited the 4.7-inch gun’s use.  First, given the desire to remain compatible with French ammunition stocks, planners suggested re-lining the gun to that nation’s 120mm round.  On its face, this sounded like a simple change of millimeters.  However the French 120mm system dated to the 1880s and was quickly departing that nation’s inventory.  Some historians have cited this issue as causing major delays.  I’ve yet to see documentation proving this was more than a paper project anyway.  The companies listed above were already working on 4.7-inch patterns, and the distraction was minimal in my opinion.

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Front View of M1906

The second issue was also ammunition related.  The 4.7-inch was supposed to fire counter-battery missions against German divisional guns.  The 4.7-inch could counter the standard German 7.7cm FK 96 n.A., which ranged only to 6,000 yards.  But the newer 7.7cm FK16 then arriving at the front had a 10,000 yard range, effectively negating the 4.7-inch as a counter-battery gun.  The solution was to adopt a lighter 45 pound shell for the 4.7-inch, allowing for 8,700 yards at 15°.  Furthermore, the Army standardized the practice of “digging in” the trail to allow the 4.7-inch gun to launch shells to its maximum range of 11,000 yards.  Although that required more preparation by the gun crew.  The ultimate solution was a split trail to allow greater on carriage elevation.  Prototypes just such a mounting were at the test ranges as the war ended.

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M1906 showing solid box trail of the carriage, which limited elevation

The most important issue facing mass production of the gun was the gun tube forgings.  Because of the different diameters between the muzzle and breech, manufacturers had difficulty in the heat treatment of the steel jackets.  With a production bottleneck emerging, the Production Board ordered gun tube jackets produced by Edgewater Steel Company in Pittsburgh.  The jackets went to another company on the other side of Pittsburg for machining.  From there the jackets went back to Edgewater for heat treatment. From there the jacket went to the gun-maker who was assembling the other components.

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M1906 - breech and rear of gun

Sounds inefficient, right?  The eventual solution was a redesigned jacket, separate breech ring attaching to the recoil lugs.  However the redesign was too late for the war effort.  With the production bottleneck, only sixteen new production 4.7-inch guns joined forty-eight pre-war examples in France.

While the board sorted out production issues, the Army turned to alternatives.  From the seacoast artillery came twenty-eight 5-inch and ninety-five 6-inch guns.  The Navy contributed forty-six 6-inch guns of various models.  And the firm of Francis Bannerman & Son (a major military surplus dealer of the era) offered thirty 6-inch guns of 30 calibers.  While working gun tubes, these guns lacked field carriages and required other adaptations before issue to the field.  By mid-1918 the Army had the twenty-eight 5-inch gun outfits weighing some 12 tons, but which could fire a shell nine miles.  A similar adaptation for 6-inch guns weighed 21 tons and ranged ten miles.  None of these outfits were worth shipping to the war zone.

Ultimately the solution for the A.E.F., as with the divisional guns, was foreign supplies.   Among the foreign types supplied to the A.E.F. was the British 60-pdr (5-inch) Field Gun in both Mark I and II variety.  Weighing even more than the American 4.7-inch, this beast needed a Holt Tractor to move around the battlefield.  American corps artillery also received quantities of the French 155mm Grande Puissance Filloux (GPF) mle 1917.  But I will save detailed discussion of that piece for another post.

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60-pdr Mark I

In retrospect, the 4.7-inch gun was another sad story in American procurement.  A sound design with much promise, the 4.7-inch was not adapted for mass production.  But the Ordnance Department certainly heeded this lesson and applied it to inter-war design.  In the next war, the US Army would not rely upon foreign cannons.

Artillery Evolutions: A Little Something for the Infantry

Take a close look at this often reproduced photo of US troops in action during World War I:

Gun Crew from the 23rd Infantry Regiment in Action

The weapon in this scene is a M1916 37mm Infantry Gun, sometimes called a “1-pounder” by U.S. authorities.  While technically a “gun” it was not officially considered “artillery” during the war.  Each infantry regiment had a platoon of three infantry guns assigned to the headquarters company.  Their employment gave the basic infantry formations “heavy weapons,” establishing a practice that continues today.

Prior to the 20th century, infantry formations were pure “leg” infantry with few, specialist troops organic to the tale of organization even at the regimental level.  New technologies brought new weapons to the infantry in peacetime.  But the intensity of combat became the most important factor bringing specialty platoons to the regiments and battalions.

After the Western Front went to the trenches, infantry commanders on both sides complained that conventional artillery could no longer keep pace with the infantry. The oft cited problem involved reduction of enemy machine-gun nests.  Cratered no-mans-land prevented forward movement of artillery without engineer support.  And the communications systems of the day would not reach to forward assault elements to facilitate careful direction of the artillery.  The infantry needed a light-weight gun system.

The Germans had one solution on hand – the 7.85cm leichte Minenwerfer – an early modern mortar.  But these were engineer specialist weapons designed for high angle fire.  As a temporary solution, the Germans dismantled a large number of obsolete 3.7cm Gruson-Hotchkiss Revolverkanone (similar to the Gatling gun in concept with five revolving cannon barrels).  They fitted each barrel (so a one for five exchange in the number of guns) with a basic breech assembly and mounted the new Grabenkanone on a simple frame with a shield – without recoil system.  Another variant, named the Sturmbegleitkannon, arrived in 1915 and placed the gun on a light field cart for movement forward with assault teams.  The setup weighed 700 pounds.  Later the Germans introduced heavier 7.7cm Infanteriegeschutz or infantry cannons.

Facing a similar tactical need, the French fell back on a pre-war gun design.  The lineage of the weapon is somewhat sketchy, but the Puteaux Arsenal designed a light 37mm gun sometime in the 1890s.  The gun found no uses until 1916 when a French army officer adapted it to a light-weight mounting for use by the infantry.

The basic design used a rotating breech block (a miniature version of the 75mm M1897).  Like the larger gun, the breech block rotated inside a threaded, over-sized breech ring.  The block had a cut out that, when rotated, opened the breech and acted like a tray for loading.  A hydro-spring  system fitted below the gun barrel provided recoil control.   The gun and recoil system sat upon a light, low-profile tripod mount (note the flash suppressor often removed in American service).

In French service, a gun shield on the front of the tripod protected the two-man crew.

French mle 1916 gun with shield and flash suppressor

But this two was usually removed in American service.  Crews placed the entire setup on a small, two-wheeled cart for displacement to new firing positions.  Equipment included an ammunition cart with fourteen boxes of sixteen rounds each.

The gun, firing tripod, and cart weighed about 360 pounds.  The ammunition cart, while doubling the total, remained handy given the number of troops assigned.  If tactical situations required, the entire setup was broken down into several loads for hand carry.

The mounting allowed for 21° elevation and 14°.  Left traverse covered 16°, while the gun swept 22° to the right.  Maximum range was 3,650 yards with an high explosive round.  The crew used a telescopic sight for direct shots and a gradient sight for indirect fires.

37mm dug in with sergeant observing, note telescopic sight

The gun crew was a squad consisting of one sergeant, one corporal, and nine privates.  Supervised by the Sergeant, the corporal and one private worked the gun.  The rest hauled ammunition.  Three of these squads formed the “1 pounder platoon” in the headquarters company of each infantry regiment under the American divisional table of organization in 1918.

When America entered the war, the French had the 37mm in full production as the “Canon d’Infanterie de 37 mle de 1916 tir rapide Puteaux (TRP)”.  The American Expeditionary Force purchased 841 of these from the French to meet immediate needs, officially designating them as 37mm Infantry Gun M1916.  As with the bigger guns, the Americans also purchased production rights anticipating production on a massive scale with contracts totaling over 4,000.

The wartime production board split responsibility for the gun into several contractors. Poole Engineering & Machine Company of Baltimore, Maryland produced the barrels, with subcontracts to the Maryland Pressed Steel Company of Hagerstown, Maryland.  Krasberg Manufacturing in Chicago produced the breech assembly.  C.H. Cowdery Machine Works of Fitchburg, Massachusetts made the recoil mechanism.  International Harvester produced the axles and wheels in a Chicago factory.   Also in Chicago, the Universal Stamping & Manufacturing Company built the carriage trails.  Collectively these vendors provided 826 guns by September 11, 1918.  Three hundred American made guns were in France at that time.

The 37mm M1916 also armed some of the first American tanks to see combat.

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Renault FT-17 or M1917 Six Ton Tank

Although none of these saw action in the war, American vendors produced some 1,200 modified M1916 guns during and after the war for use on the license built M1917 tanks.

After the Great War, the 37mm guns remained in service as part of the regimental organizations.  To save costs, the Army developed a .22-caliber training adapter.  National Guard and ROTC units trained with these, in some cases on indoor ranges.  The Army also evaluated the 37mm as a possible anti-tank gun during the inter-war years.  Development of an armor-piercing round soon branched into the search for a proper anti-tank gun of the same caliber.  Interestingly, the Germans had made the same leap with the same caliber.  And eventually the Americans would borrow that concept (although not the gun itself as some would lead you to believe) as the M3 37mm anti-tank gun.  As war clouds gathered for World War II, the Army brought these old infantry guns out of the warehouses.  A new generation of gunners trained on the 37mms, while more modern weapons entered production.  Some of the M1916s saw action in the Philippines opposing the Japanese invasion in 1941-42.

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M1916 on an inter-war machine gun style tripod

The old 37mm, with its original role superseded and its performance eclipsed by modern guns, was the basis for early American tank and anti-tank guns.

Artillery Evolutions: The 155mm Schneider Howitzer

Thus far discussing the US Army’s field artillery of World War I, I’ve focused on the divisional field guns.  These were the more important weapon, in terms of numbers.  But as was custom (indeed even up through World War II) armies often paired low trajectory, high velocity guns with high angle, low velocity howitzers.  The American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) was no exception.

Recall that Colonel Charles Summerall wanted six batteries of either 3.8- or 4.7-inch howitzers to augment the twelve batteries of field guns in every division.  But the officers of the A.E.F. wanted 6-inch howitzers at the division level.  Specifically the A.E.F. officers preferred the French 155mm howitzer (technically 6.1 inch) produced by the Schneider firm.  A simple comparison of the American and French howitzers demonstrates the wisdom of the A.E.F. choice:

  • American 3.8-inch howitzer Model 1915 fired a 30 pound shell to 6,100 yards and weighed 2,040 pounds in action (without limber)
  • American 4.7-inch howitzer Model 1908 fired a 60 pound shell to 7,000 yards and weighed just under 4,000 pounds.
  • American 6-inch howitzer Model 1908 fired a 90 pound shell to 9,000 yards (or a 120 pound shell to 6,700 yards) and weighed 7,200 pounds.
  • French Canon de 155mm Court mle 1917 fired a 95 pound shell to 12,300 yards and weighed 7,600 pounds in action.

With only a small increase in weight, the French gun added one-third more range.  More importantly, the Americans had precious few of their howitzers on hand and the French offered the Schneider howitzer in quantity.  The Americans ordered 1,361 howitzers of this type, designating them M1917, from the French, who delivered 772 by Armistice Day.

The type dated back to a 1910 Schneider howitzer for export to the Russians.  After the summer of 1914, the French desperately needed howitzers for use along the static, entrenched fronts and accepted the export model into service as the Canon de 155mm Court mle 1915S.  The original gun fired semi-fixed ammunition with a brass case.  As the French faced a brass shortage and preferred bag charges for large calibers, Schneider redesigned the breech.  The resultant weapon became the mle 1917 and Schneider began large scale production.   The original French guns, including those sold to the A.E.F., had a curved shield.

French 155mm mle 1917 as adopted by the US as M1917

The barrel was a typical French built up type.  Note the “muzzle ring” that became a distinctive feature of this weapon.

Schneider 155mm Barrel

The breech block was a simple interrupted screw type that swung out to the right.  The block itself was very similar to that used on the contemporary 155mm Grand Puissance, Filloux (GPF) gun … but I’m getting ahead a few pots.

Schneider 155mm Breech Block

To facilitate the use of bagged charges, the breech used a DeBange style obdurator pad.  As seen in the diagram, an asbestos ring (solid black) filled with fluid fit between two sections of the block along with metal rings.  The pressure of firing pushed the “mushroom” head of the block and compressed the asbestos ring, thus sealing the breech.

Components of the Breech Block

The entire barrel assembly sat upon and recoiled down a cradle.  Note the trunnions and elevating segments attached to the cradle. These allowed the barrel plenty of elevation while not constraining recoil travel.

Schneider 155mm Cradle

Inside the cradle sat the recoil system.  This consisted of two tubes – the lower tube filled with hydraulic fluid with a piston attached to the recoil rod; and an upper tube filled with a mix of compressed air and fluid.

Component Diagram of the 155mm

When fired, the piston compressed the fluid, forcing it through a connector into the upper tube.  The air compressed, slowly arresting recoil.  As the air decompressed, it forced fluid back into the lower tube thus forcing the piston and the barrel back to the forward position.

The system did require careful monitoring of fluid levels and air pressure.

Going back to the 7,600 pound weight of the gun, this required an eight-horse team for movement.  To balance the piece on the limber, the crew disengaged the recoil system, and pulled the barrel back on the cradle.  However for towing behind trucks or tractors, the barrel could remain forward.

American M1918 ready for firing (top) and traveling configuration (bottom)

Perhaps because it lacked any elaborate components, the Schneider howitzer served with few complaints.

Realizing French production would not meet long term needs, the Americans began license production of the Schneider howitzer in 1917.  The Americans opted for a flattened gun shield, rubber tires, pivoting spade, and different firing mechanism.  The Americans also “improved” the hydraulic fluid and pressure monitoring systems.  With such modifications the howitzer went into production as the M1918.

The M1918 155mm Howitzer on original carriage

The Army parceled out production by components with initial orders going out in the summer of 1917.  For most components, production moved swiftly. Indeed the American Brake and Shoe Company produced excess barrels for sale back to the French in 1918.  But one component again delayed the overall production – the recoil system.  In order to work, the interior of the tubes required a fine polish and exact fit to the piston diameter.  This was not an issue for France, where everything was hand fitted – and guns rolled off the line in handfuls.  But such was not easy for American assembly lines where everyone expected to see hundreds of guns produced over the span of weeks.  One historian described the challenge:

It is scarcely fair to a modern hydropneumatic recuperator to say that it must be finished with the precision of a watch.   It must be finished with a mechanical nicety comparable only to the finish of such a delicate instrument as a navigator’s sextant or the mechanism which adjusts the Lick telescope to the movement of the earth.

Eventually the Dodge Motor Company sorted out a way to mass produce the system.

Compared to the 75mm guns, that of the M1918 155mm howitzer is at least one of partial success.  By July 1918, Dodge delivered quantities of the troublesome recuperator.  The first regiment of 155mm howitzers had begun embarking for France when news of the Armistice came.  As with other American cannon production projects, had the war gone into 1919, more of these would have followed.

In closing, here’s a clip showing the Schneider howitzers in action.


Like the 75mm guns, these 155mm howitzers formed the backbone of American artillery between the wars and saw service in the initial stages of World War II.