Since the age of antiquity, heavy weapons have tilted the scales of battlefield strategy. The first catapult was developed in Syracuse, in 339 BC. The Roman catapult of the 1st century BC hurled 14-pound stone balls against fixed fortifications. The age of gunpowder brought new and ghastly capabilities to artillery. In 1453, the terrifying siege guns Mehmed II faced the walls of Constantinople, hurling 150-pound missiles from barrels, wide enough to swallow a grown man.
Such weapons were slow to reload and sometimes, unreliable. Mehmed’s monsters took a full three hours to fire. Seven years later, King James II of Scotland was killed when his own gun, exploded.
By the Napoleonic wars, artillery caused more battlefield casualties than any other weapon system.
At that time such weapons were virtually always, loaded at the muzzle. The first breech loaders came about in the 14th century but it would take another 500 years, before precision manufacturing made such weapons reliable, and plentiful.
Breech loading vastly increased rate-of-fire capabilities. By the end of the 19th century, technological advances brought new and hideous capabilities to what Josef Stalin would come to call, the “God of War’.
Heretofore, the massive recoil of such weapons required a period of time to re-set, re-aim and reload. In the 1890s, French soldier Joseph Albert DePort solved that problem with a damping system enabling the barrel to recoil, leaving the gun in place. Recoilless weapons could now be equipped with shields keeping gun crews as close as possible while smokeless powder meant that gunners could clearly see what they were shooting at.
By World War 1, trained crews serving a French 75 could fire once every two seconds. Massed artillery fired with such horrifying rapidity as to resemble the sound, of drums.
This clip is five minutes long. Imagine finding yourself under “drumfire”, for days on end.
While guns of this type were aimed by lines of sight, howitzers fired missiles in high parabolic trajectories to fall on the heads, of the unlucky.
The great Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke (the elder) once said, “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy”. So it was in the tiny Belgian city of Ypres where the German war of movement met with weapons of the industrial revolution.
A million men were brought to this place, to kill each other. The first Battle for Ypres, there would be others, brought together more firepower than entire wars of an earlier age. The losses are hard to get your head around. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) alone suffered 56,000 casualties including 8,000 killed, 30,000 maimed and another 18,000 missing, of whom roughly one-third, were dead.
The breakdown is harder to get at for the other combatants but, all in, Germany suffered 135,000 casualties, France 85,000 and Belgium, 22,000. The three week struggle for Ypres cost the lives of 75,000 men, enough to fill the Athens Olympic Stadium, in Greece. Soldiers on all sides dug frantically into the ground, to shelter from what Private Ernst Jünger called, the “Storm of Steel”.
The French alone expended 2,155,862 shells during the Anglo-French offensive called the second battle of Artois, fought May 9 through June 18, 1915, a fruitless effort to capitalize on German defenses, weakened by the diversion of troops to the eastern front. The objective, to flatten the German “Bulge” in the Artois-Arras sector.
Immediately to the French left, the British 6th army under Sir John French was to advance on May 9 in support of the French offensive, taking the villages of Aubers, Fromelles and Le Maisnil and the elevation known as Aubers Ridge.
The battle of Aubers was an unmitigated disaster. The man-killing shrapnel rounds so valued by pre-war strategists were as nothing, against fortified German earthworks. No ground was taken, no tactical advantage gained despite British losses, ten times that on the German side.
War correspondent Colonel Charles à Court Repington sent a telegram to The Times, complaining of the lack of high-explosive shells. On May 14 The Times headline read: “Need for shells: British attacks checked: Limited supply the cause: A Lesson From France”. The article placed blame squarely on the government of Herbert Asquith who had stated as recently as April 20, that the army had sufficient ammunition.
“We had not sufficient high explosives to lower the enemy’s parapets to the ground … The want of an unlimited supply of high explosives was a fatal bar to our success”.The Times, May 14, 1915
For British politics at home, the information fell as a bombshell, precipitating a scandal known as the Shell Crisis of 1915.
Governments were slow at first to understand the prodigious appetites, of this war. Fixed trench lines led to new rail construction capable of providing cataracts of munitions, to front lines. The problem came from a munitions industry, unable to supply such demands.
Men shipped off to the war by the millions leaving jobs vacant and families at home, without income. Women represented a vast pool of untapped labor. Despite social taboos against women working outside the home, wives, sisters and mothers came flooding into the workplace.
By the end of the war some three million women joined the workforce a third of whom, worked in munitions factories.
Ever conscious of husbands, sons and sweethearts at the front, women worked grueling hours under dangerous conditions. “Munitionettes” manufactured cordite propellants and trinitrotoluene (TNT) explosives, hand filling projectiles from individual bullets to giant shells.
At the front, the war was an all-devouring monster consuming men and munitions at rates unimagined, in earlier conflicts. During the first two weeks of the 3rd Battle for Ypres, better known as Passchendaele, British, Australian and Canadian artillery fired 4,283,550 shells at their German adversary.
Munitions workers began to complain of headaches and nausea and skin conditions, like hives. Constant exposure to toxic chemicals turned the hair and skin of these women a brilliant shade of yellow, or orange. Expectant “Canary Girls” gave birth to bright yellow “Canary Babies”.
Nothing could be done and the yellow tended to fade over time but not a very different yellow, caused by toxic jaundice.
The work was well paid but exhausting, often seven days a week. Grueling 14-hour shifts led to girls as young as 14 coming into the workforce, but it wasn’t enough. “History of Yesterday” writes that two women on average died every week from toxic chemicals, and workplace accidents. One 1918 explosion at the National Shell Filling Factory №6 near Chilwell caused the death of 130 women.
The modern reader can scarcely imagine the crushing burdens of these women caring for families at home and ever conscious of sons, brothers and sweethearts, struggling to survive in this all consuming war.
The canary colored hair and skin would fade in time, but not the long term health effects of daily exposure to toxic substances. It didn’t matter. Twenty years later another generation would do it, all over again.