A 15" Howitzer of the Royal Marine Artillery being made ready to fire (IWM)
Infantry weapons essentially break down into four headings:
The standard British rifle at this times was the Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) Mark 3 introduced in 1907. The Lee Enfield, which stayed in service with the British Army into the 1950s, weighed in at a tad over 8.5lbs and was just over 44.5" long (without bayonet). It fired a .303 in, rimmed cartridge with a muzzle velocity of 2440 fps. The detachable magazine held ten rounds and, with its bolt action, the Lee Enfield, in trained hands, was capable of very rapid fire. At Mons, the Regulars of the BEF, who were highly trained in its use, were capable of such rates of fire that the troops of Von Kluck's Army thought they were under fire from numerous machine guns.
With the influx of 1914 volunteers into the Army standards of rifle fire inevitably dropped. By the time of the Somme, some officers believed that reliance on the Mills hand grenade in trench warfare was having a detrimental effect on the average soldier's ability to handle his rifle. There were some who thought that counter-attacks by German infantry armed solely with bags of stick grenades could have been repulsed had the men retained their rifles which many had thrown away the better to throw Mills 'bombs'. The consequence of this was that many German bombers were able to cross open ground to bomb British held trenches. Had the men held onto their rifles such a tactic would have been too dangerous to contemplate. [Back]
The standard issue revolver for officers was the American made 6-shot Smith & Wesson Service Revolver, however, because carrying one of these made officers a rather obvious target, junior officers quite often went 'over the top' holding a rifle so as the blend in with the 'other ranks'. Also, at Gommecourt, the 56th Division went 'over the top' without that favourite of the WW1 film, the youthful, whistle-blowing, revolver clutching subaltern. Whistles were not used at Gommecourt by the London Division. [Back]
The Vickers Mk I Machine Gun was a development of the Maxim gun which had been in service with the British Army since 1890.
The gun was a water-cooled gun with a theoretical maximum rate of fire of 550 rpm and was a fed by a 250 round canvass belt. The barrel had a life of 10,000 rounds.
The gun fired a .303 round out to 3,500 yards with a muzzle velocity of 2,440 fps (the introduction in 1916 of the streamlined Mk VIIZ round increased this by 1,000 yards). The bullet, fired at a range of 200 yards, could penetrate 6' 8" of turf, 5' of clay, 2' 6" of sand or 1' 6" of oak.
The cooling jacket held seven pints of water which was cooled by convection currents produced when the water boiled (after about 600 rounds fired at 200 rpm). Steam was recycled using a condenser can attached by a tube to the barrel. Extra water was carried in cans by the team who also had to carry the tripod and extra ammunition. The gun weighed 38lbs, the tripod 40lbs and the ammunition boxes 21lbs.
The team consisted of an officer + 2 NCOs and six Other Ranks of which:
All men of the section were capable of firing the gun if necessary. The gun could be fired from a fixed position, allowed to swing freely or, more often, fired from a loosely clamped position which allowed for the gun to be 'tapped' from side to side creating overlapping fields of fire.
At Gommecourt a number of these guns were taken over to the German lines and used there. A trained team could get their gun into action in less than a minute. Other guns were used to give longer distance harassing fire from fixed positions in the British lines. [Back]
The Lewis was a light machine gun developed in the USA in 1911. Air-cooled it came with a light tripod and had the advantage of only weighing just over 25lbs. It came with a 47 or 97 round cylindrical magazine. Cheaper and quicker to make than the Vickers it became the standard close support automatic weapon for the British infantry. [ Back]
The Mills grenade was invented in 1915 by a Birmingham engineer, William Mills, in response to the pressing the need for a reliable, hand thrown bomb. The Mills bomb was essentially a 1.5lb caste iron metal casing wrapped around a trigger and explosive.
Specialist Bombing Platoons were formed in battalions and the concept was that they should be responsible for throwing the supply of bombs taken into an attack. The reason for this was that they were trained to land at least half of their bombs in an area of trench 3 metres long and just over 1 metre wide at a range of 30 metres. If thrown accurately, British army tests showed that anyone within ten yards of an exploding grenade would almost certainly be hit by at least one shrapnel fragment.
The problem at Gommecourt, and generally, was that the ordinary rifleman would often carry Mills grenades into battle for the Bombing Platoon but then discard his rifle and throw the bombs instead. The temptation is an obvious one; rifles cannot fire round corners but it is possible to lob a bomb from one traverse of a trench into another.
The failure to provide enough Mills grenades to the attacking waves, the inability to re-supply and the tendency of the men to dis-arm themselves when throwing bombs which should have been used by the Bombing Platoon, were all reasons why the Londoners' positions collapsed in the trenches outside Gommecourt. [Back]
A Stokes Mortar team at practice carrying, left to right, tube, base plate and bipod.
Designed by Sir Wilfred Scott-Stokes (he was knighted for this work), the managing director of a mechanical engineering firm, Ransome & Rapier of Ipswich, the Stokes trench mortar was designed to answer the need for a mobile and quick firing trench mortar and Scott-Stokes had a prototype ready for testing by December 1914. Though highly thought of by the Army the mortar did not immediately go into production as it was still beleived the war would be relatively short-lived. Within a few months opinions had changed and the 3-inch Stokes Trench Mortar, Mark I went into production in the Spring of 1915. It can truly be said that the design was the forerunner of all mortar designs since.
The gun was simplicity itself. A 51 in. long, 3 in. diameter barrel was supported by a bipod and sat on a base plate. The Stokes was fired by dropping an 11lb shell down the tube onto a firing pin at the base of the tube. This set off a shotgun-like blank cartridge and this in turn ignited propellant rings attached to the mortar shell. The angle of the bipod could be adjusted to increase or decrease the range and the shell could be fired to a maximum range of 800 yards. The safe minimum distance was 100 yards.
The Stokes came in three parts: the firing tube (43 lbs), the base plate (28 ibs) and the bipod (37 obs), a total of 108 lbs and at Gommecourt several guns were taken across to support the attack of the 169th Brigade. The teams encountered many problems not least becoming separated in the assembly trenches under the German bombardment. As a result, tubes got across without their base plates or whole guns arrived but with no ammunition. One gun was got into action but no-one was able to report on its effectiveness. Parts of several guns returned to the British lines but others were either destroyed by enemy action or by their gun teams to prevent them falling into enemy hands.
The Stokes mortar would become an essential element in the BEF's arsenal as more experience was gained in its use. [ Back]
An 18pdr (QF) Field Gun outside Ypres (IWM)
18pdr (QF) Field Gun Mk1
The 18pdr Field Gun came into service in June 1904. Serviced by a detachment of 10 men, the gun fired a standard 18.5lb shrapnel shell out to a maximum range of 6,525 yards.
Each division had nine, six gun batteries of 18 pdrs and they were used heavily, though not exclusively, to cut the German wire.
Wire cutting was a precision task as tests on the coast near Calais in late 1915 had shown that even marginal errors in height, distance and line could make a significant difference in the quality of the wire cutting.
One of the main shortcomings of this equipment emerged during the Somme bombardment. The recuperator springs, which helped return the barrel to its pre-firing position, did not stand up to the heavy use required and, in 1916, the replacements were often badly made and prone to failure. Reports of guns going out of action on 1st July were commonplace. [Back]
A 4.5" (QF) Howitzer, 1916
4.5" (QF) Field Howitzer
The 4.5" Field Howitzer was introduced in 1909 after competition between various companies had been won by the Coventry Ordnance Works. Serviced by a detachment of 10 men, the gun fired a 35lb high explosive or shrapnel shell out to a maximum range of 7,300 yards.
Each division had six howitzer batteries and these were used to bombard trenches and rear areas and for counter-battery work.
These guns, though robust and reliable, were also prone to problems when heavily used with the 4.5" howitzer prone to trouble with the breech block. [Back]
4.7" (QF) Field Gun
The 4.7" Field Gun was an adaptation of a extemporised gun put together for use in South Africa by Capt Percy Scott RN. Formally introduced in June 1900 and serviced by a detachment of twelve men, the gun could fire a 46lb 7oz high explosive shell to a maximum range of 10,000 yards.
These guns were allocated to Heavy Batteries of the Royal Garrison Artillery and there were three, 4-gun batteries in use at Gommecourt: 133rd Heavy Bty RGA, 1/1st Kent Heavy Bty RGA and the 1/1st Lowland Heavy Bty RGA.
These guns were effectively obsolete and were mainly used for counter-battery work for which they were totally inadequate. [Back]
A 60pdr Mk1 Field Gun (IWM)
60pdr BL Mk1 Field Gun
The 60pdr B(reech) L(oading) Field Gun was designed as the successor to the 4.7" Field Gun and was introduced in August 1904. Improvements to the gun carriage were made in 1915 and these guns were capable of firing a 60pdr high explosive or shrapnel shell a maximum distance of 12,300 yards.
These guns were allocated to Heavy Batteries of the Royal Garrison Artillery and there were three, 4-gun batteries in use at Gommecourt: 131st Heavy Bty RGA, 135th Heavy Bty RGA and 116th Heavy Bty RGA.
These guns were used for counter-battery work and for bombarding the rear villages and roads. [Back]
6" BL Mk7 Field Gun
Another gun improvised by Capt Percy Scott RN in South Africa these were Mk7 Coastal Defence Guns mounted on a carriage and were first sent to France in 1915. Capable of firing a 100lb shell out to 13,700 yards there were two of these guns at Gommecourt, forming the 50th Siege Bty RGA.
These guns were used for counter-battery work and for bombarding the rear villages and roads. [Back]
A 26cwt BL Siege Howitzer 1918 (IWM)
6" BL Siege Howitzers
There were two models of 6" Howitzer in use in 1916: the 30 cwt 1896 pattern and the 26 cwt 1915 model. Other than the weight, the key differences were that the 1915 model had a greater maximum range: 11,400 yards against 7,000 for the older model.
There were five 26 cwt model batteries (20 guns)
and two 30 cwt batteries (8 guns) in use at Gommecourt. 26cwt
These guns were used to bombard the German front line trenches and the main communication trenches while the 74th Siege Bty RGA was sometimes seconded to counter-battery operations. [Back]
A 9.2" BL Mk1 Siege Howitzer ready to fire 1917 (IWM)
9.2" BL Mk1 Siege Howitzer
The 9.2" howitzers were designed at the instigation of Maj Gen Sir Stanley von Donop, who first proposed such a weapon in 1908, their design and proving had been completed just before war began in July 1914. A prototype, nicknamed 'Mother', first saw service at Neuve Chapelle.
Able to fire a 290lb high explosive shell just over 10,000 yards this gun weighed in at nearly 14 tons.
There were six 4-gun 9.2" howitzer batteries at Gommecourt:
90th Siege Bty RGA
These guns were used strongpoints and certain key front line and communication trenches and one, 91st Siege Bty RGA, was allocated to counter-battery work from time to time. [Back]
A 9.2" Railway Mounted Gun on the Somme 1916 (IWM)
9.2" Railway Mounted Gun
The 9.2" Railway Mounted gun was an Elswick Ordnance Company adaptation of the naval guns in use for coastal defence and in the obsolete Armoured cruisers of the Grand Fleet (three of which were sunk at the Battle of Jutland ).
These guns could fire their 380lb shells up to a maximum range of about 15,000 metres.
Belonging to the 45th Siege Battery RGA it used to reach deep into the enemy rear, seeking out German batteries, disrupting supplies and bombarding billets in supposedly safe French villages. [Back]
12" BL Mk1 Railway Howitzer
103rd Siege Bty RGA comprised two 12" railway-mounted howitzers that had only been introduced into the RGA armoury in March 1916. Another Elswick Ordnance Company product their 750lb shells had a maximum range of just over 11,000 yards.
Special railway lines for these monster guns and the 9.2" railway gun had been run into the rear of two villages - St Amand and Humbercamps - where they were concealed by orchards and houses.
These guns were concentrated on strongpoints such as the Kern Redoubt, Gommecourt Park, the Maze, the Farmer-Farmyard strongpoint, La Brayelle Farm and the Z and Little Z. [Back]
A 15" BL Howitzer of the Royal Marine Artillery (IWM)
15" BL Siege Howitzer
The 15" howitzers were a strange site on the Western Front as they were manned by men of the Royal Marine Artillery. A private development of the 9.2" howitzer by the Coventry Ordnance Works they were taken up by Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, who saw a chance for the Navy to make an impact in France.
These guns were able to fire their 1,400lb shells to a distance of only 10,800 yards, barely more than the 9.2" howitzer and were cumbersome and unloved. The two guns employed, Nos. 4 and 6 guns RMA, were given the same tasks as the 12" railway howitzers. [Back]
7.7cm FK 96
The 7.7cm (3.1") Field Gun was the 'whizz bang' of so many WW1 Memoirs. The nearest equivalent of the British 18pdr, the gun fired a 14.4lb shell up to 7,000 yards. Such guns fired a quarter of all German shells expended on 1st July in the defence of Gommecourt. There were forty of these guns at Gommecourt. [Back]
A 3.2" calibre gun that cold hurl a 15.75lb shell 6,500 yards, along with the 7.7cm and the 10.cm Light Field Howitzer the guns that did the most damage at Gommecourt on 1st July. There were eight of these guns at Gommecourt. [Back]
10cm K 14
A 4.2" calibre gun which fired a 39lb shell out to a range of over 13,000 yards a distance which made it able to fire from well out of the range of most of the British counter-battery guns. There were two of these guns at Gommecourt. There were two of these guns at Gommecourt. [Back]
10.5cm IFH 98/09
A 4.2" Light Field Howitzer with a range of 11,000 yards for its 33lb shell. Another gun often located out of range of many British counter-battery guns. There were twelve of these guns at Gommecourt. [Back]
15cm sFH 93, 02 and 13
The 5.9" referred to in many British war time reports these medium Field Howitzers fired a shell of 85lbs a distance of from 6,000-8,500 yards. There were twelve of these guns at Gommecourt. [Back]
21cm Morser 99
An 8.4" heavy howitzer this piece had a range of 8,200 yards for its 174lb shell. There were two of these guns at Gommecourt.
In addition to the above there were four 15cm Russian Guns.
In total, the 2nd Guard Reserve Division could call upon eighty guns and howitzers from amongst its own attached artillery units. This artillery was augmented, however, by the divisional artillery of the 111th Division to the north, much of which was concealed within the expanse of Adinfer Wood and, after the collapse of the attack on Serre, by much of the artillery of the 52nd Division.
The British Official History states that the concentration of artillery brought to bear on Gommecourt was the greatest anywhere on the Somme front on 1st July 1916. [Back]
Alan MacDonald's books about Gommecourt
'PRO PATRIA MORI'
'Pro Patria Mori', the account of the 56th Division's involvement at Gommecourt, was first published in 2006. A revised edition was published in August 2008
For more about the book please go HERE.
LACK OF OFFENSIVE SPIRIT?'
© Alan MacDonald 2006. All rights reserved. No publication without permission.