Hell’s Orchestra: A sea of fired 105mm Artillery shells.
Hell’s Orchestra: A sea of fired 105mm Artillery shells.
The sound of the guns was the orchestral accompaniment to the Great War. The artillery was the most valuable asset a commander could have, capable of immense destruction in a variety of ways. Technology advanced quickly enabling the artillery guns to fire further and more accurately due to calculations that included humidity, distance and sometimes; took into account the curvature of the Earth. Artillery was responsible for the greatest number of deaths in the Great War despite the bolt action rifle being the most common weapon in the war. The big guns could fire a wide variety of shells, from explosive to gas.
Among the most commonly used shells by all nations of the Great War, the shrapnel shell is so named for the metal balls it carries. Upon detonation, these metal balls disperse over a wide area and travel at great speed. Typically, shrapnel shells feature a timed fuse which is set to detonate the shell mid flight at a certain distance, this means that the shrapnel is able to travel further and affect a wider area of the battlefield. The shrapnel shells projectiles act much like a shotgun with multiple pellets that travel as fast as bullets when the shell detonates. Among the deadliest killers of the Great War, shrapnel shells did not often fail to detonate in the mud—as some HE shells did—with their timed fuses ensuring the shell due to their timers detonating them above ground, they did not often land in the mud and fail to explode like some HE shells.
High explosive shells had long been a staple of the artillery since before the Great War, however, with the advances in accurately delivering artillery that the Great War brought, they could be used to even greater effect. Before the guns could even fire, the target could be precisely, ‘zeroed,’ on to the desired area, making it harder for the enemy to pin point the location of the artillery battery delivering the barrage and take it out. High explosive shells were most effective when employed against enemy fortifications such as trenches, pill-boxes or high value targets like the enemy’s artillery. Aerial reconnaissance revealed these locations which enabled the artillery to shell them with pin point accuracy. A new application for these shells during the Great War was the creeping barrage, a wall of shell fire that was precisely choreographed to act as a curtain behind which attacking troops could advance, protected from the enemy machine guns. A very tricky tactic that could go very wrong.The mud at Passchendaele affected the use of artillery in a number of ways. At Passchendaele, the guns had to be brought slowly through the mud and began to sink into it when firing. This threw off their aim and saw it occasionally land on friendly forces. Another impact of the muddy environment was shells with impact fuses that detonated when hitting the ground did not always detonate, even today, these and gas shells are being found in Flanders and occasionally, they go off. Finally, high explosive shells were employed very effective against the British tanks, not only did they put them out of action directly, but they turned the landscape into a muddy sea that the tanks could not pass through. HE shells also had the crucial job of breaking the barbed wire before the infantry assault.
What’s the difference between a high explosive and shrapnel shell?
Smoke shells were designed to cover the movements of advancing infantry and were used in smaller numbers during most of the war. This is perhaps because the debris thrown up by a creeping barrage was sometimes enough to conceal attacking troops. The Smoke shell gradually became more and more widely used and it proved it’s worth in 1918. At the Battle of Cambrai smoke shells were used creatively by the Australian General Monash to fool the Germans into thinking it was gas and to hide the massive advance of the tanks in the allies successful 100 days offensive which swiftly broke the Hindenburg line, the Germans’ impressive defensive network.
These shells were large flares for use at night, they used a parachute to slow their descent and light up a large area for short duration. Star shells were used to illuminate enemy night assaults and enable the defender’s machine gunners to find their targets in the dark.
British Soldiers Blinded By Gas
British Soldiers Blinded By Gas
A Chlorine Gas Bottle
Contained inside an artillery shell, this bottle breaks on impact releasing a cloud of gas.
Despite being banned by many international treaties, nearly all sides of the Great War used gas shells. While responsible for a relatively small number of deaths compared to the brutally effective shrapnel shell, gas has become synonymous with the Great War. Gas shells came in many different types and were used not necessarily to kill, but to make those affected unable to defend themselves before an offensive. That being said, gas could be very deadly if one did not put on their gas mask swiftly. Toward the end of the war, the Germans developed chemical warfare even further with a gas that could burn the skin meaning that even a gas mask could not protect those affected. Gas was a tricky weapon to use due to it being carried by the wind, meaning, it could be far more, or far less effective than expected. If planned poorly, a gas barrage could blow back toward those that fired it. Gas shells worked by containing a glass bottle with the chemical inside that shattered and emanated from the shell on impact.
Responsible for the eerie green glow we attribute to the Great War battlefields, this gas was a silent and insidious presence at Passchendaele. Among the first gasses to be developed, the chlorine gas shell was used primarily by the British and Germans during the Great War. Chlorine gas effects the lungs, burning them from the inside out but can also cause blindness. Early in the war, the Germans used this gas in an offensive and were so surprised by how effective it was, that they failed to attack far into a massive gap in the French lines. However, the development of increasingly more advanced gas masks eventually made it possible to remain inside of a chlorine gas attack with no ill effects, however, gas masks are an obstruction that make it hard to aim a rifle, so chlorine gas was still employed before offensives.
Phosgene gas is the odd one out of all the gasses used in the Great War. Chlorine and mustard gas were employed for immediate results whereas phosgene was a poison that would take its toll over time. Soldiers exposed to phosgene gas would appear to be mostly fine until some time after, when it would develop a fluid in the lungs causing vomiting and difficulty breathing. The gas could also lead to heart failure due to it lowering the blood pressure of this affected. On the surface, this soldiers exposed to a lot of phosgene gas could develop lesions which are very painful sores on the skin. The purpose of this horrible weapon was to put soldiers out of the fight and create an influx of the sick and wounded in order to create a logistical problem for the enemy. It was very effective in this regard because the gas itself was colourless and difficult to notice, likewise, its effects could take over 48 hours to become apparent. Phosgene gas has a very distinct smell, like that of newly mown hay or pear drops, a British sweet which the soldiers named the gas after. Phosgene gas is very heavy, meaning it collected in low lying areas such as shell craters.
While all weapons of war are brutal, few are quite so cruel as mustard gas. This gas burns the skin causes blistering, it also effects the mucus membranes inside the nose, ears and eyes. Due to mustard gas being able to effect those wearing gas masks, the Germans often used it in combination with the more deadly chlorine to prevent those affected from putting on their gas masks. It is by far the most debilitating gas of the war leaving its victims often horribly disfigured, yet it did not often kill. Mustard gas is named so because it smelled like mustard or onions and it gathered in a yellow or orange cloud. Killing fewer than 5% of those affected, it may seem that mustard gas was not a very useful weapon, however, it was a powerful irritant that caused chaos in the enemy ranks and burned any exposed flesh. Mustard gas resulted in second and third degree burns as well as blindness though it was only developed later in the war and while used as often as it was available, it was not the most common occurrence on the battlefield. Mustard gas was used extensively after the Great War by the Italians and Japanese during the Second World War and Second Sino Japanese War. Today, mustard gas is still used—despite international treaties against it—by terrorist organisations and some Middle Eastern states, often in combination with nerve agents such as Sarin gas, in the same way that the Germans used it during WWI, to prevent the victims from using being able to put on their gas masks; making it impossible to be safe from the gasses that are deadly when inhaled.
Small Arms: Weapons that a soldier can carry.
Small Arms: Weapons that a soldier can carry.
The Passchendaele Society would like to thank the Royal Armouries in Leeds, England for providing the following images. World War 1 represented many things but foremost among them was innovation. Since the dawn of time, man has always sought to find better ways to create destruction and World War 1 saw the frightening cost of mixing modern technology and outdated tactics. Please check out the full articles and collections for the following and other weapons at the Royal Armouries digital collections here: https://collections.royalarmouries.org/
The standard issue rifle of all British Empire forces, including the ANZACs, this rifle represented the latest in weapons technology. Firing the stout .303 inch round and featuring a 10 round magazine, the Lee Enfield had double the ammunition with a much faster fire rate than the German Mauser, thanks to a speedy bolt mechanism. During the Battle of Mons in 1914, several German infantry accounts reported being fired on by several machine gun companies when really, they were only facing a British force armed with this rife and performing a technique called the, 'Mad Minute,' which allows a rifleman to shoot incredibly quickly. In 1916, a number of variations of the rifle were equipped with scopes for use by snipers, these scopes were often mounted off-set to the side in order to enable the use of chargers.
This light machine gun differed from the Vickers and MG08 guns as it was portable. While on the offensive, Lewisgunners would charge forward and set up forward positions taking advantage of this weapon's mobility. Designed by an American inventor, Isaac Newton Lewis, this weapon fired the same .303 round as the British Lee Enfield rifle and was air-cooled.
British officers were always allowed to buy their own sidearms and by far one of the most popular choices was this handgun. This revolver had seen reliable service in the British Army for decades and was used in many significant battles such as Rorke's Drift during the Zulu Wars. This tried and true reputation saw many British officers electing to take this powerful revolver with them into battle. Did it help them against the well defended German lines, the artillery, machine guns and gas? No. However it was a popular ratting weapon. British officers developed a strong hatred for rats especially when they used to lick the brilliantine (an old form of hair gel) out of their hair while they slept! So conversations in the officer's dugout would often be punctuated by quick shots at passing rats.
Germany was known for producing incredible hunters, armed with this reliable rifle, able to cope with the use of more powerful ammunition--there is little wonder the Germans were renowned for their marksmanship. Firing the powerful, 8mm round, this rifle was effective over long distances though its long length and small, five round internal magazine, made this rifle less suited to the close quarters fighting of the trenches. When equipped with a scope for the snipers of the German empire, this was a very precise and accurate rifle. Since it’s design in 1898, the Mauser bolt action system has been adopted nearly universally in most modern bolt actions. Indeed, the Americans prior to World War 1 faced a law suit in Germany for copying this rifle for use in their own M1903 bolt action, infantry rifle. However, due to it’s cock on open design, it is a slow bolt action to cycle compared to the British Lee Enfield.
A copy of the British Maxim gun, the MG08 was the main Machine gun of the German Empire and was a common defensive weapon. It was water cooled which allowed it to shoot for a very long time without overheating. This was a truly devastating weapon that contributed to many young men losing their lives on the Entente side.
Adapted from the first successful semi-automatic pistol, the C93 Borchardt, this pistol invented by Georg J. Luger is iconic. This weapon was held only by officers in the German Army and was a prized trophy taken during nighttime trench raids by allied forces. The Germans were among the front-runners in the design of semi-automatic firearms, they developed a number of other such pistols, one such pistol, the Masuer C96, even saved Winston Churchill’s life during the Boer War.