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Remembered Today:

Counter-battery on the Somme


Jonathan Saunders

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In the past there have been several debates as to the success, or not(!), of the British counter-battery work in the Somme preparation. Does anyone know of a comprehensive study on this issue or does anyone have details of what German batteries were in place on the 23rd June 1916, and how many (and which ones) had been destroyed by 1st July 1916?

Thanks and regards,

Jon S

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Jonathan

I know of no such study, but that does not mean that one does not exist. As a small contribution and quoting from the history of 26th Res Fd Arty Regt, which was part of the 26th Res Arty Bde under Generalmajor Maur, which supported 26th Res Div between the Serre - Mailly and the Albert - Bapaume roads on 1 Jul 16 and which, reinforced by one infantry regiment and some extra machine guns, utterly smashed the attacks of VIII and X Corps, here is an impression:

'[During the bombardment] heavy, well directed fire came down on the artillery. Battery after battery was systematically engaged. Heavy shells smashed the ground up in front of and behind the guns whilst, between these impacts, the area was swept by masses of shining silvery splinters of steel from 120mm shells. But the damage was slight. Here and there a direct hit occurred, setting some gun positions in the Artillery Hollow, Grandcourt and by the Ruined Mill alight. Along Stump Road, 4th and 5th Btys had their guns flung out of their gun pits, but the dugouts withstood it, protecting both personnel and ammunition...On 1 July batteries each had stocks of up up to 4,500 shells and practically all batteries were fully ready for action...'

If we were to take a systematic look at other histories, the story would probably be much the same, except further to the south where the French guns wreaked havoc.

Jack

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I have only recently started to look at the artillery contribution generally. One of the books I have acquired is "History of the Royal Regt. of Artillery", Farndale. He has several paragraphs on the counterbattery work commencing 24/06/1916. Pages 147-149. He details CB work and results by Corps. On the whole, he reports excellent results. Later on, he states that counterbattery work suffered from wear and tear on the guns.

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Hi Tom,

I have read the Ferndale account before, albeit a couple of years ago. From memory, my problem with it is that I didnt think it was from a completely unbiased source and the conclusion of "excellent results" was not substantiated as a general appraisal by other sources I read at the time.

Thanks all the same for looking and the suggestion.

Regards,

Jon S

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Even at this ( for me) early stage of the game, I agree that unbiased he is not. :o He does however give some detailed accounts of what each Corps Artillery attempted and achieved. The facts might help and you can ignore his judgements. :)

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Heavy shells smashed the ground up in front of and behind the guns whilst, between these impacts, the area was swept by masses of shining silvery splinters of steel from 120mm shells. But the damage was slight.
Thanks, Jack. Your quote illustrates the problems with HE for counter-battery work. Gas, with its area-effect capability, was more effective for indirect fire. Robert
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Thanks, Jack. Your quote illustrates the problems with HE for counter-battery work. Gas, with its area-effect capability, was more effective for indirect fire. Robert

Robert - was any form of box barrage considered at this time for Counter battery work, in order to find and destroy the enemy guns?

I agree Jack's quote does highlight the problem although I wonder where the author was located? I assume somewhere up near Serre, opposite VIII Corps, as X Corps, as I recall, used very few shells for counter-battery work in the Somme preparation, and reinforcements for the Irish battalions were unable to get through to the German first lines due to the German's shelling NML with their batteries behind Pozieres.

Regards,

Jon S

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post-6447-1175606281.jpg

Attached is a copy of one of the maps in my Germans at Thiepval guidebook which shows the locations of the artillery groups of 26th Res Arty Brigade at the start of the Battle. The artillery commander, Maur, was a skilled and experienced gunner. I remember from either the history or the battle log of RIR 99 that Maur at times during the bombardment refused to sanction a response to identified British mortars or guns firing, because he wanted to maintain some of his batteries as 'silent'; the idea being to keep them in reserve as surprise assets to be used the moment the British assault began. It certainly worked.

Jack

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I remember from either the history or the battle log of RIR 99 that Maur at times during the bombardment refused to sanction a response to identified British mortars or guns firing, because he wanted to maintain some of his batteries as 'silent'; the idea being to keep them in reserve as surprise assets to be used the moment the British assault began. It certainly worked.

This was certainly the policy of Von Susskind at Gommecourt where the concentration of batteries cames as a shock to VII Corps. Added to this the British policy of using long guns rather heavy howitzers for CB work meant very little damage to the well dug in German batteries.

According to Ralph Whitehead's research the 28th R D was the only one that did respond to requests for artillery support prior to and on 1.7.16 and, as a result of good observation, a heavier than average concentration of batteries for CB work by XIII Corps plus French artillery support, 28th R D's artillery were severely dealt with contributing greatly to the local success in this sector.

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Jon, I doubt a box barrage was used for CB fire. It was designed to prevent personnel crossing through the barrage and into the 'box'. Typically, one side would be left open, which is the side that the attackers used to get into the area, often on a raid. With respect to artillery, it was crucial to attack the contents of the 'box' because the batteries were self-contained entities that did not require constant (every few minutes or hours) resupply by teams would have had to pass through a box barrage. Furthermore, it was less wasteful of shells if the actual battery sites were attacked.

Artillery batteries had well built gun pits and, more importantly, underground shell-proof bunkers for the gunners. Sometimes, slit trenches would be used as well. Well-built gun pits would include shell-proof ammunition stores as well, but not every gun team would be bothered to build these (on the British side at least). There are many examples of British batteries coming under the same kind of CB fire during the Somme offensive, delivered by their German counterparts. The picture was just the same as Jack described. The gunners would take cover once they sensed that the German shells were getting the range, possibly a gun might be damaged if hit directly, and then business would resume when the barrage stopped. Occasionally, a shell would hit a gun in action, with fearsome consequences to the gunners. Occasionally, a heavy shell would pierce the shell-proof bunker.

The use of 'silent' guns was a very important defensive strategy. bmac, there was an uneven knowledge of this strategy in the Royal Artillery as well.

Robert

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Jon, I doubt a box barrage was used for CB fire.

Robert,

Forgive my terminology but I was thinking of some sort of "boxed" or walled (?) barrage, that would lay HE over a specified location where a gun pit was known to exist. Was there anything like this?

Point taken about the shell proofed bunkers.

Jack/Bill - many thanks. I hadnt come across silent batteries before. Makes a lot of sense unless your PBI.

Regards,

Jon S

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Jack/Bill - many thanks. I hadnt come across silent batteries before. Makes a lot of sense unless your PBI.

Regards,

Jon S

A similar thing was guns only firing in daytime. This precluded flash ranging.

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Hello,

A while ago I read ‘Artillery’s Astrologers’ by Peter Chasseaud published by Mapbooks, Lewes and made some notes. This weighty tome deals in detail with the evolution of survey on the western front and the use of accurate survey for fire control. There are also accounts of sound ranging and in that context, noting that sound ranging was in its early days in the Somme campaign, there is a statement that examination of German bty sites following their withdrawal to the Hindenburg line showed that that sound ranging had been effective. The book is not to hand but I suppose this statement was based on records of the state, after the campaign, of gun positions that had been located by sound ranging.

That is hardly a comprehensive study but it may be helpful in adding to the picture.

Old Tom

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  • 7 years later...
Guest alan sherwood

Hello, this is my first posting.

I found this web site while searching for some solution to a quandary I had about CB during the Somme. Perhaps someone here can answer it.

As I understand (ref www.gutenberg-e.org/mas01/mas05.html), field artillery (FA) is more effective against infantry marching thru NML than heavy artillery (HA), whereas HA is much better against trenches and guns. So referring to post #10, which guns did Maur ‘keep quiet’ to avoid CB? There would have been little point in firing FA before the assault, so why would they not have been quiet in any case? Or did the Germans use HA against infantry in NML? I have found no record of which guns were actually targeted by CB during the initial bombardment, only the numbers of guns that survived.

Any help would be much appreciated, thanks.

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Alan,

With respect to field guns and counter-preparatory fire, it would not always be possible to know when the actual assault was occurring. Feints were a well known strategy to entice enemy guns into exposing themselves prematurely. Plus there was the imperative to support the infantry as much as possible, as much psychologically as for the effect on the enemy. SOS responses during raids would be a good example of this. These reasons illustrate why it was not an easy decision to keep the field guns quiet.

The same applies to the counter-preparatory work of the heavy guns. While not of such direct relevance to the German infantry, the impact on the enemy build-up was still potentially important.

Both types of artillery were targeted, albeit to different degrees in different sectors.

Robert

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Guest alan sherwood

Robert

Thanks for your reply. I can see the uncertainties as you explain and what could have happened. But I would like to know what DID happen at the Somme. Did the Germans south of the Somme open up with FA and get it blown away by French CB? Did Maur keep his FA silent? Did he also keep his HA silent? Does anyone know this?

Alan

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Losses amongst the German artillery of the three divisions north of the Ancre were remarkably light during the bombardment and on 1st July. Artillery was only supposed to respond to requests for general artillery support after the release of gas/smoke during the bombardment. In any case, observation from the air throughout the 7 days was very difficult because of the weather and fewer than 50% of German battery positions were located. Even those located were only subject to relatively light artillery CB work as the British did not appreciate the quantity of shells required to destroy of neutralise an enemy battery. The British did have the support of several batteries of French 75s capable of firing gas shells but their range was limited to the lighter field battery positions. There were very few 'heavy' German guns on this front. They were mainly 77mm field guns and 10.5 cm howitzers with some 15 cm guns/howitzers but nothing of any greater size. The longer range guns were, however, often placed out of the range of the British CB guns. British artillery was spread very thin having to prepare an area up to 4,000 yards deep whilst the German batteries were, in the main, targeted on the British front lines, NML and their own front line. They achieved a far greater concentration of fire in a relatively small area with very little attention paid to CB work. British guns were firing on multiple targets over a huge area and failed to concentrate anywhere.

Not much changed until one gets to the XIII Corps' front opposite Mametz and Montauban. XIII Corps allocated more and heavier guns for CB work and the French assisted both by lending them batteries and by firing on the British front. Although the French artillery was dreadfully slow firing and obsolete they did prioritise CB work at the assistance of the 6th Army commander, Fayolle. It was, in fact, the highest priority. If a German battery was seen to be firing then all guns not on a specific task within range were to open fire. French guns would fire ten or more times as many shells at a German battery than did the British. The combined work of XIII Corps and 6th Army CB batteries pretty well wiped out or neutralised the German guns between Mametz and the Somme (and on the southern bank too).

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