from ‘The War Illustrated’, 28th April, 1916
'How the 'Big Push' is Prepared'
by F. A. McKenzie
Special Correspondent of "The War Illustrated"

A Journalist Visits the Front

pages from ‘The War Illustrated


How the "Big Push" is Prepared

What does an advance in force mean ? How does an army prepare to-day for a big offensive ? When war was simpler, commanders decided on a forward move one day and attempted it the next. Each army carried sufficient munitions with it for some days of fighting. The soldiers who could not obtain food starved. The military forces were mobile and easily transported units. Year by year as fighting has become more complicated, and as armies have enlarged, the work of preliminary preparation has grown greater and greater. To-day, any general advance requires not days, nor weeks, but months of heavy work before the signal to go forward is passed around the ranks.

First the points where the real attempts to break through the enemy lines are to be made must be decided. This decision can only be arrived at after most careful and thorough investigations. The Secret Service men on either side, the scouts and spies, redouble their efforts to obtain exact knowledge of what the enemy is doing immediately behind his front. Where are the artillery positions ? Along what roads will reserves be brought up ? What supplies of munitions are available ? What is the spirit and temper of the men at different points ? Have the enemy commanders at these points any particular qualities, good or bad, that need to be borne in mind ?

Alacrity and Deception

It is impossible to do more to-day than to hint at the ingenuity, the resource, and the courage of the secret agents and scouts engaged on either side in this work. Much preliminary information is obtained by aerial scouting and aerial photography, but the real intimate details are acquired by Secret Service men whose boldness, simplicity, and daring would make, could they be known, the wildest imaginings of Mr. Le Queux or Mr. Phillips Oppenheim appear tame.

The preliminary decision of the main points of attack having been arrived at — a decision always open to revision later on — the work of artillery concentration begins. Great guns are brought up as secretly as possible. They are so swathed that villagers behind the lines or airmen overhead cannot tell what they are. The work of making gun positions is done at night time, and the guns are put in their positions under cover of darkness. Once they are in position, everything is avoided that could attract attention to them until the great day comes.

Here brain is pitted against brain. The most successful example up to date of the secret accumulation of guns against one point was at Verdun. The Germans, who are said, to have worked for four months in preparation before assuming the offensive, succeeded in massing at least twice as many heavy guns against the French front as the French anticipated. The latter knew that something was being done, and they allowed for a great increase in German artillery strength. But the Germans concealed many more than was suspected, with the result that in the first few days of battle they were able to sweep the French back three and four miles from their original front.

Austrian Tactics Revealed

Another example of preliminary work is found in the Austrian attack upon Belgrade. Distinguished artillery commanders were sent to Semlin, even before the fall of Warsaw last year, and for ten weeks they carried out an elaborate process of deceiving the Serbians while accumulating and arranging their own supplies. Monster Skoda 42 cm. howitzers and German 42 cm. mortars were brought up one after another, and put in place in such a way that the Serbians could hardly suspect their presence. Troops were marched in open daylight to occupy positions from which the Serbians might be threatened, and were secretly withdrawn at night.

Fine-looking batteries were planted at points where the Serbian scouts could with some difficulty discover them. It was intended that the Serbians should discover them, for these fine-looking batteries were composed of nothing more than dummy wooden guns. The whole Serbian front was minutely analysed. Every range was taken, but taken in such a way that the Serbians would not suspect it. The timing and elevation for each gun at every point when a screen of protective fire would be necessary was worked out mathematically. The whole artillery action on which the issues of the battle would depend was elaborated in a series of formulae. All the guns were, of course, joined up to the fire- control centre by telephone. The system of firing was alphabetically arranged in printed lists, so that every officer when he received certain code letters and figures knew at once all that was required down to the most minute adjustment of time-fuses.

When the Thunder Roars

The result of all this was that when the Austrians opened out their real offensive, the artillery work was simply a matter of routine. The shells were launched just where they were required and in the quantities needed. The Austrians did not desire to injure Belgrade railway station. No shell fell on it. The Serbian military positions were simply wiped out.

Along the western front to-day the same artillery preparations must take place to break through any point as would be necessary in an attack on an old-time fortress. The attacking party must be prepared to launch at least 40,000 shells a day on a comparatively small front, and to keep that up day after day. It must be able to put a ring of fire behind the enemy's lines, so that no reserves can reach them. Heavy guns must know the range o* each cross-road where the enemy's supplies are brought up, and must keep each cross-road steadily bombarded. In addition to this, aeroplane fleets will bombard the railways, the munition depots, and the food stores being used for the enemy at this point.

When all is ready the great artillery duel opens. How long it lasts depends upon circumstances. Artillerymen reckon as a matter of course nowadays (hat the front trench of the enemy can practically be flattened out and its wire entanglements broken down. Probably, just before the infantry advance, nines will be exploded along the enemy front, mines that have taken weeks to dig and that may be running as much as one hundred feet below the surface of the earth.

The Clash of Artillery

The usual time for a great advance to be launched is just before dawn. But here again, commanders recognising the advantage of surprise, sometimes begin their attacks at all hours of the day. The advancing troops are preceded by a curtain of fire from bursting shells. For this the most exact timing is necessary. The artillery and the infantry have to work like one. It the infantry advance too fast they come under the fire of their own guns. If the artillery fire ceases too soon, the enemy get the chance- to sweep down the advancing ranks with machine-gun fire.

The capture of the first trench is nothing. It falls almost automatically as the result of the great preparations, unless the enemy have met them by equal counter preparations. The bombers and the storming parties hardly expect to find more in the first lines than the dazed and stunned remnants of the front-line battalions. Tile second trench is more difficult. The third lines of trenches often present the crux of the problem. Now, when the attacked party discover the real intentions of their enemy they, in turn, concentrate their fire on the vital spot.

In the fighting that is ahead of us now the real issues that will decide the success from failure of any advance will be the adequacy of the artillery preparations and particularly the artillery, preparations for dealing with the country immediately behind the trenches attacked, and preventing the enemy from bringing up reinforcements arid fresh supplies. On this point I can only say that I for one have personally witnessed such magnificent artillery work along our own lines that I am prepared to believe our gunners capable of everything.


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