The Wonder Weapon of the Great War
the French 75mm in the field
Posterity will accord to General Percin and Colonel Deport much of the credit for the superb condition of French artillery on the outbreak of war, and consistently throughout the whole campaign. Colonel Deport invented the splendid 75 mm. gun, which has been picturesquely described as the "Saviour of France," and General Percin, after laborious experiments, inaugurated a system of firing which made this weapon the most redoubtable ordnance in the world. General Percin was born in 1846. Entering the Ecole Polytechnique in 1865, he made a special study of artillery. He took part in the '70 war, was twice wounded, and achieved the distinction of rising to be a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour at the early age of twenty-five. After his initial struggle with the "Boches," General Percin devoted himself to the problem of rapid gunnery, and in the following article he puts us in possession of some little- known facts about the "75," the wonder weapon of the Great War.
No gun, since artillery first came into use, has been more justly praised than the French "75," and no gun has been more feared by the enemy. Sometimes, indeed, it has received exaggerated praiseas when this gun was said to have dethroned the infantry, hitherto considered the "Queen of Battles."
The truth is that there has been no change in the role of the different weapons in action. The infantry remains the "Queen of Battles." Its mission, ever more glorious, because ever more full of peril, is always to drive the enemy from his positions. And never, as the present war has proved once again, has the most overwhelming artillery fire been able to bring about this result. Nothing but the assault of the infantry, or at least the threat of assault, can force the enemy to give ground.
But the infantry would have great difficulty in advancing if it had no other support than the rifle. For, on the one hand, while the attack is advancing it does not fire, whereas the defence can maintain an uninterrupted fire. On the other hand, the defence being behind shelter, exposes only a very small portion of the body, while the attack is entirely exposed during the advance. In this duel of rifle fire the defence holds an immense advantage over the attack.
Conditions are completely changed if the friendly artillery takes up a position at a point outside the range of rifle fire from the objective of attack. By firing from this point upon the defence, which can make no effectual reply, the guns compel it to put " nose to ground." The attack can then advance unchecked by rifle fire.
Bombarding the enemy sharpshooters who fringe the objective, and thus assisting the advance of the friendly infantry, constitutes what is known as "supporting the attack."
The Futility of Slow Fire
Down to 1895, the only available sup port for infantry attack consisted of guns firing one shot a minute, that is, sixty shots per hour. This slow rate of fire made little impression on the defenders o! the position. Between each gunshot the sharpshooter felt secure during a whole minute, and could fire on the assaulting party quite at his ease.
After 1870, artillerymen understood the advantages to be derived from possessing a gun firing ten times more rapidly. Not that they proposed to fire six hundred rounds an hour, for no possible supply ol ammunition would have permitted so large a consumption; but it was hoped to make a more judicious use of the sixty shots which would still be fired in an hour. For example, a "rafale" (squall) of five or six shots might be delivered, followed by a silence lasting several minutes; then another "rafale," followed by another interval of silence, and so on, the duration of the "rafales" and the silent intervals being varied at the will of the firer in order to surprise the enemy.
In order to obtain this result it was necessary to perfect the method of loading, and to get rid of the recoil, which obliged the gunners to haul their piece forward again and lay the sights after every shot, thus greatly prolonging the operation.
The Artillery Duel in Peace
Krupp began experiments by placing blocks of india-rubber at the points where the force of the gun's recoil was exerted.
In 1880 the English artillery tried a gun of 76 millimetres (3 in.), whose cradle was connected with the rod of a piston moving in an hydraulic cylinder fixed on the carriage. The force of the recoil being thus imprisoned, combined with that of a spring, drove the gun forward again, and the carriage remained almost motionless.
Krupp adopted this idea, and applied it in 1883 to a gun of 84 millimetres. He subsequently perfected it, and adapted it to the quick-firing gun of 77 millimetres which he manufactured in 1896.
France followed suit, but discovered at the first attempt a hydro-pneumatic brake far superior to the German pattern, and applied it in 1897 to the "75" gun created by Colonel Deport. The secrets of this brake and of the other details of the gun were so well kept that the Germans had to wait several years before improving their "77"; but the imitation was not so good as the model. France maintained her lead, not only as regards the brake, but still more as regards the breech mechanism and the gun- laying apparatus. Above all, she maintained it as regards methods of fire, in the application of which the French gunners had acquired a skill that the Germans never managed to equal. Indeed, they confess as much in letters found on prisoners, killed and wounded.
Deadliness of Indirect Fire
The most original part of the French fire methods, that in which France has gone ahead of all the other Powers, is the general employment of indirect fire; that is to say, a kind of fire in which the gun-layer aims, not at the actual target, which may alter from moment to moment, but at a fixed point, easily visible and easily identified, situated in front, at the side, or in the rear of the gun; as, for example, a church steeple, a tree taller than its neighbours, or the corner of a solitary house. The aiming apparatus is so arranged that if the line of fire is made to form a certain angle with the line of sight, the gun is directed towards the target. This angle is given by the battery commander to the layer, who marks it off on his apparatus. By this meansfor the old ways of designating the objective are so laborious and liable to errorthere is substituted the indication of a few figures, by virtue of which the fire is shifted to right or left, nearer or farther away, higher or lower, at the will of the commander, without the layer seeing either the shell-bursts or the target.
No lengthy remarks are needed when indicating the figures. The commander is therefore no longer obliged to remain near his guns. He can place himself at the point from which he can best see the objective, and from which he can best judge the effects of the fire. From this position he transmits his orders to the battery by signals or by telephone.
The guns can be posted behind a ridge or a wood, or at the bottom of a valley. They are thus invisible to the enemy. Their position can be ascertained only by aerial observers, whose information is not available until an appreciable time has lapsed. This means that they can be shifted before the enemy opens fire.
At the beginning of the war the Germans, being less skilful than ourselves (the French) in the application of these new methods, had a considerable number of guns demolished by the French artillery, whose losses, on the other hand, were very trifling. The Germans hoped, thanks to the superior numbers and the greater calibre of their field artillery, to reduce ours to fragments; but they destroyed only a very small number. In the long run they followed our example, the result being that the artillery on either side contrived to do very little damage, the one to the other.
When Artillery is Vulnerable
The characteristic of the present war is just thisthe considerable diminution of the losses sustained by the artillery, and the increased losses of the infantry, who are obliged to expose themselves during the advance, while the guns can remain under cover.
On the other hand, never before have so many guns been captured. This is a new fact easily explained.
It is impossible to destroy a masked battery piece by piece, as artillery in view is destroyed. All that can be done is to subject it to " watering-pot " fire (tir d'arrosage). If the guns are in battery formation, the crews protect themselves from this kind of fire by sheltering behind the shields. But if the guns get on the move, they become very vulnerable. If one of the six horses forming the gun-team is badly wounded, this is enough to stop the gun and prevent its being shifted. The gunners then run the risk of being destroyed by the following bursts of fire.
For artillery under fire, if the enemy infantry succeeds in approaching, only two courses are opensurrender, or a half-turn, which involves destruction without the chance of winning fame. Sooner than suffer this latter fate, it submits to capture, conscious of duty done by seeking to hold out to the last possible moment.
This, then, is the new fact. Hostile artillery is no longer destroyed, but captured. To effect a capture the infantry are sent forward; and to enable the infantry to reach the guns their advance is supported by fire directed either on the enemy infantry, who are destroyed if they come into view, or on the enemy guns, which are pinned to their positions but not destroyed, unless by some lucky chance some grave mistake on the part of the enemy. Thus it comes about that the increase in the destructive power of the artillery, which is the consequence of adopting the quick-firing gun, brings this resultthat on both sides the artillery remains comparatively uninjured, while the infantry suffer heavy losses.
The Death Dealt Out by the "75"
The statistics of the losses inflicted by the artillery have not yet appeared, either in Germany or in France. But we now know that they have been heavier on the German side. This difference is largely due to the efficiency of our high-explosive shell, which is far superior to the similar shell employed by the Germans.
The shell of the "75" sends out a considerable number of small chisel-edged fragments, which are death-dealing up to twenty yards from the bursting-point. Moreover, the gases released by the explosion cause a kind of asphyxia unless, indeed, it be the shock produced on the brain and vertebral column which kills all those men whose bodies show no apparent wound.
The dead, according to the official communiqué of August 26th, 1914, were fixed rigid (cloues) in the position of aiming.
"What makes the strongest impression," wrote a soldier in the 'Guerre Sociale' of October 25th, 1914, "is the attitude of the men killed by the explosive shell of the '75.' Few of them appear to have been wounded. You find them in the position in which they were struck, with their eyes starting from their heads, and a trickle of blood on their lips."
"Your '75" said a captured German officer, "is not a gun, it is an instrument of butchery."
"The German soldiers call your gunners the black butchers," said General von Bulow to a French landowner (chatelain) on whom he had billeted himself.
Such are the effects of the "75" explosive shell. But it is very evident that these effects would not be so terrible if the gun, as formerly, could fire only one shot a minute, and if our gunners did not excel in the art of sending the projectile precisely where or when it is required.
The effects of our shell are therefore the resultant of its own qualities of rapid loading, of the value of our methods, and of the skill of the gunners in applying them.
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