Barrage (artillery) - World War I

World War I

A creeping barrage was first used in a small section of the line at the battle of Loos in 1915, but the infantry did not advance behind it. The first day of the battle of the Somme saw the first attempt at a large-scale creeping barrage which had been planned in anticipation of the infantry's anticipated ability to advance relatively unhampered across the battlefield due to a heavy, week long preparatory bombardment. For example, on XV Corps front, the barrage was programmed to lift 50 yards (46 m) every minute. Complications arose however in British protocols to prevent friendly-fire casualties which at the time dictated that shellfire was to be kept over one hundred yards away from their own uncovered infantry. In many cases no-man's land was narrower than the allowable 'safe' distance and as such the barrage did not protect the men as they went 'over the top' and advanced towards the German trenches.

Further, as the British infantry was slowed far beyond the expected pace of advance across no-man's land, all along the Somme front it proved impossible for the infantry to keep up with the pace of the barrage. However, the tactic was further refined as the Battle of the Somme wore on and by September 1916 the creeping barrage became a standard tactic for infantry attacks, and soon spread to the French army, enabling the French recapture of Fort Vaux at Verdun in November 1916. By the later stages of the Battle of the Somme, the British had improved the accuracy of and confidence in their artillery fire and had learned the lessons of keeping infantry close to the barrage: the BEF circulated an aerial observer's report commending a "most perfect wall of fire" followed up within 50 yards (46 m) by the infantry of 50th Division, enabling them to take a village with little opposition. A report said "Experience has shown that it is far better to risk a few casualties from an occasional short round from our own artillery than to suffer the many casualties which occur when the bombardment is not closely followed up". The creeping barrage was used during the Action of Tell 'Asur on 12 March 1918 in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign. Six months later, it was used with devastating effect during the Battle of Megiddo (1918) when 18-pdr and Royal Horse Artillery formed a creeping barrage which fired in front of the advancing infantry up to their extreme range while 4.5-inch howitzers fired beyond the barrage, while heavy artillery were employed in counter battery work. The creeping barrage moved at a rate of between 50 yards (46 m), 75 yards (69 m) and 100 yards (91 m) per minute.

At first, British creeping barrages consisted only of shrapnel shells, but an equal mix of HE was soon added, in some cases later supplemented by smoke shells. The creeping barrage would advance at a rate of 100 yards every one to six minutes, depending on terrain and conditions; although six minutes was found to be too slow. By the Battle of Arras in 1917 the creeping barrage was huge and complex, with five or six lines of fire covering a depth of 2,000 yards (1,800 m) ahead of the infantry. Predicted fire was used, so that the barrage opened without preliminary target registration shots.

Back barrages were fired, in which rearmost lines of the barrage reversed direction, and machine gun barrages were introduced. False barrages attempted to deceive the enemy about Allied intentions or to force him to reveal his positions. The creeping barrage was used to great effect in the Canadian success at Vimy Ridge where the men had been extensively trained to move forward in the 'Vimy Glide' - a 100 yd per three minute pace which kept the infantry directly behind the barrage. The opening attack of the Battle of Passchendaele was covered by a barrage of shrapnel and HE on a colossal scale, fired by over 3,000 British guns and howitzers: one 18-pounder for every 15 yards (14 m) of front, and a heavy howitzer for every 50 yards (46 m), with yet more guns in the French sector. The British barrage advanced 100 yards (91 m) every four minutes, with the infantry following as close as 50 yards (46 m) from the bursting shells. One battery's programme required 45 lifts. As each objective was reached, the barrage settled 500 yards (460 m) beyond the new position, combing back and forth to disrupt expected German counter-attacks, while some of the artillery moved forward to support the next phase of the advance.

On the Eastern Front, German Colonel Georg Bruchmüller developed a form of double creeping barrage, with the first line of the barrage consisting of gas shells. His ideas were applied on the Western Front in the Spring Offensive of 1918.

The day of the lengthy large-scale preliminary barrage had largely passed by the end of World War I, at least in Western nations, with the realisation that best results were achieved by neutralising the enemy rather than attempting his physical destruction, and that short, concentrated bombardments, including creeping barrages, were more effective in neutralising the enemy than extended bombardment. Once open warfare returned after the breaking of the Hindenburg Line in September 1918 the British fired far fewer creeping barrages, using more lifts and concentrations instead.

Attacks by tanks do not need the same form of artillery support, and the single barrage along the entire front of the advance had even been abandoned by the battle of Cambrai in 1917. More sophisticated fire control enabled infantry to call down artillery fire in direct support, or targeting of identified enemy positions. Nevertheless, barrages remained in use. On 31 August 1918 the attack of the US 32nd Division was preceded by a walking barrage. After first passing over the German line, the barrage returned twice more, attempting to catch the defenders returning to their firing positions from their dugouts, or to keep them underground when the real assault went in.

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