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Evolution of Field Artillery
Field artillery, and its uses have evolved dramatically over the years, to produce different outcome and concerns, associated with warfare and its challenges. Field artillery has taken many twists and turns in a progressive direction toward the high technology and computerized resources available today to a modern army in a developed nation. Not to say that strategy does not play a significant role in the process of combat, it does, yet technology is often the determining factor for whether the winning strategy will prevail. There have been significant moments in time when changes in the technology of field artillery were the greatest and this can be said of the period between 1815 and 1918, yet the most significant changes were implemented during the end years of those dates.
During the last four decades of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth century, a technological revolution ended the age of smoothbore field artillery and direct fire. Armies adopted steel breechloaders with ranges that were dramatically greater than those of smoothbore muzzleloaders, recoil systems, high-explosive propellants, motor vehicles as prime movers, and indirect fire.
In the area of artillery, transportation and communication, warfare change dramatically through this period of time. There is significant evidence that without each peace of this triad (artillery, transportation & communication) certain campaigns would have been practically impossible to wage and again without these three aspects of the design impossible to win.
One significant period during WWI makes light of this issue with significant evidence. The winning force needed all three factors plus the cunning skill of a knowledgeable, talented and controversial commander to reign victorious.
On the French side, one of the first officers to push for a change in artillery tactics was Philippe Petain, who successively commanded an infantry regiment and an infantry division during the mobile campaign of 1914. Long an advocate of the systematic preparation of attacks by artillery fire, he was unpopular with the 'red trouser' school of thought that was so prominent in the French Army of the time.
Petain is regarded as one of the fathers of modern warfare, and especially trench warfare. He challenged the old guard and developed strategy that relied heavily upon newly developed, technologically supperior artillery fire power and defensive warfare.
Petain was a distinguished veteran of World War I, and in particular the Battle of Verdun. He rose to be Commander-in-Chief of the French army, and it was his advocacy of a defensive strategy that led, in large part, to the construction of the Maginot Line.
The battle of Verdun, though not necessarily a complete victory for France, as they did lose some territory and an astronamical number of troops the implimentation of change that occurred during this battle would forever change warfare and would have a significant impact on future wars, most specifically on the trench warfare that is so commonly associated with WWII.
The Battle of Verdun was a major action in World War I that started on February 21, 1916 and resulted in more than 250,000 deaths. France's losses were appalling however. It was the perceived humanity of Field Marshal Philippe Petain who insisted that troops be regularly rotated in the face of such horror that helped seal his reputation...The apparent successes of the fixed fortification system (with the exception of Fort Douaumont) led to the adoption of the Maginot Line as the preferred method of defence along the Franco-German border during the inter-war years.
Though not everyone would agree that the use of an almost purly defensive strategy was all together the best result the fundemental changes it made in the minds of the soldiers were sifgnificant and the loss of life could have arguably been reduced because of it.
France's army was subsequently plagued not with desertions, but rather with a general refusal to march face-first into the teeth of Germany's impregnable positions. France's troops remained in their trenches, willing to fight only in a defensive capacity.
Though Petain's tactics, and subsequent political actions have often made him a target for revision of his hero status in France and elsewhere his tactics during the Battle of Verdun, and especially his counter-attacks on the German stronghold positions ensured the eventual victory of the French in this campaign. Though there is much to be said for the challenges that he faced, he successfully used new tactics, strategies and technology to wear down the German troops, who were initially at a great advantage in many ways.
On 25 February the Germans occupied Fort Douaumont. French reinforcements arrived and, under the leadership of General Petain, they managed to slow the German advance with a series of counter-attacks. Over March and April the hills and ridges north of Verdun exchanged hands, always under heavy bombardment. Meanwhile, Petain organized repeated counter-attacks to slow the German advance.
Petain, using advances artillery technology and again cunning strategy managed to maintain a crucial supply line to the bombarded French troops, essential to the eventual wearing down of the German's, who had expected to walk and bombard the French with an almost instantaneous victory, with a detrimental loss of life.
He also ensured that the Bar-le-Duc road into Verdun - the only one to survive German shelling - remained open. It became known as La Voie Sacree ('the Sacred Way') because it continued to carry vital supplies and reinforcements into the Verdun front despite constant artillery attack.
The Battle, before the interjection of Petain's skilled strategic use of the artillery at his disposal would most assuredly have been a tragic and monumental loss for the French. Yet, because of his skill he earned a reputation as a hero. The most significant change during this period was of coarse the change from the dramatic direct attack strategy that often led to massive casualties to a defensive strategy that allowed the troop, with their artillery as their main weapon, to dig in to a location and maintain the boundaries of the ground they were protecting.
The battle itself, though treacherous for both sides, with massive loss of life marked a new way in which ground was held and/or lost.
German gains continued in June, but slowly. They attacked the heights along the Meuse and took Fort Vaux on 7 June. On 23 June they almost reached the Belleville heights, the last stronghold before Verdun itself. Petain was preparing to evacuate the east bank of the Meuse when the Allies' offensive on the Somme River was launched on 1 July, partly to relieve the French.
Petain held his position as long as was needed before the intervention of the allies led to an eventual retreat by the Germans.
The Germans could no longer afford to commit new troops to Verdun and, at a cost of some 400,000 French casualties and a similar number of Germans, the attack was called off. Germany had failed to bleed France to death and from October to the end of the year, French offensives regained the forts and territory they had lost earlier. Falkenhayn was replaced by Hindenburg as Chief of General Staff and Petain became a hero, eventually replacing General Nivelle as French commander-in-chief.
The strategic changes that occurred during this seminal battle can be seen as a mark of a different sort of warfare. The strategy for heavy reliance of artillery, with the added trench tactics would become much more fine-tuned within the Second World War, marking a significant change in the way that wars are fought. The strategic difference between the reduction of direct and visible campaigns toward a waiting enemy and the defensive stronghold approach, coupled with strategic and secretive counter-attacks is comparable to the first use of gorilla warfare by the American troops in the American Revolution Though this was largely offensive and therefore significantly different…[continue]
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