Editor’s note (4/2/2017): This week marks the 100-year anniversary of the U.S. entry into the First World War. Scientific American, founded in 1845, spent the war years covering the monumental innovations that changed the course of history, from the first tanks and aerial combat to the first widespread attacks with chemical weapons. To mark the centennial, we are republishing the article below and many others. For full access to our archival coverage of the Great War sign up for an All Access subscription today.
Reported in Scientific American, This Week in World War I: April 17, 1915
World War I was an artillery war. In the opening days, the German army used a new variety of siege gun to blast holes in the Belgian and French forts that had been designed and built–decades earlier–to bar passage. These new guns fired a large caliber shell but were movable by road, so they could keep up with the front lines of the army. One model of siege howitzer was on loan from Germany’s allies, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Model 1911 305-millimeter guns were made by the Skoda Works in the Kingdom of Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The guns were fearfully effective for their designed task. One example: On August 8, 1914, one 305-millimeter Skoda howitzer had been trained on the Belgian Fort Barchon. By that afternoon, the fort surrendered. Within a year, military tactics had been obliged to evolve to rely less on large, immobile forts and instead were based on extensive field fortifications: networks of trenches, dugouts and earthworks hugging the ground, well-camouflaged and protected by dense thickets of barbed wire. By the time this issue of Scientific American had been published, the opportunity for one howitzer to win a battle had come and gone, and until the end of the war, the value of artillery lay in the industrial-scale quantities of shells it could deliver on target.
The image on the cover of the April 17 issue shows two soldiers in Austrian uniforms hauling a giant shell for the 305-millimeter Skoda howitzer, either the 630-pound high explosive for use against earthworks or the 850-pound armor-piercing version for use against forts (the propellant was loaded separately). The men look neither victorious nor defeated, merely tired–two small cogs in the industrial warfare that had engulfed Europe and was spreading still farther.
You can see French fortifications smashed by German heavy artillery–including Skoda 305 millimeter cannons of this kind–here.
An image from Scientific American of a 420-millimeter howitzer being made at the Krupp works in Germany is here.
Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914-1918 on artillery. It is available for purchase at www.ScientificAmerican.com/wwi