Reported in Scientific American, This Week in World War I: November 14, 1914
The tactical use of artillery had been evolving in the years before the Great War: In South Africa in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 the British developed the concept of the “creeping barrage,” where a curtain of shellfire proceeded just in front of the advancing troops. The Boers had their own artillery and in one famous battle used it to decimate British troops attempting to shelter in pitifully shallow trenches on the summit of Spion Kop. In 1904, half a world away, the Japanese dragged a battery of 28-centimeter howitzers to Manchuria to pound Russian-held Port Arthur (and the Russian fleet at anchor there). Almost 17,000 shells later the port fell, and Japan was well on its way to winning the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905.
Before World War I strategic doctrine in both France and Belgium had called for rings of monumentally strong forts guarding strategic towns. These forts were intricately constructed, massively engineered, considered impregnable. In the struggle between attack and defense, though, the answer (especially when learning the lesson from the Japanese at Port Arthur) was clear: to defeat an immovable object, use an even more irresistible force. As the French and Belgians were building their huge forts, the Germans and Austrians had been developing giant guns, one key feature of which was that they were transportable by road. Krupp had built two 42-centimeter transportable howitzers (nicknamed “Big Bertha”); Skoda had made a number of 30.5-centimeter howitzers. The forts on the receiving end of the monster shells from these guns were destroyed in only a few days. It has been argued, though, that “only a few days” was all that was needed to slow the German advance enough to allow the Allies time to rally and counterattack at the Battle of the Marne.
Our two images come from the opening weeks of the war, when the Germans were sweeping through Belgium and France. One of the first fortified towns encountered in France was Maubeuge, just across the border from Mons in Belgium; our photograph shows the effect of a large-caliber shell on one of the cupolas (rotating turrets) of the fort. If the effect of shellfire on heavily armored forts was astonishing, many people were shocked by the fact that unfortified towns were bombarded, and they were horrified at the damage caused by modern massed artillery fire. Our second image shows the destruction caused in Malines (Mechelen) in Belgium. Sadly, such behavior in warfare between “civilized nations” was to become commonplace.
Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles on the technical development of artillery from 1914-1918. It is available for purchase at www.ScientificAmerican.com/wwi