Stimmen aus den Schützengräben #8 is dedicated to artillery. Attrition and trench warfare required a massive use of artillery fire to prepare an attac, neutralise enemy batteries or even keeping the enemy morale low. An impressive amount of shells were fired during WWI, of witch 25-30% didn’t explode. It is said that the number of shells fired reached 1.45 billion. Even nowadays, farmers keep finding unexploded war material under their fields (it’s the so-called iron harvest). Great economical and technological efforts were made to improve power and accuracy of the guns; the production process was made more effective as well. New tactics (like the creeping barrage) were developed to support infantry movements, and gas shells (see episode #5) were introduced in 1915. Despite the improvements, artillery needed huge logistic efforts and an excellent communication between batteries, command posts and front lines: when orders were misunderstood or the telephonic lines were interrupted, consequences were terrible. Unfortunately, such accidents were frequent on all fronts.
The first “guest” of the week is Carl Schmidt, a German soldier (or officer, according to some hints in his letters). He was affected first in France then in Serbia, and managed to survive the war. He committed suicide in 1931 during (and because of) the Great Depression. In a letter dated 24 April 1915 he greatly admires French artillery, stating that it is far better than the German. He then mentions an episode of friendly fire from the German artillery, who shoot on a company deployed on the right side of his sector.
A transcription of his letters is available at: http://www.europeana1914-1918.eu/de/contributions/436.
The second “guest” is French soldier Vincent Constant (1892-1979). In December 1917 he wrote a journal relating the most relevant episodes in which he and his regiment were involved. In February 1916 his unit was deployed near the Bois des Caures, at Verdun.
The battle of Verdun (21 February – 18 December 1916) was one of the longest and most costly battles of WWI, and an impressive clash of artilleries.
The aim of the German plan (“Operation Gericht“) was not to conquer territory but to lure the French army into defending the position and anihilate it with heavy artillery . As a result, France would understand that the war was lost, and its capitulation would lead to a quick withdrowal of English troops on the Somme. At Verdun, artillery played a major role. The German secretly massed 1220 medium and heavy guns on only 14 Km of front – an astonishing average of one artillery piece every 12 meters.
The fortified city of Verdun became quickly a symbol: the honour of France was at stake, and the position had to be kept at all costs. A slogan quickly spread: “on ne passe pas!” (they shall not pass). “Operation Gericht” was a failure, and the price was extreamely heavy. The casualties on both sides (dead, wounded, missing) are estimated between 700.000 and 900.000.
On the 22th of February 1916, one day after the beginning of “Operation Gericht”, Vincent Constant is only a few hundred meters away from the Bois des Caures, a wood destroyed on the 21st by a massive artillery barrage. Constant is an eye witness of the chaos reigning in the french lines: units are retreating, the roads are full of corpses and abandoned gear, the French batteries are neutralised (either destroyed or out of ammunition). Without artillery support a counter-attack on the Bois des Caures is impossible and postponed to the next day. Selected parts of the war journal have been transcripted and are available (together with an english translation) at: http://vincent.juillet.free.fr/cahier-constant-vincent-1914-1.htm.
The third “guest” of the week is sergeant Leonard J. Ounsworth (see episodes #1, #3 und #7). In a passage extracted from a longer interview he explains what a Schrapnel shell is and how it works. A Shrapnel is an anti-personal shell filled with metal bullets and provided with a time fuse on its top. To be effective the Schrapnel has to burst before hitting the ground, when it is right in front or above the target.
The complete interview can be downloaded at: http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/gwa/document/9404?REC=1
The fourth and last “guest” is Italian Officer Emilio Lussu. In a passage from his war memories “Un anno sull’altipiano” he relates a terrible case of friendly fire. Italian batteries shoot for hours on the first lines, the shelters are built against Austrian artillery and are uneffective against the shells coming from behind. All attempts to communicate with the batteries fail, and panic seizes the infantry. Lussu is an eye witness of terrible episodes. He can hardly prevent a mashinegun section from assaulting the batteries, he meets an artillery colonel, completely crushed by the events, walking and screaming: “Kill us, kill us!“. When he meets the commanding officer of the artillery, Lussu exclaims: “What an awful lot of nonsense we’re doing today!”. “That’s our job“, replies the officer, sadly. His attempts at stopping the barrage have been failing for hours.
Editing: Eva Schmidhuber, Matteo Coletta
Voices in this episode: David Leberbauer as Car Schmidt, L.J. Ounsworth as himself, Matteo Coletta as Vincent Constant and Emilio Lussu.
Music: Gregoire Lourme, “Fire arrows and shields”
Concept: Matteo Coletta
Voices: Hannes Hochwasser, Matteo Coletta, Roman Reischl, L.J. Ounsworth, Norbert K. Hund.