Feature: Firepower & dispersal: some ideas


The story of firepower is also the tale of battlefield dispersal. Up until the deployment of the magazine rifle and quick fire artillery gun – indeed even for some time thereafter – mass firepower required mass manpower. 

Any attempt at mass effects, until about the 20th Century required men to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, Chris Cook and John Stevenson wrote in Weapons of War: “Significant change was delayed until the introduction of efficient [Italics in original] gunpowder artillery and firearms, and lastly the ring bayonet, in the 17th Century. A Macedonian phalanx of the 4th Century BC would have been a match for such ‘modern’ troops as Cromwell’s Ironsides [1642-1651] or the Spanish pikemen of Rocroi [1643]. Marlborough’s army at Blenheim in 1704 would have been a totally different propositioni.”

Early muskets were no improvement over the technology of the day. The matchlock was unreliable and inaccurate at best. It was also not weatherproof. But it did not require a lifetime of practice to master – as was the case with the English longbow, or great strength as was the case with some crossbows. It was, by comparison, easy to use – a weapon for everyman. But it still required the concentration of troops into dense tactical formations to achieve sufficient sustainable fire to defeat a similar opponent. Although the technology had changed, the tactics would still have been familiar to Gildamesh, king of Uruk about 2500BC.

What finally allowed the transition from the past to the present was improvements in metallurgy as well as chemistry and – for small arms – the invention of the self-contained weatherproof bullet consisting of a projectile, propellent charge and percussion cap. These not only allowed “fewer to do more” as described above, it required it.

So, towards the close of the muzzle-loader era, on June 18, 1815, Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, massed some 67 000 (50 000 infantry, 11 000 cavalry, and 6000 gunners crewing 150 pieces) on a front just four kilometres long on the south side of Mont St Jean, just outside Brussels, Belgium. Several positions in front of the selected frontline was also fortified, including the farmhouse complex and orchard of La Haye Sainte, which was garrisoned with some 400 light infantry of the King’s German Legion (which later settled in the Eastern Cape and accounts for the many German place names there.) The farmhouse complex, consisting of a number of multi-floor structures and a walled courtyard, measures a minuscule 60x80mii. The Hougoumont chateau complex, at the west end of the battlefield, measuring 60x100m contained a battalion reinforced with two additional attached companies in addition to two more companies deployed as skirmishers in the surrounding orchards. As it came under persistent French attack, a further two battalions were rushed there. The French army of Napoleon that attacked that morning mustered 69 000 (48 000 infantry, 14 000 cavalry, and 7000 artillerymen with 250 guns) along an even shorter front.

At 4pm, when Marshal Michel Ney took the French cavalry into a fateful charge, the British infantry responded by forming the then-traditional battalion hollow square. “The unit’s colours and commander were positioned in the centre, along with a reserve force to reinforce any side of the square weakened by attacks. A square of 500 men in four ranks, such as those formed by Wellington’s army at Waterloo, was a tight formation less than twenty metres in length upon any side,” the wikipedia notes.iii “Vulnerable to artillery or infantry, squares that stood their ground were deadly to cavalry, because they could not be outflanked and because horses would not charge into a hedge of bayonets. Wellington ordered his artillery crews to take shelter within the squares as the cavalry approached, and to return to their guns and resume fire as they retreated.”iv On this day cooperation and coordination between the French gunners and cavalry was poor. Even so, it is almost incredible (for the 21st Century observer) to imagine that number of men as well as the gunners from nearby batteries crowded into less than 40 square metres.

This level of concentration, even then dangerous, is inconceivable today. The British campaign in Sudan in 1898 fully illustrated why. At Omdurman, just north of Khartoum, on September 2, a British force of 23 000 faced a force “upwards of 50 000”. according to Roger Ford, in “Machine Gunner: Tales of the Grim Reaper” the British field force of two brigades had at its disposal 10 Maxim machine guns. “There is little doubt that the Anglo-Egyptian Maxims had accounted for a very great number of the Dervish dead (the official account credits them with having inflicted three-quarters of all the casualties), though their ammunition expenditure was low, by later standards: the six Maxims of the 1st British Brigade fired some some 4000 rounds each; the four of the 2nd Brigade some 2500 each.”v

The lesson that survival meant dispersal and that tactics was now the art and science of mustering fire in the face of firestorm, took a while to sink in. Rifle-calibre (RC) and larger “pom-pom” machine guns (the latter today called automatic grenade launchers), bolt-action magazine rifles as well as quick-firing (QF) field guns – all firing smokeless propellent – were used by both sides in the South African War (also known as the [Second] Anglo Boer War), to good effect; the war being “the painful prototype of modern warfare” in the words of author Thomas Pakenhamvi. “… the dominant theme of every battle of the war: invisibility. …this was in the very nature of the new warfare – the warfare of the new, long-range, smokeless magazine rifle. The range of the rifle had spread the battlefield over five or ten miles. This and the fact that the ammunition was smokeless made conventional reconnaissance impossible. The enemy were an army of ghosts. Yet the five-shot Mauser magazine – and the ten-shot British Lee Metford and Lee Enfield – made the fighting doubly real.”vii

In the rush to play homage to the gun – both machine and QF – the battlefield effect of the rifle is often overlooked. “…the competence of British regular soldiers with their rifle was legendary. A trained man could get off as many as twenty aimed shots a minute; the British Army record in 1914 was held by one Sergeant-Instructor Snoxall at the School of Musketry at Hythe in Kent, who got off 38 rounds in one minute, every one of which finished in the inner ring of a four-foot target at 300 yards.”viii

The Boer forces entrenched at the confluence of the Modder and Riet rivers on November 28, 1899, had no RC machine guns – although they had three Maxim “pom-poms” present. Lieutenant General the Lord Paul Sanford Methuen, general officer commanding 1st Division, wrote to his wife “I thought the enemy had cleared off, as did everyone else, whereas Kronje [sic, Piet Cronje, Commandant General of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek, ZAR], De La Ray [sic, Vechtgeneraal – combat general – Jacobus Herculaas “Koos” de la Rey] and 9000 were waiting for me in an awful position. I never saw a Boer, but even at 2000 yards when I rode a horse I had a hail of bullets round me. It seems like Dante’s Inferno out of which we hope some day to emerge.” Author Julian Ralph recorded the sound of several thousand Mausers firing simultaneously was like “the perpetual frying of fat … like the ripping of air like the tearing of some part of nature … hell’s vomit.”ix
For the burghers, the return fire – mostly 15-pounder (76mm) artillery fire – was like “Hell let loose,” as one wrote in his diary. “I could never have realised, nor can one who is not here, what it is like. … For two hour I lie on my stomach making myself as small as possible.” Two weeks later, a repeat performance at the base of Magersfontein koppie: “The Boers waited in their hidden trench till the leading files – A and B companies of the Black Watch – were about 400 yards away. Perhaps they hear the belated command: ‘Open order, march!’ Perhaps they saw the flicker of the bayonets. A single shot from the kopje. Then a river of flame from the trenches, that made one sergeant of the Argylls later say it was as though ‘someone had pressed a button and turned on a million electric lights’. And there was a ‘great roaring in the ears’, as though a dam had burst its walls.”x At the Modder, the British brigades were pinned down under gun and sun or ten hours, at Magersfontein, nine.

Famously, the British were so impressed Boer musketry that it became a focus of their post-war training – with considerable success: “Certainly at Mons [the first engagement between British and German forces in WW1], German troops who came under sustained rifle fire from British veterans were convinced that they were actually under fire from machine-guns, and inflated their estimates of the number of automatic weapons fielded against them as a consequence…”xi The German experience of automatic weapons started as late as 1899 when the Army placed its first quantity order with Hiram Maxim for a number of his machine guns, adopted as the MG99. With modifications, the licenced version became the MG01 and a later variant, the MG08. Germany went into WW1 with 4900 of the weapons. Britain, by contrast, fielded just 108 – mostly 1893-pattern Enfield-made Maxims, with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) sent to France.

Here, the machine gun, along with barbed wire, rifles, QF guns, mortars, grenades, flares, telephones and all the other hideous apparatus of industrial war, the two sides, similarly armed, had fought each other to a standstill by December 1914. By then trench fighting – a form of siege warfare involving opposing field fortifications – had set in. The results of this is still seared in the popular memory and mythology, no event the more so than the opening morning of the “Somme offensive” on July 1, 1916. “The troops lay on the ground 100 yards forward of their own trenches until the whistles blew, when they got up and advanced up a gentle incline towards the German lines along the ridge, 150 yards to their front, Gordon Corrigan writes of the advance of the 31st Division towards Serre on the northern flank of the “big push.”

“They moved through a smokescreen, which was quickly blown away by the breeze. The British artillery had to lift, and once it did so the Germans, far less mauled than had been thought or hoped, began to man their trenches, Gordon Corrigan writes in Mud, Blood and Poppycock, Britain and the First World War. Machine guns were brought up from underground bunkers on wooden sleds, and before the British had advanced more than 50 yards or so, the killing began. It was sudden and horrific. Men who got as far as the German wire found that it was uncut, and moved along it to find a gap. Since the wire was so laid to channel attackers into killing areas, men crowding together in an attempt to get through were easy targets for the German machine guns and trench mortars, now free from the attentions of the British artillery. There were two regiments (six battalions in German terms) defending Serre, and at least 10 machine guns that had escaped the bombardment. The first attacking wave was all but wiped out, while the second, third and fourth waves hardly got off the ground.”xii

Further south, near Fricourt, in the attack sector of the 21st Division, the later military theorist and writer, Basil Liddell Hart, then a company second-in-command with the 9th Battalion, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, likely only survived because of his position he was “one of a small nucleus of officers held in immediate reserve, together with an assorted group of cooks and bottle-washers, ready to carry on in the unimaginable event that the others were knocked out. This precaution almost certainly saved his life.”xiii
Both the Germans and the Anglo-French Entente eventually found ways around the impasse, returning a measure of mobility to the battlefield in early 1918, although by then the BEF alone had 71 350 Vickers-model Maxims, 133 000 Lewis guns and 35 000 French-made Hotchkiss. In contrast to Waterloo, the battalion frontage – if strong resistance was expected, was now up to 700m per battalion and 400m for a company. Against light resistance, a battalion would be stretched 1200m per battalion and 600m for a company. In either case, in daytime, the battalion would have a depth of 2000m. At night, in the era before thermal imagers and battlefield surveillance radars – this depth could be reduced to 1000m, while on dark nights frontages were collapsed to 400m maximum per battalion and 200m per company. In defence, dispersal mandated a frontage of 1800m for the battalion – at full strength – and 800m for the company.

i Chris Cook & John Stevenson, Weapons of War, Artus, London, 1980, p8.

ii Wikipedia, Battle of Waterloo, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Waterloo, accessed March 23, 2011.

iii Wikipedia, Infantry square, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infantry_square, accessed March 25, 2011.

iv Wikipedia, Battle of Waterloo, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Waterloo, accessed March 25, 2011.

v Roger Ford, Machine Gunner: Tales of the Grim Reaper, Pan Books, London, 1997, p53.

vi Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War, Weidenfeld and Nicholson Limited, London, 1979. Reprinted by Jonathan Ball Publishers, Jeppestown, Johannesburg, 1998, p346.

vii Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War, Weidenfeld and Nicholson Limited, London, 1979. Reprinted by Jonathan Ball Publishers, Jeppestown, Johannesburg, 1998, p179.

viii Roger Ford, Machine Gunner: Tales of the Grim Reaper, Pan Books, London, 1997, p98.

ix Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War, Weidenfeld and Nicholson Limited, London, 1979. Reprinted by Jonathan Ball Publishers, Jeppestown, Johannesburg, 1998, pp195-6.

x Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War, Weidenfeld and Nicholson Limited, London, 1979. Reprinted by Jonathan Ball Publishers, Jeppestown, Johannesburg, 1998, p204.

xi Roger Ford, Machine Gunner: Tales of the Grim Reaper, Pan Books, London, 1997, p98.

xii Gordon Corrigan, Mud, Blood and Poppycock, Britain and the First World War, Cassell, London, 2003, pp265-6.

xiii Alex Danchev, The Alchemist of War, The life of Basil Liddell Hart, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1998, p53.