Modern Weaponry of WWI
Black and white photograph of a group of men pulling and pushing a field gun.

World War I was a war of artillery - The Big Guns. Rolling barrages destroyed the earth of France and Belgium and the lives of many. Millions of shells were fired in single battles, with one million shells alone fired by the Germans at the French Army in the first day at the 1916 battle of Verdun, France.

Sephia photograph of two soldiers in a muddy trench operating a short stubby trench gun.
A German 24.5cm trench mortar being used by French soldiers in a trench on the Somme front, 1917. Learn more in the Online Collections Database.

Different types of weapons made up the artillery of WWI. Guns had a long barrel and shot almost directly at their target. Howitzers had a shorter barrel and a fired their projectiles in a curved trajectory. Mortars had a short barrel, a higher curved trajectory and were mainly placed in trenches.

Soldiers surrounding a long, thin howitzer gun in a grassy dip. One soldier is loading ammunition into the business end of the gun.
Soldiers loading a 155mm Howitzer near Meuse, France, 1918. Learn more in the Online Collections Database.

60% of the battlefield casualties in WWI were caused by artillery shells exploding. Shrapnel wounds were particularly brutal for soldiers. The word ‘shrapnel’ comes from the small lead balls placed in an artillery shell that would spread out over the battlefield when exploded. It was named for English officer Henry Shrapnel, who invented the design in the late 18th century.

Soldiers gathered around a large mortar gun in a snowy field.
Austrian soldiers closing a 30.5cm mortar after loading it, circa 1914-1915. Learn more in the Online Collections Database.

Artillery was more destructive than ever before. The largest bore of an artillery piece in WWI (‘bore’ meaning the diameter of the barrel or tube) was on the French 520mm. (French artillery was always pointed toward Germany - even in practice.) The Big Bertha was a German 420mm howitzer, named for a family member of the Krupp Arms manufacturer. A shell hole left by a 15 cm ‘Jack Johnson’ (a German howitzer named after the famous boxer Jack Johnson because of its ‘punch’) had a diameter of 28 feet across and roughly 6 feet deep in the center.

Soldiers under fire could identify artillery by specific noises they made: One combatant noted that the French 75mm gun had a “sharp decisive note … which speaks quickly and in anger.” Soldiers also spoke of the “peculiar crack, crack they make.” The German 105mm howitzer was called a whizzbang. British soldiers said, “If you happened to be near the receiving end, you first heard the thing burst, then the whizz of its approach and lastly the boom of the gun that fired it.”

Sephia photograph of a construction site. Two cranes and scaffolding surround a house-sized gun.
Erecting a 16 inch gun in trunnion. A caption on the back of the photograph reads: "Weight of gun 344000 pounds / Weight of projectile 2340 pounds / Weight of powder charge 850 pounds / Range 45000 yards". Learn more in the Online Collections Database.