The organisation of a RFA Field Gun Battery in 1918
The detailed nature of Impey’s diary offers many clues which explain how a field battery operated based on his own personal experience as a Battery Officer of ‘A’ Battery, 79th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery and, for a short time before the armistice, also Acting Battery Commander of ‘C’ Battery of the same Brigade. The typical establishment of a six gun 18 pounder battery was 198 men broken down as follow:
Major or Captain in command
Captain as second-in-command
3 Lieutenants or Second Lieutenants in charge of two gun sections
Battery Quartermaster Sergeant
4 shoeing smiths (one a corporal)
10 gunners acting as batmen
Battery operation can be broken down into the following aspects:
The three elements were usually strung out over some distance, perhaps 5 miles, and each could be subjected to enemy counter-battery shelling.
The usual officer establishment for a six gun battery was five and Arthur Impey complains when illness or injury leaves him stretched with only one other officer apart from himself. When in action he spends a large proportion of his time going forward to reconnoitre the enemy-held land ahead, seeking out infantry or brigade infantry headquarters for liaison work as well as finding good battery positions as the advance continued. To spend a day with the actual guns was regarded as a noteworthy event. For example on October 24 he wrote “I rode off at the head of the battery for once”. He usually went forward with another officer, a sergeant and signallers whose vital role was to lay telephone wire to enable forward observation to communicate with the battery itself as well as Brigade HQ. Most of the time he goes forward on horseback riding his own horse,Hector, but there were times when he had no alternative but to walk. On September 3 he went forward just as it was getting light and when a horse was not available. He later regretted that he had a three and a half mile walk back to the battery.
Enemy shelling could break the telephone wire in which case slower visual communication was used such as a ‘winking lamp’ and flags. On August 25 he records that he “got the guns on somehow by a compass and flag signalling”. He always had to set out with the ‘necessary instruments’which would include his field glasses. Sometimes he saw opportunities from an OP but did not have a ‘wire back’ or ‘visual’ which resulted in frustration.
“It was maddening for lack of a telephone wire I missed one of the best chances I ever had of really driving the Huns back. They were spread over such a wide front and directly one shelled in one place up they came in another – Presently I got a message from Jimmy by runner to come back so, still feeling savage, I returned and was told to take charge of the battery whilst the others went on to find a place for a forward section” (September 4)
Equally it could be frustrating to have a ‘wire’ up to the Observation Post but no communication as the guns themselves were moving forward into position.
“Left H to get the battery in when it came and,returning to the OP, found the wire installed. But it was maddening to have no Battery as, whilst I was waiting, a party of about 100 Huns got up from shell holes and walked slowly back across the slope of the hillside opposite, disappeared amongst some cottages in the outskirts of Wallincourt, the village immediately in front. Only one battery fired at them and he made a rotten job of it, not getting a single shell amongst them - a priceless opportunity missed. Just at 3.00 the battery arrived and I got off the first shot within an hour of giving cease fire at the position 3 ½ miles back which pleased me immensely”.
One of the functions of establishing a forward OP (Observation Post) was being able to register on some kind of landmark like a church spire or even a telegraph pole. Such readings would save time when guns were called into action and needed to assess the range of their shells onto a particular target. On October 10 he was able to register on an aerodrome which was marked on the map”. Help was also available.
“Can see Gonnelieu held by Huns so I registered the Battery from the mess on some trees which the Field Survey people have located as being in Gonnelieu Cemetery” (September 21)
“Far away to the left, just visible, sticking through the trees, was a domed tower. I took a compass bearing to it and made it out to be Le Quesnoy church”. (October 24)
“in spite of bad visibility managed to check my line on Futoy church spire which was a satisfaction” (October 30)
“Berlaimont church could just be seen through the mist and rain and I laid out my lines on that” (November 6)
When looking for a good position for the guns when they were called forward Impey was always mindful that flash cover was essential to avoid counter-battery fire from the Germans. A sunken road or below a bank would be ideal. The guns might also need to be ‘dug in’ to improve existing cover by working parties from the men. The ideal place for forward observation was near a crest of a ridge which was possible if the landscape was a suitably ‘rolling’ one.
“We decided to go further forward onto the next crest, which we did, moving freely in the open without drawing any fire. From a trench the other side of the next crest we got an extraordinarily fine view of miles and miles of Hun country but not a sign of movement”. (September 22)
He did not find this possible when near Limont-Fontaine just before the Armistice.
“Observation was impossible owing to the enclosed nature of the country”. (November 8)
Visibility was also important so adverse weather conditions were unhelpful. Improved visibility could lead to the kind of frustrations which he described on October 8…
“Arrived at the OP. I found Tim bubbling over with excitement. He slapped me on the back and told me I’d missed the chance of my life. Whilst I was away visibility had improved, revealing the movement as a Hun battery complete with teams, waiting on the hillside for somebody to have a shot at them. We’d worked out angle and range before and he put in as many salvoes as he could. They fled in great disorder, leaving two somethings behind them. Whether guns or wagons we couldn’t see and never afterwards found out but they must have lost their bearings very badly to stay in a place like that and I hope we made them pay for it”.
On September 25 he defined what he was looking for…
“Have to reconnoitre forward position so looked for a place with flash cover, near some sort of dugout and without too many new shell holes around it”.
In trying to establish a new position which might have been used by the advancing 3rd Army Infantry or, more likely, left by the retreating Germans, Impey would chalk ‘A79’ or ‘C79’ on everything he could or have boards pre-prepared for, as he commented, ‘decourager les autres’. This was not always successful and upon return to the same place later he occasionally found himself involved in territorial disputes with other units. A classic example took place on October 16-17.
“Arriving at the new position I found a group of strange officers right in the middle of my position. We talked rather stickily as I knew well enough what they wanted i.e. to bag my position. lt was the 21st Artillery. They were moving forward too. I told them it was my position but they seemed to think they had been allotted the area. We left it at that arranging to settle the matter by referring it to our respective Brigades".
October 17 - "Move cancelled. I couldn't get a decision on the point of my position so went up to meet my opponents on the ground in dispute. They produced their Colonel which made it heavy odds against me and he put up his Major, (a heavy browed old fellow) whom I remembered taking over a position from before the Somme show in 16, to argue it out who claimed my actual site. We were but distantly polite and I made as much as I could of the fact that I'd already got 3000 rounds on the position. However, couldn’t get round the fact that it really was in the area allotted to them by the Corps, which I hadn't known when I went there first, and finally the Colonel, who was a really good fellow, gave his Major the option of going to my alternative position 400 yards further back or taking over the forward position with my ammunition and carting 3000 rounds up to the rear position for me. He chose the forward position and we parted, not exactly friends, but I think with enhanced mutual respect”.
The battery itself consisted of six 18 pounder field guns – the workhorse gun of the British Army. Forward observation was the servant of firing all guns or a section of guns on enemy targets. The battery engaged in different kinds of fire on a range of different types of target. The bread and butter task was the firing of a creeping barrage to support infantry attacks. Although a barrage could be ordered by Brigade at short notice many were pre-planned to coincide with dawn infantry attacks as part of either small-scale or large scale advances. On October 22 a barrage was fired from 2.00 a.m. for six hours.
Battery positions were established on the basis of reconnoitring forward but sometimes Brigade issued orders with map references for specific locations. If it was likely that the gun battery would move forward after firing a barrage,arrangements had to be made to bring the teams of horses forward from a rear position further back. When the guns were established in a new position the horses had to be ‘got away’ as a matter of urgency.
When orders arrived at the battery for a pre-planned attack Impey usually had the task of reworking them so they could be issued to all the parts of the battery organisation. On October 7 the orders were highly complicated and he recorded “two hours work at least to write my own orders”. A new set of orders might include new maps. On one occasion on October 9 he recorded ‘I sat up till 10 colouring the contours of a new map”. Lessons had also been learnt from the Battle of the Somme in 1916. For example on October 19 Impey knew there was to be an attack the next morning so at 10 p.m. the night before an orderly officer arrived to check the time “so as not to give the attack away by the Huns listening in on the wires”. Sadly this officer, King, was badly wounded after he left Impey and later died.
Also part of the staple diet of battery work was harassing or intermittent fire. This was particularly directed at enemy movement or to make movement difficult or impossible. Such fire was mainly opportunistic e.g. on August 26 “open fire with sights on a road – saw Huns moving about”. Buildings, particularly farms, were also targets as they might offer cover to the other side. Impey records on September 29 putting a stop to movement by “sniping everything we saw”. On August 29 the guns were firing on the valleys behind the ‘Hun front line’ presumably to prevent reinforcement after an infantry attack. Harassing fire was often throughout the night. On September 1 night firing used up 400 rounds on land behind Le Transloy. Again on October 2 “night firing every night consists of about 200 rounds on roads, trench junctions etc”. This was an important task as the Germans just like the British used the cover of the dark to move fresh supplies up to the front. Picking out little groups of German infantry Impey termed ‘sniping’. On August 30 there was shooting at Huns running in and out of huts in Le Transloy. On October 2 he was happy when the enemy “kept re-appearing in a very sporting manner”.
On September 2…
“I had some rather nice shooting at Huns running from shell hole to shell hole in the open country behind the Sugar refinery at Le Transloy. One party of 3 chased into a hole in the ground and then got two guns right onto it. After 5 rounds, 2 Huns got up and ran like hares. I had a few shots at them but missed. I had hopes though that the third was accounted for”.
Counter-battery work was also very important and on October 10 he enjoyed “chasing ammunition wagons along the road”.
Some targets were opportunistic, often when a section of two guns or a single gun had gone forward ahead of the rest of the battery. On August 27 with others he ran a gun forward by hand to the top of a crest to fire at will. On October 7 orders came to cut gaps by shelling the barbed wire in front by dusk. This was not always effective. On October 7 he wrote that “We hadn’t produced any very visible effect on the wire. It would have taken days to do that but these days the morale effect of firing a few hundred shells at wire seems to have the desired results”. On October 8 the Battery was given two tasks – “my job besides the barrage was to support the right battalion in case they had any trouble”. This might require the targeting of German machine gun posts. On the same day “About 9 o’clock (morning) I saw a light winking from a slit in the ground in some rising ground about 2000 yards in front, evidently a Hun OP signalling back to their infantry, so I turned a couple of guns on that and got some shells very close. In about a minute two Huns scrambled out and ran away back as fast as they could. I chased them out of sight but so far as I could see I didn’t bag either of them”.
On October 9 Impey pushed forward with one gun, two wagons, and other men all on horses intent on taking on “anything I saw”.
A good example of an opportunistic intervention came on the same day when again a single gun went into action after Impey saw Germans in a column on a hillside in the distance.
“Dropped gun into action behind a hedge and, standing 200 yards behind on the reverse slope, could still see my Huns so gave my orders from there and had the satisfaction of seeing my first shot within 300 yards for range, tried another and got into them”.
On August 27 he wrote about the following incident….
“Looking through my glasses at the ground in front I searched the stables and all around them but not a sign of a Hun could I see. So I looked further back and got really excited for I saw a Hun machine gun crew serving their gun in what looked like a shallow trench about 200 yards behind the stables. I rushed to ‘1’ but he couldn’t see them so he handed over another gun he’d got further forward to me and told me to carry on. The gun was in a sunken road and the bank just got in the way of the target so I had a few shots at the bank first about 50 yards away, blew a chunk of it out, and then with 1000 yards range on, had a shot at the Huns whom I could still see clearly. The first went about 20 yards right but they were good-plucked ones and took no notice. The second hit the bank just under the gun and shifted it a bit. That made them think and they disappeared in the trench. The third hit the far side of the trench, plumb for line, an H.E., and it must have done some damage but couldn’t see clearly for smoke and dust. But just afterwards I saw 2 men scrambling out of the trench and running to cover. They disappeared before I could get one in at them but certainly one machine gun the less was firing”.
On October 10 he described another opportunistic incident…
“About 11 o'clock I saw a flash come out of a hedge, behind the road from Neuvilly to Solesmes and, presently, another, followed by a regular succession of them. Evidently a section of a Hun battery -couldn't actually see the guns , which were behind the hedge, but I got the place marked down to a yard, got all the guns on and proceeded to register each gun in turn, putting 3 of my guns on each of the Huns. lt was very easy registration, 5000 odd yards range and when I'd got all the guns registered I fired every round of HE we'd got in the battery at them, over 400. In some ways it was disappointing, each shell could be seen and they all fell well into the position but no ammunition went up and the only visible result was one detachment rushing for cover, quite early on, and presently a mounted orderly galloping off back, presumably for teams but I knew they could never get away in daylight and not unnaturally they never fired again that day or after. I think we must have done some damage, but it was impossible to tell and I never had the chance afterwards to go and see”.
Impey was always pleased to witness the results of battery fire on the spot instead of from a distance. On September 3 there was a “good sprinkling of dead Huns lay about which spoke well for our barrage the night before”. On October 8 he was able to walk forward to “shallow trench about 2 feet deep, one that we bombarded at 9 this morning in our barrage with a few dead Huns left in it for luck to show how well we did our job”.
Another source of forward information in addition to what was coming back from OPs or from Brigade HQ or infantry was that obtained from RAF reconnaissance. Also on October 8 Impey returned to the battery with Tim and found it “firing at some targets an aeroplane had sent down”. Impey clearly saw the value of such liaison for he had attended an Artillery/RFC Co-ordination School near Winchester earlier that year whilst recovering from his accident. When he joined 79th Brigade in August the battery was in continuous action right through to the Armistice except for a short break for three full days from October 26 to October 28 when the battery went back 15 miles to Clary. Here he went off with ‘1’ to visit a nearby aerodrome at Bertry to look up an old friend who was a wing commander and was taken for a flight over the front line on the 28th in an RE8 reconnaisance plane.
One of the problems faced by a battery in action was to keep the logistical side of each element in harmony. On October 9, a day of significant advance Impey noted that ‘1’ had appeared and told him to prepare to start half an hour before dawn the next day. He commented that “for certain there would be no further move that night, supplies and ammunition were getting so far behind”. Progress could also be restricted by problems of movement such as having to bridge canals and rivers and badly cratered roads. A good example of the latter was a big traffic jam which built up around the Forest of Mormal on November 5 caused by a huge crater in the road 60 feet wide with marshy land on one side and thick forest on the other. General heavy going was also a difficulty; double teams were needed on the guns in such circumstances.
It can be said that Impey was a disciplined and cautious officer who on at least one occasion was worried that he might have exceeded his orders. On October 9 he was worried that he had a lost a gun. He found it in the middle of a turnip field about one mile ahead. A young infantry Major had asked Mathieson to bring the gun forward “as he’d seen a Hun gun flash in the distance and wanted to take it on”. Impey told the Major to take his own guns on a wild goose chase in future and wrote that he thought Mathieson was a fool for allowing it to happen as it was almost dark and the range could not be guessed to with six miles.
Another example can be found in the entry for October 9 when Impey witnessed another battery in action.
“As we walked forward,under cover,there was plenty of incident. On the crest in front a gun suddenly appeared with its team, dropped into action, evidently right in the open. It looked risky and sure enough in less than a minute a shell dropped near it, another and then 3 more, one right on top of it. Before it had fired more than 3 rounds it was out of action. I heard later that the subaltern was killed and the entire detachment wounded, a useless sacrifice”.
The following day another incident occurred. Someone else’s single gun appeared on top of the crest near him in an exposed position. Four German shells put it out action with a Sergeant killed and the gun smashed. Impey felt that both incidents with ‘no advantage gained at all should prove to the Hot Heads that there are times when open sights do not pay”.
Counter-battery work was one of the tasks of any field gun battery at this time. Equally his own battery was subject to enemy attack. He records narrow escapes for himself and others and the constant worry about shelling, including the German use of gas. The Germans used both harassing and concentrated fire to give his battery a ‘dirty time’. On August 28 tear gas blew into the battery position to make the men sneeze and weep. On September 27 mustard gas had to be contended with and phosgene gas on the following day. Impey was always concerned that the men used masks as soon as possible.
“There were fresh shell holes round the battery and between the battery and the mess so the shelling I heard last night was nearer than I thought. Then I smelt mustard strong and going in amongst the guns much stronger. No one had masks on. It dawned on me that what had happened was that last night’s show was a heavy concentration of mustard gas right into the battery, which hadn’t made itself felt when they started firing as the sun hadn’t got to work on it and now they didn’t notice it as it had come on so gradually. I noticed it, of course, as I’d come into it from pure air at a later stage. I had gas masks on everyone immediately and had a devil of a job to make them keep them on but I was very firm and cursed 2 officers and the senior NCO to the point of frightening them as we couldn’t afford gas casualties and I got an orderly to work with chloride of lime, sprinkling it in all the shell holes”. (September 27)
The wagon lines were not exempt even though they might have been some miles behind the front line. On October 10 the battery was enfiladed during an attack going forward as their left flank had become exposed. This put at risk all six guns and six wagons together with horse teams.
On September 11 Impey confessed that “I am having a quiet time. I go every day up to the Battery where they hardly get shelled at all. Only in the evenings he puts gas shell on the roads. Back at wagon lines he shells in the mornings with a high velocity gun all over the place, getting a few horses sometimes but none of ours”. Two days later he reinforced this point.
“Still a quiet life at Wagon lines, the line in front stationary with no marked activity on either side. I spend the days occupied with the stale old routine – inspection parade, finding grazing for the horses, stables, arranging baths for the men, visits to adjacent friends with odd rubbers of bridge and a duty call daily to the battery founded on the well-learnt knowledge that people at the battery always think the worst of the wagon lines because they are 2 miles further from the Hun. In point of fact, here we got more shelling in the Wagon lines than they do at the Battery. Every morning the countryside is sprayed over with High Velocity shells lasting an hour or so. So far we have escaped but it’s purely a gamble and no knowing when one will turn up. As a precaution I’ve moved the horses behind a bank of rubble from the canal cutting which we are first in front of”.
The luck of September 11 could not hold for ever. Three days later…
“Bad luck today. A shell fell right into the middle of our grazing horses, killing 5 and wounding 8. By great good luck no drivers wounded and the vet came along and fixed up the wounded very well. Just bad luck and no use in stopping grazing. We are just as likely to get a shell in the lines”.
The new subaltern, Second Lieutenant Edington, also had an unlucky first day in action with Arthur Impey’s battery on November 2….
“E came in after dark with his party, he'd had bad luck for his first day in action, 2 men wounded and one killed. The Huns had shelled the place all day, off and on. It must have been very nasty”.
November 4th was another bad day….
“Just as dawn was breaking I went over towards the battery to have a look round and met Hollingworth. He looked, upset and told me that Mathieson and 5 out of the 6 No’s 1 in charge of the guns had been wounded and 4 men from the detachments too, pretty bad. We could only just manage to carry on. I was astounded. I had been within 150 yards of the battery all the time and never knew they were being shelled even. There was so much row from the batteries behind and all round us that you couldn't tell the difference between the sound of our guns and Hun shells. I went straight over to the battery, almost losing my way en route. You couldn't see a yard because of the thick mist. There I found everyone most cheerful. Mathieson with a broad grin on his face told me he had a splinter through his arm. 3 of the Nos 1, rather badly hit, were lying on stretchers waiting to be carried away. The other 2, hit in the arms and legs, refused to leave till the barrage was over and were carrying on, patched up with bandages” .
Enemy planes could also create danger as on October 7.
“Bad luck in the night. Just at dawn a Hun bombing plane came over low and dropped one within 3 yards of No.1 Gun, badly wounding the 4 men who were serving it. First casualties we’ve had since I took the battery over, bar gas, so I can’t complain. Fortunately the gun escaped”.
Impey does not have much to say about the wagon lines as he was more likely to be going forward than well to the rear. The wagon lines were responsible for the supply of ammunition when required by the battery as well as care of the horses so that they could be brought forward to move the guns when needed. Care of the horses meant choosing positions with good grazing and water supply, even if, on occasion, water was used from shell holes. Shelter from shelling was also important. The wagon lines were also targets for German counter-battery fire as we have seen. On October 19 he rode down to the wagon lines on a rare visit “where they were bivouacing in the open as usual”. The scale of the operation was shown on October 22 when the Sergeant Major brought 2000 rounds forward during the day for a barrage the next morning in the absence of an officer (at a time when the battery was reduced to two officers) and through “appallingly heavy going”.
On October 7 Impey recorded some of the difficulties involved as follows…
“After dinner at the battery I had a look at the ammunition position again and found it to be a pretty tough proposition. Tim had to get up 36 wagon loads before dawn and, as a lot of it had to be fetched from the position before the last, the night was so dark that one couldn’t see 2 yards, and there was a steady misty drizzle. I did not envy either him or his drivers their job, especially as the way to this position was through the maze of barbed wire and trenches forming the support system of the Hindenburg line”.
Impey recorded the sequel to this incident…
“so I settled down to it, being interrupted every quarter of an hour or so by reports of ammunition having arrived, generally accompanied by a mournful tale of one or two wagons having got hopelessly ditched or lost the way altogether. And by 3 o’clock, so far as I could make out, I had 4 wagons wandering about by themselves between the battery and the wagon lines, with not a hope in hell of finding anything till dawn. Very nasty for them but I could do nothing to help them as zero hour was 4.0 a.m. and I had to go to the OP as soon as it got light. At 3.30 dear old Tim appeared, wet, tired and smiling, with the report that all the ammunition was up and the lost ones found. How the devil he did it I couldn’t make out but it was a damned good bit of work and rather nice of him to push through the night to come up and see me”.
Moving the wagons forward a month later was another difficult task…
“About 1 a.m. the Sergeant Major appeared with the rations and 11 loads of ammunition. He had lost one load at the pontoon bridge where he said there was appalling confusion. He had lost one wagon which got stuck with 2 wheels over the edge and the Traffic Officer had tried to shoot the team straight off to avoid delay but he’d managed to get him to let him get the horses unhooked, so had saved them but the wagon went into the river. The traffic officer he said was standing there, revolver in hand, shooting all the teams that blocked the bridge and I gathered the impression that the river was full of dead horses and abandoned ammunition wagons. Exaggerated no doubt but it was very comforting to get ammunition and rations for another 24 hours and the BSM had done well as usual; he had a good stiff one and I sent him back with orders to get all the wagon lines our side of the river first thing in the morning and to warn all our firing battery teams to be up with us at dawn”.
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Copyright © Alan Tucker, February, 2009.
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