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  • A Question About Smoke

    I've never found much in my readings about this subject. Given the disastrous failures of the huge preliminary bombardments that preceeded the various assaults on the Front, why wasn't smoke used to cloak the advancing infantry?

  • #2
    This is a good point. In naval warfare, from the arrival of the destroyers in a battle fleet, smoke laying was one of their tasks. This was to conceal the main battle fleet. This was true in the Russo-Japanese war, also. That is the battles of the Yellow Sea and Tsushima, where smokelaying was first used.

    One of the reasons why the poison gas attacks in WWI worked was they it blinded the observers. The stuff was poisonous beyond belief (phosgene gas, Cl3P=O). You could use a gas mask but your vision was limited, since you could not fully man your sensing equipment, with a gas mask on. A smoke screen worked well both in the naval as well as the land war environment.
    When looking for the reason why things go wrong, never rule out stupidity, Murphy's Law Nº 8
    Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. George Santayana
    "Ach du schwein" a German parrot captured at Bukoba GEA the only prisoner taken

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    • #3
      Hi All
      I think you will find that 'smoke' was used, to a greater or lesser extent and effectiveness' throughout much of the war. A book by Martin Davies 'Conceal, Create, Confuse', Spellmount 2009, mentions the use when used not only in actual attacks but also in 'Chinese Attacks' (sham attack).
      Also the use of smoke for the British was laid down in SS.175 'The Use of Smoke' (August 1917, there may have been other editions), I expect the French, Germans etc. would have had similar. Also late in the war the RFC/RAF dropped 'smoke bombs' to create tactical smoke screens on the Western Front. In Palestine a container (fitted to an aircraft) that carried 60 'smoke bombs' (or 120 Mills Bombs) was used to create smoke.
      Of course it appears in 1918 that 'Mist' provided a very good 'smoke screen' for both the Germans and the 'Allies', although it also could hinder your own air support missions.
      I think I remember that Gas and smoke shells would be fired together before an attack and then replaced to just smoke, but those on the receiving end would still put on their gas masks because the mix is what they expected.

      Mike

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      • #4
        The need for smoke shells was formally raised by the BEF in summer 1915, however the issue was bound up with the need for incendiary ammo as a response to German use of gas.. Initial work was with Red Phos, but this quickly changed to WP and in Sep 1916 the BEF requested and received 4.5-in How WP smoke shells, 18-pr ammo followed a few months later. That said masses of HE and shrapnel bursts also created a lot of smoke due to the nature of the explosives used in WW1.

        Your remarks about preliminary bombardment are confused and a tad underinformed. The purpose of the preliminary bombardment was to destroy structures, it was also used pre-Zero for counter-battery fire with air observation. It was not designed for suppression (neutralisation in the terminology of the time) this was the role of the barrage (except CB fire), with shrapnel particularly favoured because it kept the enemy well below their trench parapets and allowed the advancing troops to keep quite close to it.

        In both world wars (from about autumn 1915 onwards) neutralisation was the primary close support role of UK artillery. This was not so in US. Smoke is non-lethal neutralisation, by 'blinding' the enemy it prevents them delivering aimed direct fire, which is what they presumably want to do.

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        • #5
          Originally posted by Soothesayer View Post
          The need for smoke shells was formally raised by the BEF in summer 1915, however the issue was bound up with the need for incendiary ammo as a response to German use of gas.. Initial work was with Red Phos, but this quickly changed to WP and in Sep 1916 the BEF requested and received 4.5-in How WP smoke shells, 18-pr ammo followed a few months later. That said masses of HE and shrapnel bursts also created a lot of smoke due to the nature of the explosives used in WW1.

          Your remarks about preliminary bombardment are confused and a tad underinformed. The purpose of the preliminary bombardment was to destroy structures, it was also used pre-Zero for counter-battery fire with air observation. It was not designed for suppression (neutralisation in the terminology of the time) this was the role of the barrage (except CB fire), with shrapnel particularly favoured because it kept the enemy well below their trench parapets and allowed the advancing troops to keep quite close to it.

          In both world wars (from about autumn 1915 onwards) neutralisation was the primary close support role of UK artillery. This was not so in US. Smoke is non-lethal neutralisation, by 'blinding' the enemy it prevents them delivering aimed direct fire, which is what they presumably want to do.
          I appreciate sll of the answers thus far.

          For SS: I aware of a great deal about the so-called barrages. What you are speaking about is a late innovation called the "walking barrage", designed to advance before the infantry in order to suppress the enemy for as long as possible. The sheer number of casualties taken by the British and French is ample testimony to the ineffectiveness of these tactics.

          As for artillery being intended to destroy structures, the only "structures" were trenches themselves, and the barbed wire aprons spread before the trench lines. This didn't work for the Allies, either. The Germans simply waited out the bombardments and then returned to their trenches to begin killing he Amis as usual.

          British shells were highly ineffective for destroying wire, especially the shrapnel shells. HE shells were usually fused for airburst, and therefore did little to no damage to the wire, either. Only surface-impact-fused HE was of any use to clear paths through the wire entanglements, and it took the Brits and the French far too long to figure that out.

          And finally, the bombardments themselves served as ample waring to the enemies of both sides that an attack was eminent. The British enjoyed greater success when they skipped the preliminary bombardment.

          Coming back around to the OP, it therefore seems reasonable for both sides to have used great deal more smoke to at least screen the movements of the infantry and give them a chance, yet film footage from the period shows nothing of the sort. Instead, we see image after image of troops advancing across broken ground in clear site of enemy trenches and machine guns.


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          • #6
            Hey Mountain Man.
            I've often wondered about that myself.
            I came to a few possibly erroneous conclusions:

            Firstly,
            Smoke doesn't just confound and confuse the enemy,at a time when radio was in its infancy,smoke would have made the Brigade and Divisional commanders task of defining the position of friendly forces virtually unworkable.This is obviously very important.

            Secondly,
            friendly troops in the smoke would become disoriented very quickly and may attack the wrong enemy position if at all.
            This could leave enemy positions unscathed when the smoke clears.

            Thirdly,
            Smoke only provides cover from view and it would indicate to the enemy that an attack is imminent in a way that a H.E barrage would not.
            The enemy can still fire his M.Gs on fixed lines and call artillery down on to likely avenues of approach.

            Fourth,
            Perhaps the generals preferred bangs to plops.

            Comment


            • #7
              I think flash rounds it up nicely. Due to the tactical character of the front, smoke could very much be a double edged sword. Much of the problems encountered on the front were due to C4 issues endemic to that character. Smoke would only worsen the use of heliographic/semaphore signals for the attackers and use of observation equipment at lower command levels. Radio sets were often useless below corps level and could only be adequately used in the defensive. This meant in the attack messengers and visual signals methods of communication to corps level and above were of great importance, levels of command which would be essential in offensives of anything approaching the scale needed to make use of them. According to Tuck and, I think, Terraine, control was severely reduced as soon as men left their own lines, smoke I think, would be likely to add to the resulting fog of war, further hampering the offensive. The communication problem so severely effected the offensive to begin with. By 1917 gunnery science had come along in leaps and bounds, wire cutting and counter-battery fire was evident whereas in 1915 is was more or less rudimentary pummelling (Terraine and Sheffield). ‘From 1917 indirect artillery fire enabled decentralised combined-arms combat teams of infantry to seize and hold bite-sized chunks of the enemy’s defended zone' - Luriapolis in Sheffield (I only have Sheffield and Terraine here as I'm not doing WWI right now)
              But this was still burdened by the same frustrations endemic to the large offensive of the time. So it is possible that we will never work out the solution of attack over defence in this scenario, save the destruction of the German Army in the field during the Spring Offensive.
              ------
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              • #8
                Hi All
                Paddy Griffith's 'Battle Tactics of the Western Front' has some mention on Smoke use by the British Army (pages 140-142, includes a table showing use). Smoke appears to be increasingly used during 1917 and 1918. Griffith states:
                "...smoke shell could be added to a creeping barrage to help hide the infantry advancing behind it, or it could be concentrated very precisely on a flank to blind an overwatching machine gun."
                Also:
                "By 1918 both smoke and gas shells were being very extensively exploited by tacticians, and it is likely that they would have occupied an even greater proportion of shells fired in 1919, if the war had continued that long."
                and:
                "By the end of 1917 it was normal for a creeping barrage to contain roughly one third shrapnel, one third HE and one third - or usually rather less - smoke."
                Smoke was used, for instance - Pointe du Jour, 9 April 17, supporting 9 Div. 25% of shells smoke, this was the creeper with smoke.
                Cambrai, 20 Nov. 17, 4th Army 33.3% smoke, the first predicted barrage (lifting not creeping) with new phases marked by salvoes of 100% smoke.
                Meteren, 19 July 18, 9 Div. 25% smoke (left variable up to last moment depending on wind speed).
                Meteren, 18 Aug 18, 9 Div, 100% smoke, reduced to 25% after first minute.
                Meaulte, 22 Aug 18, 12 Div. 7% smoke.
                Chuignolles, 23 Aug 18, Australian 1 Div. 10% smoke.
                Boyelles, 23 Aug 18, VI Corps. 16% smoke.
                Drocourt-Queant, 2 Sept 18, XVII Corps. 15% smoke.
                Hindenburg Line, 27 Sept 18, Canadian Corps. 10%.
                Riqueval, 11 Oct 18, 6 Div. 25% smoke.

                Of course the use of smoke, as in any device, did not mean guaranteed victory but it did help.
                As for visibility and problems with signalling, there was a bigger problem with fog and mist and general battlefield 'smoke', not to mention gas clouds. That is why not only ground signalling was used in WW1 but also aeroplanes on 'Contact Patrols' and 'Counter-Attack patrols' to send back information on what was happening. In the second half of 1918 the RAF returned to using wireless to send back information from the Contact Patrol, after stopping from the end of 1916 due to jamming of own artillery machine wireless and enemy listening in. With the more open battlefield there was less risk of jamming and to prevent the Germans finding out the location of BEF troops the 'Protractor' method of reporting positions was in use.
                I hope that is of interest.
                Mike

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                • #9
                  Actually, the targets of preliminary bombardment were generally concrete structures, typically MG posts, etc, although I'd agree that in the first year of the war is was perhaps aimed at anything that didn't move and this never totally changed.

                  The term 'creeping barrage' in contrast to 'standing barrage' is the usual terminology. Although I'd agree that outside GHQ terminology wasn't always consistent.

                  The barrage was difficult to get right and it took time to learn how to do it, the main problem being lack of effctive communications for the advancing troops with the batteries and hence the difficulty of coordinating the speed of troops advance with the speed of the barrage movement. Neverless even in 1916 it worked OK on some parts of the Somme assault. All that said the actual distances between opposing trench lines was often short so the moving barrage was fairly brief. What was important was the barrage either side of the assault frontage to neutralise forces particularly MGs, that had survived the preliminary bombardment, that might interfere from the flanks.

                  Trials of shrapnel against German pattern wire were conducted on the beach near Calais. It was effective. The problem was that for best effect (remembering that 18-pr had only one charge) the gun target range was a fairly narrow band (1800 - 2400 yds) and obviously it was not always possible to position all 18-pr batteries in the right place. That said it could be effective up to 3500 yds but a lot more ammo was needed. The rough rule for nos of rds was 1/3 the number of hundreds of yds in range per yard of front.

                  GHQ Artillery Notes No 4 Feb 1917 states that wirecutting needed 7.5 rds shrapnel + 5% HE/yard of front, providing the depth of wire did not exceed the 50% zone of the gun at the range. This is consistent with the optimum ranges and the rough rule above. Guidance was also that 4.5 and 6" HE should be used to scatter the cut wire.
                  The alternative was 2" trench mortar, 1 rd fzed No 107 per 10 sq yds of wire or 6 sq yds if wire was loose.

                  Finally the shells were not supposed to cut the wire, the shrapnel bullets were, and the range band was where the angle of descent would ensure the maximum number of bullets passing through the maximum amount of wire and hence maximising the probability of a bullet cutting wire. Its very obvious when you actually think about it.

                  Obviously it didn't always work as planned, but nothing does in war (eg firing at night to cut wire before a dawn assault would make it very difficult to ensure that the wire cutting rounds were ejecting their bullets in the ideal place, although the short range meant the errors would usually have been small).

                  Use of T & P fuzes (No 8n series) with HE was not extensive, particularly with 18-pr. An MT fze (copied from captured German) never entered full production. On a quick search I can't find anything authoritative that airburst HE was to be used for wire cutting.

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                  • #10
                    There never seemed to be any planning taking the weather into account. This is critical in an operation, but no one had analyzed this. With the right wind conditions a smoke/gas attack could be extremely helpful to the attack. If conditions were adverse, the gas attack could be detrimental to the attacking force. This was not realized at the time.
                    When looking for the reason why things go wrong, never rule out stupidity, Murphy's Law Nº 8
                    Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. George Santayana
                    "Ach du schwein" a German parrot captured at Bukoba GEA the only prisoner taken

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                    • #11
                      Not sure than even today weather forecasts are sufficiently timely and granular to enable one to know whether a smoke screen planned a particular way in an hours time is going to be OK. Normal practice with smoke was to have an alternative HE task, although I don't know if this was the case in WW1. They might have fired testers as late as possible and adjusted their aim accordingly, but again I've no idea if this was done in WW1.

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                      • #12
                        Hi All
                        There is a short summary of the Royal Artillery's 'Development of Meteor in France 1914-18' as Annex K in Farndale's 'History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery - Western Front 1914-18'. This shows how important the measurement of variations in meteorological conditions became for gunnery on the Western Front from 1916. From April 1916 the RFC would a report on wind speed and direction at 2000 and 4000 ft at 0900 and 1500 hours to the RA, for use by the heavy guns, this was a directive from GHQ. By 12 June 1916 a 0700 hour report was added with the addition to the reports of conditions at 200 and 500 ft for use by the Field Guns. by August that year the air temperature at the specified heights was added. By January 1917 the times were changed to 0530, 1000 and 1530 hours and 'time of flight' was used instead of height. From the 2 March 1917 telegrams containing the information was issued 6 times a day.
                        In January 1918, the 60 sec time of flight was introduced and in March, barometer readings at mean sea level (MSL) were added to the information. Batteries had to correct the MSL value to that of the battery height using a standard formula. The last change was on 23 August 18 when another telegram was issued daily at Dawn minus two hours, to be used in the four hours starting dawn minus one hour. This was to ensure as accurate shooting as possible when firing at targets at dawn.
                        The RA went from indifference to the 'meteorological conditions' in 1913 and the early wars years to a reliance on it to shoot accurately from 1916-18. Knowledge of the 'weather' for artillery was not confined to the use of smoke shells but all artillery fire.

                        Mike

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                        • #13
                          Excellent information from everyone. Again, thank you.

                          I saw a British evaluation of wire-cutting by artillery in a documentary. The tests were done in the field, and were quite revealing. IIRC, shrapnel was largely unreliable when it came to cutting wire, which is remarkably durable under artillery fire.


                          Comments about the weather are particularly astute, as attacks were launched even in driving rain, leaving the troops attempting to advance through a swampy morass.

                          The major impression one gets of WWI on the ground is the classic definition of insanity: "Doing the same thing over and over in the expectation of a different result."

                          It is always remarkable to me how slowly the leaders absorbed the lethal lessons of the Front, and how costly their stubborness was to the men the commanded.

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                          • #14
                            As to the OP I suspect one additional bias in the photographic evidence. Photographers are also inhibited by smoke on the battlefield. One expects they would be looking for optimal seeing conditions to get the best pictures. Taking pictures in a smoke screen is a bit counter-intuitive unless the photographer understood the military importance of this tactic set out to capture it on film.
                            Any metaphor will tear if stretched over too much reality.

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                            • #15
                              Hi Mountain Man

                              While superficially WW1 may look as they were "doing the same thing over and over" that is only because of the large forces involved and technology available at the time. This meant for most of the war both sides were fairly evenly matched and remained fighting over roughly the same area of ground.
                              If you look at the war in detail you will find a lot of innovation and 'learning of lessons' on all sides, which was one of the problems.
                              Barbed wire was a problem, various forms of artillery fire was used to try to remove it as an obstacle. Then the British used tanks to crush the wire for the infantry to cross, later some used grapnel hooks to drag the wire out of the way so horses could cross safely (not just cavalry but more artillery horses and horses to carry supplies). Germans dug wider trenches to hinder tanks, tanks carried fascines or 'cribs' to fill them in to cross. German artillery used as anti-tank guns, aircraft used to help neutralise the guns for the tanks etc.
                              Artillery procedures and methods changed throughout the war becoming increasingly effective and scientific.
                              Yes, weather was a problem but remember battles were planned in advance and troops and equipment had to be moved to the battle area. Battles were occasionally delayed because of weather, but that couldn't be for long as it would give time for the enemy to strengthen their defences and lose whatever element of surprise you had. One could argue that some battles should have been called off earlier due to the weather and terrain, however, in the CBI Theatre in WW2 it was decided to fight through the Monsoon season to defeat the Japanese, despite the weather and terrain problems!
                              For the British there were 'lessons learned' documents after every battle, indeed the paperwork to be filled in was complained about by some. I have a copy of a 30 page document that deals with the lessons learned at Messines in 1917 just for air and ground co-operation! The lessons learned were discussed at conferences, of which there were many in WW1, and then distributed through the S.S. document series down to battalions, batteries etc.
                              The changes in tactics, operational procedures, logistics and equipment etc can all be seen and read about, which is why the war is quite interesting when viewed in a 'problem solving way'. The senior commanders were not sitting around doing nothing they were trying to solve some major problems with the aim of 'winning the war', which is what the politicians had charged them to do, all with greater or lesser 'success'!
                              Do not underestimate the difficulties they had at that time.

                              Mike

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