The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 2 No 5 - June 1973

Field Artillery of the British Army 1860-1960
Part II, 1900 - 1914

Major Darrell D. Hall

Part 1, 1860-1900, was published in vol. 2, no. 4 (December 1972).

The field gun of the British Army in the South African War of 1899-1902 was the 15 pr 7 cwt BL. In 1914, the RFA was equipped with the 18 pr QF. This Part describes the developments between the two wars which resulted in this re-equipment.

While the 15 pr was in action in South Africa, steps were being taken to find a successor. In fact, the story begins just before the war started. The principle of 'quick firing' had already been applied to heavy naval and fortress armaments, and it was obvious that it would soon be extended to field guns - but there were problems. In the case of fixed artillery, there was no limit to the weight of the mounting. Obviously, this was not the case with field artillery.

Yet the ability to 'quick fire' was becoming vital. Shell weight was too light, and yet the answer was not simply to increase this weight. A heavier shell meant a heavier gun, and there were limits to such increases. An excessive increase in weight behind the gun team would result in too great a decrease in mobility.

If the shell weight could not be increased, the alternative was to increase the rate of fire without appreciably increasing the weight of the gun. This required an efficient recoil system. Gunmaking firms were continually claiming to have found the solution to this problem. Many designs were produced, and some were sold to minor powers.

A good example was the 75 mm Creusot QF of 1896-97 which was used by the Boers in South Africa. Although this gun was the most technically advanced of its type in South Africa, it was by no means perfect. It had a buffer and recuperator, assisted by a trail spade and spring, but the recoil was too short (11.5 ins) and too violent, and the gun was often in need of repair.

Nevertheless this gun was the forerunner of the famous French 75 of the First World War. This model had its d‚but in the manoeuvres of 1900. The French guarded their new gun well, and it was to be some years before the new 75s were seen at practice and more before their secrets were disclosed.

At this point, General Sir Henry Brackenbury enters the scene. In October 1899 he was appointed Director-General of Ordnance. It was his task to ensure that the British Army had the best possible guns. Although war was then in progress in South Africa, the greater danger lay in a possible European war. It was vital that the RFA should have a gun equal to those in use in the French and German armies.

Brackenbury immediately surveyed the position and, in January 1900, he submitted his report. This did not deal simply with the need for a new field gun, but also for reserves of guns and mountings for coast batteries; the completion of the siege train; and the provision of reserves of guns, carriages and ammunition for the field artillery. His report recommended that guns of an improved pattern should be produced immediately.

Meanwhile the war in South Africa soon showed that ordnance factories alone could not supply all the needs of ammunition, etc., and that 'the Trade' was not organised to assist in a national war effort. Brackenbury's report covered this problem as well, and steps were taken to rectify the situation. These measures were to be appreciated when the two World Wars drew on the complete industrial effort of the nation. Credit for the early appreciation of this problem can be given to Sir Henry Brackenbury.

His report was accepted and its urgency appreciated. He realised that no new gun was readily available in Britain, so he promptly sent experts to the continent to see what guns were available for immediate purchase. The answer lay in an engineering firm at Dusseldorf- known as the 'Rheinische Metallwaaren und Maschinenfabriek'. There a clever engineer, Herr Ehrhardt, demonstrated a 15 pr in which the whole of the recoil was taken up by a top carriage, so that the carriage itself remained absolutely steady when the gun was fired.

It was shown that a coin placed on the tyre of the wheel was not shaken off on firing. An order was given for the complete equipment for the field artillery of an army corps, with three batteries for reserve - eighteen batteries in all, with their ammunition and other wagons, spare parts and stores. The negotiations for the purchase of the 'Ehrhardt guns' had to be carried out in absolute secrecy. All the equipment was packed in cases marked 'Machinery and Explosives'. Arrangements were made for Customs examinations to be dispensed with. Only half a dozen key men in all were aware of the transaction.

Not until the last case had been received was the secret revealed, by which time a great mass of packing cases had arrived at Woolwich Arsenal. They contained:

Guns - mounted on their carriages 108
Limbers 275
Ammunition wagons 162
Forge, store, etc. wagons 54
Ammunition - complete rounds 54, 000

The 'Ehrhardt gun' had a calibre of 3 ins and, although it fired a 14.3 lb shell, was known as the 15 pr QF.

MV was 1640 ft/sec, with a range of 7,000 yds and a time fuze range of 6,600 yds. Weight behind the gun team was 35 cwt. This was 2 cwt less than the 15 pr BL on the Mk I carriage.

The gun had a telescopic trail, and upper and lower carriages fitted with a hydraulic/spring buffer which allowed a recoil of about 47 ins - the famous 'long recoil'. For the first time in the British service, the layer could remain on his seat when the gun was fired. The sights were on non-recoiling parts, so re-laying could begin while the gun was still recoiling. Compared to the 15 pr BL's rate of fire, the 'Ehrhardt gun' could achieve about 20 rpm. There were several versions of the gun and, among others, the Norwegian Army bought a number.

Although there were some complaints about details of the design, which were different from those in normal British equipments, it was obvious to all that these were real 'quick firers'. Brackenbury had provided much needed stop-gap equipment but British design must now come up to date.

The 'Ehrhardt gun' was so successful that the Cabinet immediately accepted the necessity for rearming horse and field artillery. This was considered so urgent that Lord Roberts was directed to send back selected artillery commanders from South Africa to form an Equipment Committee for this task; this in spite of the fact that hostilities were in progress. In addition a questionnaire on the subject was sent to a large number of officers in South Africa. At the same time, many designs of British, Continental and American guns were studied.

The most promising of these were selected for manufacture, and the specimen guns were tried in 1902. Although all were 'quick firers', none was completely satisfactory. It was then decided to take an unprecedented step - to combine Vickers recoil arrangements with Armstrong guns and the ordnance factories' sighting and elevating gear and method of carrying ammunition. Problems of manufacture were overcome and, in 1903, four batteries were ready for trials.

These trials were successful and a decision was made to accept the new equipments - an 18 pr for field and a 13 pr for horse artillery. There then arose a controversy as to whether both guns should be adopted. Some felt that the 18 pr was not sufficiently superior to the 13 pr to warrant the manufacture of both. More trials followed, and a recommendation was made that one gun only should be adopted - the 13 pr firing a 14.5 lb shell.

The argument raged on, until finally it was left to the Prime Minister to make a decision. Mr. Balfour agreed with the committee's original view that there should be both 13 and 18 prs; and that was that.

Had it not been for Mr. Balfour, the British Army would have entered World War I with the 13 pr only, firing the 14.5 lb shell. It is interesting to note that the 18 pr fired more than 100 million rounds during the war, compared with only 1.5 million rounds by the 13 pr.

Unfortunately the acceptance of the committee's recommendations did not mean that the construction of the gun would start straight away. Designing guns was one thing; but finding the money for them was another. It was only after a public outcry, with special articles appearing in The Times, and cartoons in Punch, that the orders were placed. Delays continued, and it was not until after the Moroccan Crisis of 1906 that finally a cavalry division and six infantry divisions were re-equipped, and good progress was made with re-equipping the Indian Army.

The new 18 pr was a good gun, incorporating all the lessons recently learned. It had a long recoil of 41 ins resulting in a steady carriage, which allowed the detachment to remain on or behind the gun all the time. This was the first gun in the British service with a shield. This was fitted mainly for protection against the effects of enemy shrapnel, and also for protection against rifle-fire. The provision of a shield resulted in some derogatory comment in the Press.

In the same way, when guns in India were painted khaki for the first time for the cavalry manoeuvres of 1891, this was deplored by the press. They considered that 'hiding the guns' was not in keeping with the traditions of the RHA, and bound to have a bad effect on morale!

As gun positions were no longer chosen in the open in full view of the enemy, more sophisticated laying systems were required. Dial sights were introduced and it was no longer necessary to remove sights before firing, as had been the case with the 15 pr.

Axletree seats were removed. These seats and their loads were a source of extra weight which could be dispensed with. Wheels, which had always before been 5 ft in diameter, were reduced to 4 ft 8 ins. The 'Ehrhardt gun's' smaller wheels had demonstrated that no ill effects would result from this change.

The gun itself was a 3.3 in calibre piece of wire-wound steel with two guide ribs along nearly the whole of its length, one on either side. It was found that wire-wound construction was lighter than built-up, and relatively stronger; in addition manufacture was considerably cheaper.

The pole trail restricted elevation to 16 deg., and the range to 6 525 yds. In 1914 shrapnel only was available but, by the end of that year, there was an HE shell as well. As a top carriage had been introduced for recoil purposes, a traverse gear was incorporated. This allowed 4 deg. left and right. Finally, the gun had a high rate of fire - about 20 rpm. There were some drawbacks in such a performance, and the gun had to be relaid after each round.

The Mark I had a hydraulic buffer and spring recuperator. The Mk II appeared just before the war with a compressed air recuperator, but in appearance it was similar to the Mk I. Most of the 18 prs in action during the war were Mk IIs. There were further developments throughout the war, and Mk Ills and IVs also saw service. More 18 prs were produced than any other British gun, before or since.

To go back to 1905 - the RFA still had large numbers of 15 prs. Although the Regular Army was soon to re-equip with the 18 pr, it would be some time before both Reserve and Colonial Armies would receive the gun. It was, therefore, decided to bring the old 15 prs up to date and to equip the Territorial Army with them.

This was done by fitting the Mk IV carriage for long recoil. The piece was suspended by guide blocks from the guides of a ring cradle. This cradle had cross trunnions which were directly supported by the trail brackets. The gun was traversed by shifting the point of the trail laterally along the spade which remained fixed in the ground. A shield was fitted as the improved recoil system enabled the detachment to remain on the gun when it was fired. The axle spade and trail spring were removed. The ammunition was the same as that fired by the Boer War 15 pr, but the ordnance itself was of a later Mark, as also was the single action breech mechanism.

The new version was known as the 15 pr BLC (BL Converted) and was issued to the Territorial Army in 1909. It also went to the Colonial forces, and examples appeared in South Africa. Although it was used in South West Africa, it played no significant role in World War I.

By 1914, therefore, the RFA had been re-equipped with the 18 pr. With this gun it fought the war and, with various modifications, this was the gun with which it served right up until the start of the Second World War.

  Type Weight of gun Calibre Weight of shell Ammo. MV (ft/sec) Range(yds) Weight behind team(cwt) Year adopted
15 pr BL 7 cwt 3 in 14 lb 1 oz Shrapnel 1574 5900 37 1895
Ehrhardt 15 pr QF 737 lbs 3 in 14 lb 5 oz Shrapnel 1640 6600 35 1900
18 pr QF 9 cwt 3.3 in 18 lb 8 oz Shrapnel HE 1615 6525 40 1906
15 pr BLC 7 cwt 3 in 14 lb 1 oz Shrapnel 1590 5750 - 1909

Refer Part I, l860-l900 published in Vol. 2, No. 4, December, 1972, page 144: The caption to the photograph of 15 pr 7 cwt BL is incorrect. It should read: Mk 1* carriage

The Mk I carriage was not fitted with an axle spade and trail-spring. Recoil was controlled by drag-shoes. These were placed under the wheels, and were connected by chains and cables to the wheel hubs and the trail.

The Mk II carriage followed. This had the same drag-shoe system, but in addition, had a hydraulic buffer. This only allowed a short recoil, and was not successful.

The axle-spade and trail-spring were then adopted. Mk I and II carriages fitted with these were known as Mk 1* and Mk II*. The latter retained the hydraulic buffer.

Other marks of carriage followed, all with axle-spades, but without buffers.

The axle-spade finally went out of service with the introduction of the 15 pr BLC, described elsewhere in this number. This gun had an efficient buffer and a spade on the end of the trail, so the axle-spade and trail-spring were no longer necessary.

History of the Royal Artillery - Headlam
Modern Guns and Gunnery 1910 - Bethell
Artillery Through the Ages -- Rogers
Proceedings of the Royal Artillery Institution, Vols. XXVIII and XXIX
The Story of the Gun - Wilson
The Gunner Magazine - Our Guns: The 18 pr QF Gun
Artillery: Its Origin, Heyday and Decline - Hogg

Part III, 1914-1960, will appear in Vol.2, No.6 in December 1973

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