Western Front Association

At the latest meeting of the Western Front Association, David Easton gave a light-hearted review of large siege artillery used in the First World War with his talk, I’m Big Bertha – Beware of Imitations.

An enormous 420mm siege howitzer, Big Bertha was developed by the Krupp factory specifically to destroy the Belgian fortresses at Liege and Namur as part of the Schlieffen Plan, Germany’s spectacular plan devised to invade and defeat France quickly.

Their sheer size presented all sorts of logistical problems but two such guns were ready and in place before Liege on August 12, 1914, supported by some Skinny Emma howitzers on loan from Austria-Hungary.

The Big Bertha pieces were bigger than any gun previously fired. Each had a crew of 1,000 men and 10 rounds an hour could be fired delivering a 930kg shell to a range of about 15 kilometres.

The supporting Skinny Emma howitzers were no mean pieces either, being 305mm howitzers, which fired shells weighing about 380kg to a distance of approximately 12km (7.5 miles). They, too, were capable of firing up to 10 each hour.

The designers of the Belgian fortresses had never envisaged their supposedly indestructible forts being faced with such huge ordnance. The forts simply could not withstand the onslaught and succumbed in a matter of days.

David turned his attention to the famous Paris Gun, a German railway gun adapted by the Krupp factory to bombard the French capital from extreme distance.

It was first used in March, 1918, to strike Paris from the then unprecedented range of 130km.

Highly inaccurate in delivering a 120kg shell, it caused an international sensation and some initial panic in Paris.

Over 300 shots were fired at the French capital which killed 250 people and wounded 620, and caused considerable damage to property.

The worst incident, on March 29, 1918, saw a single shell hit the roof of the St-Gervais-et-St-Protais Church, collapsing the entire roof on to the congregation then hearing the Good Friday service. Eighty eight people were killed and 68 wounded.

The British and their Allies had no need of quite such large artillery siege pieces but David covered the development of howitzers with lengthy gun barrels, usually of 155mm calibre and often referred to as Long Toms.

The WFA’s next formal meeting will be on Monday, November 25, with Derek Gladding’s talk, A 1911 German outlook on the impending Great European War.

WFA meetings take place at 7.15pm (for 7.30pm) at Alnmouth & District Ex-Servicemen’s Club, Northumberland Street, Alnmouth.

A warm welcome awaits visitors and WFA members new to the branch. The suggested minimum donation is £1 (£2 from January), to include a light finger supper.