Anatomy of a World War I Artillery Barrage

ypres battle
Shells bursting at Ypres

A lot has been said about the role of artillery in World War I, in both its intensity and ferocity. On the opening day of the Somme on July 1, 1916, British guns hurled 250,000 high explosive and shrapnel shells towards German positions. During the beginning of the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, over 3,000 British guns and howitzers fired a “creeping barrage” on German positions, with the infantry advancing fifty yards behind the moving wall of fire and steel. The Germans developed and perfected the “box barrage” that dropped shells on all four sides of the targeted unit, designed to cut it off from supporting units and sever its lines of communication. Preparatory, or “softening up,” barrages would be fired on pre-planned targets in advance of an attack. The American St. Mihiel Offensive on September 12, 1918 was preceded in some areas by a seven-hour preparatory bombardment. By the end of the war, most attacks by French, American, and British forces began with a swift but short artillery bombardment that massed thousands of guns on one small area, followed up almost immediately by a ground attack.

All sides incorporated poison gas into their artillery bombardments. A mix of high explosive and gas rounds was both deadly and psychologically unnerving.

German poison gas attack on the Chemin des Dames

Artillery was also used on the defense, where artillery batteries would initiate defensive fire as soon as the front line infantry outposts reported enemy infantry advancing. By 1918, a signal flare fired by the infantry would be enough to unleash salvos from protecting guns on pre-planned points in front of the friendly infantry, the goal being to “catch the enemy in their own wire” before they could reach friendly lines.

All of this sounds very technical and does not convey the intensity and terror that artillery bombardments could bring to soldiers on each side. Which begs the question, what was it like to actually be on the receiving end of an artillery bombardment?

One U.S. soldier was awoken to his first day on the front lines – March 6, 1918 – by the tremendous report of “big shell bursting directly over our dugout. The Boche bombarded us in good shape, at least seventy big fellows bursting every minute. Believe me, the man who said he was not scared is a liar. They mixed gas shells in with the heavy fellows and before long gas was detected. We immediately put on our masks.”

An artillery shell in World War I consisted of a metal casing surrounding high explosive – usually a mixture of TNT or picric acid and ammonium nitrate and other chemicals. Shells were fused to burst either on impact or in the air, depending on the intent. When the shell would strike – such as the shell that detonated over the U.S. soldier’s dugout – the fuse would ignite the high explosive.


The first thing a soldier would experience would be the concussive force of the explosion, caused by the rapid release of energy compressing the air particles. This is often referred to as “overpressure.” Soldiers feel like the air is sucked out of the area, causing a tightening of the skin and pulsating of the eyes.

Split milliseconds after the overpressure strikes and radiates outwards, it is followed by shock waves that create a vacuum in the immediate area of the explosion. Oxygen is pushed out, sucked back in, and then immediately pushed out again into a gut-smashing wave of energy. The blast wave followed by the shock wave creates havoc on internal organs – brain, lungs, stomach – often pulverizing them if the soldier is too close to the point of impact. Air sucked out of the lungs leaves the soldier gasping for breath. The shock wave is felt strongly in the gut. Blood is forced out of organs and arteries upwards towards the brain. After successive blasts, eardrums could rupture causing bleeding out of the ears.

Night view of an artillery bombardment

This is then followed by the outward force of the rapidly expanding gases that grabs anything in the nearby area and throws it outward with relentless force. Soldiers standing are the most vulnerable to this part of the blast, as if they are hurled into something solid – such as a tree or building – they can be killed by the impact. Laying on the ground can often mitigate this effect, as the pulse of the blast rolls over them and the shock is dissipated up and out.

The sound – or report – of the blast was incredibly loud, damaging eardrums. Heat from the explosion would burn those caught in the blast – although the overpressure would have already killed them.

So much for the explosion itself.

Shells are encased with metal sheathing, which upon detonation is broken up into tiny fragments that are projected upwards and outwards at speeds of over 60 miles per hour. These shards imbed in flesh or – if large enough – rip parts of the body away. Soldiers struck directly would explode in all directions, leaving nothing remaining of their existence other than blood and fragments of bone, flesh, organs, and uniform scraps. Soldiers entering Belleau Wood in 1918 remarked with disgust at the bodies and body parts hanging from high in the shattered trees. Shrapnel shredded trees, bushes, rocks, anything in the area, creating more deadly fragments.

View of damage done by shell fire directed on a gun position used by the 103rd F.A. Near Rambucourt, France. June 24, 1918
The effects of months of shelling – the WWI moonscape

Now multiply this times seventy per minute, as the soldier mentioned. That is one concussion every second. Bombardments could last for hours.

Small wonder that the armies began to burrow into the earth in 1914-1915. Soldiers built elaborate dugouts for protection, twelve to fifteen feet into the earth, covered by logs and dirt.

However, these fell victim to another hazard: poison gas. Some gas, like mustard gas, sinks to low places after it is released from its canister. Right into dugouts. Troops rushing out of dugouts became vulnerable to high explosive shells, which is why gas and high explosives were often mixed together for maximum effect.

The effects of prolonged exposure to artillery fire have been well-documented, and gave rise to the familiar term “shell shock.” Sometimes referred to as “war neurosis” – now termed Post Traumatic Stress – shell shock in its purest form referred to the effects of constant overpressure, blast waves, deafening explosions, and being in close proximity to horrendous destruction. The effects were physical as well as mental, as can be seen in this disturbing video of a shell shocked British soldier.

Somehow, through all of this, soldiers pushed on. The remarkable durability and resilience of the human body shows again and again through the war, as well as that of the human spirit.

Which is perhaps the greatest tragedy of World War I; all that suffering, perseverance, heartbreak, and self-sacrifice: and for what?

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