One-shot #20: A 75 in action at Verdun

The Canon de 75 mm Modele 1897 was the backbone of the French artillery throughout the Great War. Its basic design was finalized in 1897 (hence the hame), although numerous modifications and add-ons were available over the years. With over 4,000 ready to roll at the moment war broke out, and another 20,000 or so built between 1914-1918, the “75” (as it was colloquially known amongst all of the various fighting forces engaged in the conflict) would be in constant operation until the end of the European fighting in the Second World War in 1945. This was a truly impressive field gun – as seen in compiled footage of 75s in action.

The 75 in the Great War

The 75 was the first artillery piece to utilize a hydraulic recoil mechanism to allow rapid reloading without the need to re-aim the gun. Under standard conditions, a well-trained team could fire a shell every 4 seconds with the 75 – and for short bursts with the best crews, that could be reduced to every 2 seconds (though this would heat up the gun immensely). During standard warfare, a battery (4-gun setup) of 75s could halt the advance of a large charge – with a range of over 5 miles, the gun could mow down charging troops. The standard types of rounds it utilized came in two distinct forms:

  • 15 lb shrapnel shells containing 290 lead balls, with a timed fuse set to burst the balls forth in advance of the line, dispersing them to cause as many casualties to as many enemy soldiers as possible. This was by far the most common form of shell produced, and was quite effective until the digging in of trenches rendered the shell less useful – no longer were there vast swaths of men to aim the gun at and mow down, and the lack of trajectory in this gun (as opposed to that of a canon or howitzer) made the lead balls ineffective at penetrating enemy fortifications.
  • 12 lb Melinite shells, which contained a 1/20th second fuse ignited upon impact, causing it to explode at around head-height after the first bounce following impact. Melinite – commonly known as picric acid – was a high explosive, much more powerful (and more volatile) than dynamite. Additionally, the fumes from the explosion were extremely corrosive to the lungs of men who breathed in the smoke – while not technically gas warfare, the effects of Melinite had a demoralizing effect on those who saw not only the explosive power of the shell, but the toxic aftereffects of the gaseous byproducts.

As the War evolved, the 75 had to evolve with it. Other mounts were derived for it – many without wheels for permanent placement. Stationary anti-aircraft versions were designed. It became the main gun of many a French, British, and American tank. Some versions were mounted on trucks or rail-cars, for mobile anti-aircraft use. In fact, versions of the 75 were used in combat up until at least 1971 – nearly a century after they were devised.

In the Great War, however, the unmodified, original 75 with its two standard shells lost much of its effectiveness against the trenches and fortifications that helped define the War. The over-reliance on this straight-shot gun, with unchanging trajectory, lead to many French casualties at the Battle of Lorette. Its final truly effective use in its standard form was at the Battle of Verdun.

The 75 in Verdun

Over 250 artillery battalions – each fitted with 4 guns, 170 men, 160 horses, numerous repair parts, and many tons of ammunition – were deployed to Verdun in 1916, adding to the battalions already there. This was a massive impediment to the charging hordes of Germans, who even with superior artillery (some capable of traveling in excess of 20 miles and bursting through the thickest of reinforcements – even if inaccurate) had a great deal of ground to cover on foot or horseback. Over 2 million shells were expended on this battlefield alone; since the capture of Forts Douaumont and Vaux would require vast charges across open space, the 75 was a fantastic field gun. Here are some of the gunners at work with their machine, of which they were clearly proud:

“Haut de Meuse – Un 75 en action” (“Meuse Heights – a 75 in action”), on a 45×107 glass positive from Brentano’s.

It was these gunners, and thousands more like them, that held the Meuse Heights and thus blocked the Germans from executing their plans; it was due to the millions of shells fired from guns like this one that the plan to capture the Heights and then bombard the surrounding regions into oblivion whilst holding the high ground fell apart. It was dangerous work, as the Artillery Battalions were particularly targeted by the Germans, and the men of these Battalions were widely respected among their comrades – but paid according to rank, despite belonging to an elite unit. Nevertheless, it is clear that they took great pride in their very important positions, which often drove them to exhaustion; it was not unusual to spend 18 hours shelling, with brief breaks only to eat, and then to rest for 5 or 6 hours until the next shift began. Some teams were faster than others at reloading the 75s, and these men were put to use at a pace that would grind a weaker soldier down. The pride of this particular unit can be seen, among other means, by way of the decorations to their gun’s hood:

Detail of above slide. Individual insignia painted onto the machines of war far predated the painted-up aircraft that are commonly depicted in pop culture. Any help in translating the French language at left would be much appreciated.
Update: in the comments, Garffon has written: “I think the text painted on the gun is “Trompe la Mort” (literally “Death-cheater”, in practice “Daredevil”).”

While the French temporarily lost Fort Douaumont and, later, Fort Vaux, it was the 75s of the Meuse Heights which allowed the French to halt the German offensive and, very possibly, to thus stop the Germans from prematurely winning the War. Of course, this was the last battle in which standard shrapnel & Melinite shells were really effective – like the Marne before it, the conditions at Verdun allowed for a lot of open-space combat, which creates an ideal condition for the 75 to operate. After Verdun, new forms of ammunition needed to be formulated in order to deal with the new realities in trying to overtake increasingly complex trench-and-dugout positions.

The 75s After Verdun

By 1917, the 75 was the main delivery source for gas canisters as the use of lethal and disabling gasses increased dramatically. High-explosive shells which were meant to destroy fortifications were devised. The base components of the 75 – minus the horse-drawn wheeled cart on which it rode into battle – were manufactured for use not only by the French, but by Britons and Americans as well. It formed the main artillery component on post-Renault tanks, emplacements, and so on. Thousands were received by the British and Americans, though the majority remained with the French.

Meanwhile, while there were plenty of 75s still firing at the front, they were soon outmoded by other artillery pieces. Sturdy and reliable, the 75s fired until the end of the war regardless – and then were used after, notably in the Second World War. The French began liquidating their supply of remaining guns after the Great War, and large consignments were sent to Poland, amongst other countries. It was with these guns – previously used to defend France against the oncoming German storm – that the Poles attempted to save themselves from Hitler’s massive army. Obviously, the 40-year-old design was not enough to hold off the Wehrmacht.

75s were used in other, more recent wars as well – notably the Korean war – and often attached to bombers (as an additional means of attack) and to tanks. They were used in combat in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War. They were still active in a few arsenals throughout the world until 1979. This model of gun spent almost a century in use in various armies throughout the world, but its most important victories were won at Verdun and the Marne.


A look at the

2 Replies to “One-shot #20: A 75 in action at Verdun”

  1. Very nice article ; thank you for writing and sharing it.

    I think the text painted on the gun is “Trompe la Mort” (literally “Death-cheater”, in practice “Daredevil”).

    1. Thanks Garffon – and you’re very welcome; it’s an important part of history. Much obliged for the translation help – I’ll update the blog with it! Cheers.

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