A British soldier surrounded by spent shell casings. This is allegedly after a single day's use. -
The scale at which artillery was used in World War I is almost indescribable. In the two-week long artillery barrage by the British preceding the Battle of Passchendaele, 4.5 million shells were fired at the German lines. 4.5 million shells, fired from around 3,000 cannon, in a single two-week long barrage over a four-year long war. All to capture a single German position in a confined, relatively small area.
Shelling was used to clear the way for advancing infantry going over the top, but as the War dragged on, its effectiveness proved to be decent at best. Wire entanglements weren't always blown apart, and some units just survived to defend their position, no matter how many shells you threw at them. Artillery was also used to shoot deadly poison gas.
Although many units did survive artillery barrages, it was no picnic. Even if one was in the relative safety of a bunker, the sheer noise and pressure from millions of explosions going off almost simultaneously around your position, was enough to drive men to insanity. Single explosions were not heard, just an oppressive force of nature which engulfed your entire sector. If you were to survive this ordeal, you were expected to defend against the incoming infantry.
German officer Ernst Jünger; 'It’s an easier matter to describe these sounds than to endure them, because one cannot but associate every single sound of flying steel with the idea of death, and so I huddled in my hole in the ground with my hand in front of my face, imagining all the possible variants of being hit. I think I have found a comparison that captures the situation in which I and all the other soldiers who took part in this war so often found ourselves: you must imagine you are securely tied to a post, being menaced by a man swinging a heavy hammer. Now the hammer has been taken back over his head, ready to be swung, now it's cleaving the air towards you, on the point of touching your skull, then it's struck the post, and the splinters are flying - that's what it's like to experience heavy shelling in an exposed position'
Photo by Tom Aitken