Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of the increase in the sheer force that could be unleashed on the battlefield due to technological improvements of the early 20th century can be seen in the development of the large-scale artillery pieces up to and during the time of World War I.
The “big guns” of the time period were immensely heavy, needed to be transported in multiple parts (each part often occupying the equivalent of several train wagons), and time-consuming to assemble on the site of firing. Nevertheless, their range, far exceeding the extent of a human being’s sight and reaching many kilometers past the enemy’s front line, as well as the sheer impact wrought by their massive shells, was thought to compensate for their size and awkwardness.
The most famous of the big guns of World War I were employed by the German Army and manufactured by the Krupp family firm, the largest German weapons producer, owned by one of the wealthiest families in the world. The Krupp firm produced numerous models of howitzers, or long-range, large-caliber artillery capable of firing both at high and low trajectories.
The famous howitzer, Big Bertha, was designed 1904 for the Krupp firm by the inventor Louis Gauthmann. The Big Bertha was a movable siege mortar capable of firing projectiles weighing 820 kilograms for as far as 15 kilometers, at as high a trajectory as 80 degrees (thus explaining the mortar designation). Four Big Berthas were produced in all, and used in the German offensive of 1914. Their most distinguished use, however, was in August of 1916, during the German assault on the twelve-ringed fortifications at Liege, Belgium. Over the course three days (from the 12th to the 15th of August) two Big Berthas were installed within firing range of the fortress and inflicted such massive devastation as to bring about either the destruction or surrender of all the Belgian defensive positions in the area.
While the Big Bertha was renowned for its sheer mass and firepower, other German big guns of the time period also focused on achieving firing distances that far exceeded that of Big Bertha. These weapons were called “railway guns,” as they were designed to be mounted on and supported by railroad tracks for greater stability and more efficient assembly, since their parts were delivered to the battlefield by train and could be put together on the precise spot of arrival.
A common railway gun design was known as the “Long Max,” which the Germans used to shell French positions some 25-30 kilometers behind the front lines. However, the Germans were able to modify the Long Max design to create a far longer-ranged weapon, the famous Paris Gun (or the Kaiser Wilhelm Gun), which could fire on the city of Paris itself from the German front lines. Though its shell was substantially smaller than that fired by the Big Bertha, weighing only 92 kilograms, it could be hurled 130 kilometers from the gun, and reached heights as far as 40 kilometers above ground level, thus making the shells fired by the gun the first man-made objects to reach the stratosphere and there encounter minimal air resistance, enabling them to travel at supersonic speeds.
The Paris Gun was first installed on March 21, 1918, and required some 80 crewmen to assemble and operate. It fired some 320-367 shells during its lifetime, killing 250 people, injuring 620, and causing considerable property damage in Paris. Though its shells were fairly small and could not be aimed precisely at targets smaller than city size, the gun’s primary purpose was psychological, to convince the French government and citizens that they were not safe from the German army even in their capital. The gun proved powerless to stop the Allied advance of 1918, however, and the Germans destroyed it during their retreat, to prevent its design and parts from falling into Allied hands. The Paris Gun was the largest weapon ever built up to its time and would only be exceeded in caliber by German railway guns of World War II.