The Final Argument of Kings: Counterbattery Engagement From Ancient Greece to Ukraine
When the big guns focus their fire on each other
According to history, by which we mean surviving text, the first counterbattery engagement took place in 340 BC at Perinthus, which is located in modern-day European Turkey. King Phillip II of Macedon laid siege to both Byzantium and Perinthus at the same time. Attacker and defenders both used rope-torsion catapults which, being powerful enough to kill an armored hoplite but never damaging enough to break a wall, favored the defender. Phillip took rare losses and raised both sieges when the logistics of maintaining two positions on the coast of the Hellespont without a fleet became impossible, while his enemies could resupply themselves at will from the sea. Ammunition for his catapults ran short. Less landbound, Phillip’s son Alexander went on to earn the sobriquet ‘Great’, using artillery to good effect and encountering it during his career, even reportedly being wounded by some sort of missile engine at the Persian Gates. Such weapons had first been remarked upon in Greek writing circa 397 BC. So while the term ‘military revolution’ is always contested and has been subject to abuse as a buzzword, it certainly fits the story of ancient artillery, for all three basic types of fire mission existed within six decades of development.
At the cost of oversimplification, those three basic missions can be understood as offensive, defensive, and counterbattery fires. Offensive fire supports some other element, such as infantry or tanks or horse cavalry, in the attack. This is bombardment. Defensive fire seeks to support the defense by targeting the enemy in the attack; this is barrage fire. The two terms, bombardment and barrage, are often used interchangeably, but in fact describe how the artillery is supporting some other branch of arms. We are concerned here with the counterbattery mission, which has waxed and waned in tactical utility throughout the long development of arms. Certain principles are universal to the art. For example, the New Model Army won the Battle of Langport in 1645 by suppressing the smaller Royalist ‘drake’ guns (counterbattery) that covered a river crossing, then by turning their fire on the king’s infantry, which scattered, and then by supporting Cromwell’s cavalry against the Cavaliers as he forced the crossing (bombardment). Charles I had only one last army in the field and now it was broken. What we must take from this historical waypoint is the primacy of purpose for artillery as a supporting arm. Every gun pointed at other guns is unable to do its primary mission of supporting friendly forces, but the counterbattery victory has also been decisive by allowing the artillery to then focus on support of other arms.
Armies have therefore turned their catapults and cannons on each others’ catapults and cannons only so often as tactics, resources, and circumstances allowed, most commonly during siege. Thus Napoleon’s grand batteries did little counterbattery work in most of his battles. Command wisdom of the era held that the grand batteries should destroy enemy infantry first, responding to enemy cannons only if they were proving too effective against one’s own infantry. This changed with the German victories of 1870-71. French armies were repeatedly blasted off the field by a substantial artillery corps with faster breech-loading guns, employed to mercilessly silence any French artillery and then leverage their supremacy in support of the infantry and cavalry. Vowing revenge, the French Army perfected a repeating artillery weapon for the next war. An artillery arms race before 1914 thus ensured stalemate, and shaped the resulting trench warfare that defined the First World War in Europe. Indirect fire was the order of the day. Artillery had always been a siege weapon, ‘the final argument of kings.’ Now the empires of Europe turned to new technologies — aviation and electromagnetism — as they revolutionized counterbattery fire. We are alive today in this military revolution that combines artillery with radio energy to maximize indirect fire. We can see it being enacted in Ukraine with drones doing much of the aviation work. Here is that story.