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Military Compass use in World War I for Directing Artillery

Updated on August 8, 2015

Military Compass use in World War I for Directing Artillery

The importance of a simple compass in military terms during World War I cannot be overstated. To understand its importance it is necessary to consider the nature of that conflict. Opposing armies were entrenched in dugout trenches with areas of 'No Mans Land' between them. Each side sought to kill, destroy and damage the other with artillery bombardments before 'Going over the top', infantry advancing on the enemy's position.

If an artillery gun or battery of guns was visible by line of sight then snipers would have targeted the crews. The range of an artillery piece would enable the guns to be behind the front lines (out of sight), and how far back depended on the gun type and ammunition used.

It's therefore important to appreciate that the gunners firing the guns could not see the target they were firing at and as such they needed a forward observer to advise them if they were hitting the target or if they needed to make adjustments.

World War I, American Artillery Firing at the German Army, September 26, 1918

Triangulation to hit a target

Trigonometry in War

There are therefore three separate reference points required for any successful artillery bombardment.

1. The position of the battery of guns firing

2. The position of observers

3. The position of the target

If an observer at (Position 2) knows their own location and the position of the gun battery (Position 1) and observers that fired shells are missing the target (Position 3) he can advise the guns to alter the direction or distance of fire.

However positions were not fixed and although observers could sometimes see the target they did not have accurate grid references. Indeed at the start of WW1 maps of France were of a poor quality and did not have grid lines.

It was a regular practise to fire over the heads of the forward observers who would communicate adjustments to the guns before the commencement of a barrage, i.e. add 100, left 100, right 100. There was always a danger that the first round (the adjusting round) would fall short and hit the forward observers who by the very nature of their role were up front and forward.

Forward Observers - Line of Sight on Target

Aerial observation and direction

As stated artillery guns were positioned behind the lines to protect the gunners from direct gun fire, and often the forward observers couldn't see the enemy guns. What they could see however was smoke if a pilot dropped a smoke bomb on the enemy battery. The rising smoke was used as a target marker and the forward observer's direct fire onto a position identified by a pilot dropping a smoke bomb. Once wireless radio was fitted into aircraft the pilots or navigator could act as the forward observer and direct the firing from the air.

Observation balloons

The other method of aerial observation was via Observation balloons which provided the advantage of height.

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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      I guess a satnav would have been out of the question in those days :-)

    • GregoryMoore profile image

      Gregory Moore 

      5 years ago from Louisville, KY

      Very well done and informative. It amazes me how things got done before everything was electronic and laser controlled.

    • ManipledMutineer profile image


      5 years ago

      Very informative, thank you!

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      An Bonn Mieata Calmachata / The Military Medal for Gallantry.

      On December 4th 1944 the Council of Defence introduced this medal in three classes for awards to members of the Irish Defence Forces who perform acts of gallentry or bravery (other than those performed on War Service) arising out of or associated with military service and involving risk to life and limb above and beyond the call of duty.

      good conduct medal


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