Artillery in the 19th century was often divided into two arms: field artillery which accompanied the army in the field and siege artillery which was used to reduce fortifications. Siege artillery usually were heavy weapons which required considerable logistic support to deploy and support. Since the primary means of moving guns was by animal teams heavy guns were designed to be broken down into towable sections and reassembled at the firing point.
The usefulness of heavy guns was demonstrated by the Japanese in the siege of Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05. The Japanese, after immense effort, deployed 28cm licence-built Krupp howitzers above Port Arthur and destroyed the fortifications and Russian warships in the harbour. This point wasn't lost on the Russians who approached Schneider et Cie in 1909 to design a new 11 inch (279.4mm) siege howitzer with a range of 6000m for the Russian Army as part of a general upgrade of Russian artillery.
Schneider delivered a prototype to the Russian Army for testing in 1912. The new howitzer was tested against fortifications built for the purpose and although the projectiles were found to be unable to penetrate modern reinforced concrete fortifications the performance of the gun was considered generally satisfactory. The Russians ordered 16 Schneider howitzers for delivery in 1915. The French Army also showed interest in this howitzer to replace its 270mm De Bange Mle 1885 howitzers. However, the French Assembly dithered until 1913 before authorising an order for 18 howitzers when it became obvious that the political situation in Europe was deteriorating and war was likely.
Initially, it was intended that the French guns would be 280mm calibre but this was later dropped and all howitzers produced were 279.4mm - the Russian calibre. The French and Russian order guns were not identical with differences in the breech. After delays caused by the general mobilisation in August 1914 the first howitzers were delivered in late 1915.
The Schneider gun design was fairly conventional with an interrupted screw breech block with de Bange obturation. The barrel length was L/12 with a maximum muzzle velocity of 418 m/sec which gave a range of 10,950m. The recoil/recuperator was a hydro-pneumatic system similar to many other French guns. However, unlike the siege howitzers of other countries where the trunnions were fairly high set to allow for the recoil of the barrel at high elevations the Schneider relied on a pit dug below the baseplate for the gun to recoil into. The effect of this was that the gun didn't need the large earth boxes of other guns for stability and could rely on a pair of rectangular plates pressed onto the ground at the back of the baseplate for stability. Optionally the howitzer could be fitted with a gun shield.
The Schneider howitzer was designed to be transported in four sections: the barrel, recuperator assembly, gun carriage and the baseplate. The design of the carriages for the gun components was different from most other countries. Rather than have a simple frame between the axles that the gun components rested on the Schneider carriages used the component itself as the carriage frame and attached the wheels via a beam bolted to the gun component. While this certainly saved weight the carriages proved to be quite fragile and couldn't be towed at much more than a walking pace (7 km/hr). Later variants of the carriages added suspension and rubber tires but the inherent problems with the design were never eradicated. French practice was to tow pairs of carriages with heavy tractors, Russian intent was to tow single carriages with horse teams . Latil gun tractors were most often used but other types of tractor were also used.
The howitzer was designed to be supplied via a 60cm gauge railway. Projectiles were brought on carriages from the dump to the rear of the howizer. The projectiles were transferred to a loading cart by a crane positioned on the rear of the carriage. It should be noted that French Army engineers were highly efficient at laying 60cm gauge tracks.
Deploying the gun required first digging a recoil hole, this had to be aligned with the direction of fire, for the similar 240mm M1918 howitzer the hole was 2.1m x 1.8m x 0.9m. The sequence of assembly is shown in (1) for the similar 240mm M1918 US Howitzer. In ideal conditions the howitzer could be assembled in 6 to 8 hours although in difficult ground this could easily be up to 18 hours. There was a sheet steel box under the baseplate which fitted into the recoil hole, presumably to cope with slumping of the soil into the recoil hole.
The howitzers were deployed initially in two gun batteries but this was later increased to three gun batteries. The debut of the howitzer in action was at Verdun in April 1916 where it was used in counter-battery fire and to attack fortifications held by the Germans. The counter attack on Fort Douaumont in May 1916 showed that the 280mm projectiles were unable to penetrate modern fortifications as had been shown in the 1912 trials, although to be fair the German 42cm (Dicke Berthe) projectiles had been unsuccessful in penetrating the Fort Douaumont.
|Weight of Gun (emplaced)||16,218kg|
|Elevation||+10° to +65°|
|Max. Range||at 418m/sec - 10950m|
|at 315m/sec - 8350m|
The howitzers could fire 3 different types of projectile:
Acier AT Mle 1914 - 205 kg (63.6 kg HE)
Acier AC Mle 1915 - 275 kg (51.5kg HE)
FA AT Mle 1915 - 205 kg (36.3kg HE)
The shell types AT and FA (Iron) had 13 propellant loads giving muzzle velocities from 178 to 418 m/sec. The AC shell type had 9 propellant loads giving muzzle velocities from 196 to 315 m/sec. (Acier = Steel)
By the end of war 126 howitzers had been delivered to the French Army and 26 to the Russians before the 1917 revolution. In addition another 25 were installed on St Chamond chassis as the 280 TR Schneider sur affuût-chenilles St Chamond self-propelled guns. The Schneider howitzers were used in counter-battery fire as well as attacks on fortifications which had resisted field artillery fire. Generally they were well liked by the gunners although it was felt the projectiles were too large for counter-battery fire and had insufficient penetration on the most massive fortifications. The howitzers were a valuable asset during the static phase of the war but became less useful when the war moved to a mobile campaign in late 1918.
The Schneider howitzer remained in service with the French Army until WW2. Perhaps one of the most important actions of these guns in WW2 was in front of the fortress at Chaberton on the French-Italian border in May 1940 where four Schneider howitzers demolished the fortress (2). The German Army captured and used some 72 of these howitzers as the 28cm Morser 601(f) even as late as 1944. The Red Army captured and used the Russian order howitzers, there were 25 still in service in June 1941. The following images are from the Bundesarchiv and show a 280mm Schneider in Wehrmacht service in 1944 in Russia.
As far as is known no complete 280mm Schneider howitzer exists. There is a barrel and recoil assembly outside the Museum of the Polish Army in Warsaw. The barrel markings indicate this is from a Russian order 280mm howitzer.
The US Army was lacking heavy guns during WW1 and decided to build a variant of the Schneider 280mm howitzer in the US. A smaller calibre of 240mm was chosen with a longer L/21 barrel. Schneider supplied blueprints of the 280mm howitzer and technical help to convert the French design for US manufacture. Although the first howitzer wasn't completed until after the Armistice the M1918 howitzer was manufactured in reasonable numbers - some 192 were built in the 1920s. Unlike the Schneider it wasn't much liked by the US Army so it didn't see any significant service in WW2 and was replaced by the 240mm M1 Howitzer ("Black Dragon") in 1943.
1. Popular Science April 1942
2. Destruction of Fort Chaberton
The primary information for this article came from:
Guy François "Le Mortier de 280 TR Schneider", Histoire de Guerre, Blindés & Materiel, No. 97, pp.26 - 34. (French)
"The Field Artillery Journal". Vol.VII No.4. October-December 1917. The United States Field Artillery Association, Washington, D. C.
"The Field Artillery Journal". Vol.XII No.4. July-August 1922. The United States Field Artillery Association, Washington, D. C.