Most famous French artillery gun of First World War arrives at Royal Armouries Fort Nelson

By Culture24 Reporter | 25 June 2014

The Soixante-Quinze, the most famous French artillery piece of the First World War has joined the collection at the Royal Armouries, Fort Nelson

a photo of a man looking at an artillery piece
Visitor Robert Dunn views the Soixante-Quinze© Royal Armouries
The first modern field gun - one of the most famous weapons of the 1914-18 conflict - has gone on display at Fort Nelson for the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

Belying its modest appearance, the French Soixante-Quinze, or ‘75’, holds an unrivalled position in the rapid technological development of artillery during the late 19th century. Firing an unprecedented 15 to 18 rounds per minute, it subjected German troops to a ferocious barrage.

The horse-drawn gun was recently acquired by the Royal Armouries for its national collection of artillery (the big guns) with special assistance from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and is now displayed at Fort Nelson as part of a World War I exhibition which includes the mighty 18-inch, British Railway Gun on loan from the Royal Artillery Historical Trust.

As well as revolutionising artillery warfare, the Soixante-Quinze played a central role in the infamous Dreyfus Affaire, which divided France and centred on the question of guilt or innocence of French army captain, Alfred Dreyfus, who was falsely convicted of treason in 1894 for allegedly selling military secrets to the Germans – including details from the specification of this devastating new gun.

The Royal Armouries’ Keeper of Artillery Nicholas Hall says the gun uses ideas that originated but were overlooked in Germany.

“Its advanced design and its connection with the Affaire Dreyfus make it a key object to illustrate the feverish activity in international politics and the arms race in the years before the outbreak of the First World War," he points out.

“It makes a fascinating comparison with its commercially-produced predecessor, the Schneider 75 mm quick-firing gun, captured during the Boer War, already in the national collection here at Fort Nelson. We also have a contemporary print showing a French artilleryman and a ‘75’ on the move, attached to its limber.”

Drawn by six horses behind a two-wheel limber, the gun had a total weight in travelling order of 1,970 kg, plus 240 kg for the three gunners. It quickly became the mainstay of the French artillery during the First World War and was pressed into service as a mobile, anti-aircraft gun. 

“The ‘75’ was adopted in 1917 by the American artillery when the USA entered the war,” adds Hall.

“It appears that this example was overhauled in the US so was possibly used by the American army.  It is intriguing that the shield, so possibly the carriage too, was dated 1916 – while the barrel is dated 1918, the year of its overhaul.”

With a range of 8,500 metres and an extreme maximum range of 9,500 metres achieved with the HE anti-personnel shell type, the versatile gun continued to have a long and varied service history into the Second World War, remaining the principal armament of the French, Polish, American, Greek, Lithuanian, Portuguese and Romanian armies into the 1940s.

Free French forces used 75s in support of the British in North Africa at Bir Hakeim – and they were used to arm British merchant ships.

The Germans also used the guns, after capturing them from the French, and adapted some as anti-tank guns in 1944, by shortening the barrel and adding a muzzle brake.

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