Comparing Civil War and World War I Ammunition Expenditures

A little off topic today, as I am again doing some research into the World War I artillery.  But here’s a line for you that draws this blog’s Civil War theme to that of the “Great War”:

The entire weight of projectiles fired in such an historic engagement as Gettysburg would supply the artillery for only a few minutes in such intensive bombardments as sowed the soil of Flanders with steel.

The passage is from The Armies of Industry: our nation’s manufacture of munitions for a world in arms, 1917-1918, Volume 4, Part 1.  That work was written shortly after World War I as a semi-official accounting of the mobilization and response of American industry to the war.

Specifically that sentence comes from the section dealing with artillery produced for the war.  The entry to World War I caught the U.S. Army at a low point in many regards – particularly regarding quality and quantity of armaments.  The writers of Armies of Industries chronicled the efforts to produce large numbers of modern artillery from 1917 to 1919.  Of course to explain the gravity of that task, they had to describe why the “Great War” surpassed the efforts needed for previous wars.   One of the charts used referenced the number of projectiles fired on average per artillery piece per day in previous wars:

While not your “USA Today” graphics, the point is clear – ammunition expenditures rose precipitously during World War I.  The Americans used more than seven times the amount of projectiles per day, per gun.

A comparison by battle further demonstrated the increased demand for ammunition:

Sort of takes the starch out of those accounts in Battles and Leaders doesn’t it?   The US Army fired over a million artillery rounds in four days at St. Mihiel (the footnote “2” indicates an artillery preparation of four hours before the battle).  That’s compared to 32,781 in three days at Gettysburg and 7,325 at Chickamauga.  I’d guess that the entire tally of ammunition fired in the Civil War would pale compared to the British expenditure at the Somme in 1916, and might not even surpass that of St. Mihiel.

But we knew that already, right?  As warfare evolved with technology, the rate of fire went up.  But there’s something beyond the numbers left unexamined.  Was the artillery more lethal in World War I?  And would we measure that in terms of casualties per round, or just the technical capacity of the projectile?

But there’s one more comparison between the two wars to call out:

The total cost of the ordnance alone required to equip the first 5,000,000 Americans called to arms [in World War I] was estimated to be between $12,000,000,000 and $13,000,000,000.  This was equal to about half of all the money appropriated by Congresses of the United States from the first Continental Congress down to our declaration of war against Germany – out of which appropriations had been paid the cost of every war we ever fought, including the Civil War, and the whole enormous expense of the Government in every official activity of a hundred and forty years.  To equip with ordnance an army of this size in the period projected meant the expenditure of money at a rate which would build a Panama Canal complete every thirty days.

And that expenditure would look small compared to analogous figures for World War II.  Not only did warfare become more lethal in the 20th century, it became more expensive.


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