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The creeping barrage

Media: Stepthrough
  • The creeping barrage was perfected on the Somme in 1916. At a prearranged time, large numbers of field guns opened fire on a line on which they had previously been ‘registered’ (aimed very accurately). Here this is a defensive line in No Man’s Land made up of coils of barbed wire and other obstructions to movement on foot. In practice there were usually several intermediate targets.

  • After a predetermined number of minutes – and hopefully, when the first wave of attacking troops was about to arrive – the curtain of fire would ‘lift’ (move forward) onto the next target. This simulation shows the German front line trench, whose occupants are forced to take cover while Allied troops cross the open ground in front of them.

  • A successful creeping barrage matched the fire of hundreds of guns to the pace of heavily burdened men crossing rough terrain littered with obstacles. Things often went wrong. If the barrage lifted too rapidly, the defenders regrouped in time to mow down the attackers. If it lifted too slowly, it killed as many Allied troops as Germans.

First used in 1913 during the siege of Adrianople (Edirne) in the First Balkan War, the creeping barrage became synonymous with the First World War. This important tactic was developed in response to the static, trench-based warfare of the Western Front and the inadequacies of existing artillery barrages.

Perfected during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, it was used with considerable success during the British attacks on Messines and Gravenstafel Spur in 1917, but failed, with disastrous consequences, during the 12 October attack at Bellevue Spur. Not only was this barrage ragged, but the initial shells fell short in places, killing and injuring many New Zealand troops. These problems were caused by the waterlogged, muddy conditions, which stopped some guns from being brought into position and prevented others from achieving a stable platform.

As a tactic, the creeping barrage had a relatively short-lived usefulness. Although occasionally used in the Second World War, it was rendered largely obsolete by the transition from static trench warfare to mobile armoured operations and by the miniaturisation of radios. Once these could be carried by infantry, troops could request artillery support when they needed it.

See also: The creeping barrage infographic on Ngā Tapuwae


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The creeping barrage, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated