Canon de 75 mle 1897

The Canon de 75 mle 1897, or the ‘French 75’, was the most famous artillery weapon of the First World War, and when it first appeared was a revolutionary design that made most existing artillery obsolete.

In the years before the arrival of the ‘75’ a great deal of effort had gone into finding ways to absorb the recoil forces from an artillery gun. For smaller guns a variety of spring based systems had been introduced, while larger coastal guns were beginning to use a German system in which a piston moved slowly through a fluid, using the principles of hydraulics to absorb the recoil forces.

Battery of French 75s at Verdun
Battery of
French 75s at Verdun

The French breakthrough was to shrink this system down to a size where it could be used on field guns. One piston was attached to the lower rear of the barrel. This was forced back when the gun fired, and pushed a piston in the first of two gas and oil filled tubes mounted on the carriage. The oil from this upper tube was forced into the lower tube, producing the pressure that was then used to push the barrel back to its starting position (the recuperator). The pistons had a series of holes through it, and passed through a mix of water and glycerine. Almost none of the recoil forces reached the carriage, which could fairly easily be kept in place between shots. This system remained top secret for many years, although the other European powers soon came up with similar systems of their own. The French system was a great advance, although it did require a long recoil, of 1.22m.

The ‘75’ also used a Nordenfeld breach, which could be opened and closed by flicking a level, and one piece shells, with the shell and propellant cases joined together. This gave the ‘75’ a rate of fire of up to 28 rounds per minute. The ‘75’ had a longer range and greater rate of fire than its German contemporary, the 7.7cm Feldkanone 96 n/A or the British Ordnance, QF, 15-pounder, a similar calibre weapon.

The ‘75’ was an internal French government design. The project was initiated by General Charles P. Mathieu, the director of artillery, and led by Colonel Albert Deport, director of the Chatillon-Commentry Gun foundry at Puteaux. It first entered production at the Atelier de Bourges. It then entered production at Schneider, where much larger numbers were built. Even so the ‘75’ was a complex gun to build, and each gun was effectively hand built, slowing down the rate of production.

The ‘75’ fitted well into the pre-war French theory of the offensive. The theory was that masses of French infantry, supported by large numbers of rapid firing ‘75s’, would overwhelm any German defensive positions. By the outbreak of war the French had 1,100 75s in service.

The battles of the Frontiers of France in 1914 soon disproved these theories. Although the ‘75’ was indeed an impressive field gun, it was unable to overcome the advantages held by the defenders in 1914. The French suffered massive casualties in the opening battles of the First World War, and the ‘75’ proved to have a number of problems in combat. The first was the light weight of its shells, at only just over 6kg, which reduced the amount of damage they could do to German defensive positions. The second was its low trajectory, which meant that it wasn’t very effective in trench warfare, where high trajectory shells were far more effective. 

French '75s' at Fort Douaumont
French '75s' at Fort Douaumont

Despite these failings, the ‘75’ became an icon of French resistance during the First World War, becoming famous as the ‘gun that saved France’. Songs were written about it, and it was frequently lauded by the media. In truth the French army was desperate for heavier guns, with higher trajectory, that didn’t need to be used in such vast numbers or so close to the front line, but the vast number of ‘75s’ that were being constructed left the French army with little choice.

The ‘75’ was used to arm the first French tanks, the Schneider CA.1 and the Saint Chamond M.16. They were also used as basic anti-aircraft weapons, using a variety of mountings.

The ‘75’ was still in use in large numbers at the start of the Second World War. Many of these guns were captured by the Germans in 1940, and entered German service as the 7.5cm Feldkanone 231(f) or 7.5cm FK97(f). Most of these guns were used in the Atlantic Wall or for garrison troops. It was also pressed into service as an emergency anti-tank gun after the Germans encountered the T-34, as the 7.5cm Pak 97/38, carried on a Pak 38 anti-tank carriage.

The ‘75’ became the main American artillery gun of the First World War. The American Army arrived in France without any artillery of its own, and requested the ‘75’. Plans were also put in place to produce the gun in the United States, but the French refused to share the detailed design drawings. As a result the Americans had to dismantle and analyse the guns they had been given. They soon realised that the basic ‘75’ was over-complex and slow to build, and produced a greatly improved version of their own. The American version of the ‘75’ went on to be one of the main American field artillery gun of the inter-war period. It also became the basis of the 75mm gun used on the American medium tanks, including the M3 Lee/ Grant and the first versions of the M4 Sherman. Some of the US guns were used in the early battles in the Pacific, while others equipped the British army in 1940-41, after most of the British 25-pounders were lost in France.

Name

Canon de 75 mle 1897

Calibre

75mm (2.95in)

Barrel Length

2.587m (101.85in)

Weight for transport

1,970kg (4,343lb)

Weight in action

1,140kg (2,514lb)

Elevation

-11 to +18 degrees

Traverse

6 degrees

Shell Weight

6.195kg (13.66lb)

Muzzle Velocity

575m (1,886ft)/ sec

Maximum Range

11,000m (12,030 yards)

Rate of Fire

20-30 rounds/ min

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Weapons of World War I, general editor Chris Bishop. A useful collection of articles on the main weapons of the First World War, based on Orbis's War Machine of the 1980s. Still accurate despite its relative age, well illustrated and supported by some informative general articles, and provides a good overview of the military technology of the Great War. [read full review]
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Books on the First World War | Subject Index: First World War

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (12 February 2019), Canon de 75 mle 1897 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_canon_de_75_mle_1897.html

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