A renowned French ‘75’ – the first modern field gun and one of the most famous weapons of the 1914-18 conflict – has gone on display at Fort Nelson as Royal Armouries joins the nation in commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of The Great War.

The French Soixante-Quinze holds an unrivalled position in the rapid technological development of artillery during the late 19th century and fired an unprecedented 15 t0 18 rounds per minute – subjecting German troops to a ferocious barrage.

The gun also played a central role in the infamous Dreyfus Affaire, which divided France. The controversy centred on the question of guilt or innocence of French army captain, Alfred Dreyfus, falsely convicted of treason in 1894 for allegedly selling military secrets to the Germans – including details from the specification of this devastating new gun.

Royal Armouries recently acquired the horse-drawn gun to mark the First World War’s centenary, with special assistance from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

Royal Armouries’ Keeper of Artillery Nicholas Hall said, “This gun uses ideas that originated in Germany but were not taken up there. 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.

“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.”

The Soixante-Quinze, or 75mm, quick-firing field gun, was the mainstay of the French field artillery during the First World War and it was also pressed into service as a mobile, anti-aircraft gun.

Nicholas added, “The ‘75’ was adopted in 1917 by the American artillery, when the USA entered the war. 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 – whilst the barrel is dated 1918, the year of its overhaul.”

The ‘75’ continued to have a long and varied service history into the Second World War and it remained the principal armament of the French, Polish, American, Greek, Lithuanian, Portuguese and Romanian armies into the 1940s.

The Free French 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.

Fact File:
MAXIMUM RANGE: 8,500 metres. An extreme maximum range of 9,500 metres was achieved with the HE anti-personnel shell type.

RATE OF FIRE: 15 to 18 rounds per minute.

BARREL ASSEMBLY: Barrel length 34.5 calibres (rifled length 29.7 calibres). Nordenfelt oscillating block breech with interrupted screw.

MOUNTING: Box trail. Long recoil using hydropneumatic recuperator [recoil length 1.2 m]. Fitted with shield.

TRANSPORT: Drawn by six horses behind a two-wheel limber (total weight in travelling order 1,970 kg, plus 240 kg for the three gunners).

The ‘75’ will be displayed at Fort Nelson as part of a WWI exhibition which already includes the mighty 18-inch, British Railway Gun. This is on loan from the Royal Artillery Historical Trust,

Fort Nelson, near Fareham, is home to the national collection of artillery – the big guns. In 2011, this unique heritage attraction underwent a major redevelopment to create a museum for the 21st century, supported by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, complete with new galleries, state-of-the-art education centre and visitor facilities, including a café with views over Portsmouth Harbour.

Museum admission and car parking are free.

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Notes to editors

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