Before the outbreak of the First World War the French had given little thought to the use of heavy artillery. Their philosophy stressed mobility and attack, finding the enemy and attacking him before he had time to concentrate his resources, and this required artillery that was above all else mobile, which meant using the much-lauded 75 mm model 1897 field gun. However the recent Balkan wars had shown that guns too heavy for horse teams could now move with an army thanks to motorised transport, but when war came to France in 1914 their few heavy guns were unprepared for the battles to come. Once static trench warfare developed, there was a chronic shortage of such guns which could only partly be met by dragging guns from fortresses, coastal installations, scrapyards and even museums, creating a very mixed force inferior to that of the Germans. Over time of course France addressed the problem by upgrading old guns and producing new designs, and as the war continued, such big guns would become crucial to battlefield tactics for all combatants.
France was ill-prepared in 1914, but not unaware, and in 1913 one Lieutenant-Colonel Filloux began work on designing a new 155 mm gun to fill the gap. This had a barrel almost six metres in length, and was the first heavy gun to have a split trail, giving it an impressive maximum elevation of 35 degrees, and a maximum range of over 16 km. It was called the GPF or ‘Grande Puissance Filloux’ (literally ‘great power’), and from the moment it first went into service in August 1917 it was recognised as a great weapon. It became the standard French heavy artillery piece, and many were still in use in 1940 when France was again invaded. It was also closely copied by the US, which produced the M1918.
So this is one of the great heavy artillery pieces of the First World War, which were so important in the way that conflict was conducted, but is this a great model? Well sadly no. We found it pretty difficult to put together, and while no Strelets kit yet made could be described as a precision model, this one presented more difficulties than many. The pieces are a little rough, and tricky to assemble, but a major problem is the lack of any instructions. All you get is one exploded view of the pieces on the box, and even that shows one piece which is not actually present in the set (the breech balancer), yet fails to show several small pieces which are. Our completed model followed the illustration exactly, but of course we had several pieces left over, and only after we had researched this weapon did we discover what those are for. The dark and obscured rear view on the front of the box is no help either, so you have to do a lot of work yourself with this kit. In general however the basic shape is good and it is faithful to the real thing. Of course it is simplified, even if you stick on all the extra bits the box misses, but it has a good deal of movement as you can swing the trails, turn the wheels, elevate the gun (although nowhere near enough to match the real thing) and swivel it through the 60 degrees of the original. One particularly obvious omission is the small wooden blocks (‘ceinture de roués’) attached to the tyres of the wheels to help it not get bogged down in soft ground (it weighed 13 tonnes after all). What the exploded view does not show you is the double-tyres, but these have been badly done anyway and look pretty dreadful when applied. With patience the parts can be made to fit together better, and the gaps can be filled, but this is not a simple project.
There are ten figures to serve this gun, starting with the man pulling the lanyard. Next a crewman covering his ears, and one holding the ramrod. The pair on the end of the top row are either simply preparing to load a shell or perhaps are setting the fuse, but either way they could be separate, and can be easily cut apart if desired. The pair carrying the shell in the second row is a nice piece, and then we have two officers, one of which is reaching for a field telephone being handed to him. This is all very well, but we wondered why the first officer is holding a pair of binoculars. With a range of 16 km or more he has no hope of actually seeing where the shell drops - that is the job of the forward observers, who are presumably on the other end of the telephone line. This seems to be a leftover from the days when artillery found their targets by line of sight. No one is actually feeding a shell into the gun, which is a shame, since this was not a quick and simple job.
The uniform here is very simple. Everyone is wearing the standard greatcoat, double-breasted as was the norm by 1917 (although button-counters should know there are only five rows here when it should be six!). They wear puttees on the lower legs, and a mix of helmets and the bonnet de police cap, which is fine. The two officers have both chosen to wear the old kepi, which was also common. No man has any form of kit – not even a gas mask case – but one officer has a bag on a belt over one shoulder.
The sculpting on these figures is OK, but detail is a little soft and we thought the officer’s kepis were rather too tall and the stride of the pair carrying the shell is quite flat, with both feet directly behind the one in front as if walking on a tightrope. There is some flash – not a terrible amount, but enough to need cleaning off.
We generally do not care much for Strelets kits, perhaps because we have been spoiled by some of the fine-quality kits other manufacturers can offer, and this one has not improved our opinion. As so often, with a lot of work a decent model can be created, but the lack of proper instructions makes matters a lot worse. The crew are accurately done but we were not convinced that the poses were the best choices, although sadly we could not find any film of this gun actually being operated. In the past World War One artillery, particularly the heavy guns, has not been served well by this hobby, and it is great to see Strelets filling this gap. The results aren’t great, but with some work you can now depict one of the major elements of French artillery during the crucial last year or so of the ‘war to end wars’.