Canon de 120 mm modèle 1878

The Canon de 120 mm modèle 1878 was a French siege artillery developed after the Franco-Prussian War for the French forts.

Colonel Charles Ragon de Bange began working out a new strategy for the French army in 1878 after the lost Franco-Prussian War. One of the aspects was the development of new artillery guns, which was tendered on 11 May 1874 in an official army requirement. The aim was to introduce heavy 120 mm, 155 mm and 240 mm calibre guns.

The Canon de 120 mm modèle 1878, unlike its predecessor, was made entirely of steel to reduce wear and increase stability. The gun also had a De Bange breech and two wooden spoke wheels for transport.

It had a similar fire rate and range to the larger 155 mm gun, but was lighter and more manoeuvrable. Since these guns were also to be used predominantly in the French fortresses, it received a quite long barrel so that it reached over the parapet.



Canon de 120 mm modèle 1878



At the beginning of the First World War, the French army had 2.417 of these guns. However, most of them were in the fortresses and therefore only 120 guns were available for the front.

However, after the war of the Movement had changed to the War of the Position, the French army had to withdraw the medium and heavy guns from the fortresses and bring them to the front. This also showed that the Canon de 120 mm modèle 1878 was no longer state of the art. On the one hand the preparation of a suitable platform for the gun required a lot of time and work, on the other hand the gun did not have its own recoil mechanism, which first had to be attached to the platform and then connected to the weapon. This meant that the gun had to be realigned after each shot.

The later attachment of plates to the spoke wheels at least meant that no platform had to be built and the ground pressure was reduced so that the guns were easier to pull in the mud.



120 mm guns near Somme in 1915


A 120 mm gun in its position at the front


A 120 mm gun in its position at the front


A position of 120 mm guns conquered by Germany



At the end of 1914 some experiments began to let the guns be pulled by trucks. This should make it possible to increase the maximum speed of the guns from 4 kilometres per hour with horses to up to 10 kilometres per hour with trucks. The experiments were successful, so that in 1915 it was begun to equip 100 guns with trucks. During the second Champagne battle, however, it became apparent that the gun trailers were not designed for such high speed and terrain. 60% of the guns did not reach the front because they were damaged during transport.



A 120 mm gun is brought to the front by a truck


120 mm guns wait with their trucks for transport



Until the end of the war, 526 of the 120 mm guns were in use at the front in the French army. After the war, many were sold to countries such as Finland, Italy and Poland.

As before the First World War, France used most of its guns mainly in fortresses until the Second World War. In 1940, when the German Wehrmacht invaded France, the French army still had about 600 guns. Many of them could be captured by Germany after France's surrender and used in the Atlantic Wall.

Italy also used most of its 120 mm guns from France in the Second World War against British troops.



Destroyed Italian 120 mm guns




Data sheet:

Designation: Canon de 120 mm modèle 1878
Manufacturing country: France
Introductory year: 1878
Number of pieces: about 2.500 pieces
Calibers: 120 mm
Tube length: 3,25 meters
Range: Max. 10.000 meters
Weight: 2,75 tons






You can find the right literature here:


Flesh and Steel During the Great War: The Transformation of the French Army and the Invention of Modern Warfare

Flesh and Steel During the Great War: The Transformation of the French Army and the Invention of Modern Warfare Hardcover – October 30, 2018

Michel Goya’s Flesh and Steel during the Great War is one of the most thoughtful, stimulating and original studies of the conflict to have appeared in recent years. It is a major contribution towards a deeper understanding of the impact of the struggle on the Western Front on the theory and practice of warfare in the French army. In a series of incisive, closely argued chapters he explores the way in which the senior commanders and ordinary soldiers responded to the extraordinary challenges posed by the mass industrial warfare of the early twentieth century.

In 1914 the French army went to war with a flawed doctrine, brightly-colored uniforms and a dire shortage of modern, heavy artillery How then, over four years of relentless, attritional warfare, did it become the great, industrialized army that emerged victorious in 1918?

To show how this change occurred, the author examines the pre-war ethos and organization of the army and describes in telling detail how, through a process of analysis and innovation, the French army underwent the deepest and fastest transformation in its history.

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Breaking Point of the French Army: The Nivelle Offensive of 1917

Breaking Point of the French Army: The Nivelle Offensive of 1917 Hardcover – November 2, 2015

In December 1916 General Robert Nivelle was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the French armies fighting the Germans on the Western Front. He had enjoyed a meteoric rise to high command and public acclaim since the beginning of the war - he was a national hero. In return, he proclaimed he ‘had the formula’ that would ensure victory and end the conflict in 1917. But his offensive was a bloody and humiliating failure for France, one that could have opened the way for French defeat.

This is the subject of David Murphy’s penetrating, in-depth study of one of the key events in the history of the Great War. He describes how Nivelle, a highly intelligent and articulate officer, used his charm to win the support of French and British politicians, but also how he was vain and boastful and displayed no sense of operational security. By the opening of the campaign, his plan was an open secret and he had lost the ability to critically assess the operation as it developed. The result was disaster.

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They Shall Not Pass: The French Army on the Western Front 1914-1918

They Shall Not Pass: The French Army on the Western Front 1914-1918 Hardcover – May 19, 2012

This graphic collection of first-hand accounts sheds new light on the experiences of the French army during the Great War. It reveals in authentic detail the perceptions and emotions of soldiers and civilians who were caught up in the most destructive conflict the world had ever seen.
Their testimony gives a striking insight into the mentality of the troops and their experience of combat, their emotional ties to their relatives at home, their opinions about their commanders and their fellow soldiers, the appalling conditions and dangers they endured, and their attitude to their German enemy. In their own words, in diaries, letters, reports and memoirs - most of which have never been published in English before - they offer a fascinating inside view of the massive life-and-death struggle that took place on the Western Front.
Ian Sumner provides a concise narrative of the war in order to give a clear context to the eyewitness material. In effect the reader is carried through the experience of each phase of the war on the Western Front and sees events as soldiers and civilians saw them at the time. This emphasis on eyewitness accounts provides an approach to the subject that is completely new for an English-language publication.
The author’s pioneering work will appeal to readers who may know something about the British and German armies on the Western Front, but little about the French army which bore the brunt of the fighting on the allied side. His book represents a milestone in publishing on the Great War.

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Artillery in the Great War

Artillery in the Great War Hardcover – May 18, 2011

Artillery was the decisive weapon of the Great War - it dominated the battlefields. Yet the history of artillery during the conflict has been neglected, and its impact on the fighting is inadequately understood. Paul Strong and Sanders Marble, in this important and highly readable study, seek to balance the account.Their work shows that artillery was central to the tactics of the belligerent nations throughout the long course of the conflict, in attack and in defense. They describe, in vivid detail, how in theory and practice the use of artillery developed in different ways among the opposing armies, and they reveal how artillery men on all sides coped with the extraordinary challenges that confronted them on the battlefield. They also give graphic accounts of the role played by artillery in specific operations, including the battles of Le Cateau, the Somme and Valenciennes.Their work will be fascinating reading for anyone who is keen to understand the impact of artillery

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