WEAPONRY IN WW1
On 28th October 1914, British soldiers beat back the Germans at Neuve Chapelle, south of Ypres, unaware that the enemy was attacking them with a new weapon. This was ‘Ni-Schrapnell’ – shells filled with a combination of shrapnel and chemical irritants. The fact that the British were unaware of their use, speaks volumes. Early trials of this new gas so underwhelmed the son of General von Falkenhayn, that he spent 5 minutes in a cloud of it – without any protection. This act of bravado caused him no obvious damage and won him a case of champagne! Undeterred, German scientists continued with their research and in April 1915 chlorine gas was released at Ypres with catastrophic effects for the Allies.
Chemical Warfare Begins
The first of Germany’s monstrous ‘Big Bertha’ guns rolled off the production line 100 years ago today. The gun was named after Bertha Krupp, who was married to the Chairman of Germany’s foremost weapons manufacturer. At the time this was the largest and most powerful gun in the world and it was immediately transported to Belgium to help lay siege to Liege.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 9th August 1914
Happy Birthday 'Big Bertha'
Image: Horses carrying 18 pound artillery shells struggle through the Ypres mud.
In October 1914, the British General Staff were greatly concerned about a shortage of ordnance. So meagre was the supply of shells that gunners were ordered to fire no more than 20 rounds of 18 pound shells per gun per day. On 21st October this was halved to 10 rounds and by the end of the month it was down to 2! A difficult position for the outnumbered British army just got a whole lot worse!
British Gunners Forced to Ration Shells
‘His kilt in rags, looking utterly exhausted, a sergeant was forming up his men who stood like sailors being photographed on a shore within sight of their wreck.’ Paul Maze.
Not for the Likes of You!
Image: Soldiers of the Garhwal rifles in a German trench, November 1914.
A trench raid was a simple concept. A small party of soldiers from one side would sneak across to their opponent’s trenches to gather intelligence and do some damage. It was incredibly dangerous and not a task for which soldiers volunteered. Trench raids were carried out at night with the utmost stealth. Skin was blackened - usually with burnt cork - and all unnecessary metal was left behind to avoid a chink or rattle that would alert enemy sentries. Any form of identification was discarded and insignia was removed – for example buttons were replaced with safety pins. On some raids riflemen and bombers worked as teams often packing a range of grizzly home made weapons including clubs, knuckle-dusters and even sharpened entrenching tools (small spades).
The First Trench Raid
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 21st October 1914
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 28th October 1914
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 2nd November 1914
Image: A group of gamekeepers photographed in 1914.
The German army was first to recognize the worth of a skilled sniper. Their best marksmen were organised in teams and equipped with special rifles with telescopic sights. In November 1914 they took a heavy toll of British troops who were working to turn their scrapes into proper trenches. On a single day a British battalion (of 1000 men) lost 18 men to snipers. It was left to each British unit to come up with a response and the 7th Royal West Kent Regiment sought to turn gamekeepers from their ranks into snipers. A battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry opted to use younger soldiers believing them to have a steadier aim. Their youngest, a 14 year old, managed 6 kills.
Gamekeeper Turned Sniper
Image: German snipers were carefully selected and specially equipped. They worked in pairs with one spotting and steadying while the other fired.
With winter tightening its grip, the British army attempted to make their trenches both secure and habitable. However, it was impossible both to carry out construction work and keep fully hidden from the Germans. Enemy snipers found no shortage of targets and took a heavy toll on the toiling Tommies. One battalion (already reduced to a couple of hundred soldiers) had 18 men killed by snipers in one day.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 9th December 1914
Snipers Wreak Havoc
It was a mad idea but it just might work! On 5th January 1915, a committee was established to see if there was any mileage in the proposal for a daring new weapon. Plans for an armoured fighting vehicle had been around for some time – from Michelangelo in the 16th Century to H.G. Wells in the first years of the 20th Century. The disdainful attitude of the military passed the initiative to Winston Churchill at the Admiralty who financed the creation of a prototype to be called ‘Little Willie’ (after Kaiser Wilhelm II). Secrecy was vital and its first name ‘landship’ gave too much away to workers and spies. The committee decided to hide the metal hulk’s true purpose and, as it resembled a water container, they came up with the name ‘cistern’ then ‘reservoir’ before settling on ‘tank’.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 5th January 1915
Can 'Little Willie' Make a Point?
The bayonet was considered an essential weapon in WW1 but soldiers used it more as a convenient tool. It could be stuck into the trench wall as a coat hook, used for toasting bread, for opening cans, to scrape mud off uniforms, stoking fires and even to assist in digging latrine holes. Curiously the official British bayonet training manual gave poor advice regarding the bayonet’s usage. Many soldiers preferred other weapons over the bayonet for hand to hand fighting including improvised clubs, blades or knuckledusters.
Interestingly the biggest manufacturer of the bayonet at the time of the war was Wilkinson Sword who have since relocated to Germany and now specialise in razor blades.
New and Improved Tin Opener - The Bayonet
On Halloween 1914, the ‘Saturday afternoon soldiers’ of the London Scottish had battled to hold back the Germans with defective weapons. Many had opted to throw away their useless, obsolete rifles and had picked up the excellent SMLE (Short Magazine Lee Enfield) from dead British regular army soldiers.
When they came out the line they had lost 394 out of 700 officers and men. They expected their stand to be acknowledged but they did not expect to be berated for discarding their weapons. Those holding the new weapons were told to turn them in with the stinging comment; ‘These rifles were intended for use by regular army soldiers and not by the likes of you!’
Image: The production line at Krupp’s factory, Essen
While German manufacturers were churning out armaments, Britain’s new armies were training with wooden weapons. In February 1915, artillery teams in the U.K. were using wooden hurdles as gun carriages and tree trunks as pretend barrels. The lucky ones had access to Boer War guns (1900-02) or other museum pieces but finding ammunition for firing practice was well-nigh impossible. Worryingly these units would be crossing to France in a couple of months time.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - February 1915
German Gun Production is Booming!
On 15th February 1915, British ammunition was in such short supply that field guns (such as those shown) were rationed to 6 shells per day! Gunners in charge of heavy howitzers (a short barrelled, long range gun) were even worse supplied as their daily allowance was only two rounds. While the guns of Germany seemed to roar incessantly, those of the British army were gradually falling silent. Britain’s commander in chief, Sir John French was becoming increasingly concerned at what was a worsening shell crisis. The key issue was the low level of production in the U.K. where a mere 22,000 rounds were being produced per day. This was only 10% of the amount being churned out by German factories! There were no shells in British depots and those coming off the production line were being delivered straight to the guns.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 15th February 1915
British Ammunition is Running Out!
In 1915 boffins from the Royal Naval Air Service came up with the idea of using an aeroplane engine to power a car. However it was an idea that never quite got off the ground. At their base at Wormwood scrubs, London, a prototype ‘wind wagon’ was built to overcome the problems faced by commanders driving in deserts. It was armed with a machine gun but was very vulnerable to attack from the side or rear. This flight of fancy created its own desert storm but was quickly withdrawn.
The Original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?
For an interesting outing this Easter, consider the state of the art ‘Devil’s Porridge’ museum. Work began in late 1915 to build a new munitions factory near Gretna to help combat the shortage of artillery shells. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle dubbed this facility as ‘the greatest factory on earth’ and at its height it employed 20,000 people mostly women in the production of cordite – a propellant for shells and bullets. The factory was enormous and stretched 12 miles, incorporated 125 miles of railway track, and had a telephone exchange that handled 2.5 million calls in 1918.
The Greatest Factory on Earth
On this day in 1915 specially recruited British troops were burrowing silently through layers of Flanders clay. Their location was a few miles south of Ypres beneath a 60m high mound - known for obvious reasons as Hill 60. Many of these miners had helped construct the London underground or had dug on the coal faces of Yorkshire and Wales. They worked by candlelight, stripped to the waist and in humid, airless conditions. On a good day they might advance their tunnel by around 18 inches always hoping that enemy would not detect them before they had the chance to pack their mine with explosives and blow them to kingdom come.
Dig for Victory!
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 11th April 1915
Everyone was talking about an article that had appeared in the ‘Times’ two days previously. That paper’s military correspondent, Colonel Repington blamed recent British army failures on a shortage of ordnance. The scandal ran until Asquith’s Liberal Government collapsed and a coalition was formed. Surprisingly Repington’s information largely came from the Commander in Chief of the British Army, Sir John French.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 17th May 1915
Britain Gripped By Shell Crisis
Soldiers at the front bemoaned shortages of all manner of basic items and were regularly forced to improvise. Lacking an adequate supply of grenades, Tommies created their own ‘Batty bombs’ using salvaged jam tins that they stuffed with guncotton and scraps of metal. When oil and rags were in short supply, soldiers used pork fat and strips torn from their shirts to keep their rifles functioning. The Government was already moving to address these scandalous shortages.
Exploding Jam Tins
In early 1915, Frank Richards lost a close friend, Private P. Stevens to the war’s ‘deadliest combatant’. Richards and Stevens were in a front line trench at Bois-Grenier near Armentieres and were laughing at the antics of a comrade trying to fix a trench pump. Suddenly Stevens appeared to sit down, drilled through the head by a sniper. Stevens – a married man with children - lived for around 15 minutes. Once Richards recovered from the shock of losing his pal he noticed a slight dip in the lip of the trench. The sniper would have been watching that spot for just such an opportunity.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 25th May 1915
The Deadliest Combatant Scores Again
This image (courtesy of Mercury Press) shows that German shells came in a range of sizes. By contrast British ammunition came infrequently! On the 28th May 1915, shells for British guns were so scarce that Sir John French was forced to order that army operations be restricted to “small aggressive threats which will not require much ammunition or many troops”. For the next 4 months the British army would have to sit tight as they awaited supplies from home.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 28th May 1915
In May 1915 the term ‘Canadian club’ did not refer to whisky but to a useless weapon. The Ross rifle that was standard issue to Canadian soldiers was proving next to useless. One Canadian officer wrote, “It is nothing short of murder to send out men against the enemy with such a weapon.” It was too long for effective use in the confines of a trench and it often misfired. Occasionally a pull on the trigger would either send the bolt flying back into the soldier’s face or the bayonet spinning from the muzzle. They were also prone to jamming and during combat soldiers were seen kicking at their weapon to free the bolt and allow them to reload. Canadian soldiers generally threw away their Ross when they came across a spare Lee Enfield and eventually (as shown in the photo) they were collected in.
Cutting Back on the Canadian Club
On 31st May, London experienced its first attack by Germany’s latest weapon of mass destruction. A 200m long, hydrogen filled Zeppelin purred over the capital and dropped 90 incendiary bombs and 30 grenades. Only 7 civilians were killed and 35 were wounded in the raid but the greatest impact was psychological as Londoners realised that this war was ‘total’ and that there was no such thing as non-combatants.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 31st May 1915
The First London Blitz
In June 1915, The British artillery had fallen silent as stocks of shells were wiped out. France was also struggling to feed its guns and on 1st June, a million conscripts were sent - not to the front line as originally intended - but to factories to produce bullets and shells. On that same day, the first women began working in British munition factories. On 3rd June Lloyd George declared that it was the absolute duty of every citizen to place his life and labour at the disposal of the State and on the following day Winston Churchill stated that ‘the whole nation must be mobilised’.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 1st June 1915
Debut of the Munitionettes
German Zeppelin raids prompted a demand that Britain produce airships of their own. Barnes Wallis – the man who designed the bouncing bombs for the WW2 Dambusters raid – was the man given the task of creating a British version of the craft. Three revolutionary airships were planned but the first of these was not ready to fly until 5 days before the war ended and never saw active service. The sheds at Cardington, Bedfordshire in which these airships were built now house film sets.
Zeppelins and Bouncing Bombs
The production of bullets, shells, uniforms and guns officially came under the control of David Lloyd George on this day in 1915. As Minister of Munitions he was responsible for all aspects of weapons production from the procurement of raw materials to the wages and conditions of workers. His Ministry quickly became Britain’s largest buyer, seller and employer (with 3 million employees)!
By George, He's Got It
The British army took a major step towards matching enemy firepower with the official adoption of the Lewis gun on this day in 1915. This highly portable machine gun used a pan magazine that commonly held up to 100 bullets. It was invented in the U.S.A. but army chiefs there showed little enthusiasm for its revolutionary design. In frustration, Colonel Lewis headed for Britain where he received support from B.S.A. (Birmingham Small Arms) and the Ministry of Munitions. Royalties for each weapon produced made Isaac Lewis a very wealthy man.