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Podcast 39: Weapons Of War

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As they came on, they really were terrifying. This, just a sheet of flame coming in front, you see, and smoke and that sort of thing. But it was rather terrifying to see them coming…

It was essential for soldiers during the First World War to be properly armed for combat. As operations grew in scale, weapons evolved to keep pace with them and to enable them to be fought. At the start of the war, however, members of the British Army trained with very basic weapons. British officer John Grover explained.

Well, the conception of training in 1914 at the outbreak of the war was largely based on the experience of the Boer War. Which meant that the basic weapon from the infantry point of view was the rifle, from which a very high degree of rapid fire – up to fifteen rounds a minute with a bolt action weapon – was regarded as essential. There were very few machine-guns – there were only two in a battalion and they were not even taught at Sandhurst. There were no mortars or grenades and we were given very little training in the use of other arms.

The standard British service rifle during the First World War was the Short Lee Enfield. Harry Smith of the Norfolk Regiment learned how to use one during his training in Britain in 1915.

You’d either go down as a firing party or as a marking squad and you’d be in the butts. Well you know what the – one target up and one down, and while they’re firing at one target you’re pasting the holes up in the other, up and down. Well then you’d got your old men on your wooden three-ply on a pole which you waved, and another one was straight up, so many seconds – all done on the whistle – an officer in charge at the butts. Of course, the most interesting from my point of view was firing five rounds at a hundred yards in your own time.

British private William Gillman explained the importance that was placed on keeping his rifle ready for action.

That was the holy of holies: your rifle was your best friend, that’s what we were taught from the word go. You had to keep it clean and they were inspected every drill on every day, examined port arm so that the officer could look down. You put your thumb behind where the aperture of the bullet was fired from and you could look down the barrel and you could see your thumbnail. If you could see your thumbnail and it was clear and you could see the sides of the rifle too. It was all shiny. It showed up the slightest bit of dirt that was there. We had a piece of flannel and also you could get some oil, and oil that. And it had a long cord on the end with a little bit of metal, like a nail on the end. You’d drop it through the barrel and then pull it right through and that cleaned the barrel as clean as a whistle: you could see the rifle inside the barrel. But that was a real must and I think everybody observed it. Because there was heavy penalties – if you got caught with a dirty rifle, you were in trouble.

Rifles were standard issue throughout the war, but were particularly effective at its start. Thomas Painting described how he and the other highly trained soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force made use of them at the Battle of Mons in August 1914.

It was our training, you see, to do that. Fire and movement was what it was called, fire and movement. That was the basic training of it, you see. And, of course, we were all trained to fire fifteen rounds a minute rapid, you see. And they were all aimed shot, you see. You didn’t fire fifteen rounds rapid unless there was something, some emergency for it, you see. You got to beat off an attack. If they were coming to attack you in strong force, like assault you, then you’d put as much fire into them as you could. But you couldn’t expend your ammunition because you’d got to get it up, you see. Ordinary slow fire was… unless it was an emergency, when you fired rapid.

New recruits to the Army were also trained to use bayonets. These were sharp weapons fixed on the end of a rifle, effectively turning it into a spear. Leonard Gordon Davies of the Royal Fusiliers wasn’t keen on them.

This great big sack was hung up on a string, wires up from the ceiling. We had to charge into this with our bayonets fixed and you had to assume that it was a person, because it was a heavy thing. You had to pull it in, you were told how to twist it and pull it out again. All these sort of businesses which I thought were pretty awful. We had to know how to do these things if we ever met it. That was the part of the training when you really began to think that you’ve got to beat a man in front of you. We thought the Huns were a really bad lot of people. But when it came to the point – like it did once or twice with me – of sticking a bayonet into a piece of human flesh, I would have to be attacked very severely, I think, first to defend myself before I would have a go at him.

Despite having bayonet training, many soldiers were reluctant to use them in practice. British NCO Frank Raine explained why he didn’t.

Well I never used a bayonet. I couldn’t face sticking a bayonet into anybody. I could’ve done it, but I didn’t do it. Safer shooting: I always used to say, if ever it comes to bayonet fighting, I’m having a bullet in the breach. And that’s what happened with me. Instead of going near enough to use your bayonet, you could kill him from two or three yards with a bullet – no personal contact. That appeared obvious.

While attacking a German trench in July 1917, Ulick Burke found that a German soldier he met had no qualms about using his bayonet.

I jumped into the trench and a German put his bayonet up and I’m afraid I caught it in the right shoulder, right across my back and just missing my spine. I was impaled on this. My only fear was that he would press the trigger which would have made a hell of a mess. In the meantime, my sergeant – who was near – he saw me; came in close; shot the fellow and then hoisted me, with the help of another man, off the bayonet. Because I was on top of the man you see. He was dead and it wasn’t pleasant. A bayonet wound directly it goes in it hurts and the withdrawal is probably further anguish than the ‘putting in’ because the ‘putting in’ is instantaneous.

Another type of weapon was the trench club. These could be employed on trench raids and in close quarter fighting. Bill Haine of the Honourable Artillery Company remembered them.

We made sort of trench clubs, you know. Most of us carried a stick as well as a rifle because that was just to balance you. We were carrying so much stuff that in this mud and slime you had a stick. And some fellows made these, sort of, knobkerrie things – whether they used them or not is another thing. Of course we were always very near the Hun in those days; the trenches were sort of anything from thirty yards to a couple of hundred yards away from them. And, as I say, some of these people used these trench clubs.

Hand grenades, also known as bombs, were widely and effectively used during the war. Early on, the designs were fairly basic. Ralph Cooney was trained in the use of so-called ‘cricket ball’ grenades in 1915.

It was quite elementary because the bomb had only been recently introduced into the service in the war. It was set up on Clapham Common behind this enormous corrugated iron screen with a circular area and there was a lot of security about it. It was a week’s course and they taught us about the hand bomb which was just a thing like a cricket ball made of iron, I suppose, and loaded with ammonal, I think. And it had a fuse and you had a brassard on you, and you took the waterproof top off and struck the lighter and the fuse burnt. You held it while you counted five and then you threw it. When it landed, it went off. But unfortunately, the first chap who took us out to demonstrate it, he’d thrown his bomb and somehow or other a large dog that had got in ran after it, picked it up and came back with it. Which somewhat startled the audience who went in all directions! But they didn’t get hurt.

From 1915, German troops used what the British called ‘stick grenades’. British NCO Clifford Lane felt that they contributed to the Germans’ superiority in armaments.

Apart from the rifle itself, they’d got more weapons and better weapons than us. Apart from the Lee-Enfield rifle, short Lee-Enfield, which I think was superior to the German rifle. I think the Germans were better equipped all round because they’d got bombs, hand grenades – we hadn’t got any hand grenades! And the Germans had got these stick bombs, which were highly efficient. They were light, you see, there was a stick with a canister on the end which was filled with explosive. They weren’t heavy bombs, they were light bombs. They could throw them, I suppose, 40 or 50 yards – 40 yards anyway. And they would break into very small pieces. They were light, very light pieces of metal but they were very effective.

At first, the British Army had to improvise its own grenades. Jack Dorgan of the Northumberland Fusiliers explained why these were known as ‘jam tin grenades’.

The trenches were so near that our engineers improvised the forerunner of the Mills bomb. They were made out of the ordinary jam tin and you filled the bottom half of the jam tin with gunpowder of some kind and then you put a layer of clay on the top. And then you had a length of fuse wire and a fuse with a detonator on one end and two open ends on the other end of the wire. And you shoved the detonator through the covering clay into the gunpowder, with the wire fuse hanging out. Then the top half of the jam tin our engineers supplied us with boxes of bolts and any old piece of scrap iron and you filled the whole of that up. And then we had tape which fastened down the lid of the jam tin. And that was the jam tin bomb.

Many types of hand grenade were produced during the war, but the one that was the most widely used was the Mills bomb, first introduced in 1915. British private Herbert Cooper described them.

We had I suppose five or six Mills bombs which we put into a little alcove in the sandbags, in case they were needed. Because the Mills bombs were, although they were small, you can’t imagine the noise of the explosion: it was simply deafening! They were like a little pineapple and the metal just fragmented into little pieces about three-quarters of an inch by one-quarter of an inch. As long as – there was a little strip of metal which kept the detonating handle secure. But directly you let that go, a little spring hit down on the little fuse inside which I think gave you about seven seconds and then it detonated. So directly you threw it, you see, you had seven seconds before it exploded.

Hand grenades were widely employed – in trench raids, infantry attacks and street fighting. British officer Tom Adlam earned a Victoria Cross for an attack he made on German trenches on the Somme in September 1916, in which he made great use of bombs.

The men all brought these bombs along, armfuls of them. And I just went gaily along throwing bombs. As I say, I just counted every time I threw it and the bomb went, you see. And it was most effective! And then we got up close to where the machine gun was. And that was zipping about. We daren’t look up above. But I got a whole… bombs ready. And I started throwing as fast as I could. And my servant, who was popping up every now and again, said, “They’re going, sir, they’re going!” So I yelled, “They’re running chaps, come on!”, and we just charged up the trench like a load of mad things. Luckily they were running! We never caught them, but we drove them out.

Grenades were very effective when thrown into a confined space, as the blast was contained and had a greater impact. They could be thrown down dugouts or – as British private George Thompson explained – inside pillboxes.

Towards morning, still in the dark, we moved off towards the front. One thing we didn’t beat that morning when the attack was launched was the concrete pillbox, as it was called. The Germans built these concrete emplacements with a machine-gun slot in the front of them. We were the fourth wave, but we still got – everybody got into trouble that morning. The first, second, third: all the lot of us, because of these concrete pillboxes. These pillboxes were so built that one covered another. If you were busy attacking one, you came under fire from another one, they all covered each other. The only way to really clear them, that some of our men used was to creep underneath the machine-gun slot, and put a Mills bomb through it – one bomb was sufficient, as a rule, to clear the inside of them.

The machine guns available at the start of the war were unsuitable for a war of movement. However, as more machine guns were introduced into service, men – such as Royal Fusilier Tom Bracey – were needed to operate them.

They wanted volunteers for machine guns. Well, I didn’t know what a machine gun was! Do you know what it is?! Well I didn’t! This bloke said, ‘You only live about a month on that.’ They weren’t going to volunteer for that. So the sergeant came up to me and he said, ‘You’ll be a machine-gunner,’ he said, ‘you’ve got special duty, you’ll miss a lot of fatigues and that.’ ‘Alright,’ I said, ‘go on then.’ So I was one machine-gunner for 25, for D Company.

The Maxim gun had been adopted by the British Army in the late 19th century and was still in use at the start of the war. Joseph Clements found it to be most effective against a Turkish attack at Gallipoli.

We got into, would it be, a bit of a gully or something like that. We were part sheltered one side and you couldn’t see much the other side. Then I remember there was flags flying and bugles blowing and they were coming over in droves like that, the Turks. There were so many they weren’t spread right out, there wasn’t the room for them to spread out owing to the rocky nature of the ground. And there was a kind of an opening through there that they were coming. We’d already got our gun fixed up and I sat there with the gun and I was swinging it backwards and forwards – not taking aim – but you couldn’t miss anybody. Because there was so many, you couldn’t miss.

The Vickers gun was first adopted by the British Army in 1912. British private Frederick Plimmer explained how they worked.

It was a water-cooled gun, fired about 600 rounds a minute and it was fed by means of a belt and it was mounted on a tripod. And the action of the gun was that when the first round is fired, the gases from the explosion force back a piston which interlocks with a mechanism which reloads the gun, excludes the empty cartridge and puts another cartridge in position. Well they do say that the artillery was king of the battlefield, if the artillery was the king, the machine gun was the queen. It was a most devastating weapon, yes. It would break down after a lot of use. I mean, if you fired four or five or six barrels it would get hot, you know, and that sort of thing. I’ve seen people where they’ve had to fire the gun incessantly non-stop for a long, long period until it just jammed up and they’d have to leave it. Unless they could get another barrel or something like that you know.

The Lewis gun was lighter than the Vickers and easier to move. Men had to be trained to use this new weapon – as British officer John Grover recalled.

I was made the battalion Lewis gun officer. Primarily to co-ordinate and carry out the training of Lewis gun personnel and the maintenance of the weapons and of advising the company commanders and others to whom they were allotted in their deployment and sighting and so on. I think the necessity was that it was quite a new weapon. No one out there really had been trained in the use of a light machine gun because we hadn’t ever had one. We’d only had a Vickers machine gun which has a fixed mounting and the system of use is quite different. One is a glorified rifle and the other is, in a way, a kind of reduced gun.

Training was not without its dangers, as British officer Joseph Napier discovered.

I took over teaching my own squad of the company the use of the Lewis gun. On one of the sessions which we were, we all sat round – about half a dozen or so of us – in a circle with the Lewis gun in the middle of us pointing at anybody who happened to be there, that made no difference because the ammunition was reputed to be safe… I remember so well I was demonstrating a number two stoppage or a number one stoppage and the cure for it as it was described and having done that, I pressed the button, or the trigger, and the damn thing went off. And the bullet went straight through the stomach of the, I think it was the corporal of the party who I was teaching and killed him on the spot. I got the medical officer in as quick as I could but there was nothing that could be done. Of course I got into hot water over this, but there was nothing that I could have done. I was just using the ammunition which other companies had been using and which I had been using. Which was apparently not safe.

Every Lewis gunner was supported by a team of men, who each had to know their role. Victor Fagence outlined how his team worked.

Well there were six in the team. The most experienced man would be the Number One. He would be the one who would actually fire the gun. And then most of the time he had to carry it and the weight of the gun was about 28 pounds. The Number Two was his assistant and he carried the spare parts bag, which contained the tools and cleaning rags. The tools of course were for putting right, correcting any stoppages. And the other four were simply ammunition carriers. At that time, when I first became a Lewis gunner, the Lewis gun magazines were carried in canvas buckets, each bucket holding four magazines. And each carrier had to carry two of those buckets, which was eight magazines. And when going over the top or in an attack, of course, he had to carry all that in addition to the usual arms and equipment that the other soldiers carried. It was quite a big weight.

British NCO Percy Webb described the firing technique his team adopted against the enemy.

The machine gun was used more or less in bursts. I mean, if you fired at a set of men coming towards you, the first thing they do is to drop. Well it’s no good to fire after they’ve dropped, because you see well you’re wasting ammunition and no advantage. But the idea of firing in bursts was because you see if the gun got too hot it would seize and then you had the uncomfortable job of probably the enemy advancing on you and well, you’d got to know exactly what you’d got to do. Or a stoppage, you’d get two cartridges rammed up into one another, you see, and you’d know then as you’d been trained what you had to do. Of course, it was a bit trying sometimes when the enemy was advancing onto you and you got a little bit flummoxed with the knowing exactly what you had to do. Well, we always did because as I say, we knew the job you see.

George Archer was the number one in his Lewis gun team – but he wasn’t sure how effective his weapon was.

I was Number One on the gun and I fired the gun. Number Two carried the spare part bag; 3, 4, 5 and 6 carried the ammunition. But, you see when I was firing the Lewis gun, you just had to look out yourself and if you saw anything that you thought should be hit, you had a go at it. I don’t know whether I ever hit anybody. I saw the sparks flying off their trenches and that but I never knew. I don’t know whether I was a good shot or not – I never knew what I hit!

Machine guns were capable of delivering withering fire, from protected positions, on advancing troops. Henry Oxley of the Middlesex Regiment recalled the devastating effect of German machine-gun fire during an attack in September 1918.

Machine-gun fire, which I experienced in a more accurate form, was when we went forward during the last advance and we came under machine-gun fire. It was rather peculiar, because one could hear the machine gun firing but you couldn’t see the actual position. You’d have your men dropping round as if they were suddenly touched on the shoulder and you’d see them drop and you could hear the gun being fired. It was a most peculiar sensation, that. Until you had a command from somebody to take shelter, I noticed chaps still had to go forward under the instruction of going forward, as it were. I should think that in the main it was most demoralising.

Another type of weapon employed in trench warfare was the trench mortar. These were short tubes which fired explosives from the relative safety of the trench. British NCO Frederick Holmes recalled the fear they induced.

Well, course the worst things were Minenwerfers. The German mortar bombs they were terrific… I’ll tell you what they sounded like. You heard the pop of the discharge when they were set off and then you heard a swish, swish…. which got louder and louder and you’d duck down, well lay down, until it burst. The explosion was terrific it would make a crater as big as this room! Yes.

The British began developing their own trench mortars. Alfred Griffin described its simple design.

The first ones they had were just like cast iron drain pipes and they used to drop it in; pull the pin out and drop it in. But you see, as soon as that was fired they’d be off back, the trench mortar section. And by God, we did get shelled then with these whizz bangs. We didn’t like to see them coming at all. It was sort of like poking a stick in a hornets’ nest!

Another device was something called a Bangalore torpedo. Royal Engineer officer Philip Neame outlined how they worked.

A Bangalore torpedo is a long narrow plank of the necessary length to slide under the wire entanglements in front of the German trenches, and on it slabs of gun cotton touching each other with a detonator at one endand a bit of fuse. That’s carried out and slipped under the wire entanglement at night and touched off at the critical moment – the fuse is lit and whoever’s had to light it gets away in time and hides in a shell-hole and gets back to his own front line trench, and bang goes the thing and makes a decent sized gap in the wire entanglement.

There were many different types of poison gas and several ways of unleashing it on the enemy were developed. British NCO Wilfred Whitlam was a victim of tear gas shells on the Western Front.

Rations came up one night with the transport, like. We were well up the line and it was at night time and we went out to pick these rations up. Of course we never thought about taking a gas mask! And he dropped a lot of tear gas shells over. By God, talk about crying! We couldn’t open us eyes for a long, long while. It lasted quite a few hours, but it soon went. Caused us sore eyes a bit like but it soon went. That learnt us a lesson: wherever we went, we went with us gas masks!

The Germans first successfully deployed flamethrowers – or flammenwerfer – in 1915. Andrew Bain of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders described the effect they had on him.

The flammenwerfer. Oh they were terrifying. Well, we managed to drive them back by nailing the crews, shooting at the crews. But, as they came on, they really were terrifying. This, just a sheet of flame coming in front, you see, and smoke and that sort of thing. And the German crews sort of going on behind, filling the thing up. And the only way to stop them was to kill off the crews. And we managed to stop them before they really got into our trenches. But it was rather terrifying to see them coming.

The huge amount of weaponry that men came into contact with during the war inevitably led to accidents. Arthur Smith of the Royal Fusiliers had a near miss from a firearm in 1918.

We’d made bonfire a little fire to sit round, our little group the Lewis gun group. The Lewis gun Number One was cleaning his revolver when suddenly the little bonfire was scattered… He’d forgotten that there was a round in the barrel, in the breach and of course in cleaning it thoroughly he’d touched the trigger and it hit the fire. And the joke of it is, to me, is none of us worried, oh well that’s that. I mean it was a funny thing to happen because the fire shot out, sparks shot out well and truly. He was surprised but there were no remarks made and he continued cleaning. Nobody took the least notice about it, I mean we just laughed.

But not all escaped from such incidents, and were victims of their own armaments. German NCO Stephen Westmann came across the results of a particularly devastating accident in 1916.

I wandered through the casements and there I found one casement bricked up and on that casement somebody had written ‘Here lie 1,052 German soldiers’. I asked what that meant and they told me that 1,052 German soldiers was in that casement and in the same casement they had stored barrels of fluid, of fuel, for the flame-throwers. Somebody must have been very careless as the whole thing blew up and nobody was left. They didn’t, they couldn’t even get at them so they bricked up that casement and put down that there were 1,052 German soldiers.

To find out about First World War Centenary news, projects and more, go to www.1914.org. We’d really like to know what you think of these podcasts. Please rate us on iTunes or leave a comment at 1914.org. Listen out for Podcast 40.