great war snipingIntroduction

Although the possibility of a European Continental War had become increasingly likely by early 1914, the potential participant nations weren't at all sure what form it would take. Most pundits of both the military and political kind thought it would not follow the pattern of the American Civil (April 1861 - May 1964) or the Russo-Japanese Wars (May 1904 - August 1905) in being of long duration. They considered that it would be a war based on rapid mobilisation and movement and come to a speedy result: a few weeks at most were the consensus. The possibility of a long drawn out siege-war based on the type of trench warfare seen in both the American Civil and Russo-Japanese Wars was foreseen by very few. Of those who did see it lasting for some time, most saw it largely as a temporary 'Live and let live' situation until matters were resolved around the negotiating table.

Accordingly, the Continental armies went to war with small arsenals, limited stocks of munitions and generally ill-equipped for a long war. An example of their inadequacies is given by the oft-quoted statement that the infantryman of the British Expeditionary Force not only looked like a game-keeper out for the day, he was about as well equipped; apart, of course, from his exceptional skill with the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield rifle (SMLE).

In the early skirmishes and battles of the war in France and Belgium, it became obvious that the fire power of personal weapons and the breach-loading artillery guns had increased to such an extent that a war of movement was an excessively costly business: the French alone suffered a million casualties before 1914 was out and the old British Regular Army was virtually destroyed.

Ultimately, the rationale was simple: dig in and survive, or maintain the war of surface movement and suffer assured annihilation by shell and bullet.

As early as September 1914, the German Army had begun to seriously develop organised trench systems and the Allies soon followed suit. By November 1914, a virtually unbroken 'S' shaped line of opposing trenches extended from the North Sea at Nieuport on the Belgian Coast to the Swiss Border, near Belfort, France, in the South.

Once installed in the early trench systems, the inadequacies of the available weaponry soon became evident to both sides. And a race began to find totally new weapon systems and to suitable modify the existing and even the obsolete.

Generally speaking, the Germans and the French were better fitted for trench war than the British - in part due to their much greater numbers although the Germans outnumbered the French by 40%; the Austrians were least prepared of all the armies.

New versions of weapons for trench warfare

Two weapons systems were soon identified by the BEF as essential for the prosecution of trench warfare, the grenade and the mortar.

The Hand Grenade

Whilst all sides had hand grenades, the British were limited to a few of the 1908 No. 1 Mark I stick type model which was previously reserved for use by the Royal Engineers. It exploded on impact and, once armed was notoriously dangerous in enclosed spaces such as a trench. Accidents occurred on an almost daily basis.

In February 1915 a similar model called the Hale No.2, or Mexican, hand grenade came into production at the rate of 5,000 a week. But, a serious bottleneck occurred in all British hand grenade production due to the limited supply of detonators, for the supply of which there were many competitors in the British munitions industry.

Here again, both the French and the Germans were better equipped. The French only marginally so: they had stocks of their rather primitive cast iron Ball and Bracelet Grenades whilst the Germans had 70,000 of the Discus and the Black Powder Ball bombs. (The German ubiquitous Stick (also Potato Masher or cylindrical) Grenade came later in 1915).

By the end of 1914, British Army's demand rose to 10,000 hand grenades a week, although in truth not many BEF soldiers knew how to handle them properly or effectively.

To fill this hand grenade gap the troops in the field were encouraged to 'improvise', whilst small-scale manufacturing units were established in the UK to produced similar, more sophisticated, improvised versions. By 1915 the British had a total of 15 versions of standard and improvised hand grenades.

On the Western Front both, the Royal Engineer workshops and the individual army units made ad hoc versions based on designs produced by Colonel Louis Jackson, Assistant Director of Fortifications and Works later Director-General of the Ministry of Munitions.

The Jam Tin Grenade. Production began in late 1914 and lasted through 1915. In its simplest ad hoc form it was a cast off jam tin - of which there was an almost inexhaustible supply - that had been filled with an high explosive such as gun cotton, or TNT, and around which was packed a mass of stones or metal scrap. In the more elaborate models, an inner and outer steel container was used. A length of fuse was attached leading to the internal detonator - a standard No. 8 Mark VII. Applying a match, or other source of ignition, activated the grenade; tobacco pipes were a favourite. The Jam Tin Grenade was then hurled at the enemy in a bowling action; 30 yards being the normal range. The timing of the explosion of the grenade was determined by the length of the fuse that had been judiciously cut by the grenade thrower to suit his perceived requirements.

The Hair Brush (or Racket) Grenade. The Royal Engineers workshops on the Western Front began the production of this hand grenade in early 1915. Named so because of its shape, it was a paddle-shaped piece of wood to which was attached a rectangular tin plate box. On the top and bottom of the box were attached grooved steel plates - to provide the fragmentation effect. The box contained a high explosive such as gun cotton and was activated by the standard No. 8 Mark VII detonator. Ignition was by the usual fuse wire trimmed to length to suit. Despite the leverage provided by the wooden handle, these grenades did not prove as consistently throwable as the Jam Tin with its bowling action so well suited to the cricket loving British.

The Battye Bomb. Developed in France by a commercial firm for the British Army, it consisted of a cast iron mug shaped container - duly diced for fragmentation - filled with 40 grammes of high explosive. The top of the container was sealed with a pierced wood stopper and wax grouting. A Nobel safety fuse was used to activate the detonator but, as a safety measure, the ignition unit was only inserted at the time of use.

Various ad hoc versions of the hand grenade.

When even the approved ad hoc versions were in short supply, more exotic hand grenades were created in situ from material such as: bottles, ration tins, mess tins. Indeed, almost any object that could be modified to provide an explosive missile.

Inevitably, with such a crude and unregulated weapons, there were many accidents and when, in 1915, the supply of the new standard M5 Mark I Mills Bomb hand grenade was sufficient to meet requirements, all ad hoc production of hand grenades on the Western Front was officially banned.

The Germans and the French also met their shortfall in hand grenade production by making similar ad hoc grenades, with the Hair Brush and Racket types being the most generally favoured.

The Trench Mortar

In 1914, the Germans had more than 100 top quality mortars, of two calibres, which ultimately became known (by 1917) as trench mortars i.e. weapons specifically designed to deliver mortar bombs directly into the trenches. The British had none and the French only a few ancient smoothbores. No initiative was taken by the BEF commander-in-chief to request some until October 1914. Accordingly, it was not until mid-1915 that a suitable purpose made mortar was available to the BEF.

Meanwhile, the BEF troops quickly grew to fear these heavy aerial bombs - Minenwerfer (mine thrower) - that tumbled noisily out of the sky directly into their trench, or dugout, to destroy it and all in its range. By improvisation, the BEF sought some way to respond.

Pipe Mortars. In October 1914 the BEF began to improvise their own versions of mortars by using industrial grade steel pipe. Typically, a length of suitable gauge water pipe, or gas-pipe, was cut and a base plate welded onto it. Adjustable length legs were fitted to provide the required angle of inclination for ballistics purposes. A touchhole was drilled. To propel the chosen missile, a predetermined weight of black powder explosive poured into the pipe. Into the tube was placed an improvised mortar bomb - often a Jam Tin Grenade - and the touchhole activated by a match from a brave hand, or by a length of fuse. More sophisticated models used a lanyard activated ignition unit.

A second type of pipe mortar was devised by sinking blanked-off steel tubes into the ground at a predetermined angle and using these to launch missiles towards the enemy lines. Obviously, any change in direction had to be made by realigning the tubes, or sinking some more, but some modification could be made to the effective distance by varying the amount of the propellant used.

Shell Casing Mortars. At an official level in Britain, naval shells were drilled out to give a standard (say 4 inches) calibre formats for a workable trench mortar with a range of about 1,000 yards, and reasonable accuracy. These improvised mortars provided a make-do device until purpose designed British mortars became available on the Western Front. All of the belligerent nations on the Western Front used similar shell modification techniques to improvise mortars.

Salvaged Brass Mortars. Another ad hoc mortar was created in 1915 in the BEF Royal Engineer Workshops in France with French labour. It was called the Newton 3.7-inch after its designer and chief of production, Captain Newton of the Sherwood Foresters, and to distinguish it from the standard British 3.7-inch mortar that was slowly becoming available. The Newtons were forged from salvaged brass small arms cartridges. Production ceased at the end of 1915 when the numbers of British purpose designed mortars became sufficient for operational requirements.

The Bomb Throwers

Lacking the rifle propelled grenades that were available to the Germans in 1914/15; the British introduced improvised bomb throwing equipment called 'Bomb engines' or 'Bomb throwers'. Some were simple devices developed by the troops themselves. But others were patented designs officially produced in considerable quantities. Eventually they were replaced at the end of 1915 by rodded rifle grenades (using the M5 Mills Mark I Bomb) purpose-made for the British standard rifle - the Small Magazine Lee Enfield - and the first successful British mortar, the 2-inch Trench Howitzer or 'Toffee Apple Bomb Thrower'.

The trench catapult. Improvised catapults were up-graded versions of the schoolboy 'Y' format catapult made in the trenches and intended to give further range to the standard, or improvised, hand grenade. They were thought to be particularly hazardous to the user and were not officially approved.

A more sophisticated 6 foot high version of the 'Y' catapult was designed by C.P. Leach. The machine was made and despatched to the Western Front by the sports department of the London department store Gamages from mid -1917. It was supplied at the rate of 20 per BEF Division. The frame was made out of 2-inch thick (ash) wood. Each arm was tapered outward at the end to provide strong anchor-points for the twelve bands of natural rubber and was cross braced for added strength. A double cranking device was incorporated to tension the multiple rubber bands. The machine propelled a two pound hand grenade for up to160 yards when the elastic bands were new; far in excess of the best 'overarm bowled' hand grenade which only had a range of around 30 yards.

The fast rate of deterioration of the elasticity of the rubber bands meant that the catapult was usually reserved for more important operations rather than put to daily use.

The Spring Gun. Designed by a Captain West, and called the 'West Spring Gun', this was basically a hybrid of the Roman balista and the medieval French trebuchet. It had a sturdy wrought iron and steel 'A' frame and could transported through the trench system by two men in stretcher fashion. The required throwing tension was provided by multiple banks of steel springs in lieu of the balista's torsion bundles of twisted ropes. The springs activated a throwing arm, as in the trebuchet, and gave a range of around 250 yards. Altogether, it was generally considered by the troops to offer as much danger to the operator and those around him, as to the intended recipient of the hand grenade.

The Leach Catapult, and the West Spring Gun, were officially discontinued in July 1916 - to be replaced by the Stokes Mortar - but continued in use on the Western Front well into1916.

Both the French and the Germans produced similar manufactured and improvised catapults and spring guns.


Whilst it is highly unlikely that any of these improvised weapons significantly affected the course of the war, they did give the pressed BEF a means of responding to a much larger and better equipped German Army on the Western Front. They also provided valuable experience to the new untried designers and arms- production sources and their employees - many were the newly recruited women workers - which helped the British to establish the much enhanced arms and munitions industry that was required to win the war.

As for the collateral casualties caused by these improvised weapons, they were but a relative few amongst the many in the high casualty level early months of the war and inevitable when such ad hoc weapons were used on a wide scale by neophytes of trench warfare.

Back to top