Photograph of an Allied Trench Mortar of the First World War
 A trench mortar in Gallipoli. (See full photograph below)

 

British and Australian First World War Mortars


Martin Andrew PhD (Bond) 12 June 2015

 

Introduction

At the beginning of the First World War the British Army was unprepared for trench warfare. One of the weapons necessary for trench warfare, the mortar, was totally lacking. This was despite a 1906 proposal, in light of the experiences of the Russo- Japanese War, to develop a `bombard’ for infantry support. The British experience in developing suitable mortars is the history of mortar development itself. Modern mortar designs and usage are descended from the British Army of 1918. This book will show how mortar technology developed from weapons more suited to Waterloo to the precursors of the modern mortars of today.

The modern mortar owes its origins to the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. In this conflict Japanese and Russian soldiers improvised mortars from bamboo, wood and hoop iron strong enough to throw `jam tin’ type bombs a short distance. Building upon their experiences in the Russo-Japanese War the Japanese developed mortars for their army, introducing at least two breech loading mortars by 1914. One was a smoothbore with a calibre of 7.5cm and the other had a calibre of 9cm and had a rifled bore. The Germans also studied the Russo-Japanese war and developed equipment for siege warfare. These included hand and rifle grenades, periscopes, illuminating pistols, searchlights and trench mortars (minenwerfer). At the start of the First World War the Germans had 160 minenwerfer of three types: light, medium and heavy. The first German trainload of engineer stores arrived on the Aisne in France on 14 September 1914. British troops on the receiving end of the minenwerfer wanted something to retaliate with but in October 1914 there was not a single mortar or suitable ammunition for one in service.

 

The Western Front. October 1914 to the Battle of Loos.

With the introduction of trench warfare British troops in France began making light trench howitzers out of steel or brass tube bought locally. The tubes were 88mm, 93mm and 95mm in diameter and used a flat base. A pair of legs usually aimed them. The ammunition was of the `jam tin’ type with a piece of Bickford time fuse. The Indian Corps in France had made eighteen 3.7-inch (95mm) pipe guns by the beginning of December 1914. It was fired by lighting a match or cigarette to a piece of slow fuse inserted in the touch hole, with the firer then running to safety; shades of the sixteenth century. Another one developed by the Instructional Staff, the Sappers and Miners of the Indian Corps had a 127mm bore and the barrel was made of wood bound with wire. The barrel was 838mm long and the mortar could propel a 2.27 kilogram (5 pounds) high explosive or incendiary charge to 455 metres. These improvised mortars were manned by the Royal Engineers and were unpopular with the infantry as they regularly burst. They had a range between 183 and 275 metres.

 

The Woolwich arsenal in Britain developed a four-inch light trench howitzer which was a bored out six-inch (152mm) armour piercing naval shell. Orders for 12 with 500 rounds of ammunition were given on 10 November 1914, and by the end of 1914 these were issued. It fired an 3.86 kilogram steel bomb that was studded to take rifling in the bore, and was fairly accurate with a range of 823 metres. It was slow to load, the shell case was expensive and the original model had defects, which the army workshops had to remedy. It was certainly a primitive weapon. Woolwich arsenal also was producing 3.7-inch light trench howitzers and on 3 January 1915 20 mortars with 1,000 rounds of ammunition were sent to France. The 3.7-inch mortar was nicknamed `Reginald’ but as to the origin of the name, the author has been unable to trace. Barrel bursts due to the bombs fusing, a piece of Bickford fuse, and accumulation of moisture in the barrel were a problem from the start. Canvas muzzle covers were issued to stop the latter but burst barrels due to the fuse plagued the weapon till it was withdrawn. There were two 4-inch mortars to a division and eventually four 3.7-inch mortars per brigade. The Royal Garrison Artillery manned the 4-inch mortars and usually the 3.7-inch mortars.

 Black and White photograph of 3.7 inch mortar at Gallipoli
 3.7 inch mortar at Gallipoli

 

Only 75 mortars were produced in Britain during the first three months of 1915. Forty old Coehorn muzzle loading mortars acquired from the French supplemented these. Bearing the cypher of Louis Phillipe they dated from the time of the Crimean war. They were nicknamed `Toby’ mortars after Lieutenant Colonel A. Rawlinson who was responsible for their acquisition. After suitable ammunition was acquired, with considerable difficulty, they were used at the Battles of Neuve Chapelle, Aubers and Hooge. New models and improved versions of existing models were coming into service. Six 1.57 -inch mortars with 250 cast bombs weighing 15 kilograms and 8.16 kilograms were sent to France on 8 March and three days later two 2-inch trench mortars with 50 bombs were also sent.

 



On 1 April 1915 there were 106 British built mortars in France not including locally manufactured ones and the old Coehorns. As well as the Coehorns, a battery of 4-inch and 3.7-inch mortars were part of the Field Howitzer Group at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. The small amounts of mortars available for the first three months of 1915 meant that both had to be husbanded carefully. The second quarter of 1915 saw the situation improve with 225 mortars and 42 753 bombs being produced. This compares with the 8 816 bombs produced in Britain from the start of the war till 3 April 1915. Despite this by the close of the Second Battle of Ypres in May 1915, the situation for mortar ammunition was critical, as was ammunition for all weapons. On 1 July 1915 there were 317 mortars in France including 127 1.5 inch and 25 2 inch.

 

The 1.57-inch and 2-inch mortars were welcome additions and the 2 inch mortar became the standard medium mortar. Both had their faults however. At 544 kilograms the 1.57-inch mortar was clumsy and heavy to move but it shot fairly accurately. Its 8.16 kilogram bomb had a range of 297 metres but was too light and its heavy bomb of 15 kilograms had a range of only 189 metres. Based upon the pre-war Krupp high pressure smooth bore gun the 2-inch mortar weighed 114 kilograms and fired a 19 kilogram bomb to a range of 457 metres at three rounds per minute. On soft ground the bomb blew a crater 4.9 metres in diameter and 1.8 metres feet deep. The mortar had a loud report and flash upon firing which betrayed its position. The bomb was apt to throw short in wet weather and the tail piece of the bomb invariably projected backward causing casualties to friendly personnel.

 

 

 Black and White photograph of a 'pudding mortar' of the First World War
 Mesopotamia. c. 1918. A British Army soldier with a trench mortar in a sandbagged pit.

 

The Gallipoli Campaign

Besides the Western Front, mortars were in use in Gallipoli. These were even scarcer than in France and Belgium due to being on the end of the supply lines from Britain. The three types used were the 2.75-inch Garland Mark I, four 7.5cm and 20 3.7-inch. Large catapults also supplemented these. The Garland was an improvised mortar designed by a Mr Garland who was an assistant at the Citadel Armoury in Cairo. The 2.75-inch (69.85mm) Garland Mark I grenade howitzer complete weighed about 36 kilograms and had a 45.7 centimetre long barrel. Using the Mark II grenade, which weighed 1.106 kilograms and contained 85 grams of gelignite, it had a minimum range of range of 46 metres and a maximum of 229 metres. The grenade was propelled by small bags of explosive loaded into a crude breech.

 

 Black and white photograph from WW1 of A member of the 28th Battalion AIF fires a trench mortar in a front line trench on the Apex, Gallipoli. September 1915.
 A member of the 28th Battalion AIF fires a trench mortar in a front line trench on the Apex, Gallipoli. September 1915.

 

 

The four 7.5cm mortars were procured from Japan and when they arrived on 20 May 1915, two each were distributed to the two ANZAC divisions. They had a minimum range of 150 yards and a maximum range of 400 yards though one is recorded as reaching 600 yards before exploding. Their effective range was 350 - 400 yards. The stick type bomb weighed about thirty pounds and was inserted from the muzzle. Like the 2-inch mortar this shaft was also flung back into the rear by the force of the explosion. They were withdrawn when their ammunition ran out as any more than the 2,000 landed would have to be specially manufactured in Japan. In Gallipoli and on the Western Front catapults were used to supplement the small amount of mortars.

In Gallipoli the catapults were large wooden crossbows some 12 feet in length and weighed around 50 pounds and projected cricket-ball and Jam-tin bombs by six .5 inch diameter rubber bands. The British and Empire forces in the First World War referred to hand grenades as `bombs’. Cricket-ball bombs in Gallipoli weighed between 481 grams and 710 grams oz. The catapults maximum range was 201 metres with cricket-ball bombs but this strained the rubber. The effective range was 137 metres and at this range five out of six cricket-ball bombs could be relied upon to fall in a trench. This range was increased to 201 metres with jam-tin bombs. Catapults were also used on the Western Front till and by the end of 1915 3,000 had been sent there. These were mostly the West Spring Gun. Weighing around 100 kilograms and measuring 1.98 metres by 0.48 metres with a height of 2.13 metres including its 0.762 centimetre catapult arm extended. It had a maximum range of 183 metres with the effective range being around 92 metres. It was a clumsy weapon to set up but it was inaudible even at close range.

 

 Black and white photograph from Gallipoli, Turkey, 1915. WW1. Members of an Australian trench mortar battery preparing to fire a Japanese trench mortar
Gallipoli, Turkey, 1915. Members of an Australian trench mortar battery preparing to fire a Japanese trench mortar 

 

 

The Battle of Loos till the Somme - The Introduction of the Stokes

The Battle of Loos, which started on 25 September, was the first major British offensive on the Western Front where mortars took a considerable part in the action. Fourteen trench mortar batteries were allotted to the infantry brigades out of 61 batteries in the British Army. Improved versions of the 4-inch and 3.7-inch trench howitzers had come into service. The 3.7-inch Mark III trench howitzer fired the same 2.2 kilogram bomb as earlier versions, with a minimum range of 36.5 metres and a maximum range of 311 metres. Twenty seven four-inch Stokes mortars were also made available for creating smoke screens. The 4-inch Stokes mortar was rushed into service for the Battle of Loos after a demonstration on 22 August. Twenty had been ordered for gas projection on 14 July 1915 so they were readily available. A smoke shell was extemporised out of paper-mache, tin, gun metal and iron and 10,000 rounds were assembled at the First Army workshops at St. Venant from parts and material, including 15 tonnes of red phosphorous, sent from Britain. The rate of fire was of the 4-inch Stokes mortar was 20 rounds-per-minute but it could be quicker for two minutes. The 11.34 kilogram white phosphorous bomb had a range of 768 metres. Mortar ammunition supplies were not as bad as previous battles with 176,785 being produced in the third quarter of 1915 but only 121 mortars. From 4 July to 2 October 1915 39,068 mortar rounds were sent from Britain to France. The Battle of Loos ended in October and the British Army did not stage a major offensive till 1 July 1916. It was a period of major reorganisation and expansion of British and Empire armies on the Western Front. The 4-inch Stokes mortar was rushed into service and was a larger version of the 3-inch Stokes mortar. The Stokes mortar and its ammunition revolutionised mortar technology and formed the basis for all mortars that came after it. The four-inch mortar actually had internal diameter of 107 millimetres with the three-inch mortar an internal diameter of 81 millimetres.

 

The Stokes mortar and its ammunition were evolved from a prototype developed by Mr Wilfred Stokes in January 1915 and then submitted to the Ministry of Munitions. His proposal was to propel a cast iron “shell” from a solid drawn tube using a sporting cartridge, and later a container, containing propellant attached to the mortar bomb itself. The propellant charge was ignited by a percussion cap, which struck a firing pin at the bottom of the barrel. This was the breakthrough. Previously in the 3.7 and 4-inch mortars a charge was loaded into the barrel, a bomb placed down the barrel, a blank round inserted in the rifle action attached to the barrel and the trigger pulled by a lanyard after moving under cover; a very time consuming procedure. The 3.7-inch mortar was so dangerous to its users that the manual said that, `The detachment should always be under cover at the moment of firing, as it is impossible to ensure that there will never be premature with this type of bomb’. The Stokes mortar was rejected in its January and March submissions due to it using the same type of bomb fusing as the 3.7-inch bomb.

 

After a trial witnessed by Lloyd George who was the Minister for Munitions, the Ordnance Board was persuaded to reconsider its position and one thousand were ordered, but its introduction into service was subject to a satisfactory fuse was developed. In the autumn of 1915 a mechanical time fuse, based on the ignition system of the Mills hand grenade, armed by the shock of the bomb leaving the barrel was developed. The Stokes and its ammunition were accepted into service in January 1916. The first combat use of the 3-inch Stokes mortar was on 16 February 1916 at the Bluff, south of Ypres.

 

The 3-inch Stokes mortar could fire the standard 4.28 kilogram bomb to 393 metres. Compared to all mortars before it, its firepower was phenomenal. In action it had a rate of fire of 40 rounds-per-minute. The Stokes 3-inch Mark II Light Trench Mortar’s baseplate weighed 13.15 kilograms, the barrel was 1296 millimetres long and weighed 21.8 kilograms and the A-shaped bipod and weighed 11.8 kilograms, with the reinforced version weighing 14.5 kilograms . War materiel production in Britain was finally getting into gear so that in the last quarter of 1915, 182,880 mortar bombs were manufactured along with 524 mortars. This included 304 Stokes mortars, 200 of which had by November 1915 been issued to training centres.

 

 Lahoussoye, France. An Australian trench mortar class, in an open field, receiving instruction in the operation of a Stokes mortar December 1916
 Lahoussoye, France. An Australian trench mortar class, in an open field, receiving instruction in the operation of a Stokes mortar December 1916.

 

The organisation and manning of trench mortar batteries were undergoing changes at the same time. In August 1915, just before Loos, a divisional basis was adopted. It was not until December that it was decided that the infantry would man the light batteries, with the medium and heavy batteries, when the mortars became available, by the artillery. In November 1915 an establishment of six batteries of light, two of medium and one of heavy mortars was suggested by General Headquarters, however in July 1916 it was only three batteries of light and three of medium, each of four mortars. The successful introduction of the Stokes light mortar saw the British Army in May 1915 decide to reduce the types of mortars to four; the 3 and 4-inch Stokes, the 2-inch (medium) and the 9.45-inch (heavy). The 4-inch Stokes were used exclusively by the Royal Engineers for gas and smoke projection. The 3.7-inch and 4-inch trench howitzers were withdrawn by 1 November 1916 and the 1.5-inch by 1 March 1917.

 


 The Mortar Comes of Age - The Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme that started on 1 July 1916 was the largest attack the British Army had ever launched. A shortage of mortar ammunition was no longer a problem. Over one million bombs were produced in the first quarter of 1916 and over two million in the second quarter. The Battle of the Somme saw the widespread use of the mortar into the fire plan for the preliminary bombardment. 240mm mortars, of French origin and used for trials, were used against villages and strong points; the 2-inch and 1.5-inch against front-line trenches and for wire cutting; and the 3-inch Stokes against machine gun emplacements and front line trenches. The 4-inch Stokes was used to produce smoke screens. This pattern of usage remained constant for the rest of the war, for example in the fire plans for the attacks on Vimy Ridge and Messines in 1917. There were thirty 9.45-inch Mark I mortars available but these were not used. Developed from the French 240mm mortar, the 9.45-inch mortar Mark I had a maximum range of 1,150 yards. Its bomb was capable of demolishing a nine metre length of trench and in compact clayey soil making a crater three metres deep and nine metres in diameter. It weighed between 150 and 154 pounds and was nicknamed the `Flying Pig’.

Five members of an Australian trench mortar battery preparing to fire their heavy trench mortar in the Chalk Pit 2 August 1916
Five members of an Australian trench mortar battery preparing to fire their heavy trench mortar in the Chalk Pit 2 August 1916

 

The four-inch Stokes mortar bombs were now properly designed in steel, but were later made of cast-iron to simplify manufacture. Lachrymatory ammunition for the 4-inch Stokes was adopted in the Spring of 1916 and a gas bomb containing two litres of liquid was under development that was to become very effective in action. The following three engagements are typical of their use. Five hundred lachrymatory were bombs fired into Thiepval on 24 September 1916 against German minenwerfer, silencing them and temporarily incapacitating large numbers of German troops. On 28 October 1916, 1,126 lachrymatory bombs were fired into Beaumont Hamel in two minutes silencing German minenwerfers and machine guns. The same area was attacked during the night with 135 phosgene bombs weighing 18.15kilograms each. The Germans admitted that these and other gas attacks severely tried them.

 

The Battles on the Somme in 1916 saw the first use of the 3-inch Stokes mortars being moved with advancing troops to provide near real time on call fire support. Used in conjunction with Lewis machine guns and bombers, (soldiers specially trained to use rifle and hand grenades), they also provided fire superiority when attacking strong-points. The ability of the 3-inch mortar to be to be rapidly moved aided the final Allied advance in 1918 with its ability to clear German positions established in the various villages encountered. It was found that during the Battle of Messines on June 1917 that 3-inch mortar fire was capable of killing personnel hiding in the cellars of houses.

 

Production in 1916 reached new heights with 3,133 3-inch, 243 4-inch Stokes, 946 2-inch and 200 9.45-inch mortars produced. Mortar ammunition production saw over 4.4 million high explosive rounds for the 3-inch Stokes, nearly 1.1 million for the 2-inch, 143,000 for the 9.45-inch and 28,566 gas rounds for the 4-inch Stokes produced. This meant that despite the losses from the Battle of the Somme there was not a shortage of mortars and ammunition on the Western Front. The increased production of mortars available saw the scale of mortars to the company reach the number envisaged by GHQ in November 1915 - eight per brigade in one battery and not two as envisaged. With the increased supplies of 3-inch Stokes mortars and ammunition, trench mortar batteries could smother front line positions with high explosive, such as the hurricane bombardment that preceded a February 1917 raid by Australian infantry against a German position in France. Eight 3-inch Stokes mortars fired 208 rounds against the position in 90 seconds.

 

Two men of the 7th Australian Light Trench Mortar Battery operate a light trench mortar established in a machine gun post on the new front line 10 July 1918
Two men of the 7th Australian Light Trench Mortar Battery operate a light trench mortar established in a machine gun post on the new front line 10 July 1918

 

 

The Battle of the Somme ended in November and the British and Empire Armies started rebuilding for the campaigns of 1917. Improved propellants for the 3 and 4-inch Stokes and a new medium mortar were introduced. In the autumn of 1916 a Major Newton developed the use of extra charge rings that slipped over the rear of the bombs that enabled the range of the 3-inch Stokes mortar to be extended to 677 metres. Further improvements in the charge rings saw the range extend to 754 metres and by the beginning of 1918 the 3-inch Stokes to 1,143 metres. This was the maximum range that could be obtained using the cylindrical bomb due to its poor drag coefficient and the mortar barrel having a maximum chamber pressure of two tons per square inch. Major Newton also developed a new medium mortar that used the same firing system as the Stokes mortar. This became the 6-inch Trench Howitzer Mark I, commonly known as the ‘Newton’ or ‘Stokes-Newton’. The design was successful with 1,700 being ordered in late January 1917. Deliveries began in May, and in June the ammunition started arriving in France. In 1917 1,929 Newton mortars were produced with a further 609 in 1918 with ammunition production 239,471 and 1,134,805 rounds respectively.

 

A 6-inch medium trench mortar and crew of the 3rd Australian Medium Trench Mortar Battery, 2nd Division, in action in a farmhouse 400 yards from the German front lines 29 May 1918
 A 6-inch medium trench mortar and crew of the 3rd Australian Medium Trench Mortar Battery, 2nd Division, in action in a farmhouse 400 yards from the German front lines 29 May 1918

 

The 6-inch mortars replaced the 2-inch medium mortars as soon as they arrived however they had not completely replaced the 2-inch mortars by the beginning of 1918. The mortar weighed 189 kilograms in action in action and fired both 35 kilogram steel and 25 kilogram iron bombs. Both bombs contained 10 kilograms of high explosive. The steel bomb had a minimum range of 460metres and a maximum range of 950 metres and the iron bomb had a minimum range of 90 metres and a maximum range of 1278 metres with a maximum effective range due to dispersion of 1,000 metres.

 



The Battles that the British and Empire Armies fought in 1917 took a heavy toll in men and equipment but by the beginning of 1918 each division had its full complement of 24 3-inch Stokes, 12 2-inch or 12 6-inch mortars and a few 9.45-inch heavy mortars. The introduction of the 6-inch Newton and the Mark III 9.45-inch mortars saw the reorganisation of the medium and heavy mortar batteries in the division and corps. The heavy mortar battery of the division was disbanded and a six gun battery for the Mark III 9.45-inch mortar established for each corps. It fired a 81.2 kilogram bomb to a maximum range of 2.070 metres. The number of divisional medium trench mortar batteries was reduced from three to two, but the number of mortars in each increased from four to six, so the total number of medium mortars in the division stayed the same. This organisation stayed till the end of the war with German regimental histories constantly recording the effects of the British trench mortars.

 

BAFWWM9
Near Lens, France. 30 January 1918. A 9.45-inch heavy trench mortar emplacement, constructed by the No. 2 Section of the 3rd Australian Tunnelling Company.

 

 

From its beginnings with improvised mortars, as dangerous to friend and foe, by 1918 British and Empire forces were equipped with modern, safe and reliable weapons. The design of the Stokes mortar and its method of firing became the model from which all subsequent mortar designs up to the present have been based.

 

 

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