No personal account of active service on the Western Front is complete without mention of the curse of shrapnel: a word that, as we shall see, was often incorrectly used.
The word is derived from the name of the British Army officer who did not actually invent an entirely new concept of weapon but modified an existing weapon system, in his own time and largely at his own expense it must be said, to a more practical form.
The Oxford English Dictionary entry for shrapnel aptly sums it up:
Shrapnel, 1804. [From name of General H (Henry) Shrapnel, its inventor.] A hollow projectile containing bullets - more correctly described as 'small shot' - and a small bursting charge which, when fired by the time fuse, bursts the shell and scatters the bullets in a shower.
Prior to Shrapnel's invention, multiple bullets, or shot, were discharged from a tin 'canister' or 'case' by the means of firing them from the mouth of a normal cannon. The canister of bullets burst as it left the muzzle of the cannon giving a shotgun effect. At an effective range of 300 yards this was lethal against massed infantry and cavalry attacks. The size of the round iron projectiles was variable but most ranged from 2 to 5 ounces in weight and 1 inch to 2 inch in diameter.
Henry Shrapnel - then a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery - conjectured that if the 'bullets' could be contained during the firing process in a projectile holding a small, timed bursting charge, the musket-sized bullets could be carried further before being released with even greater lethality; a sort of air-borne shot gun. If the pre-timed fuse was set to activate the shell to explode just before it got above the heads of the enemy, the 'shot gun cone' effect would be enhanced. His experiments showed the effective range of his shrapnel bullets could be increased to around 1,000 yards. However, the main problem was to accurately judge the height at which the shrapnel shell should explode to give the maximum effect on the enemy. This estimation was impossible when mist, bad weather or darkness obscured the enemy lines.
Shrapnel's 1784 prototype shell was spherical in shape and generally worked well, although some problems did occur due to the then lack of separation of the explosive and the shrapnel balls. In action, the velocity of the shrapnel shell combined with the minor propulsive effect of the bursting charge to add to the impact velocity of the bullets. In 1787, Shrapnel was allowed to demonstrate his invention to the commander of the British Garrison in Gibraltar using mortar shells as the carrier, but there was no follow up. For years he tried without success to get an influential British officer interested in his invention. Then, finally, in 1792, he persuaded the British Master General of Ordnance to give his weapon a trial. The Ordnance Board Committee took nine years over its deliberations, and then declined to recommend its adoption by the British Army. After two more frustrating years of indecision by officialdom, in June 1803, Shrapnel was finally asked to demonstrate his shell to Staff Officers of the Royal Artillery. They quickly approved it and production began later in the same year. The product was called 'Spherical Case'; and contained 200 round musket ball sized bullets.
The Shrapnel 'Spherical Case' ammunition was first used against the Netherlands in Dutch Guiana - a Dutch possession in South America, now the Republiek Suriname - in April 1804 with enormous effect. Soon, its use spread throughout the British Army and became standard munitions to the extent that in 1814 its inventor was awarded a life pension of ?1,200 per year by the British Government; equivalent to ?100,000 a year today. The name 'Shrapnel Shell' was officially bestowed by the British Government in 1852, 10-years after the inventors' death
However, in the 1840/50's, Captain E. Boxer of the Royal Artillery made further improvements to Shrapnel's design with two crucial changes. The first was to separate the bursting charge from the projectile balls to ensure better stability and the second to improve upon this separation by means of an iron diaphragm.
Later the 'Spherical Case' was replaced by a cylindrical shell driven by copper bands fitted around the base of the shell. These bands 'married' with the rifling of the artillery piece to produce a gas tight seal and also spun the shell along its longitudinal axis as it left the barrel to produce ballistic stability in flight. The bursting charge was located at the rear of the shell and pushed the shrapnel balls out through the front of the shell case without causing its total break-up. In this way the cohesion of the shotgun type cone effect was maintained and gave, typically, a 30-yard 'footprint'.
It was in this form that the shrapnel shell was taken to the Western Front with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in August 1914,
Shrapnel Shells on the Western Front
When the BEF arrived in France in 1914, virtually all of its stock of shells was in the shrapnel format; i.e. it had very few High Explosive (H.E.) shells. The arsenals and ammunition depots in the UK were similarly biased in their stocks: only 10% of the 1914 shell production was H.E, and even these were mainly small calibre. For example, only 200 H.E. rounds were produced in 1914 for the British 9.2-inch howitzer. This lack of H.E. proved to be an increasing disadvantage to the BEF as the war progressed, and the German Army used its ample supply of H.E. shells to good effect. This German advantage in H.E. shell production was not fully overcome until late 1916.
Certain comparisons can be made:
* WW1 H.E. shells used large charges of explosives such as picric acid (Lyddite - UK), tri-nitro-toluene (TNT - Germany), melinite, pyroxiline and trotyl - to produce random pieces of fragmented shell casing that are more correctly called 'splinters' or 'fragments', plus the highly destructive explosive effect of the H.E. These shells were primarily used against structures and artillery batteries. However, H.E. shell fragments, or splinters, could cause an infinite range of penetrating wounds that was often very serious or fatal.
* Shrapnel referred exclusively to the round balls from shrapnel shells and was essentially an anti-personal/anti-animal weapon that produced serious perforating wounds. Some shrapnel shells contained a mixture of small and large shrapnel balls for the human and animal targets respectively in a ratio of 10:1. However, as will be seen, when properly managed, the shrapnel shell was also effective at cutting up concentrations of barbed wire, whereas the H.E. shell often tended to make the concentrations of barbed wire an even more formidable jumbled-up obstacle to the infantry. Particularly so when the Germans introduced armoured barbed wire later on in the war.
The innate initial bias of the British Army towards shrapnel shells is exemplified by the British decision to design their steel helmet (the 1915 Bowie patent) expressly to provide protection from airbursts of shrapnel. For some inexplicable reason the basic design remained unchanged for nearly 50 years although the lack of lateral protection to the face and neck soon became evident.
The standard British 16-pounder shrapnel shell contained 364 round lead balls of 13mm - 0.5-inch - diameter which travelled at over 300-mph. The bullets were set in a resin fixative. This prevented the movement of the bullets inside the shell casing whilst it was in flight; a movement which could have affected the ballistic stability of the shell and thus its accuracy. Some skill was required to get the shells to explode at the correct range and altitude so as to maximise the effect of the shrapnel on the enemy troops.
From the outset of the War, faulty artillery shells bedevilled the BEF: they either exploded prematurely in the barrel of the artillery gun, or failed to explode at all. In 1915, reports were made that 30% of the British sells fired on the Western Front proved to be 'duds' for these reasons. As clear evidence of this, large numbers of these unexploded shells are still recovered annually from the WF battlefields. Moreover, there were also serious shell shortages - particularly in 1915 - which badly affected the operational level at which adequate coverage of shellfire could be achieved.
Whilst the effect of the shrapnel shell on structures in the trench system was minimal, it was highly effective against barbed wire concentrations. Particularly when fitted with the French designed Percussion Fuse - the British No. 106 Fuse - which ensured that the shrapnel shell exploded immediately it came into contact with the ground and/or the barbed wire. Other British percussion fused shells tended to bury themselves before exploding, vastly reducing their effect.
Frequent comment is made in the Western Front literature about the failure of the British artillery to break up the barbed-wire concentrations protecting the German trenches on July 1st, the first day if the 1st Battle of the Somme. Namely:
* There weren't sufficient numbers of heavy guns aimed with the required precision, although 1.7 million shells of various calibres were fired in the preparatory bombardment.
* The German defence was largely hidden away in deep dugouts safe from all but the heaviest guns and almost totally protected from shrapnel. So, even when adequate breaks were formed in the German barbed wire, the defenders were still able to exit from their dug-outs to effectively repel the attacking British infantry with machine gun, rifle and light artillery fire.
* An unacceptably large number of the British shells were duds that made the clearance of the barbed wire more patchy than was anticipated, and frustrated its penetration by the British infantry.
Shrapnel is replaced
As the Great War wore on, munitions technology and shell production figures improved enormously and the standard shrapnel shell was succeeded by a fragmentation shell. Here the shell casing was engineered to produce multiple steel fragments that ultimately made the shrapnel ball superfluous.
The British Army had a head start in the evolution of shrapnel as an effective weapon against massed infantry and animals of burden of the battlefield. But it was woefully unprepared for the ordeals of static trench warfare and the use of the H.E. as they quickly evolved on the Western Front. The German High Command had much better anticipated in 1914 the likelihood and requirements of trench warfare, and had ready supplies of H.E. shells to deal with the situation as it developed.
It took the British almost two years to match the German Army's prowess in the use of the whole spectrum of field artillery. But, in the end, it was to a large extent the Allies mastery of artillery on the battlefield that won them the day.