ecclesWhen the English word 'ammunition' was first coined by the French around 1626 as l'amunition or l'amonition, it referred, in general terms, to military stores or supplies. By 1914 it meant bullets for rifles, pistols and machine guns, high explosive (H.E) and shrapnel shells, (including those for the howitzer) mortar bombs and grenades (from French: grenade = pomegranate). Not forgetting, of course, the detonators and fuses for the shells, mortars and grenades. It was also used in compound words such as: ammunition boots (as in: boots, ammunition, black, for use of!), ammunition bread, etc. During the Great War, high explosive was manufactured in two forms. Primary H.E. that exploded upon impact and secondary H.E. that required a detonator; usually fulminate of mercury. By 1914, refinements in H.E chemistry had produced shell-fillers such as picric acid (British = Lyddite) and TNT (trinitrotolulene). The German army used TNT throughout the war. In 1918 the British introduced an even more efficacious H.E. called Amatol (ammonium nitrate+TNT). The H.E. was put into the projectile at the time of manufacture. The soldiers themselves usually installed detonators and fuses on the battlefield, so they were delivered separately or as an inclusive part of the ammunition pack. Wooden ammunition boxes with integral, or rope, handles were the norm.

The status of the munitions of war in 1914

By the start of the Great War, rounded-shot had long been superceded in the armies of the major countries for both rifles and artillery (with the exception of shell-shrapnel) by the cylindro-conical projectile which had a ratio of >3:1 of length over diameter. Mortar bombs were usually more tubular in shape and were generally fired through smooth, unrifled, barrels. The steel or cast iron cases of artillery shells carried soft over-sized metal (copper) driving bands. These bands engaged with the rifling of the barrel, to form an absolutely gas tight seal and also spun the projectile to provide lateral stability in flight. In the case of the bullet, it was usually made of copper+zinc+trace metals such as tungsten, and it was the girth of the bullet itself that was deformed by the rifling to obtain the same effect. However, in November 1915 the British introduced an exception to the cylindro-conical shell and the tubular mortar bomb, the Livens/ Stokes trench mortar bomb. This projectile was round, somewhat larger than a football, mounted atop a cylindrical 3 or 4-in. tube (according to type), holding the propellant charge. This tube engaged with the barrel of the mortar. Later on in the war it was extensively used in gas attacks in the 4-in. format and the Stoke-Newton 6-in. trench mortar bomb. Incendiaries and smoke bomb versions were also widely used. Except for the really large artillery shell, the howitzer shell and mortar bomb, most projectiles were directly united with the propellant ('fixed') by means of a crimped-necked shell- or cartridge-case and activatedmortar in the breech of the gun by a fulminate of mercury percussion cap. Larger shells were propelled by the use of separate bags of propellant ('semi-fixed'). Since the range of the projectile could be determined, to a certain extent, by the quantity of propellant used, bags of H.E. of different weights were provided to give the required amount. An integral propellant propelled the mortar bombs and howitzer shells. In flight, the mortar bomb was usually stabilised by metal fins.

The quantities and the quality of the ammunition used on the Western Front

The quantity of ammunition used on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918 was enormous. During the Messines offensive in 1917, in 12 days 3.5 million shells were fired, equivalent to a rate of 3.5 shells per second, day and night. And each successive year of the war saw an ever-higher consumption of ammunition. It is estimated that in all theatres of the Great War a total of 1 billion shells were fired. By country, the figures, in millions, were Germany = 275; France = 200, Britain = 170; Austria/Hungary = 70; Russia = 50. Much of this consumption took place on the Western Front.

From time to time, all the warring countries faced shell shortages and, at times, formal rationing had to be imposed even to the extent, at one point, of 4 shells per gun per day. In November 1914, many of the British guns on the Western front were said to have only one day's supply of shells whilst others had even less. And even the shells that were available had many duds that either did not explode on contact or, worse, exploded in the barrel of the gun: usually the infamous 'Fuse, graze, No. 100' was at fault. (A horrendous rate of one premature [in-barrel] explosion per thousand shells fired has been recorded. It has long been supposed that many of the duds, some of which still litter the Western Front and surface every year, were caused by the deliberate failure of wary gun crews to activate the fuse before the shell was fired). In November 1915, there was still an acute shell shortage but his was due to a shortage of fuses; there were 2.5 million fuseless shells in store. Meanwhile, the problem of dud rounds lasted through 1915 and 1916. All these shortages and complaints from soldiers at the front caused serious political problems for the British government. It was only resolved when an energetic Minister of Munitions (Lloyd George) was appointed and many thousands of women were enrolled in the factories producing munitions to augment the labour force and replace the men called up for duty in the armed services. The problem with the fuses continued on into 1917.

The expenditure of munitions on the Western Front

Expenditure of small arms ammunition for pistols, rifles and machine-guns (usually using rifle calibre rounds, e.g. 0.303-in.) must have reached hundreds of billions, if not trillions. A single, water-cooled, belt fed (250 rounds) machine-gun such as the British Vickers - said to be 'slow-firing' at 450 rounds per minute - would expend, theoretically, 25,000+ rounds in one hour of continuous firing. There are reliable reports of one such machine gun actually firing 12,500 rounds in a single afternoon on the Western Front. The limiting factors were over-heating and barrel-wear. This could be reduced to a certain extent in some models by the proper use of the water-cooling system; water-cooled machine-gun barrels were said to have had a 'life' of 35,000+ rounds when used 'judiciously'.

Mortars and grenades

Although mortars and grenades have a very long history indeed in warfare - going back respectively 500 years and 300 years - the advent of trench warfare on the Western Front brought both these weapons into even more intensive use. Indeed, some of the mortars put back into service by the artillery deficient Great War armies dated from the 19th Century. Many military historians consider them to be the backbone of effective trench fighting. Special tactics and manuals were developed by all the warring armies to obtain the maximum effect from the use of mortars and grenades in the trenches.

Basically, all mortar bombs were lightweight metal cases containing H.E. alone or H.E. plus shrapnel. Generally, they were propelled relatively slowly up a steeply angled (>45 degrees) smooth bored tube by an integral explosion and were guided through their steep trajectory by metal fins. The Livens Projector and the Stokes mortar that were progressively used as trench artillery, gradually superceded some of the former models and thus considerably simplified the rationalisation of ammunition supplies.


genadeThe mention of the word 'hand-grenade', in the context of the British Army of the Great War on the Western Front, brings immediately to mind the 'Mills Bomb' - more correctly designated as 'Grenade, Hand, No. 5. It was an exceptionally practical and effective all metal fragment-grenade and weighed only 1lb. 6oz. (655 grammes). It had a five-second fuse. This was activated when the bomber pulled out the safety pin and threw the grenade. As the grenade left the bomber's hand, a spring-mounted lever flew free, releasing the firing pin. The effective fragmentation range of the Mills Bomb, in an open space, was around 25 yards in diameter. It could be reliably thrown, by an over-arm throwing technique, for a distance of around 25 yards. A technique readily acquired, and excelled in, by the cricket playing soldiers of the British Commonwealth armies. Its introduction in 1915 filled a vital niche in the close-order, and often man-to-man, fighting that became the norm along the whole length of Western Front at that time. Subsequently, two variants of the Mills Bomb: the Nos. 23 and 36.Grenades were also introduced. Another specialised hand-grenade, purposely made for the trenches, was the No. 26, or 'P-bomb, with a nine-second fuse. This was a cylindrical smoke bomb that was highly effective in forcing the enemy out of even his most substantial dugouts. By 1918, a total of 67 million of these British grenades had been produced. All armies had their version of the hand-grenade. Perhaps the best known of these foreign types was the German wooden handled, stick-grenade (Steilhandgranate) or 'potato-masher'. Other grenades were produced which the standard infantry rifle could project. All were of the fragmentation type mounted on a steel rod that fitted inside the barrel (e.g. the British Marten Hale) and were propelled by blank cartridges. Later on in the war, standard rifle rounds were employed with a cup-discharger device. Ranges of 150 to 250 yards were the norm - though accuracy was rather doubtful.

Gas and smoke filled, and illumination, projectiles

After the introduction of gas-warfare in 1916, gas-filled shells/bombs supplied for artillery guns, howitzers, artillery mortars and trench mortars, became an ever-increasing component of the demand for ammunition supplies. In 1917, the British introduced smoke-producing shells and illumunating (star) shells. By 1918 they had largely replaced the less practical smoke-pots and hand-held candles that were formerly used to confound and illuminate the enemy. The Germans, in particular, used vast numbers of mustard-gas shells in their various offensives: a total of one million projectiles containing 2,500 tonnes of mustard gas were fired at the British in 10 days during the July 1917 offensive on the Ypres Salient. In the whole of the Great War, a total of 66 million gas-filled projectiles were fired by the belligerents, accounting for a good proportion of the 113,000 tonnes of toxic chemicals used during the war.


It will be seen, therefore, that the whole success of the propagation of the war on the Western Front was dependent on the timely supply of often enormous quantities of the required kind of ammunition at the right place. Any administrative failure that prevented this flow of adequate quantities of ammunition could cause an inordinate deleterious effect on the successful prosecution of the war. Several offensives ground to an inconclusive end due to this factor (e.g. The Battle of Festubert, May 1915 and The Second Battle of Artois, May/June 1915). So a vast, reliable supply chain had to be developed and maintained between the suppliers of the raw materials, the munitions factories, the transportation agencies and the men at the front who, in the end, man-handled much of the munitions into the firing line. The Central Powers perhaps performed all, or some, of these functions better in the short term. But, in the end, the consistency, constancy and reliability of the chain of supply of ammunition of the Entente Powers paid a leading role in the overwhelming of the Central Powers and forcing them to unconditional capitulation in 1918.

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