Web Blast: From Rifles… To Grenades
By John Sheehan
The smoking fuses of the stick grenades scribed an arc across the dark gray Flanders sky, dropping simultaneously into the next fire bay. The concussion of the resulting explosions rippled through the trench, followed by a rain of dirt, debris and bits of equipment.
These are a cross section of different items carried by Germany’s elite assault troops.
The P08 Luger is a wartime Erfurt and the C96 Mauser with matching shoulder
stock/holster, was purchased by the Prussian Army and issued as a substitute
sidearm in lieu of the “official” P08 Luger. Grenades include (upper left) the
M1915 N/a Kugelhandgrenate, M1917 Eierhandgranate or “egg” grenades
(both, upper right) and the M1917 Stielhandgrenate stick grenade (bottom right),
better known as the ubiquitous “potato masher.” Note the various types of close
combat trench knives universally carried by German assault troops during the war.
Hans and Günter scrambled around the corner of the bay on the heels of the blast, firing as the stunned and wounded British soldiers, senses still numb lay bleeding on the duckboards in the bottom of the trench. Hans plunged the bayonet mounted on his Kar 98a into the chest of the nearest body, pinning it to the reinforcing planks of the revetment as Günter emptied his Reich’s revolver into the other two prostate bodies. Both stopped to reload as Karl-Heinz and the other grenadiers passed by them withdrawing additional grenades from the makeshift burlap bags slung under each armpit.
“Down!” The blast was just around the corner of the right angle of the trench, showering them with mud and wood splinters. While Günter feverishly reloaded his revolver, Karl-Heinz unscrewed the cap of the grenade in his hand, the porcelain bead and cord falling free of the handle. He jerked the cord igniting the friction primer in one smooth motion as he regained his feet.
He threw the grenade over the top of the parados in the direction of the next bay. Even if it wasn’t on the mark, it would at least keep their heads down while the rest of his team collected themselves. No sooner had he let go of the grenade, propelling on it’s way toward the unseen enemy in the next bay, a flurry of motion to his right caught his attention as Franz and Martin let go another round of grenades not more than a second or two behind his own.
“Get ready!” … Boom! … Boom! Boom! Bayonet at the ready, Hans screwed up his courage to round the corner one more time, whispering a silent prayer in the hopes of surviving another day on the Western Front. The next round of the game began anew …
This deadly game, generally referred to as “bombing the traverses” was a common feature of warfare in the permanent siege conditions in the trenches of the First World War. But it was a far cry from the standard tactics of the European armies taking the field in the summer of 1914.
Both the United States and Great Britain had adopted general-purpose rifles
of intermediate length for universal issue to all troop types. The US issue
Model 1903 Springfield (top) and the British issue SMLE No. 1 MkIII* (bottom)
served with little modification throughout the conflict.
The Rifle is King
Prior to the outbreak of WWI, for 28 years since the introduction of the French 8x51mmR smallbore, high-velocity smokeless cartridge in 1886, the European powers had been engaged in an arms race to develop the next generation of small arms with which to equip their ever expanding armies. The American Civil War had proved the worth of the rifled barrel as well as the repeater. Stubborn ordnance types had argued for years against the introduction of repeating firearms based on the concern the average soldier would fire off all of his ammunition in the first 20 minutes of battle, after which he would be of little use. Eventually battlefield events overcame the conservative old school opposition to everything new.
The repeating magazine rifle firing the new cartridges at velocities in excess of 2,000 fps proved it’s worth in countless engagements ranging from Spion Kop in Natal, to San Juan Hill in Cuba, to Mukden in Manchuria. The repeating magazine rifle became king of the battlefield. The trained British regulars of the “Old Contemptibles” could fire an estimated 12 to 15 rounds per minute of accurate rifle fire. Their sustained rate of fire during the Battle of Mons and during the constant rear guard actions during the retreat towards Le Cateau was so daunting it lead the German high command to reach the conclusion each British Battalion was equipped with 20 to 30 machineguns, when in fact they were only issued four.
The wide open tactics employed in Germany’s Schliefen plan and Frances counterstroke, Plan 17, called for maneuver and combined arms attacks, with both light cavalry performing in the traditional scouting roll and heavy cavalry, some still wearing archaic steel breastplates and helmets, sporting lances and heavy sabers in addition to their carbines, poised to ride in and exploit the “breakthrough.
Infantry and field artillery were to operate in support of one another depending on the circumstances, while the cavalry waited in the wings. The “galloping batteries” of light field artillery were still riding hell bent for leather in order to unlimber their guns in open fields in direct sight of the enemy. Firing over open sights, the gunners braved accurate rifle fire unheard of when their tactics were first developed. While the war of maneuver lasted, the rifle was indeed king of the battlefield, with the small number of machineguns employed in the opening months of the war providing the occasional demonstration of horrors to come.
The battle sight setting of the rifles carried by the major combatant nations in 1914 provides some insight into the type of combat the militaries expected to encounter during the next war. The “battle setting” represents the closest possible range at which the rifles sights were set to aim directly at the target. At any range closer than this, the soldier had to hold low. This was the reason sergeants in most armies of the day stood on the firing line repeatedly screaming, “Aim at their knees!”
The prevailing military wisdom at the beginning of the 20th Century was war would be fought in open order at the substantial distance favoring newly introduced high-velocity smokeless powder cartridges. Maneuver, as had been the basic tenet of both strategy and tactics from time immemorial would remain wide open, which explains the continued preeminence of cavalry in every army of the day, in spite of the lessons learned to the contrary in numerous small wars fought towards the close of the 19th Century.
In a war of maneuver, the machinegun was considered of limited advantage being too cumbersome it was believed, to keep up with the rapid advance of the infantry. In many armies of the era, machine guns were still relegated to the artillery rather than the infantry. In addition, the ordnance boards fought the adoption of the machinegun tooth and nail as they had with the introduction of the repeating rifle two decades earlier! How could the already over burdened supply columns ever successfully feed such a wasteful weapon as the machinegun with enough ammunition once the fighting commenced? These same logistics officers believed the average infantryman would empty all of his cartridge pouches within 20 minutes of battle being joined! Small arms fire was to be tightly controlled by the NCOs in every army, another reason why archaic magazine cut-offs survived into the early 20th Century.
The old adage, “The military is always prepared to fight the last war over again” was very much the case in 1914, despite recent evidence the nature of weapons technology had forever changed the face of war. Since the advent of the rifled musket, proponents of defensive warfare from prepared positions, such as Confederate General George Longstreet, had argued well-trained riflemen behind earthworks could not be taken in direct assault by the devil himself!
This was repeatedly proven during the American Civil War prior to the widespread use of single-shot cartridge rifles, let alone repeating rifles. Throw in high-velocity repeating rifles with an effective range of over 1,000 yards when fired at massed targets, and it should have been back to the drawing board for the high command in order to develop new tactics better suited to the effectiveness of the new weaponry.
But the real precursors to WWI were to be found in the siege of Petersburg during the American Civil War and on a much larger scale during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. In both instances, rapid long-range accurate defensive fire forced the attackers to go to ground. The spade became the soldier’s best friend rather than the rifle. Modern rapid firing field artillery, epitomized by the famous and revolutionary French 75, throwing air-bursting shrapnel or HE shells at the rate of 15 rounds per minute only heightened the need to dig even faster!
The transition from the open warfare envisioned by the high command to the importance of digging in the moment a unit halted under fire is most graphically and brilliantly described in Erwin Rommel’s great work, Infantry Attacks. This is a must read for anyone interested in military history, small unit command, leadership, inspired tactics or WWI in general. This excellent treatise on small unit tactics is based on Rommel’s experiences during the Great War as a junior officer in the Elite Wurttemberg Mountain Battalion. It was written after the war and published in 1937. The book chronicles Leutnant (and later Captain) Rommel’s experiences throughout the war, including his participation in the Battle of the Frontiers that preceded the Race to the Sea, which in turn culminated in the ultimate stalemate in the trenches once there were no more flanks to be turned!
After only 17 days in the field, Lt. Rommel made the following observation. “In contrast to this, (the 3rd Battalion which had suffered heavy casualties) the 2nd Battalions pick-and-shovel work on the barren hill paid large dividends. In spite of an artillery bombardment lasting for hours, our casualties were very small.”
The handwriting was already on the wall and what was to come should have been apparent to someone other than this lone 23-year-old junior officer!
The British .455 Webley revolver (above) was rugged, dependable and well
suited for close quarter encounters in the trenches. The Mill’s Bomb (center)
was the grandfather of the modern grenade with the safety lever or “spoon”
releasing the striker and arming the grenade as it leaves the throwers hand.
This is the No. 36, the most successful version of the Mill’s used during the
Great War. British bombing parties carried the usual plethora or close combat
weapons including “trench art” homemade daggers such as the example shown
here produced from a pre-war knife sharpener. The Canadian Ross knife bayonets
were issued as trench knives to British forces after the standard issue Mk III Ross
rifles were withdrawn from combat. The Medieval mace made a comeback during
the Great War as is evidenced by this British produced example.
Many of the French Grenadiers carried the 8-shot Mle 1882 Ordnance
Revolver in addition to Grenade Citron Foug Modele 1916 (center, left)
and Grenade F1 Modele 1915 (upper right). Accompanying the standard
issue French trench knife is a needle sharp dagger design, which provided
a new lease on life for the tip of a broken Mle 1886 bayonet.
Lessons NOT Learned!
Had the combatant nations paid closer attention to the strategic and tactical conditions developed at the siege of Port Arthur and Battle of Mukden during the Russo-Japanese War, during which every major European power sent official observers, they should have taken notice how the defensive nature of the combat developed, complete with full-blown trench systems, barbed wire entanglements, heavily fortified redoubts replete with machinegun emplacements, reserve trenches and the rapidly expanded use of the reasonably crude hand grenades employed by both sides. The grenade had been a weapon in the arsenal of most armies for the previous 200 years.
The grenade was long considered a weapon of siege and naval warfare, but had found few adherents within most armies, falling in and out of favor as dictated by the tactical circumstances of the moment. The result had been little or no effective developmental effort to improve upon the technology that had been around for so long. However, whenever a siege developed, the momentary need popped up again and the scramble was on to provide something that could be thrown from the battlements at enemy sappers when an approach trench was within muscle range of the larger than average soldiers who were recruited as Grenadiers.
This was pretty much the status quo in 1914 when Europe exploded following the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand in Sarajevo.
The Schlieffen Plan had left the German Army slightly more prepared than either the French or British in regards to stores of grenades since one of the key obstacles to the success of the wide right hook was the reduction of the dauntless, state-of-the-art Belgian fortresses at Liege. In spite of the development of the “Big Bertha” 420mm siege guns, it was still considered necessary to prepare for a short siege in the event the forts proved to be too tough to crack with the heavy guns alone. The result was the German Army went to war in 1914 with an estimated stock of 70,000 hand grenades. By comparison, by the end of the war, production of the British Mill’s bomb had exceeded 75,000,000!
The French and British armies lagged way behind with nothing of consequence in terms of both inventories or designs. The Austro-Hungarians were little better off, while the Russians, who were sadly lacking in just about everything else, had at least developed a reasonably effective hand grenade due entirely to their experience at the hands of the Japanese in 1905. However, they still lacked the production capability to produce the new M1912 stick grenade in large enough numbers to provide consistent supply to the front line troops. Given the fact large numbers of Russian troops lacked even a rifle, it is hardly surprising the hand grenade was just another piece of ordnance they couldn’t supply in adequate numbers.
The German Sturmtruppen (left) in assault order circa the 1918 Spring Offensive.
Note his standard pack is now the assault pack consisting of the shelter half strapped
around the mess kit. Grenades are carried suspended from the belt as well as in sand
bags stitched together and slung across the neck and shoulders. The Kar 98a Carbine
is slung across the back to leave both hands free for the primary weapon — the hand
grenade. A disposable ammunition bandoleer is carried in lieu of the traditional
M1908 cartridge pouches.
American Grenadiers (middle) were issued bomber vests, which in the case of British
Mill’s bomb, came packedin the case of grenades. Our Sergeant is carrying a M1911
Colt and M1917 trench knife in place his Springfield or Enfield. America lacked a
grenade and were supplied British or French grenades depending on which
sector of the line they served.
Our French Grenadier (right) circa 1917-18 carries a Berthier M1892 Artillery
Musketoon. Issued to specialist troops at the beginning of the war, the Berthier
was very popular with assault troops due to its short overall length. Standard
infantry rifles with issue bayonets were extremely long and hampered mobility
in the trenches. While special “bomber’s vests” were produced by the French, a
more common practice was to use reinforced haversacks or grenade bags slung
over the shoulders and carried in front of the soldier for easy access.
Deadlock to Stalemate
July 1914, as the armies of Europe mobilized for what was expected to be a war lasting no more than a month to six weeks and the grenade was pretty much ignored. The armies would take the field, maneuver on a grand scale, someone would make a mistake, the coupe des gras would be executed and the losing side would sue for peace. The terms of the resulting treaty would enlarge one group of countries’ territory at the expense of the others and voilá, the war would be over!
The only problem was the series of entangling treaties of mutual defense that had evolved following the Franco-Prussian War would guarantee the war would be fought on a scale never before seen, with individual armies taking the field composed of more soldiers than had fought on all sides during the Napoleonic Wars combined!
Advances in weapons development nobody could have imagined would be possible had come along during the age of industrialization. Breech loading, rapid firing artillery firing high explosive shells had been perfected, dynamite had been invented, the machinegun had come of age, men had taken to the skies in the aeroplane, small caliber high-velocity repeating rifles were now in the hands of nearly every soldier that answered the call to arms. Barbwire saw its debut in Manchuria. The submarine and the torpedo were counter balanced against the Dreadnought class battleships. The industrial revolution had transformed man’s ability to murder his neighbor ever more efficiently!
The last war fought on the Continent was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Germany had fielded an army of 1,200,000 men, while France mobilized 662,000 men to engage them. By comparison, the German Army of 1914 upon mobilization numbered approximately 4,500,000 men! In France, 3,781,000 men answered the call to war. The Russian “Bear” could count on 5,000,000 men upon mobilization with an estimated reserve of 4,500,000 to draw from. Austria-Hungary with it polyglot tapestry of ethnic groups called up 3,350,000 men to bloody little Serbia’s nose and to support her big Teutonic brother, Germany. The Serbs could put another 460,000 men on the borders to stop the Austro-Hungarians. Forever neutral Belgium, if invaded, could field an army of 177,000 soldiers. In the event that tiny little Belgium should be invaded, Great Britain was prepared to go to war with it’s small, but very professional army composed of 733,500 with a core of well trained, battle hardened professional soldiers. When you add all of this up, it totals approximately 18,001,500 men, all prepared to deal death on a scale never before imagined with the most lethal weapons the world had ever known!
The only key figure of the war to see the unfolding events clearly was the ageing Lord Kitchner, the victor of Omdurman, an experienced soldier of countless colonial wars who clearly recognized this time was going to be different. He foresaw the war would involve entire nations and peoples and go on for years.
The Schleiffen Plan, doomed to fail for the simple reason it hadn’t properly taken into account the distances to be covered by the right wing envelopment, the stiff resistance of the Belgians and the mountain of supplies to be moved farther and farther forward into France, combined with the sheer exhaustion the troops encountered following six weeks of continuous marching and fighting in an attempt to encircle Paris.
France’s Plan 17, equally doomed to failure, was based on the cult of “Attaque a outrance” and “Elan,” a peculiarly French belief the spirit of the bayonet charge was an irresistible force that could overcome open fields in the face of small arms, machinegun and artillery fire. Once the punch and counterpunch of the opening campaign on the Western Front petered out, with the Swiss border and the Alps to the south, the only alternative was attempt repeated flank marches to the north.
This resulted in what has come to be known as the race to the sea, the leap frogging affair that eventually found its way to the Atlantic coast. Deadlock! With 577,000 Belgian, French and German soldiers already dead in the fields of France and Belgium and no more flanks to turn, the spirit of self-preservation took hold and everyone turned to the e-tool and began to dig and dig and dig some more! What developed was four long years of siege warfare on a scale never before seen! Enter the hand grenade, that old soldier’s weapon of choice for defending or attacking fortifications.
With trench systems and wire entanglements stretching 466 miles from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border, everyone licked their wounds and adopted a defensive posture. In this roll of static defense the machinegun came of age. The St. Etienne, the Maxim, the Vickers and the Schwarzlose were all heavy weapons difficult to move and employ by maneuvering troops, however in the role of static defense, they could be set up in reinforced redoubts with mutually supporting fields of fire. All sides quickly learned sticking your head up over the edge of the parapet in broad daylight was an invitation to certain death. The machinegun and the preponderance of artillery of all calibers neutered the effectiveness of the rifle through much of the First World War.
Aside from the occasional ever-larger blood letting in the form futile frontal assaults on static barbwire laced defensive positions defended by machineguns and repeating rifles, all supported by artillery of every conceivable size, the real war settled into a nocturnal affair. When darkness settled over the field negating much of the effectiveness of the weapons that ruled the day, both sides started the practice of “raiding” the enemy trenches.
At first, the general purpose for such raids was to gain intelligence by snatching a prisoner or two in order to form a general idea as to the enemies order of battle, all in preparation for the next major offensive. Eventually, “trench raids” were staged on an ever-larger scale with the intention of harassing the enemy and inflicting casualties through the “death by a thousand cuts” approach.
Combined with sniping, random artillery fire, long range “strafing” of roads and approach trenches by machine guns, losses of this nature suffered in the absence of major engagements were referred to officially in the British Army as “wastage.” Lest you think it didn’t have a cumulative effect on the opposing armies, the official figures for “wastage” in the British Army from 1916 until the end of the war ran in excess of 10,000 casualties per month! The figures were similar in nearly all of the combatant armies.
The standard French full-length infantry rifle of WWI was the Mle 1886/93
Lebel (above, top), while the Mle 1892 Berthier Artillery Musketoon
(above, bottom) was issued to specialist troops and field artillery
units in 1914. The handy little carbines were favored by French
Grenadiers and assault units.
A small cross section of the thousands of hand grenades (below) appearing on the
scene during the largest protracted siege in history, the Western Front!
The Grenade Comes of Age
In an environment where anybody visibly exposed ended up wounded or dead, the soldiers needed a weapon they could use effectively without exposing themselves to enemy fire. Given the fact the opposing trench systems in some sectors were as close as 10 to 20 meters apart, the combatants on both sides looked for something other than insults to hurl at the enemy. The grenade provided the answer. The grenade could be thrown in a high, looping trajectory allowing the soldier to engage an unseen enemy without exposing himself to undue risk of being shot.
By the same token, while crawling around in the dark in No-Man’s-Land whether on a raid or manning an LP, soldiers needed a weapon without sights that wouldn’t give away their position. Once again, the hand grenade comes to the forefront in terms of options. Hundreds of patterns of grenades were introduced during the First World War, but we’ll only touch upon the gradual evolution of the offensive and defensive hand grenade.
All grenades had fuses of one sort or another and many of the early types were homemade affairs consisting of guncotton or some other type of explosive surrounded by nails, scrap metal, whatever was at hand, with the whole mess stuffed into the center of a discarded jam tin, in which a regular old fashion slow fuse was placed. A variation of this used by the French was known as the “petard” and consisted of an explosive charge attached to a wooden paddle wrapped with heavy segmented wire designed to provide the shrapnel when the weapon exploded. The Germans were in slightly better condition early in the war and their M1913 grenade was only marginally more sophisticated. Many of these early models required the use of a lighter, slow match, cigarette or cigar in order to ignite the fuse. The balance had built in friction primers to light the fuse. One thing all early grenades had in common was they were as potentially dangerous to the thrower as they were to the enemy! Premature detonation was a constant problem with the early grenades.
Attempts to solve this problem were ongoing and a new round of grenades incorporated impact detonators, the idea being the grenade would explode on impact rather than in a given number of seconds based on the burning rate of the fuse. These grenades proved to be even more dangerous to handle than their predecessors, some more than others, depending on the design of the arming device. If the grenade was live, all you had to do was accidentally drop it or bump it against the revetment supporting the trench wall and your whole day was ruined along with anyone standing near you!
Attempts to develop mechanisms to arm the grenade in flight brought the French “bracelet” grenade. A band was secured around the wrist of the throwing arm with a lanyard attached. The lanyard was hooked into the pin on the M1914 grenade. When the grenade was thrown, as it left the throwers hand and the lanyard became taut, it pulled the pin effectively arming the grenade after it left the grenadier’s hand. Other types of early percussion grenades relied on streamers trailing from the rear of the device, which in theory ensured the grenade would land nose first on the detonator.
One of the more intriguing percussion grenades was the German “turtle” or “discuss” model! This was a flattened discuss shaped affair with a series of six detonators protruding from equally spaced distances around the outer edge of the grenade, the principle being that when thrown like a discuss on a perpendicular rather than horizontal azimuth, it was sure to land on one of the detonators, thus ensuring the explosion of the grenade! Like most percussion grenades, it was highly erratic in performance. If a percussion grenade landed in soft mud or water, they frequently failed to detonate. Accidents were frequent and the troops on both sides gradually lost confidence in these types of grenades. To be a “grenadier” or “bomber” in the early years of the war was like playing Russian roulette on a daily basis.
Not until 1916 did most of the ordnance departments develope reliable hand grenades perfected to the point the troops gained enough confidence in their safety to employ them on a regular basis in larger and larger numbers. Special schools were started for the purpose of training specialists in the art of bombing as well as to thoroughly test new types of grenades. With the rise of the training centers, complete with full-scale trench systems as well as live fire ranges, officers and NCOs with experience at the front started to test and perfect specialized tactics around the hand grenade as the primary weapon system.
The two most successful grenades of the war would undoubtedly be the German M1917 “stick” grenade and the British Mills Bomb. Both went on in slightly altered form to see widespread use during WWII, which as we all know, was simply round two of WWI! Interestingly enough, one is an offensive grenade — the M1917, while the Mills Bomb was a defensive grenade.
The Infantry Gewehr M1898, (top) with the S1898 pipe-backed bayonet and (below) the Karabiner
M1898a, with the S1898/05 “Butcher” bayonet. The shorter Kar 98a was the favored arm of the
Sturmtruppen, carried slung across the back leaving both hands free for bombing. The primary use
of the carbine was defense while consolidating gains during the assault.
From Rifle to Carbine to Handgun
As the grenade rose in prominence in the trenches, the rifle was gradually replaced by the carbine, a weapon once relegated to the cavalry, artillery and support troops whose primary function required the use if both hands with the carbine providing a defensive weapon to be used only in extreme circumstances. It found favor in the confines of the trenches for the exact same reason — it was short, compact and handy and could be slung across the back to leave both hands free for igniting fuses and throwing grenades!
For this very purpose, the highly trained specialist “Sturmtruppen” that became a feature of the German Army from 1917 onward were issued the Kar 98a whenever it was available in lieu of the standard Gew 98 infantry rifle. French Grenadiers favored the Mle 1882 Berthier carbine while the British had already solved the problem of rifles versus carbines with the general issue of the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield, the No1MkIII. The United States had followed the British lead with the introduction of the 1903 Springfield. Both rifles were of intermediate length.
In seeking to remain undetected while in No-Man’s-Land at night, whether on a trench raid, a scouting party or manning a listening post, soldiers sought weapons they could use with stealth and quiet, which resulted in the reintroduction of the medieval mace along with a plethora of trench knives and daggers. Grenades were carried in large quantities as well. With flares going up at both regular and intermittent intervals, No-Man’s-Land became a place for crawling! Even carbines were a hindrance under these conditions. Officers and soldiers who were regularly issued pistols or revolvers found them a perfect compliment to the grenade. Between captured enemy weapons and those of wounded or dead comrades, veterans on both sides started acquiring handguns whenever and wherever possible.
Tactical doctrine published in pamphlet form and taught at training facilities eventually resulted in the archetypical “bombing” teams, highlighted in the introduction of this article. They varied little between armies beyond the number of members in a team. The tactics taught to US troops, once they arrived in France, had been developed over the preceding years by the French and the British. The organization of a “grenadier squad” is spelled out in the US issued training pamphlet shown in the accompanying photos.
The eventual evolution of these tactics, driven by necessity, placed the emphasis on the hand grenade rather than the rifle. The rifle or carbine was relegated to a secondary role in support of the grenade. By 1917 the reliance on the hand grenade led a professional British officer to write in his memoirs, “The young soldiers that were now arriving had been taught more about the bomb than the rifle, which some of them hardly knew the way to load.”
Compare this to the situation before the war when only six soldiers out of each Engineer Battalion received limited training in the use of the grenade! By April of 1918 following the great Spring Offensive, a German Captain would write, “The rest period out of the line was used to continue the training according to the experiences gained during the offensive. Especially, the troops had to learn to shoot their rifles again. During the long war of attrition hand grenades and machine guns had been the weapons the infantry mainly used. Rifles were carried into the trenches, but were generally considered an unnecessary burden and were normally stored in such a way that they were available, but rarely fired.”
American Grenadiers were issued bomber vests, which in the case of British Mill’s bomb, also came packed in the cases with the grenades. Our First Sergeant is carrying a M1911 Colt Automatic and M1917 trench knife in place of the standard issue M1903 Springfield or M1917 Enfield. American forces, lacking a grenade of their own, were supplied with both British as well as French hand grenades depending on which sector of the line they served.
Our French Grenadier circa 1917-18carries the Berthier M1892 Artillery Musketoon. A short carbine issued to specialist troops at the beginning of the war, the Berthier became very popular with assault troops due to it’s short overall length. Standard infantry length rifles with issue bayonets were extremely long and hampered mobility in the confines of the trenches. While special “bomber’s vests” were produced by the French, a more common practice was to use reinforced haversacks or grenade bags slung over the soldiers and carried in front of the soldier for easy access.
German Sturmtruppen in assault order, circa 1918 Spring Offensive – The German Sturmtruppen in assault order circa the 1918 Spring Offensive. Note the absence of the standard pack or tornister, which has been replaced by the assault pack consisting of the shelter half strapped around the mess kit. Grenades are carried suspended from the belt as well as in sand bags stitched together and slung across the neck and shoulders. The Kar 98a Carbine is slung across the back to leave both hands free for the primary weapon, the hand grenade. A disposable ammunition bandoleer is carried in lieu of the traditional M1908 cartridge pouches.
Germany’s most effective grenade of the war, the M1917 Stielhandgrenate,
was commonly referred to as the potato masher by Allied soldiers based
on its resemblance to the then common kitchen accessory.
The burning time of the fuse was stamped into the wooden handle
of each M1917 Stielhandgrenate. The grenades were produced with
either 5 second (shown here) or 7 second fuses.
The fuse of the M1917 Stielhandgrenate was ignited via the yank
of a cord that activated a friction primer. The cord was accessed
via the removal of a screw cap on the base of the wooden handle
of the grenade. The cord and ceramic bead are missing from this example.
The German M1917 Eierhandgranate or “egg” grenade, raised serious
concerns among the Allies when it was first introduced. While it contained
a substantially weaker explosive charge than it’s contemporaries, it could
easily be thrown twice as far. Two different fuse designs are shown here, one
utilizing a wire pull cord while the other example has the traditional ceramic
bead a top a short section of double-looped chain.
The British No. 36 Mill’s Bomb, the most successful design of the war, is
shown here with the pin, safety lever (spoon), striker and base-plate.
With the safety lever gripped tightly in the palm of the hand, the pin was
pulled which freed up the lever. When the grenade was thrown, upon
leaving the grenadier’s hand, the safety lever released the powerful
spring of the cocked striker. The striker ignited a flash primer, which
fired the fuse, after the grenade was well on it’s way toward the enemy.
Original WWI Photos
German troops shelter in the edge of a wood during pre war maneuvers.
Both sides carefully “prepared for the last war” in the years leading up to 1914.
British Infantry, supported by a machinegun, await the German onslaugh
t at Mons in a roadside drainage ditch. Highly accurate, high-velocity
repeating rifle fire along with the machinegun and advances in field
artillery and explosives all contributed to the evolution of the trench
works that made WWI so different from every war before or since.
A mixture of British and Scottish troops lie prone astride
a road in Belgium awaiting the German advance.
A prone French firing line keeps up a lively exchange with Germans in a
distant far tree line during the Battle of the Frontiers in the opening
stages of WWI in the summer of 1914. These troops are armed with the
standard issue Mle 1886/93 Lebel.
A French bayonet charge in the spirit of “Attaque a outrance” in the face
of massed small arms fire supported by machineguns and effective field
artillery ensured a heavy butchers bill, particularly considering the
bright red trousers worn by the “Poilu” in 1914!
Large-scale advances by column such as is seen here in this photo
of pre war German maneuvers, were used during the war of movement
during the early months of the war. Troops arrayed in these massed
formations were engaged by British infantry and machine gunners
during the retreat from Mons.
In testimony to the effectiveness of repeating rifles supported by
machineguns and rapid firing artillery, Austro-Hungarian dead
litter the field in grotesque piles following an unsuccessful attack
across open ground in the face of Russian small arms fire.
Two members of an early French bombing party wear the Mle
1915 cervillier skull cap, the first helmet issued by the French shown
here without the kepis they were designed to be worn underneath.
The soldier on the right carries a Mle 1874 Ordnance revolver and
a “trench art” sword! The two soldiers on the left carry a string of
early percussion detonated grenades suspended from their belts.
Both as also wearing private purchase body armor.
A British Grenadier poses with a fully loaded “bomber’s” vest.
Later in the war, these vests came packed inside the some
of the cases in which the Mill’s bombs were shipped.
A British bombing party prepares for an attack. Note the
sack of extra grenades in the center of the foreground and
the bayonet man standing in between the two Grenadiers,
both of whom wear fully loaded vests.
An Austro-Hungarian sentry stands watch alongside
an array of grenades close at hand.
Crenellated traverses or fire bays are shown here in a stretch of
Allied trench. Barrages of hand grenades would be thrown at a
high trajectory over the intervening ground and into the next trench
bay. The bayonet men would rush the scene of the blasts once the
last grenade had exploded, hoping to catch any surviving
enemy soldiers still dazed from the blasts.
Grenade laden German “Sturmtruppen” advance across No-
Man’s-Land with their Kar 98a slung across their backs to leave both
of their hands free for bombing.
German “Sturmtruppen” rush through pre cut lanes in a wire entanglement
during an assault. The novel tactics first developed on the Eastern Front were
based on infiltration and the bypassing and isolating of strong points, which
were to be reduced by the follow on waves of conventionally trained infantry.
German “Sturmtruppen” work on an enemy wire entanglement with wire cutters.
German Grenadiers sprint through artillery blasted lanes
in the enemy wire during the Spring Offensive of 1918.
Speed and the shock of surprise supported by lots of
grenades were important factors in the successfulness of
“Sturmtruppen” tactics in breaking open the stalemate on
the Western Front in the spring of 1918.
German assault troops wearing the M1915 Gummimaske gas masks emerge
at the run from a cloud of poison gas during an attack. The quality riding
boots worn in lieu of the issue M1866 marching boots marks the lead figure
as one of the junior field officers leading the attack.
Austro-Hungarian Sturmtruppen leapfrog forward during an
assault on the Italian Front during the Battle of Caparetto.
With carbines slung, German Sturmtruppen scramble across No-Man’s-Land during the
initial assault on March 21st, 1918. This marked Luedendorf’s roll of the dice last-ditch
effort to win the war in the west with temporary manpower advantage gained with the
surrender of the Russians in late 1917.
A German soldier, in support of a MG08 machinegun, readies the
pull-cord to the friction primer on a M1917 Stielhandgrenate.
Both soldiers wear the M1917 Lederschutzmaske produced with horse hide.
An Austro-Hungarian bombing party shown here in action during a training
exercise. A round of grenades has just exploded in the next bay and the right
hand soldier prepares to rush the site of the blasts.
The real thing! Austro-Hungarian Grenadiers ready another round of grenades
as a dust and smoke from the previous blasts cloud the target bay.
German Sturmtruppen on the defensive with their Kar 98a
un-slung during a training exercise.
French Grenadiers advance to the attack during an artillery barrage.
Death was never very far away in the trenches and could be visited
upon a person through a dizzying array of causes ranging from total
obliteration from a high explosive shell to a lingering death spent
drowning in your own mucous following a poison gas attack!
The bayonet men of a Highland bombing party check an enemy
hideout for potential prisoners. Note the grenadiers, soldiers four
and five in line who do not carry rifles.
“U.S. Army War College – Notes on Grenade Warfare” was a compilation
of organization and techniques that were borrowed from the wartime
acquired experience of the French and British.
The “cricket bowling” technique of throwing a hand grenade is demonstrated in
sequential photographs by a French “Poilu” in “Notes on Grenade Warfare”.
Page 27 of the pamphlet outlines the various members of the bombing team and their
function along with the desired attributes to be sought in selecting the right soldier for
each of the key positions within the team.
“Bombing the traverses” to clear an enemy trench system is demonstrated
in this illustration from “Notes on Grenade Warfare.”
|Infantry Rifle’s Battle Zeroes|
|Austria-Hungary||M1895 Mannlicher||8x50mmR||375 meters|
|Belgium||M1889 Mauser||7.65x53mm||100 meters|
|Bulgaria||M1895 Mannlicher||8x50mmRmm||375 meters|
|France||Mle 1886/93 Lebel||8x51mmR||250 meters|
|Germany||M1898 Mauser||8x57mm||400 meters|
|Great Britain||No.1 MkIII Enfield||.303R||200 meters|
|Greece||M1903 Mannlicher-Schoenauer||6.5x54mm||300 meters|
|Romania||M1893 Mannlicher Rifle||6.5x53mmR||300 meters|
|Russia||M1891 3-Line Rifle||7.62x54mmR||285 meters|
|Serbia||M1899 / M1910 Mauser Rifle||7x57mm||300 meters|
|Turkey||M1893 / M1903 Mauser Rifle||7.75x53mm||300 meters|
|USA||M1903 Springfield||.30-06||500 meters|