The Modern Trench Weaponry


The Grenade, Hand No 1 was the first British hand grenade used in World War I. It was designed in the Royal Laboratory, based on reports and samples of Japanese hand grenades during the Russo-Japanese War provided by General Sir Aylmer Haldane, who was a British observer of that war.

The hand grenade is a Chinese invention which dates from about the tenth century and was introduced to Europe in the fifteenth century. Grenades are supposed to have been first used in Europe during the siege of Casalmaggiore on the River Po in 1427. One of the earliest recorded uses of grenades in a European war is the siege of Arles in 1536 when they were used by the defenders. The grenadier as an elite soldier emerged in France during the seventeenth century and, by the 1670s, some infantry regiments had companies of grenadiers. Unfortunately, the grenadier as a thrower of grenades was vulnerable to enemy musket fire, despite the short range and inaccuracy of muskets. Quite simply, the distance a grenade could be thrown was much less than the lethal range of a musket ball. The heyday of the grenadier was the first half of the eighteenth century. Thereafter, the grenade declined in importance, while grenadier regiments survived as elite units. The grenade continued to be used during sieges, however, and remained a staple of siege work. The British, French and Russians used such grenades during the siege of Sebastopol in 1854. British troops used them again in the Sudan in 1884–5 and hand grenades of this sort were improvised by British troops during the siege of Ladysmith in the Boer War.

By the time of the Russo-Japanese War, the hand grenade had hardly changed since the eighteenth century. The grenade was a hollow sphere of iron, pottery or glass containing gunpowder which had to be ignited by means of some sort of fuse or slow match, similar to that used with matchlock muskets, inserted into the explosive. (British patent No. 303, dated 1692, is for a hand grenade made of glass but glass was certainly used for grenades before this date.) According to the Illustrated Handbook of Military Engineering and the Implements of War, grenades were:

common shells, about 3 lb weight, with a small fuze and bursting charge. They are lighted and thrown from the hand; hence originally the name of ‘grenadier’. They are principally used for throwing over ramparts into the ditch, when in possession of the enemy. Sometimes a number are bound up and quilted together in a canvass bag, and thrown from mortars.

Having to use a naked flame or the glowing end of a slow match to light the fuse meant that grenades were unreliable in wet conditions. Moreover, the fuses tended to burn at unpredictable rates and were not necessarily of uniform length so that a high degree of uncertainty pertained to grenade warfare. By the eighteenth century, the fuse was usually a tapered wooden tube filled with slow-burning gunpowder. Apart from susceptibility to water damage, the main problem with all these fuses was their unpredictable rate of burning which meant that handling grenades always required nerve on the part of the grenadier. The grenade might explode in his hand, or the fuse might fizzle out as he threw it. On the other hand, the fuse might burn for far too long, enabling the enemy to pick up the grenade and throw it back before it exploded. The invention of safety fuse by William Bickford in 1831 largely overcame these problems. While Bickford’s fuse was originally intended to overcome the hazards of using unpredictable fuses in mines, the advantages of such a fuse to the Army were obvious. Bickford safety fuse was a jute rope containing a core of gunpowder, sealed with varnish. This fuse burned at a constant rate and was much more moisture proof than earlier types of fuse. The cast-iron, Bickford-fused blackpowder hand grenade was only declared obsolete by the British in 1902.

The unreliability of such grenades was a serious drawback which mitigated against their widespread use. However, it was the range of musket fire and, later, the accuracy of rifle fire which made grenades impractical in conventional combat situations. Thus, while they were still used in sieges, grenades were unimportant to the conduct of battles so no one was bothered by such shortcomings. No one, that is, apart from a few crackpot inventors who thought that they could solve them by devising an entirely new sort of grenade, but one which no one wanted. A percussion-fused grenade is supposed to have been invented sometime around the end of the sixteenth century, but nothing is known about it. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the suggestion that a percussion-fused artillery shell might be an improvement over roundshot and time-fused shells was being taken seriously by inventors. The percussion-fused shell became a feature of the American Civil War. The concept of a percussion-fused grenade was resurrected at about the same time but there was no incentive to produce a workable percussion-fused grenade. The Ordnance Board rejected all proposals for such a device. Captain Norton of the 34th Regiment offered one in 1828. William Parlour of the East India Military Seminary submitted another in 1834. Both grenades were rejected as ‘ingenious, but not applicable to His Majesty’s Service’. In 1852, the Ordnance Board rejected yet another, this time devised by William Spencer. Inventors were on a hiding to nothing in the field of grenades because there was no incentive for one to be adopted by any army.

The use of grenades at Sebastopol was in keeping with the general principals of siege warfare, so was nothing exceptional and the numbers employed were small. The French, for example, used only 3,200 grenades during the siege, a paltry figure that is indicative of their unimportance to the conduct of operations at Sebastopol. Interestingly, British troops resorted to improvisation which implies that this was a common practice. Grenades made from empty soda-water bottles were used to harass the Russian defenders from British trenches. According to Hugh Hibbert of the 7th Royal Fusiliers, these were filled with gunpowder and ‘old twisted nails and any other sharp or cutting thing we can find at the time’, then fitted with a slow fuse. It is unclear just how lethal these devices were or whether they were merely irritants to the Russians. Improvisation is a recurring feature in trench warfare and occurred in almost every instance of trench warfare. The British improvised grenades and body armour in South Africa while entrenched during the Boer War, for example.

The Americans had a quite different attitude to grenades during the Civil War, when at least six types of hand grenade saw service, three of them innovative. Hand grenades were used in riverine and naval operations as well as in sieges, such as the one at Vicksburg. Perhaps the best-known grenade of the period was a percussion-fused devise invented in 1861 by William Ketchum, a New York manufacturer of farm equipment. About 90,000 Ketchums were ordered for the Union Army and Navy. The grenade resembled a dart and had to be thrown like one. The Confederates copied it, calling it the Raines, after General Gabriel Raines, who commanded the Confederate Torpedo Bureau. These grenades were unreliable and often failed to work as they had to hit a hard surface at the right angle for them to detonate. Troops sometimes spread sheets of fabric over their trenches to prevent the grenades from striking a hard surface. A similar tactic was later adopted in the First World War, notably by German troops, to counter percussion-fused grenades.

The oddest and most dangerous percussion-fused grenade was the Hanes Excelsior of 1862. This was a metal sphere of explosive surrounded by a casing which was intended to act as a striking surface for caps mounted on spikes projecting from the sphere. With no safety mechanism to prevent accidents, the Hanes was potentially lethal to anyone handling it. Not surprisingly, it was not popular. In 1865, John Adams of Massachusetts came up with an improvement to the traditional time-fused grenade. This had a friction lighter instead of a conventional fuse that had to be lit with a flame. The lighter, in the form of a wire in a tube of match composition, was attached to a strap with a loop through which the thrower put his wrist so that when the grenade was thrown the strap pulled the wire through the composition which ignited the fuse. This was a sophisticated design which had a number of novel features that addressed the problems of moisture damage and premature detonation due to a phenomenon called flash-through. This occurred when the heat of the ignited fuse was such that it travelled so rapidly through the fuse to the explosive that the time fuse was turned into an instantaneous one. It also incorporated a safety device to prevent the wire being pulled out unintentionally. While neither the British nor the Germans took much notice of the American grenades, the French copied the Adams fuse and fitted it to the 1847 model grenade, an updated version of which was still in service in 1915.

Nothing more of significance in the development of grenades occurred until the Russo-Japanese War. During the siege of Port Arthur, the Russians started improvising grenades as the British had done at Sebastopol, fifty years earlier. The Japanese quickly followed suit. These grenades made a far greater impression on the military observers from the major powers than might have been anticipated, considering the general lack of interest in grenades since the eighteenth century. The improvisations were mundane and in the tradition of improvisations – adequate but unspectacular – and followed the conventional form of grenade. The only difference was the addition of a detonator to ignite the explosive; high explosive could not be detonated by a traditional fuse.

At the beginning of 1905, the Russians devised a percussion-fused grenade which the Japanese soon copied when they found one following the Battle of Mukden. It is unclear, however, whether the Russian percussion-fused grenade or the Japanese copy ever saw action. Neither the Russians nor the Japanese overcame the inherent problem associated with percussion fuses: they will detonate if accidentally struck. The designs were unlike the traditional grenade. The grenade had a cylindrical body, circled by a segmented lead band for fragmentation, and was fitted to a long wooden handle. Fragments from such grenades could travel up to 150 yards. The handle allowed the grenade to be thrown with more force than a traditional spherical grenade so that it went further. The Japanese copy had streamers attached to the handle to ensure that the grenade hit the ground on its fuse, rather than on its side, a refinement that had been used on the Raines in the American Civil War. These grenades were improvised in the field by military engineers. In June 1905, engineers in the Second Japanese Army were reported to be making 4,000 percussion-fused grenades.

More than 44,000 grenades of all types were used by five Japanese divisions during the siege of Port Arthur, or less than 9,000 per division, in July to December 1904. That worked out at only about fifty grenades per day per division. Japanese troops armed with grenades discovered that assaults on Russian positions were only successful when supported by rifle fire. In other words, grenades alone could not decide the outcome of an action. One British report stated that grenades had a considerable effect on enemy troops crowded together. The military observers attached to the Russian and Japanese armies reported on everything they witnessed, including the grenades, with the result that a desire was created for these ‘new’ weapons. Thus began research programmes in Britain, France and Germany to develop ‘new’ hand grenades.

In October 1904, the Japanese introduced an improvised wooden mortar. This was not a variation on the siege mortar, however, but an adaptation of a firework mortar. Yet again, this was an improvisation. While it was cheap and simple to make, and easy to transport, as a military weapon it was next to useless as it was slow to load, had a very short range and was very inaccurate. The barrel was constructed from four strips of fir, wound with bamboo cane. The 5-inch model had a range of 100–400 yards and fired a 4.5lb bomb. As with conventional mortars, range was adjusted according to the size of the bagged propellant charge. There is an instance of a Japanese mortar reportedly beating off a Russian attack with a single round. The Japanese used 103 5-inch and twenty-three 7-inch mortars at Port Arthur, firing more than 11,500 explosive bombs of which most were specially made for the mortars, as well as 519 incendiary bombs. Curiously, only the Germans seem to have been sufficiently impressed by the mortar concept to want to devise their own mortars.

A wooden-barrelled mortar was not new. Three such mortars had been improvised by Union Army engineers during the siege of Vicksburg in 1863 to make up for a lack of proper siege mortars. Logs of seasoned gumwood were fitted with iron bands at the top and bottom, then bored to calibre. They were evidently capable of withstanding repeated firings, no doubt because of the small propellant charges which placed little strain on the barrels, compared to the much heavier charge used in traditional mortars. The small charge restricted range to 100–150 yards, which was enough, however, to reach the Confederate lines at Vicksburg. Some 468 shells of 6lb and 12lb were fired from three wooden mortars over a period of 48 hours, causing about ninety casualties.

Although, in the 1880s, the British Army still advocated grenades for defence of fixed positions, it had effectively lost interest in them. However, in October 1904, the Chief Superintendent of Ordnance Factories was instructed by the War Office to design a new grenade in light of the grenades used in Manchuria. The decision to design a ‘modern’ hand grenade was but one in a series of decisions concerning trench warfare matériel taken by the War Office at the beginning of the twentieth century. Experience in South Africa had shown that such munitions were, indeed, necessary to an army in the field since entrenchments were an inescapable aspect of warfare. The British adopted several types of trench warfare device, including armoured trench shields in 1902 and wirebreakers in 1912. A wirebreaker was a device fixed to the muzzle of the service rifle for snapping single strands of barbed wire. Hand-operated wirecutters became standard equipment for the British Army in 1909. In the early 1900s, another new device, the periscope rifle or sniperscope, was proposed by an inventor called William Youlten. Although the British did not envisage becoming involved in siege operations, the attitude towards such devices was clearly changed by the Boer War and reinforced by what was seen in Manchuria. Nevertheless, the British considered shields, grenades and wirebreakers as unsuitable for the infantry. They were specialist munitions which needed to be handled by specialists, the Royal Engineers.

Armoured shields were no more new than body armour. Both had been in use for centuries and neither had completely vanished from the battlefield, despite the penetration characteristics of small-arms ammunition. Body armour was worn in the American Civil War, to not very great advantage it has to be said, largely because the manufacturers had no idea how to make bullet-proof armour. Ye t the notion that armour could protect against small-arms fire was persuasive enough to convince many Union soldiers that it was worth buying armour from one of the several private firms that were set up at the start of the war for the sole purpose of making and supplying armour. The firms stayed in business for about eighteen months after which time it became apparent that such armour was, in fact, useless and no defence against the Minié bullet. Armour had never completely disappeared from the battlefield although less of it was worn after the widespread use of firearms in the sixteenth century. Armourers attempted to make pistol-proof cuirasses and back plates, not always successfully as some surviving examples from the seventeenth century attest. Pistol-proof armour became so heavy by the time of the Thirty Years War (1618–48) that it was often discarded (three-quarters armour weighed 80–100lb). Siege engineers often wore heavy armour during the eighteenth century and even as late as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1.

The idea that armour could provide protection was very resistant to the contrary evidence. Some of the earliest British body armour patents date from 1896 and 1907. Crude helmets made locally were used by the British during the siege of Ladysmith in early 1900. Again, it was the Russo-Japanese War which stimulated serious interest in armour. Both the Japanese and the Russians wore cuirasses at Port Arthur and both sides made use of portable shields as well as trench shields to protect infantrymen. The difference between these armours and earlier examples was the effort that was put into addressing the problem of how to stop the penetration of high-velocity projectiles. Here were the seeds of a new technology which would eventually lead, via the First World War, to the modern composite armours of today. Although the Germans developed mobile shields for its infantry, which it subsequently used in the opening phases of the First World War, no other nation seems to have been inspired by the armours of the Russo-Japanese, unlike the grenade which fermented a great deal of interest.

Following the end of the Russo-Japanese War, Britain, France and Germany all took up the hand grenade with renewed interest. The British were the first to adopt a new grenade in 1908. The Germans did not adopt one until 1913, the Kugelhandgranate. The well-known ‘potato masher’ design of grenade did not appear until 1915. Whereas the Germans used time fuses fitted with friction lighters to overcome the difficulties associated with flames and glowing matches, the British became enamoured of percussion fuses. In this respect, the German device of 1913 was superior to the British grenade of 1908, the percussion fuse of which was always problematical.

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