Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, January 9, 2015

Gas and Flame Firsts in Early 1915

As the war dragged on all the combatants looked for ways to get an edge on the battlefield. Two significant innovations took place in the first two months of 1915. Both were from the Germans, and both involved sophisticated chemistry in which Germany was the world's industrial leader.

1.  First Significant Use of Poison Gas, 31 January,  the Battle of Bolimov

1915 Gas Attack on the Eastern Front

In October 1914 the Germans placed some small tear gas canisters in shells that were fired at Neuve Chapelle, France, but Allied troops were not exposed. In January 1915 the Germans fired shells loaded with xylyl bromide, a more lethal gas, at Russian troops at Bolimov on the Eastern Front. The Battle of Bolimov was an inconclusive battle of World War I fought on 31 Januar 1915 between Germany and Russia and considere preliminary to the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes. Because of the wintry cold, most of the gas froze, but the Russians nonetheless reported more than 1,000 killed as a result of the new weapon. (History Channel)

2.   First Use of Flamethrowers, 26 February, Malancourt (West of Verdun)

Early German Flamethrower Team, 1915

The flamethrower was invented in 1901 by German engineer Richard Fiedler. He tested these devices in the 1908 Engineer Test Company and equipped two special German Army battalions of former Leipzig firefighter Capt. Hermann Redemann in late 1914. They were first used in combat against the French trenches at Malancourt northwest of Verdun on 26 February 1915. Due to the success of this engagement, a Third Guard Pioneer Battalion was created, commanded by Redemann, enlarged to 800 men and equipped with improved models from the Fiedler Flamethrower Works in Berlin. This unit used the flamethrowers at Ypres on 30 July 1915. Flamethrower assault squads of six men were added to the stormtrooper battalions commanded by Captain Willy Rohr after 8 August 1915. The Allied armies adopted the flamethrower by 1916. (WWI on the Web)


  1. xylyl bromide is one of a number of lachrymatory agents used by police forces before the First World War. It is only mildly toxic and was used at Bolimov in the hope that it would cause performance degradation in the targeted troops.

    As far as flame throwers are concerned the best produced by any side appears to be the French Schilt 3 Bis, a small single tank flame projector used, among other places, in the battle of Cantigny in support of the AEF. (Captain Schilt, the inventor, was a member of the Paris fire brigade before the war. This organization claimed to have designed and used a flame thrower against the communards in 1870 )

    The British Norris, a similar machine, was reckoned to be easier to use than the Schilt, but I am not sure if these were actually used in combat. The grand daddy of them all was the Livens "Large gallery flame projector". See link below.

    As far as British use of flamethrowers was concerned, they were the responsibility of X Company, part of the Special Brigade, RE Gas Service. (In common with other armies the use of flame throwers was an Engineer function). The organization of this company was proposed in October 1915 and in place by early 1916.;_ylt=A2KLqIgmEbFUl2gAhwt2BQx.;_ylu=X3oDMTByZWc0dGJtBHNlYwNzcgRzbGsDdmlkBHZ0aWQDBGdwb3MDMQ--?p=%22large+gallery+flame+projector%22&vid=284f95b446dca539dd0f20c0d61d1793&l=00%3A41&

    1. With the introduction of the Livens Projector. which, in addition to its primary function of delivering a gas bombardment could also project drums of burning oil. First used in an attack by the 48th Division to the West of Poziers, on the 23rd of July 1916, these weapons became the weapon of choice in the delivery of a flame bombardment, and Maj. Gen. Foulkes, commander of the RE Special Brigade, made the decision to withdraw the large gallery and "semi prortable" flame projectors from use. Foulkes made no specific reference to small flame projectors, which were also his responsibility, but I rather think these too were withdrawn. The Royal Navy, however, appear to have held on to their Norris small (backpack) flame throwers