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World One War: Britain's Secret Flammable Weapon

Updated on April 20, 2011
William Howard Livens, photographed circa. 1914-1918
William Howard Livens, photographed circa. 1914-1918
Royal Engineers Cap Badge
Royal Engineers Cap Badge
Large Gallery Liven projector
Large Gallery Liven projector
A demonstration of a flame fougasse somewhere in Britain. A car is surrounded in flames and a huge cloud of smoke circa. 1940
A demonstration of a flame fougasse somewhere in Britain. A car is surrounded in flames and a huge cloud of smoke circa. 1940

Britain’s most secretive and deadliest of weapons was used with devastating effect during the bloodiest battle of World War One.

In 1916, an experimental device technologically changed the face of war for the rest of time.

The Liven’s Large Gallery Flame Projectors were huge experimental flamethrowers used by the British Army during World War One.

Initially named after their inventor, Royal Engineers William Howard Livens, four were deployed in 1916 at the Somme, and one was used in an offensive in 1917.

Realising the gains which would be made if used, the Germans destroyed two devices at the Somme by shelling the positions.  Despite the initial success of destroying two devices, the British Army deployed and used the other two during the Somme offensive.

The use of these devices may explain as to why British units around Mametz managed to advance further than any other unit with very few casualties.

The devices were 56 feet long, weighed 2.5 tons and took a party of 300 engineers and soldiers to carry the pieces to the designated position and assemble the contraption.  The device was operated by a crew of 8.

The weapon was intended to be used from shallow tunnels dug between the lines.  The weapon consisted of a long chamber containing fuel, a 14 inch diameter pipe and a nozzle on the surface.  Piston driven compressed gas was pushed into the long fuel chamber, which forced fuel out of the nozzle which was ignited.

The development of this horrendous weapon came from the stalemate of the Western Front.  From the lack of advancement of armies from the summer of 1914, both sides invented and developed ever increasing murderous weapons in order to break the deadlock and bring the war to an end.

The sapping nature of war was shown in the design of this weapon and its inventor, William Howard Livens.

Before 1914, Livens was a civil engineer and when war was declared in 1914, immediately joined the British Army.

In August 1914, graduating from the Army’s Officer Training Corps, Liven’s applied for a commission in the Royal Engineers.  He was subsequently enrolled as a second Lieutenant in September 1914.

Turning his mind to thoughts of making better weapons for the British Army, he fitted out makeshift labs at his barracks at Chatham.  For a firing range he used vacant land near the Thames Estuary.  In his lab and on his vacant land, Liven’s developed flamethrowers and mortars which threw oil and gas.

Liven’s thoughts of refining weapons was fuelled by desires of revenge for perceived German atrocities.  In particular, in 1915, on learning that his wife had apparently been killed aboard the RMS Lusitania, he vowed to kill and equal number of Germans.  Thankfully after three days, he received word that his wife was safe.

In late 1915, Livens left Chatham to join one of the newly formed Royal Engineer Special Gas Companies, where he was one of very few officers with an engineering background.  In 1915, special weapons were extremely primitive, one example being the use of gas.  The heavy gas canisters were manhandled to the front line and their contents merely vented out at an opportune wind moment.  Livens skill with engineering developed and improved the system whereby Gas was used as a chemical weapon.

Livens enthusiasm and drive quickly paved off.  Livens was soon placed in charge of Z company, a special unit which was responsible for the development of a British version of the German Flamethrower which had been deployed in 1915.

Four of Livens’ ‘flame machines’ were used on the 1st of July 1916, which was the first day of the Somme campaign.  Constructed in underground tunnels and chambers, two were knocked out by German artillery before the offensive began.  Although impressive machines, the limited range and lack of mobility limited its use and the project was abandoned.

Livens work and the work of his team was extremely dangerous.  The first version of the Large Gallery Flame Projector incinerated the crew when it malfunctioned.  On one occasion whilst testing a prototype gas mask, gas penetrated the mask and Livens fell unconscious.

Livens was awarded the military cross in January 1916 and the Distinguished Service Order in 1918.

An archaeological expedition excavated the remains of one of these machines in 2010 following its discovery.  Historians Peter Barton and Jeremy Banning with archaeologists Tony Pollard and Iain Banks from Glasgow University excavated the site near Mametz during the summer of 2010.  The project was turned into a special ‘Time Team’ documentary and broadcast in the spring of 2011.  It is worth noting that the same archaeological team excavated the ‘Vampire Bunker’ in 2007 which was subsequently turned into a ‘Time Team’ documentary.

If YOU are interested in some of the Great Wars secret weapons and weapon developments, check out the links below and sign up TO GET YOUR FREE edition of DUGOUT WW1....The Internets leading magazine on World War One.


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