Mediaeval meets Modern – Grenade Throwers & Launchers of the Great War

Small trench mortars, much like grenades, had been around for centuries, and much like grenades, by the early years of the 20th Century, had fallen somewhat out of fashion with modern armies.  Heavy artillery would deal with enemy positions and the machine gun the enemy himself; few foresaw the future of war being that of a trench stalemate, and therefore even fewer saw the need for portable trench mortars. 

Except – as usual – the German Army, whose observers in Manchuria during the trench warfare of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 had noted not only the use of grenades, but also of small mortars (above).  Their reports convinced the German High Command to commission the design of a portable mortar that would be effective against the concrete and steel defenses they would encounter in a future war with France, which resulted in the Minenwerfer,…

…literally ‘minethrower’, developed in various sizes, although the model pictured here, the 25cm, would be the one they would enter the Great War with – and then only a hundred and fifty of them.  Nonetheless, capable of firing explosive, incendiary, and later gas, shells, it proved a versatile and successful weapon, although its weight required a good number of men to transport it, usually on a small wheeled carriage.  Once trench warfare set in and it became quickly obvious that these weapons were giving the Germans a distinct edge, the British & French duly turned their attention to trench mortars, which would result, in the case of the British,…

…in the famous ‘Toffee Apple’ 2-inch medium trench mortar,…

…and of course the brilliant Stokes Mortar, the forerunner of light mortars for the foreseeable future, here seen in the hands of British (left) & Portuguese (right) troops, with Wilfred Stokes himself displaying the different projectiles his invention could fire in the centre (the opening photo in this post shows a Stokes mortar shell bursting at a trench mortar school near Ypres, in April 1916).  I have no idea how many different types of trench mortar were used by the main participants during the war,…

…but I do know that there were loads and loads and loads of them, so here’s an old French poster showing a bunch of German trench mortars, and while you’re distracted by that, I’d better own up and admit that actually I really know very little about mortars (other than, you long-time readers might remember, a close encounter with an unexploded Stokes Mortar round a few years back), but luckily it doesn’t matter, really, because – you read the title – this post isn’t about trench mortars.

Here’s what this post is really all about, or at least this is the British version of it.

With the boffins on all sides hard at work designing light trench mortars, it seemed equally sensible to come up with ways of extending the range of grenades, and thus the British swiftly introduced the Leach catapult (above & previous) in March 1915.  Used for the remainder of the year…

…both on the Western front and in the Dardanelles – here Turkish troops have apparently turned a captured Leach against its former owners – it was briefly replaced…

…by the French Arbalète la Sauterelle Type A D’Imphy, to give it its full name, crossbow, so they say,…

…seen here in factory testing (left) and in the hands of French troops in action (right).  If anyone has a shot of British troops using this French crossbow, I’d like to see it.

Early French variations on a theme (above & below).  Clad the men in the left shot in Gaulish gear circa 200 B.C., add a couple of Roman corpses, and I can’t imagine the tree-hewn catapult would look out of place.  And let’s not forget that, in essence, the modern grenade itself is nothing more than a technologically enhanced development of the first multi-functional, offensive/defensive weapon in warfare – the good old rock.

Along with the Sauterelle, the French experimented with all sorts of grenade throwing crossbows…

…and catapult systems,…

…some, I would imagine, more successful than others.

The Germans, too, tested grenade-throwing crossbows,…

…and experimented with all sorts of shapes & sizes, although photos of them in action (right) are few and far between.

There being various varieties of grenade that required hurling at the enemy, particularly on the German side, it seemed eminently sensible to design machines capable of throwing different types; here, on the left, is the Diskus grenade thrower we saw last post, with, on the right, the same machine adapted to throw a cylindrical grenade.

In the meantime, grenade launchers, fired using a charge, as opposed to throwers, were also being introduced as swiftly as possible.  Here Austro-Hungarian troops in the mountains of the Tyrol (left) display various weapons including a light mortar, in the foreground, with a wooden contraption securing a rifle with rifle-grenade* attached behind, the man in the background holding the simplest trench grenade launcher you are ever likely to see, very similar to that in the hands of the Italian soldier in the right-hand photo.

*another way of firing grenades into enemy trenches, rifle-grenades are another vast subject that we probably won’t ever cover on this site because they are yet another aspect of the Great War that I don’t know enough about.  Stick to what you know, I say.

The Germans came up with various ideas for grenade launchers, including firing Kugelhandgranates attached to wooden blocks from what appears to be a small mortar, if that counts, on the left, and if you can design a machine to throw a single grenade, why not more, and so, on the right, we have the ingenious M.15 SBB system rapid launcher, two Kugels in position, and, if you look carefully, a Diskus grenade in between.  According to an excellent book of mine, this launcher was never actually introduced into service, and although this picture might suggest otherwise, the shell of the Diskus grenade does look a bit battered, as if used more than once – the colour of the grenades, were it known, would give us a big clue, as German practise grenades – you already know this – were painted red.

Grenade throwers were all well and good (or not), but undoubtedly the most effective and versatile portable grenade launcher introduced by the Central Powers was this little weapon, the Grantenwerfer 16 – there had been, for a short while, a Grantenwerfer 15, the different-shaped shell it used visible in the inset below, but the 16 was much easier to operate (and fired, like the M.15 SBB we just saw, by pulling a lanyard) and thus far more popular with the troops.

Designed, believe it or not (I believe it!), by a Hungarian priest in the Austro-Hungarian Army, the Austrians were the first to deploy the ‘Priesterwerfer’ – Austrian humour there – operationally, before the Germans began producing their own version, under licence and officially designated the Granatenwerfer 16, in late 1915.

A ‘Priesterwerfer’, left, in action.  Although there are things about this photograph that concern me (not least the actions of the man in the background), it does highlight how not to operate this grenade launcher – you’re a bit close, and where’s your lanyard? – although at least he is smart enough to wear an armour chest plate whilst so doing.  On the right, the Granatenwerfer 16 in diagram form, with a spigot, or solid tube, instead of a barrel, over which the hollow tube in the fin of the grenade (left below), fired using a simple blank cartridge, would slot.

The Austrians, duly proud of their achievements in the grenade-launcher department, considered the possibility that if just one priest could come up with the ‘Priesterwerfer’,…

…then what might a whole group of priests achieve?  No, of course they didn’t do that, but they did come up with various grenade-launching devices as the war progressed, such as the Rodek Granaten-Schnellwerfer,…

…a pneumatically-fired (note the gas bottle in the diagram above & photo below) grenade launcher,…

…here seen with its Austrian crew.  The terrain on the Italian front hastened the introduction of a number of weird devices designed to hurl grenades around mountainsides,…

…and thus we have the Gergacsevics rapid launcher, another gas-fired grenade launcher,…

…here seen in action on the Italian front.

Or there’s the Schnellwurf-Granatenmaschine, if you prefer.  No, I really have no idea.

Or how about this pneumatically-fired contraption?  Schnellwerfer (top right) literally means ‘quick thrower’,…

…and here are the Schnellwerfer’s working parts, with, again top right, a dozen or more grenades in position.

This M.15 grenade launcher could be adapted for Rohr (left) & Zeitsunder hand grenades (right),…

…as well as whatever this Austro-Hungarian soldier is attaching to an M.15 somewhere on the Russian front.

We’ll finish with this, because the French, being French, came up with some of the weirdest stuff of all, and here’s a classic example, although one seriously doubts the wisdom in putting this strange contraption…

…in the hands of this particularly manic-eyed Frenchman with the oversized ‘tash.

So, from wooden catapults and crossbows to 20th Century weapons of warfare, such as these captured 77mm German grenade launchers, photographed in 1917, the rather curious world of grenade launching, in all its forms, has hopefully now been laid bare.  Or at least partly unclothed.

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2 Responses to Mediaeval meets Modern – Grenade Throwers & Launchers of the Great War

  1. Everett Sharp says:

    Excellent article if I may say so and the access to/your collection of photographs is first rate. I am printing the piece and keeping it with my books concerning trench warfare. Thanks.

    • Magicfingers says:

      You may say so, particularly as you made me do it! Lol! Thank you – also I appreciate you adding it to your books. The Austro-Hungarian launchers – as I have a decent A-H grenade collection – were actually the first I became aware of and I explored from there. It’s amazing what you (sometimes) then uncover.

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