German Hand Grenades of the Great War – The Stielhandgranate M1915 & M1916

Time to replace some old, now-deleted, posts about the German Stielhandgranate with this brand-new far superior one.  Well, I think so.  All the collage pictures of grenades within mauve borders in this post are examples – some of which are on display in museums – other than my own; all non-bordered grenade photos, such as that above, are from my collection. 

Despite having been around for several hundred years, the hand grenade had become a forgotten weapon, to a great extent, until the trench warfare in Korea and Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 made it clear to military observers of the likely need for a weapon to combat an unseen enemy dug in at close quarters in any future war.  Despite this forewarning, only the German Army entered the Great War with a bespoke hand grenade – the Kugelhandgranate Model 1913.  For the French & British, it was a case of improvisation whilst the boffins in the background worked feverishly, initially to create workable devices that could first and foremost be easily and quickly manufactured.  Soldiers resorted to filling jam jars (New Zealand troops on Gallipoli, top inset) with nuts and bolts, explosives and a fuse, or, as in the main picture, creating improvised stick grenades at their most basic; a can, full of who knows what, along with some explosive, attached to a stick, with a rope leading to the thrower’s arm, which, when thrown, and with a bit of luck and a following wind, would set off the delay fuse in the can and detach the whole apparatus from the thrower at the same time.  Fine in theory, probably needed a bit of work in practice.

French soldiers, meanwhile, came up with the petard grenade (top & left – the British referred to it as a hairbrush bomb, for obvious reasons), perhaps the most familiar of the early improvised grenades, which before long would be factory manufactured – thus most petards on the market today are not actually improvisations at all – and would continue in use until 1917 (top & left).  The Germans, too, had petards by any other name, two examples shown immediately above,…

…and another shown here, the soldier in the foreground using a grenade lighter to ignite the fuse of his petard, whilst the second man is in the process of throwing one of the earliest versions of the Stielhandgranate, the M1915, which brings us neatly on to the stars of this post.  The Germans produced three versions of the Stielhandgranate during the Great War, the M1915, M1916 & M1917.  If only it were that simple,…

…because the above image shows fourteen German grenades on sticks, and I would seriously doubt whether this is the complete set.  These examples range from the earliest petard-type model on the far left, to the later, and more familiar, stick grenades on the right; some are M1915s, M1916s & M1917s, and some aren’t (and one, maybe, is simply a figment of someone’s imagination, or just looked good in theory).  The Stielhandgranate was a concussion grenade, designed to kill through blast alone*, and thus was excellent for trench fighting and combat in an enclosed space.  You want to clear a room? Lob a couple of Stielhandgranaten through the window.  Same applies for a trench.  But not so effective in open warfare, the blast quickly dissipating, necessitating greater accuracy from the thrower, hence the reason for the stick in the first place – circular hand grenades roll, whereas stick grenades tend to hang around, roughly where they landed.

*I have a theory that more men were killed in action by blast during the Great War than by any other means, and the best theories are those that nobody can ever disprove.

So here’s a diagram, on the left, showing an early version of the M1915, and it is here, at the very start, that, from a collector’s point of view, things begin to get tricky, as we’ll see shortly.  Apart from one version, all German Stielhandgranates worked on the same principle*.  A wire or cord went from the detonator in the cylindrical head which screwed on to the top end of the handle and which held the explosive, all the way down through a hole in the centre of the handle, to emerge at the other end where, in the M1915 model, a sharp tug on the ring pull would set off the time delay before throwing, as shown in the diagram of the M1915 being operated on the right.

*I am here disregarding prototypes and possible limited editions.  I’ll explain later.

M1915 handles, two of which show the slit into which the pulling loop was recessed (see coloured mock-up top right), the imprint of the paper band also visible on a couple of these examples.  The drumstick-shaped handle bottom right, a Somme museum piece, has a date of 16th May 1915 carved on it,…

…and two of these M1915s – again all museum pieces – feature a wax paper covering at the end of the handle, the dark shading to the wood beneath the head and at the bottom of the handle in the main picture probably paraffin, both early attempts at waterproofing, moisture often proving the bane of the hand grenade.  And those of you thinking ‘Hang on a minute, those don’t look like the sticks in the previous picture’, well, you are right; these are early M1916 sticks attached to M1915 heads, which was not at all unusual, as we’ll see later.  The example in the foreground of the inset, however, is an unusual variation featuring an offset handle with a hole close to the ‘bulb’, and that hole had one purpose, and one purpose only, as will be explained very shortly.

Three examples of M1915 sticks that may not be exactly what they seem, and show the perils ahead should you consider collecting these things; the inset top left is probably a decent example of a M1915 head with a replacement handle and the paper band incorrectly positioned, the main picture is simply wrong, as I will explain in a minute, and the inset bottom right is also a bit odd, because you might spot a similar hole in the handle above the ‘bulb’ at the bottom to that in the previous picture, and original M1915s with the paper band had no need whatsoever for any kind of hole here,…

…whereas M1915s with the attachment pictured above – known as the Poppenberg’sche spoon safety system – did.  An early attempt to make the operation easier, and safer, for the user, the diagram shows how it was supposed to work; removing the safety pin, shown in both photographs, would release the little spring recessed in a hole in the handle at the bottom inside the spoon (now you know the reason for the hole), forcing the bottom of the spoon away from the stick (see diagram – bottom arrow).  The spoon is hinged two-thirds of the way up, so when the bottom is forced away from the handle, the hinge is forced towards the handle (centre arrow), the top of the spoon pulling away from the handle (top arrow) at the same time.  As the diagram shows, the top of the spoon connects directly with, and holds fast, the striker within the stick; as it pulls away the striker is freed to impact the fuse and begin the five-second delay.  All of which suggests that two of the three examples in the previous collage once had Poppenberg’sche attached, and now no longer do (hence my use of the words ‘simply wrong’ with regard to the main shot; the groove made by the hinge of the Poppenberg’sche that should be attached – halfway up the handle – is clear to see, and the piece of paper covering the hole ,which looks like fabric to me, is utterly superfluous).  So should you find a M1915 with the Poppenberg’sche system attached it should not have a hole in the middle of the end of the stick, nor the groove we have seen in previous examples, and if you find a stick with a larger hole in it just above the ‘bulb’ at the base of the stick, then that should have a Poppenberg’sche attached, because that hole is for the lower of the Poppenberg’sche’s springs, as we have now seen.  The handles were, quite simply, incompatible, and could not be exchanged for either igniting system.  The perils of collecting.  Be careful what you purchase.

Another M1915 diagram, paper band & pull-loop clearly marked.  The groove we have seen in previous examples was introduced as a safety feature to make tagging the pull wire on something sharp in the depths of a dark trench less likely.  Nevertheless, this was hardly state-of-the-art safety, and both the M1916 & M1917 would further address this problem, as we shall see.

Another potential collecting problem that I touched on earlier is shown here, this contemporary photograph showing a M1915 handle to which a M1916 head has been attached,…

…with proof, if needed, that this occurred shown in the hands of the soldier on the left – once again, M1916 head, M1915 stick.  On the right, a posed photo of a soldier about to hurl a M1915 – you can see the paper bands still in evidence on the grenades in his belt.

At this point I’ll show you these examples of Stielhandgranate heads from my collection that cover the basic versions of the Stielhandgranate, from left, M1915, M1916, M1916 (small can), & M1917.  Some publications refer to other variations, such as the Stielhandgranate August, the Wilhelm & the Friedrich.  These appear to have different operating systems to the standard Stielhandgranate, and I can only presume were less successful and certainly far fewer were manufactured – indeed they may have been prototypes only – but we have already seen an example with an offset handle, so who knows.

Two M1915 heads at the top, and two M1917 heads at the bottom, and the obvious difference is that the M1915 heads at the top are larger in diameter.

Now, it is all very well showing a nice, well-preserved, M1915, but in order to see the construction of the grenade’s head, these relics serve the purpose admirably (allied to the fact, of course, that I don’t happen to own a nice, well-preserved, M1915).  Once again you can see variations, particularly at the top,…

…and once again these are simply manufacturing differences, as opposed to model variations.

The head of the M1915 is made of an inner and outer layer of thin steel…

…with a crimped cap, a closer look revealing a third layer,…

…this time made of cardboard, inside the steel layers, I would presume as a prevention against sparks, because it certainly isn’t going to help with waterproofing, as we have seen before with cardboard-handled grenades.  And waterproofing, with so many layers and so many joins, would prove a serious problem with the M1915.

The replacement for the M1915 was the M1916, introduced, surprise surprise, in 1916, and these examples show the two main variations, the standard grenade at the top, and the later, ‘small can’ version at the bottom,…

…the two variations seen again here, the standard version on the left, the small can version on the right.  No longer do the heads of these grenades have detachable caps, the top sheet of steel now crimped to the rolled sides of the head.

As explosives became more powerful, during the latter half of 1916 TNT began replacing ammonal as the explosive of choice for the M1916,…

…standard M1916s often fitted with a wooden block inside the head, highlighted in brown on the right hand diagram, as less explosive was needed, while the M1916 with the smaller head (below), the ‘small can’, was being developed and brought into service.

All German stick grenades had a hook attached to the cylinder head, allowing the grenade to be attached to a soldier’s belt.

All very well to enable a man to carry a number of these grenades at a time; not so handy if the ring pull caught on a piece of barbed wire and pulled the cord.  Then you had, usually, between four and six seconds to find the offending grenade, detach it from your belt, and hurl it away.  Quite possibly in the dark.  Good luck.  The shots above show Austrian soldiers with German M1916s (left), and M1917s (right).  Both also have an example of the Kugelhandgranate Model 1915 attached to their belts.

Thus, in order to minimise accidents, the M1916 featured a small porcelain ‘doughnut’ attached to the end of the central cord, which was half embedded into the base of the handle, and which required some force to pull out.

During the latter months of 1916 a round screw cap (top left, not mine) would be added to keep the porcelain ball fully enclosed at the base of the handle (back to the diagram again), and the introduction of the M1917 would see this cap replaced by a new, star-shaped cap (the three pictured above showing the usual small manufacturing variations), which would also have been fitted, where possible, to all remaining M1916s,…

…once it was realised that unscrewing a muddy cap with frozen hands in a waterlogged trench could be made much easier if the soldier could actually gain purchase on the cap.

Unusual view of the porcelain doughnut in situ in the base cap.  The burn marks on the wood of the handle that still remains inside the base suggest this fragment comes from an exploded grenade, but the still-attached base cap suggests it was not in offensive use at the time.  Perhaps a box of grenades detonated accidentally – hardly an unusual happening by all accounts – but you can make up your own story, because we shall never know.

At which point we shall take a brief break.  Thanks to those whose websites have supplied the Petard & M1915 variant photos, and to those who have nagged me to get a move on with this one; I hope you approve.  Part Two, and the M1917 (above), coming soon.

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