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Historical Trivia: First Reported Use of the Flamethrower

On the 26th-27th February 1915, the Germans unleashed a new weapon on the French near Verdun.  The flammenwerfer or flamethrower had first been tested by the Imperial German Army in the early 1900s but had not been deployed until the design was refined and a smaller portable system was developed.  

The Flammenwerfer fired a jet of burning oil propelled by a pressurised gas (air or CO2) system with a range of about 20 yards.  The early tanks were good for a single short burn.  February 1915, saw the first widely reported use of the weapon although it may have been used earlier.  The London Illustrated News printed the story and an illustration of what the weapon looked like in August 1915 (see image #1).  While the flamethrower did not cause any direct casualties it caused widespread panic amongst the French troops it was aimed at.  

The official French account reported:

The defenders of the trench felt heated air blowing over the parapet and in a few seconds were flooded with a scalding liquid which they think was pitch. Jets of the liquid played all over them in the midst of the smoke, as if squirted by a pump… the Germans hidden by a cloud of smoke managed to force a passage.

Despite this success the use of the Flammenwerfer remained patchy and it was not reported again until the British first encountered it near Hooge in July.  The flamethrower caused terror and panic among troops who had not encountered them before.  The London Illustrated News described them as ‘diabolical’ and the British press condemned them as barbaric, however, by the end of the war both sides had deployed them. The prospect of being engulfed in flames led many to quickly vacate their positions.  It was extensively used during the Battle of Verdun and again later in the war by specially trained German Sturmtruppen.   

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The WW1 Flamethrower: A New Weapon of War (source)

Moulin Rouge Destroyed by Fire

The ruins of the Moulin Rouge after the fire.

February 27 1915, Paris—The residents of Montmartre were awoken early this morning by loud alarms, bells, and sirens.  Many assumed that such a racket indicated that a German Zeppelin was inbound.  More excited by the novelty than fearful of the resulting bombing, many poured out into the streets to see the airship.  Instead, they found firemen on their way to their more prosaic duty of fighting an earthbound fire at the famous cabaret, Moulin Rouge.  The fire, apparently first spotted by the Minister of Public Works from the balcony of his residence, quickly consumed most of the building despite the best efforts of Parisian firefighters; only the stage, protected by a steel fire curtain, survived relatively unscathed.  Repairs to the building were unfeasible during the war, and the Moulin Rouge would not reopen until 1921.

Sources include: Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War; The New York Times.  Image Credit: Pinterest.

Writing Research - World War One

World War I (WWI or WW1 or World War One), also known as the First World War or the Great War, was a global war centered in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918. More than 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians died as a result of the war, a casualty rate exacerbated by the belligerents’ technological and industrial sophistication, and tactical stalemate. It was one of the deadliest conflicts in history, paving the way for major political changes, including revolutions in many of the nations involved. [1]

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Hygiene, Health, & Medicine

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Germans Deploy First Flamethrowers of the War

More advanced German flamethrowers pictured in 1917; the ones used in February 1915 were small, hand-cranked versions.

February 26 1915, Verdun—The continuing deadlock in the war forced both sides to seek to develop new weapons, whether they be tanks or poison gas.  Another deadly weapon was the flamethrower, which the Germans had developed in the years leading up to the war.  Attempts to use early, more improvised models in the fall of 1914 had failed.  In 1915, the Germans attempted a more organized use, forming the first dedicated detachment of flamethrowers in January.  They first struck on February 26, when a German attack on the French lines near Verdun featured twelve hand-cranked flamethrowers and two larger pre-war models.  The Germans were able to drive the French from their trenches, but this small demonstration did not result in major lasting gains.

The London Illustrated News the next month quoted French sources on this (or a similar) attack:

The defenders of the trench felt heated air blowing over the parapet and in a few seconds were flooded with a scalding liquid which they think was pitch. Jets of the liquid played all over them in the midst of the smoke, as if squirted by a pump… the Germans hidden by a cloud of smoke managed to force a passage.

Sources include: The London Illustrated News; Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War (Volume I); The Soldier’s Burden. Image Source: “Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R22888, Westfront, Flammenwerfer" by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R22888 / CC-BY-SA. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Wikimedia Commons.

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history meme: one war the great war

World War One began on July 28, 1914, exactly one month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne. As Austria-Hungary, determined to respond to the assassination, moved into Serbia (which Russia immediately mobilized to defend), Germany invaded Belgium before moving towards France, causing Great Britain to declare war on Germany and its allies. In less than a week, all of the world’s superpowers, with the exception of the United States, was at war.

The Central Powers were comprised of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria. The Allied Powers consisted of the rest of the majority of Europe, leade by Great Britian, France, Russia, and, eventually, the United States of America. The U.S. joined the war in 1917, after intercepting the Zimmerman telegram. The telegram was a request from Germany to Mexico asking the Mexican government to declare war on the United States.

The Great War ended on November 11, 1918. Over 9 million soldiers and an estimated 7 million civlians lost their lives in the war. Considered the first “modern” war, it is thought to be one of the bloodiest wars in history.

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Erwin Rommel,

Rommel, more famous for his WWII exploits both in France and as the commanding officer of the Africa Corp, he was also a well decorated Captain during WWI. 

During World War I, Rommel fought in France as well as in Romania and Italy. He initially was with the 6th Württemberg Infantry Regiment, but spent most of the war in the Württemberg Mountain Battalion of the elite Alpenkorps. He gained a reputation for great courage, making quick tactical decisions and taking advantage of enemy confusion. 

Awarded both a pour le merite and the iron cross, among Germany’s most prestigious military awards of the time.. 

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Princess Mary’s Christmas Gift

In late 1914, Princess Mary began a campaign to raise funds to send all British and Imperial troops a small gift for Christmas.  On October 14th, the 17 year old Princess Mary launched her appeal writing:

‘I have delayed making known a wish that has long been in my heart for fear of encroaching on other funds, the claims of which have been more urgent. I want you now to help me to send a Christmas present from the whole nation to every sailor afloat and every soldier at the Front.  On Christmas Eve when, like the shepherds of old, they keep their watch, doubtless their thoughts will turn to home . . . I am sure that we should all be the happier to feel that we had helped to send our little token of love and sympathy . . . something that would be useful and of permanent value and the making of which may be the means of providing employment in trades adversely affected by the war.’

The ‘Princess Mary’s Christmas Gift Fund' quickly became the post popular Christmas fund and the public call for donations eventually yielded an astonishing £162,591 12s 5d this staggering sum equals roughly £7,500,000 today. 

Princess Mary (source)

The gift box was designed by Adshead and Ramsey, it included a 5 by 3 1/2 inch by 1 1/4 inches deep embossed brass box with Princess Mary’s profile in the centre surrounded by the names of Britain’s allies including Serbia, Russia, Japan and France and the words ‘Christmas 1914’ at the bottom of the lid (see image #1).  The contents of the box varied as the box was to be given to over 1 million men from all over the empire.  The primary gift for British and Imperial troops from Australia, Canada and South Africa and the Gurkhas would include: a Christmas card, a picture of Princess Mary, a lighter, a pipe, one ounce of tobacco and a packet of twenty cigarettes or two packets of cigarettes.

However, the committee responsible for the gift boxes realised that not all men smoked and that other minority troops would not appreciate the same gifts for various religious and cultural reasons.  As such there was an impressive amount of variation between the gifts.   Non-smokers were to receive the Christmas card, picture of Princess Mary, a .303 cartridge shaped pencil, some acid tablets (vitamin C tablets) and a khaki writing case which contained paper and envelopes.  

Indian troops of different religions receive a number of variations of the gift.  Sikhs were given a box of spices and some sugared candies instead of the pipe and tobacco.  Bhistis (from Northern British India) received a larger box of spices while other Indian troops were given a packet of cigarettes, candy and spices.  Nurses were also given the gift box and they received chocolate in place of the tobacco.

Christmas card from the 1914 gift box (source)

A dozen British companies were involved in supplying the Christmas gift with firms including HarrodsAsprey & Co Ltd,  De La Rue & Co and tobacco companies.  However, even with all of these companies involved some orders were unable to be met in the short space of time and some men received alternate gifts such as tobacco pouches, shaving brushes & combs, scissors, packets of postcards, pocket knives and cigarette cases.

It was initially planned to only give front line troops the gift however, the large amount of money raised meant that every man in uniform regardless of where he was serving was able to be given the present. This meant just under three million soldiers, sailors and nurses were to be given the gift box.   Priority was given to all troops on active service in Europe and at sea, second priority went to those serving in other theatres while finally all other uniformed personnel serving at home in Britain were given last priority.

1915 New Years Card (source)

By late December 426,724 gifts had been distributed with the remaining groups beginning to receive theirs during January 1915.  The sheer magnitude of providing three million gifts meant that some troops were still receiving theirs in 1916.  The troops receiving their gifts after Christmas 1914 were given a simpler ‘universal box’ which included a New Year’s Card and a Pencil (see card above).  After 1914, the making of the gift boxes became increasingly difficult as tobacco became harder to come by and the brass used to make the boxes was needed for cartridge and shell cases.  In 1915, an order for brass was made in the US with one shipment being sent on the Lusitania, it was lost when the ship was torpedoed in May 1915.

The box was gratefully received by most men, the tobacco and other gifts were welcome comforts at the front.  In a war which had been expected to be over by Christmas a gift from home showing the public and monarchy’s appreciation for their efforts was greatly appreciated. Many soldiers used the boxes to store letters received from home, or other personal effects such as notebooks or photographs.  Others kept the pipes and other gifts, smoked the tobacco and sent the their tins home to their families.  

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'Princess Mary's Gift to the Troops, Christmas 1914' IWM (source)

'About the Christmas Gift Fund' (source)