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Flammenwerfer: Hell on Earth in the Trenches

By Jon Guttman 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: January 07, 2011 
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The early Flammenwerfer ("flamethrower") was terrifying though not terribly effective. (Illustration by Gregory Proch)
The early Flammenwerfer ("flamethrower") was terrifying though not terribly effective. (Illustration by Gregory Proch)

As World War I bogged down in the trenches, each side sought a means of breaking the stalemate. Germany's first attempt was a weapon developed in secret more than a decade earlier.

In 1901 Richard Fiedler rolled out a prototype of what he called a Flammenwerfer ("flamethrower"). Fiedler's early design centered on a vertical tank divided into two compartments. The lower section held compressed gas, usually nitrogen, which forced flammable oil from the upper section through a rubber tube and past a simple ignition device in the steel nozzle. A stationary form of the weapon, the grosse Flammenwerfer, or Grof, was capable of throwing fire as far as 120 feet. Its smaller cousin the kleine Flammenwerfer, or Kleif, could project flames only half as far but was portable, small enough to be operated by two men.

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The German army adopted the Kleif in 1906, and by 1912 the Guard Reserve Pioneer Regiment boasted its own regiment of Flammenwerfer troops. The weapon and its units largely remained a secret, however, until the Germans finally unleashed it at Verdun on Feb. 26, 1915. Shaking off their initial terror, the French counterattacked, retook the lost ground and managed to capture a Kleif, which its weapons researchers promptly disassembled.

At the Second Battle of Ypres, a half-dozen Kleif operators so terrified British soldiers on the night of July 29–30, 1915, that the Germans were able to capture several trench lines. But its material effectiveness seldom exceeded its psychological effect, as the fuel lacked a thickening agent to make it stick to its target—a shortcoming remedied by World War II. Regardless, the Allies soon developed their own versions of the weapon, canceling out what little advantage the Flammenwerfer had briefly granted its inventors.

5 Responses to “Flammenwerfer: Hell on Earth in the Trenches”

  1. 1
    Alexander says:

    Could you please explain how the ignition mechanism worked?
    Thanks in advance.

  2. 2
    Ranger Jim says:

    I don't recall the exact details, but I seem to recall that it was some sort of a flint/steel mechanism which produced a spark by snapping or dragging a flint along a piece of serrated steel, much the same way as cigarette lighters work today.

    Piezoelectric igniters, which work by stressing a small quartz crystal, weren't invented until the '50s or so. This technology is what you see in electronic fireplace/BBQ lighters today.

  3. 3
    Alexander says:

    So, it was a kind of the good old Zippo, actually. However, it had to have some steel rope, or a rod to drive the flint, or a serrated wheel (plate). I wonder how reliable it was in front-line conditions. Remember reading somwhere ( perhaps it was Junger) that German soldiers often used matches to ignite the infammable liquid. By the way, was it crude oil, petrol (gasoline) or some mixture? Most probably it was Benzin, as the Germans call it.

  4. 4
    th3gamingkid(aka Ethan) says:

    i just used this site for homework

  5. 5
    Jon says:

    The kleinflammenwerfer apparatus was ignited by hand such as a match or a pilot light. The flammenwerfer didn't get self ignition until the Wechselapparat or "Wex". It used a hydrogen propellant and a gasoline and oil mixture for fuel, that is why in most photos you will see billowing black plumes of smoke. In front line conditions it would vary. If rain fell (like passchendaele), then it could be harder to ignite. However, by this time the Germans had the Wechselapparat; which eliminated that problem.

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