During the first winter of World War I, the rocky hills around Verdun developed a reputation for being considerably quieter than other sectors. The German and French high commands were occupied elsewhere–primarily to the north, in Flanders and Artois. The local generals had to content themselves with a few small-scale attacks and whatever “strafing” their meager rations of artillery shells allowed.
Frontline troops appreciated this relative lack of activity. In a region where winter brought rain, fog, and an occasional bit of rapidly melting snow, keep ing house in a trench not 350 feet from the enemy’s was a full-time job. A tacit truce developed between the French who were farthest forward and their German counterparts–a phenomenon the British would later call “live and let live.”
On the morning of February 26, 1915, the French who occupied the frontline trenches in the Malancourt Woods northwest of Verdun were doing nothing that would violate the unspoken armistice. Just before 10 in the morning, they broke out their mess kits and began work on their standard ration of “monkey” (tinned beef) and biscuit.
On the other side of no-man’s-land, a handful of German reservists in baggy gray uniforms were engaged in less innocent pursuits. Conscious of their proximity to their intended victims, the Germans crept silently through shallow ditches dug perpendicular to the main German trench. At the end of each sap (as this sort of ditch had been known since the Middle Ages), less than 100 feet from the Frenchmen, they assembled their weapons, devices that resembled overgrown fire extinguishers.
The picnic ended precisely at 10 o’clock. With a deafening crash, a salvo of German howitzer shells struck the first and second French lines. After two hours of steady bombardment, as the clock reached 12, burning petroleum poured from the German saps into the forward French trench. Blinded by the thick black smoke that covered the battlefield and panicked by the flames around them, the Frenchmen ripped off their burning uniforms, dropped their rifles, and ran.
Hard on the heels of the retreating poilus and just behind their own flood of fire and smoke, German riflemen with fixed bayonets rushed into the first trench and, seeing it empty, quickly went on to the second. Hindered more by thick undergrowth than by French resistance, the Germans took that trench too. Two hours and forty minutes after the first explosions had signaled the start of the attack, 220 acres of the Malan court Woods were in German hands.
The ease with which the Germans captured the French positions must be credited to one man, a reserve captain named Bernhard Reddemann–in civilian life the Leipzig fire chief. His interest in flame weapons had originally been sparked by a report from the battlefields of the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War. During the siege of Port Arthur, Japanese combat engineers had used hand pumps to spray kerosene into Russian trenches. Once the Russians were covered with the flammable liquid, the Japanese would throw bundles of burning rags at them. Although this method does not seem to have been very effective–the amount of kerosene that could be sprayed was limited, and the method of setting it on fire was, to say the least, uncertain–Reddemann saw promise in the idea. Acting almost entirely on his own initiative, he began looking for ways to make a work able flame-throwing weapon.
Reddemann first attempted to remedy the problem of quantity. In 1907, in a mock assault on the fortress of Posen, he used fire engines to simulate dispensing large amounts of burning liquid. Though the only liquid propelled through the hoses was water, Reddemann considered the exercise a success and began to design, build, and test a number of prototype flamethrowers. These, for the most part, seem to have been converted fire fighting devices.
Soon after the outbreak of war, he teamed up with Richard Fiedler, an engineer from Berlin who had been working on a similar concept. In 1912, after seven years of secret tests on the exercise grounds of the Guard Pioneer Battalion, Fiedler’s designs were accepted by the German army. A number were manufactured and issued to the Belagerungstrain (Siege Train)–the organization responsible for reducing any fortresses standing in the way of Germany’s field armies.
Fiedler’s designs were far more practical than Reddemann’s. Rather than gasoline, Fiedler used a mixture of heavier petroleum products that was much less explosive and easier to handle. Instead of Reddemann’s hand pumps, Fiedler employed canisters of nitrogen gas to propel the burning liquid. And rather than concentrating on large flamethrowers for fortress warfare, Fiedler designed two basic models–the large one (Grosserfiammenwerfer, or Grof) used at Malan court and a significantly smaller back pack version (Kleinerfiammenwerfer, or Kleif) that could be carried by one man and operated by two.
What Captain Reddemann lacked as a designer, he made up for as a tactician. In his absence, the flamethrowers of the Siege Train had had little impact.
Though there are unconfirmed reports of German flamethrowers being used as early as October 1914, there is no indication that these potentially fearsome weapons made much of an impression on either the Germans who wielded them or the Frenchmen who were the intended targets. Reddemann’s first step in correcting this situation was to remove the flamethrowers from the Siege Train and place them in his “private army”–an independent unit of 48 combat engineers known as Flammenwerfer Abteilung Reddemann (Flamethrower Detachment Reddemann). Many of the reservists who volunteered for this unit had been, like Reddemann, firemen in civilian life.
Thanks largely to the patronage of Crown Prince Wilhelm, son of the kaiser and commander of the German forces around Verdun, Reddemann was able to continue his frontline experiments. One of the most significant was at the village of Hooge, near Ypres in Belgium. On July 19, 1915, in an attack with limited objectives against German positions in the village, British infantry had success fully exploited the detonation of a large mine. But their enjoyment of their newly captured real estate was brief.
Eleven days later, on the morning of July 30, taking advantage of the proximity of the British trenches , German flame thrower troops reenacted Malancourt.
Even though French newspapers had published accounts of Malancourt, surprise was complete. The British had no idea what to make of the jets of red flame that lit up the predawn sky. To their credit, however, they did not panic. The combined effects of the flamethrowers, machine guns, trench mortars, and hand-grenade teams pushed them back to their second trench. Nevertheless, they reached it in sufficiently good order to prevent the Germans from installing larger flamethrowers for a second attack.
A British officer reported that “the defenders…lost few men from actual burns, but the demoralizing element was very great. We were instructed to aim at those who carried the flame-spraying device, who made a good target.”
By the end of 1915 Reddemann’s private army bore little resemblance to the platoon he had led at the beginning of the year. There were now 12 full companies of flamethrower operators, and the combat engineers in the ranks were joined by volunteers from other arms. The one constant in Reddemann’s fast-changing unit was the continued presence of former firemen. Although trained to fight fires rather than start them, firemen had one significant advantage over other would-be flame thrower operators–they had already conquered the very fear of fire that made the weapon so effective.
In addition to the combat troops, Reddemann’s unit contained a small research staff, a workshop detachment, a training company, and an experimental company. Ideas for improving existing weapons–whether generated by flame thrower operators returning from an attack or by the engineers on his staff could be turned into prototypes without delay. Once built, those prototypes would be tested immediately. If the idea worked–and no one was better able to judge than the veteran flamethrower operators–the new design would go into production. Reddemann was able to eliminate the bureaucratic middlemen who do so much to slow down combat development in modern armies.
Because of Reddemann’s streamlined organization–what the business world would later call “vertical integration” some of the initial drawbacks of the flamethrower were eliminated. Early models required one of the operators to light the oil coming out of the flame thrower’s tube with a burning rag or torch. This was replaced by a hand-held friction igniter not unlike the ones we use to light charcoal on barbecues which was, in turn, replaced by an igniter that operated automatically. As soon as the flamethrower operator opened the valve on his hose, the igniter created the sparks that turned the fuel passing it into a cloud of smoke and flame.
The oil mixture the flamethrowers sprayed underwent a parallel development. Fiedler’s mixture produced a great cloud of black smoke. While this made a strong impression on the troops being attacked (the psychological effect of the flamethrower was much more powerful than its physical effects), it also made the flamethrower team a convenient target for enemy artillery. The “dirty” oil was thus replaced by a cleaner-burning mixture with smoke that did not attract immediate attention from far away.
The biggest change, however, was the eclipsing of the large-model flamethrower by smaller models. The large flame throwers could be used only for what Reddemann called “standing attacks” updated versions of the operation at Malancourt, where trenches were close together. As the war progressed, the distance between the opposing lines tended to increase, and the backpack model, which allowed flamethrower teams to accompany the infantry into the depth of an enemy position, became the only type of flamethrower the Germans used.
This ability to penetrate beyond the enemy’s forward trench became increasingly important as the war went on.
French and British positions that in the winter of 1914-15 had been little more than a simple ditch tracing the forward line of troops developed into a subsurface city of dugouts connected by an intricate network of communications trenches. The number of machine guns increased by a factor of four or five, and they were often positioned so as to enfilade enemy troops that had managed to advance beyond the forward trench.
To get to these machine guns without falling victim to them, the flamethrower men advanced in small squads of two or three flamethrowers that Reddemann called Stosstrupps (thrust teams). These squads ran from shell hole to shell hole in bounds, moving such a short distance (less than 100 feet) that enemy riflemen barely had time to aim and fire before the target disappeared again. If shell holes were too far apart, one flame thrower operator would fire a burst of flame. The resulting fireball would provide the few seconds of confusion needed for the team to reach the relative safety of the next shell hole.
In addition to the flamethrower operators, each Stosstrupp contained a handful of grenade throwers. Their job was to protect the flamethrowers from short range counterattacks. They also helped maintain momentum by throwing grenades ahead of the flamethrower operators. Given the fact that trenches were rarely dug in a straight line, the ability of the backpack flamethrowers to shoot fire around corners was also, no doubt, a great help in such work.
The remarkable similarity between Reddemann’s Stosstrupp tactics and techniques being developed at that time by the first German Sturmbataillon (assault battalion) was no accident. Like Reddemann’s unit, this assault battalion was an elite, experimental unit whose chief purpose was to test new weapons and invent new techniques that would help Germany solve the “riddle of the trenches.” During the summer of 1915, when both were developing their particular versions of the tactics of deep penetration, Reddemann collaborated closely with Captain Willy Martin Rohr, commander of the first assault battalion. The result of this cooperative effort, which included participation in a small-scale attack, was a single approach to battle based on two different sets of weapons.
In Rohr’s system, the role of the large flamethrowers was played by light trench mortars, heavy machine guns, and infantry guns that suppressed key points in the enemy’s frontline defenses long enough for the close-combat specialists to get themselves across no man’s-land. Once inside the enemy’s trench system, these latter stormtroopers, who were also organized into Stosstrupps, used hand grenades to fight their way through communications trenches and bundles of grenades to knock out machine-gun nests and other pillars of the enemy’s defensive system.
Just as Reddemann’s flamethrower armed Stosstrupps were often joined by grenade throwers, Rohr’s grenade-wielding Stosstrupps were often supported by squads armed with portable flame throwers. For this purpose, a platoon of six backpack-flamethrower teams from Reddemann’s unit was attached to Rohr’s assault battalion. As other assault battalions were formed, they too received similar flamethrower platoons.
Adapting Reddemann’s tactics to local conditions, the flamethrower companies soon found themselves in action nearly everywhere on the Western Front. The bulk of German flamethrower attacks during the first two years of World War I, however, took place during the German offensive at Verdun in 1916. In terms of tactics used, the fighting at Verdun was little different from that of the numerous local attacks of 1915. But while these attacks were, in other places, relatively rare events, at Verdun they followed each other in rapid succession.
The immediate result of this pace of operations was that Reddemann’s men conducted three times as many flame thrower attacks in the first half of 1916 as they had in all of 1915.
Most of the operations were successful. During the course of World War I, Reddemann’s unit took part in 653 at tacks, raids, or defensive actions. In 535 of these, the Germans were able to capture the enemy position, complete the raid, or drive off the enemy attack. In only 118-18 percent of the total–did the German troops accompanied by flamethrower teams fail to accomplish their missions. Just how effective the German flamethrowers were can be seen by contemporary British attempts to denigrate it. One officer reported:
Its effect may be very easily exaggerated. When you see it for the first time it rather gives you the jumps. It looks like a big gas jet coming towards you, and your natural instinct is to jump back and get out of the way. A man who thinks nothing of a shell or a bullet may not like the prospect of being scorched or roasted by fire. But in my experience the effective range of the flammenwerfer is very limited, and the man who manipulates it as often as not is shot or bombed by our fellows. . . . The actual cases of burning by devil’s fire have been very few.
Nevertheless, given its track record, it is not surprising that the German army decided to make the flamethrower a permanent part of its repertoire. A British officer, Guy Chapman, described a 1917 German counterattack in the autumn mists of Passchendaele:
The enemy were attacking undercover of flammenwerfer, hose pipes leading to petrol tanks carried on the backs of men. When the nozzles were lighted, they threw out a roaring, hissing flame 20 to 30 feet long, swelling at the end to a whirling oily rose, six feet in diameter. Under the protection of these hideous weapons, the enemy surrounded the advance pill-box, stormed it and killed the garrison.
The British counterattacked the counterattackers and retook the pillbox. “Then the stream of wounded began,” Chapman wrote. “More and more men came in, with black faces, singed hair and eyebrows, and red swollen lips, were bound up and soothed as well as possible, and then sent or carried away.”
The flamethrower played a major role in the stunning German victories of early 1918. During that year , Redde mann’s troops more than doubled their previous record of 165 flame attacks in a single year-and yet were unable to keep up with the demand for their services.
As the tide turned against Germany, the once-offensive weapon turned out to be a handy means of fighting the less–than fireproof Allied tanks.
The flamethrower even managed to survive Germany’s defeat. In the largely urban civil war of 1919, both the left wing insurgents and the defenders of the new German republic often used it to incinerate their former comrades.
One great mystery is why Germany’s enemies failed to develop a parallel affection for such a fearsome weapon. The British made three rather furtive, widely separated attempts to use flamethrowers in combat. In all three cases, the prototypes were large. The “portable” version was about the size of the standard German Grof–the large model that the Germans had all but abandoned by 1916. The other British prototypes were even larger–one had to be carried about on a flatbed railway car. Despite limited tactical success, the British army never followed up on these experiments.
The French were more persistent and, like the Germans, soon settled on light flame weapons. By 1918, a French captain named Schildt–who, like Reddemann, had been a firefighter in peace time–had trained at least seven companies in the use of portable flamethrowers. Though these weapons, designed and built by a manufacturer of cigarette lighters, were in some respects superior to their German counterparts, the Compagnies Schildt never made the transition from curiosity to tactical staple.
Although it was never fully exploited by either side, the flamethrower was one of the most feared World War I weapons. It is a tribute to its battlefield effectiveness that, along with the submarine, the battleship, heavy artillery, the tank, poison gas, and the zeppelin, the flame thrower appeared on the list of weapons forbidden to the postwar German armed forces by the Treaty of Versailles.
An even greater tribute was paid by the soldiers who, after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, tore up the Treaty of Versailles and began to rebuild the German army. These World War I veterans made sure that backpack flamethrowers of a type similar to those carried by Reddemann’s pioneers in 1917 and 1918 were liberally supplied to the combat-engineer battalions of each division, as well as to the elite Sturmpioniere (assault engineers). In the war that soon followed, these weapons proved their worth in Belgium against the great border forts that stood in the way of the panzer divisions, in France against the works of the Maginot line, in Greece against the Metaxis line, and in the Soviet Union against thousands of field fortifications.
On the other side of the world, other descendants of Fiedler’s flamethrowers found their way into the hands of U.S. Marines. The island-hopping Pacific campaign against the Japanese was, from the point of view of the Americans on the ground, a monumental exercise in bunker bursting; flamethrowers were distributed not only to combat-engineer battalions but also to every infantry battalion.
Thus, in the space of 40 years, the flamethrower had come full circle. A Japanese concept developed during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 was made a technical reality by a German engineer. A German fireman took that weapon and built a tactical system around it. It took U.S. Marines, however, to use the weapon on a scale that influenced the outcome of battles–battles fought against the very nation whose soldiers had come up with the idea in the first place. MHQ
BRUCE I. GUDMUNDSSON is the author of Storm troop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army, 1914-1918 (Praeger, 1989) and On Artillery (Praeger, 1993).
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1994 issue (Vol. 7, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: “These Hideous Weapons”
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