First World War Galleries Table of contents

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The cold-blooded science

‘The cold-blooded science of the business seems to me rather horrid, even if necessary.’

Lieutenant Colonel James Jack, diary entry for 15 July 1917
Artillery now fired high explosive shells to try and blast men from the trenches.
In deafening bombardments, streams of shells tested soldiers’ nerves as they crouched down, praying they would not be blown to pieces, mutilated or buried alive.
But artillery was not the only thing to fear.
Armies also returned to using weapons from previous eras, including some of the most primitive.
What kinds of weapons were used?
Grenades and trench mortars were developed to provide high explosive firepower for soldiers in front line trenches.
Knives and clubs were used for hand-to-hand-fighting. In raids on enemy trenches, soldiers would aim to kill, take prisoners and gather information. For those taking part, these raids could be both terrifying and thrilling.

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German Minenwerfer

The German ‘Minenwerfer’ terrified Allied soldiers.
It fired heavy bombs which could be seen slowly tumbling from the sky. When they struck, they demolished or buried everything around them.
Lieutenant Colonel James Jack wrote, ‘Some of the trenches have again been badly mauled by Minenwerfer fire, three men being blown to bits by one bomb. These heavy trench mortar shells, with their terrific explosion, are intensely disagreeable’.

The possibility of death

One is here confronted almost daily with the possibility of Death.’

Lieutenant Eric Lubbock, Army service Corps, 10 November 1915
Trench warfare was a deadly game of hide-and-seek against an almost invisible enemy.
Danger could even lurk undetected below ground. Teams of engineers tunnelled under enemy trenches, laying huge explosive mines. Above ground, snipers were a deadly menace, picking off unwary soldiers.
How did a soldier protect himself?
The new art of camouflage offered ways to see without being seen. Body armour and helmets gave some protection.
But death often came unseen, sometimes unheard. If a soldier was in the wrong place at the wrong time, nothing could protect him.

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Tunnellers from the Royal Engineers burrowed deep beneath no man’s land. They laid tons of high explosive under enemy trenches.
The Germans did the same from the other side. When detonated, these ‘mines’ could bury alive hundreds of men in an instant.
British and German miners sometimes broke into each other’s tunnels and fought to the death in the dark. Where miners were active, soldiers in the trenches lived in terror of this invisible threat beneath their feet.

Underground, men wearing geophones listened for German mining activity.
Geophones were a French invention to magnify sound waves in the ground. Using a stethoscope, a compass and two discs containing mercury pressed to the tunnel floor, the listener could work out the location of any underground sound like talking or digging. A period of silence could mean a mine was about to be detonated.

These candles were used in a tunnel in Hulluch, France.
They were a potentially lethal form of lighting. Explosive charges got larger as the war went on, releasing ever more flammable gases in the narrow tunnels.
The risk of an accidental underground explosion increased. Tunnellers, many of them coal miners in peacetime, had to be issued with safer mining lamps.
Breathing equipment

Although tunnellers took rabbits, mice or canaries with them to test for gas build-ups, many were overcome by carbon monoxide fumes.
The British ‘Proto’ and German breathing equipment here was used by teams trained to rescue stricken men.
The first symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include giddiness and confusion. Some tunnellers affected by the fumes became argumentative or violent towards their rescuers.
Hawthorn ridge explosion photo

Mines grew more powerful as the war went on.
This photograph shows a British mine exploding under German defences at Hawthorn Ridge on the Somme on 1 July 1916. It left a crater 60 metres wide and 30 metres deep.
On 7 June 1917, at Messines, 19 mines containing nearly 440 tons of explosive killed 10,000 German soldiers. The explosion was felt in London.
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An officer uses geophones while his men lay an explosive charge

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The Hawthorn Ridge mine, photographed by official war photographer Ernest Brooks

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Cloth and leather uniforms offered little protection against jagged shell fragments or bullets.
On both sides various forms of body armour were either developed officially or sold privately.
Relatively few wore it. Metal armour was too heavy.
Fabric armour absorbed light impacts, but was useless when soaked by rain. Of far greater importance in saving lives were the modern, yet medieval-looking steel helmets.
Steel loophole and big game cartridge

Observers and snipers peered or fired through steel loopholes.
Some were disguised, like this British ‘sandbag’. The other loophole here, a steel plate, is German.
The British experimented with ammunition like this rifle cartridge, normally used for hunting elephants, in unsuccessful attempts to penetrate German loophole plates.

In trench warfare, 20 per cent of all wounds were to the head and neck.
By late 1916 most armies wore steel helmets. The German helmet, on the left, has been modified to reveal the ears as the standard version made hearing difficult.
The French ‘Adrian’ helmet, centre, was named after its inventor, General August Louis Adrian. The Belgian helmet on the right was a near copy of the ‘Adrian’.
Body armour

These are examples of body armour worn in the trenches.
German metal body armour was so heavy it could only be worn by men in static roles such as sentries or machine gunners. It was light but not very effective.
The British bombers’ neck shield, here worn with body armour, was meant to protect against grenade splinters.
The Dayfield Body Shield was made from metal plates sandwiched between fabric.
British steel helmet

From late 1915, British and Empire soldiers were issued with a steel helmet designed by inventor John Brodie.
It could be pressed from a single sheet of metal which made it particularly strong.
The first helmets were shiny and glinted in light, revealing the wearer’s position. On this later type, sand or sawdust was applied before the paint, to give a non-reflective, textured finish.
Brodie’s innovation reduced head injuries by 75 per cent.
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A German soldier wearing metal body armour

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A wounded British soldier holding his steel helmet, which has been pierced by shrapnel

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From the cover of the trenches, both sides constantly tried to observe their enemies and read their positions, movements and strength.
German soldiers, normally entrenched on higher ground, had a huge advantage as they could better watch their enemies opposite. Soldier-artists in the British and French armies took camouflage and deception to new levels in an effort to reduce the Germans’ advantage.
Trench periscopes

Periscopes enabled soldiers to peer across no man’s land from the relatively safety of a trench, without risking a sniper’s bullet. Shown here, from left to right, are two German periscopes, one improvised the other stereoscopic, then a privately purchased British ‘Lifeguard’ periscope, the standard British No. 9 trench periscope and another privately purchased example.

Trench panorama

This large photographic panorama shows a shell exploding in Canadian trenches in Ploegsteert, near Ypres, nicknamed ‘Plug Street’ by British and Empire troops. The first British camouflage tree observation post was erected in this area on the evening of 11 March 1916 by a team supervised by soldier-artist Lieutenant Colonel Solomon J Solomon.

Camouflage tree

This is a British camouflage tree observation post. A real tree in no man’s land, with its branches blasted off, was sketched by a soldier-artist from the Royal Engineers’ camouflage unit. A replica tree with a steel core was then made behind the lines. The real tree was removed at night and replaced with the fake one. The observer could then crawl up inside it and watch the German lines.

Sniper rifle

German snipers armed with the converted Gewehr 98 sniper rifle killed thousands of Allied troops. Snipers trained their rifles on dips in trench walls or crossing points, waiting for the careless or curious to show their heads. Germany’s tradition of shooting clubs and hunting with rifles meant that it could call upon plenty of sharpshooters. Its advanced optics industry provided their telescopic sights.

Sniper robe

This British sniper robe was hand-painted by a sniper to help him blend into his lair, usually a pile of earth or rubbish in no man’s land. From late 1915 the British set up special sniper schools. Among the first instructors were ghillies, gamekeepers from Scottish estates. They taught marksmanship, stealth and camouflage. British snipers operated in pairs: one to observe, the other to shoot.

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