That artillery could change its roll on the battlefield was largely down to science but it was aided by the concurrent development of novel munitions for trench warfare in the form of grenades and especially mortars. Mortars in the particular helped to emancipate the guns from the shackles of direct infantry support.
The means by which grenades and mortars were provided to the BEF was very far from straightforward since, in 1914, no infrastructure nor organisational framework existed to address this. This is not to imply incompetence or inefficiency on the part of anyone or any agency involved in supplying the BEF (unlike the supply of artillery ammunition before the creation of the Ministry of Munitions in 1915). On the contrary, the achievement of providing the BEF with appropriate munitions for trench warfare, and in the quantities needed, is one of the unsung triumphs of British ingenuity and engineering during the First World War. Ironically, so great was the British achievement that there is a tendency to take for granted the existence of these munitions, quite overlooking the fact that, for all practical purposes, none existed in 1914.
Such munitions had to be invented before they could be manufactured, let alone mass-produced by firms which had no prior knowledge of munitions work. Moreover, they could not be produced by the arms manufacturers because they were already fully committed to producing artillery ammunition. So it fell to small engineering firms that made car parts, for example. And this came about because of the inspiration of one man, Lt-Col Jackson of the War Office who also came up with the Outside Engineering Branch to organise and supervise these small firms in the production of munitions. That all this became a reality was an achievement that far exceeded contemporary expectation.
Part of the responsibility for the underplaying of this achievement lay with the Ministry of Munitions (created in June 1915 in response to the Shell Scandal) and with Lloyd George, the first Minister of Munitions. Both omitted to give due credit to anyone outside the Ministry and both failed to acknowledge fully the British engineer as a resourceful innovator. At that time, as indeed now, there was a general belief that German engineering was superior, that German organisation was a model of efficiency to which everyone else could only aspire, a belief that ignored the fact that many of the great engineers of the nineteenth century were British and the fact that the Germans were somewhat less than efficient in their use of new technology: they were slower than the British in taking up the machine gun before the war and although they introduced the world to poison gas, it was the British Special Brigade who perfected chemical warfare, for example. Indeed, this belief in German engineering superiority has proved very resistant to the facts.
Lloyd George and the Ministry lauded grand inventions such as the tank because it was politically useful to do so while they were somewhat condescending to inventions which were not perceived as war-winners, especially when their origins lay outside the Ministry of Munitions. The Mills grenade and the Stokes mortar, for example, were both invented by private individuals before the creation of the Ministry. Moreover, the Stokes was adopted because of political intervention by Lloyd George. He did not, however, recognise the Stokes mortar as militarily significant but he could score political points by insisting that the Army adopt it. It was a way of highlighting his dynamism against the short-sighted obstructionism of the War Office.
The reality is that in mid-1915, the Stokes showed little to distinguish it from any other mortar then in service with the BEF so that there was no reason why the War Office should adopt it – they already had too many types which made supply of ammunition a problem. Lloyd George was not prescient, merely shrewd in backing the Stokes mortar; if it failed to perform well, his reputation would be unaffected but ordering its supply when others had turned it down could only enhance his reputation. Lloyd George’s backing for the Stokes was a canny political act.
During the war, neither mortars nor grenades were ever seen in the same light as the tank, which was considered to be a war winner. Yet, mortars and grenades had a greater impact on warfare during 1914–18 than did the tank which was underpowered, under-armoured, under gunned and unreliable and proved so in every engagement in which it was involved. Grenades and mortars were regarded as mere expedients to deal with the exigencies of trench warfare and would become redundant as soon as open warfare reasserted itself on the Western Front, a notion that was reinforced by the belief among the British that the hand grenades and mortars of 1914–18 were merely British versions of the devices ‘re-introduced’ during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05. This belief was still held in 1919 despite persuasive contrary evidence. So, the question arises whether the grenades and mortars used by the BEF on the Western Front were, indeed, derived from those of the Russo-Japanese War or were, in fact, novel. This leads to another question, namely, whether novelty, if they were, indeed, novel, made a difference to their impact on the Western Front.
The problem here is one of understanding the relationship between invention, both as a process and as a product of that process, and manufacture. It goes to the fundamental issues of utility, functionality and reliability of a device; in other words, does it work, does it work efficiently, does it always work? In this respect, the performance of the prototype is irrelevant; it is the performance of the manufactured device which matters. The engineering process by which an invention is turned from a prototype into a mass-producible device can substantially alter the device but it is crucial to the utility, functionality and reliability of every one of any mass-produced device since each one has to be identical and be within specified limits or tolerances. Uniformity allows the development of standardised handling procedures, drills and tactics because each device can be relied upon to perform in the same way. This is not an intrinsic quality of a prototype, however, and has to be engineered into the device. Functionality as predicted by the inventor and a capability of being mass produced are quite different characteristics.
A feedback loop connects invention with development and manufacture so that the process of invention may continue into production and beyond, thereby ensuring that functionality, utility and reliability are maintained at a high level or are improved. This is production engineering. Normally, the developmental stages are sequential and, altogether, might take many years to complete. For this reason, in 1914, the Master General of the Ordnance (MGO) did not believe that novel munitions could be devised, manufactured and supplied to the Army before a war ended. He was wrong. But the situation in which he and the Army found themselves had never occurred before. In the case of the grenades and mortars, what would have taken years in peacetime had to be achieved in months. Thus, all the stages had to be conducted concurrently, rather than sequentially, a difficult situation made worse by the fact that there was no body of knowledge to which to refer for guidance. As a consequence, there was a lack of coordination between inventors, the War Office and General Headquarters, France (GHQ). Contrary to what the Ministry of Munitions wanted posterity to believe, the Ministry was little better in this regard than the War Office had been.
This was an unprecedented situation which required unorthodox methods. Not only did this have a profound effect on which novel munitions were provided to the BEF but the manner in which the situation was handled demonstrated a remarkable adaptability by all those concerned. This was not laissez faire although it was sometimes ad hoc but such descriptions betray a lack of understanding of the processes involved under peacetime conditions as well as a misunderstanding of the unusual circumstances under which these munitions were provided to the BEF during the First World War. Moreover, it is misleading to describe the process of invention, manufacture and supply as a linear process. Even in peacetime, it is far more disordered, partly because of the inevitable dead-ends and failures, some of which feed back into the system and cause the process to change direction.
It is important to grenades and mortars into historical context, particularly from a technological perspective. Only by doing this is it possible to determine just how novel these munitions were at the time of the First World War. This immediately raises two further questions, namely, what is meant by novel and what is meant by invention. The provisions of any Patents Act are framed so that, together, they define the conditions a new device must satisfy in order to be considered patentable. This provides a useful guide to novelty. Here, a definition of invention is based on what constitutes a patentable invention according to the 1977 Act. This is a verifiable test which can be applied universally irrespective of the field of invention. Thus, an invention has to be new, capable of industrial application and involve an inventive step, that is, lack what is termed ‘obviousness’.
Although the question of obviousness did not apply to the 1907 Act, the Act in force at the time of the First World War, nevertheless, it helps to distinguish what was inventive at that time. Obviousness is a matter of informed opinion, of course, rather than of fact, but it is a useful tool with regard to inventiveness. If an invention was not obvious to a person skilled in the art at the time the invention was created, it was, indeed, an invention. This can be used to test whether the improvisations of the Russo-Japanese War, for example, did, indeed, anticipate the devices of the Western Front.
Until recently, it was assumed that the munitions under discussion here were either versions of traditional siege warfare devices or were derivatives of the improvised munitions of the Russo-Japanese War. Questions concerning the novelty of the devices supplied to the BEF for trench warfare were not asked. This raises the issue of what drives an engineer to invent. After all, inventors do not invent in the abstract but do so in order to find a practical solution to a particular problem. This, then, raises the question of whether improvisation differs from invention. For something to be novel, it has to be new. In other words, it has to be of a previously unknown configuration. Improvisation implies that the configuration is known and, therefore, is not new. Thus, improvisation is distinct from invention as it can be argued that, by definition, improvisation can only be applied to something of a known configuration. It follows, then, that any device of the First World War which satisfies this criteria cannot have been novel.
If these munitions were, indeed, novel, the BEF clearly had no experience of them. This raises questions concerning the attitude of GHQ to new weapons in general and to the novel weapons of trench warfare in particular. Although not generally acknowledged, GHQ was keen on novel devices. It evens set up its own evaluation branch, the Experimental Section. There is also the matter of how the BEF coped with devices of which it had no knowledge. Then there is the question of how the numbers and types of new weapons effected their operational use and, hence, tactics. The issue of usefulness is also raised in this context: how useful to operations on the Western Front were any of these devices? Which brings us back to the issue of technology and whether the technical design of a munition affected its operational use.
Thus, the question of whether the novel munitions of trench warfare contributed to the development of new tactics on the Western Front is not quite as simple as it appears. It conceals a wide range of questions relating to the invention, manufacture, supply and operational use of munitions which were not part of the British Army’s arsenal in 1914 but which became standard issue by 1918. The question then becomes: why were these munitions adopted as standard equipment when they had been introduced as mere stopgaps and expedients? How had this come about and what was different about these munitions in 1918 compared to their predecessors in 1914 and 1915?
The trench fighting that arose in wars before the First World War provided little impetus to invent specialised munitions. Between 1855 and 1914, there were many inventions in the fields of small arms, artillery and their ammunition, especially fuzes, as well as in explosives and propellants, but there were hardly any that related to grenades. None related to trench mortars until 1908, the same year in which the rifle grenade was patented by Frederick Marten Hale who had not been inspired by any war to create such a device. Although a number of British inventors devised percussion-fuzed hand grenades during the nineteenth century, the War Office was not interested in the concept. The American Civil War inspired a few American inventors to devise hand grenades, both percussion-fuzed and time-fuzed. These new types of hand grenade were unreliable and their utility was low. The British took no notice of them and the Americans lost interest when the Civil War ended. Only the French were sufficiently interested in one design to import it. This became the M1870 bracelet grenade; it was still in service in 1915. No hand grenade was invented in response to the Crimean War, the Russo-Turkish War or the Boer War.
Conversely, hand grenades were improvised by British soldiers in the Crimea and in South Africa. In the American Civil War, wooden mortars were improvised by the Union forces besieging Vicksburg. Grenades were improvised by both sides during the Russo-Japanese War, while the Japanese improvised a wooden mortar. On the Western Front in 1914 and 1915, grenades and mortars were improvised by British, French, Belgian and German troops. The Royal Engineers made almost everything from cooking stoves to body armour. The Royal Engineers took improvisation to a new level by using workshop facilities so that their improvisations took on the appearance of factory-made devices. The Newton 3.7-inch mortar was a prime example. Nevertheless, improvisation was not usually a serious attempt to satisfy more than a local need. Even in the Russo-Japanese War, improvisation was the desperate resort of local garrisons rather than an attempt to address an absence of a much-needed munition for the entire army. The improvisations of the Russo-Japanese War were transformed into devices of greater significance than they merited by the military observers from the European Powers and from the USA, who reported on everything they saw but without proper analysis.
In only two instances did improvisation lead to invention prior to the First World War and both occurred during the Russo-Japanese War and in its immediate aftermath: the percussion-fuzed hand grenade and the light mortar. Neither saw action in Manchuria. They were reported to the War Office which led to the British attempting to devise a percussion-fuzed hand grenade of their own on the basis that it might prove useful. The difference between the British No. 1 hand grenade, the Japanese percussion-fuzed grenade of the Russo-Japanese War, and the American Ketchum grenade of 1861 is slight and they were all similar to the grenade devised by William Parlour in 1834. This demonstrates that inventors tend to re-invent the obvious, especially when they are unaware of any prior art. Over a period of eighty years, the concept of a percussion-fuzed grenade remained essentially unchanged, yet no one had succeeded in devising one that worked efficiently and reliably. It also shows that the War Office failed properly to consider just what it was asking the Royal Laboratory to design in the early 1900s or even what the War Office proposed to do with the grenades once the Army had them.
When the British set about developing a percussion-fuzed grenade during the First World War, a quite different conceptual approach from these earlier grenades was necessary because the No. 1 proved to be too simplistic. This highlights a fundamental aspect of invention, both as a process and as a product of that process, and which is especially pertinent to mechanical devices: novelty lies in novel approaches to functionality, rather than in alternative designs of the same thing. If a device embodies a mechanism of a hitherto unknown configuration, then, it is probably inventive, although that is no guarantee that it will work. The problem is in determining whether a new device satisfies this criterion.
The question of whether the grenades or mortars used by the BEF were novel cannot, of course, be reduced to generalisations. The question can only be addressed by examining the mechanism of each device since novelty is specific to a given device rather than general to all. Nor can the question be answered merely by picking out what was new since almost every grenade and certainly every mortar was new at the time of the First World War (there was a world of difference between trench mortars and siege mortars). These devices can be divided into three categories: improvised; new but not novel; and novel. Much of the inspiration for the improvised grenades can be traced to the designs of Major R L McClintock, RE, which dated from 1913. Although the origins of his designs are unclear, they were almost certainly derived from his experience in handling explosives, rather than from the devices of the Russo-Japanese War. Thus, all those hand grenades that were re-engineered from the improvisations of 1914 and 1915, such as the Nos 6, 7, 8 and 9 hand grenades, can be traced back to McClintock. Although they were all new, none were novel. They were all stopgaps and had been abandoned by the end of 1915.
That the impetus to invent trench warfare munitions had not arisen before the First World War is not to imply that any of the devices invented between 1914 and 1918 could not have been invented at any time during the previous hundred years, although the absence of high explosives until the 1880s would have been a considerable obstacle to success. Nevertheless, the engineering was quite within the capabilities of Victorian engineers. The key issue is that, prior to the First World War, engineers lacked the impetus to invent novel munitions of this sort. During the second half of the nineteenth century, commercial interest became the greatest impetus to invent. The increasing ease with which engineers could protect their inventions by patenting, made possible by improved patent legislation, with the consequent rise of intellectual property as a commercial asset, changed engineers and engineering.
There was a massive increase in the number of patents in all fields of endeavour during this time, not just in military engineering. It is significant that a number of companies came into existence for the duration of the First World War for the sole purpose of making money from patented inventions. The increase in the number of munitions inventions between 1852 and 1914, and during the First World War, should be seen in this light. Moreover, engineers felt that they could find solutions to almost any problem. It was in this milieu that Frederick Marten Hale, William Mills, Henry Newton, Wilfrid Stokes and men like them worked and invented. Of all these men, Marten Hale was the most commercially aggressive. He held the most patents and, more importantly, he pursued in the courts anyone who infringed them. Indeed, his patents caused the Ministry of Munitions major problems when they tried to devise a better rifle grenade.
Whereas some inventions are clearly novel, the novelty of others is less easy to establish. The fact that a patent was granted for an invention did not mean that the device was even new, let alone novel, merely that it satisfied certain criteria which related to newness. The Burn grenade discharger, for example, patented in 1917, was not new since devices of this type are known from the sixteenth century but some features of the Burn device were novel. The Stokes mortar was undoubtedly novel as nothing like it had ever existed prior to its creation. Indeed, it embodied an entirely new concept in munitions; this was the first light infantry mortar. The hand grenade invented by William Mills was not, strictly speaking, new because it was based on the earlier Roland grenade. It was, however, novel because it incorporated features which allowed the device to function as intended. From a functional perspective, the Roland and the Mills are differentiated by a simple truth: the Mills device worked whereas the Roland did not. This, of course, raises the issue of whether a device is inventive if it does not work. It could be argued that Roland’s British patent was invalid because the grenade did not work, although Mills never challenged it on this ground. Nevertheless, for a patent to be valid, the invention has to be workable, although this does not have to be proved during prosecution of the application. It only becomes an issue if the validity of the patent is challenged in court. If proved invalid, the patent is revoked. In this respect, Mills was far more generous of spirit and, indeed, money than Marten Hale who would have probably challenged the Roland patent had he been in Mills’s shoes.
Not only was the first Mills grenade, the No. 5, novel but it introduced a new concept: the automatically lit time-fuzed hand grenade. It could be argued that the Roland introduced this concept but the Roland did not work so the idea was unproven. The No. 23 Mk III, developed from the No. 5, was also novel. It included features not seen in any previous hand grenade and solved defects in the No. 5. The No. 23 Mk III was a second-generation device and was even further removed from the No. 5 than the No. 5 was from the Roland. This illustrates the effect of the feedback loop on the development of the Mills type of hand grenade and shows that invention was a continuing process rather than one which ended when a device went into production. It illustrates that a sequential or linear model of development is too simplistic and does not reflect the real world.
The grenades and mortars devised by Henry Newton were novel, although his 6-inch mortar used the Stokes firing system. Their simplicity, like the mortar invented by Wilfrid Stokes, was the antithesis of much pre-war engineering by the armaments firms, such as Vickers, which tended towards complexity, as typified by their complicated wartime designs for trench mortars. The inventions of Newton and Stokes arose from a different philosophical approach to engineering from that followed by the armaments industry. Newton and Stokes wanted to find the most straightforward solution to a problem, irrespective of what custom dictated, whereas the armaments firms were, in many ways, tied to preconceived ideas of what form the solutions ought to take. This is almost certainly why the inventions of Newton and Stokes were unconventional both in form and functionality. It is probably no coincidence that the munitions invented by Marten Hale, who was associated with armaments through his work with explosives, were much more complex than those of Newton or Stokes. There is also the inference that, in the years before the war, the War Office was unlikely to take seriously any device which was too simple because simplicity implied amateurishness and inefficiency.
The major inventions in the field of trench warfare munitions were made by civilian engineers who had no prior connection with the armaments business. This was not merely because the armaments firms were too busy with conventional munitions to spare time for grenades and mortars but was due to the institutionalisation of ideas over the previous fifty years about what form weapons ought to take. This allowed very little room for radically different ideas. The Royal Laboratory, for example, had a very poor record of invention and development when it came to grenades and mortars. The Mills grenade came about because William Mills met Albert Dewandre who was seeking commercial production of the Roland grenade in January 1915. Dewandre had no thought of contacting a firm such as Vickers. Had he done so, Vickers would probably have sent him packing (he was a bit of a chancer). Indeed, it is likely that the MGO’s fears would have been realised and no grenade would have been ready until at least mid-1916 which would have been disastrous for the BEF. When Vickers was asked by the War Office to devise a mortar, it based its design on an unexceptional pre-war Krupp device. The 2-inch mortar that came out this served its purpose but it was a stopgap measure. The Newton 6-inch mortar which replaced it was superior in every respect, although it, too, proved to be transitory and became redundant when open warfare resumed in 1918. Only the Stokes became standard equipment in the post-war army.
It is clear that the novel munitions of trench warfare used by the BEF were, indeed, novel and had no basis in earlier devices from the Russo-Japanese War. Moreover, the idea that grenades were reintroduced in the Russo-Japanese War is mistaken since, in fact, they had never gone away. They had been in sporadic use since they went out of favour in the mid-eighteenth century but they had never been entirely abandoned. The use of grenades in the Russo-Japanese War was in this tradition. The motivation to improvise them was little different from that which had encouraged British troops to improvise grenades in the Crimea and in South Africa. As for the invention of percussion-fuzed grenades, these were all re-inventions of a flawed concept. The case of the rifle grenade was very different, however. It did not exist until 1908.
As far as mortars are concerned, the devices improvised and invented by the British during the First World War had no connection with the mortars improvised by the Japanese in Manchuria. Although the Germans devised trench mortars in the light of their observations in Manchuria, their mortars bore no resemblance to the Japanese devices and were effectively scaled-down howitzers. The British use of mortars on the Western Front was in direct response to the German use of mortars. In this respect, the First World War mortar may be said to be derived from those of the Russo-Japanese War but from an inventive and functional perspective there was no connection at all.
The Western Front inspired civilian inventors in a way that no previous war had done. Not only did they invent grenades and mortars but many other devices for trench warfare including body armour and periscopes. The most likely reason for this burst of creativity is that, unlike small arms and artillery, the munitions of trench warfare required neither specialist equipment for their manufacture nor an understanding of conventional arms, although their manufacture required a level of expertise comparable with that used to make conventional munitions. Many of the early devices, patented in Britain, were impractical and unworkable. Awareness of the need for trench warfare munitions cannot have been the sole impetus to invent, however. The rise of engineering as a solution to problem-solving in Britain during the nineteenth century was also a significant factor, aided by commercial interests in intellectual property brought about by the improvements in patent legislation since 1852. There was a strong commercial incentive to invent.
The tactics that emerged during the latter part of the war owed much to science and technology and to the willingness of GHQ to embrace innovation. And the truth is that those tactics could not have existed before 1917.