Livens Flame Projectors at Breslau Trench

Livens Flame Projector

British objectives for 1 July 1916 with front sector allocated to XV Corps.

The Livens Flame Projector was one of the most horrific weapons of the war, instilling terror and amongst those that faced it. It was deployed along the sector held by the 55th Brigade opposite Breslau Trench. Invented by Captain William Livens from the Royal Engineers these weapons were meant to shake the confidence of and terrorise the enemy. The aim was to keep German troops below the parapets long enough to enable British infantry to cross No Man’s Land and get into their trenches without being fired upon. Livens was in command of a secret unit known as Z Section, Royal Engineers, which focused its energies on designing long-range flamethrowers.

The Livens Flame Projector required seven men to operate and these devices were buried underground in shallow tunnels – Russian saps – where they would project burning oil from a nozzle a distance of 300 feet across No Man’s Land into the German trenches. At fifty-six feet in length and weighing two-and-a-half tons it was a logistical challenge getting this device in positions underground within shallow confines of these Russian saps. The weapon was powered by air pressure. Once the pressure had reached a certain level the nozzle attached to the tanks was pushed through the ground above the surface and then the diesel and kerosene mixture was ignited, shooting flame towards the enemy like a mechanical dragon. It took 300 men to assemble this weapon, then once underground the tanks had to be filled with oil. These horrific killing machines had to be assembled in secret to preserve the element of surprise for the moment they were unleashed on the enemy.

Z Section, Royal Engineers left Southampton in two troopships at 18:00 hours on 24 June 1916, bound for Le Havre. Lieutenant Bansal with another officer and sixty-six men accompanied four Livens Flame Projectors aboard SS Hunslet, while Captain Livens with nine officers and 153 men sailed on SS Copenhagen. After an overnight crossing of the English Channel they reached Le Havre at 09:00 hours on 25 June and spent the day transferring the weapons and equipment from these troopships to nearby trains that would take them to the Somme sector.

They reached Corbie the following day and then they had to make their way to the frontline where the weapons would be deployed. Under the supervision of Lieutenant Bansall the four Projectors were loaded onto three-ton lorries at Bronfay Farm, near Bray, on 27 June, together with large supplies of oil and compressed gas. They arrived at Ludgate Circus close to Mametz at 22.00 hours that night where they were met by a 200-strong party from the Devonshire Regiment which was detailed to assist them in carrying this equipment to the front line.

This process was delayed when at 02:00 hours on 28 June as they were moving through a communications trench named 71 Street German artillery opened up a strong barrage on this trench. Parts of the Livens Flame Projectors that was designated for use at Sap 14, positioned between Bois Français and Mansell Copse, were dropped as the Royal Engineers and Devons took shelter. When the bombardment stopped at 05:30 hours they collected parts of the flamethrower and assembled them in Sap 14. Thirty minutes later the German guns resumed their bombardment and a shell burst directly above Sap 14, burying parts of the Projector beyond recovery.

Three other Livens Flame Projectors were taken from Bronfay Farm and taken to the Montauban sector where they were to be installed in Sap 7, 10 and 13 dug by 183rd Tunnelling Company. The Projector intended for use at Casino Point from No 13 Sap was installed but was then damaged by enemy shellfire and was used for spare parts for the remaining two operational projectors.

These two remaining Projectors were to be used on the 55th Brigade’s sector in between the Carnoy Crater and east of the Carnoy–Montauban Road. They were positioned close to each other and would engulf Mine Trench with deadly flames of burning oil. The device could only be fired three times emitting projections of burning oil for ten seconds.

At 07:15 hours, fifteen minutes before Zero Hour, the Projectors at Saps 7 and 10 discharged their deadly rain of burning oil across No Man’s Land into the German frontline Mine Trench held by soldiers from the 6th Bavarian Reserve Regiment, who had recently been transferred here from Verdun for a rest. The Royal Engineers, Special Section War Diary reported:

One shot was fired from each gun in No 7 and No 10 saps; the flames reached well over the enemy’s trenches in each case. The moral effect on the enemy undoubtedly was very pronounced, for whom the infantry attack took place, the casualties were very much less in the width of front covered by the flame than in the flanks.

Clouds of black smoke and flame rose a hundred feet into the sky before descending upon the unfortunate Bavarians. It was a horrific death for those German sentries in Mine Trench who were incinerated by these jets of burning oil. Their charred remains were later found.

2nd Lieutenant R.W. Stewart, Royal Engineers, reported that soon after the Livens Flame Projector (here using the German term for these weapons) was deployed, fifty German soldiers immediately surrendered:

The large flammenwerfer on the west of the craters proved a great success and very little resistance was met on that side. Had there been another flammenwerfer on the East, possibly the assaulting party would have been able to get in equally easily.

The Livens Projector was used again in Belgium during 1917, but the weapon proved too cumbersome to use. It required large resources of labour in bringing the weapon to the front line and assembling it underground. There was also a great risk that it would be damaged by shellfire or buried underground before it could be used. Loading it with kerosene and diesel underground was dangerous and after all the effort of installing this weapon, it could only be used three times before being emptied. The use of this projector was abandoned and Livens and his team diverted their attention to the creation of the Livens Gas Projectors which was used in large numbers later in the war.

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