Flamethrowers were developed just prior to the First World War, and going into the conflict… well, no one really knew exactly what they were capable of accomplishing. (Note: this is true of some of the most pivotal and memorable weapons of WWI, including poison gas, trenches, barbed-wire, the machine-gun, air-power, and submarines).
But as the Entente and the
AxisCentral Powers armies began to dig down into the trenches that would chew through an entire generation, the flamethrower found its purpose: clearing trenches. The flammenwerfer, first invented in Germany by Richard Fiedler in 1901 could fire a single-burst of flame some 20 yards from the soldier firing the weapon. Critically, if a second shot was to be fired, the igniter would need to be replaced. Like so many of the German weapons of the First World War, it relied on surprise … it’s this rather limited usability that likely prevented the German Army from using their twelve companies of Flammenwerferapparaten until February 1915, when they were deployed against the French positions outside Verdun. It would be employed to far greater effect in July of that year against British trenches at Hooge. In both instances, the flamethrowers was used primarily not as a killing device in itself, but as a means to flush a trench-full of enemy soldiers out of the safety of their fortifications and into the line of raking machine-gun fire, a far surer way to kill.
It proved to be really only effective when fired from a trench, to an enemy trench… which meant that it could only be employed in situations where enemy trenches were less than 20 yards apart – an uncommon state. Moreover, a full charge of the ignition gases was enough for only 2 minutes of sustained fire before being exhausted. Still, the situations in which it proved useful were common enough that over the course of the conflict, Germany would find more than 600 engagements to utilize their terrible flame weapon.
For the allies, they quite simple couldn’t match the German ingenuity of the flammenwerfer, confined to using the completely non-portable “Livens Large Galley Flame Projector” more like a short-range artillery cannon than what we’d think of as a “flamethrower.” Here’s a shot of it in action:
Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tank in training; ca. August 1944.
“The controversy and dangers posed by flamethrowers have led to calls for the weapon to be banned in international treaties. However, to date, there are no treaties that explicitly ban the use of the weapon in combat. The U.S. is one of the few countries to voluntarily discontinue use of flamethrowers.”