Unearthing the secret weapon of the Somme

If the atomic bomb was the most terrible weapon of World War II, then probably heavy artillery or the machine gun were the worst weapons of World War One.

The Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector in testing. First used by the British at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

But now, thanks to a grim programme entitled Breathing Fire: Secret Weapon of the Somme, a
little known weapon of supreme terror has been rediscovered buried in the north of France. It was the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector, a device that hurled a stream of burning oil into the German trenches filled with machine gunners.
In a sequel programme, not unlike the famous Mythbusters, a replica was assembled by The Royal Engineers and successfully fired. It was as though a dragon had opened its jaws and let fly a
great billow of flame some 100 metres in length; it makes a portable flame thrower seem like a cigarette lighter. No wonder it caused terror on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916.
In the relatively small segment of the front where this weapon of terror was used, the British achieved an easy advance. However, it did not stop the British from sustaining losses of 60,000 to the Germans’ “mere” 8000 on the first day of the battle.
Skilfully hosted by veteran presenter Tony Robinson, it turned archaeology into an exciting, though frustrating, activity, almost (although not quite as bad) as looking for oil.The trail warms up when they find a number of clamps that were used to hold the flame projector together.
They switch from an eastern entrance to a western and back to the east. The hoped-for-find is compared by Robinson to being equivalent to finding the tomb of Tutankhamen — which was a bit of a stretch. Nonetheless, I’m reaching for my non-existent popcorn in excitement… This type of programme is predictable to the degree that no matter how many setbacks or disappointments there are — and there were plenty — you know that at the end (in this case virtually in the last minute), success is assured. This doesn’t detract from the viewer enthral of watching
the patient protagonists struggle towards their goal, for we know what they
don’t know (ha!), that they will find what they seek — except, of course, in the case of a Loch Ness monster.
Meanwhile, they dig up nearly century-old bullets, bayonets, blue bottles, Vaseline (used to maintain weapons and treat cuts) and, most poignantly of all, the remains of two soldiers.Historian Peter Barton had figured out that one of the four original flame projectors remained, although buried under the debris caused by a German shell.
These fearful contrivances were nearly 60 feet (18 metres) long, weighed 2.5 tonnes and needed
a crew of seven to man them — although they required 300 to assemble them. Not to mention the
arduous task of tunnelling with pick and shovel to make the “sap” and carrying the huge amount of oil down in cans — one ton of fuel was needed for a 10-second squirt.
As well as a historian, they also needed Tony Pollard, an archaeologist. Unlike an excavation for a lost tomb or ancient city, the dig into a no man’s land, filled with chalk, had the additional thrill of the possibility of setting off an unexploded shell.
So what do they use? Toothbrushes, feathers? No — large diggers and front end loaders. If I’d been there I would have demanded a bombproof suit. They find such a shell — about the size of a large marrow — but it remains thankfully quiescent.
The flat green sward of the former no man’s land looks peaceful now, but grim stills and footage bring back the feel of it once being a desperate battlefield where tens of thousands of lives were lost.
The flame projector was not portable so, as the front moved, the projectors became useless.
The enthusiasm of Robinson adds a dimension to programmes of this type. So if you liked his style you can see more of him on Time Team, a similar programme that he hosts on Sky.

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Michael Otto

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