The British produced only four top-secret Livens Large Gallery Flame Projectors to deploy at the Battle of the Somme. They were huge, complex flamethrowers that shot a 300-foot flame across the German lines. The aim wasn’t to kill so much as terrorize, to chase the enemy away from the front line and clear some space for the British troops to occupy German positions. It almost worked.
Two of the four were destroyed under German shelling before the battle began, but on July 1, 1916, the first day of the Somme, the two remaining flamethrowers were deployed and did what they were expected to do: scare the crap out of the German front line troops allowing the British to move in on the German trenches in the area with comparatively few losses.
Obviously that small initial advantage didn’t make much of a difference in the long term. The weapons were so absurdly oversized that they were hardly portable, and even if they could have been moved easily they could only be used for three 10-second blasts each.
To the men who operated them, the 56ft long, 2.5 tonne machines were called “Squirts”, and “Judgements”, by more senior officers. […]
They were operated by a crew of eight men from the Royal Engines Special Brigade – “Z” company – but took 300 men to assemble them underground, each component part being taken into the shallow tunnels, known as “Russian Saps”, in sequence. The devices then had to be filled with oil, taken underground in hundreds of cans.
The strange-looking, tubular weapons were only 14 inches wide and worked like a large syringe. A piston was pushed by compressed gas into a long chamber containing the fuel. This was then forced out through the nozzle on the surface, from where the jet of flame was projected.
Despite their limited but notable success on the battlefield and the incredible drama of their deployment, these weapons remained very little known. Now a team of archaeologists and historians believe they’ve located the remains of the last Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector under the mud of Montagne de Cappy in northern France.
The device was noted in a war diary as “lost beyond recall” on June 28th after the tunnel it was in collapsed under German shelling. The team studied the war diaries, private diaries, trench maps, other primary sources to narrow down its possible location, plus ground penetrating radar found evidence of metallic objects which could be the Livens projector. Of course, it could also be any number of other World War I ordnance, so when they dig in the area next week, they’re going to have to be extra careful.
If it does turn out to be the flamethrower, this would be the only one left in the world. The British only deployed one more in 1917 in Belgium. They did give a few to the Russians, but those are long gone in the chaos of revolution.