Archive for August 3rd, 2014

WWI flamethrower excavation and reconstruction

Sunday, August 3rd, 2014


In 2010, a team of archaeologists excavated the muddy fields of Montagne de Cappy, a mile south of Mametz in the Somme department of northern France, looking for the remains of the last Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector, a 56-foot-long, 2.5 ton flamethrower invented by Royal Engineers officer William Howard Livens to shoot a 300-foot wall of fire across the German trenches. The British built four of these complex machines for use on the first day of the Battle of Somme (July 1, 1916). Two were put out of commission by German shells before the battle. The other two were deployed and successfully cleared the German lines, allowing the British forces to penetrate well into German territory while everywhere else along the front lines the stalemate persisted.

Because they were so unwieldy and unusable when the lines were moving, the British only deployed the projector one more time in 1917. They apparently gave a few to the Russians as well, but none have survived that we know of. The archaeologists digging in Montagne de Cappy hoped to find one of the two that were shelled by the Germans on June 28th, 1916. They researched the location thoroughly, turning to diaries, trench maps, aerial photographs and ground penetrating radar to narrow down the possible spot.

When I wrote about the project a week before excavations began, I didn’t realize that Time Team, Channel Four’s capsule archaeological dig program, were filming the dig as well as building an experimental reconstruction of the Livens projector. The episode covers the background history of the invention, the 2010 Montagne de Cappy excavation and the Royal Engineers’ reconstruction of a Livens projector using modern materials. The result is flaming hot drama.

In part one of the episode, we see William Livens’ personal story, the invention is described, the location explained via trench maps and excavations begin. The tunnel that collapsed onto the Livens flamethrower was called Sap 14 and the team soon find some timbers that may be an entrance to it.

The next section focuses on the excavation. The search for the flame projector stalls a little, but they still find lots of artifacts — glass jars, bullets, a toothbrush, a jam tin — that illuminate life in the trenches. Around the 10:30 mark, the first flamethrower-related artifact is unearthed, a tool used to assemble the projector on site. More tools are found and then finally a piece from the Livens device itself: a valve.

When the part is recovered, it’s in such good condition that they can still turn the valve. Archaeologists then excavate a 30-foot stretch of wooden roof and walls from Sap 14. You can see when they dig down that thick, watery clay soil that caused so many problems for the Royal Engineers to tunnel through. This is where the Manchester sewer builders with their clay-kicking technique came in to play. Incidentally, historian Peter Barton, author of a book about the tunneling companies who discovered the photographs of the Manchester sewer workers, is part of the Montagne de Cappy excavation team.

This last video shows the discovery of a key piece of the Livens projector and the experimental model in action. Step back from the screen or risk frying off your eyebrows.

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