Artillery: Shrapnel

18 pdr shrapnell shell Barnes page 71

The eighteen-pounder ammunition was “fixed” or self-contained. All that was needed to launch death and devastation was in one tidy package or cartridge:

  1. the shell or canister containing shrapnel and a fuze or fuse to explode the shell as it neared its target,
  2. the propellant to drive the shell out of the barrel and toward the target,
  3. and the means of ignition.

The shell is the lighter top part of the diagram. (1) The casing containing the propellant (cordite in this case) and the primer is the dark lower part of the diagram. The casing, which is empty after firing, must be removed before the next shell can be loaded.

Invented in the nineteenth century, shrapnel was the only field gun ammunition when the war began. Looking back,the authorities defended the choice as correct, given the “war of movement we were preparing for.” (2)  But the war of movement was quickly bogged in the mud of trench warfare, and shrapnel is not the shell to wreak real damage on fortifications, or even to do a very effective job of cutting barbed wire.

Worse, supply could not keep up with demand in the early years,resulting in what McNaughton described as an “artillery situation [which] was not such as to inspire confidence in the minds of our infantry.”(3)

“Picture to yourself,” he wrote, “the case of an infantry officer pointing out to a gunner the location of a nest of German machine guns which are worrying the men in the line. The gunner admits that it is a good target and that he would like to engage, but — ‘No ammunition.’ The retort of the infantryman was likely to be ‘What are you doing in the Great War anyway?’ and the result, if the gunner was a bit touchy, was to impair and discourage liaison.”(3)

The shortage of ammunition was not the only problem for gunners in the early years: what shells there were were not standardized — “In the early summer of 1915, we had four different types of shrapnel in our limbers at the same time, with a variation of range between them of anything up to 400 yards.” (2) Different shells needed different calculations for aiming and fuse-setting, making the officers’ duties more difficult.

The Dud Shell

Then there were the duds — the shells that didn’t fire. Unexploded shells are still being unearthed from the fields of France and Belgium.  By June 1916, the supply problem had been solved, so that  1,732,873 rounds were fired in eight days on the Somme — but 30% of them were duds. (4) The characteristic whizz-bang sound of shrapnel shells sent soldiers ducking for cover, whether or not they were duds.


(1) Barnes, Leslie. Canada’s Guns: An Illustrated History of Artillery. 1979. 71.This is a rather clearer version of Plate XXIV C”Cartridge QF 18pr Shrapnel Mark I” from the 1915 Handbook of the 18PR QF Gun. 98.
(2) Brooke, AF. “The Evolution of Artillery in the Great War. III The Evolution of Artillery Equipment.” Journal of the Royal Artillery. 51 (April 1924): 38
(3) McNaughton, A.G.L. “The Development of Artillery in the Great War.” Canadian Defence Quarterly.  January 1929. 162.
(4) Terraine, John. The Smoke and the Fire: Myths and Anti-Myths of War 1861-1945. London: 1980. 38

The Bruce Bairnsfather cartoon shows a considerably heavier shell than the 18-pr. The caption reads “The Dud Shell — Or the Fuse-Top Collector. ‘Give it a good ’ard ’un, Bert; you can generally ‘ear ’em fizzing a bit first if they are a-goin’ to explode.'” The cartoon is found in his More Fragments from France. Vol 2. nd. 5.

Copyright 2016. See “More about this project.”

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