Artillery: High Explosive

High-explosive (HE) shells gradually became available for the eighteen-pounder, though they were still in short supply in 1916. The design changed over time and for different purposes: from 1915, however, the standard British HE shell was filled with ammonal, a mixture of ammonium nitrate [59%]; aluminium powder [21%]; TNT [18%] and charcoal [2%] (1) The charge , which launched the shell from the gun, was cordite; its fuse was in the nose of the shell, and could be set to explode on contact, or after a brief delay. Another version had the fuse at the base of the shell and a reinforced nose: the shell could penetrate a target before exploding. (1)

Effective at clearing obstacles, HE caused another: “The irony was that, in unleashing this unpredenteted firepower, artillery might sometimes succeed in breaching an obstacle, yet it almost always created another in the form of a devastated terrain.” (2)

Ypres battlefield Atlantic

Near Ypres, 1917. Photograph, possibly a composite, by James Francis Hurley. (3)

High explosive shells damaged by the force of their blast — strong enough to kill a human being from “dozens of yards away” (4) — and also by sending fragments or splinters of the shell casing into living or inanimate targets. They were effective against trench fortifications, dugouts, or any building that might be used to hide a gun or a machine-gun. (1)

The physical shock waves of HE were at first blamed for the mental breakdown called “shell-concussion” (1) or “shell-shock,” the victims’ brains being damaged within their skulls by the force of the blast. (5) As Payne puts it, however, given the effect of “all manner of frightful injuries, even total dismemberment …. [and]the trauma of being buried alive, or plastered from head-to-toe by the pulverised remains of one’s former comrades, … the shock reaction is not difficult to understand.” (1)


(1) Payne, David. “Artillery and the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front.” 2012. Western Front Association.
(2) Bailey, Jonathan. “British Artillery in the Great War.” In Paddy Griffith, ed. British Fighting Methods in the Great War. London, 1996. 27.
(3) Taylor, Alan. World War I in Photos. The Western Front, Part 1. 2014. The Atlantic. The Western Front, Part 1. The Atlantic.
(4) Cook, Tim. At the Sharp End. Canadians Fighting the Great War Vol. 1 1914-1916. 2007. 46
(5) Cook. 203.


Copyright 2016. See “More about this project.”

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