Being under fire: flammenwerfer and liquid fire in 1915

under fire
L’enfer. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 4415;

To be under fire is perhaps an inevitable condition of war. Across the Words in War-Time Archive, the phrase appears with striking frequency, appearing in sources which report on action from the Front as well as in the purple prose by which, early in the war, the ‘sublime comradeship’ of war could, as in the extract below, be extolled:

Comradeship! It is a wonderful word, a binding of soul to soul, heart to heart in a bond that death alone can sever. Comradeship, which breeds simple faith, fine endurance, noble self-sacrifice rising to self-obliteration. What a splendid virtue! To see it on the battlefield, under fire, is to see it transfigured, consecrated into the sublime (Daily Express 10 Sept 1914)

Outside rhetorical positioning of this kind, fire occupied a prime place in military diction, whether in assessments of firepower (‘the total effectiveness of the fire of guns, missiles, etc., of a military force’, a word first used in 1913 according to the OED) or in offering accounts of fire-trenches – another form which antedates WW1 (it is dated to 1909 in the OED) but which was swiftly assimilated into the complexities of trench warfare after 1914. Fire-screens (in uses still unrecorded in the OED) and fire-steps become—among a range of other forms — other common components in narrating conflict at this time:

A major led his men instead of using them in the conventional fashion as a fire screen, and was shot down before he had gone twenty feet. A mere handful of soldiers had followed him, and these, too, were mown down by machine guns (Daily Express, 1915-03-02)**

From the beginning of the war, fire – as ‘flame’ rather than with reference to the various projectiles which might be used — had, however, also been used as weapon per se. A propensity to use flame was, for example, often depicted as a further manifestation of German barbarity, underpinning the characterisation of the enemy as firebugs in the sense ‘an incendiary’ or someone who was, by definition, inclined to use arson. Arch-firebug (in a particularly Germanic compound) was similar, while carbonize, as other posts on this site have explored, likewise comes into marked prominence in early news reporting (and atrocity propaganda).

Being under fire could, in such instances, be rendered strikingly literal. That the newly devised Black Maria was ‘intended to set things on fire’ is, for example,also carefully documented in Andrew Clark’s examination of the new words and meanings of war, while words such as fire-lighter take on newly specific senses in recounting German methods of attack:

Quantities of “fire lighters” – so indispensable to a German army on the march – are stored with tins of benzine one of the military depots on the outskirts of the city. It would be an easy matter for a brigade of these well-trained incendiaries to set Brussels ablaze from end to end in an hour.

Following came the bearers of heavy tubes of petrol fitted with sprays, with which they drenched the woodwork and furniture of each room thus exposed, then the firelighters with their long torches, smeared with a substance which makes them glow like live coals and emit an intense heat without flame.

Dated to September 1914, the firing of Belgian cities such as Louvain is thereby depicted as a two-stage process. Fire-lighters (sense 1) are devices which spray petrol which are used to prepare the ground. Then come the fire-lighters (sense 2) — the ‘well-trained incendiaries’ who, bearing ‘long torches’, ignite the fuel.

As other articles explore, however, still more terrifying was the conflation of these two stages by means of a single weapon. This yielded another new word together with a range of associated synonyms. As the Daily Express explained to its readers in July 1915, for example, it was the flammenwerfer  which was used to direct ‘liquid fire’ not at  physical structures such as buildings or streets, but at soldiers in the trenches. It was operated, it noted, by means of “a portable reservoir for holding the inflammable liquid … which is carried strapped on a man’s back” and is equipped with “a suitable length of metal pipe fitted with universal joints and a nozzle capable of rotation in any direction’ such that fire sprayed out over a distance of 20 yards.

Flammenwerfer, recorded in the OED only from September 1915, hence took its place among a trio of similarly destructive forms in which alien German origin was unambiguous (see also minenwerfer and grenadenwerfer).

It has been reported that the Germans have again been using Flammenwerfer, or engines for throwing burning liquid, against the French

as the Express observed in another early use in July 1915, here in an article headed ‘Liquid Flames‘. As in this example, word and a form of explanatory gloss could be used in conjunction, in ways which removed any residual uncertaintly as to what might be involved in this new form of attack. Oxymoronic images of ‘burning liquid‘ (or ‘liquid flame‘) meanwhile deftly evoke a sense of the sinister and transgressive to further negative effect.

Even earlier accounts of this new ‘engine of destruction’ can be located.  As the archive makes plain, while these document the ways in which fire-fighting (in another newly distinctive sense) was gradually added to the repertoire of war,  the flammenwerfer is, by extension, rendered a kind of nameless horror, one identified, as in the extract below (from March 1915), by what it does, rather than by name:

The “Matin” states that Herr Fiedler, the inventor of the German apparatus for spraying petrol into the trenches, has registered his patent in France. The French official communique of last Saturday reported the use by the Germans of this apparatus for throwing blazing petrol into the trenches.

The irony of this act of registration — given the use of the weapon itself on French troops in October 194 — was presumably not lost on its original readers.

Similar is an article in the Evening News from April 1015. Headed ‘Engines of Destruction’, the German preparedness for a war in which liquid fire was made a constituent part is here made explicit:

They had ready all the technical equipment, such as Minenwerfer and various ballistic engines throwing every kind of missile, electric and other light projectiles, rockets, flares, incendiary shell, and pumps for spurting blazing oil or pitch, which were the outcome of careful and elaborate experiments made in peace in anticipation of the war for which they have been making ready

If flammenwerfer does not appear as lexical item,  the ways in which ‘blazing petrol’ or ‘blazing oil or pitch’ could be forcefully directed at Allied soldiers as a means of attack are all too clear

The first substantive encounter between British troops and the alien flammenwerfer, however, took place only at the end of July 1915 (at Hooge in Flanders). Seen in lexical terms, this led to a striking productivity of available words as writers sought to convey the reality of attacks of this kind. Flame projectors, flame-throwers, and flame squirters all appear, for instance, providing a set of loan-translations which variously render flammenwerfer into its component parts in English. (The use of –squirter also reflected the advice, located in a captured German manual from 1914, that ‘short and isolated bursts of flame are advisable, so that one charge is sufficient to spray several objectives’). Here, too, readers were often forced to confront word and meaning simultaneously. ‘Flame projector, German liquid fire machine’, as one headline announces, here in the Daily Express in August 1915. Further elucidation was  provided in the accompanying article:

One of the German liquid fire projectors – the so-called flammenwerfer – such as were used against our troops at Hooge on July 30 has been captured.
It is a metal box worn on the back like a haversack with a length of piping, through which the inflammable material, apparently a mixture of coal-tar, is squirted. Near the nozzle of the tube is a pressure gauge, and in the nozzle a kind of wick, in which, when the apparatus is ready for use, a fierce flame is kept burning’ [Reuter Special].

This was indeed ‘the Latest German Barbarism’, as the Scotsman declared on 11th August 1915, recounting an interview with a young officer on his way home to Edinburgh under the heading ‘British heroism among the Flames’. Emphasised by the first-person narration and the oral testimony of a first-hand witness to war, man’s inhumanity to man was made incontrovertible, while agency and innocence neatly polarise on enemy/ allied lines:

the sight of some of the men carried out of the flames was the saddest thing I have seen in a war made of infinitely sad sights. Their faces were burned in many cases out of all recognition to the human form, and some were one mass of blisters from head to foot where the flame had gone through their clothing.

Such accounts proliferated over the summer of 1915. By September, flammenwerfer and liquid fire (which at this point clearly remained the locution of choice, both as adjective and noun) could seem — at least in terms of language — strangely  familiar. War had, in this respect, enforced an apparently rapid process of assimilation, rendering the glossing and other interpretative strategies of earlier news reports and letters no longer necessary. ‘The next move of “Mr.Allemand” was to turn on his liquid fire, so as to counter-attack behind the clouds of smoke thus made’, as an article in the Scotsman declared in October 1915.  Liquid fire, first recorded in the OED in Shakespeare’s Othello ((‘Whippe me you Diuells…Wash me in steepe downe gulphes of liquid fire’) had, as this confirms, assumed newly distinctive meanings, bound in still other aspects of being under fire in WWI. Shakespeare’s hell-like imagery remained, we might note, entirely apposite.
Firescreen in the OED is restricted to domestic use, as well as the technicalities of sailing. Neither correspond to fire-screen in WW1. Liquid fire is not defined in the first edition of the OED.


One thought on “Being under fire: flammenwerfer and liquid fire in 1915

  1. Two very quick comments

    1. With a certain amount of both logic and irony the personnel of the earliest German flammenwerfer units were recruited from the fire brigades of Pozen and then Leipzig.
    2. On the broader issue of fire – Henri Barbusse entitled his semi-autobiographical novel – which was both best selling and acclaimed , ‘Le Feu’. This is usually translated into English as ‘Under fire’ but this is problematic as ‘Le Feu’ was actually French soldier slang for ‘The Front’ which would be a slightly less literal translation.


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