DIY weapons | 07 Jan 1915

With everything that’s been happening continuing to happen, it’s time for a quick dekko at the history and current situation of mortars.

A brief history of mortars

A mortar is a simple, relatively short-range artillery piece, a second cousin to the cannons that everyone thinks of when they hear “artillery”. Without going into too much grognardy detail, a traditional mortar typically has a very short (but often also very wide and thick) barrel and looks rather stubby or stumpy when set next to a gun. (They’re literally called “mortar” after the mortar bowl that a pestle lives in.) It can fire exclusively at high angles; 45 degrees or higher. The first recognisable mortars were heavy weapons, and for about 300 years they had a firmly defined role as a siege weapon. They threw projectiles over a fortification too thick to be worn down by gunfire.

The mortar’s usefulness began to deteriorate in the 1800s, as guns became more powerful and flexible, and the howitzer evolved into a mobile weapon. (A “gun” or “cannon” is an exclusively low-angle weapon; a “mortar” is exclusively a high-angle weapon; a “howitzer” has a longer barrel than a mortar and can fire at either high or low angles. However, it can’t fire at the extreme high or low angles that a mortar or gun can reach.) By 1914, it was viewed by Britain and France as an entirely outdated weapon.

And then trenches happened. The modern mortar was invented by Russia and deployed in the Russo-Japanese War. Germany had paid close attention to that war, and saw how useless guns and howitzers were for attacking trenches. (Guns fired at too low an angle to reliably drop shells into a six-foot-wide target; howitzers had evolved again and become primarily super-heavy siege weapons.) A committee was formed to study the problem.

Minnie

The solution was the infamous minenwerfer, “mine-thrower”; by 1914, the Germans had plenty of heavy and medium examples, and were just about to introduce a super-portable light Minnie. (It’s been appearing on the battlefield for the last month or so.) At the time, the 7.58cm light Minnie was the last (and, indeed, only) word in portable indirect firepower. It could be towed to the battlefield by a horse, and then manhandled into position by its four-man team.

It was light enough and simple enough to be kept close to the front lines. It could be moved up quickly to support an advance, and it could drop back a few hundred yards in the face of an attack and be providing support to defenders just as quickly. Its short range also gave it a major accuracy advantage over field guns, which were at the time only expected to be accurate within 100 yards. By the time of the Battle of the Marne, Allied commanders were acutely aware of the need for a mortar of their own.

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Philip Neame

But they’re still a few months from the good stuff. A prototype 4-inch mortar has begun to appear, but it’s complicated to manufacture, heavy, requires a large crew (who are learning on the job), and slow to load and fire. We last encountered Captain Philip Neame of the Engineers a month or so back, taking matters into his own hands regarding the lack of grenades. He’s since participated in an action at Neuve Chapelle, where his actions in throwing more of his own jam-tin bombs than should have been humanly possible will soon win him a Victoria Cross.

Now him and his mates are taking on another DIY project. They’ve scrounged up some lengths of pipe, cut them to size and soldered a breech on them. With a little further ingenuity, they’re now being used to throw jam-tin bombs at the Germans whenever Neame’s company isn’t doing something more important. Soon they’ll be revising the design to fire the occasional bespoke improvised mortar bomb.

Catapults!

Meanwhile, Plugstreet is currently being held by a battalion of Cambridgeshires. Their colonel is friends with an ancient history professor at Cambridge University, and he’s been bombarding the colonel with information about an ancient Roman catapult design. With nothing better to do, several working parties are sent out to appropriate the necessary timber, and over the course of several days, the blokes literally build a catapult which will supposedly be capable of hurling boulders several hundred yards. Certainly the professor rates it good enough for throwing jam-tin bombs.

Sensibly, they test the catapult in the rear areas before trying to do anything offensive. And, sadly, the catapult mostly succeeds in flinging its test projectiles straight up in the air, or backwards at the watching officers. Soon it’s being chopped up for firewood; but the story of catapults in the war doesn’t end there.

Back in the early months of the war, one of the many inventions sent to the War Office came from a Charles Pemberton Leach. It looked like the bastard offspring of a schoolboy’s catapult and a siege crossbow, and Leach claimed it could throw a golf ball 200 yards. For some reason, the War Office gave his idea the time of day. Leach was subsequently redirected to Gamages, the sporting goods store (they of the “Tremendous Slaughter in Prices” advert), and he’s currently revising his design with their assistance. The newly revised Leach Trench Catapult will soon be back for more tests…

Alex Letyford

Corporal Letyford does not build improvised weapons; the 5th Field Company is too busy with manual labour.

7.1.15 Go out at 3am and make a bridge in the line of trenches about a hundred and fifty yards from Fritz. Return at daylight, and rest remainder of day.

Again, a stream is running through the trench-lines.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl
Battle of Champagne (First Champagne)
Battle of Sarikamis
Battle of Ardahan

Further Reading

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: A couple of days ago, there was widespread flooding of the River Thames; it’s still the major story, and pages 7 and 9 are full of it. And why should the home front miss out on knowing what conditions are like in Flanders, hmm?

Meanwhile, page 6 is worried that Italy might get into trouble over Albania, more Christmas Truce stories on Page 7, the Belgium Fund is still taking in money, now at some £128,000 (nearly £13 million today). There’s also a very interesting note on conditions in the Vosges on Page 10, which reports that air raids in this sector are on the increase.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

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