Weapons Practice – January 12th, 1918

Saturday Jan 12th, 1918

Fell in 7:30 for drill.  Bayonet, bombing and firing – completed by 12:30 so ready for going up to line.  Good dinner and had enough and to spare – grand feeling that, you know. Still without money.  Hello, Charlie Wild lends me a Franc.  Biscuits and tea fine

Going into the Line – Weapons Practice

A change in routine today for Frank and his comrades. No longer are their days taken up with camp duties but instead with readying themselves for deployment to the front. In preparation for this the troops practice with their weapons, ensuring that they know what to do when they are in the line. Frank writes that they practice three activities: firing, bombing and bayoneting. Each of these disciplines were important combat skills and it was for the safety of the battalion as a whole that each man was capable of carrying out his duty.

Firing

The standard sidearm of the Tommie was the Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE MKIII and later SMLE MKIII*) which was a magazine-fed, bolt action rifle. Firing a .303 caliber cartridge the SMLE was effective at 400 yards. Frank and his comrades would have been expected to accurately fire fifteen rounds a minute. Such rates of fire could only be maintained with frequent training and handling of the weapon. In the trenches the SMLE was used to snipe at enemy troops as well as to lay down rapid fire.

When still at the training camp in Yorkshire, Frank had been identified as a good shot.  As such he was sent for extra training on the Lewis gun. Therefore, Frank would also have practiced with the Lewis gun, a weapon which he mentions at various points in his diary. Fifty inches long and weighing thirteen kilograms the Lewis gun was capable of firing five to six hundred rounds a minute. This devastatingly fast-firing light machine gun was used by infantry units and also fitted to planes. Most soldiers would be expected to know how to use the Lewis gun in case the main gunners (a team of two, one to fire and one to reload) were killed or incapacitated. According to the Battalion War Diary each of the four companies (~200 soldiers) within the 13th Battalion had ten mules allocated to carry their Lewis Guns when moving back and forward to the front lines.

Bombing

British No 23 Mark II time-fused ‘Mills’ hand or rifle grenade manufactured January 1917. Copyright: © IWM. (30022776)

The use of explosives was common in trench warfare and various types of small bombs were employed in both an offensive and defensive capacity. In the early days of the war the design and delivery method of these small explosives was incredibly varied and their use could be as dangerous for the thrower as they were for the target. This problem was sometimes compounded by soldiers’ attempts to fashion their own explosive devices.

These dangers were recognized and solved when a marine engineer, William Mills, invented the Mills Bomb in 1915.  This  ‘grenade’ was incredibly popular and it is estimated that 70 million were thrown in the course of the war. Over time, the Mills Bomb went through a variety of iterations.  In 1916, it was adapted for use as both a hand and rifle grenade – by adding a short rod to its base and a metal cradle to the muzzle of the gun – as shown in this image. It is likely that Frank would have been practicing with this version or similar.

Bayonet

The bayonet was one of the most rudimentary and terrifying instrument in the arsenal of the first world war soldier and was issued to troops in every army. Frank would have been equipped with a sword bayonet with a seventeen inch blade that would attach to his Lee Enfield rifle. Despite its ferocious appearance the practical use of such a weapon is debatable, the sheer size of a rifle with a large sword on the front meant that it was often unsuited for use in the trenches and trench raiders were often more comfortable using clubs, daggers and bombs to assault their foes. Nevertheless, due to its frightful appearance and near universal distribution the bayonet maintains its status as an iconic weapon of the first world war.

 13th (Service) Battalion War Diary – 12th January 1918 (extract) – Minden Camp, No.1 Sector

Visibility high; in consequence artilleries on both sides active. Enemy planes were aloft in the afternoon but did not come over our lines.  A few light TM shells fell on B4 and B6. Enemy machine gun on Petit Couronne fired occasional burst towards Rockley Hill.

Map from Battalion War Diary, January 1918
A patrol of 3 OR under Lt JAF Callis left Ridgeway Sap and proceeded towards Pill Box in O2. Patrol lay down after proceeding 200 ft – sounds of work on O2 were heard. On moving forward it was checked by an explosion 50 ft in front accompanied by a large flame followed by two very lights. Patrol laid out for 30 minutes and then returned by 22:15 hrs having started out at 20:00 hours. No more work was heard after explosion. Opinion of patrol was that they stumbled against some hidden wire which fired the charge, but no wire was found.
Another patrol of 3 OR under Lt VHP de Jongh left AB14 at 21:45 and proceeded NNW to within 50ft of enemy wire. Sounds of coughing, talking and the loading of the MG (firing from West of O2) were heard. Patrol then moved W to Fork Ravine. It must have been heard there as 4 bombs were thrown into the ravine and 2 very lights fired. Enemy wire was in good repair. Patrol returned at 23:40 hrs. Other patrols had nothing to report.

References & further reading

Image copyright IWM

Harriman, B. 2014. The Lee-Enfield rifle, WWI’s iconic firearmThe Field

Hickman, K. 2017. World War I/II: Lee Enfield rifleThought Co.

Lewis Gunner on the Firing Step of  a TrenchNational Army Museum

RMR Foundation, 2015. The Mills Bomb – The Grenade of the First World War, The Royal Montreal Regiment

The Use of Bayonets During the First World WarRoyal Cornwall Museum

13th (Service) Battalion War Diary, Manchester Regiment, extract from 12th January 1918, from the National Archives

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