Between July and November of 1917, one of the greatest disasters of the Great War unfolded near the Belgian town of Ypres, where the British and their allies fought the Germans for control of some ridges running through Flanders.
Better known as the Battle of Passchendaele, hundreds of thousands of men occupied trenches, dugouts and underground tunnels on the front lines. Among the British forces there were many seasoned infantrymen who could claim to have seen all the technological terrors so far gathered together on World War I battlefields—machine gun fire, poison gas, strafing and bombing by aircraft.
But for many soldiers, they would face a weapon for the first time that the Germans had introduced just two years before. The Flammenwerfer—or, in English, the flamethrower.
The results were horrifying. Carried by specially trained assault teams, German flamethrowers were highly effective weapons that would either drive men from their defensive positions … or simply incinerate them.
“When the nozzles were lighted, they threw out a roaring, hissing flame 20 or 30 feet long, swelling at the end to an oily rose, six feet in diameter,” Guy Chapman, a British infantryman at Passchendale, recalled years later in an account about one such assault. “Under the protection of these hideous weapons the enemy surrounded the advance pillbox, stormed it and killed the garrison.”
Fire on the battlefield is nothing new. Fifth-century Greeks during the Peloponnesian War developed a bellows-powered device that squirted flaming liquid at an enemy. Medieval sieges almost always included hurling “fire pots” over the walls of fortified towns or castles in an effort to start a conflagration. The order “set fire the village” is as old as military history.
But during the 20th century, engineers and scientists placed flames under advanced technological control in an effort to make fire-spouting weapons portable, reliable and reasonably safe—a different kind of “friendly fire” that would not kill the operator while he was doing his best to kill the enemy with a weaponized inferno.
The result is a device with as much psychological impact as lethality—perhaps the chief reason why United States, Great Britain and other world powers used the flamethrower from World War I through the Vietnam War. Even today, Russia still has flamethrowers in its inventory.
“The most dramatic hand weapon of World War II and the most effective for its purpose was the flamethrower,” Edwin Tunis wrote in Weapons: A Pictorial History, his classic compilation of weapons through the ages. “It is hoped that it is less frightfully inhuman than it seems.”
In 1901, German inventor Richard Fiedler developed the first Flammenwerfer. He worked steadily with others from 1908 to 1914, refining the weapon’s design and creating two versions for battlefield use.
The Kleinflammenwerfer was a man-portable flamethrower consisting of a two-tank system, one holding flammable oil and the other a pressurized inert gas that sprayed the mixture out of the nozzle of a long wand.
The Grossflammenwerfer was a crew-served weapon with large tanks mounted on a cart or a litter. It shot flames farther and for a longer time.
Early flamethrowers could hit targets ranging from 20 to 40 yards away from the operator. Debuting in 1915 during a battle near Malancourt, France, the Flammenwerfer troops pinned down British troops while German infantrymen assaulted their trenches.
British generals and politicians cried foul, labeling flamethrowers “an inhuman projection of the German scientific mind.” The German high command was so impressed with the results of the attack it ordered formation of Totenkopf Pioniere—“death’s head pioneers”—who served as flamethrower-wielding shock troops in as many as 650 German assaults during the Great War.
Allied forces did not lose time developing their own flamethrowers, although they probably used the weapon far less than the Germans did during the war.
Despite the Germans’ technological prowess, their flamethrowers had all the vulnerabilities that would mark the weapon system throughout the century. Although it happened far less than Hollywood movies portray, one shot to the fuel tank of a flamethrower could result in the operator literally going up in flames.
“I saw a large Hun about to aim his flame-thrower in my direction and Company Sgt. Maj. Adams with great presence of mind fired his Very pistol at the man,” wrote Capt. P. Christison, 6th Cameron Highlanders, who saw a German flamethrower operator incinerated at Passchendale because of a well-placed shot from a flare gun. “The round hit the flame-thrower and with a scream the man collapsed in a sheet of flame.”
During World War II, all sides used flamethrowers, including the U.S. Marine Corps. During the “island hopping” campaigns of the Pacific Theater, many Marines believed flamethrowers made the difference between their lives and death.
“We could not have taken the island without the flamethrower,” said Bill Henderson, a Marine Corps veteran who fought on Iwo Jima, in a Marine Corps oral history of the battle. “It saved lives because it did not require men to go into caves, which were all booby-trapped and promised certain death to all who entered.”
The Marines’ M2 flamethrowers were heavy and cumbersome, making it difficult to run when wearing the device. The unit also made the Marine a high-value target—easy to see and easy to shoot.
One Marine Corps flamethrower unit on Iwo Jima had a 92-percent casualty rate—leading a military statistician to estimate the average lifespan on the battlefield of a Marine flamethrower operator at four minutes.
Later, the Marines adapted flamethrower units to the Sherman tank, reducing the number of times that an individual operator had to expose himself to enemy fire on the battlefield.
When soft-hearted Americans protested the use of flame weapons against the Japanese, Gen. George C. Marshall, then chief of staff of the Army, defended them. “The vehement protests I am receiving against our use of flamethrowers do not indicate an understanding of the meaning of our dead.”
During the Vietnam War, for better or worse flamethrowers and other incendiary weapons became widely regarded as inhumane weapons of war. In 1978, the Defense Department issued a directive that ceased the tactical use of flamethrowers and their further development.
However, no international agreement bans flamethrowers.
From 1999 to 2000, the Russians employed flamethrowers against Chechen rebel forces during the battle for Grozny. Russian tacticians concluded that the flamethrower was effective as much for its psychological effect as its ability to flush insurgents or snipers out of enclosed or fortified positions.
The Russian use of flamethrowers was also one reason why in 2003 the United Nations declared Grozny the most devastated city on the planet.