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Shrapnel shell (weaponry)

From The Great War 1914-1918
First World War shrapnel shell
1 Gunpowder bursting charge
2 Bullets
3 Time fuze
4 Ignition tube
5 Resin holding bullets in position
6 Steel shell wall
7 Cartridge case
8 Shell propellant

Shrapnel shells were anti-personnel artillery munitions, which carried a large number of individual bullets close to the target and then ejected them to allow them to continue along the shell's trajectory and strike the target individually. They relied almost entirely on the shell's velocity for their lethality. The munition has been obsolete since the end of the First World War for anti-personnel use. It was superseded by high-explosive shells for that role. The functioning and principles behind Shrapnel shells are fundamentally different from high-explosive shell fragmentation. Shrapnel is named after Major-General Henry Shrapnel (1761–1842), a British artillery officer, whose experiments, initially conducted in his own time and at his own expense, culminated in the design and development of a new type of artillery shell.[1]

Tactical use and advantages

During the initial stages of the First World War, shrapnel was widely used by all sides as an anti-personnel weapon. It was the only type of shell available for British field guns (13-pounder, 15 pounder and 18-pounder) until October 1914. Shrapnel was effective against troops in the open, particularly massed infantry (advancing or withdrawing). However, the onset of trench warfare from late 1914 led to most armies decreasing their use of shrapnel in favour of high-explosive. Britain continued to use a high percentage of shrapnel shells. New tactical roles included cutting barbed wire and providing "creeping barrages" to both screen its own attacking troops and suppressing the enemy defenders to prevent them from shooting at their attackers.

In a creeping barrage fire was 'lifted' from one 'line' to the next as the attackers advanced. These lines were typically 100 yds apart and the lifts were typically 4 minutes apart. Lifting meant that time fuses settings had to be changed. The attackers tried to keep as close as possible (as little as 25 yards sometimes) to the bursting shrapnel so as to be on top of the enemy trenches when fire lifted beyond them, and before the enemy could get back to their parapets.

While shrapnel made no impression on trenches and other earthworks, it remained the favored weapon of the British (at least) to support their infantry assaults by suppressing the enemy infantry and preventing them from manning their trench parapets. This was called 'neutralization' and by the second half of 1915 had become the primary task of artillery supporting an attack. Shrapnel was less hazardous to the assaulting British infantry than high explosives - as long as their own shrapnel burst above or ahead of them, attackers were safe from its effects, whereas high-explosive shells bursting short are potentially lethal within 100 yards or more in any direction. Shrapnel being non-cratering was advantageous in an assault, as craters made the ground more difficult to cross, although they also doubled as safe areas and firing positions for infantry. Shrapnel was also useful against counter-attacks, working parties and any other troops in the open.[1]

References / notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 Shrapnel shell. Wikipedia: The free encyclopedia. Accessed 22 April, 2017.
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