Beastly Bombs – trench mortars reexamined

Written by Benjamin Roy ’21, Digital History Research Assistant

On 16 December, 1916 Jack Peirs wrote home from the front lines near Saint Quentin, France. “The Trench Mortar Officer I told you of, has got promoted or blown up or something. Anyhow we have a new one, who dropped one of his beastly bombs in our front line this afternoon & wreck wrecked a most beautiful bit of trench, the only decent bit we’ve got.” Peirs explained that at the front, “We like Trench Mortar Officers at times, but no one could love this person & I shall have pleasure in telling him so to-morrow.” Peirs’ ambivalent attitude towards trench mortarmen was common during the Great War. Many infantrymen believed that men too incompetent for front line service were detailed to safer posts in the trench mortar batteries. Additionally, infantrymen cursed trench mortar batteries when they were placed among them in the front lines. British trench mortars delivered punishing bombardments. The answer by German counter battery fire, made it dangerous for all nearby. But who were the mortarmen? What role did they play in trench warfare on the Western front? And were they really the cowardly idiots the infantry cursed them as?

Trench mortarmen were seldom acknowledged for the crucial, dangerous, and thankless service they performed during the First World War. Trench mortar batteries were the immediate fire support infantry battalions could depend on. They performed a wide variety of tactical roles. Far from being hapless cowards, they supported the infantry, fighting with skill and endurance.  

A New Zealand Trench Mortar gun team train in 1917. https://www.stuff.co.nz/manawatu-standard/lifestyle/93473672/wwi-victoria-cross-winner-a-modest-man

A New Zealand Trench Mortar gun team train in 1917. www.stuff.co.nz

At the start of the war, the British Army had no trench mortar batteries. When the western front jolted into gridlock at the end of 1914, the need for close fire support from high trajectory weapons became apparent, and by 1916, heavy, medium, and light trench mortar batteries were formed. Heavy mortars fell under the purview of the Royal Artillery, while medium and light trench mortars were attached to infantry brigades, and crewed by men detailed from the various battalions therein. The mortarmen who served with the 8th Queen’s belonged to the 72nd Trench Mortar Battery. Pvt. C. White and A. Thomas were men who belonged to the 8th but died while serving in the 72nd Trench Mortar Battery. Most batteries were armed with the 3-inch Stokes mortar, a metal tube mounted on a bi-pod crewed by three men. These simple weapons could produce devastating rates of plunging fire. An experienced crew could launch 20 mortars before the first round had landed. Jack Peirs witnessed a demonstration of the stokes mortar rate of fire in March of 1916. He wrote, “I had a little jaunt this afternoon with the C. O. in a car to see an exhibition of trench mortars firing blank. . . in fact it fires so fast that you can get 5 rounds in the air with it at once . . .” The sudden violence of the attack often proved devastating to unsuspecting Germans. One British officer recalled that a bombardment of a fortified French village by trench mortars was so effective, that the infantry who seized it thought they were under heavy artillery support, but the only artillery involved were trench mortars.

Stokes

A Stokes mortar on display at the Museum of the Two World Wars at Les Invalides, Paris, France. Photograph by Author.

In a war where men lived and died by artillery, trench mortars were the most immediate and effective fire support the 8th Queen’s could call on. During attacks, mortar men advanced behind the infantry, deploying their mortars to knock out stubborn bunkers and hidden machine gun nests. But it was during trench raids that mortars proved most valuable. Their capacity for sudden destruction, ability to throw gas and smoke projectiles, and their proven effectiveness in clearing enemy wire made them integral to any outgoing raid. From the fall of 1916 to early 1917, the 8th Queen’s participated in a series of trench raiding operations, Jack Peirs leading a few personally. He wrote home on 13 October, 1916, that trench mortars, “are the commonest form of explosive in the trenches.” Jack held a healthy respect for trench mortars. He would heartily advocate their use in raiding operations. In a February 1917 report on trench raids, Peirs wrote that one of the first considerations in any planned raid, was if trench mortars could clear the barbed wire. Peirs noted after the fighting around Guillemont, “During the operations a stokes gun was seen to be very effective in dispensing some of the enemy who were collecting in the quarry.”

Mortar-captured

Mortarmen pose with a captured Donkey. The different cap badges evident highlight how men were drawn from various units to serve in the trench mortar batteries. IWM.

Trench mortar batteries garnered an undeserved reputation as cushy assignments, free from danger. Mortarmen went over the top with the infantry to provide immediate fire support, and endured all the dangers of no man’s land alongside them. The 169th Trench Mortar Battery entered the third battle of Ypres with 5 officers, 83 other ranks, and 8 guns. At the end of the battle, the battery mustered only one officer, 6 other ranks, and half a gun. Trench mortar activity provoked fierce German responses, resulting in nasty artillery duels. Additionally, the stokes mortar itself was a dangerous machine. If not properly set on firm ground, the mortar could violently jerk off its mount when fired, potentially wounding or killing the mortarmen standing all around it.

Two Australians set up a Stokes mortar in the summer of 1918. IWM.

Two Australians set up a Stokes mortar in the summer of 1918. IWM.

Mortarmen endured hazards and dangers disproportionate to the reputation and credit they received. They provided crucial support to offensive and defensive operations. Their effectiveness and the danger involved in manning the mortars entitle trench mortar batteries the same honors given to the British infantry. Through discussing the use and value of trench mortars, another critical aspect of the Great War and Jack’s life at the front takes shape.

 

CITATIONS

1: “The Trench Mortar Officer I told you of, . . . We like Trench Mortar Officers at times, but no one could love this person & I shall have pleasure in telling him so to-morrow.” Letter from Jack Peirs to Charlotte Peirs, 16 December, 1916. First World War Letters of H.J.C. Peirs: A Digital History. Gettysburg College. http://jackpeirs.org/letters/16-december-1916/ 

2: “Additionally, infantrymen cursed trench mortar batteries . . .” Michael Duffy, “Weapons of War – Trench Mortars.” August 22, 2009. A Multimedia History of World War One. https://www.firstworldwar.com/weaponry/mortars.htm 

3: “Heavy mortars fell under the purview of the Royal Artillery . . .” Michael Page, “Sir Wilfred Stokes of Ripley, and the ‘Stokes Mortar.’” Surrey in the Great War: A County Remembers. November 9, 2017. https://www.surreyinthegreatwar.org.uk/story/sir-wilfred-stokes-of-ripley-and-the-stokes-mortar/ 

4: “Pvt. C. White and A. Thomas . . .” Commonwealth War Graves Commission, War Dead. https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/68142/thomas,-/ and https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/191970/white,-/ “Most trench mortar batteries were armed . . . These simple weapons could produce . . . ” “1st Light Trench Mortar Battery: (NSW) 1st Brigade, 1st Division, AIF.” Virtual War Memorial Australia. https://vwma.org.au/explore/units/513 “Jack Peirs witnessed a . . .” Letter from Jack Peirs to Family, 6 March, 1916. First World War Letters of H.J.C. Peirs: A Digital History. Gettysburg College. http://jackpeirs.org/letters/6-march-1916/ 

5: “One British officer . . . “ Cecil Eric Moy, “Private Papers of Lieutenant Colonel C. E. Moy, MC.” March, 1919. Imperial War Museum Archives. Document.17166, manuscript page 84. https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1030019108 

6: “During attacks, mortar men advanced behind the infantry,” 8th Service Battalion, Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment War Diary, 5/8/16, 72nd Infantry Brigade, Operation Order No. 76. August 1916. http://www.queensroyalsurreys.org.uk/war_diaries/local/8Bn_Queens.shtml 

7: “From the fall of 1916 to early 1917,” 8th Service Battalion, Queen’s West Surrey Regiment War Diaries. June 28, 1916., August 20, 1916., November 9, 1916., January 9th, 1917.

8: “are the commonest form of explosive in the trenches.” Letter from Jack Peirs to Peirs Family, October 13, 1916. First World War Letters of H.J.C. Peirs: A Digital History. Gettysburg College. http://jackpeirs.org/letters/october-13-1916/ 

9: “According to a report on trench raids written Jack Peirs . . .” 8th Service Battalion, Queen’s West Surrey Regiment War Diaries. Febuary 22, 1917. “Peirs noted after . . .”

Report of Major Jack Peirs on the actions of the 8th Queen’s from August 18-21, 1916. National Archives, WO 95/2214/1.

10: “The 169th Trench Mortar Battery entered the third battle of Ypres . . .” Cecil Eric Moy, “Private Papers of Lieutenant Colonel C. E. Moy, MC.” March, 1919. Imperial War Museum Archives. Document.17166, manuscript page 48. https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1030019108 

11: “Additionally, trench mortar bombardments . . .” Cecil Eric Moy, “Private Papers of Lieutenant Colonel C. E. Moy, MC.” March, 1919. Imperial War Museum Archives. Document.17166, manuscript page 76, 78. https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1030019108 

12: “If not properly set on firm ground,” Cecil Eric Moy, “Private Papers of Lieutenant Colonel C. E. Moy, MC.” March, 1919. Imperial War Museum Archives. Document.17166, manuscript page 81. https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1030019108

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“1st Light Trench Mortar Battery: (NSW) 1st Brigade, 1st Division, AIF.” Virtual War Memorial Australia. https://vwma.org.au/explore/units/513 

8th Service Battalion, Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment War Diary. http://www.queensroyalsurreys.org.uk/war_diaries/local/8Bn_Queens.shtml

Duffy, Michael. “Weapons of War – Trench Mortars.” August 22, 2009. A Multimedia History of World War One. https://www.firstworldwar.com/weaponry/mortars.htm  

First World War Letters of H.J.C. Peirs: A Digital History. Gettysburg College. http://jackpeirs.org/letters/16-december-1916/

Letter from Jack Peirs to Charlotte Peirs, 16 December, 1916.

Letter from Jack Peirs to Peirs Family, October 13, 1916.

Moy, Cecil Eric. “Private Papers of Lieutenant Colonel C. E. Moy, MC.” March, 1919.

Imperial War Museum Archives. Document.17166. London, UK. 

Page, Michael. “Sir Wilfred Stokes of Ripley, and the ‘Stokes Mortar.’” Surrey in the Great War: A County Remembers. November 9, 2017. https://www.surreyinthegreatwar.org.uk/story/sir-wilfred-stokes-of-ripley-and-the-stokes-mortar/ 

White, Tina. “WWI Victoria Cross Winner a ‘modest man,'” Manawatu Standard, (June 10, 2017) https://www.stuff.co.nz/manawatu-standard/lifestyle/93473672/wwi-victoria-cross-winner-a-modest-man

 

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