The French first faced Germany’s newest weapon in February 1915 near Verdun. The British got their first taste in June.
“In both cases the terror inspired by the jets of liquid flame enabled the German assault troops to capture their objectives with relative ease,” said Ian Drury in his book “German Stormtrooper 1914-1918.”
Soldier using flamethrowers
“No man was prepared to remain in a trench with blazing fuel oil cascading over the parapet.”
At Verdun, specialized German units infiltrated French lines to cut barbed wire and used flamethrowers to knock out concrete machine-gun posts. The conventional infantry would then follow to hold the ground gained.
Richard Fielder is widely credited with inventing the modern version of the flamethrower. The German’s first designs were taken up by his country early in the 20th century, well before World War I started. However, they weren’t fully employed in battle until later in the war.
Early versions usually took two soldiers to operate: one to carry the canisters of fuel, while the other aimed the hose spraying an ignited, flammable liquid. The successful tactic prompted the French and British to soon develop their own units.
Soldiers and flamethrowers
Fire, of course, had been used in battle long before. A painted silk banner from 10th-century China is thought to be one of the first illustrations of a flamethrower.
Nevertheless, the weapon had its drawbacks. They were often as dangerous to those holding the weapon as they were to the targets. Much of the early German flamethrower units were manned by former civilian firefighters. The German unit operating the newly developed flamethrowers was launched in January 1915 and commanded by Maj. Herman Reddeman, a former head of the Leipzig fire department.
German medium flamethrower
Flamethrowers were also ineffective at distance. Once the French and British recognized this, their advantage was quickly reduced.
Flamethrowers were mounted on tanks and used by all sides in World War II and have entered the popular imagination through their use in Hollywood movies. In recent times at least, their use has dwindled in war zones, but they are still used for controlled burns by land-management departments.