The weapon which would conjure up a – albeit highly visceral – image World War One trench warfare would be the rifle bayonet. So much grainy footage of young men charging across no-man’s-land with bayonets fixed gives us the impression that that was the main strategy of trench battle. However, rifleman with bayonets attached for defensive action were more often used to protect grenadiers – the infantryman who deployed grenades either by hand or by an attachment on a rifle.
On display at the Museum in the Recent Acquisition Showcase, in recognition of 100 years since the beginning of World War One, are two examples of grenades used in the war, along with two examples of bomb fuses.
At the outbreak of World War One only the Germans had anything like a successful grenade design. The British had to catch up quickly, and one the design, the Battye grenade, designed by Major C E Battye serving with the Indian Army, was favoured as it could be mass produced. Although thousands were manufactured and deployed, the Battye was not a particularly safe grenade for grenadiers due to the dangerously unpredictable detonator it used, and when another design was adopted, those surviving British and Commonwealth grenadiers must have felt some relief; as much as trench warfare would allow at least.
The Mills bomb utilised two safety control systems for the grenadier, and the design of the grenade greatly outlasted the First World War.
William Mills was born in Sunderland, England in 1856, and after he’d finished school became a butcher. Mills’ family was in shipbuilding, so the shambles was soon replaced with an adze when he began a shipbuilder’s apprenticeship. Mills went to sea as a marine engineer in the 1880s and after witnessing several deaths due to lifeboat deployment, designed a much safer system which was adopted by both the navy and the merchant marine industry.
Mills enjoyed the middle class pastime of playing golf, and this led to his next but much less significant design distinction: aluminium golf clubs.
In the first year of World War One the British War Department had William Mills look at redesigning the hand grenade. One of the chief design flaws Mills worked on correcting was the deadly lack of control over detonation. Indeed, despite their effectiveness as a defensive weapon, many troops had phobic reactions to being anywhere near these ‘bombs’, as early grenades were called by the soldiers. In their war diaries, British Privates G Adams and J E Reid wrote respectively: ‘You see a bomb is just as likely to kill yourself as kill a German’, and:
I had a box of bombs, the mechanism of which I was entirely ignorant, helped to produce a very uncanny and eerie sort of feeling and it was with much relief, therefore, that I eventually came off guard duty.
Thus, as well as improving the efficiency of the explosives, Mills developed a system of activating the detonation device which gave a more predictable method of safe deployment. The pin, which keeps the grenade’s safe mode in place, and which has been etched into popular culture by Hollywood as being removed with the teeth (but was likely only ever performed this way by one armed grenadiers), rendered the Mills bomb safe for transport, and for troops to carry in the pockets of their webbing. The real design improvement Mills made, which doubtlessly saved thousands of lives and limbs, was the lever. This one small flange of metal enabled the grenadier to have complete control over exactly how and when the grenade was deployed, after the pin had been removed. Indeed, the pin could easily be replaced if deployment was not safe or would be ineffective. Of course combat is not a rational situation, and grenadiers and those around them still encountered horrible accidents. Notwithstanding, Mills’ lever has remained an aspect of most grenade design ever since. The lever is spring loaded, and once the grenade is thrown or launched, the lever opens out, which pulls a bolt with it, releasing the firing pin, which ignites a four second fuse. Once the fuse burns down, it flares the detonator, which detonates the explosive in the grenade. That lever release, and the predictable four seconds is what made the British and Commonwealth forces adopt the Mills bomb and actually ban the use of the Battye grenade and others like it.
Sir Williams Mills, knighted in 1922, also invented the telescopic walking stick, though that must have been of very little assistance to those men returning from World War One in need of much more than a walking stick.
Written by Damian McDonald, Curator