Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Livens Flame Projector - It made the Somme explode like some horrific industrial accident.

Flamethrower - British Toy Soldier,  Livens
Toy soldier with flamethrower - for burning the beastly Boche in your backyard.

August 2014 is of course, the hundredth anniversary of the opening of World War 1 - which is being  trumpeted by some as... wait for it... "The Forgotten War".  How significant a cliche is that? Network television is certain that 2014 - 2018 is a golden window of opportunity to flood our eyes with NO- COST reruns of old war films and documentaries, interlarded with saccharine stories believed to be of "local interest".  The Royal Canadian Mint and Canada Post are invested heavily in promoting public awareness, and will be offering tens of millions of dollars of collectible merchandise over the next four years. Veterans Affairs has no surviving Great War veterans to roll out, and so vigorously mines the memories and enthusiasms of descendants of C.E.F. volunteers.  Our news industry (which wraps advertising around content) and the Canadian government (which wraps "Heritage" money around its perceived voter base), clearly believe we need their officially  mandated and infomercial form of remembrance. Do we?

Have you noticed a nauseating stream of faux-reportage this month?  Stale stories are, I think, a propaganda effort certain to fall on deaf ears. It is a campaign which I suppose will play out over four years, annoying the hell out of those who do possess historical awareness. The problem is that reporters and politicians are not believable people, and we instinctively know that there is not an ounce of genuine interest or compassion in their commemorative message.  As one who frequently teaches young people about WW1, its technology, its poetry and its lasting impact on our society, I am constantly searching for stories which can cut through the avalanche of sticky, kaleidoscopic imagery which is over-stimulating our youth.  Obviously such images must be arresting if they are to have any chance of competing with Hollywood's output. Archival images of the muddy trenches and the poppy fields, with a bugler blowing the Last Post in the background, doesn't cut it with the cellphone generation.  Emphasizing "how very young" the boys of that "Lost Generation" were, fails to put a lump in the throat of today's teenagers. A strangers death does not scare them, and a soldiers death does not move them.

Assuming the B.C. Teachers Strike ends sometime soon, and students are one again required to struggle with Social Studies 11,  "Canada in World War One" will be on their plate. It's a given that when you teach war history it is helpful to have artifacts on the table. When a student picks up a Ross rifle bayonet and is asked to imagine the pain of a German who had that rammed threw his rib cage, it leaves an impression. I'm always seeking new ways to make such impressions. I may soon be tutoring well-rested students on really scary war-tech, like the LIVENS LARGE GALLERY FLAME PROJECTOR:

Test Firing - the Livens Flame Projector, 1916
Click on each photo to enlarge.

In May of 2010 a team of archaeologists and historians assembled on a farmer's property at Mametz, France to open an exploratory trench. They were looking to disinter a forgotten monster of WW1.  They had excellent maps, photos, Regimental War Diaries and more, which made it fairly easy to locate the blasted gallery where one of the Livens Flame Projectors was sited.  The whole excavation, which included the assistance of a party of Royal Engineers, was recorded for a British network television show, called "TIME TEAM".   Over the years I have watched three or four episodes on YOUTUBE, but I had not heard of this episode. I stumbled over it just a week ago.  It seems that it was co-produced for Canada's HISTORY CHANNEL, but then H.C. is not my cup of tea.

It is very clear to me that the reason this documentary project went off so well is because it was meticulously researched by historians who know their stuff. Kudos to them. But while I do recommend the program for its visuals, it is obviously made for people who don't know anything at all about warfare or who divide their time between the TV screen and their cell phones.  The 47 minute program is extremely repetitious and filled with looped clips and contrived drama, which was totally unnecessary. (In researching this article I checked the production companies website. This video project is listed as a "Docu-drama". Fair enough.)  The battlefield dig at Mametz was well funded, precise in execution, and fully supported by a British university, a French Museum, the British MOD and even a few French donor companies.  As a result the  excavations generated a wealth of physical evidence and support a highly interesting story.  The team effort justified the investment of resources, and I have read that the program was  "a hit".

I first watched the TIME TEAM program on YOUTUBE, cut into four segments.  You can now watch the 47 minute show intact.  It is here -   THE SOMME'S SECRET WEAPON.

Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector - detailed model of the weapon.

The massive flame projector was designed for a single purpose. Assembled below the front trenches in strict secrecy, they would be used as a shock weapon to neutralize a length of the German line, just as an assault was initiated.  Only four were built for the Somme.  Two were successful and two were destroyed by enemy action.  We realize today that this type of weapon is better deployed in a defensive scenario.  Image if, earlier this month, Israeli sappers had encountered such fire beasts as they entered Gaza?  Fortunately Hamas weapon makers prefer  I.E.D.s to flame throwers.

Livens Flame Projector - WW1, Test firing by Royal Engineers 2011

Following recovery of whole sections of a Livens Flame Projector buried in collapsed SAP 14, the device has been recreated in a four versions.  A  C.G.I.  graphic, a tiny scale model, a full-size scale model (sans pressurized tanks), and incredibly -  a full-sized working facsimile built and tested by the Royal Engineers.  I think the last was unnecessary (and environmentally filthy) but it made for highly dramatic television images.  

The Royal Engineers actually cheated. They did not even try to use Livens' original system of piston-driven compressed gas.  They used an electric pump attached to very large portable fuel bladders of a type which  all NATO forces have in their inventory.  Still, if you compare the test firings made with the reconstructed weapon, with the original image at the top of this article, you will agree that the  R.E.s succeeded in copying the effect. A horrifying flame weapon indeed.

Livens Flame Projector - WW1 terror weapon recreated by Royal Engineers

Something from a madman's notebook?  Not really. All weapons are murderous in intent and in use. But some are designed to scare you as well as kill you.  What is amazing about this Flame Projector, which some marketing guru has now dubbed  "The Dragon of the Somme", is that is took Livens and skilled British craftsmen and Engineers  just 25 weeks from first sketch - to fabrication - to deployment in a clay tunnel.

I have learned that an 83 minute version of the TIME TEAM documentary was edited for North American viewing. I haven't seen that longer version, but it may simply be the "Two Hour Special" produced for HISTORY TELEVISION.  If so, I might still watch it, hoping that the historians get to speak more than "Tony" the Time Team's  on-air talent.

Classics Illustrated - THE WAR OF THE WORLDS

"The War That Will End Wars"
If you have read the H.G. Wells novel THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, you will recall that the Martian heat ray was an energy weapon carried by walking machines that laid waste to much of England's urban core, incinerating London and at least one Royal Navy Dreadnought.  When I first read of Livens' devastating flame projector, in a history blog, I pulled down a riot of visual memories which enhanced my reading experience.  Odd thoughts really, such as wondering if his diabolical design was not somehow influenced by his recreational reading. It cannot be denied that Mr. Wells was widely read, and he was influential.  In his "Martian" novel, Wells described the shock effect of the hellish invaders roaming about the English countryside unchallenged, their towering machines burning all humans they encounter.  Livens' more industrial version of a death ray failed only because it was so vulnerable to German artillery that it had to remain hidden sub-surface, and because its fiery charge was expended in only a few short bursts.  The B.E.F. did make territorial gains from time to time, and the Livens flame weapon was not mobile.  Of course, once I had seen the British video, with its full colour recreation of the weapons' destructive power,  the imaginative component of  my reading experience evaporated.

Although not a combatant, H.G. Wells was a participant in the Great War from its beginning to end.  His book,  THE WAR THAT WILL END WAR was published in October of 1914, which was months before our Canadian troops (the C.E.F.)  reached the battlefield. Before long the title was "in circulation" in a skeptical form as "The war to end all wars". The book's opening line reads "The cause of a war and the object of a war are not necessarily the same." is still a basic truism.  In our own time the war making ambitions of radical Islam triggered an American response  - the declaration of a so-called "War on Terror", but as some of us realize, ever since President Wilson expressed his credo of "making the world safe for democracy" the United States government has always managed to scare up a threat to its particular way of life.

The Flame Tank - Hugo Gernsback's lurid idea for a magazine cover in 1936

The concept of flame projectors never died, but what they did do was become mobile. In World War ll all nations with tank armies developed flame-thrower variants. They were most famously used by the Americans during the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific. More recently, assemblers of books on Science Fiction art invariably include the more fanciful covers from Hugo Gernsback publications, very often including this one showing his "invention", The Flame Tank, which appeared not in a S.F. pulp but his hobbyist magazine SCIENCE AND MECHANICS (Jan. 1936).  The only thing unique about this painted scenario is that the artist has the infantry garbed in flame resistant uniforms and hoods, which implies that they would fight almost amid the flames.

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