William Howard Livens Played With Fire
World War I engineer changed chemical warfare forever
In 1915 a German U-boat torpedoed the British passenger ship Lusitania, killing more than 1,100 people. The sinking of the ocean liner sparked protests across Western Europe.
One young Cambridge graduate named William Howard Livens vowed to kill as many German soldiers as civilians died on the Lusitania. And thanks to his devious new chemical weapons, he almost certainly succeeded.
Livens’ creations ultimately gave the British Army a big advantage over the Germans in the blooming field of chemical warfare. The Livens Projector in particular became one of the staples of the Allied Powers owing to its cheap, simple and powerful design.
By the second year of World War I in 1915, Allied and Central Powers troops were deep in their respective trenches across Western Europe. Military leaders were desperate for new methods of breaking defensive lines.
It was Germany that shattered the Hague Convention and used poison weapons first. But the Germans’ methods of chemical warfare were primitive.
In the spring of 1916, German soldiers opened thousands of chlorine cylinders on the front lines of Hulluch, Flanders, expecting the wind to carry the immense cloud of noxious gas across no man’s land and toward the enemy.
However, when the wind changed course, so did the cloud, inflicting more than a thousand German casualties. Livens aimed to refine chemical weapons—to make them safer to deploy.
In 1916, Livens invented a cheap and effective means of launching chemical warheads onto enemy positions. He called it the Livens Projector.
The projector resembled a makeshift mortar but launched barrels of dense phosgene gas. Operators could line up thousands of the projectors along their trenches, each pointing toward the enemy at a 45-degree angle.
The invention went from idea to production in just one week. Crude manufacturing allowed “for literally the biggest bang for the taxpayer’s buck,” according to the Imperial War Museums in London.
Over the course of the war, Livens Projectors launched more than 400,000 barrels of chemicals. Livens enjoyed flying over the battlefield to watch his invention in action, according to Greg Goebel in his book A History of Chemical Warfare.
Livens was watching from an airplane as 2,000 or so chemical canisters simultaneously landed into German trenches and exploded at the Battle of Arras on April 9, 1917.
Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector
Before inventing chemical warfare’s most accurate weapon, Livens was part of a secret division called Z Company. When his superiors tasked him with developing a British version of the German flamethrower, Livens came up with an experimental concept of fiery proportions.
The Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector would have reached across no-man’s-land from underneath. Only the nozzle of the massive flamethrower stuck out of the ground, through a bored hole, like a periscope poking above the ocean. Livens loaded a test model with a mixture of diesel and kerosene and propelled a massive flame 130 feet—the most powerful flame weapon the world had seen.
But the flame projector required expensive and lengthy setup. It took 300 men to haul and construct the two-ton device. The British Army used it in action just a handful of times.
Four Livens flame projectors factored into the bloody Battle of the Somme in 1916. German artillery shells penetrated British tunnels and put two of the flame weapons out of commission, but the remaining two projectors doused German lines in fire.
The Flame Fougasse
Livens continued to invent horrific weapons for the British Army right into World War II. He was a part of the Petroleum Warfare Department, which initially toyed with the concept of creating “flaming comets landing on beaches,” as Donald Banks wrote in Flames Over Britain.
However, the department’s most popular weapon was the flame fougasse, which Livens devised in 1940.
Primarily an anti-tank defense, the flame fougasse was a mine which included an explosive charge for dispersing fiery liquid onto a target. During the World War II, the Allies deployed around 50,000 flame fougasse barrels, prompting the Germans and Russians to attempt to copy Livens’ design.
The British Army continued to use the original flame fougasse model through the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. Today it remains in the Brits’ Combat Flame Operations battlefield manual.