The Livens Flame Projector, or the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector, was a weapon used on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and then just once more in 1917.
While some remnants of the projectors have been found on the battlefield near Mametz, there are no complete Livens Flame projectors in existence today.
The Livens Flame projector was invented by William Livens, an officer in the Royal Engineers, who joined the army on the day the First World War was declared. Despite a strong desire to join in the battle, he remained at the Royal Engineers barracks in Chatham, Kent. However, his life was set to change on 7th May 1915 when the Lusitania was sunk and Liven believed his fiancée was on board. He made a promise to himself on that day that he would do whatever it took to defeat the Germans.
In fact, Liven’s fiancée had missed the boat but it was three days before he found out and by that stage his anger could not be reduced. Livens was put in charge of the secret Z section of the Royal Engineers, which worked on flame-throwers.
The work was very dangerous by Livens was determined to create something even larger than the individual flame-thrower - something large enough to destroy an entire trench system.
This marked the start of the project that resulted in the use of his weapon near Mametz, just 25 weeks later. The final product was an impressive 56 feet long, 14 inches wide, 2.5 tons and needed a crew of seven men to be used.
The flame-thrower was very similar to its small counterparts but was constructed underground. According to war diaries kept by officers at the Somme, on 28th June 1916 around 200 British troops from the Royal Engineers gathered in secrecy near Mametz. Unknown to those writing the diaries, this meeting marked the time when the projector would first be used.
The weapon was powered by air pressure, which would push it out of the ground once it reached a certain level. A mixture of kerosene and diesel would then be ignited and shot towards the German lines. While there are no records that state how effective it was, historians believe that it was very effective where used at the Somme.
Some even argue that the Livens Flame projector was the reason by the British managed to break through at Mametz and Carnoy on the first day of the battle, despite losing 60,000 soldiers to injury or death.
In total, three flame projectors were used on 1st July in the area surrounding Mametz, with an additional projector being lost to a German shell early on. The saps that contained the projectors were built as close to the German lines as possible, which would have meant its impact would be enormous. However, it was only temporary, with the fuel lasting for just three 10-second bursts before becoming empty.
Allied thinking was that there was no need to try to resupply the weapon as soldiers would have already infiltrated the devastated German trenches by the time this was achieved. However, the deaths of the soldiers meant this wasn’t as efficient as expected.
While the Somme was ultimately remembered for the deaths rather than the success of the flame projector, the British Army senior officers were so impressed that they ordered for the number of saps on the Western Front to be quadrupled in July 1916.
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