The Livens Flame Projector, strictly the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector, was used on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and only once after that in 1917. None of the Livens Flame projectors exist today though remnants have been found on the Somme battlefield near Mametz.
An officer in the Royal Engineers, William Livens, invented the Livens Flame Projector. He had joined the army on the day World War One was declared. He had a desire for ‘action’ but found that he was kept at the Royal Engineers barracks at Chatham, Kent. His life changed on May 7th 1915 when the ‘Lusitania’ was sunk. Liven’s believed that his fiancé was onboard and he made himself a promise on the news of the sinking that he would do what he could to defeat the Germans. In fact, his fiancé had missed the Lusitania but Livens did not know this for three days. The news of her survival did not do anything to lessen his anger against the Germans and he continued with his belief that he would do all he could to defeat the Germans. Livens was put in charge of the secret Z section of the Royal Engineers. This unit worked on flame- throwers. The work was frequently dangerous for those involved but Livens put his mind towards something much larger than an individually carried flame-thrower. He wanted to design a flame-thrower large enough to destroy a whole trench system. This was the start of the project that culminated with the new weapon’s use near Mametz. His Livens Flame Projector took just 25 weeks to produce from paper plan to actual deployment. The finished product was 56 feet long, 14 inches wide, 2.5 tons and required a crew of 7 trained men.
The Livens Flame Projector was effectively a very large flame thrower constructed underground. War diaries kept by officers at the time at the Somme battle indicate that on June 28th 1916 about 200 British troops from the Royal Engineers gathered in great secrecy near Mametz, 100 miles northeast of Paris. What they did no one knew as their work was out of sight as they worked underground in a sap that led to the German lines.
The weapon was powered by air pressure. Once the pressure had reached a certain level, the head (monitor) of the weapon was pushed out of the ground. A mixture of kerosene and diesel was ignited and shot towards the German lines. How effective the weapon was is not known but war historians speculate that where it was used on the Somme front line, it was very effective.
War historians generally accept that for the British the first day of the Somme was a disaster with 60,000 killed or wounded. However, the attack by the British on Day 1 was not a total disaster in all areas. The British did manage to break through at Mametz and at Carnoy, just to the south of Mametz. This begs the questions: how and why did this happen when all along the British lines men were killed and wounded with horrifying frequency, some just yards from their own trenches?
The World War One historian Peter Barton believes that the answer to the question was the fact that the Livens Flame Projector was deployed at Mametz with devastating consequences for the Germans. In total three flame projectors were used on July 1st in and around Mametz. Four were brought to the front line here but a sap containing one – sap 14 – was destroyed by a German shell burying the weapon in it. The flame it shot out would have incinerated anything in its way and Livens designed it so that some of the fuel could be shot out of the monitor but would only ignite once it had reached its target.
At Mametz, the sap that contained the Livens Flame Projector was built to get as near to the German front lines as was possible. Hence, its impact would have been massive and utterly demoralising for the Germans in and around their trenches at Mametz. What they could not have known was if the British would have used another one with equal consequences in the same area. British troops who followed up the flame attack got into the German trenches but it was a success not built upon in other sectors of the battle. In fact, the impact of the Liven’s Flame Projector was also only temporary. Each weapon only had three 10-seconds burst of kerosene/diesel before they become empty. Re-supplying the weapons with bottles of kerosene/diesel for a reload would have taken time especially as all re-supplying had to be done underground. It was also built into Allied thinking that by the time the Livens Flame Projector had done its work, the British would have been in the German trenches, secured them and were ready to push further forward. Therefore, there would have been no need to ‘reload’ the weapon, as the damage to the Germans would have been done.
The impact of the Livens Flame Projector and saps that took you right up to the German lines must have impressed the senior officers of the British Army as on July 3rd 1916 an order was made to quadruple the number of saps on the Western Front along the Somme sector. However, the battle is more remembered for the frontline charges out of the trenches that ended with so many casualties as opposed to innovative ways to actually get into the German trenches.
After World War One massive flamethrowers like the Livens were banned under international law.