British trench mortars in France at the Battle of Loos and before

Introduction

My interest in this matter stemmed from two projects to research soldiers that I undertook under my fourteeneighteen banner.

The first was a comment made in a letter written home from France in February 1915 by Pte 8331 Horace Slater of the 2nd Battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment. He said

The South African war was a picnic compared to what this is. We have four bomb guns in the firing trench and three in reserve.

The second was the search to determine what “19th TM Battery” meant, for this is given in the register of the Loos Memorial for Gunner 19976 Michael Creed of the Royal Garrison Artillery. He was killed in action on 25 September 1915 and initial studies suggested that no such unit existed at the time.

A trawl through relevant war diaries soon made it clear that the early mortars used by the army in France were in development and to a great extent experimental. There was soon a variety of armament, the role of which was not clear in terms of their place in the organisation of the army and the tactics that it employed at the time. Such “Batteries” that were organised were small units, for which there are no war diaries. The information below has been compiled from fragmentary mentions in the war diaries of others. The detail given is accuirate but should be regarded as “work in progress”. I’ll add information as I find it.

Imperial War Museum photograph Q51562: Trench mortar demonstration at the Royal Engineers Yard, Armentières. 30th December 1914.

Movements compiled from mentions in war diaries

1 Trench Mortar Battery
27 June 1915: 4 Corps order transfers battery to 7th Division in 1 Corps (diary of 9th (Scottish) Division HQ)
1 Corps order assigns battery to 7th Division (diary of 9th (Scottish) Division HQ)
Equipped with 1.5 inch mortar  (1 Corps HQ Adjutant)
30 June 1915: 7 Division order hands guns to 27th Infantry Brigade of 9th (Scottish) Division on relief (diary of 9th (Scottish) Division HQ)
1 July 1915: transfer takes place (7th Division Adjutant)
13 August 1915: battery (guns only) to be handed from 26th Infantry Brigade to 21st Infantry Brigade of 7th Division (9th (Scottish) Division HQ)
5 September 1915: battery has 4 guns and 40 rounds of ammunition (7th Division Adjutant)
1 officer wounded between midnight 24-5 September and 25-6 September (1 Corps HQ Adjutant)

2 Trench Mortar Battery
Equipped with 1.5-inch mortar
With 7th Division. To be assigned to 1st Division in 4 Corps (diary of 9th (Scottish) Division HQ)
27 June 1915: battery to be withdrawn and placed at disposal of 4 Corps (7th Division Adjutant)

3 Trench Mortar Battery
Equipped with 4-inch mortar
7 June 1915: joined 7th Division (7th Division HQ General Staff)
With 7th Division. To be assigned to 47th (London) Division in 4 Corps (diary of 9th (Scottish) Division HQ)
30 June 1915: 7 Division order hands guns to 26th Infantry Brigade of 9th (Scottish) Division on relief (diary of 9th (Scottish) Division HQ)
3 July 1915: 9 Division order hands guns to 47th (London) Division and return to 4 Corps (diary of 9th (Scottish) Division HQ)

6 Trench Mortar Battery
1 Corps order assigns battery to 2nd Division (diary of 9th (Scottish) Division HQ)
Equipped with 1.575 inch mortar (1 Corps HQ Adjutant)
Located in “A” Section Cuinchy
4-25 September 1915: fighting strength 2 officers and 24 men (2nd Division Adjutant)
5 September 1915: relieved 10th TM Battery (2nd Division Adjutant)
To go into line with 6th Infantry Brigade (9th (Scottish) Division HQ)
In “A” Section, Cuinchy (2nd Division Adjutant)
1 man wounded between 7pm 24 September and 7pm 29 September (1 Corps HQ Adjutant)
25 September 1915: 1 man wounded (2nd Division Adjutant)
30 September 1915: relieved and moved to billets in Bethune (2nd Division Adjutant)

7 Trench Mortar Battery
Equipped with 2-inch mortars
27 June 1915: 1 Corps order transfers battery to 1st Division in 4 Corps (diary of 9th (Scottish) Division HQ)

8 Trench Mortar Battery
Equipped with 4-inch mortar
With 7th Division. To be assigned to 48th (South Midland) Division in 4 Corps (diary of 9th (Scottish) Division HQ)
27 June 1915: battery to be withdrawn and placed at disposal of 4 Corps (7th Division Adjutant)

9 Trench Mortar Battery
27 June 1915: 4 Corps order transfers battery to 9th (Scottish) Division in 1 Corps (diary of 9th (Scottish) Division HQ)
1 Corps order assigns battery to 9th (Scottish) Division (diary of 9th (Scottish) Division HQ)
1 July 1915: transfer takes place (7th Division Adjutant)
Equipped with four 1.575 inch mortar (1 Corps HQ Adjutant)
13 August 1915: battery (guns only) to be handed from 28th Infantry Brigade to 22nd Infantry Brigade of 7th Division (9th (Scottish) Division HQ)
6 September 1915: to be attached to 28th Infantry Brigade for operations (9 Division Adjutant)
18 September 1915: to be attached to 26th Infantry Brigade for operations (1 Corps HQ General Staff)
18 September 1915: Orders: battery will be packed ready to move forward with the assault troops. (9th (Scottish) Division Adjutant).
10 men would be added to the existing 1 officer and 22 men to assist with transport.
26 September 1915: Lieut. W. R. Storey gassed. (9th (Scottish) Division Adjutant).

10 Trench Mortar Battery
Equipped with 2 inch mortar (1 Corps HQ Adjutant)
27 June 1915: 4 Corps order transfers battery to 7th Division in 1 Corps (diary of 9th (Scottish) Division HQ)
30 June 1915: 7 Division order hands guns to 5th Infantry Brigade of 2nd Division on relief (diary of 9th (Scottish) Division HQ)
1 July 1915: transfer takes place (7th Division Adjutant)
1 Corps order assigns battery to 7th Division (diary of 9th (Scottish) Division HQ)
13 August 1915: two guns of the battery (guns only) to be handed from 28th Infantry Brigade to 22nd Infantry Brigade of 7th Division. A section currently attached to 2nd Division also to be handed to 7th Division (9th (Scottish) Division HQ)
15 August 1915 : to move to Rue des Chavattes. A mortar detachment also mentioned (22nd Infantry Brigade)
28 August 1915: moved to Cambrin (possibly to 19th Infantry Brigade) (22nd Infantry Brigade)
29 August 1915: battery has three guns and 310 rounds of ammunition (7th Division Adjutant)
31 August: ordered to send two guns to Z2 sub-sector and come under command of 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders (19th Infantry Brigade)
3 September 1915: to main in Section A (Cuinchy) attached to 6th Infantry Brigade until relieved by 6 Trench Mortar Battery at 10am 5 September
5 September 1915: relieved and rejoined 7th Division (2nd Division Adjutant)
5 September 1915: battery has 4 guns and 135 rounds of ammunition (7th Division Adjutant)
24 September 1915: located in the front trench on the left of the 2nd Royal Warwickshire Regiment (22nd Infantry Brigade)
2 officers missing between midnight 24-5 September and 25-6 September (1 Corps HQ Adjutant)

11 Trench Mortar Battery
13 July 1915: temporarily attached to 51st (Highland) Division (diary of 9th (Scottish) Division HQ)

12 Trench Mortar Battery
Equipped with 1.5-inch mortars
27 June 1915: 1 Corps order transfers battery to 47th (London) Division in 4 Corps (diary of 9th (Scottish) Division HQ)

14 Trench Mortar Battery
Equipped with 1.5-inch mortars
6 July 1915: ordered to be attached to 9th (Scottish) Division but  could not be used in the trenches due to lack of ammunition (diary of 9th (Scottish) Division HQ)

15 Trench Mortar Battery
2nd Division
Equipped with 3.7 inch mortar (1 Corps HQ Adjutant)
Located in “B” Section Givenchy
4-25 September 1915: fighting strength 2 officers and 24 men (2nd Division Adjutant)
25 September 1915: 2/Lt N. G. Hennessy, attached from 2nd Border Regiment, wounded (2nd Division Adjutant)
25 September 1915: 1 officer and 1 man wounded (2nd Division Adjutant)
29 September 1915: moves into front line with 5th Infantry Brigade (2nd Division Adjutant)
1 officer and 1 man wounded between 7pm 24 September and 7pm 29 September (1 Corps HQ Adjutant)

62 Trench Mortar Battery
Equipped with 1.575 inch mortar (1 Corps HQ Adjutant)
Equipped with 2 inch mortar (1 Corps HQ General Staff)
1 September 1915: Lieut. W. Douglas James RGA was appointed to command the battery.
2 September 1915: one section arrived and attached to 9th (Scottish) Division. Equipped with 2 inch mortar. (1 Corps HQ Adjutant)
3 September 1915: one section arrived from School of Mortars and attached to 9th (Scottish) Division. Equipped with 2 inch mortar. (1 Corps HQ Adjutant)
18 September 1915: Orders: to place two mortars in a ‘place d’armes’ constructed by the men of the battery along the ‘boyau’ (trench) between the front line and position K.4. Each to be provided with 10 smoke rounds. They would open fire at 0.38 minutes [the order gives target details]: if this succeeds and the assault troops are seen not to be fired on, the mortars will cease firing.  If the assault troops are fired upon, the mortars will continue to fire to place a curtain of smoke to mask the fire. The remaining mortar will be packed ready to move forward. The divisional Stokes battery had similar orders. (9th (Scottish) Division Adjutant).
26 September 1915: Lieut. C. B. Hatter and 2/W. Douglas James killed in action. (9th (Scottish) Division Adjutant).

19 Brigade 95mm Trench Mortar Battery
Equipped with eight 95mm mortars

20 Brigade 95mm Trench Mortar Battery
5 September 1915: battery has 6 guns and 100 rounds of ammunition (7th Division Adjutant)

21 Brigade 95mm Trench Mortar Battery
29 August 1915: battery has 11 guns and approximately 800 rounds of ammunition (7th Division Adjutant)

22 Brigade 95mm Trench Mortar Battery
29 August 1915: battery has 7 guns and 135 rounds of ammunition (7th Division Adjutant)
5 September 1915: battery has 7 guns and 113 rounds of ammunition (7th Division Adjutant)

National Army Museum photograph 1978-11-157-29-40. The 3.7 inch was one of the earliest trench mortars used by the British. It was fired by a length of fuze. The firer would then quickly take cover as the device was unreliable owing to the barrel often bursting. From mid-1916 it was gradually replaced by the superior 3-inch Stokes Mortar. From a box of 50 lantern slides. Salonika front.

Other notes

9th (Scottish) Division HQ General Staff reported on 2 July 1915 that a TM class of an officer and 20 other ranks would be formed at Locon under a Royal Artillery officer trained at the mortar school at St-Venant. By 15 July it was being reported that a succession of classes had been arranged and to man mortars in “C” Section where no formed battery yet existed.

9th (Scottish) Division HQ General Staff reported on 1 August 1915 that the trench mortars allotted to the division must be actively used.

9th (Scottish) Division HQ General Staff “Scheme for the capture of the western end of the Hohenzollern Redoubt” (undated but August 1915) notes that 1st Division has the following TM Batteries: 19 (“a four pounder battery”); 7 (“of 2-inch mortars throwing a 50-pound bomb”); and 2 (of 1.5-inch mortars throwing 18 and 33-pound bombs”).

The Adjutant of 9th (Scottish) Division reported on 1 September 1915 that there was no 2-inch mortar ammunition available and that Lieut. W. Douglas James RGA was appointed to command 62 TM Battery.

The Adjutant of 9th (Scottish) Division reported on 6 September 1915 that each infantry brigade would be provided with a battery of four 95mm trench mortars. Each would be made up of two officers, two NCOs and 18 other ranks. The battery attached to 27th Infantry Brigade would be used to fire a smoke barrage on the flanks of the division’s attack and would then return to the brigade. Supply of ammunition for all trench mortars would be through the artillery echelons.

The General Staff of 2nd Division reported on 16 September 1915 that they would have available numbers 6 and 15 TM Batteries; one 2 inch mortar from 7th Division and another from 9th (Scottish) Division; 2 Stokes mortars; 24 95mm mortars, with 11 being in Givenchy section (“B”) and 13 in Cuinchy (“A”). 15 TMB, both 2 inch, both Stokes and 8 of the 95mm would support 5th Infantry Brigade. 6 TMB would be split to support 6th and 19th Infantry Brigades, which would also be given eight 95mm mortars each.

The Adjutant of 9th (Scottish) Division reported on 16 September 1915 that 700 Stokes, 150 2-inch and 600 95mm mortars were issued (it calls them bombs but this clearly does not refer to grenades).

On 21 September 1915 the 2nd Division ordered that 5th Infantry Brigade would employ its 2-inch and Stokes mortars to fire a smoke barrage. The 95mm mortars would be used for the same purpose if required. They would not fire until the last of the Chlorine gas had been released. Each 2-inch and 95mm mortar would have a supply of 50 smoke bombs; each Stokes would have 500.

The diary of the Adjutant of 9th (Scottish) Division includes an appendix summary of orders regarding smoke. 7th and 9th Divisions were to make one of their 2-inch mortars available to 2nd Division for firing smoke bombs. Fifty such bombs would be held at the railhead per mortar for the 8 mortars in use by I Corps. Stokes mortars had been issued two each to the 2nd and 7th Divisions and four to the 9th Division. On arrival in the area (early in September) the latter would hand over one Stokes mortar to the 7th Division, and each of those divisions would then form a battery of three. 500 smoke bombs per Stokes mortar would be held at railhead. The 2-inch and Stokes mortars would be used to fire a smoke barrage on each flank of 2nd Division; on the left of the 9th Division; and between 9th and 7th Divisions. The 50 95mm mortars available within I Corps would each be provided with 50 smoke bombs at railhead. 27th and 28th Infantry Brigades would both organise one battery of four 95mm mortars which would be taken forward under brigade arrangements. 25% of their ammunition would be smoke. 26th Infantry Brigade would also have a battery but would not go forward. Each man would carry on his persona five days of ration supply when going forward.

On 4 October 1915 the 7th Divisional Adjutant reported receiving a number of 95mm trench mortars from a factory in Bethune.

Sources

War diaries (all National Archives WO95 series):
I Corps – General Staff (592); Adjutant (599). Commander Royal Artillery (619) makes no mention of mortars.
2nd Division – General Staff (1287); Adjutant (1306)
19th Infantry Brigade – Headquarters (1364)
9th (Scottish) Division – General Staff (1733); Adjutant (1744)
7th Division – General Staff (1629); Adjutant (1636)
22nd Infantry Brigade (1660)
2nd Royal Warwickshire Regiment (1664. Mortars not mentioned)
IV Corps – General Staff

Links

The Battle of Loos

FM Sir John French’s despatch on the Battle of Loos

Trench mortars