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Remembered Today:

Shrapnel Protection


PhilB
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The Brodie helmet was, we are told, primarily a defence against shrapnel balls. It was clearly felt that the head was in particular need as it wouldn`t take much damage to incapacitate or kill a man. However, the head is only part of the target exposed to an incoming ball, the shoulders being of similar size. One rarely hears of men badly wounded by shrapnel coming down onto the shoulders and through into the lungs. Would a ball have enough penetrative power to do that? Examples I`ve seen in museums show balls that have hit bone and got embedded but not with great distortion or great damage to the bone.

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Guest KevinEndon

When the balls hit they were red hot and burned there way into the flesh. You can see many photos where soldiers are strapped up around the shoulder, although not all would have been from the shrapnel balls a few would have been. The shrapnel balls were designed to break the barbed wire which was out infront of the trench so the soldiers would not have been in direct line of the exploding shell, therefore not as many soldiers would have been hit with them as one would expect.

I have never seen a shrapnel ball which had hit a bone but I would have thought that it would have lost a lot of it impact having gone through the uniform, then the flesh before hitting the bone.

Kevin

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The shrapnel balls were designed to break the barbed wire which was out infront of the trench so the soldiers would not have been in direct line of the exploding shell

Not quite true, Kevin. Trying to cut wire with them was a mis-use of a weapon primarily designed as anti-personell. In a way, it was a more modern incarnation of the old "grape-shot".

Dave

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Guest KevinEndon

Ah, I was under the impression it was the other way round and when they realised it wasnt breaking the wire they used it for anti personnel methods. I stand stood still corrected.

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Last weekend the guys and myself picked up some shrapnel balls at Neuve Chapelle. Although most were round, the first I picked up was deformed. I have not calculated the impact of a shrapnel ball but my impression has been that it would be comparable to being shot by a musket. There are a few major blood vessels in the neck and shoulder area. A ball would not have to penetrate to the lungs to cause a fatal wound.

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The coat Nelson was wearing when he was shot at Trafalgar is in the National Maritime Museum. The 'entry hole' is high on the breast and apparently a classic cowboy winged-in-the-shoulder shot, until you realise that the marksman was high above him and that he was in fact shot almost vertically through his body – just as someone might be by a descending shrapnel ball.

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I`m using the flechette as an example of how damaging a plunging projectile can be. I`ve read that the flechette could penetrate well down into the body cavity. It was, of course, pointed and heavier than a ball. Difficult to compare speeds at impact.

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I have a great-uncle that DOW from GSW - left shoulder, I had assumed there was a fairly good chance it was a shrapnel ball as they were in the trenches trading bombardments at the time.

Sim..

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There was a British body armour with a very high sided neck-defence (gorget) to protect vital blood vessels.

Very similar to the versions seen in Iraq, Afghanistan but using silk as the main anti-ballistic material not Kevlar .

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Shrapnel initially traveled with the same velocity as the shell from which it was released but was much more subject to the slowing effects of air resistance and so had a different trajectory and at extreme range could be moving relatively slowly. Even when it was first introduced as spherical case shot (invented by Henry Shrapnel) in the Napoleonic wars Wellington complained that it was relatively ineffective at long range (when it was tending towards the vertical) and tended to wound rather than kill. At extreme range the hard shako of French troops were enough to protect the head. It was best used at medium range when the trajectory of the balls would mean the angle of approach was flatter and the velocity higher. When used against men in trenches this was not particularly effective.

I am surprised at the comment that it was red hot as the charge in a shrapnel shell is merely supposed to shatter the shell casing this releasing the balls, It was not intended to scatter them so it is difficult to see how this would heat then to red hot temperature. Shell splinters from HE shells (what is often refereed to as shrapnel) would on the other hand have been hot.

Shrapnel was initially used as a wire cutter (and a pretty ineffective one) because of the lack of HE due to the failure of the initial programme to replace shrapnel shells with HE in 1915. This was largely blamed on Kitchener (and the Daily Express ran a campaign blaming him) but may well have been as much the fault of Lloyd George who was the politician responsible for the programme. The wily LG would have been quite happy to deflect criticism onto the less politically aware military (and indeed went on to build a track record for this). Eventually it was found that using HE shells equipped with grazing fuses fired from field guns combined with toffee apple rounds from medium trench mortars (to get at the wire in depressed ground and ha has) did the job blasting the wire without creating craters to hinder advancing troops.

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I do not believe that shrapnel shell burst. The balls were ejected out of the shell by the ejector plate which was forced out of the shell by a small charge of black powder, . i.e. a flying shotgun cartridge. This is why you find so many hollow shells as relics.

The idea being to create a concentrated beaten zone on the downward plunge of the shell from about 50 feet up. A shrapnel shell which just bursts would be very inefficient.

Same with wire cutting your timing must be that the shell ejects the balls into the wire with enough force that the lead will cut the wire. High explosive by all accounts just lifted the wire and flopped it down again.

Gareth

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Hit_on_the_Shoulder_by_Shrapnel.doc

The attachment is a description of what happened during a counter-attack on Delville Wood in late August 1916 when a German soldier was hit on the shoulder by a shrapnel ball. It does not sound to have been a particularly agreeable incident.

Jack

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Hit_on_the_Shoulder_by_Shrapnel.doc

The attachment is a description of what happened during a counter-attack on Delville Wood in late August 1916 when a German soldier was hit on the shoulder by a shrapnel ball. It does not sound to have been a particularly agreeable incident.

Jack

Jack, I got a GWF Board Message from that link!

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Phil

I have just managed to open it from the site. If you still cannot see it, get back to me and I shall tap the whole thing out: it is not very long.

Jack

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I do not believe that shrapnel shell burst. The balls were ejected out of the shell by the ejector plate which was forced out of the shell by a small charge of black powder, . i.e. a flying shotgun cartridge. This is why you find so many hollow shells as relics.

The idea being to create a concentrated beaten zone on the downward plunge of the shell from about 50 feet up. A shrapnel shell which just bursts would be very inefficient.

I never said it burst but shattered (ie letting the balls continue in initially the same trajectory). The early shrapnel shells certainly shattered and even on WW1 ones the nose cone must have been blown off. If the balls were ejected in the manner you say this reinforces the point I was making about them not being red hot.

Same with wire cutting your timing must be that the shell ejects the balls into the wire with enough force that the lead will cut the wire. High explosive by all accounts just lifted the wire and flopped it down again. Only if the shell explodes as it digs into the ground.

Shells with grazing fuses and toffee apple rounds exploded above ground level giving a very powerful horizonal blast effect, thats why by the end of the war wire clearing was almost exclusively done with this method. A strand of wire is a very small target for a shrapnel ball and most must have just pased through the wire.

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Phil, here is the text of the document:

Hit on the Shoulder by Shrapnel

“The enemy artillery has opened up, mainly firing shrapnel. A comrade in the same shell hole, so far unwounded, is suddenly hit on the collarbone by a shrapnel bullet. It is a blow like a box on the ears. Our spirits sink as he goes down. Once it goes dark, he will have to try to crawl off to get aid. The sun burns down unmercifully, torturing us with thirst. Minutes become hours. We exchange addresses. If one of us escapes, he will inform the relatives of the others. All too slowly the sun sinks. It is just 7.00 pm. Suddenly the comrade, who was hit on the collar bone, awakes from a deep sleep, feels his shoulder and discovers that the shoulder strap of his equipment has stopped the shrapnel ball. Apart from severe bruising to the shoulder, nothing has happened to him. He offers to go and get help. Another hour passes and the shadows are lengthening across the battlefield.”

Robert

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Which does tend to support the point I was making about shrapnel at extreme ranges tending to wound rather than kill if his strap was enough to stop it penetrating. He wouldn't have been so lucky if it had hit him on the head and he had only been wearing a soft cap!

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Thanks, Robert. I suppose there are balls and balls depending on how well the timer was set. An ideal burst at 50 ft above would presumably cause balls to arrive at near bullet speed whereas one burst too short would slow considerably. We`ve seen TV programmes investigating arrow and bullet strikes - perhaps one for shrapnel balls is indicated!

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Although I am fairly sure this well know photo from Gallipoli has captured a low level HE burst. The beaten zone effect in the water on the left gives a good example of the desired result of shrapnel. There is no apparent dust puffs around the poor guy on the causeway, but the muck would appear to have passed through and by him from burst to splash, and in a very concentrated mass. If he survived he was VERY lucky.

post-890-1209668299.jpg

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It can't be a an HE burst and shrapnel - the two are quite different. The effects you are talking about are probably caused by shell splinters (often incorrectly referred to as shrapnel) or by stones and debris thown up in the air by an HE shell (in which case the soldier in question was probably lucky - he is on his feet after the splashes have ocurred). Typically a shrapnel shell releases its load of shrapnel balls in flight not on landing and there would be no big explosion.

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I thought I said I was fairly sure it was a HE burst. The smoke from the apparent burst being thought too great for a shrapnel shell, but Turkish shells of unknown (to me) calibre and age may produce larger quantities.

The splash in the water is exactly the effect of shrapnel as it was described to me by a Gallipoli vet as "Hail hitting a puddle", but he was describing the puffs of dust kicked up. You are of course correct when you say that fragment/splinter is the ruptured shell casing, Shrapnel being the contents of a shrapnel shell.

Gareth

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When the balls hit they were red hot and burned there way into the flesh.

Kevin

Kevin

I can't believe that shrapnel balls would be red hot. The charge in the base of the shell would not heat every ball, that would be impossible especially for those near the front. There were about 250 shrapnel balls in an 18 pdr and I would only expect those near the back to get hot and then not red hot. Lead at red heat would surely melt anyway? Is 12 bore lead shot red hot? I don't think so.

I do believe that shrapnel from a shell casing can be red hot as there are numerous quotes saying that it was so on landing on or near soldiers in both world wars, but not shrapnel balls.

Happy to be corrected as always.

Gunner Bailey

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Shrapnel Balls are never Red Hot might be warm. The ideal striking force of a shrapnel ball is 60 ft/pounds this is from Treatsie on Ammunition 1915. from my !8 Pdr range tables the remaining velocity for a range of 6,000 yards is 778 ft per/sec(a) on detonation of a shrapnel round the balls are expelled at a velocity of between 250 to 300 feet per sec (b)in a cone with a combined velocity of about 1,000 ft per sec. The beaten zone area is about 250 by 30 yards with half the bullets falling in the 50 yards of the beaten zone.

John

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From History of 1/4th Loyals (31/7/17):- 2/Lt Ashcroft (Signalling Officer) was killed by a nosecap as we started off. So it wasn`t only the balls but the nosecaps and shellcases as well that were causes for concern!

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