At the outbreak of the First World War, no one could have predicted the technological changes that would occur in weapons. The generals expected a war of cavalry and sweeping flanking movements; none predicted the siege warfare which ultimately developed.
Hand-thrown explosives had existed in various forms for years prior to 1914. The development of black powder and fireworks by the Chinese were the forerunner of explosive weapons.
Grenades’ direct ancestors were cannonballs, which evolved into the easier-to-handle weapon. During the American Civil War, both sides used grenades of various types.
They were considered siege weapons by the military leaders prior to World War I. Thus, it was believed that grenades would play no part in the coming hostilities that were to engulf Europe in 1914. All countries were caught short by the realities of trench warfare.
Each side developed defensive grenades designed to project fragments across an area of 100 yards to protect a defending soldier. Offensive grenades were developed for a 10-yard area of fragmentation.
With shortages, all sides were forced to improvise. The British Tommy created grenades from empty jam jars and tins, filling them with available explosives and scrap metal, nails and screws.
FRENCH BRACELET GRENADE
The French entered the war with the bracelet grenade that had been around virtually unchanged since 1847. The fact that it had not been updated indicated how unprepared the French were for the need of grenades in the coming conflict. It was made of a cast iron body with threaded bronze fuse assembly — the first grenade to use a metal screw-in fuse for water resistance.
Despite being recognized as a useful weapon, it did not reach the troops in high numbers until 1915. The 81mm spherical bomb looked like a mini cannon ball, but was designed with a cord, which attached to the wrist and, when thrown, the strap pulled a friction igniter. There was a four-second delay before the charge exploded. Examples were 115 mm high by 75 mm wide and weighed 110 gram with a black powder charge which was eventually replaced by Cheddite.
MODEL 1915 F1 GRENADE
The Model 1915 F1 grenade was a defensive grenade, with a segmented hollow cast iron body with a pineapple appearance. The user removed a safety cover and hit the cap, initiating a timed fuse. The example shown here is complete with
a scarce top hat percussion fuse and transit cap.
By 1917, the Billant fuse system was in use which was a cast metal fuse screwed into the grenade case and secured with a safety pin lever. When the pin was pulled, the lever released a plunger. A five second time delay burn followed and the resulting explosion spread the casing fragments. This was the classic defensive grenade and the design inspiration for the American classic pineapple grenade. The grenades were transported with a wooden plug with separately packed fuses. Early examples were filled with 60 grams of Cheddite.
The resourceful French also created the improvised raquette petard that used an independent igniter source, such as the handler’s pipe, to light the fuse. The racket bomb was an explosive attached to a wooden handle shaped like a hair brush, lit with a length of fuse. Many of the belligerent nations used them, but it was more popular with the French.
The French produced a number of types ranging from simple sticks of dynamite wired to wooden paddles to others with the explosive contained in a metal pipe and provided with a separate igniter.
The final French version used factory-produced components and a percussion lighting device known as the F2 M1915. The pictured version is an inert 1915 version with a 37cm wood handle secured to the warhead which is formed from a 12.5 cm segment of pipe, wood primer block, complete with a wire belt loop. The example retains most of its protective paraffin coating. This proves the ingenuity needed when tactical necessity had advance far beyond strategic planning. These were also used later in the war as supplemental emergency ordnance.
OF ("Oh-Eff") GRENADE
French OF grenades were made of two thin sheet steel halves, with a threaded neck to fit the fuse. Their designations were the same as the F1 and carried the same fuse type. Several color schemes are known. They measured 123 mm by 60 mm wide and weighed 250 grams which included 150 grams of Cheddite. The pictured OF is an inert Model OF 1 tinned iron offensive grenade with a 1916 Billant igniter. It retains 60% blue gray painted finish as used in trench raids and other offensives. This example would have created a limited area of fragmentation, preventing injury to the attacker. This is a good example complete with a pull ring safety.
Though collecting ordnance is a fascinating hobby, it is imperative that one approaches it with caution. Assume an item is LIVE until it can be proven otherwise. If you are buying a piece, have the dealer demonstrate that the round is empty and inert. If you are digging, approach any whole items with extreme caution. There is probably a good reason why the round is intact — most likely, the ignition system failed, leaving the main charge complete and ready to explode.
French Great War grenade collecting offers many interesting and varied examples both visually and in the manner of their construction. All examples are quite within the price range of the collector, running anywhere from $65 to a few hundred dollars.