German Flame Throwers in Action

By an Eye Witness

[The New York Times/Current History, September 1916]

A French correspondent on the Somme front obtained this glimpse of one of the most thoroughly "modern" horrors of war from an injured soldier in a first-aid station near the advanced trenches:

It was decided to withdraw us to a better position some fifty yards in the rear. Then the Captain called for some one to stay behind to watch and signal the enemy's movements. That's my regular job, so I fixed myself about fifteen feet up in a cleft of a big tree and seized a telephone which was connected with the nearest battery. From there I could see a German trench at the edge of a little wood about eighty yards from the trench my comrades had vacated.

For nearly an hour nothing happened. Occasionally I noticed heads peering from the Boche trench trying to see into the empty trench which was hidden from them by a slight swelling of the ground just before it. They would have been a splendid mark for a sniper, but I had other work this time. Suddenly a group of about forty Boches crept forward from the wood, rapidly followed by the best part of a company. I telephoned: "Enemy advancing, led by a detachment of 'flamenwerfer,'" for I had recognized the devilish apparatus carried by the foremost group. When the latter were about thirty feet from the empty trench they halted in a hollow just below the rise in the ground, and then, with appalling suddenness, a dozen jets of white and yellow flames darted up to fall plumb into the trench. The dense smoke hid the rest of the Germans, and almost choked me, but, thanks to my mask, I was able to gasp information to the battery.

It was then I had a glimpse of what hell must be like. Our gunners had the range to an inch, and a torrent of shells burst right among the fire-throwers. Great sheets of flame sprang up, one jet from an exploding container just grazing me, burning my clothes and scorching my ribs rather badly. But it was impossible to escape. The ground was a sea of fire. In the midst of it the Germans, like living torches, were dying horribly. One man spun around like a top, not even trying to run away until he fell in a pool of flame. Others rolled on the ground, but the blazing liquid ran around them everywhere, and I could smell the horrible odor of burning flesh.

I don't think any fire-throwers escaped. Their screams, heard despite the cannonade and rifle fire, seemed to continue terribly long. The company behind them appeared panic-stricken. As the smoke lifted I saw them running back to the wood, and our mitrailleuses did severe execution. I was nearly fainting with the fumes and pain from my burns. The Captain sent a patrol, which found me hanging limply in the tree fork. They had trouble getting me, but luckily the Germans were too staggered to interfere.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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