Military Wiki
Livens Projector
Livens gas projector loading.jpg
British soldiers loading and fitting electrical leads to a battery of Livens projectors
Type mortar
Place of origin  United Kingdom
Service history
In service 1916–1918
Used by  United Kingdom British Empire
Wars World War I
Production history
Designer Captain William Howard Livens, Royal Engineers
Designed 1916
Number built 140,000 projectors
400,000 bombs[1][2][3]
Shell Gas drum
Calibre 8 inches (200 mm)
Elevation fixed
Traverse fixed
Maximum range 1,640 yd (1,500 m)
Filling phosgene,[4] flammable oil
Filling weight 30 lb (14 kg)[5]
For the large flamethrower see Livens Large Gallery Flame Projectors

The Livens Projector was a simple mortar-like weapon that could throw large drums filled with flammable or toxic chemicals.[6] In the First World War, the Livens Projector became the standard means of delivering gas attacks and it remained in the arsenal of the British Army until the early years of the Second World War.[7]


It was created by the British army officer Captain William H. Livens of the Royal Engineers.[8] Later, in World War II he worked on petroleum warfare weapons such as the flame fougasse and various other flame throwing weapons.[9][10] A large calibre flame thrower, designed to engulf German trenches in burning oil, was deployed at the Somme in 1916. (One of these weapons was partially excavated recently by a British TV programme, having been buried as the tunnel in which it was being built took a direct hit from a German shell.) Prior to the invention of the Livens Projector, chemical weapons had been delivered either by "cloud attacks" or chemical-filled shells fired from howitzers. Cloud attacks were made by burying gas-filled cylinder tanks just beyond the parapet of the attacker's trenches and then opening valves on the tanks when the wind was right. This allowed a useful amount of gas to be released but there was danger that the wind would change and the gas would drift back over the attacking troops. Chemical shells were much easier to direct at the enemy but could not deliver nearly as much gas as a cylinder tank.

Livens was in command of Z company, the unit charged with developing and using flame and chemical weapons. Flame throwers and various means of dispensing chemicals had proven frustratingly limited in effect. One day, during an attack on the Somme, Z company encountered a party of Germans who were well dug in. Grenades did not succeed in shifting them, so Livens improvised a sort of giant Molotov cocktail using two 5 gallon oil drums. When these were thrown into the German positions they were so effective that Livens's comrade Harry Strange wondered whether it would be better to use containers to carry the flame to the enemy rather than relying on a complex flame thrower.[11][12]

Reflecting on the incident, Livens and Strange considered how a really large shell filled with fuel might be thrown by a mortar.[13] Livens went on to develop a large, simple mortar that could throw a three gallon drum of oil which would burst when it landed, spreading burning oil over the target.[14] Livens came to the attention of General Hubert Gough who was impressed by his ideas and "wangled" everything that Livens needed for his large projector.[15]

On 25 July 1916 at Ovillers-la-Boisselle during the Battle of the Somme, Z Company used 80 projectors when the Australians were due to attack Pozières. The early versions had a short range and it was necessary to place the projectors 200 yards out in no-man's-land. The resulting barrage was highly successful in neutralising the German machine-gun posts.[14]

Z Company rapidly developed the Livens Projector, increasing its range to 350 yards and eventually an electrically triggered version with a range of 1,300 yards. This version was successfully used at Messines Ridge in June 1917.[14]

The Livens Projector was then modified to fire canisters of poison gas rather than oil. This system was tested in secret, at Thiepval in September 1916 and Beaumont-Hamel in November.[14] The Livens Projector was able to deliver a high concentration of gas a considerable distance. Each canister delivered as much gas as several chemical warfare artillery shells. Without the need to reload a barrage could be launched quickly, catching the enemy by surprise. Although each projector could be fired just once during an attack, the weapon was sufficiently inexpensive to be deployed in hundreds or even thousands.

The Livens Projector was also used to fire other substances. At one time or another the drums contained high explosive, oil and cotton-waste pellets, thermite, white phosphorus and "stinks". Used as giant stink bombs to trick the enemy, "stinks" were malodorous but harmless substances such as bone oil and amyl acetate used to simulate a poison gas attack, thereby compelling the enemy to put on their cumbersome masks (which reduced the efficiency of German troops) on occasions when gas could not be safely employed.[16] Alternatively, "stinks" could be used to artificially prolong the scale, discomfort and duration of genuine gas-attacks i.e. alternating projectiles containing "stinks" with phosgene, adamsite or chloropicrin. There was even a design for ammunition containing a dozen Mills bombs in the manner of a cluster bomb.[17]

The Livens Projector remained in the arsenal of the British Army until the early years of the Second World War.[7]


Typical layout

Phosgene bomb unearthed on the Somme, 2006

The Livens Projector was designed to combine the advantages of gas cylinders and shells by firing a cylinder tank at the enemy.[18] It consisted of a simple metal pipe that was set in a ground at a 45-degree angle.

Specifications varied during the war. The early field improvisations in July 1916 near La Boselle based the barrel on 12-inch-diameter (300 mm) oil drums, the projectile was an oil can. The production model was decided on in December 1916 after further successful field trials on the Somme. It was based on spare 8-inch-diameter (200 mm) oxy-acetylene welded tubing.[19]

The 8-inch barrel became standard and was first used in numbers when 2,000 fired a salvo in the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Barrels were supplied in three lengths depending on required range: 2 ft 9 in (0.84 m) for short range, 3 ft (0.91 m) for medium range, 4 ft 3 in (1.30 m) for maximum range.[20] A drum 7.6 in (190 mm) in diameter and 20 in (510 mm) long containing 30 lb (14 kg) of gas[5] was shot out by an electrically initiated charge, giving it a range of about 1,500 m (1,600 yd). On impact with the target, a burster charge would disperse the chemical filling over the area.[21] It was also used to project flammable oil, as with 1,500 drums fired before the Battle of Messines in June 1917.[22] Oil was also tried on 20 September 1917 during the Battle of Menin Road with 290 projectors used in support of an attempt to capture Eagle Trench east of Langemarck. This included concrete bunkers and machine gun nests but the drums did not land in the trenches and failed to suppress the German defenders there.[23][24]

Combat use

As a rule, the projectors were sited out in the open some little way behind the front line so that digging, aiming (either by direct line of sight or by compass) and wiring up the electrical leads were easier. When camouflaged the positions would be unknown to the enemy so that although the enemy was able to recognise the direction of the location by the discharge flash he would be uncertain of the range. As such these installations could only be carried out at night. The digging of the narrow trenches did not involve much labour and later in the war the projectors were only buried to a depth of about a foot, instead of up to their muzzles.[25] The projector was somewhat unreliable. In order to safeguard friendly forces from 'shorts' an area immediately ahead of the projector battery was cleared of troops before firing. This area allowed for the possibility of drums reaching only 60% of the estimated range and veering 20 degrees from the central line of fire by the wind or from some other cause.[25] The projectors were also inaccurate:

"It was distinctly laid down as a principle that, owing to the inaccuracy of the weapon, the most suitable targets were areas which were either strongly held or which contained underground shelters in which the occupants were safe against artillery fire."[26]

A British training manual of 1940 described it as:

"a simple weapon which does not aspire to great accuracy. Its range is limited to about 1,800 yards; the noise of firing is very loud, and at night is accompanied by a vivid flash.
Projectors are the principal armament of C.W. companies, RE."[7]

The projector's unreliability and inaccuracy were more than made up for by the weapon's principal advantages: it was a cheap, simple and extremely effective method of delivering chemical weapons. Typically, hundreds, or even thousands, of Livens projectors would be fired in unison during an attack in order to saturate the enemy lines with poison gas.

This weapon was one which, if the installation had been carried out carefully and camouflaged, was capable not only of flooding the enemy's trenches unexpectedly with a deadly gas a few seconds after notice of its approach had been given by the flash of the discharge but of establishing such a high concentration of poisonous vapour—especially in the neighbourhood where each drum fell—that no respirator could be expected to give adequate protection to its wearer. [...] This 'mass effect' had, of course, not been achieved to any marked extent during the Somme battle, when only a dozen or two makeshift drums were discharged at a time; but now that we were proposing to fire several thousand of them simultaneously in a single operation, the effect might well be expected to be—and in fact was—profound. In a captured German document, dated 27/12/17, an English gas projector bombardment was described as follows: 'The discharge in sight and sound resembles a violent explosion; volcanic sheets of flame or the simultaneous occurrence of many gun flashes, thick noise of impact up to 25 seconds after the flash of discharge. The mines, contrary to the manner of discharge, do not all burst exactly simultaneously: the noise resembles that of an exploding dump of hand-grenades. Fragmentation is very slight.'[27]

Surviving examples

There are a number of surviving examples in private collections and other museums.

See also


  1. Jones (2007) page 43
  2. National Archive, T 173/330 - Royal Commission on awards to inventors - Livens
  3. Ministry of Munitions History 1922, page 100
  4. "The military policy laid down in May, 1917... It [C.G. i.e. phosgene] was the only lethal substance allocated to projector drums". Ministry of Munitions 1922, Volume XI, Part II Chemical Warfare Supplies. page 8
  5. 5.0 5.1 Jones (2007) page 42 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Jones2007Page42" defined multiple times with different content
  6. "1916 - Other Corps activities". Corps History - Part 14. Royal Engineers Museum. Retrieved 2009-02-03. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 The Use Of Gas In The Field, 1940
  8. Palazzo, 2002, p103.
  9. LeFebure, 1926, p60
  10. Banks, 1946, p33
  11. Croddy, 2001, p138.
  12. Awards to Inventors, 1922, p20
  13. Awards to Inventors, 1922, p30
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 "Major William Howard Livens (1889 - 1964)". Notable Individuals Of The Great War: # 2. I - L.. The Western Front Association. Archived from the original on 2007-10-21. Retrieved 2008-03-04. 
  15. Awards to Inventors, 1922, p51–62
  16. Foulkes 1934, p. 169.
  17. Rawson 2006, p. 272.
  18. LeFebure (1926) p. 48–63
  19. Ministry of Munitions History 1922, page 98–99
  20. Ministry of Munitions History 1922, page 99–100
  21. United States Dept. of War, 1942[page needed]
  22. Jones 2007, page 44
  23. Farndale 1986, page 207
  24. British Official History (Military Operations France & Belgium 1917), page 270
  25. 25.0 25.1 Foulkes 1934, p. 202.
  26. Foulkes 1934, p. 203.
  27. Foulkes 1934, pp. 199–200.
  28. 03. Lance-mines alliés (allied mine-throwers) - Page 4 - Canons de la Grande Guerre / WW1 guns" Bernard Plumier: webpage (in French)


  • Banks, Sir Donald (1946). Flame Over Britain. Sampson Low, Marston and Co. 
  • Croddy, Eric (2001). Chemical and Biological Warfare: A Comprehensive Survey for the Concerned Citizen. Springer-Verlag New York. ISBN 978-0-387-95076-1. 
  • Foulkes, Charles Howard (2001) [First published Blackwood & Sons, 1934]. "Gas!" The Story of the Special Brigade. The Naval & Military Press. ISBN 1-84342-088-0. 
  • Rawson, Andrew (2006). British Army Handbook 1914–1918. Sutton Publishing. ISBN 0-7509-3745-9. 
  • Jones, Simon (2007). World War I Gas Warfare Tactics and Equipment. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84603-151-9. 
  • LeFebure, Victor (1923). "The Riddle of the Rhine; chemical strategy in peace and war". Project Gutenberg. The Chemical Foundation, Inc. 
  • General Sir Martin Farndale, History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. Western Front 1914–18. London: Royal Artillery Institution, 1986
  • Palazzo, Albert. Seeking Victory on the Western Front: The British Army and Chemical Warfare in World War I. University of Nebraska Press, 2002 ISBN 0-8032-8774-7.
  • United States Department of War (1942). Livens Projector M1 TM 3-325
  • The Use Of Gas In The Field. Operations: Military Training Pamphlet No. 23. Part V. War Office. January 1940. 
  • Minutes of Proceedings before the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors. National Archives T 173/702. Treasury. 29 May 1922. 
  • "History of the Ministry of Munitions", 1922. Volume XI, Part I Trench Warfare Supplies. Facsimile reprint by Imperial War Museum and Naval & Military Press, 2008 ISBN 1-84734-885-8

Further reading

  • Richter, Donald (1992). Chemical Soldiers - British Gas Warfare in World War I. University Press of Kansas. ISBN 0-7006-1113-4. 

External links

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