Shellfire in the First World War

During the first two weeks of the Battle of Passchendaele the British, Australian and Canadian guns fired 4,283,550 shells at the German defences. It is estimated that throughout the First World War the Allies used 5,000,000 tons of artillery shells against enemy positions. The Central Powers used a similar amount of shells in their effort to win the war.

Soldiers subjected to continual exposure to shell-fire were in danger of developing shell-shock. Early symptoms included tiredness, irritability, giddiness, lack of concentration and headaches. Eventually the men suffered mental breakdowns making it impossible for them to remain in the front-line. Between 1914 and 1918 the British Army identified 80,000 men (2% of those who saw active service) as suffering from shell-shock.

Primary Sources

(1) Private Edgar Foreman, London Regiment, letter to parents (September, 1915)

The Germans can now throw a bomb 200 lbs in weight and 5ft long a distance of 1000 yards, it explodes like a mine and kills by concussion. They sent several over every day and killed a good many. One of the four men of our Battalion who were killed that way I knew quite well, he was the last of five brothers all of whom have been killed in the war.

(2) Guy Chapman, A Passionate Prodigality: Fragments of Autobiography (1933)

One morning, while I was inspecting the rifles of the sentries on duty, I was startled, not to say alarmed, by three whizz-bangs bursting as it seemed all round my head. I heard one coming very close, caught a glimpse of it out of the tail of my eye, and at that moment slipped. I picked myself up, but before I could reach my full height, the minnie burst. A furious hot whirlwind rushed down, seized me and flung me violently back against the earth. I lay half-stunned while a rain of earth and offal pattered down on me, followed by something which whizzed viciously and stuck quivering in the trench wall; it was a piece of jagged steel eighteen inches long.

(3) Harold Chapin, letter to Alice Chapin (1st June 1915)

Things have quieted down now - only aeroplanes and anti-aircraft guns with occasional, very occasional, five minutes of shelling disturb the town. After the inferno which raged "out there" for the last two weeks the result of which you have seen by the papers, (it looks little enough but has cost both sides the most enormous efforts and really signifies much), the comparative calm is almost uncanny. Men of this or that battalion are wandering aimlessly about the streets, getting arrears of food into them, and losing slowly the strained and distrait manner that their experiences have engendered...

These things almost please one by their very perfection of eeriness and horror. Do you understand? They are like the works of some gigantic supernatural artist in the grotesque and horrible. I shall never fear the picturesque in stage grouping again. Never have I seen such perfect grouping as when, after a shell had fallen round the comer from here a fortnight ago, three of us rushed round and the light of an electric torch lit up a little interior ten feet square, with one man sitting against the far wall, another lying across his feet and a dog prone in the foreground, all dead and covered evenly with the dust of powdered plaster and masonry brought down by the explosion! They might have been grouped so for forty years - not a particle of dust hung in the air, the white light showed them, pale whitey brown, like a terracotta group. That they were dead seemed right and proper - but that they had ever been alive - beyond all credence.

(4) Private Henry Russell was badly wounded by shell-fire on 1st July, 1916, at the Battle of the Somme.

I crawled into a shell-hole into which another colleague of mine had also crawled. He told me that he had been shot through the middle of the back and that the bullet had emerged through his left ear. We had not long to wait before a shell burst on the edge of our hole; it killed my colleague and injured me in such a way that I was virtually emasculated. I considered the situation hopeless and that even if a miracle happened and I did, in fact, get away, I would not be fit for anything in this world. I, therefore, decided to kill myself.

I managed to get hold of the bottle of rum which I had put in my haversack and I drank the lot hoping that it would result in my death. In fact it did me no harm at all. It also probably made me slightly merry and bright and rather stupefied. It also probably caused me to drop off to sleep, though I am not aware of this. However, I came to the conclusion, when I had recovered my senses, that, in spite of my condition (my left arm being torn, my left thigh damaged, my right leg wounded and strips of flesh hanging down from my abdomen) it was still worth making a serious effort to save myself.

(5) Charles Hudson, journal entry, quoted in Soldier, Poet, Rebel (2007)

No man's land in the salient varied from a few yards, incredible as this sounds, to about a hundred yards. Shelling was not as common in the front line itself as further back owing to the proximity of the enemy. Trench mortar fire and rifle grenades were our bugbears in the front line. I preferred, of the two, shelling. A shell came quickly, a trench mortar rose high into the air and then on reaching the apex of its flight came down, turning over and over like an old boot, landing with a thud before it burst. From the apex downwards it always appeared to be making straight for you if you watched it, much as the eyes of a portrait seem to follow the viewer round a room. I learned not to look.