In an effort to gain a tactical advantage on the battlefield and ultimately break the deadlock of trench warfare, both the Central Powers and Allies sought various solutions. One such solution was the flame-thrower or flammenwherfer. The use in flame in war goes back to ancient times and one of the first recorded instances was the use of “Greek Fire” by the Byzantine Empire.

The composition of Greek fire was a state secret that has been lost and thus remains a matter of speculation and debate, with proposals including combinations of pine resinnaphtha, quicklime, calcium phosphide, sulfur, or niter.

Byzantine use of incendiary mixtures was distinguished by the use of pressurized nozzles or siphōn to project the liquid onto the enemy. Because the substance was unstable, there was no practical way to employ it for land warfare thus it was employed as a naval weapon.


Greek Fire being employed in a naval battle.

Designs for flame-throwers were evaluated by the German Army as early as 1901 but it wasn’t until the outbreak of the war and subsequent dealdlock on the Western Front that interest was revived. One of the first attacks was a limited one made against the French at Verdun on February 26, 1915 and later on a more widespread basis against the British positions in the vicinity of Hooge, Belgium. The weapon’s effects, besides the obvious one of burning the opposition, was it’s psychological effect as a terror weapon- soldiers feared being burnt more than being shot and often they would quickly vacate their positions when there were flame-throwers in the vicinity.

Below are some images of the later two-man M16 model. One man carried the tank and the other worked the nozzle. Basically, it worked on the principle of flaming fuel oil being projected by compressed nitrogen. There was an ignitor on the the end of the spray nozzle. Needless to say, anyone working one of these was an instant (and large) target for enemy fire.


Two Flammenwerfer teams- It appears that they’re in training.


Another training situation.


The M16 in a museum display. Not the best image, unfortunately.


Flammenwerfer team on the advance.


The unit disassembled.


In training, 1917.

A flame-thrower team consisted of three men with one carrying the tank, the other working the spray nozzle and the third to provide cover and assist as necessary. All the men were volunteers and organizational control was through the Pioneers. Flame-thrower teams were typically assigned to operate with the stosstruppen and were used in concert with machine-gun and rifle-armed infantry. The Flammenwerfer was one of many weapons used in tactical combination to rapidly neutralize and overwhelm the enemy.