In Flanders, Belgium, on July 30, 1915, the Germans put their new weapon, the flammenwerfer, or flamethrower, to devastating use against the Allies at the Battle of Hooge.
The Battle of Hooge represented one of the first major employments of the flamethrower, one of the most feared weapons introduced during World War I. Eleven days before the battle, British infantry had captured the German-occupied village of Hooge, located near Ypres in Belgium, by detonating a large mine. Using the flamethrowers to great effect, along with machine guns, trench mortars and hand grenades, the Germans reclaimed their positions on July 30, 1915, penetrating enemy front lines with ease and pushing the British forces back to their second trench. Though few men were lost to actual burns, a British officer reported later, the weapons had a great demoralizing effect, and when added to the assault of the other powerful weapons, they proved mercilessly efficient at Hooge.
German troops had started with stationary flamethrowers, which allowed them to take large gains of land at Verdun in February 1915. Through the efforts of Bernhard Reddemann, a reserve captain, and Richard Fiedler, a Berlin engineer, the Germans progressed to smaller, lighter models, including a portable version, carried like a backpack. The number of flamethrower attacks conducted by Reddeman’s men in the first half of 1916 was three times that of 1915.
One great puzzle that emerged from World War I was why Germany’s opponents never made equal use of this terrifying weapon. The British made three attempts with larger, more unwieldy prototypes: the smallest one was equal in size to the German Grof, which the enemy had almost abandoned by 1916. The French were more persistent, and by 1918 had at least seven companies trained in using flamethrowers; the use of the weapon never progressed to the same level as that in the German army, however.
The flamethrower was included, along with the submarine, the battleship, heavy artillery, the tank, poison gas and the zeppelin, on the list of weapons forbidden to German forces by the Treaty of Versailles. After Hitler came to power in 1933, though, and Germany began to rebuild its army, backpack flamethrowers were liberally supplied to the combat forces, and the formidable flammenwerfer would again play a deadly role in the clashes of World War II.