Duds On The Western Front In The Great War

Share...Share on LinkedInShare on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on Twitter

Whilst researching the terms for inclusion in the Glossary of Terms Used By The British On the Western Front, that was prepared especially for the WFASWB Front Line, I was surprised to find there were two military meanings to the word ‘Dud’. The first was the obvious well known one referring to ‘shells that failed to explode’ but surprisingly, this word does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary in this context. The second reference was to a senior officer who failed to perform his duty in a satisfactory manner or an officer of any rank who behaved in a cowardly fashion; i.e. said to be ‘windy’ or to be ‘in a funk’. Equally surprisingly, the word does appear in this context in the OED, i.e. From Medieval English: a counterfeit thing; a futile person: But not in a specific military sense.

Dud Shells

From the outset of the Great War, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) suffered from a general lack of artillery ordnance; both guns and ammunition. As regards ammunition, the problem was that in 1914 there was not any stock at all of high explosive shells (H.E.) in the British arsenals. Shrapnel shells (e.g. holding 375 balls – weighing 11 ounces – per 18-pounder shell) had served the British well in the Boer War, and it was assumed that it would be the ordnance of choice for future wars.

The early battles of 1914-15 showed the error of these assumptions. In particular the ineffectiveness of shrapnel against barbed wire and even the most modest of fortifications. This spawned a scramble to rectify the matter by the production of large numbers of H.E. shells. This culminated in the political hiatus of the Shell Scandal of 1915 in which both Lloyd George and Kitchener figured prominently. (It was left to the former, now Minister of Munitions, to sort it out best he could. To his credit great improvements were made, but it was not until late 1916 that the overall shell supply problem was largely resolved). Indigenous and overseas manufacturers had to be found who could transfer their plant to mainly H.E. shell production. Also, due to the UK manpower shortage brought on by the enrollment of volunteers to the armed forces, large numbers of additional workers had to be recruited to man these plants: Even to the extent of bringing to England 6,000 Belgian refugees and wounded ex-soldiers. Eventually, the greatest number of munitions workers were women – 520,000 by July 1916 – when UK shell production of all kinds had risen to the equivalent of 70 million shells per annum.

In addition, specifications for H.E. shells had been urgently commissioned from designers who had little knowledge, or experience, in the mass production and quality control of artillery ordnance, and even less of the various aspects of its practical application at field level. A particular problem proved to be the fuses for the H.E. shells. Before the perfection of time fuses later in the war, the ‘Fuse, Graze, No. 100’ activated most British H.E. shells. This fuse went from design to production in 10 days in late 1914. The intention was that the ‘graze fuse’ would be precocked by the shock of firing the shell. Then, when the nose cone of the shell ‘grazed’ an object during its trajectory, a small pellet holding a detonator would be driven by inertia onto a needle, the explosive charge ignited and the shell would explode. Unfortunately, there was no locking device, or safety pin, for this fuse. Once it was united with the shell, the detonator could be accidentally cocked by vibration, or a knock, without any external indication of the status of the shell as being ‘armed’. Accordingly, when the shell was fired from the gun, the pre-cocked detonator would be activated inside the barrel of the gun or, perhaps, within a few feet of emerging from the barrel; with catastrophic results for the gun-crew and anyone else in the vicinity. In 1916, during the First Battle of the Somme, these ‘prematures’, as they were called, occurred in around 1 out of every 1,000 shells fired. In some divisions during the Somme Offensive, 500 rounds were fired every 24 hours, thus, on average, one ‘premature’ was occurring every 2 days or so. The effect on the morale of the gunners of this macabre game of ‘Russian Roulette’ can be readily imagined. Also, it is not difficult to presume that some gun-crews took the initiative to reduce the frequency of these explosive incidents by inactivating or removing the fuse before loading the shell into the guns. After the war, in some sectors of the former Somme battlefield, there were reports of finding an unexploded shell every two or three paces. And these shells are still being unearthed in their hundreds today. Eventually, gun batteries using these fuses became openly known as ‘suicide clubs’ and an official investigation was urgently made to identify the source(s) of the defective fuses. The majority of the faulty fuses were tracked to a single manufacturer. Remedial action was quickly taken, and progressively, after The First Battle of Somme, the problem was resolved.

In 1917, increasing numbers of a superior French percussion fuse known by the British as the ‘Fuse, Direct Action, No. 106’ were procured. This fuse had 5 separate safety devices and proved to be totally safe. It also had the advantages of exploding closer to the surface of the ground, giving a much more effective result: The British ‘Graze, No 100’ fuse had a tendency to only explode when it had deeply penetrated the ground, much diminishing its destructive effect.

Dud Officers

When Field Marshal Kitchener made his first call on 11th August 1914 for 100,000 troops for his New Army, it was evident that the existing small British Regular Army of 250,000 men with its initial commitment of 4 Divisions for the BEF – 40,000 men – could not provide all the necessary cadres for the training and eventual leadership of these new soldiers. To meet this, and other manpower needs, it became necessary to call back to military service some Reservists, Territorials, Militia and, also, retired officers and senior NCO’s. Some of the officers recalled were former High Command and Staff Officers. The mainly elderly officers that returned to duty were called, sardonically, ‘dug-outs’. Inevitably, some of them were more acquiescent to recall, and more effective in their duties, than others. Equally inevitably, it took some time to weed out the really incompetent and the unfit, in both meanings of the word, and many of the subsequent disasters that occurred on and off the field of battle in the early years of the war were contributable to the failings of these ‘dug-out’ officers.

Whilst the so-called ‘Dud’ officers did include some ‘dug-outs’, the word ‘dud’ more generally applied to those staff officers who spent their time ineffectually far away from the front, having little contact with the battle-zone and the men for whom they held direct, or indirect, operational responsibility. When these staff officers did make a fleeting appearance in the battle zone, they were often dressed in elaborate, well tailored, uniforms bedecked with braid, brightly coloured badges, patches, bands and military decorations, all topped off with highly polished leather accessories and a cane. Frequently, they arrived, and departed, by motorcar or on horseback. The effect of all this on the mud-stained, battle-worn officers and men in the battle-zone is not difficult to envisage.

A rhyme coined at the time clearly makes the case:

He had tabs on his chest,
And even on his vest.
He had the Military Cross,
And rode upon a hoss.

As the war dragged on, the expression ‘dud’ officer achieved an even more derogatory meaning. It also referred to officers who had proved incompetent at the battalion level but whom, by guile, or social connection, had got themselves put onto the Staff. Thus they largely avoided the hazards faced by their former comrades who continued to serve with their Regiments in the field. On occasion being a ‘dud’ also meant officers who were seen to be lacking in the required level of morale fibre, or as it was colloquially expressed: “Being In a Funk” or “Windy”.

Unfortunately, it also seems probable that some mildly battle-traumatised officers were also labelled in this way. But, it is unlikely that any seriously ‘shell-shocked’ men could continue to perform at any level of competence: ‘Dud’ or otherwise.

Of course, the majority of Staff Officers performed their duties in a highly diligent, conscientious and competent manner. Or certainly tried to do so: 58 generals alone died from wounds received on the Western Front.