Instant messaging, 100 years ago

The shell was fired from a leichte Minenwerfer such as this one in the Memorial's collection

The shell was fired from a leichte Minenwerfer such as this one in the Memorial's collection (REL/04285)

The fluidity of movement on the Western Front during the last year of the First World War saw much rushed development of communications tools. One German device, preserved in the Memorial’s collection, embodies the perils of life in the trenches.  It was a system born out of desperation, apparently introduced to the German Army to allow a message to be sent and received when all other means of communication had broken down.

the outer casing of the shell, showing the time fuze and the rifled driving band around the base, which helped to spin the shell in flight.

The outer casing of the shell, showing the time fuze and the rifled driving band around the base, which helped to spin the shell in flight.

The leichte Nachrichten Mine was a shell fired from a 7.6 cm leichte Minenwerfer (light trench mortar) which provided a means of urgent communication between battalion and regimental headquarters, and on to a further reporting centre. Nachrichten means news.

The shell consisted of four parts: a light Minenwerfer shell case; a flare in which there is a compartment to take a message; a burster; and a time fuze. A message was written on a small scrap of paper, and inserted into a steel capsule at the rear of the flare and screwed tight. The flare was then placed into the Minenwerfer shell and the fuze was set to airburst after an appropriate time of flight.

The message was inserted into a screw-tight cavity in the base of this container, which was then placed inside the shell body.

The message was inserted into a screw-tight cavity in the base of this container, which was then placed inside the shell body.

The shell was then fired towards the recipients of the message, who with luck were by this stage well dug in, with an observation loop-hole observing a target that would have been previously registered, and concealed from the enemy. As the shell burst open, the flare was ignited, signalling the approach of the message shell. The flare continued to burn for several minutes after it had struck the ground, and was apparently so hot that a pair of pincers was supplied for handling it. The cover of the message compartment was then unscrewed with a special key.

cross section of the message shell, taken from a contemporary British intelligence manual.  REL30584.001

Cross section of the message shell, taken from a contemporary British intelligence manual.  REL30584.001

Unfortunately, we do not know how successful the shell was, or how widespread was its use, but its very existence shows something of the desperation of the times and the risks that the front-line Truppen endured.

About the author

Shane Casey is a Senior Curator in the Military Heraldry and Technology Section at the Australian War Memorial.