Battle Relic
: Shrapnel shell balls from Ypres, Belgium, World War One, presumably British.
Introduction: From the Hooge Crater Museum in Ypres, Belgium, we were able to purchase ten (10)
so-called "shrapnel balls"; lead, marble-sized spheres, similar in design as musket balls from earlier times,
meant to be shot from a Shrapnel shell "in flight".
The excellent museum, across the road from the Commonwealth Hooge Crater Cemetery, is located in the heart of World War One combat scenes.
Here the three Battles of Ypres took place, awful weapons such as poisonous gas (mustard gas, also known as "Yperite") and flamethrowers were first deployed here, and a gigantic crater from a mining attack on German trenches led to the addition of “Crater” to the name of the hamlet of Hooge, east of Ypres proper.

Item Description: Ten marble-sized metal balls, presumably made out of lead, of which eight appear to be pristine and not ejected from a shrapnel shell by explosion. They show wear only of contact with other shrapnel balls.

Two balls appear to have been dug up from the typical khaki-colored soil of Flanders and show signs of deformation, presumably from striking objects after the shell in which they were incases burst.

(click for an enlargement)

Shrapnel's invention
Shrapnel shells were anti-personnel artillery shells which carried a large number of individual bullets close to the target and then ejected them to continue along the shell's trajectory and strike individual targets.
The shrapnel balls relied almost entirely on the shell's velocity for their lethality.
Shrapnel is named after Major-General Henry Shrapnel (1761–1842), an English artillery officer, whose experiments resulted in the design and development of a new type of artillery shell.

Canister & grape shot
Until lieutenant Shrapnel’s invention in 1784, the artillery could use "canister or grape shot" to defend themselves from infantry or cavalry attacks.
This type of ammunition consisted of a tin or canvas container filled with iron or lead balls instead of the usual cannonball.
When fired, the container burst open during passage through the bore or at the muzzle, giving the effect of an over-sized shotgun shell.
At ranges of up to 328 yards canister shot was still highly lethal, though at this range the shots’ density was significantly lower, which made it less likely to strike a human target.

(click to enlarge)
1) 2) 3) 4)

1) Canister and grape shot (Fort Defiance Visitors Center, Clarksville, TN)
2) Grape shot  (Army Museum, Leiden, The Netherlands)
3) Six pounder shot shell with Borman fuse (Fort Donelson Visitors Center, Dover, TN)
Hotchkiss shell (Fort Donelson Visitors Center, Dover, TN)

Improvement of the shrapnel shell
Shrapnel's innovation combined the scattering effect of canister shot with a time fuse to open the canister and disperse the bullets it contained.
The first designs consisted of a hollow cast-iron ball filled with lead balls and gun powder and fitted with a rudimentary time fuze. After being fired, the fuze would break open the shell and the shrapnel balls would carry on with the shell's "remaining velocity".
Inside the shell a diaphragm separated the bullets from the bursting charge. As a buffer to prevent lead shot to deform, a resin was used as a packing material between the shot.

The final shrapnel shell design, adopted in the 1880's, used a forged steel cone shaped case with a timer fuze in the nose.
It also featured a tube running through the centre to transmit the ignition flash to a gunpowder bursting charge in the shell base. The use of steel allowed the shell wall to be made much thinner and therefore allow space for more bullets. It also withstood the force of the powder charge without shattering, so that the bullets were fired forward out of the shell case with increased velocity, much like a shotgun. This is the design that was in standard use when World War I began in 1914.

Cross section of a shrapnel shell on display in the Hooge Crater Museum in Ypres, Belgium

Size of the shrapnel balls
The size of shrapnel balls in World War I was based on the thesis that a projectile energy of 58 foot-pounds force (79 Joules in the calculations of the US Army ) to 60 foot-pounds force (81 Joules in the calculations of the British military) was required to disable an enemy soldier.
A typical World War I 3 inch (76 mm) field gun shell at its maximum range travelling at a velocity of 250 feet per second, plus the additional velocity from the shrapnel bursting charge (about 150 feet per second), would give individual shrapnel bullets a velocity of 400 feet per second and an energy of 60 foot/pounds.
This was the minimum energy of a single half-inch lead-antimony ball of approximately 170 grains (11 grams).
The shrapnel bullets featured in the Battle Relic # 20 are of this weight and are therefore of a typical field gun shrapnel bullet size.

(click for enlargements)

Shells, fuses and center tubes littering the battlefield
The body of the shell itself was not lethal.
Its only function was to transport the bullets close to the target, and it fell to the ground intact after the bullets were expended.
A battlefield where a shrapnel barrage had been fired was afterwards typically littered with intact empty shell bodies, fuzes and central tubes.
This explains the abundance of shells of all types and, above all, time fuzes on display in the Hooge Crater Museum:

(click for enlargements)

Troops under a shrapnel barrage would try to collect and bring any intact fuzes to their own artillery, as the time setting on the fuze could be used to calculate the shell's range and the location of the firing gun.
This could lead to counter fire missions targeting the enemy's batteries.
All museums in the Ypres area we have visited feature large amounts of empty shrapnel shells.
They are literally piled up or stacked into low walls.

(click for enlargements)

Empty shrapnel shells stacked at the Sanctuary Wood Museum (3 photos on the left)
and at the Hooge Crater Museum (right)

Empty shrapnel shells everywhere on the grounds of the Kasteelhof Hotel on Menin Road
(Battle Detective field office during our stay in the Ypres area)

Tactical deployment of shrapnel in World War One
While shrapnel made no impression on trenches and other earthworks, it remained the favored weapon of the British (at least) to support their infantry assaults by suppressing the enemy infantry and preventing them from manning their trench parapets. This was called 'neutralization' and by the second half of 1915 had become the primary task of artillery supporting an attack.
Shrapnel being non-cratering was advantageous in an assault, as craters made the ground more difficult to cross, although they also doubled as safe areas and firing positions for infantry.
Shrapnel was also useful against counter-attacks, working parties and any other troops in the open.

Shrapnel shells proved effective for cutting barbed wire entanglements only in the first stage of World War One when the Germans used a thinner wire.
As a result, shrapnel was only effective in killing enemy personnel.
The bullets also had limited destructive effect and were stopped by sandbags, so troops behind protection or in bunkers were generally safe.
Also steel helmets, both the German Stahlhelm and the British Brodie helmet (adapted by all Commonwealth and armies and the US military), could resist shrapnel bullets and protect the wearer from head injury.

(click for enlargements)
1) 2)

1) German Stahlhelm of World War One vintage painted over during the Nazi era
(Camp Elsenbron Military Museum, Belgium)

Brodie Helmet of World War One of the US Army's 82nd Infantry Division
(York Farm, Pall Mall, TN)

A British ammunition bearer wearing a Brodie helmet (left), a Battle Detective (right)
Hooge Crater Museum, Ypres, Belgium

Of the ten bullets in our possession, eight are in a pristine condition.
These may have come from a diffused 'dud'.
We learned that the Flanders fields are still littered with unexploded ordnance.
The other two bullets show signs of deformity, likely from striking objects after being ejected from their shell. They are also coated with khaki colored dirt; typical of the Ypres battlefields.


(click for enlargements)
Unexploded ordnance in verge of road near Maple Copse Cemetery, Belgium

March 20th, 2014 UPDATE: On a military show held on 02MAR2014 we bought five (5) so-called flechettes; little steel darts the size of one inch nails. Flechettes can be seen as the modern shrapnel as it is designed to be delivered in artillery shells and rockets in an anti-personnel purpose. Flechettes saw its most wide-spread use during the Viet Nam where they were often fired from 105millimeter howitzers against enemy dismounted troops. Flechettes were also fired from 12 gauge shotguns in ambush situations.

(click for enlargements)
Flechettes are small nail sized steel projectiles with stabilizing fins fired in large volumes.
They weigh 0.0017oz and measure just over an inch. The X-Ray shows impact on a person.

Back to Battlerelics

(c) 2007-Present Day Email: all rights reserved.