Honour for the man who
changed the face of war.
His name has been roundly cursed in foxholes by generations of terrified infantrymen. His legacy was the millions who died with white-hot fragments of metal blasted into them. To many of them he wasn’t even a person, just a feared and loathed word; worse than a bullet, much worse than bayonet - shrapnel.
Like the men behind more innocent inventions - Biro, Diesel - Colonel Henry Shrapnel’s name transcended its owner, losing its capital S and becoming immortalised as part of war’s international language. It was he who invented the exploding shell.
Henry Shrapnel was born on June 3, 1761, the youngest of Zachariah Shrapnel’s nine children, at Midway Manor House at Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire. When his brothers died without issue, he became a man of means without actually being rich. All his life he was to spend his money on the inventions that were to revolutionise everything from the firing of a musket ball to the shape of warships.
When he was 18, he became a cadet at the Royal Military Academy at the Woolwich Arsenal, in London, receiving a commission as second lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. All cadets were trained in the technology of artillery but for Henry it became an obsessionAfter being posted to St johns in Newfoundland for four years, he began devising an effective long range weapon to be used on massed troops. Exploding shot was not unknown but its range was too short.
The existing long-range solid shot, fired horizontally, ploughed a narrow furrow to the target and was not very effective. At close range, canister or case shot was used but its maximum range was little more than 300 yards
Henry Shrapnel went up a lot of blind alleys before producing a shell that was devastating at long-range. Instead of filling a shell with gunpowder, relying on the fragmentation of the outer casing to do the damage, he filled a sphere with musket balls and a charge of gunpowder, ignited by a fuse
This charge was only strong enough to break open the casing the fuse designed to detonate at a predetermined distance from the gun. On bursting, the balls would fly in a narrow cone, scything through anyone in their path. The object was make it effective at all distances within the range of cannon with shells exploding over a target 1,000 yards away.This was all very well on paper but as a junior soldier he had the devil of a job making the top brass take notice. Returning to Britain in 1784, he proposed his Spherical Case Shot to a Committee of the Board of Ordinance.By 1803 he was Captain in command of a Company of Artillery in the 1st Battalion, Royal Artillery but his -spare time and most of his money were devoted to the shell. That year it was finally recommended by the Board of Ordinance and adopted by the artillery. In 1804 it was first tried in action in an attack on Dutch Guiana. It enabled the British to capture Surinam and suddenly Shrapnel was a star. With the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, he was made Assistant of Artillery and carried out tests at a major iron foundry at Carron near Falkirk in Scotland.
A year later three screens, each 54 feet long and nine feet high, were placed 50 yards from each other and 700 yards form the guns. More than 2,000 shots hit the targets.
Reports of the success of his shell started coming in from regiments at Capetown, Buenos Aires, Copenhagen Portugal and Spain. By then it made up 10 per cent of the ammunition carried by British gun crews and 50 per cent of all howitzer ammunition.
Admiral Sir Sydney Smith was so enthusiastic that he ordered 200 shells at his own expense. When writer Francis Scott Key saw the British shells bursting over Baltimore in1814, the sight was so awesome the wrote of them in the poem that became the U.S. national anthem.
The panic the Colonel’s diabolical new weapon caused in the ranks of Napoleon’s lines was devastating. It went through the narrow French filesmen like a hot knife through butter.
After the battle of Vimiera In 1808, Napoleon ordered all unexploded British shells to be collected and taken apart to find out how they worked. They never did get to the bottom of Shrapnel’s weapon and its brutal efficiency played a crucial role in finishing Napoleon at Waterloo.
Wellington’s gunnery commander Colonel Robe said, "no fire could be more murderous." French soldiers were so frightened by the casualties that they were often taken prisoner lying down. Rumours spread that the British had poisoned the cannon balls.
Without shrapnel, the recovery of a key position at Waterloo, the farmhouse at La Haye Sainte, would not have happened, according to General Sir George Wood,Wellington’s artillery commander. "On this simple circumstance hinged entirely the turn of the battle."
Shrapnel’s power of invention didn’t end there. He devised recoil mechanisms, better muskets, new fuses and improved howitzers. On his advice the Navy changed from wooden ships to ironclads.
Yet In his lifetime Colonel Shrapnel was a forgotten and bitter man. The very success of his weapon kept its origins shrouded in secrecy on Wellington’s orders.
Financial recognition, too, was slow to arrive. Complaining he had spent thousands of pounds developing his weapon, he was told by the Board of Ordinance that it had "no funds at its disposal for the reward of merit".
He was given a pension of £1,200 a year in 1814 by The Treasury but he was left worse off because he was passed over for promotion to the command of a battalion.
Various long-forgotten heroes of minor skirmishes were given fulsome write-ups in the 1820 Royal Military Calendar while he was accorded a mean eight lines.
Even when he was heading for a retirement as a Major General on very modest means his workshop at Littlehampton in Sussex was unceremoniously bulldozed to build The Foresters Arms on the Horsham road - he suffered a last blast to his pride. He had been promised a baronetcy but William IV died before he could confer it.
He died at Peartree House in Southampton, in 1842. He had been married for more than 30 years to Esther, who buried him in the family vault in the chancel of the church at his birthplace in Wiltshire. The centenary of his death passed unnoticed.
It remained to Henry, the eldest of his four sons, to gather up the fragments of his lifetime of Inventions - the drawings as meticulous as da Vinci’s, the crumbling parchment commissions from a supposedly grateful nation, the letters expressing Wellington’s gratitude - and tout them around the world. He and they eventually found a home in Canada.
On the plaque, at the Foresters Arms, are the words: General Henry Shrapnell 1761-1842, Inventor of the Shrapnel shell, had a workshop on this site.’At the red-tiled pub, landlord Colin Curtin knew little of Shrapnel’s history. ‘His workshop and bungalow stood in a field here,’ he said.‘He’s a bit of a mystery. Some people might be outraged by a plaque for someone whose invention killed millions but he was a local who ought to be remembered, wasn’t he?’
He is commemorated, not with a statue or a museum but with a small plaque on the wall of a Sussex pub that stands on the site of his workshop.
Incredibly his Spherical Case Shot was still in use in World War Two the last fired by the British in Burma in 1943 and today’s ‘shrapnel’ is, strictly speaking, fragments from a very different shell.
June Southworth Daily Mail July 28, 1994