It felt only right and fitting that the souvenir I brought home with me from my recent trip to Flanders was the fuze from a British Empire shrapnel shell. Artillery killed more men on the Western Front than any other weapon and the fuzes form exploded shells are still regularly ploughed up in the fields of Belgium. I am not a collector of relic, but this piece, that I knew had been fired over the trenches of Flanders seemed a very appropriate memento of my trip:This fuze is a No85 and was used on 15 and 18 pounder shrapnel shells. It screwed into the nose of the shell, and the brass ring from the top of the main shell is still attached to the base of the fuze where it blew to pieces, showing up here as a slightly different colour due to the differing metals:The fuze as it was originally manufactured can be seen in this diagram:The model of fuze and the manufacturer ‘Scovill’ are stamped into the main body:Scovill were an American manufacturer and this was produced under contract for the British Empire. The ring of the shell that has been left attached is, however, marked up with a Canadian acceptance mark:This fuze is dated, I believe, 1917:The No85 was a time delay fuze and could be set to fire after the shell had completed a certain number of rotations in the air. This occurred at a set rate so it was possible to set the fuze to go off after a certain time in flight, showering the ground beneath with small shrapnel balls. These fuzes were remarkably complicated little components, as can be seen in this cutaway diagram:The following explanation of how the fuze works was given by ‘Max poilu’ on the Great War forum and sets it out far clearer than I could:
The fuze contains a number of overlapping rings burning in sequence. The relationship of each ring to the other determines how long the burning train of powder is. I believe the black powder used in the fuze time trains was a specially selected grade, all black powder is a ‘selected’ grade – but here a particularly fine and stable type.
From the fuze a hollow tube runs inside the shell to a base plate below the shrapnel balls – around 350 lead balls packed in resin in an 18 pounder. Below this plate is a small charge of black powder. The resin holds the balls stable to avoid an affect on flight and burns to give the puff of black smoke for observation. When the timed fuze triggers above the target a small flash is sent from the fuze down the tube igniting the black powder – this ‘explosion’ is a relatively small charge designed just to expel the balls – it is not an explosion in the sense of a HE shell. The shell casing itself is actually quite thin as it does not need to ‘resist’ the detonation as in a HE shell. The fuze is fitted to the shell with shallow threads so that it is separated from the shell casing easily.
This detonation pushes the base outwards ejecting the balls and the fuze head in a wide area over the ground. Think of the shell as a huge shotgun cartridge. The combined velocity of the forward motion of the shell and ejected balls produces an obvious lethal effect.
The shell casings are not designed to fracture. All the component parts; balls, casing, fuse, flash tube and plate are probably the most easily found and numerous objects in the battlefields today.