Saturday 23 June 2018

Lieutenant-General Henry Scrope Shrapnel (1761 – 1842) - British Army officer whose name has entered the English language as the inventor of the Shrapnel shell.

The current accepted definition of shrapnel, which has passed into the English language is :

Plural shrapnel

1 : a projectile that consists of a case provided with a powder charge and a large number of usually lead balls and that is exploded in flight;
2 : bomb, mine, or shell fragments.

Henry Shrapnel was born on 3rd June 1761 at Midway Manor in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, UK. Henry was the ninth child born to Zachariah Shrapnel (1724 – 1796) and his wife Lydia, nee Needham.

In 1779, Henry joined the British Army, serving with the Royal Artillery as a 2nd Lieutenant. He was posted to St. John’s, Newfoundland from 1870 until 1874, where he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant.  When he returned to Britain, Henry invented what he termed "spherical case shot" ammunition.  This was a hollow cannonball filled with lead shot that burst in mid-air.  Henry successfully demonstrated his invention in Gibraltar in 1787.   The device was designed as an anti-personnel weapon. In 1803, the British Army adopted a similar but elongated explosive shell, which immediately acquired the inventor's name.  This has resulted in the term ‘shrapnel’ coming to mean fragmentation from artillery shells and fragmentation in general.  Throughout The First World War, British Shrapnel shells were still manufactured according to Henry Shrapnel’s original invention.

Henry Shrapnel served in Flanders, where he was wounded in 1793. He was promoted to the rank of Major on 1st November 1803, after serving for eight years as a Captain. In a battle at Fort New Amsterdam, Suriname, on 30th April 1804, Henry Shrapnel’s invention was proved to be a success.  He was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel on 20th July 1804.

Henry married Esther Squires (1780 – 1852) on 5th May 1801 in St. Mary’s Church, Lambeth, London, UK.  They had a son – Henry Needham Scrope Shrapnel - who was born in July 1812.

In 1814, the British Government recognized Henry Shrapnel's contribution to the Army by awarding him a pension of  £1,200 a year for life.   This is roughly equivalent to the buying poewer of  £240,000 in 2018.  Henry was appointed to the office of Colonel-Commandant, Royal Artillery, on 6th March 1827 and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-General on 10th January 1837.

Henry Shrapnel lived at Peartree House, near Peartree Green, Southampton from about 1835 until his death on 13th March 1842 at the age of 80. Henry’s wife, Esther, died in 1852.

NOTE:  According to the Memorial on the Shrapnel Family Memorial in the vault of Holy Trinity Church at Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, Henry Shrapnel died in 1849 at the age of 80.


For a detailed explanation of the Shrapnel Shell see

Portrait of Henry Shrapnel by F. Arrowsmith in oil at the Royal Artillery Institution, Woolwich

With grateful thanks to Andrew Morgan for his clarification of the definition of Shrapnel and for the images shown here :

“Contrary to the accepted definition in dictionaries and encyclopedia, 'Shrapnel' was a quite distinct type of artillery projectile, in very common use particularly early on in The First World War - .a British invention, by a Royal Artillery officer of the same name. By 1914, it was effectively a shell that was a flying shotgun, discharging hundreds of metal balls in a cone shaped hail. The container or casing then fell to the ground and was completely inert, unlike a High Exposive shell (HE shell) which contains no metal balls but is designed to shatter into pieces, which are then called 'shell splinters' or similar terms.

All sorts of pieces of all shapes and sizes were used to fill the shells. Rather than using hardened lead or steel balls, on occasion, the Belgians used cube shot as a Shrapnel shell filling.”