‘Open your pouches – handle your grenades – blow your matches – fall on.’ So Captain Thornton orders his grenadiers, soldiers specialising in the throwing of the grenade, in Sir Walter Scott’s 1817 novel Rob Roy.
The hurling of that small explosive device would decline in European warfare in the 18th century, but the term ‘grenadier’ would stick around to denote the company composed of the tallest soldiers in a regiment. The hand grenade would make a comeback subsequently, and it remains an important part of a modern soldier’s personal weaponry.
‘Grenade’ derives from the Old French pome grenate, on account of the bomblet’s similarity in shape to the pomegranate fruit. Shortened to grenate, it became ‘grenade’ due to the influence of the Spanish granada, and it was in this form that it took root in the English language in the 16th century.
The medieval forerunner of the modern hand grenade appeared in the arsenal of 8th-century Byzantium as an incendiary device containing ‘Greek Fire’, a mixture of flammable substances that behaved much like napalm.
Grenades spent a long time in abeyance, but enjoyed a renaissance for trench fighting during the First World War, as they proved especially useful in neutralising enemy pillboxes.
German infantry were armed with long-handled stick grenades nicknamed ‘potato mashers’; such weapons also saw wide use in the Second World War. British soldiers made heavy use of the Mills Bomb grenade in both world wars. Later 20th-century American troops were equipped with several grenade types, including the Mk II fragmentation ‘pineapple’ grenade (also named after its fruity form).
The memory of the bomb-throwing soldiers of the 17th and 18th centuries survives in Britain’s Grenadier Guards, which form the first regiment of royal household foot soldiers.
Text: Marc DeSantis.