Sir Wilfred Stokes of Ripley and the ‘Stokes Mortar’

Stokes with his mortar from the 'Daily Graphic'

Title: Stokes with his mortar from the 'Daily Graphic'
Description: Copyright IWM (ref Q70282) by-nc

Written by Marion Edwards

Life before World War I

Frederick Wilfrid Scott Stokes KBE was born on 9 April 1860 in Liverpool, the fifth son of Scott Nasmyth Stokes, a school inspector and colleague of Matthew Arnold. He was educated at St Francis Xavier’s College, Liverpool, and the Catholic University College, Kensington.

Following an apprenticeship with the Great Western Railway, Stokes eventually became an assistant to Sir William Shelford, working on designs for bridges on the Hull and Barnsley Railway. A civil engineer by trade, during the 1880s Stokes joined Ransomes & Rapier, an engineering company based in Ipswich which manufactured cranes, and was appointed Chairman and Managing Director in 1897. While with Ransomes, Stokes superintended the erection of some of the sluices on the Manchester Ship Canal, and made improvements to the Stoney sluices used in Egypt and India, which earned him two decorations from the Khedive of India.

The Stokes Mortar 

Between 1915 and 1918, Stokes worked for the Inventions Branch of the Ministry of Munitions, where he invented his Stokes Mortar, one of the first truly portable mortars. Mortars were particularly useful on the Western Front as, with their high trajectory, they could fire projectiles directly into enemy trenches, and the British Army was trying to develop a weapon that would be a match for the Imperial German Army’s ‘Minenwerfer’ mortar. Stokes tested prototypes of the mortar at his home, ‘Millwater’ in Ripley. His design was initially rejected in June 1915 because it was unable to use existing stocks of British mortar ammunition, and it took the intervention of David Lloyd George (at that time the newly appointed Minister of Munitions) and Lieutenant-Colonel J C Matheson of the Trench Warfare Supply Department (who reported to Lloyd George) to encourage production. The mortar was first used to fire smoke shells in September 1915, during the Battle of Loos.

Stokes at home at Millwater, Ripley. Copyright IWM (ref Q70283)

At first it was not popular, but as construction improved it was widely used and eventually produced in two sizes. The mortar could fire as many as 25 bombs per minute and had a maximum range of 800 yards, firing the original cylindrical un-stabilised projectile. It could fire so quickly because a mortar bomb only had to be dropped into the tube, which caused an impact sensitive primer in the base of the bomb to make contact with a firing pin in the tube, and detonate, firing the bomb towards the target. One potential problem was the recoil, which was ‘exceptionally severe, because the barrel is only about 3 times the weight of the projectile, instead of about one hundred times the weight as in artillery. Unless the legs are properly set up [users] are liable to injury’.

The Stokes mortar continued in use, its effectiveness being improved again and again by other British engineers. It was issued to the British, Empire and United States armies, as well as the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps. By the Armistice in 1918, British Empire units had 1,636 Stokes mortars in service on the Western Front. Between the wars, the Stokes mortar was used extensively by American forces and the Paraguayan army, and by the Republican Army during the Spanish Civil War. By World War II, it could fire 30 bombs per minute and had a range of over 2,500 yards with some shell types.

A Stokes mortar in use in a Balkans trench. Copyright IWM (ref Q55561)

Later Life and Ripley Connections

Stokes was a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers, one of the Presidents of the British Engineers Association, and a Vice-President of the Federation of British Industries. In 1917, he was created KBE for his invention of the mortar and he was also given several forms of monetary reward by the Ministry of Munitions, including royalties of £1 per Stokes mortar bomb made. In 1918, he inaugurated a superannuation fund for Ransomes staff at the Waterside Works in Ipswich. 

A Portuguese mortar crew. Copyright IWM (ref Q6405)

In 1899, Stokes married Irene Ionides, a daughter of Luke Ionides (1837-1924; a friend of Whistler) and niece of Constantine Alexander Ionides (1833-1900; donor of the Ionides collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum), and from 1901 the couple lived at ‘Millwater’, Ripley. He devoted much of his leisure time working towards the betterment of his adoptive village home. For 23 years, he was Chairman of Ockham Parish Council and acted as advisor and honorary engineer when the Ripley sewage scheme came under review. An avenue of 100 trees which adjoined Ripley High Street were planted by him in 1909, and he also provided ex-servicemen with the Ripley Comrades Clubroom. He allowed the grounds of his home ‘Millwater’ to be used for the Ockham Flower Show and was a manager of schools in Ripley. He died 7 February 1927 in Ruthin, North Wales, while still Managing Director of Ransome & Rapier.

Sources

An obituary can be found in the Woking News and Mail, 11 February 1927.

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