Sniping in France/Chapter 11

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Sniping in France by H. Hesketh-Prichard


IN all previous wars, the scouts and patrols have had their own special place. In this, the greatest of all wars, although there was much scouting done—far more than in any previous war— yet in many respects it was of so different a nature that a new era in these practices may fairly be said to have set in.

In former wars, the individual scout had far more chance. In the Boer War, for instance, Major F. R. Burnham, D.S.O., an American who held a commission in the British Army, made a wonderful name for himself, as did Dan Theron on the Boer side.

First and last, I suppose that Burnham was the greatest scout of our time. Physically a small man, he was amazingly well knit, and very strong, and his many feats of hardihood owed much to his compact and untiring build. His name will live on account of two feats—the first, his passing through the entire Matabele Army and shooting the M'limo, the witch doctor, who was responsible for the Matabele War ; and the second, his dash through the Boer lines, when he blew up the railway on the far side of Pretoria.

The first article of Burnham's faith was absolute physical fitness, and his idea of physical fitness was much more rigorous than that of most athletes. It was not with him a matter of merely keeping his muscles of speed and endurance in good fettle, but —what is a much harder thing—the keeping of all his senses at their highest pitch of efficiency. Thus, apart from his hearing and eyesight, which were very keen, I have never met anyone else, except one Indian, who possessed anything like his sense of smell. He could smell a small fire in the open at an extraordinary distance, and he told me that this power had often been of the greatest value to him.

But Burnham was essentially, as a scout, the product of what may be called a savage, or extra-European War, and in this war there was no one on either side who had anything like the same opportunities of hand-to-hand work. Whereas it would perhaps be too much to say that the day of Burnham has passed for ever, yet it is true enough that a new generation of scouts has arisen, whose work, or much of it, has been of a very different nature. In open or semi-open warfare a scout may still be ordered to go by day or night, and find out if this or that village is occupied by the enemy, but once trench warfare sets in, and the battle fronts of the opposing armies stretch from the sea to Switzerland, the work of the scout undergoes great changes. His theatre of action is No Man's Land, which comprises all the area between the two armies which are drawn up one against the other.

The Corps Commander of the nth Corps, Sir R. Haking, would never allow the use of the word "No Man's Land." " There is no such place opposite my Corps," he would say. "All the land right up to the edge of the enemy's parapet is our land, and we have got to have control of it."

I believe I am right in stating that about seven out of every ten raids undertaken on the First Army Front in 1916 were the work of the nth Corps, and they had long held the record in the number of prisoners taken in a single raid.

The work of the scout was, of course, to dominate the enemy in No Man's Land, and to this end he was continually patrolling it during the hours of darkness. Little, as a rule, is done by daylight, though Gaythorne-Hardy, who was Intelligence Officer of the 4th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, and whom I have referred to before, in order to investigate the German wire under Hill 63, near Messines, decided, after looking at the ground with a telescope, to crawl out by day. The German lines were some three hundred to four hundred yards away. The season was summer, and the grass long.

In winter, crawling between the lines was almost impossible, owing to lack of cover.

The officer in question, accompanied by a corporal, crawled right up to the enemy wire, and got all information and a complete plan of the ground and obstacles. It was a task upon which any but a skilled hunter of big game, as my friend is, might easily have given himself away. To crawl across three hundred yards of open ground, with hundreds of German eyes watching for any movement, and bent on investigating any suspicious spot with a machine-gun, calls for courage and good nerve. This officer, however, had examined his route, decided to make the attempt, and he came back successful. He said it was no more difficult than stalking a deer. He was awarded the Military Cross, and the corporal is now a sergeant with the D.C.M.

But not much was done in No Man's Land in day¬light. Snipers lay out in it, and sentries watched it, and both sides sent a deal of lead across it, but when night fell, it became tenanted, and scouts and patrols crawled out into it—and sometimes never came back. The aim, of course, was always domination, and in order to gain domination many strange things were done. For instance, there was the " Silent Death," as it was called, invented by the Canadians, who, under cover of darkness, crawled out into No Man's Land

Night work in No Man's Land.

every night, and lay there awaiting the advent of a German patrol. If such came, it was attacked hand to hand with trench daggers, and its members killed as silently as possible. This soon made the Germans very shy of taking their evening crawl, when so many of them who had gone over the top vanished into the darkness and were never heard of again.

At length the Germans almost gave up patrolling in that sector, and one of my officers who used to be in charge of a "Silent Death" party has often told me how dull and chilly were those long and weary waits in the frost or the rain, waiting for Huns who never came.

In trench warfare, No Man's Land was the cockpit of the war. Some sections of it were more favourable than others for action, but every evening and every night a great number of British used to go out in front. When one first went out, it seemed almost certain that one must be killed. There was a spasmodic sputter of fire from machine-guns, but as an actual matter of fact, moving about in No Man's Land was much safer than it seemed.

At first our patrols were very haphazard, and you could sometimes hear a private roaring out that a patrol was out, and that it would return at such and such an hour to such and such a point. This was giving away things with a vengeance to any Germans who spoke English, and it sounds almost impossible that it should have been done—yet it was done, and not in isolated cases only.

I do not think that scouts ever got very far into the German lines; at any rate, during the continuance of trench warfare. To do so was well-nigh impossible, and behind the German battle-front the place of the scout was taken by the spy or secret service agent.

But to return to No Man's Land. There was a certain sergeant who got a D.C.M. for removing a trench board. A raid was projected by us, and, as usual, a careful rehearsal had been gone through. The scheme was to attack a certain sector of enemy trenches about two hundred yards long. This length of trench had to be blocked off at each end, so as to prevent assistance coming to the enemy down the trench from cither flank.

Two parties were therefore told old to capture and hold the two points, which were to be the limits of our raid. Both parties went over, the northern party arriving in strength, but the southern had casualties from machine-gun fire, and finally only the sergeant and one private arrived in die enemy trench. Here the private was killed before the enemy fled, and there was only the sergeant lo form the block and keep off the reinforcements which were sure to come.

The sergeant, however, was a man of resource, and he swiftly removed the duck-board from the trench draining well—a large sump hole, or pit, which lay between him and the path taken by the retreating Germans. The trenches are often drained by pits of this kind, dug in the middle of the right-of-way, and bridged by a duck-board laid across them. In these pits there collected a mass of liquid mud as thick as glue. The sergeant removed the duck-board, and relaid it eight or ten feet on his side of the mud-hole. Then he went round the corner of the next traverse, and waited to see what would happen.

Meantime, the main raiding party had got to work, and soon enemy reinforcements came rushing along the trench towards the sergeant. Seeing the duck-board ahead of them, they mistook the position of the mud-hole, and in they crashed. Soon the hole was as full of men as is a newly-opened tin of sardines. Next the sergeant opened fire upon them. The whole raid was a glorious success. Prisoners were taken, and German dug-outs blown up—a result that could hardly have occurred had it not been that the sergeant had the sense and acumen to remove the duck-board; thus, by a very simple action, holding up quite a mass of reinforcements.

There is another raid story, for which I do not vouch, but which was firmly believed in the First Army.

All enemy movement was watched by aeroplanes, and photographed and reported. As the war went on, the science of aeroplane photography progressed enormously. It is hardly too much to say that the Germans could not deepen a trench without our knowing it almost at once. We never made a raid— or, at least, need never have made one—without all who were going over, even down to the private soldier, having the opportunity of studying photographs of the trenches where their work lay.

The Germans, of course, did the same, but in a limited degree, as their aeroplanes did not dare to come over our lines in the way that ours crossed theirs.

Once, when the Germans were contemplating a raid, their Flying Corps succeeded in taking photographs of that portion of our trenches which was to be attacked. With the help of these photographs, the German Command caused to be built an exact replica of the trenches which they intended to raid. They did this at no great distance behind their lines, with a view to rehearsing the raid just as a play is rehearsed in a theatre. We, of course, often did the same.

But to continue. One of our aeroplanes happened to pass over just as the Germans were having a daylight rehearsal, and, noticing the concentration of troops and the new workings of earth, a photograph was taken. This photograph was, of course, sent in the ordinary routine to Army Headquarters.

The Army possessed an extremely capable aerial photography expert, who soon made his deduction, and as he, of course, possessed the photographs of the entire front line system of the Army, it was not long before he had identified that piece of it which the Germans had copied, and on which they were meditating an attack.

There was only one object which could lead them to practice attacks upon so short a length of line. A raid was clearly in contemplation. The expert informed the General Staff of his discovery, and the General Staff informed those who were manning the threatened area. Preparations were made and precautions taken, and, sure enough, the Germans came over, to meet about as hot a reception as even modern war can provide.

As I say, I do not know if this story is apocryphal or not, but if it is, others about our aeroplane photography and its amazing efficiency were common talk in the Army.

Psychologically, going out into No Man's Land in the dark, especially if you are alone, is a distinctly eerie business. I really have no right to write much about it, as I was only out in front on a few occasions. On one, I remember, I was more frightened than I hope ever to be again. Although the story is personal, as it is against myself there can be no harm in telling it. I had gone out to a cottage which stood in No Man's Land. It was pretty dark, and a wild night, and there was, of course, a chance that some German might he in the cottage, which, though heavily shelled, was not entirely smashed.

After listening for a while and hearing no sound, I went in, and on the ground floor there was nothing but the usual mass of rubble and brick. A ladder led up to the second floor, and I climbed up this and began to tip-toe across the floor. One got a good deal of light from the star-shells which were thrown up by the Germans, but in a particularly dark moment I suddenly felt my left leg go from under me. I thought that it had been plucked away by some crouching Hun, or else that I had been hit by some missile—in fact, never did thoughts come quicker or more confusedly ! What had really happened was that I had put my leg through the floor, and had got rather a heavy jar. But anything more disagreeable than that moment I have never experienced.

Of course, it is only one of the little incidents that arc the hourly lot of those who go out into No Man's Land, but one's nerves are on these occasions strung up to a very high pitch.

Hut, us I say, my experience of No Man's Land was

really so small as to be negligible, for when I was in the line I was sniping or observing all day, and you cannot do that and work at night also.

Crawling out into No Man's Land in daylight is a very different business, and if there is reasonable cover, it is to my mind more satisfactory to crawl out then, when your life depends on your own skill, than to crawl about in the dark over the bodies of men who have been dead for weeks, and when Chance of the blindest kind absolutely rules the game.

Now, of course, when a patrol is sent out the report handed in should be in a definite and generally accepted form, giving the composition of the patrol. I can perhaps explain my meaning best by referring the reader to the appendix on Patrols, at the end of this book.

Of course, patrolling in No Man's Land is only one small part of a scout's duties, and when the war became more open there were many opportunities for scouts. One point that struck me as being exceedingly valuable was the proper delivery of messages by runners. Major Carum used to demonstrate this by a small piece of acting which was extraordinarily well done, in which an object lesson was given as to how not to deliver a message, and how a message should be delivered. In moments of excitement many men become somewhat prolix, and it is of the utmost importance that they should be taught to get their message into the fewest and clearest possible words.

A question that arose as the war went on was the definition of the duties of a sniper and a scout. It was held in some quarters that a sniper and a scout were two quite different men, who had in view two entirely different objects. The sniper, those who held this view said, was a man whose first duty was offensive action against the enemy, whereas a scout's duty was not to fight, but to obtain information. We at the school could never see it in this light, for there must be occasions when a scout must fight to get his information back, or indeed, to obtain it, and it seemed futile that in the morning a man should ask himself, "Am I to-day a sniper or a scout? "

I would not refer to these opinions had they not been rather widely held. A modern scout must know a great many things— so many that it is almost impossible to detail them all, and for this reason a scout's work changes with the conditions under which he is working.

But I do not think that for a long time sufficient use was made of modern science in the equipment of the scout. A scout may, in a single two hours of his life, be a sniper, an observer, and the old-fashioned scout who has to go out to find out things at close range. He has to be essentially an individualist capable of seeing and seizing his opportunity. He must be a man of instant decision, who understands the value of cover and background, who possesses that quality which is very often born in men, a sense of direction.

His training was exceedingly difficult, and unless he had a natural aptitude, no amount of teaching was of any real practical value. Think what a difference it makes to a Commanding Officer to have in his battalion a certain number of men, however few, whom he can send out to obtain information, and who are so accurate and so dependable that he can always act upon their reports. There are hundreds of such men in the Lovat Scouts, but then, of course, the whole trend of their lives is towards observation, skilled movement, and accuracy. The man who has spent twenty years on the hill, and who has counted the points on a thousand stags, who knows the difference between every track that he sees in a corrie, and who is never far from his telescope, is, when he goes to war, simply carrying into another sphere the normal activities of his life.

And yet there should be no difficulty in training a number of scouts in every battalion, but the ideal scout, or rather the ideal scout section, in a regiment, should be looked up to. Their immense value should be realized, and due credit and honour given to them for their skill. The scouts of a battalion should be the pick of that battalion, and the fact that a man has attained the rank of scout should be signalized by his receiving extra pay and extra consideration.

As long as war lasts it will be necessary to find out what is in the enemy's mind, and this is so important, that those who prove themselves capable of discovering and of giving warning of what is about to occur, should be objects of admiration and respect to all their comrades.

Of course there is another point which struck one most strongly, and this was the examination of prisoners.

It may well be that a man cannot help being taken, whether through wounds or otherwise, but it is of the first importance that he should give away nothing to the enemy. For this reason, as scouts and anyone who has anything to do with any kind of Intelligence work are always put through a much more rigorous examination if they should be captured, we were very strongly against badges for scouts.

Let us take the ordinary Tommy. If he is captured, unless it unfortunately happens that he knows of some imminent move that is to be made, there is very little danger of his giving away anything, for the simple reason that he knows so little. But a scout is another matter. He knows all the posts in our line ; he knows something of the system by which the various offshoots of Intelligence work are being operated, and as he has been trained to observation of detail and deduction, he is a man who, if he can be got to speak, will reveal things of great value to the enemy.

The only two questions that a prisoner need answer are his name and regiment, but many and sinister are the tricks by which he may be beguiled.

A British officer who is supposed to have special knowledge is, let us imagine, captured by the Germans. He is wounded, and is taken up to the Headquarters of a German Division. He is examined, and, of course, gives away nothing. Now what happens ? Very possibly a German officer comes to him and says : "Herr Captain, we deeply regret that there is no room for you in the officers' quarters in the Hospital. We trust that you will not object if you are put in a room with a British N.C.O." The officer, of course, says he does not object, and he goes into the room. There he will find a British N.C.O. heavily bandaged and lying groaning upon his bed. It is inevitable, if they are two or three days together, that conversation will take place between them. The so-called British N.C.O. is, however, simply a decoy. He is not wounded at all, and his business is, by clever questions, to extract certain information which the British officer is supposed to possess.

Again, when men were taken prisoners, very often into the guard-room in which they were confined would be thrown another Britisher, bleeding and wounded, who would raise a tremendous outcry and declaim upon his wrongs. The newcomer, as a matter of fact, often was only a clever actor coached to his part, who was simply put into the guard-house to ferret out information.

These are not isolated incidents, but a commonly accepted policy in the German Army. After all, it is natural enough, for a little bit of information may win a battle, and it was certainly held among our foes that the end justified the means.

But as the war went on, and these things came to knowledge, it needed some very clever work on the part of the Germans to obtain information from those who had been warned. Of course, as long as the world continues there are, one supposes, men who will undertake work of this kind, whether for money or urged on by some other motive. The motive may be good even. The decoy may be actuated by a really high form of patriotism. But not often. For the most part he is one of those men who have a touch of the traitor in them, and who are in some way perverted in their minds.

Of course to be a decoy back at Divisional Head-quarters is a safe and probably a paying job, but it is one which must always leave a very nasty taste in the mouth.

So much for German methods of interrogation. When we took German prisoners, they were very often in a state of pitiable fright, for they had been absolutely fed by their officers with stories of the most circumstantial nature of the habitual brutality of the British to their prisoners ; and yet it was a fine sight to see a German prisoner, obviously afraid to his very bones, and yet absolutely determined to give away nothing. One really laboured under an almost in-controllable impulse to go and shake such a man by the hand. After all, courage of the lonely sort is surely the most glorious thing that we can hope to witness, and whether it is displayed upon our side or upon the other, one feels the better for having witnessed it.