Sniping in France/Chapter 2
|←CHAPTER I. THE GENESIS OF SNIPING||Sniping in France by
CHAPTER II. THE SNIPER IN THE TRENCHES
|CHAPTER III. EARLY DAYS WITH THE 11TH CORPS AND FIRST ARMY→|
CHAPTER II. THE SNIPER IN THE TRENCHES I
IN my last chapter I attempted to give some history of the small beginnings of organized sniping, and I will now turn to the actual work of sniping in the line. Sniping, which is to be defined in a broad way as the art of very accurate shooting from concealment or in the open, did not exist as an organized thing at the beginning of the war. The wonderful rapid fire which was the glory of the original expeditionary force was not sniping, nor was it, beyond a certain degree, accurate. Its aim was to create a " beaten zone " through which nothing living could pass; and this business was not best served by very accurate individual shooting. Rather it was served by rapid fire under skilled fire-control. But when we settled down to trench warfare, and the most skilful might spend a month in the trenches without ever seeing, except perhaps at dawn, the whole of a German, and when during the day one got but a glimpse or two of the troglodytic enemy, there arose this need for very accurate shooting. The mark was often but a head or half a face, or a loophole behind which lurked a German sniper, and no sighting shot was possible because it " put down the target." The smallest of big game animals did not present so small a mark as the German head, so that sniping became the highest and most difficult of all forms of rifle shooting. At it, every good target shot, though always useful, was not necessarily successful, for speed was only less necessary than accuracy, and no sniper could be considered worthy of the name who could not get off his shot within two seconds of sighting his target.
So much for the sniper in trench warfare, of which a certain clique in the Army held him to be the product. The officers who believed this prophesied that when warfare became once more open, he would be useless. This proved perhaps one of the most short-sighted views of the whole war, for when it became our turn to attack, the sniper's duties only broadened out. Should a battalion take a trench, it was the duty of snipers to lie out in front and keep down the German heads during the consolidation of their newly-won position by our men, and were we held up by a machine-gun in advance, it was often the duty of a couple of snipers to crawl forward and, if possible, deal with the obstruction.
I am here, however, going ahead of my narrative, but I want early in this book to state definitely that the sniper is not, and from the first, as I saw him never was meant to be, a product of trench warfare. In modern war, where a battalion may be held up by a machine-gun, it is invaluable to have in that battalion a number of picked shots who can knock that machine-gun out. For this purpose in some of our later attacks a sniper carried armour-piercing ammunition, and did not shoot at the machine-gunners, but at the machine-gun itself. A single hit on the casing of the breech-block, and the machine-gun was rendered useless.
In the Army there has always been in certain quarters a prejudice against very accurate shooting, a prejudice which is quite understandable when one considers the aims and ends of musketry. While sniping is the opportunism of the rifle, musketry is its routine. It would obviously never do to diminish the depth of your beaten zone by excess of accuracy. But this war, which, whatever may be said to the contrary—and much was said to the contrary—was largely a war of specialists, changed many things, and among them the accurate shot or sniper was destined to prove his extraordinary value.
But a great deal that I have said in the foregoing paragraphs only became clear later, and at the moment of which I am writing, September and October, 1915, the superiority lay with the Germans, and the one problem was to defeat them at a game which they had themselves started. For it was the Germans, and not the British, who began sniping.
That the Germans were ready for a sniping campaign is clear enough, for at the end of 1914 there were already 20,000 telescopic sights in the German Army, and their snipers had been trained to use them. To make any accurate estimate of how many victims the Hun snipers claimed at this period is naturally impossible, but the blow which they struck for their side was a heavy one, and many of our finest soldiers met their deaths at their hands. In the struggle which followed there was perhaps something more human and more personal than in the work of the gunner or the infantryman. The British or Colonial sniper was pitted against the Bavarian or the Prussian, and all along the front duels were fought between men who usually saw no more of their antagonists than a cap badge or a forehead, but who became personalities to each other, with names and individualities.
Only the man who actually was a sniper in the trenches in 1915 can know how hard the German was to overcome. At the end of 1914 there were, as I have said, 20,000 telescopic sights in the German Army, and the Duke of Ratibor did good work for the Fatherland when he collected all the sporting rifles in Germany (and there were thousands of them) and sent them to the Western front, which was already well equipped with the military issue.
The Sniper's End
Armed with these the German snipers were able to make wonderfully fine shooting. Against them, lacking as we did a proper issue of telescopic-sighted rifles, we had to pit only the blunt open sights of the service rifle, except here and there where the deer stalkers of Scotland (who possessed such weapons) lent their Mannlichers and their Mausers. But for these there it was no great supply of ammunition, and many had to be returned to their cases for this reason.
At this time the skill of the German sniper had become a by-word, and in the early days of trench warfare brave German riflemen used to lie out between the lines, sending their bullets through the head of any officer or man who dared to look over our parapet. These Germans, who were often Forest Guards, and sometimes Battle Police, did their business with a skill and a gallantry which must be very freely acknowledged. From the ruined house or the field of decaying roots, sometimes resting their rifles on the bodies of the dead, they sent forth a plague of head-wounds into the British lines. Their marks were small, but when they hit they usually killed their man, and the hardiest soldier turned sick when he saw the effect of the pointed German bullet, which was apt to keyhole so that the little hole in the forehead where it entered often became a huge tear, the size of a man's fist, on the other side of the stricken man's head. That occasional snipers on the Hun side reversed their bullets, thus making them into dum-dums, is incontrovertible, because we were continually capturing clips of such bullets, but it must also be remembered that many bullets keyholed which were not so reversed. Throughout the war I saw thousands of our snipers' bullets, and I never saw one which had been filed away or other¬wise treated with a view to its expanding upon impact. At that time in the German Army there was a system of roving snipers; that is, a sniper was given a certain stretch of trench to patrol, usually about half-a-mile, and it was the duty of sentries along his beat to find and point out targets for him. This information I got from a prisoner whom I examined soon after I went down to the trenches. Indeed, I used to go any distance to get the chance of examining a prisoner and so learn something of the German organization. One deserter gave quite a lot of in¬formation. He had the Iron Cross, and was a sergeant. One of the scenes that always remains with me is the examination of this man on a rainy, foggy night by the light of a flaring smoky lamp in the room of an estaminet just behind the lines. As time went on it became very difficult for a German prisoner to lead me astray with wrong information. There were so many questions to which one got to know the answers, and which must be more or less common knowledge to German riflemen.
Examination of a German Prisoner
The demeanour of prisoners was very diverse. Some would give no answers—brave fellows these, whom we respected; others would volunteer a good deal of false statement; others yet again were so eager to answer all questions that when they did not know they made a guess. But one way and another, through them all I gained an immense amount of information as to the German sniping organization.
It would appear that the telescopic-sighted rifles in the German army were served out in the ratio of six per company, and that these rifles were issued not to the private soldiers who shot with them, but to N.C.O.'s who were responsible for their accuracy, and from whom the actual privates who used the rifles obtained them, handing them back at given intervals for inspection. In the top of the case of each German telescopic sight were quite short and very clear instructions, a very different matter to the conditions obtaining upon our side, where very often, as I have before stated, the man using the telescopic sight knew nothing about it.
On one occasion I had gone down on duty to a certain stretch of trench and there found a puzzled-looking private with a beautiful new rifle fitted with an Evans telescopic sight.
" That is a nice sight," said I.
I examined the elevating drum, and saw that it was set for one hundred yards. " Look here," I said, ' you have got the sight set for a hundred. The Hun trenches are four hundred yards away." The private looked puzzled.
" Have you ever shot with that rifle ? " I asked.
" No, sir."
" Do you understand it ? "
" No, sir."
" How did you get it ? "
" It was issued to me as trench stores, sir."
" Who by ? "
" The Quartermaster Sergeant, sir."
Certainly many a German owed his life in those earlier days to the fact that so many of the telescopic-sighted rifles in the British Expeditionary Force were incorrectly sighted to the hold of the men using them. By this I mean that some men hold tightly and some men hold loosely, and there may be a difference at a hundred yards of six inches in the shooting of the same rifle in different hands. To hand over the rifle as " trench stores," in which case it would be shot by different men of different battalions, was simply to do away with the accuracy which formed its only asset.
But to return to the examination of German prisoners. One point cropped up over and over again, and this was the ease with which German snipers quite frankly owned that they were able to distinguish between our officers and men in an attack because, as one said naively : " the legs of the officers are thinner than the legs of the men." There are hundreds and hundreds of our officers lying dead in France and Flanders whose death was solely due to the cut of their riding breeches. It is no use wearing a Tommy's tunic and a webbing belt, if the tell-tale riding trousers are not replaced by more commonplace garments.
In 1915 there were very few loopholes in the British trenches, whereas the Germans had a magnificent system. In early days when I used to be told at Brigade Headquarters that there was a German sniper at such and such a map reference, and I was to go and try to put him out of action, I very rarely found a loophole from which I could reconnoitre him, and as every German sniper seemed to be supported on either flank by other German snipers, looking for him with one's head over the top of the parapet was, if made a continual practice, simply a form of suicide. I used, therefore, to have a couple of sandbags filled with stones and rubble placed as inconspicuously as possible on the top of the parapet. No ball will pierce a sandbag full of stones, and it Was thus that one got the opportunity of a good look at the German trenches without fear of receiving a bullet from either flank.
At this time the efforts to camouflage our loopholes were extraordinarily primitive—indeed, concealment was nearly impossible in the form of parapet then in use. Many of our units took an actual pride in having an absolutely flat and even parapet, which gave the Germans every opportunity of spotting the smallest movement. The parapets were made of sandbags beaten down with spades, and it is not too much to say that along many of them a mouse could not move without being observed by the most moderate-sighted German sniper. It was curious how some few commanding officers stuck to these flat parapets in the face of all casualties and the dictates of common-sense, even after the High Command had issued orders upon the subject. At a later date a trial was instituted, and proved that in spotting and shooting at a dummy head exposed for two and four seconds over a flat parapet, the number of hits was three to one, as compared with the same a exposure when made over an imitation German parapet.
Over on the other side of No Man's Land the German trenches presented a quite different appearance from ours—ours being beaten down, as I have said, until they made as clear a line as a breakwater. The German trenches were deeper, with much more wire in front, and from our point of view looked like the course of a gigantic mole which had flung up uneven heaps of earth.
OUTSIDE THE SNIPERS' POST
Here and there, a huge piece of corrugated iron would be flung upon the parapet, and pinned there with a stake. Here and there stood one of those steel boxes, more or less well concealed under a heap of earth, from which set rifles fired all night. Here and there lay great piles of sandbags, black, red, green, striped, blue, dazzling our eyes. It was said that the Germans used the pink and red ones to look round, because they approximated to flesh colour, but this was no doubt apocryphal. But what was not apocryphal was the fact that the Germans had a splendid parapet behind which a man could move and over which he could look with comparative impunity, whereas we in this respect gave heavy hostages to fortune.
There was one protection which was always sound, and which could be put into immediate operation, and that was to teach our men to hang as many rags as possible upon our wire, and wherever else they could in the region of our parapet. These fluttering rags continually caught the German eyes, which were drawn by the movement of the rags in the wind. It is possible that, if the truth were recognized, those simple little rags saved many a life during the course of the war. Of course, there were battalions in which attempts had been made to remedy these defects, as there was one type of officer whom one occasionally came across. This was the soldier who had done a certain amount of stalking, or big-game shooting, and it is not too much to say that wherever there was such an officer, there were usually two or three extra telescopes and telescopic-sighted rifles, and various well-concealed posts from which to use them. The Intelligence report, which was each day forwarded to Brigade, was also full and accurate. Indeed, the truth of the matter forced itself upon me, as I spent day after day in the trenches. What was wanted, apart jrom organization, was neither more nor less than the hunter spirit. The hunter spends his life in trying to outwit some difficult quarry, and the step between war and hunting is but a very small one. It is inconceivable that a skilled hunter in a position of command should ever allow his men to suffer as our men sometimes did in France. It was all so simple and so obvious. The Canadian Division and, later, the Canadian Corps was full of officers who understood how to deal with the German sniper, and early in the war there were Canadian snipers who were told off to this duty, and some of them were extraordinarily successful. Corporal, afterwards Lieutenant, Christie, of the P.P.C.L.I., was one of the individual pioneers of sniping. He had spent his life hunting in the Yukon, and he simply turned the same qualities which had brought him within the range of the mountain sheep to the downfall of Fritz the Forest Guard.
In the long monotony of the trenches during that bleak winter of 1915, the only respite besides work which was possible to our soldiers was the element of sport and excitement introduced by sniping and its more important and elder sister, observation. Sniping in a dangerous sector—and there were many of these— was really neither more nor less than a very high-class form of big game shooting, in which the quarry shot back. As to danger, there are in Africa the lion, the elephant, the buffalo and the rhinoceros, and though the consensus of instructed opinion agrees that in proportion more hunters come back feet foremost from lion hunting than from the pursuit of the three other forms of dangerous game, yet I suppose that no one would dispute that the German sniper, especially when he is supported on either flank by Kamaraden, was far more dangerous in the long run than any lion.
In sniping, as the movement grew and sections were formed, one relied to an enormous extent upon the skill of the section to which the individual sniper belonged. A really first-rate man in a bad section was thrown away. First-rate men under a moderate officer were thrown away, and, worse than all, a good section under a good officer, who were relieved by the slack and poor section of another battalion, often suffered heavy casualties through no fault of their own.
Thus, the Royal Blankshires, who have an excellent sniping organization, build half-a-dozen skilfully-hidden posts for observation and sniping purposes.
All kinds of precautions, which have become second nature, are taken to prevent these posts being given away to the enemy. The telescopes used are carefully wrapped in sandbags, their sunshades carefully extended lest the sun should, by flashing its reflection upon the object glass, give away the position. The loopholes in dry weather are damped before being fired through, and, most important of all, no one but the CO., the sniping officer, and the snipers and observers are allowed in the posts. If anyone else enters them there are for him heavy penalties, which are always enforced. The result is that the Blank-shires have a good tour of duty, lose no casualties to enemy snipers, and get splendid detail for their Intelligence reports.
They are relieved, however, by the Loamshires. The CO. of this Battalion does not believe very much in sniping. He has a way of saying that sniping will " never win the war." He has, it is true, a sniping section because, and only because, his Brigadier and his Divisional General are keen about sniping, and continually come into the trenches and inquire about it. But the Loamshire sniping section is a pitiable affair. They take over from the Royal Blanks.
" These are jolly good observation posts," says the Royal Blanks sniping officer. He is the real thing, and he dreams of his job in the night. " But one has to be a bit careful not to give them away. I never let my fellows use the one in Sap F until the sun has worked round behind us." " Aw—right oh ! " says the Loamshire opposite number.
" One has to be a bit careful about the curtains at the back of those loopholes in Perrier Alley.
The light's apt to shine through."
" Aw—right oh ! " says the Loamshire officer.
" We are leaving our range-cards."
" Aw—right oh ! "
So the keen Royal Blanks officer and his keen section go out into rest billets, and do not visit the trenches again till they come back to take over from the Loamshires.
" Well, how are the posts ? " asks the Royal Blanks officer, cheerily.
" Pretty rotten ; they were all busted up the first day."
" Damn ! They took us a fortnight to build."
" Well, they are busted up all right."
" Did your fellows give them away, do you think ? "
" Oh, no ! "
Now, as a matter of fact, the moment the Royal Blankshires were out of the trenches the Loamshire snipers, who knew no better, had used the O.P.s for promiscuous firing, and the posts which had been so jealously guarded under the Blankshire regime had been invaded by Loamshire officers and men in need of a view of the German trenches—or of sleep. The curtains that kept the loopholes dark had been turned back. The result was as might have been expected. The watching German, who had suffered from those posts without being able to locate them when the Blankshires were in the trenches, now spotted them, rang up their guns, and had them demolished, not without casualties to the Loamshires. So the work was all to be done again—but no sooner does the keen Blankshire officer build up a post than the slack Loamshire officer allows it to be given away. It is now a case for the Royal Blanks CO. to take up with the Loamshire CO.
Such were the difficulties of the keen officer when the opposite number of the relieving battalion was a " dud."
Conscientiousness is a great quality in an officer, but in the Sniping, Scouting and Observation Officer something more was needed. To obtain success, real success, it was necessary that his should be a labour of love. He must think and dream of his work at all hours and all times, and it was wonderful how many came to do this. In the battalion the Intelligence and Sniping officer had always a sporting job, and if he suffered in promotion (as do nearly all specialists in any great Army) yet he had the compensations which come to an artist in love with his work.
There were at this time one or two other factors in the situation to which I must allude in order that the reader may understand the position as it was then. The enemy had an immense preponderance in trench weapons such as minenwerfer. The result was that a too successful bout of British sniping sometimes drew a bombardment. The activity of snipers was therefore not always welcome to short-sighted officers, who distinctly and naturally objected to the enemy riflemen calling in the assistance of the parapet-destroying engines of war, in which, they so outclassed us.
Soon, however, it was realized that the state of things obtaining while the German held the mastery of aimed rifle-fire could not be permitted to continue— the casualties were too great—and I will now give some account of the instruction and experience in the trenches that went on while we were attempting to capture the sniping initiative from the enemy.
Towards the end of October, 1915, I was ordered to report to the 48th Division, then holding a line in the neighbourhood of Hebuterne. I was to proceed to Divisional Headquarters behind Pas, and was there ordered to Authie, where a number of officers were to come for instruction. This instruction was, as usual, to be divided between the back areas and the front line. I had applied for the services of my friend, Lieut. G. M. Gathorne-Hardy, an experienced shot, and skilled user of the telescope, who had been many shooting trips in different parts of the world with me and others. At Authie we at once settled down to work ; the officers going through a course which need not be detailed here. Suffice it to say that the telescopic-sighted rifles of all the battalions in the Division were shot and corrected, and various plans which we had formed for the destruction of German snipers were rehearsed.
On the third day arrangements were made by Division as to which trenches we were to visit, and after duly reporting at Brigade Headquarters in a dug-out in Hebuterne, we proceeded upon our way.
It is not an easy thing to instruct five or six officers in the line in sniping—the number is too large—so as soon as we entered the trenches I divided my class into three parties, and assigned to each an area in which to look for German snipers, Gathorne-Hardy and I going from one group to another.
At the point at which we entered the front line trenches, our line was a little higher than that of the enemy, so that the initial advantage was certainly with us, and almost at once G. (for so I shall refer to Capt. Gathorne-Hardy) spotted a German sniper who was just showing the top of his cap at the end of a sap. He was about three hundred and fifty or four hundred yards away, and though we watched him for half-an-hour, he gave no target. So we moved on. Examining the enemy line was enthralling work, as he had, even at that time, begun his campaign of skilled concealment, and was apt to set periscopes in trees, and steel boxes in all sorts of positions.
To spot and actually place these upon the map was as important a duty of the sniper as killing the enemy by rifle fire. For, once discovered, such strong points and emplacements could be dealt with by our artillery.
But to return. G. and I, after visiting the sections, acted together as shooter and observer. After spending a couple of hours examining the enemy line, we got into a disused trench and crawled back to a little bit of high ground from which we were able to overlook a group of poplar trees which grew between the lines, and which were said to be the haunt of a very capable German sniper.
Nothing, however, was to be seen of him, though we could clearly make out the nest he had built in one of the trees and, on the ground, what appeared to be either a dead man lying in the long grass or a tunic.
While we were here a message came down to say that No. i group had seen a party of nine Germans, and had wounded one of them. No. 2 party had not been successful.
At the time of which I write the Germans were just beginning to be a little shy of our snipers on those fronts to which organization had penetrated, and it was clear that the time would arrive when careful Hans and conscientious Fritz would become very troglodytic, as indeed they did. We had, therefore, turned our minds to think out plans and "ruses by which the enemy might be persuaded to give us a target. We had noticed the extraordinary instinct of the German Officer to move to a flank, and thinking something might be made out of this, we collected all our officers and went back to the place where G. and I had spotted the Hun sniper or sentry at the end of the sap. A glance showed that he was still there.
I then explained my plan, which was that I should shoot at this sentry and in doing so, deliberately give away my position and rather act the tenderfoot, in the hope that some German officer would take a hand in the game and attempt to read me a lesson in tactics.
On either flank about 150 yards or so down the trench I placed the officers under instruction with telescopes and telescopic-sighted rifles, explaining to them that the enemy snipers would very possibly make an attempt to shoot at me from about opposite them. I then scattered a lot of dust in the loophole from which I intended to fire, and used a large .350 Mauser, which gave a good flash and smoke.
1. " Not yet."
TELESCOPIC SIGHTS. "NURSE YOUR TARGET."
As the sentry in the sap was showing an inch or two of his forehead as well as the peak of his cap, I had a very careful shot at him, which G., who was spotting for me with the glass, said went about twelve inches too high.
The sentry, of course, disappeared, and I at once poured in the whole magazine at a loophole plate, making it ring again, and by the dust and smoke handsomely giving away my own position. I waited a few minutes, and then commenced shooting again. Evidently my first essay had attracted attention, for two German snipers at once began firing at me from the right flank. At these two I fired back; they were almost exactly opposite the party under instruction, and it was clear that, if the party held their fire, the Germans would probably give fine targets. As a matter of fact, all that we hoped for actually happened, for the exasperated German snipers, thinking they had to deal only with a very great fool, began to fire over the parapet, their operations being directed by an officer with an immense pair of field-glasses. At the psychological moment, my officers opened fire, the large field-glasses dropped on the wrong side of the parapet, as the officer was shot through the head, and the snipers, who had increased to five or six, disappeared with complete suddenness. Nor did the enemy fire another shot.
It should be borne in mind, in reading the above, how great a plague were the skilled German snipers to us. One of "them might easily cause thirty or forty casualties. Later in the war we had, on our side, many a sniper who killed his fifty or even his hundred of the enemy. Besides, as I have pointed out, in these early days of trench warfare the continual attrition caused by German snipers was very bad for moral.
At a later date we found a means by which we were able at once to find the position of any German sniper. For this purpose we used a dummy head made of papier-mache.
The method of using was as follows: When a German sniper was giving trouble, we selected a good place opposite to him, and drove two stakes into our own parapet until only about a foot of them remained uncovered. To these we nailed a board on which was fashioned a groove which exactly fitted the stick or handle attached to the dummy head. This stick was inserted in the groove and the dummy head slowly pushed up above our parapet.
If the enemy sniper fired at and hit the head, the entry and exit of the bullet made two holes, one in the front, and one in the back of the hollow dummy head. The head, immediately on the shot, was pulled down by whoever was working it in as natural a manner as possible. The stick on which it was mounted was then replaced in the groove, but exactly the height between the two glasses of a periscope lower than the position in which it was when shot through.
Spotting the Enemy Sniper
Now all that remained to do was to place the lower glass of the periscope opposite the front hole in the head, and apply the eye to the rear hole and look into the periscope, the upper glass of which was above the parapet.
In this way we found ourselves looking along the path of the bullet, only in the opposite direction to that in which it had come, and, in the optical centre of the two holes, would be seen the German sniper who had fired the shot, or the post which concealed him. Once found he was soon dealt with. In trials at First Army Sniping School, we were able by this invention to locate sixty-seven snipers out of seventy-one.
Some of those who wanted to give the dummy head a specially life-like appearance, placed a cigarette in its mouth, and smoked it through a rubber tube.
It is a curious sensation to have the head through which you are smoking a cigarette suddenly shot with a Mauser bullet, but it is one that several snipers have experienced.
After the incidents last described, we went up towards the flank, where the 4th Division lay alongside the 48th. It was in this Division that the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders had just played a delightful trick on the enemy. Someone in the battalion had obtained a mechanical stop, one of those ticking bits of mechanism which are made with a view to saving the employment of a human " stop" at covert-shoots. This particular stop was guaranteed to tick loudly for hours.
The Seaforths were facing the Germans across a very wild piece of No Man's Land. One night some adventurous and humorous spirit crawled out and placed the " stop " about sixty yards from the German parapet, and then set it going. The Germans at once leaped to the conclusion that the tick-tick-tick was the voice of some infernal machine, which would, in due time, explode and demolish them. They threw bombs, and fired flares, and officers and men spent a most haggard and horrible night, while opposite them the Scotsmen were laughing sardonically in their trenches. The whole incident was intensely typical of the careless and grim humour with which the Scottish regiments were at times apt to regard the Hun.
Another battalion at a much later date, when the Germans had become very shy, and mostly spent their off-duty hours in deep dug-outs, had the brilliant idea of preparing a notice board on which was printed in large letters and German : " Bitter Fighting in Berlin," and then, in smaller type, some apocryphal information. This notice it was their plan to raise, having first posted their snipers, who would be sure to obtain shots at the Huns who attempted to read the smaller lettering with their field-glasses. I do not think, however, that this plan was ever actually carried out. This was fortunate, since, though ingenious, the idea was not sound, as it would inevitably have led to a heavy bombardment of the trenches in which the notice was shown, and the game would not have been worth the candle.
To continue, however, with our day. Late in the afternoon, no Germans having shown themselves since the shooting of the officer—a heavy bombardment broke out on the right flank, and we hurried in that direction, as experience had taught me that the German Forward Observation Officers often did their spotting for the guns from the front-line trench on the flank of the bombarded area.
Sure enough, we soon picked up one of those large dark artillery periscopes, shaped like an armadillo. It was being operated by two men, as far as could be seen. One of them wore a very high peaked cap, and was at once called " Little Willie; " the other had a black beard. The nearest point to which we could approach was more like five than four hundred yards, and though we waited till dark, Little Willie did not show more than his huge cap peak and an inch or two of forehead. As evening fell, we went out of the trenches without having fired, as soon after our arrival the bombardment had ceased, and Little Willie never gave a good target, and the bearded man had disappeared. I did not wish to disturb the German F.O.O.'s in their post; as, now that they were discovered, arrangements could be made to deal with them when next they were observing.
The opportunity occurred three days later, when, after a very long vigil, an officer shot Little Willie, and the same evening a Howitzer battery wiped out the post for good and all.
As, when Little Willie met his end, he was just in the act of spotting the first shots for his battery, which had opened on our front line trenches, his death probably saved us some casualties, for it temporarily stopped the activities of his guns.
It was not only the number of the enemy that our snipers shot that was so important. It was often the psychological moment at which they shot them that gave their work an extra value.
In the autumn of 1915 there came high winds following frosty nights. It was clear that a heavy fall of the leaf would take place on the following days. I therefore asked, and obtained leave from the 4th Division, to which I was at the time attached, to drop instructional work, and instead to go into the trenches in order to spot enemy snipers and artillery observation officers' posts. On my way down I called at Headquarters, where I was told that a very trouble¬some sniper was operating at Beaumont Hamel. This man had killed a number of our fellows. He was supposed to live in a pollarded willow, one of a row not very far from Jacob's Ladder, which will be remembered by all who were on that front in 1915. There was on that day a certain amount of mild shelling of the communication trenches, but before the advent of gas-shells this rarely caused trouble in the daytime, except to those who had to repair the breaches. On the day in question I was alone with my batman, who, I can say, without fear of libel, shot better than he " batted," for he had been chosen because he was a marksman. Arrived in the front line, we at once set about trying to locate the sniper. As a rule, in such a case, the enemy one seeks is taking a siesta, but this was not so now, for as soon as I looked over the parapet a bullet, striking low, knocked some dust into my eyes. , At this point, you must understand, our trenches were shaped like an arm, with a crooked elbow, the crook or turn of the elbow being at the bottom of a hill. In front lay Beaumont Hamel, where in the German lines when I arrived a soldier had hung out his shirt to dry. Between us and Beaumont Hamel lay a wild piece of No Man's Land, with some dead ground on the Beaumont Hamel side, and at the bottom of the hill the row of willows from which the sniper was supposed to operate.
As these willow trees were out of sight from the place where I had been fired at, I did not put down that shot to the sniper, whom we will call Ernst. In this I was probably wrong, as transpired later. All that morning we tried to locate Ernst, who had four more shots at me, but all that I had learned at the end of it (when I imagine Ernst went off for a well-earned siesta) was that he was a good shot, as though obviously some distance away, he had made quite good practice. We most carefully examined the pollarded willows, and spotted one or two good snipers' posts, especially one at the bottom of a hedge, but as far as Ernst was concerned he had all the honours.
The next day I was occupied all the morning with an enemy artillery O.P. which was destroyed by howitzer fire, and it was not till after lunch that I could turn my attention once more to Ernst.
This time I began at the bottom of the hill. There were no loopholes, so it was a case of looking over, and almost at once Ernst put in a very close shot, followed again by a second which was not so good. The first shot had cut the top of the parapet just beside my head, and I noticed that several shots had been fired which had also cut the top of the sandbags. Behind the line of these shots was a group of trees, and as they stood on slightly higher ground I crawled to them, and at once saw something of great interest. In the bole of one of the trees a number of bullets had lodged, all within a small circle. Crouching at the base of the tree, and with my head covered with an old sandbag, I raised it until I could see over the parapet fifty yards in front, and found at once that the line of these shots, and those which had struck the tree behind my head, were very nearly the same, and must have been fired from an area of No Man's Land, behind which it looked as if dead ground existed on the enemy's side, and probably from a large bush which formed the most salient feature of that view.
I then went back to the trenches, and warned all sentries to keep a good look-out on this bush and the vicinity. Very soon one of them reported movement in the bush. With my glass I could see a periscope about three feet above the ground in the bush, which was very thick. Being certain, as the " periscope was raised so high, and as it had only just been elevated, that it was held in human hands, I collected half a dozen riflemen and my batman, and giving them the range, and the centre of the bush as a target, ordered them to open fire. On the volley the periscope flew backwards and the activities of Ernst ceased forthwith.
It was this experience of looking along the path of the enemy's bullets that led directly to the invention for spotting enemy snipers, which I have described earlier in this chapter.
No one can deny that Ernst was a gallant fellow, lying out as he did between the lines day after day. Whether he was killed or not who can say, but I should think the odds are that some bullets of the volley found their billet. At any rate, sniping from that quarter ceased.
I have now given enough description of the work and training which was going on at that time in the Third Army in the line. The aim and end of all this work was the formation of sniping sections in each battalion, consisting of sixteen privates with two N.C.O.'s under an officer.
I had realized that my whole problem turned upon the officer. If I could succeed in obtaining fifteen or twenty officers who would be simply fanatics in their work, it was perfectly clear that the sniping movement would spread like wildfire throughout the Army. Already we had got together an immense amount of detail concerning the German sniping organization and had begun not only to challenge his superiority, but also to enforce our own. It is wonderful what can be done in a single week by sixteen accurate shots along the length of line held by a battalion. You must understand also that the success of the German sniping rested largely upon the deeds of certain crack snipers, who thoroughly understood their work, and who each one of them caused us heavy casualties. The first work to be done in the trenches was the organized annihilation of these skilled German snipers, and I think this was the easier in that they had it their own way for so long.
As time went on, the reports from the brigades were very good; one Brigadier[*] even going so far as to wire me : " Only one Hun sniper left on my front. Can you lend me your elephant rifle ? " In this particular brigade the Brigadier informed me that he had not lost a man through enemy sniping in four months.
[*]Later Major-Gen. Sir Guy Bainbridge, K.C.B.
Sniping, I think, or let us say the sniping campaign, may be divided into four parts. During the first, the Germans had the mastery. During the second, our first aim was to kill off the more dangerous German snipers and to train our own to become more formidable. The third was when the Germans had fairly gone to ground and would no longer give us a chance. The idea now was to invent various ways in which to induce them to give a target, and the final period came at a much later date, when great battles were being fought, and the work of sniping was beginning to merge into that of scouting, and snipers were- being trained in great numbers to deal with the new situations that were arising every day as the Germans altered their tactical plans of defence.