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Sniping in France

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Sniping in France
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Author(s): H. Hesketh-Prichard
Date Published: 2013/04
Page Count: 180
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-101-4
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-100-7

The crack-shots of the war in the trenches

Military historians have always been interested in the activities of snipers. For the uninitiated, there is something romantic about the lone marksman, far away from the security of his lines and his comrades, who lies camouflaged and still until the opportunity arises to strike down one of the enemy. It is a lonely and perilous way to make war and requires an individual not only possessed of great weaponry skills, but one with the mental fortitude to execute his task. For the enemy, death, coming swiftly and unseen from an unknown quarter, is a terrifying and demoralising prospect. We know much of the snipers of modern times, armed with their high powered and technical equipment, but the ‘bolt from the blue’ is as old as warfare itself. Kipling told it well in his poetry when he wrote, ‘two thousand pounds of education drops to a ten rupee jezail.’ This book concerns the snipers of the British Army as they operated in France during the First World War. It is an excellent book written by an author with first hand experience. The reader is taken through activities at the first Army School of Scouting, Observation and Sniping and the principles of sniping as they applied to the trench warfare. The author describes the genesis of sniping as the British Army went to war and includes many first hand accounts and often amusing anecdotes of the activities, snipers and observers operating between the battle lines at the height of the conflict. Recommended for all those interested in the Great War.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.

There was in the trenches a very simple way of testing the accuracy of the sniper’s observation. The various German States, duchies or kingdoms all wore two badges on their caps, one above the other, the higher being the Imperial badge and the lower the badge of the State. Thus, the Prussian badge is black and white, the Bavarian light blue and white; the Saxon, green and white. These badges or, to be more correct, cockades, are not larger than a shilling, and the colours are in concentric rings. A series of experiments carried out at First Army School by the staff and some of the best Lovat Scouts proved that these colours were indistinguisable with the best Ross telescope at a distance of more than 150 yards, except under the most favourable circumstances. So if ever a sniper (who, of course, knew what troops he was faced by) reported the colours of cockades when more than 150 yards from the enemy, it was at once clear that his imagination was too strong to admit of his useful employment with an observer’s telescope.<br>
Another great duty of snipers was the blinding of the enemy. Thus, if the Germans bombarded any portion of our front, their artillery observers almost always did their work from the flank, where very often from the front line or from some other point of vantage they spotted and corrected the shell bursts of their gunners. On such occasions our snipers opposite both flanks of the bombarded area broke the periscopes of the German observers, and thus often succeeded in either rendering them blind, or forcing them to take risks.<br>
When Germans retaliated and shot our periscopes, we had a number of dummies made, and by taking the entry and exit of the bullet through the back and front of these, we were able to spot many posts from which the Germans were firing. The result was that the enemy suffered casualties. It is, in fact, not too much to say that in these ways we were able from very early days to place the position of any sniper who troubled us, and, once placed, there were many methods by which the man could be rendered harmless.<br>
Another point that was not without interest was the fact that occasionally, and apparently for no reason, the Germans sighted their rifles by firing at marks upon our parapets. If they did this in a high wind, it might have been possible that they were trying to get the correct wind allowance to put on their rifles; but as they often did it, and it happened all along the line on a still morning, we felt we must seek some other explanation. Collaboration with Intelligence proved that this orgy of rifle sighting seemed to coincide with the relief by one battalion of another in the trenches. It was one of the many little straws which showed which way the wind was blowing.<br>
The psychology of the different races of snipers was always interesting. The English were sound, exceedingly unimaginative, and very apt to take the most foolish and useless risks, showing their heads unnecessarily, and out of a kind of unthinking optimism. Nor did the death of their comrades cause them to keep their heads down, except in the particular place where a man had been killed. Unimaginativeness is a great quality in war, but when one is playing a very close game, in which no points can be given away, between skilled antagonists as we were doing in sniping, one sometimes wished for a little less wooden-headed “bravery” so-called and a little more finesse. <br>
The Welsh were very good indeed, their 38th Division keeping a special sniper’s book, and their sniping officer. Captain Johnson, was very able. I think that in early 1918, the snipers of this division had accounted for 387 Germans in trench-warfare.<br>
The Canadians, the Anzacs, and the Scottish Regiments were all splendid, many units showing an aggressiveness which had the greatest effect on the moral of the enemy. Of the Australians I had, to my deep regret, no experience, but they always had the name of being very good indeed.<br>
The Americans were also fine shots, and thoroughly enjoyed their work, but my experience of them lay simply in teaching at the school, and I never had the opportunity of seeing them in action.<br>
Of the Germans as a whole one would say that, with certain brilliant exceptions, they were quite sound, but rather unenterprising, and that as far as the various tribes were concerned, the Bavarians were better than the Prussians, while some Saxon units were really first-rate.<br>
I remember once being in the trenches at Ploegsteert Wood, where the Saxons were against us, and our fellows were talking about them being “good old fellows.” All the same, it did not do to show the breadth of your forehead to the “good old fellows,” for they were really admirable shots. Somehow or other this idea of the “good old fellow” rather stuck in my mind, and I used to picture Fritz the sniper as a stout and careful middle-aged man, who sat in his steel box with a rifle, took no chances, and carried on his work like a respectable tradesman. This idea of the fat bearded sniper, however, was not supported by the telescope, through which I saw some of the most desperate and bedraggled-looking snipers that one could wish to see. Those who sometimes got outside their own lines were, however, I think, rather the “wild boys,” and after we got rid of them the Germans fell back upon a kind of sober rifle fire which made up the main bulk of their sniping.<br>
One point that was noticeable was the good focussing powers of the German snipers of certain regiments, who shot very well before dawn and towards dark. In the very crack Jäger regiments, such regiments as were, I suppose, recruited from Rominten or Hubertusstock districts, where the great preserves of the Kaiser lay, and in which were a large percentage of Forest Guards, this was very noticeable. But for long distance work, and the higher art of observation, the Germans had nothing to touch our Lovat Scouts. This is natural enough when one comes to consider the dark forests in which the German Forest Guards live, and in which they keep on the alert for the slightest movement of deer or boar. Mostly game is seen within fifty or seventy yards, or even closer, in these sombre shades, and then it is only the twitching of an ear or the movement of an antler lifted in the gloaming. Compare the open Scottish hills. It was the telescope against the field-glass, and the telescope won every time. In fact, in all the time I was in the trenches, I never saw a German telescope, whereas I saw hundreds and hundreds of pairs of field-glasses.