Saturday, 30 July 2016
The Bombers and Snipers
Part III.—‘With Canadians at the Front’
By Lacey Amy
From The Canadian Magazine, XLVIII, No. 1, Toronto, November, 1916.
Digitized by Doug Frizzle, July 2016.
IT was in the early days of the war when trench warfare was in its experimental stages. Bombing was so imperfectly organized that but forty bombers were attached to each battalion. An order came to bomb out a certain troublesome section of German trench and volunteers were called for. Captain C., a hard-drinking, hard-fighting, reckless, but very popular officer, was given charge of the operation. To the fall-in he addressed himself as follows: “Now, boys, I want twenty of you. I don’t want one that’s married; I don’t want one who doesn’t booze; I don’t want one who expects to return.” It is not an essential part of the story for my purpose that they all volunteered. What is essential is that he wanted only those who would not be missed.
“The Suicide Club” is the soldiers’ title for the bombers, and it is succinctly descriptive. There is no more dangerous work at the front. Also there is none more exciting, stimulating, satisfying. As one bomber, lying in hospital with bandaged head and a pair of useless arms and legs, put it with a chuckle: “I tell you the new No. 5 Mills makes the Fritzes squeal; you can hear ’em yelling for miles when we begin.”
That is why there is such a rush for the bombing section. The ambition of most of the Canadian soldiers is to get in with the boys who do the destruction out at the front of things; and they practise throwing with an energy that might be supposed to be fitting them rather for the safe jobs in the rear than for the post where anything from a return bomb to a machine bomb may blow them to pieces before they have had the satisfaction of hearing a single German “squeal”. The lad with the brass bomb ablaze as an insignia on his cap or tunic is happy and envied by his less fortunate companions.
Bombing is one of the many developments of this war. It is in reality a reversion to mediaeval warfare, with the addition of improvements in bombs and in the manner of handling them. Which includes the additional dangers of these improvements. Starting with but forty bombers to a battalion, the number quickly grew to two hundred and sixty. In each platoon of about fifty-four men eleven are bombers. In addition there is a battalion section of sixty and another lot of brigade bombers. In actual practice there is little distinction between the sections, save that usually the battalion group is kept in reserve.
Since the beginning of the war several varieties of bombs have been tried. The most primitive was the “hair-brush”. It was a stick the shape of a hair-brush, about the end of which was tied gun-cotton. With a lighted fuse attached, it was thrown into the enemy’s trench. The main trouble with it was that the fuse was of such uncertain duration that it was frequently returned by the Germans to explode in our trenches. Sometimes, indeed, it passed back again; and one of the specialties of the quicker witted was to grab a sputtering “hairbrush” and hurl it back before it exploded, more as a matter of personal safety than for its destructive powers among the enemy.
Another style was struck across the knee before being thrown. It was known as the “Newton Pippen”, why I do not know. The main defect in it was that it made a spark when struck over the knee and thereby located the thrower. The “fish-tail” possessed a long stick as a tail to guide its course through the air. It was a concussion bomb, and at best had the virtue of being unreturnable. Then there is the rifle grenade, which is nothing different except in delivery from the other bombs. It, too, was on the end of a stick, which was inserted in the rifle and fired. It has a range of about six hundred yards and explodes upon striking.
But the many types have narrowed down to the No. 5 Mills, a compact, convenient, destructive little affair in shape and size resembling a large goose egg. It is thrown like a baseball, and with all the gusto of a part of a great game. Its principle of operation is simple. Protruding from one end are two small flanges with holes, through which a pin keeps in place a strong spring. To explode, all the bomber has to do is to remove the pin. This releases the spring and in a few seconds the bomb explodes by means of a detonator inside. In many ways it presents its dangers, but its effectiveness and simplicity place it easily at the front. A bomber about to utilize the weapon removes the pin and holds the spring in place with his thumb until it leaves his hand. Fatalities and narrow escapes have occurred by the accidental dropping or imperfect delivery of a bomb from which the pin has been removed, but equal dangers are presented by any of the other types.
The sphere of the bomber is wherever there is an enemy. Day and night, in attack and defence, in surprise raids or general offence, singly or in groups, bombs have been doing work that could be done in no other way. Their effectiveness consists in the thoroughness and wholesale nature of their results. For cleaning out a German trench nothing can take their place, save the artillery, and the limitations of the artillery come where the bomber starts. In attack two bayonet men go ahead to protect the bombers, who immediately follow. After them come the infantry. In crude language, the bayonet men and the bombers are the sacrifice, although, if successful, the bombers may suffer little. In night-work the bomber has the time of his life. Creeping up to the German trenches—through the wire entanglements, if possible—with face blackened to prevent exposure from the flares the Germans use so prodigiously, he hears what he can and then, simply as a token of his visit or for more serious purpose, drops a bomb or two into the trench. Seldom is he troubled by that section throughout his return, for the German who is not disabled is hugging his dugout.
Following up successful attack, the bomb fulfils an equally important purpose. The dugouts that have become such a feature of trench warfare often escape the full blast of the big shells, and within their protection the enemy hides. It has sometimes happened, early in the war before their danger was fully realized, that the Germans thus passed over in a drive have emerged in the rear of the successful attackers and done serious damage, amounting even in one or two cases to the turning of defeat into victory and the capture of the troops that have rushed on to the next trenches.
Later it became the duty of every advancing force to clear out the dug-outs as it advanced. For this purpose there was nothing so quick and complete as the bomb. In the earlier stages of the July drive the more humane method of demanding surrender before bombing the occupied dug-out was general, but when it was found that the Germans took advantage of that either to remain silent or to entice in a few soldiers, whose lives were the sacrifice, the only way was to bomb first and demand surrender afterwards. The German has profited little from his fiendish methods of warfare.
In the work of the Canadians bombs have played perhaps a more important part than anywhere else along the front. At the great battle of Hooge, in June, when the Canadians, driven out of their front lines by the terrific bombardment, made the attack that put them back where they had started from, every man carried two bombs to clear his way, the company bombers eight, and the battalion bombers twenty-four; this in addition to their full equipment. And the wounded who were able kept up the supply of bombs from the rear. The losses of the Germans fully justified this elaborate preparation.
At the crater fighting about St. Eloi bombs were almost the only weapons. In that long-drawn-out struggle for the five craters made by German and Canadian lines nothing else was of much service. Of course, a man showing himself was the target of a hundred rifles, but the struggle was not between visible men. Every crater held its group of indomitable fighters, some German, some Canadian. The artillery was, of course, useless in such cramped quarters, where the combatants were but a few yards from each other through all that bloody stretch of what had once been No Man’s Land. It remained to the bombs. From crater to crater these were thrown by both sides. First one side would drive out or kill the defenders of a crater and occupy it, only in turn to be driven out. Those who have been through that awful combat say that it was the most trying experience the Canadians have had. Everyone knew that he was within reach of an enemy bomb that might, and probably would, drop near him, and there was at first no chance of relief. Every inch of exposed ground was covered with machine guns and rifles. Towards the last trenches were gouged out from crater to crater and back to the lines, but largely for the purpose of renewing the supply of bombs. In all crater fighting it is the same, the responsibility of holding the holes resting upon the bombers.
Among the dangerous duties of the bombers is the protection of patrol parties. In these expeditions there are strictest orders not to use a rifle save under supreme necessity. In a pinch bombs are used, not only because they afford a wider protection than a rifle bullet, but because their explosion does not localize too intimately the location of the party. Bombers also protect night wiring parties. During a night raid bombers run along the parapet of the enemy trench delivering their burden of death in the full range of the enemy fire, and down in the trench, in progress from bay to bay, the bomb precedes the advance.
For his work the bomber is equipped with an apron of heavy canvas, the capacity of which is usually ten bombs. Of course, he carries his rifle, but on his back. He is relieved from all fatigue duty in the trenches.
There are definitely established classes for the training of the bomber, consisting usually of a three weeks’ course in England and another week in France. Some of the training has been little better than useless. For instance, at East Sandling a series of lectures, without even the sight of a bomb, was the extent of the training of the bombers, but this was probably one of the weird slips that somehow creep into ordinary military matters.
Like everything else in this war, the sniper is a distinct creation of the times. And like most else, the Germans led the way until experience taught us the wisdom of their preparations of these many decades. There were months in 1914 and early 1915 when to put but a hand above the parapet meant a half-dozen German bullets in it. In a desultory sort of way the British tried to retaliate. But not until the sniper was made as definite and as organized a unit as the gunner did we begin to establish that superiority that began to be felt about the middle of 1916. In fact, we have never passed the Germans so completely in sniping as in the other details of war.
There are now sixteen snipers to a battalion, under the charge of a sergeant. Their personnel passed from a voluntary system to a careful selection on merit. Men with much rifle practice and reputation were given the chance to demonstrate their ability behind the lines, and if they cared to undertake the peculiar work of the sniper were assigned to duty. Like the stretcher-bearers and bombers, they undergo no fatigue duty, the principal requirements for their business being a steady nerve and confidence. For eight days they are up in the front lines, then a rest for the same time. But they are never allowed to fall out of practice; special ranges are provided for them in the rear.
They usually work in pairs, one as observer, the other as marksman, the duty of the observer being almost as important as his mate’s. For the sniper depends as much upon the keen eyes of his observer as upon his own accuracy, since the value of his work and his future safety rest upon his knowledge of the billet of his bullet. The rifle, of course, is fitted with a telescope sight that makes accurate shooting less a matter of light and wind and good fortune than of clearness of eye and steadiness of hand. Marks that would elude the eye as a target are brought within range, and the observer, through his glasses, is able to detect the success of the shot and to correct its error.
When up at the front, snipers are given a free hand. They select their own locations and construct,—or have constructed—their own blinds and protections. Exposed as they are, their safety depends upon the cleverness of their concealment. Sometimes they work in the trenches with the infantry, at which times they operate from an emplacement specially constructed and prepared, no sign of its location being visible to the enemy. Behind the sandbag parapet they make their disposals, with every sort of contrivance to conceal their whereabouts. As many of these have been in successful use every day their description in detail would not be wise at the time of writing; but each sniper develops a few touches of his own to add to the more common ruses. Shooting through tiny spaces in the sandbags, that open and close at the will of the sniper, is the basis of this kind of sniping, the marksman being protected from stray bullets by a steel shield. The back of the hide must be closed in so that the opening of the hole will not be revealed by the sky behind.
But the distinctive work of the sniper is done away from the trenches. Often he selects a spot a couple of hundred yards behind the front lines. There he is far enough distant from the enemy to be protected by the coverings he is able to construct by the means available. He may be lying behind a sandbag parapet of his own, a low, seemingly casual wall that is apt to escape notice in the general chaos of shell-holes and broken trenches. From behind his steel plate, which has a hole in it large enough for the barrel of his rifle and observation, he watches, waiting by the hour, sometimes without results. In more exposed spots he may be protected by a double sheet of steel. But more often his hide is a bit of ruin or a tree. There no rescue is possible should he be discovered, and he is usually open to artillery fire that seeks him out almost as eagerly as the opposing guns. For the sniper is the bane of the ordinary trench-life of the enemy. He may even lie flat on the ground, practically without protection, his face covered with a cloth mask the colour of the surrounding earth or grass, and shoot through a rum jar.
The work of the sniper is not pleasant, either from the danger point of view or from the results. He is not now required to make reports, and seldom will one speak of his successes in detail. One does not like to talk much about the men one has killed in what may savour to some of cold blood; and the officers have recognized that. Some snipers have the greatest contempt for the fellow who will describe the course of his bullet. And yet their work is legitimate and most necessary in the peculiar conditions roused by this war. In attack or counter-attack by the enemy they must pick off the officers. In the ordinary way their duty is more to end the activities of enemy snipers than to disable the rank and file, for the soldier to-day is careful not to expose himself to the sniper’s bullet. When the sniper locates an enemy sniper he waits his chance, and the situation of a dozen snipers watching for each other is one to try the nerve of any but the most seasoned campaigner or marksman. If a sniper is especially annoying, the enemy sniper who discovers his whereabout but cannot get him himself directs his artillery to the spot.
He is expected to keep an eye on every enemy movement, a working party, a new parapet, a gun emplacement, and the location of these he passes back to his artillery. Thus a good sniper is a real factor in the war, apart from his less agreeable duties of killing men by deliberate aim. The Germans utilized this branch of the service from the first to an extent that was most difficult to cope with. Not only were their front line snipers well trained and numerous, but their wonderful spy system enabled them to place snipers back through the British and French lines, and hundreds of officers and gunners, whose work is more out of sight of the enemy, lost their lives to them. Any tree or house or ruin was a possible hiding-place, and part of the most serious tasks of the men behind the lines was to keep a watch for this form of menace. As I have said in a previous article, entire gun crews have been cleaned out in this way. One crew had been disabled to its last man without the location of the sniper being discovered. Then a company of soldiers returning to the rear caught a glimpse of a figure in a tree. They did not wait for explanation, for there could be but one.
One of the well-known snipers of the 5th C. M. B. was brought into hospital with shell-shock. From the nature of his duties it might be supposed that his nerves would be above shell-shock, but to be buried far from the trenches, with but one companion and no seeming prospect of escape, is apt to do anything with nerves. By the merest chance he was discovered. He returned to his work, but sniping was beyond him for a time.
He was the ideal man for the job, except physically. Before the war he had been a policeman in an Indian reserve in an eastern province. But he was marked for life with deformities that might have justified him in dropping any work connected with weapons; it was a wonder that he passed inspection for the army. Two fingers of one hand were gone, and an ugly scar across the wrist of the other hand was the mark left by a drunken Indian he was arresting. It had slashed through the cords of four fingers. Yet, from what I could gather of his work, he had proved that a sniper need not be a model of physical perfection. From the first he had been assigned to sniping and had worked with various observers—a couple of big Indians, an Ottawa clerk, who had developed into a grand shot, and a westerner who had the habit of climbing to the parapet to get a better view; he finally paid the bill for his recklessness. J. refused to talk of his successes, but one incident that seemed to have clung to him with a strange vividness was the end of an enemy sniper who was demanding a big toll from the shelter of a tree. After J. had failed for hours to put an end to his sniping he sent word back to the artillery. In a few minutes a “dud”—(a small shell often sent over first to get the range) burst above the tree. Then came a “whizz-bang”. That was all. The entire tree disappeared. The calculating deliberateness and calmness of it had burnt itself into J.’s brain for all time.
The next article of this series is entitled “The Weapon of Defence” and will be in the December number. It deals with the changes in fighting methods that have taken place since the great war began.
- The Amphibious Suburb of St. John’s
- Literary History of Nova Scotia
- A British Eskimo
- The Bombers and Snipers
- The Life Savers
- Hell at Hooge
- Dumb Talkies
- Introduction to The Fourth Dagger
- Salvage—A Canadian Idea
- The Women of The Magdalens
- The Credit System in the West
- The Perfect Ending
- Education and the War
- The Timber Wolf at Home
- Treating That Chilly Feeling
- Earmarks of Genius
- The Farmer and the War
- Labour and the War
- The Non-Combatants
- Woman and the War
- After Three Years
- My New Gardening Gloves
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.