Like so many of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of modern warfare in 1914, it was the German Army that appreciated from the outset of the Great War the value of sharp shooting, or, as it became known, sniping. Once the armies of the belligerents had dug in during the winter of 1914/15, and trench warfare developed into a particularly nasty form of man-to-man combat, the German sniper became a particularly feared feature of the battlefield. Most British front-line battalions faced a constant daily toll into double figures of sniper victims of all ranks. In these early days on the Western Front, a single effective German sniper could cause an air of panic and demoralisation in a whole British battalion.
Apart from the special sniper’s rifles that the Germans Army routinely issued at the outset of hostilities, every German front-line outfit received rifles from a nation-wide collection of civilian hunting guns that had been specifically made for the use of the military on the Western Front. The German Army also issued other sniping equipment such as spotter’s binoculars, telescopes, periscopes, camouflage clothing and, of particular utility, sniper’s plates, or loops. These protective steel plates (approx. 1.0 metre x 0.5 m. x 0.005 m.) were generally incorporated into the German defence lines. Initially, the British had no counterpart to match them, nor any effective countermeasures to destroy them because of the chronic shortage of high explosive shells in 1914 and early 1915. Later, rifle grenades were found to be particularly useful in this role.
The German Army also had considerable numbers of former game-hunters and sharp-shooters serving in its ranks. This was due to its national tradition of hunting game and target shooting; pass-times that were enjoyed and celebrated by all classes of society in pre-war Germany and Austria.
The British hunting ethos was more strictly limited to the upper classes of society and only a relatively small number of working class men who were employed by the aristocracy in a supporting role in the game-keeping occupations. There was also a British aversion to optical shooting aids such as telescopic sights - shooting aids were considered to be unsportsman-like. On the other hand, many European hunters embraced these aids enthusiastically and continuously endeavoured to improve them.
The optimum target for a sniper was always the head-shot; nearly always fatal but otherwise often a serious and highly disabling wound. The adoption of trench warfare meant that the parts of the body that were usually exposed in movement around the trench system, and undertaking surveillance/guard duty, were the head and upper-most part of the body.
The Renaissance of British sniping on the Western Front
In late1914/early 1915, the British hardly recognised the efficacy of the efforts of the German snipers, enthralled as they were by the clearly evident superiority of the British infantryman’s 15 aimed rounds per minute rapid-fire in the then open warfare of the Western Front – the so-called ‘British mad-minute’.
. The ‘unaccountable’ British firearm victims that did occur were usually put down to ‘lucky shots’ or ‘stray bullets’.
Where a German sniper was suspected, effective reconnaissance by the British was made difficult because of the paucity of strengthened British observation loop-holes when compared with the interlocking coverage, mentioned earlier, of the excellently planned German system of steel sniper plates incorporated into the trench fortifications. These sniper plates were fabricated from heavy silicone/nickel steel that was resistant to the British standard 0.303in rifle and machine-gun rounds. (It wasn’t until the introduction later in the war of armour piecing bullets that these plates became vulnerable, although the British had some limited interim success using civilian heavy gauge big-game guns to pierce them). The shuttered loophole in the German sniper plate presented a very small target indeed, and would be just one among many in any trench defence system.
Eventually the penny did drop, and the British made serious efforts to inculcate into British infantryman the hazard presented to life and limb by the German snipers. In true British fashion warning signs were painted and were soon located at the more notorious locations. Also the dreaded word ‘sniper’ gained common usage in the British lines and on the Home Front. However, there was no question that on the Western Front in 1915 the German sniper reigned supreme over the battlefield.
Accordingly, the ranks of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were searched for men with sharp-shooting skills and quite a number of both officers and men with interesting curricula vita were identified. Some of the officers had already in their possession, in the field, suitable high calibre personal hunting rifles and quite a few were equipped with telescopic sights. Most officers also had personal, or army issue, binoculars (usually 20x magnification) for spotting potential targets. Unfortunately, despite their enthusiasm and application, their field craft was less satisfactory and many of them soon fell victim to the better-trained opposition.
To aid the British sharp-shooting campaign, over 10,000 standard, but low powered (around 2x magnification) civilian telescopic sights were purchased by the military and dispatched to the BEF. These were fitted to the standard British infantry rifle – the Short magazine Lee Enfield rifle (SMLE) Mark III. - using various purpose made and ad hoc mountings. The sights were found to be efficacious at a practicable range for the trenches of around 250 metres.
As may be supposed, initially, the rather ad hoc and amateurish approach of the British Army to this very serious problem produced unpredictable results. One of the least expected was to provoke the commissioning of a purpose-made SMLE sniping rifle in May 1915. The total production run for the duration of the war of this sniper’s rifle was again close to 10,000.
Training the British sniper for the Western Front
As in many of the British Army’s Great War endeavours, the training of it snipers began in an ad hoc manner. Independently, officers from the BEF Corps deployed on the Western Front, dismayed at the inferiority of the British sniping effort, when compared with that of the Germans, began unofficial courses using whatever equipment was available to them.
It wasn’t until the Spring of 1916, that the BEF formed the first officially sanctioned sniper-training units. Initially, three were formed, one for each of the three BEF Armies – a fourth, for the newly formed 4th Army, followed in late 1916. Designated as Scouting, Observation and Sniping (SOS) Training Schools, the 1st Army school was located Linghem, Belgium, the 2nd Army at Acq, France and the 3rd Army at Bouchon, also in France. In charge of each school was one of the former ad hoc sniper training officers of which 3rd Army’s Major Hesketh Vernon ‘Hex’ Hesketh-Pritchard became the best known for the eventual wide-scale promotion of his ideas on sniping.
Hesketh-Pritchard and his colleagues gradually worked out a training plan. This aimed at producing squads of snipers, led by a commissioned officer, and were nominally about a dozen strong. However, subject as it was to operational contingencies, the active strength of a squad was usually rather less than this.
‘Loner’ types, such as former poachers and other rugged country dwellers/artisans, generally proved to be the best candidates: ‘sharp-shooter’ experts often failed to have, or acquire the necessary skills of patience, stalking and concealment that defined a successful sniper. The British tended to discourage the ‘lone sniper’ preferring to work a team of two - sniper and observer; it was often protected in the field by a dedicated infantry unit acting as a screen against enemy counter-measures.
One problem that took the sniper training schools some time to resolve was the standardisation of sniper ammunition; a critical consideration if the sniper was to learn its idiosyncratic characteristics and master them. Most British ammunition in the Great War was of good quality, but inevitably some makes were found to be more consistent and problem-free in field use than others. Once a reliable manufacturer was identified, and a particular batch characterised, most sniper squads tried to acquire a large cache to guarantee a standardised supply into the foreseeable future. On the other hand a badly made or a poorly performing batch of ammunition could prove operationally catastrophic if it got into the system. It could quickly cause loss of sniper’s lives before it was discarded.
As for the apparent mumbo jumbo of the determination of range distance, windage (effect of wind on the fired round), correct manipulation of the weapon and the like, the training schools taught simple techniques to the largely uneducated candidates. These enabled them to determine these parameters without resource to calculation tables by the use of simple measures, such as a straw in the wind to determine wind-speed and direction.
Finally, many hours of the 10 – 14 day sniper course were spent on the art of self-concealment, the be-all and end-all that largely determined the duration of the life of a sniper in the field. Inevitably, this included camouflage clothing that was usually created by the individual sniper from scraps of material and colourings. A more formal version of camouflage, as created by former Scottish gamekeepers, was called the ‘Ghillie suit’. Whenever feasible, natural vegetation was incorporated into the disguise.
When the trained snipers and their observers returned to their units and took up their duties they were generally labelled by the comrades as ‘The Suicide Squad’ for indeed casualty rates were very high.
The ‘Suicide Squad’ in action on the Western Front
The first thing a sniper did on taking up his post was to create a log. In this, he, or his observer, would record every sniping incident in detail, both as a record and as a running audit of his modus operandi for future reference. Without this certified back up no ‘kill’ would be accepted as valid by the British and, at best, would only be recorded as a ‘probable’. However, some British regiments considered the tallying of individual sniper kills as ‘swanking’ and for many months had thought sniping itself as ‘unsportsmanlike’. They were to change their tune radically as the war went on. When the Commonwealth units had come on the scene soon took a more pragmatic view. Logs are still extent showing individual sniper’s tally of confirmed kills in the hundreds: just two Canadian soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (which very systematically monitored its snipers’ shooting) had a joint confirmed tally that totalled 528 German officers and men.
As Allied production of specialist weapons, such as sniping equipment, eclipsed that produced in Germany, confidence grew in the BEF and simultaneously declined in the German Army
Additionally, by 1917 the mindset of the British High Command became more positive towards sniping and encouragement was given to its general adoption and aggressive practice whenever and wherever feasible. And all five armies of the BEF had sniper training schools whilst others were founded in the UK; all well supplied with new official training manuals and technical instruction books.
Such was the output of men and materiel, by the last year of the war each British infantry platoon had its own two-man team who served as intelligence gatherers as well as opportunistic snipers. Often their value as a source of intelligence gathering exceeded that as snipers. They were also key in neutralising the German machine gun teams by destroying the machine gun breech-block mechanism with a single well aimed shot.
However, the Germans fought stubbornly to the end, and it is no coincidence that the last Allied infantryman to die on the Western Front was killed by a German sniper at 10.55am on the 11th November 1918, just 5 minutes before the Armistice took effect.
Regrettably, the first British, purposely developed sniper’s rifle – the 1914 Pattern rifle MK1 (W) T with its Model 1918 Telescopic Sight – did not reach the men on Western Front in any significant number before the Armistice.
As in many operational aspects of the Great War, the British Army was slow to appreciate the importance of the sniper on the ‘new’ and extensive battlefield of trench warfare. Not only did it prove to have a tactical value in keeping the enemy in a state of constant pressure and tension, it was also important as a highly effective form of psychological warfare and as a means of gathering intelligence about the enemy’s plans and intentions.
And, as was often the case in the Great War, it was the initiative of individual front-line officers who, seeing the deprivations imposed on their own soldiers, and in the virtual absence of suitable men and materiel, that brought about the adoption of ad hoc measures in an attempt to counter the German’s own efficient sniper organisation.
Fortunately, in due course, the British High Command saw the error of their ways and formalised the ad hoc training schools on a BEF-wide basis. As the balance of materiel and men turned in the favour of the Allies, these sniper units became an integral and vital part in the final Allied campaign that led to victory.