Ten dud thuds

26th November 1914

There was heavy rifle and machine gun fire from the Germans in the night which had died down by the morning. But no attack was made. This pattern of rifle fire at night rising “to a roar on both sides” is recorded in The History of the Dorsetshire Regiment 1914-1918.

More orders were received from 14th Brigade about counter sniping. Frank, as a marksman, would surely have been involved in this activity. The trenches were so close that I imagine not having sights didn’t really make much difference.

I have a hand drawn map signed by Major Fraser that I am currently redrawing (I’m not sure of the copyright issue with Public Record Office scans) which shows the German lines as close as 50 yards in places (46 metres in new money). I am not sure of the date but it looks like it was copied from one drawn by the East Surreys on the 20th November so it can’t be too far after today’s date. Later Dorset trench maps change orientation from landscape to portrait.

Although little shelling was reported along the 14th Brigade’s sector, at around 2pm a large amount of shells landed over the Dorset stretch of the line. 10 out of the 16 shells didn’t explode – or were “blind” as the 14th Brigade’s diary puts it. This is also recorded in the Dorsets’ diary in less detail.

3 Dorset men were killed with 4 wounded. The CWGC records more: 6 men died, although one of them is buried up in Balleuil so may have died of wounds. The Dorsets’ diary records “situation quiet”. I think quiet is a relative term here.

Situation quiet – snipers very active


25th November 1914

The Dorsets finished the relief of the East Surreys by 2.30am. I’ve placed rough positions of the various units in this area using a hand drawn map in the 14th Brigade’s war diary as reference. It’s hard to see exactly where the old tracks or roads have been replaced by newer roads, and time precludes me from doing justice to this, but I hope you get a sense of the positions of the British troops. I will return to this at a later date.

The trenches were individual affairs at this point. Those who climbed out of them were putting themselves in great danger. The Germans were positioned above the British lines and so enjoyed a considerable advantage over their enemy. They poured a seemingly never-ending fire down into the British front line and there were lots of casualties from stray bullets as men hurried to and from the front line across open ground.

Sniping was very active and the Dorsets received orders at 9am for active counter sniping, whatever this meant. As we’ve seen before the British troops had absolutely no means of countering the Germans at this stage of war.

The Dorsets lost 2 men killed and 4 men wounded, according to the war diary. Perhaps it was even their own artillery that caused these casualties. They accidentally shelled the Dorsets’ trenches in the morning.

It was hardly a quiet day as the Dorsets’ diary recalls. The CWGC reports 3 men who died today: Privates Wellman, Apsey and Hordle. They are all remembered on the Menin Gate memorial in Ypres.

Le Battle Royale

4th November 1914

After a quiet morning the Dorsets witnessed French troops retiring from the direction of the Institute Royale, which was a large collection of monastical buildings in Messines. There’s an interesting blog on excavations in Messines here along with some interesting photographs of the Intitute before and during the war.

Knowing the French tactics for offensive the Dorsets assumed that a counter attack was imminent and so they informed a certain Colonel Butler. This was Lieutenant Colonel Richard Harte Keatinge Butler. He had been CO of the 2nd Bn Lancashire Fusiliers but had now assumed responsibility for the entire Ploegsteert Wood area. This entailed much of the 11th and 12th Brigades. We’ll hear more about Butler later on.

The French never counter attacked, presumably because of the heavy mist that day. The Dorsets sent out patrols out to find out what the French were up to on their immediate left. Other than that the rest of the day was fairly quiet.

Interestingly, as German snipers began to worm their way into the eastern edges of the wood, requests came into 11th Brigade HQ for rifle and hand grenades and steel loopholes. The British didn’t have an answer to the German’s sniping at this period in the war as we’ve seen before. This evidence shows that the British troops on the ground were crying out for the equipment to respond effectively but they weren’t to get it for a very long time.

Meet Mister Sniper

29th September 1914

According to the Dorsets’ diary, the German shelling continued again at 9am until “our guns firing, it died away”. High explosive shells bothered the village occasionally. Gleichen confirms this with:

In this the two howitzer batteries, especially Wilson’s 61st, were splendid, and spotted and knocked out gun after gun of the enemy. He had an observing station halfway up the hill above Ste Marguerite, to which I went occasionally, with a grand view up to Vregny and Chivres; but even here, although the O.P. was beautifully concealed, one had to be careful not to show a finger or a cap, for the German snipers in the wood below were excellent shots, and there were some narrow escapes.

Sniping was causing many casualties all along the line. The Germans were hidden in amongst the trees shrouding the base of the Chivre spur. This gave them excellent cover from which to pick off careless enemy troops. It even allowed them to target British snipers with ruthless efficiency. Gleichen writes that on the 27th “a Bedford sniper, an excellent shot, one Sergeant Hunt, unfortunately got a bullet through two fingers of his right hand.”

The Germans entered the war with excellent equipment and great skills as hunters and marksmen. Their general purpose rifle was the 7.92 mm Mauser Gewehr 98. It was an excellent weapon, accurate, reliable and efficient, let down only by its slower rate of fire and small magazine. It could also take a fitted telescopic scope out of the box. While the British Army prided itself upon its soldiers’ rate of fire, the German Army fixated on accuracy, and if an optical sight helped them then all the better.

It’s often claimed that the British thought that aiming aids were somehow dishonourable or unfair. The mounting casualties were often pooh-poohed as flukes. In his article “The British ‘School Of Sniping’ On The Western Front“, Dr David Payne states that the ” ‘unaccountable’ British firearm victims that did occur were usually put down to ‘lucky shots’ or ‘stray bullets’.” I’m not sure about this claim. Firstly he doesn’t cite his primary sources, and secondly, the diaries and letters home at the time are full of the word sniper. The British Army certainly knew that the enemy were deliberately targeting them.

The Germans had both equipment and techniques that helped them establish total superiority over the British when it came to sniping. They would often hunt in pairs, with a spotter using high powered glasses calling out targets to a marksman wearing camouflage, shooting from behind a sniping plate, a steel loophole thick enough to withstand a British .303 rifle round.

The British troops became so paranoid about snipers in late 1914 (and especially in early 1915), that they were often paralysed even by the very thought that one was operating in their section. The phrase “putting the wind up” was used a lot to describe this feeling of panic. They had no way of responding to this constant and deadly threat. At least not yet.

The British may have left the field in South Africa victorious but they were very much beaten in musketry by the Mauser-wielding Boers. As a result the search was made for a new rifle with a higher rate of velocity and range. Sadly the outbreak of war ended that search competition and although the replacement Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mark III (SMLE or “Smelly” ) was an excellent infantry rifle, it was not a rifle suited to sniping. The main problem with it was the fact that its bolt action meant that most optical sights made for it were mounted to the left of the barrel.

The other problem was that Britain’s optical glass was far inferior to German manufactured optics. By the end of 1914 the Germans had about 20,000 optical sights in action. The British had just over 2000. And many of those just didn’t work, They were not calibrated properly and were often supplied without fitting instructions. As a result some hunting-mad officers brought their personal rifles and sights to the frontline.

It was Major Hesketh Vernon Hesketh-Prichard who transformed all this by identifying the problems with the sights and, more importantly, British sniping methods. He recalls, in his beautifully illustrated book (and rather sardonically titled) “Sniping in France“.

For the benefit of the untechnical reader it will be well here to remark that if a telescopic sight set upon a 4-inch base is one-hundredth of an inch out of its true alignment, it will shoot incorrectly to the extent of 9 inches at 100 yards, and, of course, 18 inches at 200 yards, and 54 inches at 600 yards. The sights had been issued without instruction, were often handed over as trench-stores, and were served out by quartermaster-sergeants who very often looked on them as egregious fads.

A photograph of Major Hesketh Vernon Hesketh-Prichard.
Major Hesketh Vernon Hesketh-Prichard.

Hesketh-Prichard also noted that, in many cases, using open sights (the metal guides along the gun barrel) was often more accurate than using existing optical sights. He used this argument to change British views on sniping and help establish a “school” of scouting and sniping. He certainly saved many lives in doing so.

We’ll meet “Hex” again further along in this series. He’s worth an entire post, if we go by the title of his biography alone: Hesketh Prichard D.S.O., M.C.: Explorer, Naturalist, Cricketer, Author, Soldier.