It is a tradition in the great militaries of the world that between wars, sniping becomes a neglected art. It’s neglected because it’s hard, because training for it is costly, and because the principal product of your snipers, actionable intelligence, is little appreciated in the peace time army.
The following story from the First World War illustrates all the reasons this art should not be neglected.
—————————————— I ——————————————
THE two snipers of the Royal Midlandshires, the shooter and the observer, were comfortably in their post. The shooter was longing for a cigarette, which regulations forbade lest the enemy – two hundred yards away – should see the smoke issuing from the concealed loophole; but the observer, Private William Entworth, was studying the parapet opposite.
Suddenly he spoke: “Line of water-tower. Red sandbag. Left. Two feet.”
Saunders’ eyes picked up the water-tower in the distance, ranged to the parapet, found the red sandbag, then swung to the left of it. Yes, something moving. He cuddled the stock of his rifle, and brought the pointer in the telescope to bear. Then slowly he began to squeeze the trigger.
Entworth was only just in time.
“Why not, ole son?”
“A ’Un cat! ’Ere goes.”
“Come off it. If you get shootin’ cats outer this post Mr. Nowell’ll – Besides, it’s rather a nice-lookin’ cat. Tortoiseshell colour. We ’ad one in Ferrers Street ’e reminds me of. … There, ’e’s climbin’ up on the bloomin’ parados, curlin’ round and goin’ to sleep just as if there wasn’t no war. Shall I enter ’im?”
“Wot’s the good?”
“Dunno. Shows we was awake. ‘Time 11.25 Ac. Emma. Cat (tortoiseshell) at K 22.C.35.45. Action taken: None.’” So wrote Private Entworth with laborious pencil. As he finished a voice sounded outside.
“Who’s in there?”
“Private Entworth. Private Saunders.”
“Shut the loopholes. I am coming in.”
“Well, seen anything?” questioned Mr. Nowell, the Sniping and Intelligence Officer of the Battalion.
“They’ve been working on the post at K.22. D.85.60.”
“Seen any Huns?”
“Only a cat, sir. I’ve entered it in the log-book. It’s sunning itself on the parados now, sir. Line of water-tower. Red sandbag.”
“Yes, I have it,” said Nowell, who had taken the telescope.
“Shall I shoot ’im, sir?”
“Why should you?”
“’E probably kills rats and makes life brighter-like for the ’Un, sir, by so doing. There’s a glut o’ rats on this sector, sir.”
“The cat looks very comfortable. No, don’t shoot, Saunders. Entworth, give me that log-book.” The officer turned over the pages. “I wonder if anyone has ever seen that cat before? Hullo, yes. Private Scroggins and Lance-Corporal Tew two days ago in the afternoon. Here’s the entry: ‘3.40 pip emma K.22.C.35.40. Cat on parados.’”
Nowell’s eyes showed a gleam of interest. “Note down whenever you see that cat,” said he.
“And keep a bright look-out.”
“Yes, sir.” Once more the loopholes were shut, and Nowell, lifting the curtain at the back of the Post which prevented the light shining through, went out. His steps died away along the trench-boards.
“Think we’ll see it in ‘Comic Cuts’” (the universal B.E.F. name for the Corps Intelligence Summary). “‘At K.22.C.35.45, a tortoiseshell-coloured he-cat.’ I don’t think!” said Saunders.
“Shouldn’t wonder. The cove wot writes out ‘Comic Cuts’ must ’a bin wounded in the ’ed early-on. Sort o’ balmy ’e is.”
—————————————— II ——————————————
Meantime we must follow Mr. Nowell down the trench. He was full of his thoughts and almost collided round a corner with a red-hatted Captain.
“Sorry, sir,” said he, saluting.
“Righto! my mistake. Can you tell me where I shall find the I.S.O. of this battalion?” asked the Staff Officer.
“My name’s Nowell, sir. I am the Sniping and Intelligence Officer.”
“Good. I’m Cumberland of Corps Intelligence.” Nowell looked up with new interest. He had heard of Cumberland as a man of push and go, who had made things hum since he had come to the Corps a few weeks back.
“Anything you want?” continued Cumberland. “You’ve been sending through some useful stuff. I thought I’d come down and have a talk.”
Nowell led the way to his dug-out. He had suffered long from a very official Corps Intelligence G.S.O., whom Cumberland had just replaced. Under the old regime it never really seemed to matter to the
Higher Intelligence what anyone in the battalion did, but now Cumberland seemed to take an interest at once. After a quarter of an hour’s talk Cumberland was taking his leave. “Well,” said he, “anything you want from Corps, don’t hesitate to ask. That’s what we’re there for, you know. Sure there isn’t anything?” “As a matter of fact there is, but I hardly like to ask you.” “Why not? “It’s such a long shot, sir.” “Well, what is it?” “I’d like aeroplane photos taken of K.22 squares C. and D. opposite here. New photographs, sir.” Cumberland was about to ask a question, but looking up he caught the slight flush of colour that had risen in Nowell’s face. “Righto,” he said easily. “We rather pride ourselves on quick work with aeroplane photos up at Corps. I’ll have the squares taken to-morrow morning if visibility is pukka. And the finished photos will be in your hands by five o’clock. Good afternoon.” Cumberland strode along the trench, and Nowell stood staring after him.
“Never asked me what I wanted ’em for,” he muttered. “Taken in the morning; in my hands by afternoon. Why, in old Baxter’s time such efficiency would have killed him of heart-disease. Well, let’s hope that cat’s playing the game, and not leading a poor forlorn British Battalion Intelligence Officer to make a fool of himself.”
—————————————— III ——————————————
The next afternoon the aeroplane photos duly arrived, together with a note from Cumberland:
“Am sending the photographs of K.22.C. and D. taken to-day, also some I have looked out of the same squares which were taken six weeks ago. It would appear from a comparison that a good deal of work has been put in by the Hun round C.3.5. It looks like a biggish H.Q. I have informed C.R.A. who says it will be dealt with at 3 pip emma to-morrow, 18th inst.
—————————————— IV ——————————————
It is five minutes to three on the following day, and the bright sun which has shone all the morning has worked round behind the British position.
In the morning two gunner F.O.O.’s have visited the trenches, compared certain notes with Mr. Nowell, and gone back to their Observation Posts on the higher ground. Nowell himself has decided to watch events from the O.P. in which was laid the first scene of this history. He hurries along to it, and calls out: “Who’s in there?”
“Private Saunders. Private Entworth, sir.”
“Shut the loopholes. I’m coming in.” He goes in.
“Move along, Entworth, and I’ll sit beside you on the bench and observe with my own glass. Get yours on to the spot where the cat was. Got it? Right. Two batteries of 6-inch Hows. are going to try and kill that cat, Entworth, in a minute and a half from now. Zero at three o’clock. Nice light, isn’t it?” At these words of Nowell’s several thoughts, mostly connected with his officer’s sanity, flashed through Entworth’s rather slow brain, but long before they were formulated Nowell rapped out:
“Here they come.”
Sounds just like half a dozen gigantic strips of silk being torn right across the sky were clearly audible in the Post. At the same instant through the watching glasses heaps of earth, tin, a stove-pipe, were hurled into the air. There were other grimmer objects, too, as the shells rained down.
Fifteen minutes later, Mr. Nowell having gone, Private Entworth was speaking, though his eye was still glued to his glass.
“Direct’it right off and right into a nest of ’Uns. There was ’ole’Uns and bits of ’Uns in the air, I tell yer, Jim Saunders. Loverly shooting, ’twas! I doubt there’s anything at C.35.45. left alive. There is, tho’! By ––– there is! There goes that ruddy-coloured cat over the parados like a streak, and what ’o! for Martinpunch!”
—————————————— V ——————————————
And finally an extract from “Comic Cuts,” the Corps Intelligence Summary of the next day:
“A cat having been observed by our snipers daily sleeping on the parados of a supposedly disused enemy trench at K.22.C.3.4. it was deduced from the regularity of its habits that the cat lived near-by, and – owing to the fact that the German trenches at this point are infested by rats – probably in a dug-out occupied by enemy officers. Aeroplane photographs were taken which disclosed the existence of a hitherto unlocated enemy H.Q., which was duly dealt with by our Artillery.”
Hesketh-Prichard, H. (2012-07-01). Sniping in France: With Notes on the Scientific Training of Scouts, Observers, and Snipers (Kindle Locations 1760-1833). Tales End Press. Kindle Edition.
About Sniping, a Few Observations
- Sniping is ultimately a psychological operation.
- This is not the best-known sniper memoir (that would be MacBride’s, probably) but as Hesketh-Price stood up and ran the sniper school, it carries considerable weight.
- As this story shows, the whole book is well written and is a fun, fast read.
- This story is the best capsule illustration we know of why a sniper’s greatest worth to you is not in his trigger pulling — however good he is at that.
- Count on the British to have no qualms about blowing large quantities of “Huns” away, but take delight in the survival of the little Hun cat.
The British only developed a sniper school and culture under pressure from German snipers. Like most democracies, Britain would let this tribal knowledge fade out during periods of protracted peace. And have to learn it all over again under pressure from German snipers within a couple decades.