WWI Sniping II

Sergeant Jack Winston, Canadian 19th Battalion, witnessed his lieutenant stalk and capture a German sniper:

Our lieutenant was looking hard across No Man’s Land through the trench periscope, and I wondered what was keeping him so long looking at a spot I thought we all knew by heart. He stood there perfectly immovable for at least fifteen minutes, while several star-shells, fired both from our own lines and the German trenches, flared and died. Finally he turned to me and whispered, “Jack, I do not remember that dead horse out there yesterday. Take a look and tell me if you remember seeing it before.” I looked at the spot indicated and sure enough there was a dead horse lying at the side of a shell-hole where I could have sworn there was nothing the day before.

I told the lieutenant I was sure that nothing had been there on the previous day and waited for further orders. German snipers had annoyed us considerably and as they took great pains in concealing their nests we had little success in stopping them. Several casualties had resulted from their activities. The lieutenant had evidently been thinking, while taking his long observation, for he said almost at once: “I believe that nag is a neat bit of camouflage. One of those Huns is probably hidden in that carcass to get a better shot at us.” He then told me to have the men at the portholes fire at the carcass, at five seconds intervals, to keep “Fritz,” if he were there, under cover—and taking advantage of the dark interval between the glare of the star-shells, he slipped “Over the top,” having told me he was going to get the Hun.

Imagine my suspense for the next half hour. I kept looking through the periscope but for the fully fifteen minutes but could not find my officer. Finally I spotted him sprawled out, apparently dead, as a star-shell lit up the ground within the range of my periscope. As no shot had been fired, except from our own portholes, I knew he was not as dead as he seemed. And sure enough when next I could make him out he was several yards ahead, and to the left, of the spot where I had last seen him. Then I knew what he was after. He was making a detour to approach the carcass from the rear, and as he could only move in the dark intervals between star-shells his progress was, of necessity, slow. At the end of another fifteen minutes I located him in a position, as nearly as I could judge, about ten yards in the rear and just a step to the left of the carcass.

Sergeant Winston assembled a patrol to help the lieutenant:

[W]e ran straight into the lieutenant who was driving the Hun before him at the muzzle of his automatic. We wasted no time on the return journey but hustled “Fritzie” along at a brisk pace… When we were all safe in the trench, the lieutenant called off the barrage and the enemy in our front was doubtless wondering what it was all about, until the sniper who, as the lieutenant surmised, was hidden in the camouflaged carcass, returned no more. The Lieutenant had arrived at a point about five paces behind the Hun before the sniper discovered him, and then had him covered with his automatic. Like most of his breed there was a wide “yellow streak” in this baby-killer and he cried “Kamerad” instantly. By the time the Lieutenant had secured his prisoner’s rifle our barrage was falling, and under its protection, he began his march back with the prisoner, and met us before he had gone twenty-five yards… The prisoner expected to be killed at once and begged piteously for his life, saying “he had a wife and three children.” One of the men replied that if he had his way he would make it a “widow and three orphans.” Needless to say he did not have his own way….

Another Canadian sniper matched wits with a Bavarian:

There was an old Bavarian sniper along this part of the front who had become famous for his killings. He had accounted for several officers in our brigade and the week before he came into this sector he killed a couple of our snipers of the 7th battalion. The post where they were killed had been given away by a new draft officer who did not understand what it meant to send his green men into a post of this kind, and having them banging and shooting at the landscape through it. I questioned this officer about it and he said the snipers did not use the post enough so he thought he was being efficient in sending men in there to shoot… The bullets that killed the two 7th Snipers came directly in through the loop hole[,] hit the timber and iron sheeting in the roof and glanced downward. This had been a good post and had been in use for a long time before the bright officer advertised it to the old Bavarian. This grizzled old Bavarian had been glimpsed on several occasions. He wore a beard appearing to be a man at least 50 years of age.

After the incident of the two 7th battalion snipers I quieted myself to the task of hunting for the old timer… I started out from our right flank into a maze of disused trenches that had changed hands several times and now were between the opening lines. They were filled with wire blockades or entanglements to prevent their use by either side in surprise attacks. … I worked my way forward cautiously till I thought I must be close to the enemy outpost positions. … When it was quite dark I caught a glimpse of a movement among that mess of wire. I did not make anything definite out of it that night. The following night I was back there again and set to watching that sag with its mess of wire coils. Dusk crept toward darkness and I was thinking about going in and calling it a day when there was a distant flare light. It lit up the skyline beyond that sag full of wire. There was the unmistakable outline of the head and shoulders of the old Bavarian. He had not taken the distant flares into account and he was outlined in a light that just enabled me to pick up the cross hair in the old Winchester A5 Scope. I fired before the light flickered and died out, then shifted my position off to one side[,] a bit of waiting for awhile to try to catch another glimpse of the spot by the aid of another distant flare. … I did get another glimpse across that sag full of wire. There was clear sky behind and I could not make out anything by the contour of the earth below. We never saw the old Bavarian sniper again, nor did I ever hear any more of him in the time we remained in the front.

To open the Dardanelles, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landed at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. Instead of advancing inland rapidly, they entrenched themselves in anticipation of a Turkish counterattack. The Turks also dug trenches and not having forgotten the lessons of centuries ago, began sniping at unwary ANZAC soldiers. As casualties mounted, reinforcements were needed and the Australian 5th Light Horse was called up and sent to Gallipoli where they fought as infantry.

Among the 5th Light Horse was Private William Edward Sing, better known as Billy. Being of both Chinese and English ancestry, he was ineligible for enlistment, as only men of European descent were qualified to enlist, but his origins were overlooked by the recruiting officer. Sing, after all, was an excellent horseman and the best shot in the Proserpine Rifle Club. Predictably Sing would be called upon to neutralize the Turkish snipers. Described as “a little chap, very dark, with jet-black moustache and a goatee beard,” Sing’s tally grew such that the Turks wanted him very badly. Ion Idriess recounted spotting for Sing:

He has a splendid telescope and through it I peered across at a distant loophole, just in time to see a Turkish face framed behind the loophole. He disappeared. A few minutes later, and part of his face appeared. That vanished. Five minutes later he would cautiously gaze from a side angle through the loophole. I could see his moustache, his eyebrows, and part of his forehead. He disappeared. Then he showed all his face and disappeared. He didn’t reappear again, though I kept turning the telescope back to his possy. At last, farther along the line, I spotted a man’s face framed enquiringly in a loophole. He stayed there. Billy fired. The Turk vanished instantly, but with the telescope I could partly see the motions of men inside the trench picking him up. So it was one more man to Billy’s tally.

As Sing’s fame spread, the Turks sent their best sniper, nicknamed Abdullah the Terrible by the Australians, to kill Sing. Sing got him first and went on to have over 160 confirmed kills as well as another 150 probables. After Gallipoli was evacuated, Sing transferred to the 31st Infantry Battalion and was sent to France. Wounded several times, Sing earned the Belgian Croix de Guerre. Postwar, Sing returned to Proserpine and died in 1943. Sing is interred at Lutwyche Cemetery, Brisbane and honored by Australia with a bronze statue of a sniper behind a sandbagged loophole in Hood’s Lagoon, Clermont.

An Ojibwa from Ontario, Canada, Francis Pegahmagabow was not formally trained as a sniper but his boyhood hunting and trapping experience was sufficient and he was near invisible as a sniper. Serving with Canada’s 23rd Northern Pioneers—which later merged with other units to become the 1st Battalion, Western Ontario Regiment—Pegahmagabow was the most accomplished sniper of World War I with 378 kills and over 300 captured. While he aspired to pen his memoirs, Pegahmagabow never did and we have but one statement that attests to his skill: “The best shot I ever made, about nine hundred yards away, long distance sniping. Man on horseback. Yes I got him.” He was one of only thirty-nine Canadian soldiers to receive the Military Medal with two bars.

United States

When the United States Army adopted the Warner & Swasey prismatic “Telescopic Musket Sight Model of 1908,” it was the first army in the world to adopt a scope sight. Having a short eye relief of only 1½ inches, this 6× scope had a rubber eyepiece; later eyepieces had airholes punched into them to prevent suction against the eye socket when the shooter lowered the rifle. The scope base was soldered onto the rifle and added 2¼ pounds to the total weight of the gun. It was succeeded in 1913 by the Model 1913 which reduced the magnification to 5.2×. The locking nut was changed for the elevation knob and a clamping screw was added to the eyepiece adjustment knob. The Model 1913 was adopted by Canada and one mounted on a Ross rifle is displayed at Quebec’s Museé Royal 22nd Regiment.

America’s late entry into the war meant it could benefit from Canadian and British experience and the first American sniping manual was directly copied from Crum’s manual. Besides the Warner & Swasey scope, equipment included the Winchester A-5 5× scope that was unique in having a tube bored from round stock. It had a simple crosshair reticle but others were available. It was unique in its time in having a groove milled on the underside of the tube. A spring-loaded plunger engaged the groove and prevented any rotation of the scope body while simultaneously allowing the scope body to move laterally. Not having internally adjustable reticle, the rear scope mount had micrometer dials for windage and elevation adjustment. Installation of the scope bases required drilling two holes in the receiver as well as two in the barrel. Criticisms against the Winchester A-5 included its high magnification with its small field of view, making target acquisition slow. The 6-inch space between the mounts meant the scope was not well supported and the scope had to be pushed forward of its firing position before the bolt could be operated. Afterward it had to be pulled back so it could be used. The narrowness of the ocular lens made it useless in poor light. Originally rejected in 1915, it was adopted in 1918 as an emergency measure. In Marine hands, the Winchesters A-5 scopes served as late as the campaign on Guadalcanal in World War II. It was also adopted in 1918 by the British and Canadians, who were desperate to catch up with the Germans and installed them on the Ross rifle and the Short Magazine Lee Enfield Mark III (abbreviated as SMLE Mark III).

Not all Americans were trained by British or Canadian instructors and Private Al Barker, 5th Marines, became a sniper without any training:

I was selected as a sniper with a few others. … I climbed a tall tree near as possible to the German trenches and stationed myself there very comfortably. We could see the Germans setting machine guns in position to be used against our forces. We both had our rifles and plenty of ammunition, so we began to pick off the men who were operating the machine guns. … We succeeded in putting four of these guns out of commission when we were discovered by German snipers. I received a bullet wound in my knee and fell twenty feet to the ground. …

The most notable American sniper fought under Canadian colors. Eager to get into the fight, Herbert McBride resigned his captaincy in the Indiana National Guard and crossed the border where he was gazetted to the 38th Battalion as a captain. As the 38th was not yet mobilized, McBride was assigned to instruct musketry to the 21st Battalion. While there, he learned that the 38th was being sent to France first and resigned his commission to become a private in the Machine Gun Section. McBride attended a sniping school near LaClytte and was issued a Ross rifle with a Warner & Swasey scope.

After sighting it in, McBride selected an observer who was not only a good companion but had keen eyesight:

Early one morning Bou and I were stretched out in our little hole, he with the big telescope and I with my binoculars, scrutinizing the German line, about five hundred yards away. Suddenly the Kid says, “There he is, Mac, right in front of that big tree just to the right of No. 4 post, see him?” I shifted my glasses a little and, sure enough; there was a man, evidently an officer, at the point he mentioned, standing upright, with a big tree behind him, and looking out over our lines through his glasses. Only the kid’s keen eyesight discovered that fellow. I had passed him over several times, but, when my attention was called to it, I saw him quite plainly— through my glasses. When I tried to pick him up through the sight, however, I had considerable difficulty in locating him, but, finally, by noting certain prominent features of the surrounding background, I managed to find the right tree and got him centered in sight and cut loose. I got him.

On Christmas Eve an officer believed the Germans would not fire on stretcher parties and that it was safe to move in the open. As they crossed, an unseen German shot down one stretcher bearer, then another and finally the officer who was rendering aid to a stretcher bearer. McBride observed the shot and determined it came from a tree top in the woods behind the German line. Unsure which tree concealed the sniper, McBride opened with his machine gun. Other machine guns joined in as did an artillery battery. It is unclear who was responsible for dropping the German, but that he was killed was all that mattered.

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By war’s end, all major powers practiced sniping and the British sniping effort reduced British losses to “only forty-four in three months for sixty battalions; that means in three months … [a saving of] 3,500 lives.” The Germans lost their initial advantage and Crum described the success of British sniping: “It was sometimes enough to kill a single really troublesome Hun sniper to secure complete moral superiority. In one sector, I remember, on our arrival, it was unsafe to show your little finger. When we came away, three weeks later, I saw one of our men coolly lathering his face in full view as he did his morning shave.” Postwar, sniping was forgotten and overshadowed by emerging technology like aeroplanes, submarines and tanks.


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