from ‘the War Budget’, August 26th, 1915
'Sniping the Sniper'
by Ignatius Phayre

Tommy’s Terrible Sport as a Stalker of Men


What goes on in. the foremost trench of the advanced works, where Briton and German not only see each other, but converse, aye, and even signal hits with all the care of a recorder at the Bisley butts? Well, there's more burrowing than battling in those mazy sapheads of this tunnel war, where mines are often sprung by either side, and the earth spouts into frightful volcanoes of destruction. Here too, the keen sniper reigns; the picked stalker of men with his match rifle, fine eyes and optical aids—telescopic and periscopic sights—trained on the loopholes opposite.

Wary as cats, wily as serpents, our sharpshooters watch night and day for their human prey. It is horrible, of course, this cold-blooded, professional killing, but at the same time supremely necessary. We learned sniping from the Boers. Our present foe, with uncanny flair for new ideas, picked up the art from us and beat us at it—for a time.

The sleights and daring of the German sniper have been the wondering theme of every British officer in letters and diaries, in trench mess and club, and smoke room at home. The marksman is up a tree, or worming along the ground, stealthy as any Sikh or Ghurka. In a field of roots he sticks a turnip on the spike of his helmet, and thus disguised sends sudden death into our unsuspecting ranks.

He enlists his own wounded, groaning out there on the stricken field:—"Water, good English!—give me water!" Our pitying fellows respond, only to fall dead in the lovely act of charity, through the straight aim of the hidden sniper, who has the range measured to a yard. Or again the deadly marksman lies low among the real dead. After one of the Aisne battles we were terribly worried by German snipers. Man after man fell mysteriously and mortally hurt. At last one of our officers set out before dawn to locate this lethal pest, taking with him a whole platoon of men.

As well as the light permitted a big field was searched between the opposing lines— a great space entirely littered with dead Germans. Not a sign of a sniper, however; only that still array of tumbled humanity, stiff and stark in darksome confusion. Our lads were about to return when, as the light improved, the officer himself saw an oil- sheet move over a supposed 'corpse' that lay on its back behind a mound only 300 yards from our foremost trench, and quite effectively concealed. Hands and face, were hidden by the sheet, which when whipped off, showed a very live marksman indeed whose match-rifle lay beside him, together with 100 rounds.

Seeing the bayonets of vengeance flash, that sniper turned malingerer. He was now "wounded!" A doctor was called. It was shown he was without a scratch, so he was instantly killed, and that with savage zest. But don't be shocked, for the havoc wrought by these hunters of men is indeed heartrending, as I will show.

Lieut.-Gen. Sir Henry MacKinnon tells of a sniper located "with great difficulty" and shot out of hand. On his person was found an order appointing him professional murderer of British officers at an agreed rate of blood-money — two marks (shillings) a head. That sniper carried a book in which were recorded business-like details of his awful duty. Thus he was required to state the exact position where his prey was struck down, what the officer's regiment was, and other particulars.

It was clear that the German Kriegsministerium, or War Office, would part with no reward till each claim was thoroughly tested by reference to the casualty lists in British newspapers. Well, the sniper in question claimed that he had killed fifty British officers, and of these 25 were allowed. The sniper's book showed a receipt for as many florins, or 2 10s. in all. Officers have been the sniper's mark ever since the Germans have followed this selective art. No wonder Sam Browne belts are laid aside in the foremost works. No wonder the subaltern puts away his sword and takes a rifle, as well as laying a pack on his back like one of the rank and file.

German snipers hide in our lines during the day and come out at night to pot our ration and water parties. Even the doctors and stretcher-bearers have no immunity from these treacherous pests; and often a harassed battalion has to organise a regular drive to locate and kill a single sniper, whose rifle has accounted for casualties equal to those in a minor charge.

There is no denying the selfless purpose of those solitary German marksmen. They creep out at twilight and dig themselves in within 30 yards of our trenches. All night they are on the alert to slay, by the light of pistol-flares, their own or ours. Their prey is perhaps a sentry, perhaps an officer going his rounds, or some incautious lad stretching his legs, or dreaming of home in the formless maze of ditches around him.

Hidden in holes or lairs, the subtle sniper lets our advance pass him by, then waits for dawn in some advantageous spat whence enfilading fire is possible. With the new light of day the man begins killing, and his audacity has a fearful reward. Snipers are commonly clad in our own khaki—taken from the dead, of course, officer or man. They may be fluent in English—"I was a barber in Battersea," wailed a long distance murderer caught in the act. Often he discourses with us in familiar slang, begging "a fag" from Tommy to allay any suspicion which his movements may arouse.

Not even the dark hours of night are free from sniping shots. Securely hidden in farm or cottage, the cunning marksman fires at sounds, having carefully noted the range by daylight. Flashes are another target. Or the shells will show him where to aim, for these make a trail of light in the gloom like a phosphorescent wake in the sea. Sharp, shooters in the trench are snipers of a different kind, with fixed rifles, patient eye glancing along the barrel, and sensitive finger on the trigger, waiting for a target no bigger than a lead pencil.

These men relieve each other every quarter of an hour, for the strain of watching is intense. If no living thing appears over the opposite parapet, the marksman puts ten rounds or so into the nearest British loop-hole and goes back to his mates hoping he has killed at least one "Englander." "My pal was whispering behind me when he stopped. It was half dark. I felt a thud in the hack, heard the clatter of his rifle in the rubble of the ditch. Swinging round I found poor Fred lying face downward, groaning aloud. The sniper had got him at last. I stayed "behind, of course. And when the last man of the file came level with me, I sent him back to the dressing station for the bearers."

How do our men deal with this curse? By sniping the sniper. By outwitting the trickster, outshooting the best German marksmen till these find their horrible work no better than downright suicide. In one of the Welsh regiments is a little Celt who has earned complete repose for all his mates. Their trench is scrupulously respected, even by the most daring sharpshooters of the German army. That Welshman lived only for sniping. At night he'd steal forward cat-wise, and fire at well-considered marks. Then he'd slip aside to await the enemy's reply. They always missed him, and the flashes of their rifles gave him a new target.

A London Scottish scoutmaster was sent out one night to ascertain the foe's intention. He nearly fell over that Welshman, who bade him follow, and led the way to an advantageous spot, less than 20 yards from the Germans. Here the two remained undiscovered and unsuspected. Our sniper killed a man, and came away sentimentalising about the Welsh hills, where last year he was a revivalist preacher.

The rounding up of snipers is now an elaborate art along the British front. Our men detect every wile and guile of the crawling marksman—he is often covered with ferns or straw to hide his progress over grass or stubble fields. At one point three out of five were killed by a watcher of the West Kents. Single-handed one of the Manchesters rounded up. stalked and slew six German snipers who had inflicted serious loss upon the regiment.

Sikhs and Ghurkas trail these living plagues, so do ex-ghillies of the Highland glens who've slipped down many a slope after a Royal stag on behalf of princely sportsmen. But here is human quarry more dangerous than lion, more tricky than the African buffalo. It is a great and fearsome game, and is undertaken in the sporting spirit. Picked shots sit in comfort, with fixed rifles, waiting for careless heads and limbs which are holed in a flash.

Here's a record of continuous, necessary slaughter. "By means of the telescopic sight and my observer, I spotted a German officer at 850 yards. He was supervising the filling of sandbags. Crack! Now he'll fill a grave in a few minutes. Two men ran out to drag him in as he fell. I got both of them. A fourth I killed as he was making a new loophole." And so goes the record of the invisible stalker.

"Prussian marksmen punish us," a keen officer owned, "but we always get our own back. Whenever one of my boys is hit, I take one loophole and my three best shots among the N.C.O.'s one each. And we snipe until we get our man. At 150 yards I can generally reckon on hitting a 6-inch loophole five times out of six."

Much depends on the eyesight of the lookout at the end of a trench. The Connaught Rangers were one day startled with, "I've spotted a sniper!" Sergeant-Major Kelly put up his glasses and saw a man in a tree at 400 yards. A comrade on the ground was passing him up ammunition.

"Let me have 'em," pleaded Private Woods, and the rest gave way to the best shot in the regiment. "I'll take the fellow below first," the rifleman said. Already his trained eye glanced down the barrel with dreadful intent. "Got him—look at that! And at that, by God—t'other chap's lifted cold out o' the tree!" And so he was. The double killing took barely three seconds.

These sniping posts are hard to find, harder still to approach, containing as they do desperate men of very deadly aim An officer of one of the Indian regiments was sorely troubled by "snipe-fire," and all attempts failed to trace it to its source. At his wits end that officer began to suspect a far-off haystack.

"I'll examine it myself," he resolved, and made a detour of three miles so as to approach the landmark successfully through the long grass. A detachment of his Garhwalis followed, but kept well behind. At length the alert stalker drew near, with searching eyes fast upon those walls of hay. Here he waited, and strange signs and movements soon rewarded him. "I was right," he told himself, wonderingly. And rising quietly, standing close up, the inquisitor emptied his magazine pistol at the tell- tale spot.

Then came his Garhwalis and opened up the stack revealing the strangest sight. Elaborately installed, with loopholes and airholes, a cask of water, a month's provisions, and several thousand rounds, was the crack sniper of Prince Rupprecht's army, now inert and lifeless.

Our French Allies, too, have taken well to sniping, and General Cherfils tells a curious story of a feat recalling that of William Tell. The 26th Infantry were amazed to see a German officer appear on the trench parapet, coolly promenading, field- glasses in hand, and dragging with him by the arms two terrified Frenchwomen.

He had reckoned without Adjutant X., however, the regimental crack shot and one of the finest marksmen in the Army. This officer dropped into the position of a prize- man at the range, with back and foresights care, fully blacked. For full thirty seconds the Adjutant took aim—his men looked on aghast!

The shot rang out, the arrogant German dropped limply.

The ladies were seen to run away, while the whole 26th gave vent to pent-up breath in a great cheer for France, for the ladies and the sniper who delivered them with such delicate deliberation.


Back to Index