from ‘the War Budget’ July 13th, 1916
'Midnight Raids on the German Lines'
By W. G. Fitz-Gerald

Volunteer Exploits That Mark the Limit of Human Daring

illustrations from 'the War Illustrated'


Midnight Raids on the German Lines

THE trench raid was originally a .British idea — one which our wily enemy has not been slow to grasp and turn against us when occasion served. Still, as Sir Douglas Haig says, initiative in the cutting-out affray is still held by our side. It is an unofficial venture; an utterly desperate and reckless sort of "lark" upon which men embark of their own free will.

News of a coming raid goes round at sunset when our planes come home to roost, and tally is taken of missing aviators. The keenest sub. of a company calls for volunteers, and picks his men from those who vie with one another for a chance in the midnight adventure now energetically afoot. This is Youth's own mission. Great physical strength is also needed, and a weird armoury of special raiding tools.

For the rifle and bayonet are useless weapons when our lads drop into the eight- foot German ditch, and wild alarms run down the narrow, murderous maze — at this hour in. total darkness, except for rocket flares which only add to the panic and confusion. Pouches of bombs are always carried on these expeditions.

preparing for a trench-raid


Trench-Breakers' Tools

Apart from the high-explosive variety, there are also smoke bombs that cover the raiders' retreat, and tear-compelling grenades which blind the hostile marksmen, and render ineffective all retaliation on the part of an alarmed enemy. Knuckle- duster knives and fist-bayonets, daggers and dirks, automatic pistols and spiked bludgeons, are all weapons favoured by these night-prowling birds of prey. One giant Scot chose a two-pound hammer. ''I use it in my trade," he explained modestly. "So 'twill seem like an old friend in the darksome scrap."

Wire-cutters of formidable pattern are also taken, so as to cope with new German wire thick as a man's thumb, and horribly barbed. At one in the morning the raiders set ladders on the fire-step and scramble over the parapet amid fervid whispers for their success. Five picked men and a daring officer form the usual party for this work. They can do enormous damage, and often return to our lines without, serious wounds, although dreadfully torn by the wire — our own as well as the enemy's.

Drawing the Badgers

The night raid is primarily intended to demoralise an entire German trench. It can and does cause a fabulous waste of Hun ammunition, .since machine-guns, mortars, and even heavy howitzers join in the nocturnal alarm, without any clear idea of what is happening. Indeed, the foe's artillery often plays havoc in its own lines during a successful British raid — especially when our escape is of the slim and calculated kind.

Up then, and over into a No-Man's-Land of horror and desolation. First of all through our own jungle of wire, by well-known (and also well-hidden) gaps and avenues calling for special guides from the Royal Engineers. What a litter is here! Fragments of shell, cartridge cases, abandoned rifles and helmets, water-bottles and haversacks. The dying too, and the long dead, that make their presence felt in horrible fashion.

The raiders advance in Indian file, with their officer ahead; for such is the tradition of these dark and vengeful affrays. It is a nerve-straining march. Silence is above all things imperative, yet the going is truly terrible, owing to the huge a pits and craters driven in the soil by monstrous shells. Many of these are half full of mud and water. And alarm-devices are encountered in the way. Bows of tins on the wire, for example, which when touched rattle loudly. Remember always that the opposing trenches are often only separated by a hundred yards of dead ground.

preparing for a trench-raid


Alarm Bells

The cunning Germans arrange many kinds of traps to frustrate these midnight raids. Electric trip-wires will ring bolls in the enemy's trenches — or even send up an automatic flare to reveal the whereabouts of our men, groping their way in the darkest hours of night. Moreover, the range of such spots is known to a foot, and sniper-rifles as well as maxims are constantly trained upon them, so that merely to reach the German parapet is in itself a thrilling exploit. Yet our lads' mission is to drop over this wall into the very jaws of the foe, and bomb and slay him without mercy in hand-to-hand combat. Could any more hazardous undertaking be conceived?

Here we are creeping over the field, fully exposed, and thanking God for the darkness that envelopes us. Twigs crackling underfoot sound horribly loud. Each bush and wire post seems to move cautiously, as though our raiders had met a German party — no uncommon event, by the way, when a frightful duel to the death takes place in thick gloom, with never a shot fired from start to finish.

At long last the German wire is reached and skillfully cut. Next the German wall looms up and is scaled, with boating hearts and bomb-pouches well to the front. For one thrilling moment our men stand poised, and then leap down into the unknown simultaneously, braining the nearest sentry with a trenching-tool caught up at random from a dug-out door.

Sooner or later the alarm sounds, and drowsy Germans stream out of the “houses" cut into the trench walls. For what follows there are no fit words. Like lightning our first bomber makes a skilful throw into the thick of an amazed foe. In a moment the summer night is rent with shattering explosions and dreadful cries.

Death Grapples

The narrow ditch is soon filled with the poisonous reek of trinitrotoluol. And there is hand-to-hand work which it were not decent to describe. British hands clutch German throats and batter skulls in the dark with steel-ringed sticks, specially made for these night raids. Knife thrusts are driven home without a sound. There is body-to-body grappling. Men are slain with fists and the butt-end, with pistols, too, and spades, and stones wrapped in strips of canvas. Such things take time to write, but in reality the raiders havoc may be measured in seconds of time.

Their main object is to strike terror — to rouse and. unnerve a whole section of trench; to kill the greatest possible number of Germans (chiefly with bombs) and then escape when the officer-leader's whistle sounds — if possible driving off a few prisoners, who may have useful tales to tell our Staff at Brigade Headquarters.

see also : Going on a Night Raid

illustrations from 'the War Illustrated'


Back to Index