Closing the Eyes of the Hun
A Story of the Work of the Sniper
Corporal R. N. Siddle
EDITOR'S Note.—Corporal Siddle enlisted in London, Ontario, with the 18th Battalion. He served as a sniper for sixteen months and at the end of that time had a well earned reputation as one of the cracksnipers with the Canadian forces. He had been through the battles at Ypres and St. Eloi and at the Somme, and had to his knowledge accounted for 34 Germans. During the battle of the Somme he was buried by a shell and narrowly escaped death. He has since been invalided home. No one is in a better position to tell the story of the sniper and the hazardous work that falls to his lot.
WE were “going up.” It was an unusually dark night and we stumbled along the shell-pitted road as best we could. Suddenly one of our fellows pitched forward with a deepwrung groan; and did not get up. A quick examination by those nearest revealed the fact that he had been hit—and behind the shoulder at that.
A few moments later another fellowemitted a sharp cry of pain. “I’m hit!” he exclaimed. “They’ve handed me one in the leg.”
Almost before the words were out of his mouth another pellet came winging out of the blackness and nipped the arm of a sergeant There was no longer any doubt as to what was happening. Somewhere, in the darkness behind us, a “sniper” was concealed.
The 18th Battalion had not been long at the front and we were a little disturbed at this form of attack. The sniper had probably directed his aim by the sound of our tramping. Certainly he could not have seen us. For our part we had about one chance in twenty of locating him, as things stood. He might be anywhere around us and there was plenty of cover. But, oddly enough, we managed to get the beggar, after all. One of our fellows chanced to catch a slight flash far off to the east of the road just as a bullet sang past his ear. The word was passed along the line and we began a cautious advance on the spot from all directions. As we drew closer the outline of a small shed became discernible in the darkness. Sure that we had our man cornered, we rushed the shed from three sides.
He had hardly a chance to emit a squeak before we had him out, rifle and all. He was caught red-handed, a venomous litt’c spy who spat shrill curses at us as we lined him up against the side of the shed.
THIS incident, which occurred early in September, 1915, illustrates the gravity of the danger from snipers. It was then not uncommon for spies to find posts far behind our lines and pick us off as we marched to and from the trenches.
There is less of
now, for the spy crop has been
pretty well harvested. But on the other hand the system of sniping has been developed into a regular science, adding very greatly to the hazards of war. The sniper has become just as necessary a part of the army organization as the sapper or the stretcher-bearer.
The sniper has many duties, but the first and all-important one is to prevent the enemy from making observations. In queer, unusual places, behind or in front of the line, the sniper lies patiently in wait, rifle leveled and ready. If anything shows above the line of the enemy trench he puts a bullet through it. If a periscope is shoved over the sand bags—whut! The sniper can hit almost anything within sighting distance.
It has become a post of honor and distinction. Only the best marksmen are uesd for this service. It requires, in addition, a very cool n?rve and unusur.l powers of endurance. The reason for this will perhaps be apparent later on.
There is little to choose between the two armies in regard to the thoroughness
of their sniping arrangements but, individually, man for man, we have it over the Germans. Fritz is a good fighting man with his officers to direct him and army regulations to tell him what to do next. But get him alone out on No Man’s Land with only his rifle for defence and his own wits to guide him and he is no match for the Canadian or the British Tommy.
recruited from the best marksmen in a company. The 18 th had trained a t Folkestone where, of course, we had regular practice at the targets. I had always been a good shot and succeeded during the course o f training in hanging up some pretty fair records. I wasn’t surprised, therefore, when Sergt-Major Walker called me over the first day we got up near the line.
“Siddle, you’ve been picked for the snipers,” he said.
We had arrived the night before and were camped about three miles back of the front line. It was expected that we would go up any time and the roar of the guns had worked us up to a fine pitch of excitement. After so many months in training camps the prospect of active service was alluring. I imagine that every man jack in the battalion was itching for a sight of the trenches. Certainly I was delighted to hear that I had been picked as a sniper. It promised extra chances.
“That’s all right,” I said. “Who’s to be with me?”
“Crookshanks,” replied the S.-M.
That bit of news made me completely satisfied with my appointment. Adam Crookshanks was from my own home town of Ford wich, Ontario. He was a fine fellow, big and husky, and good
natured and as straight as the day is long. We had enlisted together and had been the closest of chums all through training, so naturally I was delighted when I learned that we were picked for the same ser-
We worked together as a sniper team for over a year. When men lie side by side sometimes for sixteen hours at a stretch, when they got out on No Man’s Land together day after day, they come to understand and know each other pretty well. I want to say that a better man than Adam Crookshanks never donned the
So, right at the start, I became a sniper. Most of the men who serve in this capacity work into it after more or less long spells in the trenches. They are needed to fill in, for casualities are pretty heavy. I have heard it said that the Germans send their men out sniping as a punishment for insubordination. I doubt this, however. A sniper needs a long course of training to become of much use.
SNIPERS always hunt in pairs and there are four attached to each company, which means there are sixteen to a battalion. They share a mess at battalion headquarters with the patrol men, eight in number. The patrol, to my way of thinking, have the most dangerous and least desirable part of all. Like the owls, they only come out at night and their work is to keep the enemy from bringing anything off under cover of darkness. They go out on No Man’s Land and crawl up and down the line. When a star shell bursts they lie perfectly still; a move would bring a shower of bullets. Dead bodies in all stages of decomposition strew the path. It is generally raining so they crawl through water more than half the time. Work for real men, this.
Snipers work on their own. They have letters of marque. They can go anywhere they like and do pretty much what they like. Provided, of course, that they deliver. It is up to them to put the fear into the stretch of enemy trenches facing their battalion.
Each night the snipers go back to battalion headquarters and get a hot meal there. They need it. Before daybreak they sally out, always in pairs, to the post they have elected to occupy for the day. They carry rifles with special sights, steel plates, gas masks, steel helmets, fifty rounds of ammunition, and a day’s iron rations consisting of two biscuits and a tin of bully beef. They do not take their bayonets. The gas masks are very necessary, for gas hugs the ground and penetrates any shelter.
The post occupied is generally behind the front line trenches and elevated so that it commands a view of the enemy line. Sometimes refuge is found in a ruined building or in a tree, but this is not often the case.
Hardly one brick is left standing o n another where the guns have been at work and such seared stumps of trees as
might still stand would be too shining a mark for the enemy guns.
’T'HE first day that I sallied out it was * raining with a depressing steadiness. I found a post behind a ridge, a little above the front line trenches. The German line was three hundred yards beyond and Fritz was in a canny mood that day. I watched eagerly and got one or two chances but don’t believe that I hit anything. In the meantime, the rain continued to come down and as I was lying full length in a hollowed out space, it was not long before I was literally immersed in it. The cold water crept up over my legs and finally reached to my arm pits. My teeth chattered, my body became numb, my elbows sank down into the mud until I could hardly move them. I could barely lift my rifle, let alone make a clean shot with it.
Crookshanks was lying about ten feet off and in quite as desperate a plight as I was. He was mud from head to foot and, whenever the guns let up, I could hear his teeth
‘‘Can’t stand this!” I said, finally. “I’m going to get a dry place or I’ll be frozen stiff.”
So we moved along the ridge, looking
for dry spots. There weren’t any. It was just mud and water and mostly pretty well exposed to view. Finally we went back to our first posts and settled down into the water again. We had twelve hours of this.
The sniper worked under difficulties in those days. He had no special equipment. He built up such shelter as he could with old boxes, sand bags and such. Gradually, however, more scientific methods were evolved and some hints also were picked up from the Germans. Special steel plates were made and supplied to us. Each night we would take our plates out to the spot we had picked for next day’s post and would proceed to bank them up with earth in front. This plate is about two feet wide and a foot and a half high and quarter of an inch thick with a round hole in the centre big enough for sighting and firing through. The earth in front is arranged so as to cover the plate but leave the “peep-hole” open. A flap of canvas is attached to the top and sides of the plate. It is big enough to cover a man crouching behind the plate. Then the canvas is covered with earth.
Before daybreak we would return to this post and crawl under our canvases. If the “camouflaging” had been well done we could hardly be detected at a distance of a few yards.
Snipers were doing this all along the Western front. When daylight spread over the trenches, the men in both lines knew that somewhere facing them were a number of these cleverly contrived sniping posts and that keen eyes were sweeping the line of the parapets. A hand exposed, a hasty movement, would bring a bullet.
Adam Crookshanks and I worked by
turns as7 I suppose, all teams ‘do. AVe would have our plates set right together whenever possible. One of us would watch with a telescope while the other lay ready to take a pot shot at anything that offered. Then we would reverse the order. We kept this up all day and there would hardly be a moment that a telescope would not be trained on the enemy line. Sometimes we would not get more than half a dozen shots between us all day. Needless to state we never blazed away promiscuously. The danger of being seen was too great. And at that most of the shots we got would be at periscopes. Fritz has so wholesome a respect for the “Engländer” sniper that he does most of his observing through these handy devices.
Sometimes we would while away the hours at our posts by reading, but this wasn’t always possible. W’e had to keep too sharp a watch. We knew, of course, that the other fellows were trying to find us out and that any moment a trench mortar might poke its muzzle up over the way and send a “rum jar” in our direction. They are wicked instruments, those trench mortars, and a shot placed anywhere close to our post would have spelled a speedy and complete finish for us.
Once located we were tied to our post for as long as the daylight lasted. In the first place, it was a matter of duty and, in the second, it would be courting death to move. A sniper works in the open. In order to get a clear view of the enemy trenches he must necessarily be exposed himself. To leave the post would mean a retreat in full view. Only when we be-
came certain that Fritz had spotted us would we take a chance on moving.
Sometimes we took up our station on No Man’s Land. This, of course, was possible only when the trenches were quite a distance apart. We would go out during the night, pick our spot and plant our equipment. Before daybreak we would navigate a tunnel leading out through the sandbags and crawl to our post. Once there we were anchored for the day. Retreat was out of the question in so exposed a position.
OUR first six months of service were spent in the Ypres region and we went through the battle of St. Eloi. Nothing that occurred afterward, not even the Somme, could compare for sheer horror with St. Eloi. We hadn’t the artillery then that we have now and the pounding the Germans gave us was terrific. We faced it in shallow trenches and just hung on, flesh and blood against gunpowder and steel. Crookshanks and I saw it through and we got back something of what our fellows were getting up in the front line. I accounted for fifteen Germans in three weeks. Most of them were picked off during the charges and countercharges that marked the struggle for this bloody corner of the salient.
Shortly afterwards we were moved along the line and figured in another period of delirious struggle. The Germans launched a sudden attack, in overwhelming numbers, on the section of the line we held. We were in rest billets after
a hard spell in the trenches when the word came that the Boche had broken our line. It was two o’clock in the morning and ordinarily w'e would have cursed our luck at being thus cheated of our turn to rest. But I guess we realized that the situation was pretty black. We got into our equipment in ominous silence and fell into line in record time.
Then began a battle that lasted continuously for 36 days and we fought it through without rest or moment of respite. For 36 days not a man in our battalion got a chance to take off his clothes. We snatched odd moments of sleep during brief lulls in the fighting and ate whenever food could be brought up to us. The Germans never left us alone for a full hour. It was just one attack after another, and through it all the guns rained shells on us.
Nevertheless we managed to hold them and finally beat them back to the positions they held when the offensive started. Then reliefs came and we went back to
rest billets again, such as were left of us. Most of our fellows were worn to the bone—lousy scarecrows, covered with the filth of weeks, their uniforms in tatters and caked with blood.
-p HEN we were moved down to the L Somme. The business of sniping took on many new phases there. No longer did we stop at one post for a whole day, watching an immovable enemy line. We became flying wings on a line that moved ever forward, getting its “yards” every time. The great offensive was in full swing when we arrived and the first big attack in which w7e figured saw the initial appearance of the “tanks.”
Hints of what was coming had gone the rounds, of course. Some who had seen the “tanks” lumbering up brought exaggerated reports of them. The whole line was agog with the news. The surprise of the first gas attack at St. Julien was going to be repaid with compound interest and we hugged ourselves with delight.
Of course, this new form of attack meant a lot to the snipers. It was pretty generally expected that Fritz would have an attack of the nerves when he saw an armored train coming against him and we snipers were to be ready to deal with any bolt from the trenches that might develop. We were out and safely ensconced on No Man’s I.and long before daylight.
It was just at daybreak that the first tank crossed our trenches. It went over with a grunting and a rattle of machinery that could be heard for half a mile around. The opposite trenches came to life with a start and roar of musketry spread along the front.
Pea-shooters would have been just as effective. The monster went through the
barbed wire entanglements like so much paper and then creaked and rattled on its way over No Man’s Land, flame spurting from every corner. I guess the Germans thought that some engine from hell had been conjured up against them. In the grey of early dawn it was a fearsome looking thing; and it was just as deadly as it looked. It straddled the German trench and machine gun fire was directed up and down it, a flail of death from which no one could escape. But many of the Germans had not waited for this. They had bolted. They dropped their rifles and scrambled out of the trenches, bleating like sheep. They ran toward us with their arms up, and yelling “kamerade.’’ We took over 2,000 prisoners that morning and advanced 1,200 yards.
FROM that time on it was a steady advance. We snipers were kept busy as never before and our casualties were heavy. Each advance carried us far beyond trenches and the only shelter we could find was in shell craters and “funk holes” and we never had much time to dig in. It rained steadily and the shell holes were nothing but lakes of water. Many a time we lay all day in mud and water with only our heads and shoulders
Both Adam and I had many close shaves, but the narrowest squeak of all came one day when, by some evil chance, we discerned the stump of a willow tree that had withstood the bombardment. It was about seven feet high and hollowed out at the top. It was in the evening that we discovered this ideal nest and we agreed at once that next day we would make the tree our habitation. So we placed a couple of sandbags on the top, criss-crossing them to make a peephole and next morning were back there bright
and early. I took the first watch and clambered up into the stump. Crookshanks sat on the ground behind it.
Careless of the fact that the stump made a grand mark for the gunners, I looked around and saw a group about five hundred yards behind the German lines. I took a pot at them and they scurried promptly to cover.
“Broke up one party,” I chuckled for the benefit of my partner who, of course, had to sit tight and couldn’t see any-
And almost immediately it seemed there was a roar and a cloud of flying sod not twenty-five yards in front of us. The smoke had hardly cleared away when another came over and landed about the same distance the other side. There was no mistaking what this portended. The Boches had our range. I scrambled out of the tree and the two of us broke for cover. We had barely gone twenty yards when a third shell landed squarely on that stump and blew it into millions of pieces.
The next day was misty so I went back and dug up that shell. I brought back the pieces as a souvenir.
IN the fighting at the Somme, the snipers would go “over the top” with the rest whenever a charge was ordered, but would then skirt out to the flanks of the fighting area, taking post there to prevent any attempt at “flanking” on the part of the Germans. It was seldom that we held the same ground for more than a few days and this meant that we were occupying shallow trenches without proper communications and that the danger from counter-attacks was very great. So the snipers had a harder time of it than ever.
Neither Crookshanks nor I had been
Continued on page 93
Closing the Eyes of the Hun
Continued from page 18.
wounded up to this time. The only mishap that had occurred was to my partner and it had been of a decidedly minor character One day we were in the front line trench and Adam was using a periscope. He had his eye on a bearded Boche with a pipe in his mouth who was showing enough to give me a chance at him when suddenly the periscope came down on us in a million pieces. A German sniper had picked it off. Adam was cut in the face by the flying glass. . .
That had been the extent of the injuries sustained by the team and we had every reason to feel that we were lucky. But the new style of fighting at the Somme brought us in for one long day of special adventure at the end of which poor Crookshanks lay under six feet of sod. It was early in October and the word was passed along one night that we were to “go over again at daybreak. The Germans had been shoved back repeatedly at this point, but the general staff needed another push at this part of the line and an objective had been set for us to reach. The men tightened their belts and prepared tor the worst. No man ever “went over at the Somme expecting to come back.
It drizzled a little during the night, but just before daybreak it cleared off and a cold wind blew in from the north. The men shivered as they stood along the firing ledge, waiting for the word. Adam and I were at one end. He was in splendid spirits that morning.
“Going to be a fine day,” he said. I ve an idea this team is going to distinguish itself. I’m keen to get started.”
Strangely enough I felt depressed and gloomy myself. I had a vague sort of premonition of something impending. But my mood did not communicate itself
to my pal, who jigged first on one foot ái then on the other to keep warm a: whistled under his breath.
Then we went over. Crookshanks a I skirted off to the right according orders. The Germans had been expecti the attack—they were always expecti it at the Somme, for we didn’t give t beggars a moment’s rest—and the rat of machine gun fire drowned out the i sultory yell of our fellows as they charj across. It was due to the German p paredness that my chum and I got 1 chance to distinguish ourselves that Ad had so light-heartedly predicted a f minutes before. We got about half w across and took possession of a shell hi We had not, so far as we could tell, bí observed; although a bullet zipped o’ us once in a while. I dug my toes i: the mud and managed to hoist myself i a position where I could command a vi of the German trench. I did not dare f however, for fear of hitting our own m Suddenly I felt Adam clutch my sleeve “Look!” he said. “To the right! W did I tell you?”
OUR chance had come right enou A German machine gun squad ! slipped out and taken possession of a si hole about forty yards to our rij Here they were in a position to sweep area between the trenches and wipe our men as they charged across, snout of the gun had just been swung i position and a Boche with a great b head was bending over it. A mom later and death would have been let lc in the Canadian ranks. I blazed aí almost blindly and the bald-headed g ner crumpled up out of sight. Ada rifle spoke at about the same mom and another of the squad went down.
The lay-out was very favorable to A clump of grass hid us from the ( mans and in the hideous din they ct; not detect us from the sound. They kr of course, that snipers somewhere spotted them and that it meant deatl show themselves. But they were ga A big fellow with a reddish beard spr to take the bald-headed one’s place, made a clear target, that reddish be so down he went. They kept coming we picked them off as they came. It terrible work hut, if we had not 1 there, that machine gun would have i messengers of death into the Canat; ranks at the rate of sixty a minute.
“Four,” said Adam, as he accounted another German who had stepped into breach.
“Five,” I replied, taking the nex
“Six” and “seven” followed soon al We were panting with excitement blazing away as fast as the grey-g uniforms showed, determined that n shot should be fired from that mac gun. And not one revolution did it m There were nine Germans in the st; and we got them all.
AND then something happened caused Adam and I to suddenly down under cover. A bullet ripped a within a few inches of my head, gi ing the soil and splattering me with ; It had come apparently from off tc right.
“Sniper,” I said; and Adam nodde* Any doubts that we might have were dispelled by a regular processif shots. TheGerman systematically put lead over our heads. We found our?'
as good as prisoners in that slimy hole and unable to see anything that was happening.
Judging from the sounds the attack was going well. We squirmed around and cursed the sniper and all his generation. Here we were tied up and out of it all.
“We've got to be in at the finish." said Adam. “Can’t stay here all day, just because of one measly German sniper!”
A moment later he started to brace himself to climb up the slippery side again. “Got to see what’s going on.” he called to
It was over almost before 1 had time to shout a warning. My chum raised his head above the level for just one moment and then rolled back into the hole. His body lay limp and twisted, his face in a pool of water. He never spoke.
Death was probably instantaneous. The German had shot him in the neck.
I was too stunned to even think for a time. Adam and I had bunked and fought together for over a year. We had lain together under snow for hours at a time i when I could see nothing of him but his | face; and even under those circumstances it had always been lighted up with a cheerful grin. We had been trapped by shell fire in spots where even a clump of grass looked good; we had charged together and starved together. And through everything he had been staunch and cheerful and game to the core.
I buried him where he lay in the shellhole. The German batteries had taken the range of their own trenches which I knew we must now be holding. Shells were coming down like hail and it would have been impossible to carry him back to what had formerly been our own lines. Besides, I had work to do farther on. So I buried him where he fell.
TN the meantime our sniper had disap-
peared. Finding himself too far inside the new British lines he had probably beaten a'Vetreat; or perhaps orftf of the German shells had done for him. That is a danger the sniper always faces; he is in advance of his own guns.
So I moved on up, still keeping on the flank. Then the second big chance of the day presented itself. The Germans had been surrendering in batches all along the line, coming out from dug-outs with their hands in the air. As I passed the first German line six of them came out, five men and an officer. The latter fumbled at his belt and drew a revolver when he saw me. I covered him and sharply commanded “Hands up!” Up went five pairs of hands to the accompaniment of a shrill chorus of “Kamerade!” But the officer swung his arm around and, in self-defence, I had to shoot. He went down at the first shot and the men, frightened to death, ran forward, jabbering their anxiety to give in.
I went through them all, made sure that they were not carrying arms and then ordered them to keep on going back. They followed my instructions, holding their hands above their heads and shouting “Kamerade!” at intervals. Some one farther back probably took them in hand and got the credit for capturing them.
T GOT “mine” a few days later. We A snipers were often used for the conveying of messages during an action. It was on October 6, I think, that the Colonel sent me up to the front line with some instructions. We were occupying a shal-
Continued from page 95. low line in newly-won territory. Back of the trench was an open space without a communicating trench of any kind. To hold up reinforcements, the German batteries were shelling all the territory back to headquarters. It was across this open space that I had had to advance. My message delivered, I started back the same way. The bombardment had increased in fury. Shells burst all around me and the air was filled with an indescribable roar. I ran like mad, making no effort to pick my way. Finally the bombardment became so terrific that I took shelter in a shallow funk hole. It seemed sure death to stay there. But if possible it was more dangerous to go on. So I elected to rest.
I had been there scarcely a moment when it seemed as though suddenly the whole earth had been turned upside down. A great weight fell upon me, wrenching and grinding me with unbelievable violence. The pain was terrible. I realized almost at once what had happened. A shell had struck just the other side of the hole and had buried me. What puzzled me at first was that total darkness had not descended. But, when the blinding, sulphurous dust had lifted, I found that part of my head was clear of the earth. I could still see and breathe.
I was in a truly terrible position. Any moment another shell might land and complete the job of the first or perhaps bowl me over to a new position, which would have meant tearing me to pieces, encased as I was in the heavy earth. I could not move hand or foot. But I could see. That was perhaps the worst part of it all. I could see the shells bursting
around me and could not even duck my head. I was wedged in too firmly.
Then a miracle happened. Two of the sniping squad, Blake and Darlington, were also on their way back and happened to see me. It looked like sure death for them to pause a moment. But they came over to me, of course.
“Suppose the rest of him’s there?” Blake asked.
“We’ll dig him out anyway,” returned Darlington.
And they did. For ten minutes they stood out in full sight of the enemy and proceeded to dig me out. Then they carried me—for I was wracked and badly twisted—back to the dressing station. It was a miracle that none of us were hit. But we all three came through safely.
If ever men deserved reward it was Blake and Darlington. It did not look as though they could possibly save me and it was almost equally sure death for them to remain. They should have gone on and left me there until such time as the inevitable shell arrived. But they stayed. Unfortunately no one was there to see it. It was just one of the thousands of heroic deeds that go unrewarded, even unknown. Both Blake and Darlington I hear are now in hospital in “Blighty.”
It may be remarked here that the sniper seldom comes in for official recognition. This, of course, is to be expected. He works by himself and there is no one around to see what he does. Even the manner of his death is seldom learned for he “goes out” somewhere beyond the lines. Seldom, indeed, is his body found. He is recorded “missing” and another man sallies forth with plate and rifle to take up the lonely work.