There was some general about 30 miles behind the lines wanting to know who was on the opposite side. And he would send up a message, ‘Raid so and so and get prisoners,’ just like that, you know. He ought to have had the job himself…
As trench warfare evolved during the course of the First World War, so did the types of fighting. The British in particular thought it important for their front line troops to dominate no man’s land and remain on the offensive. To this end, soldiers were regularly ordered to carry out raids on the German trenches. British officer Murray Rymer-Jones explained why.
There was a thing that the higher staff were fighting for – very reasonably – was to find out what Germans were opposite you in the line. Or were there perhaps more people being sent from the Russian front, in order to get a complete picture. That was very reasonable. But in order to do that they didn’t come up themselves, they were asking you to do the most stupid things. For example they said to the infantry you must go and do a raid here.
The tactics used by raiding parties varied. Sidney Amatt of the London Regiment described how raids were organised in his part of the line during 1916.
They never used to ask for volunteers; they used to say you, you, you and you, and you were in the party. They usually went over in silence at night and you didn’t carry any equipment. All you carried was a rifle and bayonet, that’s if you were detailed for that. The parties were arranged like this: number one was the rifleman, he carried a rifle and bayonet and 50 rounds of ammunition and nothing else. The next man was a bomb thrower, a grenade thrower; he only carried a haversack which was full of Mills hand grenades. And the next man, he also was a bomb thrower, and he helped the first man replace his stock when he exhausted it. And the last man was a rifle and bayonet man and all he carried was a rifle and 50 rounds of ammunition and a bandolier slung over his shoulder – nothing else.
Amatt went on to explain what the plan of attack was once the enemy defences had been breached.
The idea was to crawl through the German wire and try and get underneath and jump into their front line trench, dispose of whoever was holding it by bayonet, if possible, without making any noise or clubbing over the head with the butt. Then you’d drop into the trench once you’d established yourself and wend way round each bay. First of all a rifleman would go, leading, and then he’d stop at the next bay which was normally a part which was unoccupied. And the bomb thrower would then throw a grenade towards the next bay of their line, or where he thought it would be, judging from the distance of the other one. Just after it exploded, the man who were leading – the rifleman – he’d dash round into the trench where the bomb had just gone off and dispose of any occupants that were left behind. And so we’d go on until we’d cleared the whole trench.
Raids were often ordered as a means of gathering intelligence. One key way of doing this was the capture of enemy prisoners, as British private Walter Spencer recalled.
Well, you’d try and get down to a part of the enemy trench where you thought it was least manned, you see, and you’d grab a prisoner if you could. And of course he’d give a gawk and that’s when the fun started. Cos when he shouted, they’d man the trench you see and anything that was moving they would… but invariably you could get a bloke to come. When you get him out of the trench he’d come with you alright and you’d get him back to the line. But it was a very hazardous job. We lost a lot of men on patrols, of course.
Small raids on enemy trenches had begun in late 1914. As the war progressed, they became more frequent and larger in scale. Frederick Plimmer served on the Western Front in 1918.
Well if they were going to make a raid they’d have to prepare for it, you see, they’d have to go up and be trained for it. They’d know exactly what you’d got to do. The people who were going to make this raid would go out to a training area where the whole trench system had been taped out. And they would know exactly what they’d got to do, where they’d got to go and where everything was. Well some people before the raid would take place, would go out and cut wire so they could get through. And some people might go out to lay a telephone so that the chap on the raid could telephone back, that sort of thing. They used to have listening posts too, out from the front line, about 20 or 30 yards, would be a little trench with a chap in there and he would listen, he could hear in the dark, you know. And that sort of thing, you know.
Members of the raiding parties were often issued with weapons designed for close combat. British private Basil Farrer described one particularly lethal type of trench club.
I do remember too seeing our bombers, and I’d never seen them, but they were issued with – it was the first time I’d seen them – knobkerries with nails in the end. Studs. Never seen those before. I remember very well one of them waved it about. Fortunately I had a tin hat on because he hit me on top of the head with it – even then I felt it. And if it had caught you without the tin hat… They were nasty looking things. The idea was you’d throw a bomb down the dugout – if there were any survivors, as they came out you’d wallop them with this club.
Trench raids were often highly dangerous, for little real gain – making them unpopular with the troops. But Charles Wilson, an officer in the Gloucestershire Regiment, saw them as essential.
No I think trench raids were necessary. They were necessary to get identifications and to find out what troops were in the line opposite. Oh, they were absolutely necessary. But when you wanted identifications then it had to be a proper raid with a barrage to cut the wire and so forth. But those were, I’m sure they were quite necessary. And very important. One important part of the training of the men was to get accustomed to getting out into no man’s land. Not to feel that they must be safe in a trench. Once they’d been out and had one or two experiences they forgot all that.
However, for Charles Quinnell of the Royal Fusiliers, the exercise remained futile.
We knew it was a waste of time; it was a waste of time, we just hated it. But as time went on to get the information… There was some general about 30 miles behind the lines wanting to know who was on the opposite side. And he would send up a message, ‘Raid so and so and get prisoners,’ just like that, you know. He ought to have had the job himself… Oh god the men just hated it. They didn’t mind going over the top with a fair chance, but by putting this box barrage down you were sending an open postcard to the Germans to say we’re going to raid that bit there. The consequence was the Germans used to absolutely pour all, everything – they used to throw everything barring the kitchen stove at you. Open fire with trench mortars, minenwerfers, light guns, heavy guns – the lot.
Officer F Jourdain also questioned the point of the raids, considering the cost in casualties.
Every now and again battalions, or brigades, and certainly battalions, were told you must do a raid. And most commanding officers liked their battalion to do a raid. A raid meaning going over and collecting what was called an identification, which means one prisoner, to prove who was the people opposite. One would have thought there were better ways of doing it than that, because practically every raid I’ve heard of always involved a disproportionate number of casualties for what they got out of it. And there were occasional raids that – battalions seemed to take it in turns and so on – and it affected perhaps three or four officers. Not more than that, but of the three or four officers, you could bet that two would be killed and what? You might – might – or might not get one prisoner.
NCO Albert Birtwhistle was frustrated when a raid he was ordered to take part in didn’t even seem to have a specific aim.
Well I don’t know what it was for really because the officer didn’t even know. Because I asked him and I said, ‘What the Dickens have we come out for?’ But, Jerry use to occupy this trench during the night and during the day he used to leave it and it was empty. So we, we were ordered to go over and take this trench you know and some of this trench. But we were told we hadn’t to hold it if Jerry came over – we had to leave it and go back. And we hadn’t to try to fire on them at all. We could never understand it. I asked the officer several times I said, ‘Is there a reason for coming out?’ Because it was absolutely ridiculous, I don’t know why.
Despite their unpopularity, trench raids could produce results. John Mallalieu, an officer in the Cheshire Regiment, remembered why one in particular went well.
The men went over on this good form after a rum ration and were very much in a fighting mood because one of their most popular sergeants had been killed in the afternoon. The troops were very annoyed about it. And this raid was a complete success. The troops had been told we wanted one prisoner. Two parties however, they each brought back one prisoner. And the second party, when they found out the duplication, wanted to abolish the second prisoner but they were restrained from that. And both prisoners were sent down to be interrogated and stayed alive.
But raids could go wrong, too. Taking part in a trench raid in the Arras area in November 1917, Private Bill Smedley became isolated from the rest of his party.
Me being a fool and green, I took a waterproof sheet, a ground sheet – it was beginning to drizzle. Anyway, we’re going over the top with the captain, a sergeant, a corporal and I think about six of us. We’re getting through this wire, when all of a sudden they started strafing with the machine guns, you know sweeping. It also started drizzling, rain. Well I put this ground sheet round my neck, which was fatal going underneath barbed wire. We’re not going through gaps, we’re going underneath! Well it lasted about 20 minutes I should think, that firing and the rain. Then all of a sudden, a real burst came and I slipped in the shell hole, with me ground sheet stuck on the wire. I should think that were about perhaps quarter of an hour, 20 minutes, that machine gunning. Then all of a sudden silence – really silence. And I’m just calling, ‘Where are you?’ Not a murmur from our lot. I thought, ‘My God, I’m on my own.’
As well as larger raids, smaller parties would be sent into no man’s land on patrols to see what they could find out about the enemy. NCO Alfred West went on a reconnaissance with a member of his battalion who spoke German.
Snow was on the ground, I remember that. We got to our barbed wire, we crawled underneath that, then we got to theirs and we crawled under that. The next thing we see him crawling up the bank, up into the German front line. He goes up into the front line and disappears so we had to do the same, follow him! Nobody was about; nobody was in the front line. And when we left our trench, the orders were if we weren’t back within a certain time they’d send a patrol out to find us. We were lying there – lying there – and it was freezing and we got frozen. This patrol eventually came out and found us and they said our rifles had frozen into the ground. They had to kick ‘em out before they could pick ‘em up. And they dragged us back to our front line and by midnight we were back in our front line. And it was the next afternoon before we came to. They were giving us rum.
Going out into no man’s land left the troops exposed to enemy retaliation. British officer Ulick Burke found that even preparing for a trench raid could be hazardous.
Well it was a listening patrol and wire – see if I could cut some of the enemy wire so that a few nights later we would do a raid. Well we did that all successfully – four men – and going out you lead them, but coming back you come last. And we had stayed a tiny bit too long and it was just getting dawn. Anyhow it was enough for the enemy to form a silhouette and they started firing just as we were coming over the wire. And I was the last across and I got hit in the foot and I lost two toes.
It wasn’t just Allied troops that carried out trench raids. The Germans too sent men across no man’s land. Frank Holding, a private in the Lancashire Fusiliers, remembered the devastating effects of one such attack.
The Germans came over and raided us and we had a number of casualties. We’d five officers killed – five officers were killed – when the Germans broke, got through into our … And they did a hell of a lot of damage. I went to see, there was a small hospital at Bouzincourt, and I’d been told that a lad named Tom Wilson, who lived opposite me in Station Road, was in this small village hospital in Bouzincourt. I went round to see him when I was told, I got permission to go. And unfortunately he died two days later and I went to see him buried. I made a sketch of where his body was. Sent it to his mother. That was Tom Wilson.
Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there.