Trench Raids



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium episode 14. This episode will be a bit different from the other premium episode because it will not be part of a multi-part series which I think is the first one and also because we will be discussing a much smaller topic. This episode we will be discussing Trench raids, a critical activity for all sides during trench warfare and we will be doing this by first discussing some general information about the practice of trench raiding, or patrolling as some called it, before discussing in a bit more detail the German raids on the Somme front before the battle in 1916. Trench raids were seen by all armies as a critical activity for troops to perform relatively frequently in the front lines and while their execution was different between the armies and they varied in size, type, and duration their objectives were generally the same. With that in mind lets first look at some generalizations about trench raids before discussing the German methods.

A trench raid was a concept that was simple on the face of it, as described by Sidney Amatt in 1916 “The ideas was to crawl through the German wire and try and get underneath and jump into their first line trench, dispose of whoever was holding it by bayonet, if possible, without making any noise or clubbing over the head with the butt.” Some trench raids were small but others were large and had more in common with battles instead of small patrols with set piece artillery barrages, multiple units involved, and multiple objectives to try and accomplish. They also came in two main varieties the stealth raid and then a raid in force. The stealth raid was generally favored early in the war, when everybody was new to the concept, and it is exactly what it sounds like with units trying to be as sneaky as possible as they prepared for the raid and the relying completely on surprise for it to be successful. Stealth raids were often short in duration, with concise objectives that could be quickly, and hopefully easily accomplished. If they got caught up in a lot of fighting it generally would not go very well. The non-stealth raids generally involved more troops, sometimes well over 100, and they had the support of a large amount of artillery, machine guns, and other infantry units laying down covering fire. Which type of raid depended on a variety of factors including the location on the front, the exactly situation, and the officer in charge of the operation. Regardless of which type of raid was executed the armament of the raiders was often quite similar. Here is Private Basil Farrer describing what he saw before a raid “I do remember too seeing our bombers, and I’d never seen them, but they were issued with knobkerries with nails in the end. Studs. Never seen those before .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.” Raids required a very different type of weaponry when compared to the normal fighting during the war, or at least a the beginning. In fact as the war progressed you see the weapons of raids and of grand assaults during battle converging. This is because the fighting during raids usually happened at very close ranges, often resulting in hand to hand confrontations in the dark where a bolt action rifle was simply not the best tool for the job. Because of this trench clubs, knives, bayonets, all came to be used in great numbers on raids. There were even items shipped to soldiers from home that I would best describe as street fighting items like knuckledusters, more commonly known as brass knuckles today, found among the equipment of men going out on raids. The use of these type of weapons also had another purpose on stealth raids. Infantrymen, after going through training and being in combat, have a tendency to use their rifles when presented with a threat. Because of this they had a tendency to give the whole thing away by fighting on, as often as not, imagined targets in the darkness, phantoms in the night. Because when presented with a stressful and dangerous situation like they were in, their gun was a hammer and anything that they saw, or thought they saw was a nail. For non-stealthy raids with was not as much of a problem, but rifles still were not commonly used because just too much of the fighting was either in close or better handled by grenades, especially grenades, or bombs as they were often referred to during the first world war. It is really hard to overemphasize how important these bombs were, to all armies, when launching a raid or trying to capture trenches after say 1915 or so, and it is probably one of the aspects of the fighting that is most poorly represented in portrayals of the fighting. Almost always the first step before entering an enemy’s position was to throw several grenades into it.

So what was the purpose of these actions, well there were several the first being, as discussed to keep the men busy. This was seen as a great way to relief boredom for the men while they were in the trenches, or at least that is what the officers thought. When you hear how the men who were actually in the trenches describe their purpose you get a slightly different take, here is Charles Quinnell “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 mles 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 out to have had the job himself…” While reading that I am reminded of the 8th episode of Band of Brothers entitled The Last Patrol which has a good film rendition of a raid and also has some discussion of how the men reacted to these raids, especially when they believed it did not serve a huge purpose. My guess is that men from both wars would have similar feelings on the topic. The second purpose of trench raids was a bit more tangible in the form of gathering enemy intelligence. This was generally done through the capture of prisoners who would then be sent behind the liens for interrogation. Obviously capturing enemy soldiers had its of special set of problems, not least of which was the fact that you had to get them, and then transport them back without having them alert their comrades. The British Private Walter Spence explains “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.” The final purpose of the raids was generally less tangible and it was the process of getting troops used to being in no man’s land and in action. Raids were often seen as a good way to season new troops since they offered the men a chance to go over the top, out in between the lines, and to confront the enemy all while not compromising any piece of a larger attack that sought to gain larger objectives. It could get them over their first attack jitters and hopefully instill them with the spirit of the attack. These psychological benefits, or perceived psychological benefits were very important to the commanders during the war, and it almost seems like intelligence was almost secondary for some raids.

Now that we have covered the basics of trench raids, lets take a step much closer to the action to discuss some of the German raiding activity on the Somme front during early 1916. I should note that a lot of this comes from Germany Army on the Somme by Jack Sheldon. One interesting feature of German patrol activity at this time is the fact that they still had not completely figured out the optimal way to do trench raids. Because of this there was a good amount of writing on the subject by German officers as they sought to capture their techniques and apply them to as many raids as possible. You also see a lot of fluctuations in terms of how raids were organized and executed from one area of the front to the other. None of this would preven them from being successful though and from February to April just one division on the Somme would capture 6 officers and 50 other soldiers during their raiding activities. One tactic that they were using at this time to secure these results, and I think this goes a long way to show the sort of gamesmanship that was happening in the trenches pretty much all the time and then also how each side would react, was a tactic described by General von Stein on February 29th, who did a lot of writing on trench raids at this time, “By bringing fire down on the enemy wire obstacle using mortars or earth mortars and, more rarely, artillery, we lured out the British to carry out nightly repair work. They would then be ambushed by our patrols, which were lying in wait for them and some of them would be captured.” While this tactic worked several times for the Germans the British did eventually get wise to their ploy and they reacted to it. There were two ways in which they did this, the first was simply to not repair the damaged wire on any kind of consistent basis and the second was to change up their repair processes and instead of sending out mostly unprotected repair parties they sent them with strong protection parties. When they made these changes the Germans were then forced to adapt once again. Their next plan was to just switch back to going straight into the enemy trenches to try and get their prisoners. General Stein would go on to describe how a specific area was chosen to be the target of a raid. This was a very important decision to make because if the Germans could raid the proper spot in the line they greatly increased their chances of both success and also the changes of getting the most out of their prisoners. “Selection of the break-in point. Special operations, such as determining the presence of gas cylinders or destroying mine entrances leave little room for manoeuvre in the selection of the break-in point, but in all other cases, the following conditions must be fulfilled: Ease of isolating the point by defensive fire, use of covered approaches to and from the target to lessen exposure to artillery and enfilading machine gun fire.” With the area of the front decided the next question was who was going to carry out the raids. For the most part there was no special requirement to be a part of a raid other than usually all sides used volunteers. There would be the main assault group, which would be the one that would either go into the enemy trenches, or capture the enemy by some other means and this was the main focus of the raid. However they were just one group of what would be several, each with different purposes. The assault group would be supported by rearguards that would cover their retreat, flank protection to make sure that they did not get cut off by enemy units, and then groups of soldiers whose entire purpose was to maintain contact between the raiding groups and the officers in the rear. All of these groups were necessary to help keep the raids, which were dangerous under the best of conditions, from becoming a suicide mission because the greatest fear was having the assault group cut off by enemy units, especially because the forward groups were usually quite small. Their small size also made speed a priority and generally raids were lighting fast, with every minute spent in enemy territory causing the danger to grow almost exponentially. For one raid near Beaumont Hamel in early April 1916 here was the operational order given to the men “On the day of the operation, the patrol groups are to be ready to move in the dugouts of Leiling Mulde [Leiling Hollow] from 8.00 pm. All members of the patrols are to understand that they may not remain in the enemy trenches for longer than fifteen minutes after they leave [the start line] in the sunken road. Commanders of patrols will give the signal to withdraw by means of whistle blasts.” 15 minutes was not very long, especially since that timer started ticking when the raid left its start lines, not when it arrived at the enemy positions. After the volunteers were decided, and orders were sent out for what would be attacked then there would generally be some pretty specific requirements for what the men should dress like and what equipment they should carry. They had their special weapons and then they also had to take off their helmets so that they could move in and take off their gas masks at a moment’s notice. They also had to take off all of their identification be they documents or rank insignia. The goal with this was to make sure that the enemy would not getting any information from the raid team if something went bad and there were some men who were either captured or killed. Here is the full section on what should be worn by the men from the orders for that Beaumont Hamel raid “Dress and Equipment Field caps are to be worn. No shoulderboards or insignia. Identification marks on equipment are to be rendered illegible. No written material in pockets. Belt hooks are to be removed from jackets. As a recognition mark, all participants are to stitch white bands to both right and left arms. Two first field dressings are to be carried in the front jacket pockets. Gas masks are not to be taken. Each man is to carry six hand grenades (four stick grenades on the waist belt), two egg shaped grenades in the jacket pockets (tear-off hooks for these on waist belt). Two men of each patrol are to carry rifles, the remainder are to carry pistols, model 08, each with a filled reserve magazine and daggers.” As you can see things were quite specific on what each person should have, and also very different than what was typical battle gear at this point in the war. To these raids Stein also suggests adding some engineers to help deal with any obstacles. The final piece of the preparation for the men was to have a way to identify each othere so that there would be no friendly fire casualties. For this identification the Germans were using white armbands worn on both arms, other armies used other methods for this. Even these men, and their supporting units, were just one part of the equation they were also usually given copious amounts of fire support. This came in the form of mortars, which focused on creating gaps in the wire, and artillery which focused on causing confusion in the enemy positions. Both of these forms of support would fire no more than 45 minutes with the goal being to accomplish their goals in just 20. All this fire would happen right before the raid was set to kick off, and they would mix in gas shells with the normal artillery.

The hope with the gas was not necessarily to kill anybody, although that would happen, instead the hope was that it would just cause confusion in the enemy and make them far more concerned with getting on their masks instead of preparing for the raid that was about to hit them. Even when they got their masks on it would then take them a few moments to acclimate themselves to it. These few moments were often critical, because with the speed of the raid it was often these moments where the assault troops were crashing into the positions. Gas was always a tricky mistress though, and they had to be careful or the wind would blow the wrong direction and hinder instead of help the raid. Generally gas was a game time decision made by officers close to the front in conjunction with artillery observers and meteorologists. To facilitate this discussion, and all of the other discussions between the raid and the officers in the rear Stein recommends lots of telephones “Telephones. The commander of the operation must be linked by telephone to the artillery commander, the sector commander and the front line trenches. If the width of No Man’s Land permits assaulting troops to be pushed up near to the enemy position [prior to the operation], it is recommended to run a telephone line forward and to man it with a small patrol, which can keep the commander informed immediately about unforeseen incidents.” All of these things were just in preparation for the moment that the raid would begin, and when it happened it was often fast, quick, and dirty. In just a matter of minutes after the signal to attack, generally a whistle, grenades would be thrown in followed closely by the men designated to lead. They would shout demands for the enemy to surrender, in a language that they could understand where possible. The enemy would be given a second to respond before more grenades were thrown into the positions if they were still occupied, then as quickly as it started it would generally end. When it was time to get out withdrawal happened on pre-planned routes, setup and communicated to everyone involved, generally with covering fire of some sort. When it was time to leave a signal would be given, and hopefully the raiders would disappear into the darkness.

When the raid was over, I am sure there was a good amount of celebrating in the trenches, prisoners would be shipped off the rear for interrogation, stories would be shared about how Gunter did this awesome thing where he bounced a grenade off a partially opened door into a dugout or something before capturing and entire platoon single handed. Then the next day things would go back to normal. However, in the last section of his outlining of raiding techniques Stein strongly emphasizes the need for official recognition of any successful raids. This could come in the form of decorations, or mentions in the Order of the Day, which I think is the German equivalent of being mentioned in Dispatches for a British soldier, a pretty high award. Then there was also a solid distribution of Iron Crosses and other medals. The goal with these commendations was to make sure that if a unit, or if a man, went on a successful raid they knew that everybody all the way up the chain appreciated the effort that they put in and the risk that they took upon themselves which would hopefully make them want to do it again in the future. This cycle, of constantly raiding would happen for the entire war with constantly shifting and altering of tactics based on the needs of the situation and the area of the front involved. In a war filled with titanic struggles of thousands and millions of men fighting for months at a time, it was these raids that were like an infinite series of battles, night after night, which are often forgotten.