CHAPTER VII

SNIPER’S BARN

Just as streets and roads must have their names, so must all trenches have official designations. This applies also to localities, farms, cross-roads, woods and such places which have no “regular” names or which possess Flemish or French names difficult of pronunciation by the soldiers.

Front-line trenches are usually designated by letters or numbers, running in regular order, from right to left in each sector. Certain important points may have special names. Communication trenches are always given distinctive names. Probably the majority of these names are those of prominent streets and roads in England, especially in London. At Messines we had “Surrey Lane,” “Stanley Road” and “Plum Avenue” for communication trenches, while our front line embraced the whole series of “C” trenches. During the winter we occupied the “N” and “O” front-line trenches, while our communication trenches bore such names as “Poppy Lane,” “Bois Carré” (afterward called “Chicory Trench” because it ran through a chicory field), and the “P. & O.” so named because it entered the front line at the junction of the “O” and “P” trenches and P. & O. is so much easier to say than O. & P. At St. Eloi, “Convent Lane” and “Queen Victoria Street” were examples of the communication trenches, while the front-line positions were designated by numbers, as elsewhere explained. Originally, they were called the “O” and “R” trenches. Opposite Hill 60 (so named because it is sixty meters above sea level), the numbering method was continued in the front line, while the communication trenches included “Petticoat Lane,” “Fleet Street” and “Rat Alley.” At various places along the lines you would find “Marble Arch,” “Highgate,” “Piccadilly Circus,” and so on.

Supporting points were generally designated as “S. P. 7” (or other number), or as “Redoubts” with identifying names. In one place we had the “Southern, Eastern and Western” redoubts along the edges of a certain wood.

Sometimes the original Flemish names were retained for the farms, châteaux and cross-roads, but more often they would be Anglicized by our map makers. Thus we had “Moated Grange,” “Bus House,” “Shelley Farm,” “Beggar’s Rest,” “Dead Dog Farm,” “Sniper’s Barn,” “Captain’s Post,” “Maple Copse,” the “White Château” and the “Red Château,” “Dead Horse Corner,” “White Horse Cellars” and so on, indefinitely. “Scottish Wood” was so named for the London Scottish who made a famous charge there in the early part of the war. Hallebast Corner was changed by the soldier to “Hell-blast” Corner, just as Ypres became “Wipers” and Ploegstert was translated into “Plugstreet.” As to the estaminets, (drinking places), while many retained their original names, such as “Pomme d’Or,” “Repos aux Voyageurs” or “Herberg in der Kruisstraat,” such names as “The Pig & Whistle” and “Cheshire Cheese” were not uncommon.

“Shrapnel Corners” and “Suicide Corners” were numerous and had merely a local significance. The names are self-explanatory. “Gordon Farm,” where the Gordon Highlanders had stopped for a time, and “School Farm,” where we had a bombing and machine-gun school, were other examples. “Hyde Park Corner,” afterward changed to “Canada Corner,” was an important junction point of the roads back of our lines. “Bedford House” was a name given to a château which the Bedfords once occupied. It would require a large book to enumerate them all.

Our line was at the exact spot where the Princess Pat’s first went into action and several of them were buried in our trenches, together with many others, both French and English. In fact, it was difficult to dig anywhere for earth to fill sand-bags without uncovering bodies. The whole place was nothing more nor less than one continuous grave. There were a great many crosses, put up by comrades, giving name, date and organization, but hundreds had no mark other than the cross, sometimes inscribed “an unknown soldier,” but more often unmarked. Here one of our sergeants found the grave of his brother, who had been serving in the King’s Royal Rifles and I noticed another cross near by marked with the name of Meyers, Indianapolis, Indiana, said to have been the first man of the Princess Pat’s killed in action. There was a maze of old French and English trenches, some in front of our line and some behind it and all more or less filled with bodies that had never been buried. Some of the Indian troops had fought here and had left many of their number behind. Whenever it was possible, we buried the bodies, but often they were in such positions that this was impossible and any attempt to do so would only have resulted in further losses. I nearly forgot to mention it; but there were plenty of Germans mixed up with the lot; in one small area, just in front of a farm building, some five hundred yards in our rear, I found eight of them. Inside the building was a dead French soldier who, as we figured it out, had accounted for the eight boches before they got him. This place was called Sniper’s Barn.

While our artillery had been considerably increased, it was still far below that of the enemy in number or size of guns, and the ammunition supply was so short that each gun was limited to a very few rounds a day. It was only during the following summer that the English caught up with the Germans in artillery. This, naturally, did not tend to cheer up the men. It was aggravating, to say the least, to have the other fellow sending over “crumps” without limit, and be able to send back nothing but six or eight “whizz-bangs.” (“Crump” is the general name for high-explosive shells of from 4.1 up, but the commonest size is the 5.9 or 150 mm.)

Having been so successful at the strafing at Messines, our Colonel was anxious that we continue the game here and I was delegated to locate a good position and “go to it.” After going over all the ground back of our lines, I decided to try the experiment of placing the gun in a small hedge which ran across the lower end of an old garden or orchard, in front of Sniper’s Barn; that is, on the side toward the enemy. It looked rather foolhardy, at first glance, for the place was in plain sight from the German lines and only about five hundred yards away at the nearest point; but I remembered our experience at our first strafing place and depended on Heinie to jump to the conclusion that we were in the farm buildings, and devote his attention to them. It worked; he “ran true to form,” as a race horse man would say, and while we maintained a gun, and sometimes two, in that place for six months, and the boche shot up the barn regularly during all that time, there was never a shell, apparently, directed at our position, and except for an occasional “short,” none burst near us.

From there we would shoot, day and night, often, at the first, having our targets where we could “see ’em fall,” a very unusual occurrence for a machine gunner, save during a general engagement. Of course we would have to get into the position before daylight and remain until dark as the way to and from it was exposed to view from “across the way.”

Here we worked out many of the constantly recurring problems which confront the machine gunner in the field, and which are, as a rule, overlooked or neglected during the preliminary training. As our own soldiers will have to contend with the same conditions, I may mention some of them.

One of the first things we discovered was that while all the small-arms ammunition issued was made pursuant to uniform specifications, furnished by the War Office, a large percentage of it was manufactured in new, hastily equipped factories, by partially trained workmen, and while it was apparently near enough to the standard to pass the tests exacted by the inspectors, only an extremely small proportion would function properly in machine guns or other automatic arms. A few of the old standard brands, made in government arsenals or by the prominent, long-established private manufacturers, could be depended upon at all times, but, unfortunately, these brands were comparatively scarce and hard to get. At least seventy-five per cent. of what we received was the product of the small, new and ill-equipped factories, established under the press of war demands, and, while it appeared to work satisfactorily in the ordinary rifles, both Enfield and Ross, it was utterly useless for machine guns. The difference of a minute fraction of an inch in the thickness of the “rim” would break extractors as fast as they could be replaced, while various other irregularities, so small as to be undiscoverable without the most accurate measurements by delicate micrometers, would cause stoppages and the breaking of different small parts. And, at that time, spare parts were almost unknown, so it required the utmost ingenuity on the part of the gunners to improvise, with what materials could be found on the spot, and with the very few tools at hand, many of the small but all-important parts that go to make up the interior economy of the guns.

All automatically operated firearms are, of necessity, very delicately balanced mechanisms. Whether gas or recoil operated, there must be just sufficient power obtained from the firing of one shot to overcome the normal friction of the working parts, eject the empty cartridge case, withdraw a new cartridge from the belt or magazine, load it properly in the chamber and fire it; continuing this action as long as the trigger, or other firing device, is kept pressed or until the belt or magazine is emptied. Ammunition which does not give the proper amount of pressure or cartridges which, through faulty manufacture, cause an undue amount of friction, either in seating them in the chamber, withdrawing them from the belt or in removing the fired case, will not operate the gun properly and will cause “jams.” On the other hand, ammunition which develops too much pressure or creates too little friction, will cause breakages because of the excess jar and hammering of the moving parts.

We utilized parts of cream separators, sewing machines, baby carriages, bicycles and various agricultural implements, found in and around the old Belgian farms, and it soon became common talk that we could make every part of a machine gun excepting the barrel. We learned that there was a certain bolt, a part of the rifle carrier on the French bicycle, which was an exact duplicate of an important part of our guns, so, whenever we found one of those old, broken and abandoned cycles, we would take time to remove this particular part and carry it along for emergencies. This is but one instance of many.

Then, there was the matter of concealing the flash, when firing at night. As the position we occupied was in plain view of the enemy lines, to have fired without some device to prevent the flash being seen would, inevitably, have resulted in a concentration of fire upon us which would have rendered the position untenable. We tried many schemes, from the crude “sand-bag” screen to the most elaborate devices made in the armorer’s shops, while back in billets, and finally perfected one which was thoroughly satisfactory. I can not describe it here, as I hope to see it used by our soldiers in France, but I can say that, out of probably fifty different contrivances made for the same purpose, this was the only one that “filled the bill” from every standpoint.

As most of our firing was done at night, it was necessary to improve the manner of mounting and “laying” the guns as we soon found that the methods taught at the training schools and the lamps and other mechanical devices furnished by the authorities were of no use under actual service conditions.

The various schemes and devices which we originated and elaborated are at the disposal of the proper military authorities in this country but, obviously, can not be described here.

The foreign officers, British and French, who are now in this country acting as instructors and advisers are doing everything in their power to impress upon our officers and men the necessity for keeping up to date in all the various and complicated departments of military training, even to the exclusion of many of the pet ideas of some of the most accomplished instructors in our service schools. The trouble with us is that we have not, and never have had, any machine gunners in the United States Army. By this I mean men skilled in machine gunnery as applied to present-day warfare. The evolution of machine-gun tactics is, perhaps, the most outstanding feature of the whole war. From being, as it was considered four years ago, merely an emergency weapon or, as the text-book writers were pleased to call it, “a weapon of opportunity,” it has become the most important single weapon in use in any army, not even excepting the artillery. A properly directed machine-gun barrage is far more difficult to traverse than anything the artillery can put down and the combination of artillery and machine guns, working together, whether on the offensive or defensive, represents the highest point ever attained in the effective use of fire in battle.

Our instructors have been technical theorists of the very highest order, basing their theories and working out their problems on the experience furnished by previous wars and of course it is difficult for them to realize that nearly every hypothesis which they have assumed in working out their theories has been proved false. They can not believe that “fire control” of infantry, as taught in the school of fire, has no place in modern trench warfare. It will break the hearts of some of them to learn that the ability to read a map and use a prismatic compass is of far more value than knowledge of the “mil-scale” or “fire-control rule.” They will probably be scandalized by the statement, which I make seriously and with full knowledge whereof I speak, that one common shovel and an armful of sand-bags are worth more than all the range-finders that have been or ever will be bought for the use of machine gunners.

Every foot of ground in France, Belgium and Germany has been so thoroughly and accurately mapped that there need be no such thing as estimating ranges. You _know_ the range; you do not have to depend on mental or mechanical estimates. And, as machine-gun fire is almost entirely indirect fire, the guns must be laid by using map, compass, protractor and clinometer (quadrant), in exactly the same manner as artillery fire is directed. The average machine gunner will probably go through the whole war without ever seeing a live enemy–excepting prisoners. The various methods of controlling indirect fire by resection, base lines and observation from two or more points are, like the use of an auxiliary aiming point, useless in trench warfare. They are fine in theory and afford much interesting diversion on the training ranges, but when you go to war, why, it can’t be done, that’s all.

This is a common, plain, hard-headed business proposition: where the only idea is to kill as many of the enemy as possible before he kills you, it has been found that the oldest, crudest and most primitive methods have, in many cases, proved the most effective for the attainment of this end.

Never before has it been of such vital importance to train the individual soldier, whether he be rifleman, bomber, machine gunner or any other specialist, so that he can “carry on” without the direction of an officer. The officer must plan everything in advance; he must look after the health and comfort of his men, see that they are properly equipped and supplied, must station them in their appointed positions, make frequent personal inspections and, finally, lead them in the advance. But in every engagement there comes a time when every man is “on his own,” when it is impossible for the officer, if he be still living, to direct the action. The idea that an officer can exercise “fire control” as taught in our service schools, or can personally direct the fire of a number of machine guns, once the action has started, is ridiculous. The limits of one man’s sphere of action, at such a time, are extremely small. If the men have been properly instructed, beforehand, and then given a good start, they will do the rest. It is just this ability to assimilate individual instruction that has made the Canadian superior to the native-born Briton. He is better educated, as a rule, has lived a freer and more varied life and, as a result, possesses that initiative and individual ingenuity which are so often necessary at the critical stages of a fight. We have every reason to expect that the American soldier, for these same reasons, will prove to be at least the equal of the Canadian–the finest type of fighting man yet developed by this war.

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