1918 Trench raid – Peter Dennis
On the morning of 9 November 1914, Captain R.E. Forrester led about twenty men of 2nd Black Watch, at that time attached to the Bareilly Brigade of the Indian Corps, in a daylight attack on a German machine-gun position located in a trench at La Bassée. The machine-gun had been causing the Highlanders a lot of trouble over recent days and the only way to silence it was to destroy it. Ten Germans were killed in the operation and the gun was put out of action with only two British casualties, both non-fatal, Forrester being one of them. This sortie was the first trench raid of the war. And it was a great success.
The night of the 9–10 November saw the second raid of the war, this time carried by the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 39th Garhwal Rifles of the Indian Corps. Two fifty-man parties, one party from each battalion, entered a German trench that posed a real threat to the Garhwalis’ positions, some 50 yards across no man’s land, with the aim of making the trench unusable to the enemy. However, the German trench proved to be too well constructed, even at this early stage of the war, for easy demolition by mere infantrymen and the Garhwalis left without completing their task; they simply ran out of time. They managed to wreck part of the German position and succeeded in taking six prisoners. The Garhwalis’ casualties were only slight despite a spirited rifle fire put up by the Germans. This was the first operation undertaken by the Garhwal Rifles, who had only been in France for only a month. The raid carried out by the Black Watch notwithstanding, the Garhwali raid of 9–10 November 1914 is usually considered to be the first trench raid of the war. There is no doubt that it set the pattern of future raiding operations as it was undertaken under cover of darkness, was intended to surprise the enemy, damage his defences and inflict casualties, without taking and holding ground except on a temporary basis necessary to carry out the operation.
Unlike the Black Watch’s raid of the morning of the 9th, the Garhwalis’ night-time raid was less conclusive, however. This was at a time when the BEF and the Germans were constantly engaging in small-scale operations, of which the Black Watch raid and the Garhwali raid were indistinguishable from operations intended to improve the line in relation to that held by the enemy. The ground held by both sides was still contested in hard-fought little battles, each trying to secure better positions from which to dominate the enemy. The trench systems were incomplete and often rudimentary. Sapping forwards towards the enemy, a classic tactic of siege warfare, frequently resulted in battles and counter-attacks to deny ground or retake that which was lost to the enemy.
Two nights after the Garhwali raid, the Connaught Rangers became embroiled in operations to deny the Germans use of a trench they had dug within 35 yards of the Connaughts’ positions that were adjacent to those of the Garhwalis. This involved raid, counter-raid and counter-counter-raid, all carried out over two nights. On the night of 12–13 November, the Connaughts attacked and took the new German trench, then lost it in a German counter-attack in which the Germans succeeded in entering the Connaughts’ own positions but which were retaken by the Connaughts in a bayonet charge. To finish the business, the Connaughts mounted a raid on the German trench the following night, striking at midnight. Sixty men silently rushed the German position and killed the occupants. The raiders were supported by two machine-guns and they returned to their own lines with only five casualties.
It was under these circumstances that Major Taylor embarked upon a second raid on the trench attacked by the Garhwalis on the night of the 9th–10th. The object was to finish what they had started and emulate the success of the Connaughts. It was to prove an unwise decision. Alerted by the previous raids and all the fighting of the previous few days, the Germans were ready for them and the Garhwalis suffered as a consequence. It started to go wrong almost from the start.
This raid was ordered by General Keary, in command of the Garhwal Brigade of which the Garhwal Rifles were part. This was to be a bigger assault than the raid of a few nights’ earlier. The raiders comprised six platoons of the 2nd/3rd Gurkhas, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Brakspear, and sixty men of the 2nd/39th Garhwali Rifles under Major Taylor. The object was to fill in the German trench and thereby deny them use of it. With this in mind, the raiding party included men of No. 4 Company Madras Sappers and Miners, and 2nd/3rd Gurkhas, whose task it was to destroy the trench once it had been captured. The raiders were split into three parties who approached the German trench from different directions. Only one of the three parties of raiders succeeded in entering the German trench, however, and they were soon in trouble. Brakspear returned to his own lines for reinforcements, despite heavy fire, and a new assault was made, but now the Germans had brought a searchlight into action and the cover of darkness was gone and German artillery was beginning to fire on them. The reinforcements were scattered. At midnight, British artillery was scheduled to fire on the German positions to cover the withdrawal of the raiders so the raiders had no choice but to leave.
The raid was a costly failure. Several officers were killed, including Major Taylor, and several more were wounded, while the Garhwalis alone lost thirty-eight men. Worse, the objective of the raid was not achieved. There were several reasons for this failure, not the least among them being German awareness of an impending raid, which highlighted the need for secrecy and surprise. Two raids carried out on the same positions within a few nights of each other, at a time when night-time operations were commonplace, were not likely to succeed. The element of surprise was completely absent in the second raid. Fighting spirit, courage and determination were not enough to carry the day, especially when the attackers shouted and hollered as they assaulted the German positions as they were trained to do in battle. The men had been warned not to do this, however. The failure also showed the importance of proper reconnaissance and good planning before a raid was undertaken. The dispositions of the new German trenches were not known to the raiders. Indeed, they were unaware that the Germans had dug new trenches since the first raid.
Undeterred by these costly enterprises, other battalions within the Indian Corps began to conduct raiding operations against the Germans soon afterwards. One hundred and twenty-five men of the 6th Jat Light Infantry, accompanied by sixty sappers of No. 3 Company Bombay Sappers and Miners, carried out a raid on the 16th. Unlike the Garhwali raid of few nights’ earlier, however, this one was well planned and executed. Everything went to plan and no surprises awaited the raiders. This was more in the way of a small-scale night attack than a raid as it involved artillery support and the infantry advanced in open order as in a conventional night attack on prepared positions.
What is striking about these earlier raids is their resemblance to what might be termed conventional assaults. They were fought with the same weapons and with the same tactics as any other night operation, irrespective of whether ground was to be taken or simply denied to the enemy. The Indian raiders were armed solely with rifle and bayonet. At this stage of the war, grenades were largely unknown throughout all the elements of the BEF, although the BEF had first encountered German grenades on the Aisne as early as September. No trench mortars were involved in these raids as these, too, were unknown at this time. Indeed, the BEF had none whatsoever in the autumn of 1914. However, while the BEF had no hand grenades, the Germans were provided with them and, during the Jats’ raid on the 16 November, a number of German bombs were captured and brought back to the Jat lines.
Although raiding became more sophisticated as the war progressed, the two raids carried out by the Garhwal Rifles and the others conducted by the battalions of the Indian Corps in the last two months of 1914 contained most of the elements that came to define raiding. Nevertheless, for the British, the notion of what constituted a raid was never made explicit by GHQ and, indeed, at corps, divisional, brigade or battalion levels no one made any attempt to define a raid. While raiding became part of the tactical doctrine of the BEF during 1915, it was only ever defined according to what a raid was expected to achieve, never in the manner in which the enterprise should be carried out. Thus, there was a lack of distinction between, at one end of the spectrum, fighting patrols and raids, and at the other, raids and enterprises that resembled small-scale battles, although the distinction between patrols and small-scale battles was perfectly clear to everyone involved. Even that distinction was to fade as the war progressed.
At the beginning of 1915, Field Marshall Sir John French, GOC of the BEF, decided to instruct the BEF to engage in raiding as a means of taking the fight to the enemy. Raiding was, by then, becoming established as an ad hoc tactical endeavour but had been restricted to the infantry of the Indian Corps and to those battalions of the British Army that were temporarily attached. On 5 February, Lieutenant General Robinson, Chief of the General Staff at GHQ, wrote to the First and Second Armies, the Cavalry Corps and the Indian Cavalry Corps telling them that:
The Field-Marshall Commanding-in-Chief desires me again to draw attention to the importance of constant activity and of offensive methods in general in dealing with the enemy immediately opposed to us.
- For reasons known to you, we are for the moment acting on the defensive so far as serious operations are concerned, but this should not preclude the planning and making of local attacks on a comparatively small scale, with a view to gaining ground and of taking full advantage of any tactical or numerical inferiority on the part of the enemy. Such enterprises are highly valuable, and should receive every encouragement, since they relieve monotony and improve the moral[e] of our troops, while they have a corresponding detrimental effect on the moral[e] of the enemy’s troops and tend in a variety of ways to their exhaustion and general disquiet.
That the BEF was on the defensive, rather than the offensive, was of great concern to GHQ. There was a genuine fear of stagnation or even collapse should the troops remain in static positions for prolonged periods, especially when the whole ethos of the British Army was offence. Indeed, it was the abiding principle in all armies at that time and had been since the mid-nineteenth century. Like all the continental armies of the time, the British Army trained for attack, not defence. The spirit of the attack by the infantry was at the heart of all military doctrines. While the BEF was unable to engage in a major new offensive on the Western Front until the spring of 1915, smaller–scale operations seemed to be the ideal solution as they were not precluded by the lack of manpower or, indeed, by lack of equipment, both of which the BEF was already beginning to suffer from at the end of 1914. Such shortages became worse in 1915, although the manpower issue was partly overcome by the arrival of the Territorials, and later by Kitchener volunteers, coming to a head with the Shell Scandal of the middle of 1915. Lack of artillery and trench warfare munitions in the shape of grenades and mortars was not resolved until the second half of 1915.
The sentiment behind the GHQ instruction clearly reflected the BEF’s need to attack the enemy rather than merely hold him at bay. After all, the enemy had taken control of large areas of France and Belgium and neither country was satisfied merely to wait out the stalemate. However, the instruction to take the fight to the enemy was not based on sound military experience. Indeed, the notion that morale would suffer if the BEF did not attack the enemy or that the troops would become bored by the monotony of trench warfare if they did fight tended to reflect a lack of understanding of the nature of trench warfare. That was hardly surprising since the British and, indeed, the French, Belgians and Germans had no experience of this form of warfare. They only had second-hand knowledge of trench fighting from the Russo-Japanese War, nine years previously, in which raiding did not figure.
There was no clear evidence that the morale of the enemy was adversely affected when raided any more than the morale of the raiders and the rest of their battalion was raised by a successful raid. The morale issue was largely supposition derived from enthusiastic reporting. As some of the earliest raids carried out by the Indian Corps showed, raiding could be very costly to the raiders, which was not conducive to raising morale. The idea that raiding exhausted those who were raided also seemed more fanciful than realistic. Indeed, the notion of raiding was viewed by GHQ in a decidedly one-sided manner as no one seems to have considered the possibility that the Germans would not only copy the British and take up raiding themselves but conduct retaliatory raids in response to being raided.
There was also the question of what raiding was expected to achieve other than harassment, which the GHQ instruction seemed to suggest was the point of raiding. Robinson’s memorandum went on to state that:
Further, as you are well aware, enterprises of this nature constitute the most effective form of defence, since by throwing upon the enemy anxiety for his own security, they help to relieve our own troops from the wearying and demoralising effects produced by expected attacks on the part of the enemy.
That seemed to undermine the very point of raiding since it followed that the Germans would almost certainly retaliate. All the fighting so far had shown the Imperial German Army to be tenacious, determined and, in particular, very adept at counter-attacking. There could be little doubt that the Germans would respond if raided, especially when the reason for French’s endorsement of raiding was the vigorous offensive operations being carried out by the Germans. French wanted the BEF to take back the initiative.
However, no one was expected to carry out a raid if there was not a ‘reasonable chance of success’, while the objective of such a raid had to ‘be commensurate with the losses likely to be entailed’ in achieving it. The real point of raiding was not simply to harass the enemy with random acts of violence but to achieve specific objectives. The trouble was that the ‘specific objectives’ were so vaguely expressed and the notion of ‘commensurate losses’ so ill-defined that the concept of a raid was open to very broad interpretation. This was only mitigated by the caveat: careful planning is essential for success. A more definitive description of the objective of a raid did not come until later in the war. The aim of any raid was to:
enter the enemy’s trenches by surprise, kill as many of his men as possible, and return before counter-measures can be taken. Special tasks may be added, such as obtaining prisoners for ‘identification’, damaging mine shafts, destroying a length of trench or post which is giving particular trouble.
But this aim and intention was not made clear in 1915. And the description still allowed a range of interpretations to be applied to the task according to the target under attack and the expectations of the officer ordering the raid.
During 1915 and 1916, raids were mostly instigated and organised at battalion level although sometimes they were ordered at brigade or divisional level. Thus, until February 1915, raiding was entirely local in concept and execution. Indeed, it remained little changed in this regard throughout 1915. Few battalions took to raiding, despite French’s instruction. When he issued the order, only the battalions of the Indian Corps had taken to raiding. Throughout 1915, there was little enthusiasm for raids among most of the battalions of the BEF and few such enterprises were undertaken. This was largely due to lack of time. There was an overriding need to develop and maintain the trench system, a need not only felt by the BEF but by the French, Belgian and German armies as well. Until the beginning of 1916, more man hours were spent on digging, constructing, repairing and maintaining trenches, dugouts, saps and mortar and machine-gun emplacements, not to mention latrines, than on any other activity on the front line. This was made more demanding by the increasing need for greater depth in the defences and to improve existing works. Shelling and mortaring ensured that repairs were an unending task. Little time was available for taking the fight to the enemy by means of raiding.
By March 1916, the idea of what constituted a raid had developed considerably. A clearer definition of what such a ‘minor enterprise’ was supposed to achieve meant that raids could be more effectively carried out than hitherto. Moreover, the means by which the objectives of the raid were supposed to be accomplished were better understood. But this knowledge was limited to brigade, which was now the level at which raids tended to be ordered; there were less instigated than at battalion level compared to the early days of raiding. Extensive ‘notes’ on the subject of raiding were issued by GHQ, based not on theory but derived from direct experience, fully described in post-raid reports by raid commanders and submitted to brigade. There was now a clear understanding of the appropriate preparations and specific training required for a successful raid as well as an appreciation of the general principals of raiding. No rules were ever set out for conducting raids in the way that tactical schemes for offensive and defensive operations were set out in considerable detail in pamphlets issued by GHQ for platoons and divisions from 1916 onwards. Part of the reason for the lack of ‘rules’ was the varied number of men who might be involved in raid. Sometimes, it might be only half a dozen; other times, it might be 300 or 400.
By now, the BEF realised that success depended upon good reconnaissance of the target so that every detail of the approach, the attack and the withdrawal could be planned and rehearsed. This depended upon the effectiveness of the patrols sent out into no man’s land. Indeed, effective raiding depended upon dominance of no man’s land, which served the double purpose of preventing the enemy from discovering the intention to raid while preventing him from planning his own raid. Crucial to the entire enterprise was ensuring that the target was suitable for raiding, which meant establishing four criteria before any thought of a raid could be entertained, although failure to satisfy these did not always deter brigade or division from insisting on a raid still being carried out. Operational requirements, or what would be later termed ‘the bigger picture’, sometimes overrode other considerations. The viability of a raid was dependant upon:
The existence of a covered approach to some portion of the enemy’s line …. A lack of vigilance [by the enemy] discovered by our patrols … isolation of some portion of the enemy’s line, so that it cannot easily be supported or reinforced …. Facilities for supporting the operation by artillery, trench mortar, or machine gun-fire.
Quite clearly, not every portion of the enemy’s trenches was going to be susceptible to a raid. Moreover, the sort of raids undertaken in November and December 1914 by the battalions of the Indian Corps were no longer considered to be acceptable; the targets would not have satisfied the criteria of early 1916. The target of the raid could no longer be an enemy trench that was simply too close to the British line or one that enfiladed part of the British line if none of the four criteria were satisfied. In that case, other means had to be used to deal with the threat. And by early 1916, there were plenty of other means, such as trench mortars and rifle grenades.
Once an enemy trench had been singled out for a raid, those who were going to carry it out, usually volunteers, had to familiarise themselves with target, using, wherever possible, aerial photographs. By mid-1916, these were becoming more plentiful. Reports from patrols, as well as information given up by prisoners, along with intelligence gained with the aid trench periscopes and from snipers, all contributed to the preparation of a plan for the raid. While the orders for the raid came from brigade or division, the plan for its execution was prepared by the battalion or company that had been given the task of conducting the operation.