The survivors of the trench raid at Armentières on 15th September 1916 show off their trophies, captured from the Germans. The board proclaims ‘The Spirit of the Troops is Excellent’ and ‘Hun Snatchers’.
A French trench raider, just returned from a raid.
The raid had to have a specific objective and this had to be limited in scope in order to make it realistic. While this was more of a concern for division or brigade, nevertheless, the unit detailed to carry out the raid had to ensure that its plan for the enterprise did not become over ambitious. Equally, the choice of a night attack as opposed to daytime had to be made by the raiders themselves. Raids during 1916 and 1917 mostly relied on the cover of darkness. Moonless nights were too dark for anyone to find his way with certainty or see his fellow raiders. There had to be some moonlight, at least. As important was the amount of time the raiders spent in the enemy trench. In order to reduce the risks of the enemy putting into effect his countermeasures to nullify the raid, the length of time spent in the enemy trenches needed to be kept to a minimum. The Germans, like the British, rehearsed dealing with enemy incursions and had measures ready for dealing with them.
With this in mind, the points of entry into enemy positions had to be known in detail by the raiders, as well as the points at which the raiders intended to leave the enemy positions at the appointed time. Remaining on the target beyond the agreed time could result in being bombarded with friendly mortars or hit by British machine-gun fire in support of the raid, not to mention artillery putting down a barrage to cover the withdrawal of the raiders. The actions to be taken by the raiders once they were in the trench had also to be planned, especially the timings. Each member of a party had to know exactly what his tasks were and how long each element of the raid took to complete. A raid was a precision operation with a specific objective, not an ad hoc sortie. Thus, all the raiders had to wear watches, synchronised several times over the days preceding the raid. Raiding helped to popularise the wristwatch, which, hitherto, had come a poor second to the traditional pocket watch. It was the huge demand for cheap and reliable wristwatches during the First World War that led to their widespread mass manufacture.
The composition of a raiding party varied considerably depending on the objective and the support from artillery, mortars and neighbouring units. Typically, a party might include: sub-parties detailed to cut wire; bayonet men and bombers to clear enemy trenches; bombers assigned to clear dugouts; parties to block the arrival of enemy reinforcements; rifle grenadiers, Lewis-gunners; a demolition party of Royal Engineer sappers for destroying dugouts, trenches and mortar emplacements; scouts; messengers (who might even bring a telephone wired to the British network); and stretcher bearers to bring back the wounded. In addition, some of the raiders might be given additional tasks, such as locating gas cylinders, which they were then supposed to drag back to the British line when they retired, a rather ambitious expectation even though those given this task were provided with ropes. Others looked for mine shafts; mining was a constant problem in some parts of the front. Locating and destroying enemy machine-guns was also a prime task on a raid.
To help make the raid proceed smoothly, some of the party were given various assault tasks that would enable the attackers to enter the enemy trench more easily. Apart from cutting wire with hand-held wire cutters, some men carried specially made mats, which resembled mattresses, so-called traverser mats ‘made of a strip of stout canvas with wooded slates fastened across–proves quite efficient’ that could be thrown across wire to allow men to cross without hindrance. Similarly, some men carried scaling ladders to help the raiders climb out of the enemy trench when it was known to be deep. Alternatively, potential ladder-carriers were given the job of cutting steps in the enemy trench to provide an exit.
The manner in which adjoining trenches were to be blocked and by whom, as well as the blocking points in the trench the raiders were going to hit, had to be well organised beforehand. A timetable had to be set and followed. The raiders had to be fully trained as bombers, that is, be thoroughly familiar with handling hand grenades. Until the end of 1915, that meant being familiar with up to twelve different patterns as well as with German patterns. With the widespread availability of the No. 5 Mills grenade from late 1915 onwards and the abandonment of all the stopgap grenades of the previous twelve months, the technical expertise required of a bomber was a little more manageable. He also had to be trained in the use of the revolver and pistol. And the raider needed to acquire nerves of steel so that he could stand stock still in the open whenever the Germans put up a star shell or a flare. Worse, he had to be able to cut wire by hand silently in the dark and crawl up to the enemy position across no man’s land and ‘lie up under the enemy’s parapet’ before retiring. Needless to say, they had to practise this on the ground over which they would have to move on the night of the raid and without alerting the enemy, otherwise the enterprise was a no-hoper.
Unlike some of the early raids in which more than one party of raiders entered the enemy trench, by 1916, only single parties were recommended because of the difficulties of good synchronisation between the parties. Nevertheless, it was acknowledged that more than one party might be needed for the raid. Each party needed to have its own password. And every member of a party needed to know the name of that party’s leader. The raiders had to learn German phrases such as ‘hands up’ and ‘come out’, the latter being called into dugouts before grenades were tossed inside them. Equally, the raiders had to be aware of the possibility that the German defenders might call out commands in English or French, such as ‘retire’ or ‘this way’. Cunning and subterfuge, although seemingly inappropriate in the middle of bloody fight, was not uncommon. It was as much for avoiding friendly troops firing on each other as the nullification of enemy ruses that such protocols were necessary. However, ruses to get close to an enemy position were not unknown. In 1918, German troops allegedly donned French Red Cross uniforms to fool US troops as a prelude to a raid.
All of this, of course, required rehearsal over ground made up, well behind the lines, to resemble the trenches about to be raided. About a week of training and rehearsal was reckoned to be advisable to secure success. Utmost secrecy of the operation was vital to reduce the risk of the Germans somehow gaining prior knowledge of the raid, which would allow them to prepare countermeasures. This could happen quite easily because documents that were not supposed to be taken into the front line sometimes found their way there, to be subsequently discovered during a German raid. Alternatively, a prisoner might be taken while on patrol and he might give up the information, or the enemy might simply deduce a raid was about to happen because of the unconcealed preparations in the British line. By 1916, raiding had become a complicated business. There was no substitute for complete surprise. That was the surest way of achieving success.
And while one of the objectives of any raid was now to obtain intelligence about the enemy in the form of documents and items of uniform by which the unit might be identified, the raiders were expected to leave behind anything that might identify them to the enemy should they be captured or killed. Thus, officers dressed like private soldiers, and all shoulder titles and badges of rank were removed prior to the raid. Everyone was instructed to reveal only name and rank should they be captured.
Such preparations were a far cry from the spontaneity of late 1914 and early 1915. A properly prepared fire plan for artillery, trench mortars and machine-guns was often needed in support of the raid both at its start and at its conclusion, the latter being intended to help the raiders retire. The 36th Machine Gun Company supported raids carried out by the 9th Royal Fusiliers in February and September 1917, for example, while the Light Trench Mortar Battery of the 19th Infantry Brigade, equipped with 3-inch Stokes mortars, supported a raid carried out by the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers in July 1916 and another Royal Welch raid the following month, both at Givenchy. In preparation for the Royal Welch raid, the battery dug twelve new emplacements for its Stokes mortars. On the evening of 5 July, the raid hit the Germans holding mine craters in front of the first-line trenches. Four mortars were operated at a slow rate of fire for 90 minutes between 10.30pm and midnight, maintaining a barrage on trenches south of the crater. Three mortars fired for 45 minutes on German support trenches behind the craters, while five mortars engaged enemy saps and front-line trenches. Altogether, the battery fired 2,345 rounds. On 21 August, the battery supported a raid on a German trench located at the west corner of High Wood but only fired 106 rounds.
The 5 July raid was also supported by five Vickers machine-guns of the 19th Brigade’s Machine Gun Company, using indirect fire to shoot over the heads of the raiders. With the mortars, this was intended to isolate the Germans being raided from the rest and thereby prevent reinforcements coming to the aid of those under attack. The 36th Machine Gun Company’s support of the raids carried out by the 11th Middlesex in daylight on the morning of 26 February 1917 and the 9th Royal Fusiliers the following September was similar to that provided to the Royal Welch by the 19th Machine Gun Company. Four Vickers guns fired for 70 minutes over the heads of the raiders to hit German communication trenches and potential forming-up areas for reinforcements. A total of 13,000 rounds were fired. In addition to the 36th Machine Gun Company, the raid was supported by three guns of the 76th and two guns of the 46th Machine Gun Companies, along with trench mortars and artillery.
When artillery was involved, its task was usually to cut the wire in front of the German position about to be raided but the mortars and machine-guns could be used in a number of ways intended to isolate the raided trench from the German flanks and rear by interdiction. The light Stokes mortar, an infantry-support weapon operated entirely within an infantry brigade rather than as part of the main artillery, provided very effective interdiction and tactical support for raids from 1916 onwards. They were very flexible in the sort of support they could provide and were used for fire suppression on the flanks of a raid. The raiders might also be supported by their parent unit firing rifle grenades. Whatever form the support took and irrespective of how simple the supporting fire might be, precise timing was necessary. This meant that nothing could be left to chance. Neighbouring units could provide suppression with rifle fire to prevent the enemy from engaging the flanks of the raiders. The converse of this was to populate flanking trenches with dummies so that their heads were above the parapet to draw German fire.
Support for a raid went beyond even these extensive preparations. One or more additional parties were positioned in no man’s land on the night of the attack to provide covering fire during the withdrawal if needed, deal with hostile patrols should they happen upon the scene at the wrong moment and to act as liaison with the attackers as well as help to evacuate prisoners. A similar party might also remain in the British trenches, ready to act should they be needed, especially if the Germans launched a counter-attack. And to help the raiders return to the British line, white tape or calcium hypochlorite (a disinfectant in the form of a white powder) could be used to mark out the route home, a task usually allocated to one of the support parties.
Raiding did not become widespread until 1916, with the British, Australians and Canadians being particularly keen on this very aggressive form of domination over the enemy. The Germans were also keen raiders but never to the same extent, while the French were unenthusiastic, preferring instead the full-scale assault. The French thought raiding was ineffective and a waste of resources. In the five months between 19 December 1915 and 30 May 1916, the BEF raided the Germans sixty-three times. Forty-seven of these raids were regarded as successful. This meant that the objective had been achieved with only a few casualties. Failures, in which the objective was not achieved, were often very costly, with up to half a raiding force becoming casualties. Thus, the BEF suffered sixteen failures, that is 25 per cent of the raids failed. During this same period, the Germans only mounted thirty-three raids on BEF-held trenches, twenty of which were successful. That was a failure rate of nearly 40 per cent. Perhaps the French had a point, after all. Such a high failure rate does not suggest that raiding was an effective tactic. Costly though they could be, the value of successful raids outweighed the cost of the failures.
During the week preceding the opening of the Somme offensive in the summer of 1916, the Armies of the BEF flanking the Fourth Army, which was going to launch the infantry assault of the offensive on 1 July, carried out forty-three raids to mask the activities of the Fourth Army. The First Army made fourteen, while the Second Army made seventeen, seven of them by battalions of the I Anzac Corps, and the Third Army made twelve. It is questionable whether such raiding achieved very much, however, as the Germans were not fooled and the cost in casualties for the raiders was fairly high. The Germans mounted only six raids over the entire frontage of these three Armies during the same period, which might be construed as a success for the BEF if German raiding was actually suppressed by the activities of the three Armies, but levels of raiding tended to fluctuate for all sorts of reasons.
Between July and mid-November 1916, the period of the Allied Somme campaign, the three Armies increased their raiding rate and hit the Germans a total of 310 times. The raiding parties ranged from two platoons to two companies, with accompanying Royal Engineers who carried out demolition of the German trenches and dugouts. Of these raids, 204 were reckoned to have been successful. That is to say, the failure rate was 34 per cent. The Germans, on the other hand, hit back with sixty-five raids, of which only twenty-two were successful, a failure rate of 66 per cent, which was nearly twice that of the BEF. The question is whether their higher failure rate was due to effective Allied countermeasures or to inadequate planning, preparation and training by the Germans.
Following the cessation of the Somme campaign in November 1916, the level of raiding by the BEF declined. It picked up again in 1917. The British IX Corps mounted nineteen raids between 16 May and 7 June 1917, the three weeks preceding the Battle of Messines. The raiding parties ranged in size from twelve to 300. Again, the cost to the raiders was high; they suffered 172 casualties, although they took 171 prisoners and killed a number of Germans. In mid-November 1917, about 300 men of the German 184th Regiment raided trenches held by the British 55th Division, inflicting ninety-four casualties, more than half of whom were prisoners. During the winter of 1917–18, the BEF curtailed its raiding due to heavy losses during the Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele. The BEF needed time to recover and rebuild. Conversely, the Germans increased their raiding activities and between 8 December 1917 and 21 March 1918, they mounted about 225 raids on the Ypres salient alone. However, only sixty-two of these were reckoned by the British to have been successful. Given that the British were likely to bias any analysis of German raids in their own favour, this nevertheless represents an incredibly high rate of failure: 72 per cent. In this instance, for the British, a German failure meant a failure by the raiders to identify the British unit raided, which also meant that the raiders failed to get into the British line.
Several raids carried out on successive nights were sometimes mounted simply to secure prisoners. This occurred in August 1916, when the Highland Light Infantry were raided three times by the Germans, twice on the same night and again the next night. On the first occasion, the Germans had crawled through the long grass in no man’s land to jump unnoticed into the British trenches. They had then tried to take two prisoners who, in resisting capture, were stabbed with Nahkampfmesser (trench knives). Having failed to secure a prisoner, the Germans tried again a few hours later but failed again. The next night, they bombed their way into the British trenches However, yet again, they failed to take a prisoner and suffered two fatalities for their trouble. To add insult to injury, as they returned to their own line, they were hit by 2-inch mortars, which dropped their big plum-pudding bombs among them. If this was an example of German raiding technique, it is little wonder their success rate was so low.
From these figures, it is clear that levels of raiding depended to a large extent on the wider strategic picture. The greatest number of BEF raids seemed to coincide with major Allied offensives rather than with the periods in between. This rather belied the avowed intention of maintaining fighting spirit with raiding when the troops might otherwise lose their edge during quiet periods at the front. However, it is also clear that raiding was intended to be an act of aggression to dominate the enemy, prevent him from taking possession of no man’s land and wear down his morale by keeping him on edge. Raiding was meant to have a psychological impact rather than just a physical one, although raids certainly helped in the gathering of intelligence about the enemy. However, from the intelligence-gathering perspective, patrols were probably a more effective and less costly means of doing this.
Raiding continued into 1918 and did not end with the German spring offensives of that year. Indeed, raiding persisted until the end of the war although it subsided with the return to semi-open warfare in the summer of 1918 and the Allied counter-offensives, which drove the German Army back beyond its original position at the start of the year. The Germans were still raiding in June, while some of the last British raids of the war were carried out in September by the 2nd Coldstream Guards and the 2nd Grenadier Guards. Raids were still being mounted in October and early November.
The practice of raiding had a legacy for the evolution of warfare in that the infiltration style of tactic employed on raids became part of the new assault tactics that evolved during the war. Indeed, the tactics developed by the German stormtroops came from those employed in raiding. The new infiltration tactics adopted by France, Britain and Germany, more or less independently of each other during 1917, were the tactics used in the battles of late 1917 as well as those of the 1918 offensives. Stormtroop tactics, a term that applied equally well to the new infantry tactics of the French and the British as to those of the German Army, were very much those of the raider. In this sense, if in no other, raiding had a positive effect on the conduct of the war and contributed to the evolution of infantry tactics, which contributed to the evolution of a new form of warfare called deep battle and three-dimensional warfare.
Whether raiding on the Western Front can be traced to a raiding ethos in the tribal regions of India, the home of the Garhwalis, as some have suggested, is moot. There is no evidence to support that idea. After all, the first recognisable trench raid occurred in 1863, during the American Civil War.