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Great War Sniper School

Photo: On 26 October 1914, Pte. Charles Ball, Coldstream Guards, and a comrade crawled towards the German lines near Zonnebeke. “As they were creeping along they saw a German sniper coming in their direction. They at once took cover so as to be able to pounce on him. When within 10 paces of them. Ball fired and the German dropped dead.” (Historic Military Press)

 

“For a time the Hun was top dog,”  observed Major Frederick Crum, “and, being newcomers, many casualties, as many as nine in a day, took place among our men from sniping.” So concerned was Crum, he decided to start a ‘Sniping School’. His teachings probably saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives.

“It was in Sanctuary Wood in July [1915] that I first made my debut as a sniping enthusiast,” wrote Frederick Maurice Crum, “for it was here that we started with the band of picked Riflemen whom we had trained as Scouts and Snipers at Aldershot … From that time onward I was sniping mad.”

Believed to be Major Frederick Crum. He is known to have used a British-made Mauser-action .416 Rigby rifle. This rifle appears to have a Lee-Enfield action. (Courtesy of Frontline Books)

Sniping, as practised on the Western Front, was largely in its infancy in the British Army during the early months of the war, and the Germans had gained a decided lead. Indeed, until provided by the Army, the first snipers spent considerable sums purchasing their own rifles and telescopic sights.

Determined to improve the situation, by October 1915, Crum had ten specially-selected men operating in Railway Wood outside Ypres. “We lie in wait from dawn to dusk,” he recalled, adding “there are always some of them watching with their eyes glued to the telescope. They become each day more cunning, and have great duels with the enemy’s snipers. Sometimes we disguise ourselves by wearing a sandbag, sometimes a mask of brown or green gauze or with grass and bushes, or it might be a common masquerading mask painted like bricks or stone. We lie quite still for hours peeping cautiously out from some unexpected place behind the trenches.”

The Germans, Crum explained, had iron loopholes and, knowing their location, Crum’s snipers would keeping watching until they saw the slot slowly opening, the muzzle of the rifle gradually being pushed forward. One of Crum’s men would then fire. If the German sniper was able to quickly close his loophole, then the man with the “elephant gun” would shoot. The bullet would go straight through. Such were the results of his leadership, Crum was asked if he would train snipers for the whole brigade.

 There are always some of them watching with their eyes glued to the telescope. They become each day more cunning, and have great duels with the enemy’s snipers.

Crum had fought in the Boer War, rising to the rank of major. He resigned from the Army, however, after meeting General Baden-Powell. He had been so impressed with Baden-Powell’s views on boy scouts that Crum decided to dedicate himself to the Scouting Movement. Nevertheless, he was quick to re-enlist when war was declared in 1914. Frederick Crum’s Boer War experience was much in demand. General Hutton asked him to help form a new battalion of riflemen; the Duke of Montrose similarly asked him to help raise a new battalion of the Argylls. Other offers were received from brigades and divisions to help out on their staffs, so many that one of his fellow officers played a joke on Crum, saying that he had just received a telegram from General Sir John French, in charge of the BEF, offering him the choice of any appointment he wanted.

A staged photograph of a German sniper. Crum was acutely aware that German sniper doctrine was far ahead of the British, but found that the “powers that be” did not appreciate at first the need for snipers, and did not see the need for specialist training. When he arrived in France, Crum was told by General Flood that he would receive “no extra pay, no acting rank, but held out hopes of a red and blue armband”. That was the extent of the recognition afforded him at this stage. (US Library of Congress)

Crum’s battalion, the 8th King’s Royal Rifle Corps – one of Kitchener’s New Army battalions – was moved to Blangy in France to relieve a French unit. When he went to visit the trenches before his battalion took over, he found the French did not have any system for training snipers; they did not even seem to have a word for “sniper”.

Before he could advise his men about the dangers they might face, Crum wanted to spy out the German positions and locate their snipers. This was a comparatively new line and the trenches were not deep, the parapets instead being built up with sandbags. “Peering over gradually, I got a general view and then proceeded to search the opposite breastwork methodically with my telescope for hidden loopholes. Suddenly it gave me a bit of a turn to see the silver outline and black centre of a rifle barrel pointing in my direction. It seemed so close. I kept quite still. Then, slowly, to my relief, it moved away from me. Keeping the glass steady, noting the exact position with relation to a conspicuous pink sandbag, I slowly withdrew my head.”

The risks were all too clear to Crum, as one incident on 8 October 1915 demonstrated. “Our snipers have been doing good work,” he wrote, “but, alas, we lost a fine young officer; shot through the head by a sniper … It seemed to me nothing but a good end as far as he was concerned, keenly doing his best, knocked clean out, no pain, straight to the not very far beyond where men go who do their duty. It was his very keenness that ended his time with us.

 There was a crash and a smack, and I realised he had been hit. The bullet passed right through a rotten sandbag in the top layer and got him.

“He had asked me to help to put in loopholes in a rotten parapet he was rebuilding that night … I had been looking round and talking over things with him; we had cautioned him about exposing himself too much.

A British sniper and observer, of 1/4th Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment, in the roof of a barn at Antons Farm, Ploegsteert Wood, spring 1915.

“I was looking over the parapet with my periscope and talking to him; he jumped up and, without my noticing, peeped over just on my left. There was a crash and a smack, and I realised he had been hit. The bullet passed right through a rotten sandbag in the top layer and got him low down in the head.

He died as he fell, without a groan or a word. The bullet passed on through a subaltern’s cap and splinters of it hit my good Cpl. Scott in the face.” The officer who was killed was 24-year-old Second Lieutenant William Ryder Bird.

Every time one of the battalion was hit by an sniper, the incident was investigated. Crum stated that nine times out of ten, it was an avoidable casualty. Steps were immediately taken to prevent a recurrence. It was difficult, however, in the confused maze of demolished buildings that littered the front for men to know where the enemy was hiding and which areas were safe. So Crum hit on the idea of drawing a plan of the trenches on a blackboard and lecturing each company that went into that sector. He would explain how each casualty had happened and how unnecessary it had been.

This proved a success and, along with his instruction lessons for snipers, Crum had gained something of a reputation. So much so, in fact, that when the 8th King’s Royal Rifle Corps moved to Acq in May 1916, General Skinner asked him to start a Brigade School of Sniping. The local school was put at his disposal and the classrooms were made available to him after normal school hours.

A British sniper’s rifle – in this case a SMLE Rifle No.1 Mk.III fitted with an Aldis sight. The sight mount is offset to the left of the rifle to allow the rifle bolt to function. Also pictured is the observer’s telescope. (HMP)

“My Sniping School was a great success,” Crum wrote. “The scandal of hundreds of men getting bowled over, simply from want of teaching and imagination, stirred us to great efforts so that in addition to building a range in a chalk quarry close by, and greatly improving our marksmanship, we were able to give demonstrations to troops resting out of the line.”

The sniping school consisted of three officers and 60 riflemen. “You would laugh,” Crum wrote to Scout David Finlayson back home in Stirling, “if you could see my snipers sometimes great big fellows, sitting on the ‘wee kiddies’ benches in the village school … They look clumsy and cramped trying to squeeze themselves into the seats and write or sketch at the children’s desks.”

 The targets, made as near the real thing as possible, were brought and shown to the audience riddled with holes.

On one occasion, Crum held a demonstration in front of the divisional staff. The men had rehearsed well, except that Crum felt the men were being too polite and that during the actual demonstration, they should speak as they normally do in the trenches. “The afternoon came, and with it lorries and motors bringing a large and distinguished audience. The snipers were in great form; their shooting with rifles, telescopic and ‘sniperscopic’ was excellent. The targets, made as near the real thing as possible, were brought and shown to the audience riddled with holes.

“Observation and other practices were carried out with men dressed up in German uniforms occupying a reproduction of the German trenches. Targets were located by observers working in cooperation with snipers and trench mortar officers, who at one opened fire. Then came the acting …”

It was part of the demonstration that two of the soldiers would act incorrectly and give away the position of a British loophole, which Crum described as “sacred to snipers”. As a consequence, the sniper, who then came along, would be wounded by an enemy bullet. This soldier was to cry out and express his anger. He was told by Crum to act as though he really had been hit.

A pair of contemporary images which illustrate the camouflage and concealment skills employed by British snipers during the Great War. (Courtesy of Frontline Books)

The men went through their routine. A shot rang out from the “German” trench. From the “British” trench there was an authentic-sounding yell of pain. Out came the angry sniper, who proceeded to curse and swear. His stream of abuse and profanity was so authentic that Crum was taken aback: “What he said – that was the trouble! … On this occasion the flow of abuse completely unmanned me. For a second I lost my head, and then I blew my whistle and sounded the ‘cease fire’.” After apologising to the rows of senior officers, Crum later reflected that it would be a day few would forget.

On 19 June 1916, the sniping school was closed as the troops moved to the front for the Battle of the Somme. As it transpired, Crum fell ill on the march and it was four months before he was fit again, and then only for light duties. Though he was still unwell, his skills were urgently needed and he was told to report to Aldershot to help teach senior officers the skills of sniping and the dangers the trenches presented.

Crum was very enthusiastic about his new role. “I saw the whole thing ‘in being’ long before it took shape,” he wrote. “I felt that by acting, and appealing to the imagination, by the imitation of German and British trenches, with men dressed up as Huns and as British troops in France, by the use of the cinema and lantern slides combined with lecturing, by the use of black goggles for teaching a man to work in the dark, and by the introduction of jiu-jitsu and special training in self-defence, hundreds of lives which were being thrown away each 24 hours of the war might be saved and turned to good purpose.”

A sniper of the York and Lancaster Regiment comes out of his post at Cambrin, 6 February 1918.

As well as instructing field officers, Major Crum was asked to teach the rank and file. Between 17 May and 10 November 1917, he took over the coordination of scouting and sniper training throughout the Army. Groups of 250 would be sent to Crum before being shipped out to France. The first thing that Crum would do with each new batch was to take them down to the local cinema, where he would deliver a lecture, illustrated with lantern slides and film footage.

After the lecture, they would be marched to rifle ranges at Ash where they could sit in a grandstand overlooking the trenches that had been dug there. “Then would take place some scene from trench life,” recalled Crum. “Men frying bacon over a brazier, making too much smoke, cleaning rifles and making mistakes in doing so, which have too often proved fatal, or incautiously exposing themselves and so being hit and carried away on a stretcher; these and such scenes, all commented on by the instructor, and acted by old hands, with their own language and jokes, whether they produced loud laughter or seriousness, left an impression which lasted far longer than any amount of ordinary instruction.”

Frederick Crum’s demonstrations became very well known and they were attended by the Duke of Connaught, Prince Albert (the future King George VI), Baden-Powell, Field Marshal William Robertson, and many generals and even admirals. On one occasion the Bishop of Winchester turned up for the demonstration and the language of the actors had to be suitably modified!

A depiction of Pte. W.H. Edom near Chivy Wood. Between 27 October – 11 November 1914, Edom, of the 1st Scots Guards, “did great service’ counter-sniping. For this, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. (HMP)

On 1 April 1918, Major Crum was offered the task of lecturing to various Officer Cadet Battalions around the country. Amongst his lectures was one given to 1,500 Guardsmen in London’s Victoria Palace of Varieties, as well as to another 1,500 Guards at their depot at Caterham. In Aberdeen he spoke to 1,200 Gordon Highlanders. In total, Crum addressed some 25,000 men.

Crum’s methods were so successful that a Sniping School was established in each of the five armies operating in France. He was invited to visit each of these to see how they were performing. This helped bring Crum up to date with the situation at the front.

Previously, in September 1917, Baden-Powell had written to Crum saying that he had “done his bit” and that in view of his poor health he should resign and return to full-time Scouting. Crum was inclined to agree and was considering resigning when the Germans launched their Spring Offensive in March 1918. Months later, with the war drawing to a close, Major Crum took leave of the Army on 1 November 1918.

Quite how many lives were saved through Crum’s work can never be assessed, but it may have been a considerable number. It might well be that Frederick Crum preserved the lives of more husbands, sons and fathers than most other people during the Great War.

This SMLE was being used by L. Cpl Colley of 11th Battalion, The Northumberland Fusiliers, when it was hit by a German sniper. Pte. Baldwin, 8th Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment, described what happened: “Our sniper, pushing aside the flap of a sniper’s plate with his rifle, took up a firing position. I moved to his left side and watched the sniper take first pull. Then, to our amazement and wonderment, the rifle went into convulsions and oscillations and the sniper could not fire.” The German had been waiting for signs of activity and when he saw it, fired. The bullet passed down the barrel, striking the bolt. (HMP)

In the Sniping Zone

Having decided to film troops on 27 December 1915, official War Office cinematographer, Geoffrey H. Malins, encountered British snipers in action. He later penned this account:

“I was now in the sniping zone, and could continually hear the crack of a Hun rifle, and the resulting thud of a bullet striking the mud or the sandbags, first one side then the other …Suddenly I came upon a party of sappers mending the parapet top with newly filled sandbags. At that particular section a shell had dropped and destroyed it, and anyone walking past that gap stood a very good chance of having the top of his head taken off. These men were filling the breach. ‘Keep your head well down, sir,’ shouted one, ‘They have got this place marked.’ Down went my head, and I passed safely.

“We were now well up in the firing trench … The trenches looked as if a giant cataclysm had taken place. The whole earth had been upheaved, and in each of the mud-hills men had burrowed innumerable paths, seven feet deep. It was hard to distinguish men from mud. The former were caked from head to foot with the latter. I filmed them at work. There were several snipers calmly smoking and taking careful aim.

“Crack – crack – crack – simultaneously. ‘Sure, sir,’ remarked one burly Irish Guardsman, ‘and he’ll never bob his f****** head up any more. It’s him I’ve been after this several hours!’ And as coolly as if he had been at a rifle range at home, the man discharged the empty cartridge case and stood with his rifle, motionless as a rock, his eyes like those of an eagle.”

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