The exploits of the Soviet sniper - Zaitsev - and his German opponent in the the book and film 'Stalingrad', give us a graphic impression ever of the role and modus operandi of the sniper. It also gives some indication of what it meant to be one in the trenches and ruined villages of the Western Front in the Great War.
It is generally agreed that, apart from the ever-menacing artillery, psychologically, the most draining aspect of trench warfare in the Great War was fear of the sniper. Even today, more than 80 years after the end of the Great War, we still hear related the superstition about lighting three men's cigarettes from one match: light one cigarette and the sniper is alerted; light two and the sniper takes aim; light three and the sniper pulls the trigger.
In 1914, British battalions had at least four specialist snipers, one for each company. They were selected from the many fine marksmen that were found at that time throughout the army: 15 aimed .303 rounds per minute was the firing-rate routinely achieved, in action, with the Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifle. Many of these early Great War snipers had learnt their trade in the exacting conditions of fighting the Pathan tribesmen in the mountain passes of North West Frontier in India, or the Boer commandos on the rocky kopjes of the south African veldt. As the Great War progressed and became increasingly static, many battalions encouraged free-lance sniping with particular individuals obtaining high numbers of recorded kills. A NCO from the 2nd. Royal Welsh was credited with over 100 German kills and an Australian from the 5th Australian Light Horse with more than 150 Turks at Gallipoli. An ex-Dublin Fusilier turned battalion cook reportedly achieved many kills in the intervals between his routine catering duties.
As the static trench-based war became more established on the Western Front, the structure of sniping activities became progressively more formalised. Against some initial resistance at the field command level, sniping schools were established for NCO's and officers, and specialist sniper companies were formed at the battalion level. When a battalion was in the line, these specialist companies would have 20, or more, snipers working as two-man teams in a coordinated manner to obtain blanket coverage along the whole operational front. They usually provided a depth of cover upto 2000 yards, making any overt movement of men and material in the enemy front lines exceedingly hazardous.
As the War progressed, more sophisticated weapons with telescopic sights (sniper- scopes) were employed for sniping. Oddly, the Canadian Ross rifle that had been found to be quite unsuitable as a general service rifle, and subsequently taken out of service by the Canadians, proved to be an excellent weapon for the sniper, when used with telescopic sights. Periscopes were also widely employed, as this allowed the sniper to remain totally concealed whilst offering a wide field of fire. However, any carelessness in allowing sunlight, or adventitious light (e.g. star shells), to reflect from the telescopic sight, or periscope, to the opposing lines, could bring swift and terminal retribution.
Qualities and skills
The principal attributes of a successful sniper were: the art of concealment, an outstanding degree of immobile patience and the ability to insert oneself into a suitable location from where the enemy was likely to provide suitable targets.
Obviously, the ability to subsequently extricate oneself undetected was also vital. Latrine access routes were favourite sniping targets, as were water-points and supply lines. The routine loss of men whilst performing these essential tasks, often had a deeply demoralising effect on a battalion in the line. Particularly, good and consistent results were frequently obtained when a sniper could so position himself as to have a sight-line across the defense line of the opposing force: shots were unexpected from this direction and soldiers tended to be less wary of this danger.
The usual depiction of the sniper is of a lone individual pitting himself against the wits of the opposition by hiding in a tree or the ruins of a building. However, many of the more effective snipers worked as a team with a spotter and used a craftily constructed hide that required the efforts of a skilled back-up team. These sniper teams were frequently protected by specially located detachments of troops.
Self protection measures
Protection for the infantryman against sniping was always rudimentary and relied, principally, on self-acquired avoidance and protection measures. The troglodyte life-style of the trenches meant that the most feasible and efficacious target was the headshot whilst the protection provided by the British standard issue soft peaked cap was nil. The introduction by the British of the steel helmet in 1915 (initially only as a Trench Stores and used in rotation by troops in the line) was primarily aimed at protection from shrapnel. It offered only limited security against a direct hit by rifle or machine gun fire. However, the steeply curved sides of the helmet and the high quality forged steel used by most, if not, scandalously, all of its manufacturers, offered considerable protection against glancing hits and ricochets. It certainly saved many lives and averted many otherwise serious injuries. The lower profiled German 'coal-scuttle' steel helmet, the M16, which was widely introduced in 1916, gave potentially better protection to the face and neck, but its relatively large vertical surfaces made it more vulnerable than the British model. It was also made of less impact-resistant rolled steel. Reportedly, the French Adrian steel helmet was made of an even lower quality sheet steel and gave little protection against any metal projectile.
Snipers were used, on occasion, by the in-line battalions to provide the necessary indication of aggression required by the upper echelons of the command structure. Routine non-lethal shots fired at pre-determined sites demonstrated that the required level of combat readiness was being maintained. This allowed the opposing sides to get some mutual relief from the daily hassle of trench warfare and the daily toll of casualties. The average number of daily British casualties throughout the Great War, outside the periods of intensive warfare, was almost 500 per day: most of which were attributable to shellfire and sniping.
It is impossible to know the total toll in casualties that sniping wreaked on the combatants from 1914 to 1918. Certainly, it closely matched in psychological effect, if not in numbers of casualties, that produced by the almost constant artillery bombardment and was a major cause of the stress that made active service in the trenches such a traumatic experience.