Shooting in France: WW I and the Military Sniper

From our library today, a plate from a small photographic history of the 67th  “Western Scots” Battalion, 4th Divisional Pioneers. In sharp contrast to their compatriots, the members of the Scout and Sniper Section are not wearing their military best. In fact, most of them are dressed to “match-in”, including the individual in the back wearing what appears to be a false grass hummock on his head. 

Image: ‘Scout Snipers’, 67th “Western Scots” (Pioneer Battalion), 1916. Collections CCGW/CCGG.

Most of the photographs of the various sections and groups in the 67th have some kind of visual tie to their purpose, the band posing with their instruments for instance, but the snipers are particularly interesting. Their uniforms set them clearly apart from the rest of the battalion and it is easy to see what their job was from the rifles they hold.

Snipers were first seen on the Western Front in 1915, after the war had become a stalemate and both sides found themselves entrenched in a relatively static area. Sniping was regarded as another way to demoralise the enemy, forcing him to continually watch his back throughout the daylight hours.

German and British snipers roamed No Mans Land, sometimes lying in wait for hours to pick off those careless enough to raise their heads above the parapet. Often, men only had to place their eye against a small hole in the parapet to be shot, and many hundreds each day were casualties of this element of daily life in a trench.

Snipers in the British and Imperial armies originally functioned as “free-lancers” without their own group within their parent battalion. By 1916, the formation of sniper schools and the continued need for talented marksmen resulted in the formation of groups like that attached to the 66th Scots. Working with a scout, a sniper would be directed to areas that needed their particular talent; such as holes in the opposing parapets or exposed paths.

Many were former hunters, poachers or in the case of the famed Canadian sniper Francis Pegahmagabow members of First Nations communities. Snipers were feared by both sides, and many infantry companies were reluctant to be assigned a sniper, as they thought that their presence drew both enemy snipers and enemy artillery fire.

The growth of sniper groups also resulted in a new industry behind the lines, as they required camouflage for their work. Len Smith, a scout and camouflage artist, remembers making a disguised tree stump that could be moved along the lines and house a single sniper. Snipers also wore special camouflage that helped them match into their environment, which explains the grass head-piece of the soldier in our photograph. By the end of the conflict, sniping had gone from a special operation to an excepted tactic of total war, and the armies of the Second World War would make tremendous use of snipers, particularly in the closing battles to retake European cities in 1944-45.

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3 thoughts on “Shooting in France: WW I and the Military Sniper

  1. This is a great photo and not one I’ve seen before. Any idea of date or where it was taken? It would be interesting to try and identify some of the men. Thanks for sharing it.

    Steve

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    1. Hi Steve,

      Thanks for commenting. The photo is from a photo-book released in 1916 in England by the 67th Western Scots, which includes group photographs of all the companies, as well as the officers, band, and other specialists. We have a later publication by the same battalion with an honour roll and roll of service, though we have never compared the two.

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