Small patrols of men were often sent into No Man's Land to discover information about the enemy. All men had to take turns in this very dangerous work. The patrols usually went out at night. They would cautiously inch their way forward on their stomachs and try to get within earshot of the enemy trenches.
The commanders also organised raiding parties. A typical raiding party would comprise of 30 men. It was standard procedure for everyone to blacken their faces with grease-paint or burnt cork. The men carried cut down rifles, coshes, sheath-knives and grenades. One of the main objectives of these raids was to capture German soldiers for interrogation.
Men on patrols considered returning to their own trenches as the most dangerous part of the operation. Nervous sentries often fired at any movement in front of them and caused many casualties. On one occasion a sentry killed two of his own men with one shot.
Lieutenant Basil Rathbone was a battalion intelligence officer and twice a week he led reconnaissance night patrols into No Man's Land. On the patrol's return, it was Rathbone's job to write up a report. He later admitted that many of these reports "were masterpieces of invention; inconclusive, yet always suggesting that every effort had been made by our patrol to garner information and/or make contact with the enemy. Under such circumstances one's imagination was often sorely tried in supplying acceptable news items."
In July 1918 Rathbone went to see his commanding officer and explained that it was very difficult for him to obtain accurate information in the dark. He suggested that he should undertake patrols in full daylight. He added that he should be allowed to take two other men with him: Corporal Norman Tanner and Private Richard Burton.
In his autobiography, In and Out of Character (1956), Basil Rathbone described his first daylight patrol: "Camouflage suits had been made for us to resemble trees. On our heads we wore wreaths of freshly plucked foliage; our faces and hands were blackened with burnt cork. About 5.00am we crawled through our wire and lay up in No-Man's-Land."
Over the next few days Rathbone was able to obtain some very important information: "Camouflage suits had been made for us to resemble trees. On our heads we wore wreaths of freshly plucked foliage; our faces and hands were blackened with burnt cork. About 5.00am we crawled through our wire and lay up in No-Man's-Land."
His commanding officer was so pleased with Basil Rathbone use of this camouflage strategy that he suggested a raid on the enemy trenches and to seize a prisoner. Rathbone accepted this very dangerous task. The following morning the patrol took an hour to crawl to the enemy front-line.
After cutting the barbed-wire, they got into what they thought was a deserted trench. Rathbone later recalled: "Suddenly there were footsteps and a German soldier came into view behind the next traverse. He stopped suddenly, struck dumb, no doubt, by our strange appearance. Capturing him was out of the question; we were too far away from home. But before he could pull himself together and spread the alarm, I shot him twice with my revolver - he fell dead. Tanner tore the identification tags off his uniform and I rifled his pockets, stuffing a diary and some papers into my camouflage suit. Now things happened fast. There were sounds of movement on both sides of us, so we scaled the parapet, forced our way through the barbed wire - I have the scars on my right leg to this day - and ran for the nearest shell hole. We had hardly reached it when two machine guns opened a crossfire on us. We lay on the near lip of the crater, which was so close to their lines that it gave us cover. The machine-gun bullets pitted the rear of the crater."
As the authors of Famous 1914-1918 (2008) pointed out: "Rathbone felt that their best chance of survival would be to split up and run from shell hole to shell hole in different directions. This, they hoped, would confuse the machine gunners and dissipate the concentration of fire as the Germans failed to decide whom to aim at. The plan worked and all three men made it back to the British front line."
When he arrived back in the trenches Rathbone discovered he had trodden on a decomposing body during the operation. The stench was so bad that Rathbone nearly fainted. He quickly took off the offending boot and with the help of a soldier's bayonet, it was hurled over the parapet into No Man's Land. Rathbone later commented: "With one shoe off and one shoe on, the reality and horror of war came rushing in on me."
Rathbone continued with these daylight patrols. His commanding officer wrote in the War Diary: "A conspicuous feature of the last two months has been the activity of the Battalion daylight patrols under the able leadership of Lieutenant Rathbone."
On 9th September 1918 Rathbone was awarded the Military Cross. The citation included the following: "Lieutenant Rathbone volunteered to go out on daylight patrol, and on each occasion brought back invaluable information regarding enemy's posts, and the exact position and condition of the wire. On 26 July, when on the enemy's side of the wire, he came face to face with a German. He shot the German, but this alarmed two neighbouring posts, and they at once opened a heavy fire with two machine guns. Despite the enemy fire, Lieutenant Rathbone got his three men and himself through the enemy wire and back to our lines. The result of his patrolling was to pin down exactly where the enemy posts were, and how they were held, while inflicting casualties on the enemy at no loss to his own men. Lieutenant Rathbone has always shown a great keenness in patrol work both by day and by night."
We have raids almost nightly - 50 men and a couple of officers. The raiders are generally over for about half an hour, and at a given signal are supposed to leap out of the trench and return with as much plunder, human and otherwise as they can get.
The party is twenty-two men, five N.C.O. and one officer, Stansfield. Twenty-seven men with faces blackened and shiny - with hatchets in their belts, bombs in pockets, knobkerries - waiting in a dug-out in the reserve trench. Then up to the front line. At the starting-point, Stansfield, Sergeant Lyle and Corporal O'Brien, loom over the parapet from above, having successfully laid the line of lime across the craters to the German wire. In a few minutes the men have gone over - and disappear into the rain and darkness - the last four men carry ten-foot light ladders.
It is 12 midnight. I am sitting on the parapet listening for something to happen - five, ten, nearly fifteen minutes - not a sound - nor a shot fired. A minute or two later a rifle-shot rings out and almost simultaneously several bombs are thrown. There are blinding flashes and explosions, rifle-shots, the scurry of feet, curses and groans, and stumbling figures scramble awkwardly over the parapet - some wounded. Black faces and whites of eyes and lips showing in the dusk. I count sixteen in.
On a patrol last night an officer, who got into the German trenches yesterday morning with four men, and after killing four Germans (as a reprisal for raiding his company the night before) was dangerous wounded outside the enemy wire on his return, and had to be left (by his own order). The C.O. sent orders to a young officer "to go out immediately", meaning to add "after dark" but being in a hurry, he forgot these important words. No one, of course, dreams of going into 'No Man's Land' by day; but this young officer never hesitated to ask if there were not some mistake, just went off by himself at 3.30 p.m. He was, of course, seen almost at once and heavy machine-gun fire was opened on him; but this didn't stop him, and he crawled and ran all the 200 yards across the open to the wire. He had a good look round for the officer he was out to find, failed to see him, and came back under fire all the way. I have put him up for a D.S.O., and I trust he will get it.
Reaching a trench which we took to be a dead-end, we discovered our mistake when about twenty Germans suddenly appeared in our rear and one German opened fire on us. We shipped our machine-gun round and covered them. They immediately offered to surrender - shouting almost in unison: "No shoot, we got children at home, war fini."
We worked our way across no-man's-land without incident, and Pratt and Liddell began to cut the enemy wire. This was tough and rather thicker than we had reckoned. Even so we made good progress and there were only a few more strands left to cut, so we were right under the German trench, when suddenly, jabber, jabber, and without warning two German heads appeared above the parapet and began pointing into the long grass. We lay flat and still for our lives, expecting every second a blast of machine-gun fire or a bomb in our midst. But nothing happened.
We lay without moving for what must have been nearly an hour. There were no abnormal noises from the German line nor was the sentry on patrol. Less than four minutes of wire-cutting would complete our task and I had to decide what to do next. I touched Pratt and Liddell to go on.
The job was just about done when all hell seemed to break loose right in our faces. The German trench leapt into life, rifles and machine-guns blazed. Incredibly none of the bombardment touched us, presumably because we were much closer to the German trench, within their wire and only a foot or two from the parapet, than the enemy imagined possible. As a result the firing was all aimed above and beyond us, into no-man's-land or at our own front line.
I have been at the Front for the last fortnight and have seen both latent and active fighting. By latent I mean staying days in trenches under heavy artillery fire, keeping ready for any eventuality such as a raid or an unforeseen forward movement from the enemy - by active, a nice little night attack that we made last Saturday night upon an entrenched position. We crept through a wood as dark as pitch, fixed bayonets and pushed some 500 yards amid fields until we came to a wood. There we opened fire and in a bound we were along the bank of the road where the Prussians stood. We shot at each other some quarter of an hour at a distance of 12-15 yards and the work was deadly. I brought down two great giants who stood against a burning heap of straw - my corporal accounted for four more, and so on all along the line. They had so much luck, unhappily, for out of 12 of my squad that went we found ourselves five after the engagement.
My lieutenant sent me out to repair some barbed wire between our trenches and the enemy's. I went through the mist with two chaps. I was lying on my back under the obstacle when pop, out came the moon, then the Boches saw me and well! pan pan pan! Then they broke the entanglement over my head, which fell on me and trapped me. I took my butcher's knife and hacked at it a dozen times. My companions had got back to the trench and said I was dead, so the lieutenant, in order to avenge me, ordered a volley of fire, the Boches did the same and the artillery joined in, with me bang in the middle. I got back to the trench, crawling on my stomach, with my roll of barbed wire and my rifle.
Our raiding party crept out from the company line and waited for the artillery to finish the breaking of the wire. A wind had risen during the afternoon and was now blowing across the front. The trench mortar fired; but the registration had been carried out when there was no wind. The breeze caught the bomb, carried it down the line. It exploded a few yards from the attacking group.
Gwinnell staggered up, with three wounds in the leg, Perkins hit in both arms; but Batty lay still. A splinter had gone straight through his brain. Eight other men were hit, and there was no more to be done with the raid. Gwinnell, bleeding from his wounds, shepherd the man back and brought in Batty's body.
The catastrophe wrenched many of us as no previous death had been able to do. Those we had seen before had possessed an inevitable quality, had been taken as an unavoidable manifestation of war. But this death, at the hands of our own people, through a vagary of the wind, appeared some sinister and malignant stroke, an outrage involving not only the torn body of the dead boy but the whole battalion.
The night before last I took out a patrol of four men about half way across No Man's Land. There is comparatively little risk attached to this work but it is of course a considerable strain on the nerves. Last night, I went out with Wakefield and a wiring party, that is to say with about six men improving our wire entanglements. I consider on the the whole this is a nerve-racking a job as any, more so than patrol work. You must not think I shall go out like this every night. I have been out the last two nights as much to set an example and get the thing going as anything.
My first night Captain Thomas asked whether I would like to go out on patrol. It was the regimental custom to test new officers in this way, and none dared excuse himself. My orders for this patrol were to see whether a certain German sap-head was occupied by night or not.
Sergeant Townsend and I went out from Red Lamp Comer at about ten o clock; both carrying revolvers. We had pulled socks with the toes cut off, over our bare knees, to prevent them showing up in the dark and to make crawling easier. We went ten yards at a time, slowly, not on all fours, but wriggling flat along the ground. After each movement we lay and watched for about ten minutes. We crawled through our own wire entanglements and along a dry ditch; ripping our clothes on more barbed-wire, glaring into the darkness until it began turning round and round. Once I snatched my fingers in horror from where I had planted them on the slimy body of an old corpse. We nudged each other with rapidly beating hearts at the slightest noise or suspicion: crawling, watching, crawling, shamming dead under the blinding light of enemy flares, and again crawling watching, crawling.
We found the gap in the German wire and at last came within five yards of the sap-head. We waited quite twenty minutes, listening for any signs of its occupation. Then I nudged Sergeant Townsend and, revolver in hand, we wriggled quickly forward and slid into it. It was about three feet deep and unoccupied. On the floor were a few empty cartridges, and a wicker basket containing something large and smooth and round, twice the size of a football. Very, very carefully I groped and felt all around it in the dark. I was afraid that it might be some sort of infernal machine. Eventually I dared lift it out and carry it back, suspecting that it might be one of the German gas-cylinders we had heard so much about.
After this I went on patrol fairly often, finding that the only thing respected in young officers was personal courage. Besides, I had cannily worked it out like this. My best way of lasting through to the end of the war would be to get wounded. The best time to get wounded would be at night and in the open, with rifle fire more or less unaimed and my whole body exposed. Best, also, to get wounded when there was no rush on the dressing-station services, and while the back areas were not being heavily shelled. Best to get wounded, therefore, on a night patrol in a quiet sector. One could usually manage to crawl into a shell hole until help arrived.
I was in charge of an officers' patrol the night before last. We had to crawl out in a mangle field which is planted along the top of Givenchy Hill and our object was to reconnoitre the German trenches which lie over the brow and which cannot be seen from anywhere in our lines. It is a most exciting business being out among the dead men with a revolver. The mangles, which of course have never been gathered, are very pulpy and feel to the touch like a man's head. But we can steer one's way by a sense other than sight. The great thing, and the most difficult thing, is patience. If you go slow enough and keep on your belly you cannot be heard or seen. Instinctively, though, you want to get on and get back quick, and it is hard to restrain the impulse. The Germans sent up several lights but they stood no chance of spotting us among the roots. We steered by a dead man (not by but for, I should say) on the brow and then waited under the parapet of the old German communication trench till one of their flares showed us what we wanted to see. Even then it is difficult to spot exactly how their trenches run. We were about ten yards from the German wire and about twenty-five from their fire trenches, that was the most important thing and showed that their line was a salient and came right up under the brow of the hill. The G.O. and the brigadier were very pleased with the information. I only saw the former - of course if you dig a trench or pull down a house or reconnoitre you always get thanked by the Brigade though they are none of them operations of a really dangerous kind.
Just before daybreak, an engineer officer out there, who was hopelessly rattled ordered us to go. All the time the enemy flares were making the whole area as light as day. We got away as best we could. I was again in the rear going back, and again we were cut off and lost. I was buried twice and thrown down several times - buried with dead and dying. The ground was covered with bodies in all stages of decay and mutilation, and I would, after struggling free from the earth, pick up a body by me to try to lift him out with me, and find him a decayed corpse I pulled a head off - was covered with blood. The horror was indescribable. In the dim misty light of dawn I collected about 50 men and sent them off, mad with terror on the right track for home. Then two brave fellows stayed behind and helped me with the only unburied wounded man we could find.
The only sound now to be heard was a skylark climbing up into a cloudless blue sky, as the opposing armies took their midday siesta. We rose and proceeded slowly and with the utmost care along the German trench. We made our way around a traverse - then another stretch of empty trench - and proceeded further.
Suddenly there were footsteps and a German soldier came into view behind the next traverse. He stopped suddenly, struck dumb, no doubt, by our strange appearance. Capturing him was out of the question; we were too far away from home. But before he could pull himself together and spread the alarm, I shot him twice with my revolver - he fell dead. Tanner tore the identification tags off his uniform and I rifled his pockets, stuffing a diary and some papers into my camouflage suit. Now things happened fast. There were sounds of movement on both sides of us, so we scaled the parapet, forced our way through the barbed wire - I have the scars on my right leg to this day - and ran for the nearest shell hole. We had hardly reached it when two machine guns opened a crossfire on us. We lay on the near lip of the crater, which was so close to their lines that it gave us cover. The machine-gun bullets pitted the rear of the crater.
For conspicuous daring and resource near Festubert on 26 July 1918, and on three other occasions, viz - 5,7 and 14 August, when on patrol. Lieutenant Rathbone volunteered to go out on daylight patrol, and on each occasion brought back invaluable information regarding enemy's posts, and the exact position and condition of the wire. On 26 July, when on the enemy's side of the wire, he came face to face with a German. He shot the German, but this alarmed two neighbouring posts, and they at once opened a heavy fire with two machine guns. Despite the enemy fire, Lieutenant Rathbone got his three men and himself through the enemy wire and back to our lines. The result of his patrolling was to pin down exactly where the enemy posts were, and how they were held, while inflicting casualties on the enemy at no loss to his own men. Lieutenant Rathbone has always shown a great keenness in patrol work both by day and by night.
All raids are very much alike. Each man knows his part. As we only require one prisoner on each occasion, and as more are a nuisance, all other enemy soldiers encountered must be put to death. What are our weapons? The pistol, the rifle, the bullet, the bayonet, knuckle-dusters, hook knives with which to rip up, daggers for the heart, butchers' knives for the throat, the bomb for random work, once the prisoner has been extracted and bags of aminal thrown into the dugouts, served up with time fuses, to blow whole companies to smithereens. Tear gas bombs to cause temporary blindness, egg bombs charged with deadly poison to pulverise the lungs and stop the breathing complete the outfit. We moderns are extraordinarily unkind to each other in war - and in peace!
On each raid one prisoner is brought back, while many Germans die, our losses being nil. These three successful raids, on the top of the Thiepval epic, stimulate the battalion to such an extent as to place it on the very topmost rung of the war-ladder. Prisoners, trophies and blood are the only true producers of that strange wild mentality which is necessary for war.
During these hectic days I receive the prisoners personally, the number of the regiments concerned being telephoned to G.H.Q., via my report centre actually from the German lines. Poor, scraggy, miserable little creatures, glad to be "free," thankful to be saved, half-starved and unused to luxuries such as bread and bully beef, they eat ravenously. All prisoners are well fed - at first - because it makes them talk or, at least, revives the long lost tastes, as later it may be necessary to consider withholding the princely fare for purposes of extraction.