Our local Military History Bookclub is currently reading the two-volume history of the Canadian Corps in World War I by Tim Cook. We’ll be reviewing the first volume, At the Sharp End, in January. Volume two, Shock Troops, will follow in February. And in an excellent coincidence, author Tim Cook will be visiting the University of Saskatchewan in early March.
Military History Bookclub has been subjected to derisively nicknamed the “Nazi Book Club” by colleagues, friends, and family. This is possibly because the first book we chose was the Nazi Conscience by Claudia Koonz – a book with a big ol swastika on its cover.
So we are slowly moving toward a new, catchier name for the club. Something with the rhetorical power to displace the unfortunate nickname.
My pitch is for: The Field Marshall Haig (Memorial) Historical Book Society – or, the Haig Historical Book Society for short (abrev: HHBS).
So far I’ve had few encouraging remarks. But I’m going to refer to it has the HHBS from now on.
All that preamble in order to talk about Patrolling and Raiding in World War I.
I’m halfway through the first volume of Tim Cook’s very readable history of the Canadian Corps in World War I (mainly about the infantry experience). I’ve just read through a series of small chapters devoted to the themes of snipers, No Man’s Land, and raiding. These chapters exploring the day-to-day life of front-line soldiers in between the major battles appears at an excellent narrative position – immediately following the dramatic retelling of a couple of battles.
Cook’s explains that Canadians did not invent raiding – they learned it from their British role-models – but they did adopt a particularly aggressive attitude toward raiding. One particular early and dramatically successful raid on the German lines netted the Canadian 7th Battalion – and all Canadians generally – an enviable reputation for elite infantry talent. But Cook points out that higher commanders subsequently insisted on frequent raids, reducing their overall chances for success (since the Germans would be more expectant of raids occurring).
In reading this part of the book I found myself surprised/enlightened about the nature of World War I. I was also surprised about the logistical and technical limitations of the Entente forces early in the war – for instance in the limited number of artillery shells available and the frequently poor communication systems. But the idea that men operated nightly inside No Man’s Land – the the high numbers described by Cook – was a bit surprising to me. It seems to go against the long-ingrained idea that to enter No Man’s Land without proper artillery and other fire support meant certain death. And yet it makes perfect sense. Many men would not be content to crouch in a trench for three or four years. Many men would have wanted to get out into the open (under cover of night, of course) and move around setting up defensive obstacles, traps, and early-warning devices, and also to venture as far forward as possible to apprise the enemy, scout his positions and defenses, and keep him guessing and frightened.
It very much reminds me of a large portion of another book: War of Patrols: Canadian Army Operations in Korea, by William Johnston. Johnston’s main thesis about the differing performance and experiences of the three Canadian rotations is based to a large degree on their differing approaches to patrolling. Once the maneuver warfare of the early phases of the Korean conflict were over and diplomats sat down to negotiate a ceasefire, soldiers on the front lines settled into entrenched defensive positions not unlike those on the Western Front in World War I. Johnston concludes (as I recall) that Canadian battalions that assumed an aggressive patrolling and raiding posture performed better: they had better intelligence of the enemy, they experienced fewer and less severe assaults on their positions, and they had higher morale. Keeping the enemy pushed back on his heels by securing No Man’s Land through aggressive patrolling saved Canadian lives. Was this also the case in World War I?
As Cook points out, raids did not always succeed. Tthe occasional raid went very wrong and Canadian lives were lost. Rigidity by higher commanders in insisting on raids lowered the overall possibilities for success. As well, it was the more aggressive and talented soldiers who tended to volunteer for dangerous forward missions. When these soldiers died as a result of the heavy raiding schedule, the overall competency of a battalion was lowered. The valuable talents and experience of these men was lost forever.
But the overall summation of the pros and cons of raiding likely depended heavily on the battalion and sub-unit commanders: how did they run their patrols and raids? Did they insist constantly on raids that stretched the capabilities of their troops? Did they insist on too frequent actions against highly prepared defenders? Did they rely only on the same cadre of volunteers, or did they force troops to get out of their trenches to help develop their fighting skills?
It was likely the leadership at the lowest levels that resulted in an overall positive value in raiding or its opposite.
Certainly from my personal experiences I can imagine it easily going either way. The morale and training value from patrolling can easily be negated by a few small decisions by commanders.
But knowing all this, if I were commanding troops in that war, I myself would be inclined towards regular aggressive patrolling and raiding.
A review of Tim Cook’s two-volumes from the Canadian Military Journal.