Raids

By "Kultus Nanich"
Canadian Defence Quarterly, April, 1933

Canadians once had an idea, while at the war, that we had originated the Raid. This was after one of the battalions of the 1st Canadian Division had accomplished a successful raid in the winter of 1915-16. A great deal of discussion took place over it as a unique and original feat.*

* Contrary to the general belief which the author voices as to the first Canadian raid, the earliest raid carried out by Canadian troops was by the P.P.C.L.I. on the night of 27th/28th February, 1915, at St. Eloi. As the biographer of the regiment writes: "Little as it was realized at the time this 'reconnaissance in force' was in fact the first of the Canadian ‘raids' which became so important a factor in the trench warfare of the next three years. Almost all the essentials of subsequent raids were present: the sudden assault by a handful of troops on a small section of line; the division of the attacking force into small groups, each with a special task; the systematic destruction of a trench; the attempt to secure prisoners for identification; the withdrawal before the enemy could counter-attack, after inflicting upon him all possible damage". Editor.

As a matter of fact raids are as old as war itself. In the crude warfare of nomadic peoples in ancient times campaigns were often little else than a succession of raids. As to trench raids, some British battalions had recourse to this mode of petty warfare in the early days of the war.

In the Peninsular War the operation of guerilla bands played a considerable part. Some writers have attached a great deal of importance to the effect of these bands and argue they did a great deal in bringing that war to a successful conclusion. The armies of Frederick the Great were continually harassed and hindered by the sudden and spasmodic attacks of tribal bands in the pay of the Austrian monarchy. While even the campaigns of the great Napoleon in Eastern Europe were not free from raiding forces,.and in fact, in the Moscow campaign his army was virtually destroyed by the Cossack bands who descended on his rear with lightning speed and agility.

There are certain basic principles in the art of war that hold good at all times, and ought to be observed in all operations. These principles, which were evident in raid operations in wars of former times, were the same as were essential in guiding trench raids in the late war.

Of course, laying down and segregating principles is a purely arbitrary proceeding and only reflects what is present in the mind of the instructor. Suffice to say that what we are endeavouring to demonstrate is that certain principles, though common to all war operations, are inherently essential in the carrying out of raid enterprises.

The first great principle is "surprise". While surprise is important in all attacks, in a raid it becomes indispensable. For a raid presupposes the attack of an inferior force upon one greatly superior. Failing surprise, the enemy is prepared and the raid cannot succeed.

Preceding surprise there should be "information". It is necessary that raiding forces should have a reasonable knowledge of the ground to be raided and some idea of the enemy strength at the point to be attacked.

Also some idea of the disposition of the main enemy forces, or, at least, as to how quickly the troops attacked can be reinforced.

"Rapidity of Attack". Having knowledge of the ground, and effecting a surprise, it is essential that all speed and force be put into the initial rush, so that the enemy will be overwhelmed and plunged into confusion. This will enable the intended purpose to be achieved and the raiding troops withdrawn before the foe can recover his balance or be reinforced. In other words, when the raid is once launched we must employ the utmost audacity, cast caution to the winds, and leave the result to fortune.

So we think these three principles will serve for sound guidance:—

(a)     Information.
(b)     Surprise.
(c)     Rapidity of attack.

Perhaps just here, as well as at any other place, something may be said about the value of raids. This has always been a debatable point. It was much so in the late war. One thing emphasized was that it helped to destroy the enemy's morale. How much so, we wonder?

In the American Civil War the Confederate cavalry officer, General J.E.B. Stuart, was a most masterly and indefatigable raider. On one occasion he rode clear around the rear of McClellan's army, destroying magazines and playing the devil generally. Yet one military writer has this to say: "But such romantic and far-ranging raids on this occasion, as on several others, contribute little or nothing to the success of the army as a whole". And so it appeared to many in the late war. How much did the raiding of a few yards of trench affect the morale of the German army in the main?

Another great object was set out, i.e., that of securing identification as to the location of enemy divisions. We have never heard of this being put to much use. Perhaps it was, however. Nevertheless the British and French Intelligence system was our chief source of information. We never knew how this intelligence was obtained. All that can be said is that it was amazing, and remarkably accurate.

The cost of life and material was very much criticized. It seemed at any rate to demand that some very substantial advantage be gained. A recent writer in the C.D.Q., referring to the cost of artillery ammunition, states of a 2nd Division raid that "for the first hour after zero it would be in the neighbourhood of a quarter of a million dollars, and three times that for the whole operation". Our side's casualties on this occasion were not stated but apparently were considerable—100 prisoners were taken. Did this raid pay? Will somebody please page the "attritionist?"

Perhaps the best result achieved by raids is the raising of our own morale. It gives a "superiority complex", to make use of an overworked phrase, and, in particular, raiding played an important part, along with our general nocturnal tactics, in acquiring a domination of No Man's Land. Too much emphasis cannot be placed upon this domination. A battalion which was not the "boss" of its own front was not a soundly disciplined unit. We were certainly a great deal superior to the Germans in this regard. It is true that they did a certain amount of spasmodic patrolling but it was not their universal night routine. They seemed to rely very greatly on a prolific use of Very lights, while we used very few. In fact a Very light coming from our lines generally denoted some painstaking N.C.O. who wanted to make sure his Very pistol was working. We remember tour after tour of our battalions when a Very light was never set off. Nothing better marked the dogged self-reliance of our men than this utilization of darkness. They did know, though, that the patrols were out there in that mystery land, guarding their comrades in the trenches.

On the other hand a notoriously unsuccessful raid created a feeling of depression and incompetence. What was probably the largest raid attempted by the Canadians was the most unsuccessful. One does not like to speak of this affair and perhaps the least said the better. Suffice to state, that as far as we others in the Corps could understand it, it was the most inconceivably stupid thing that it is possible to imagine. Had it been entirely successful one can't see where it was worth the risk. The tragic result was appalling, and we may point out that the three basic principles that we have laid down were all violated. The information was unreliable, no surprise was effected, and the attack was consequently forestalled.

A Model Raid

One of the most successful raids carried out was in the summer of 1918 near Gavrelle by a company each of the 16th and 14th Battalions of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade. The 16th company was on the left and it is that which will be described—as it is the one about which we know most. This company was commanded by Major (later Lieutenant-Colonel) Jim Scroggie, D.S.O., M.C. Scroggie was probably the ablest raid leader in the Corps. A young Scotchman living on a pre-emption in the Kootenay country (B.C.) when the war broke out, he joined up. He had had little, if any, military or even militia experience, but he took to military work as a duck does to water. He was daring, phlegmatic and cold-bloodedly efficient. No Man's Land had no terrors for him. The front trench was an imaginary line. Long before he took up raiding, patrolling was a habit—part of the night's routine.

In the above-named sector the German line was a considerable distance from our front. The plan was to attack their front and immediate support trenches. An artillery bombardment was to beset the first for a given period. It was then to lift to the support and continue there for a sufficient time to allow the raiding party to assault and exploit the front line, after which it would become a defensive barrage in rear of the support, while the raiders in turn advanced to the latter and "did it in". Two minor raids were to take place on the left of Scroggie's company to divert the enemy's attention.

When the attack plan was complete and the raid ordered Scroggie proceeded to get his information. Patrols were out every night at different periods. These consisted not only of N.C.O's. and men but every officer concerned in the raid was out again and again. The night before the raid nine officers were on patrol at one time or another.

An unexpected obstacle was encountered in that it was discovered that the Germans were digging an advanced trench for outpost purposes. The work was protected by a covering party and a line of concertina wire in front. But our patrols managed to get quite close to this wire. Two nights before the raid the enemy covering party took alarm and for some time played a machine gun on the area where our men were lying. It took some nerve to lie still with this machine gun sweeping around a few inches overhead. Fortunately, no casualties were sustained.

Equipment was somewhat slow in coming up, and on the morning preceding the night originally set for the raid, Scroggie demanded another day, refusing to go ahead until the most complete preparation had been made.

Every man was allotted to his duty, some carried aminol tubes, while others carried mats for crossing the German wire if found necessary. All were to go extremely light and as far as possible unencumbered. A request was made that Tam O'Shanters be worn instead of steel helmets. Nothing is more absurd than wearing tin hats on a raid. They are heavy and awkward and serve as a warning gong when coming against barbed wire or any obstacle, or if they accidentally fall off. However, these facts did not impress the "higher-ups" for permission was refused.

When this raiding party marched off from our support trench it was an inspiration to witness it. Moving along with a buoyant. springy, ready-to-go pace. Many of them were veterans of some years' experience. There were no better troops in France at that period. All they wanted was a fair chance with good artillery support—and they got it. Our gunnery was as near perfect as possible.

Zero hour was in the earlier part of the evening. The companies of each battalion were formed up in the front line and when it became sufficiently dark they crawled forward as close to the enemy front as was possible. Our barrage fell with the greatest accuracy. As it moved on from the enemy front line our fellows romped into it. Their assault was rapid and terrific. All opposition was overcome, dugouts were blown up. and any of the enemy who were not killed were taken prisoner. Certain men had been detailed to take out prisoners and they were on their way to our trenches before the second line was assaulted.

It should have been mentioned that a part of the company had followed in the rear, their duty being to carry out the attack on the support line. As soon as our artillery had lifted from that, this second party was in it. The whole thing was over in an incredibly short time. The first intelligence arrived at battalion H.Q. before it was realized the raid was well under way. It was Scroggie's voice from a front line telephone—"I think I've captured the whole damned German Army". Well, he'd made a good start for the time he was at it.

The total prisoners captured was 54. 28 by the 16th and 26 by the 14th. Honours were practically equal. Several machine guns, field telephones and other trench paraphernalia were brought back. Quite a number of the enemy were killed and their trenches were badly demolished. Our casualties were fairly light, a few killed and some wounded. Considering

the sanguinary nature of the operation such losses could not be complained of. In fact it was as nearly perfect as a raid could be expected to be.

It will be noted that the three principles laid down were well adhered to.

Observations

A raid such as the above could not be executed except by highly trained and intelligent troops, who were engrossed in the enterprise and grasped its importance. A slip at any point would have almost surely resulted in failure. It was necessary to carry out the patrolling with the greatest caution and stealth, so that the enemy would not be alarmed and forewarned. When their working party was discovered there was a very pressing temptation to open fire on it. Restraint therefore had to be exercised. The assembly of the raiding party on the jump-off line was a most delicate operation. Here, again, a high state of discipline was demanded and found to exist.

We think in this case the result justified the risk, and that a compensating object was obtained. As stated, our losses were light. The cost of our artillery expenditure could not have been great. If we estimate the number of enemy killed and wounded as 40 or 50, we see, by adding that to the number of prisoners, that the German casualties would be in the neighbourhood of 100. While this would not affect the enemy morale as a whole, yet in this particular locality it surely would prove upsetting.

The chief point of value was this: At that time the German armies down south were still making progress. Nobody knew whether they would get to Paris or not. A general feeling of depression was in existence, and had existed since March of that year. Such a spirited and successful enterprise was therefore electrifying. It demonstrated that on the First Army front at any rate the will-to-win was predominant. It had an excellent effect on our own morale and showed that our Canadian troops were still proud and confident.

May we therefore sum up by stating that raids for the sake of raiding are useless and criminal, while a raid with a bonafide object, which is carefully planned and executed, may be justifiable and beneficial.

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