From Enemy at the Gates
People have been going at each other in war since before history. I’m going to start later than that. Early historical battles have been brutish to the extreme. Winston Churchill, in his four-volume A History of the English Speaking Peoples, recounts some of the reality of Medieval England:
Alfred, cheered by this news and striving to take the field again, continued a brigand warfare against the enemy while sending his messengers to summon the “fyrd”, or local militia, for the end of May. There was a general response; the King was loved and admired. The news that he was alive and active caused widespread joy. All the fighting men came back. After all, the country was in peril of subjugation, the King was a hero, and they could always go home again. The troops of Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire concentrated near Selwood. A point was chosen near where the three shires met, and we can see from this the burdens which lay upon Alfred’s tactics. Nevertheless here again was an army; “and when they saw the King they received him like one risen from the dead, after so great tribulations, and they were filled with great joy”.
Battle must be sought before they lost interest. The Danes still lay upon their plunder at Chippenham. Alfred advanced to Ethandun— now Edington— and on the bare downs was fought the largest and culminating battle of Alfred’s wars. All was staked. All hung in the scales of fate. On both sides the warriors dismounted; the horses were sent to the rear. The shield-walls wereformed, the masses clashed against each other, and for hours they fought with sword and axe. But the heathen had lost the favour of God through their violated oath, and eventually from this or other causes they fled from the cruel and clanging field. This time Alfred’s pursuit was fruitful. Guthrum, king of the Viking army, so lately master of the one unconquered English kingdom, found himself penned in his camp. Bishop Asser says, “the heathen, terrified by hunger, cold, and fear, and at the last full of despair, begged for peace”. They offered to give without return as many hostages as Alfred should care to pick and to depart forthwith.
Churchill, Winston S. (2013-04-29). A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Vol. 1: The Birth of Britain (Kindle Locations 1698-1711). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
In his narrative Sir Winston eventual moves into the next millennium and recounts the effect of the English long bow on warfare. The 1346 Battle of Crécy tells the story:
King Philip, arriving on the scene, was carried away by the ardour of the throng around him. The sun was already low; nevertheless all were determined to engage. There was a corps of six thousand Genoese cross-bowmen in the van of the army. These were ordered to make their way through the masses of horsemen, and with their missiles break up the hostile array in preparation for the cavalry attacks. The Genoese had marched eighteen miles in full battle order with their heavy weapons and store of bolts. Fatigued, they made it plain that they were in no condition to do much that day. But the Count of Alençon, who had covered the distance on horseback, did not accept this remonstrance kindly. “This is what one gets,” he exclaimed, “by employing such scoundrels, who fall off when there is anything for them to do.” Forward the Genoese! At this moment, while the cross-bowmen were threading their way to the front under many scornful glances, dark clouds swept across the sun and a short, drenching storm beat upon the hosts. A large flight of crows flew cawing through the air above the French in gloomy presage. The storm, after wetting the bow-strings of the Genoese, passed as quickly as it had come, and the setting sun shone brightly in their eyes and on the backs of the English. This, like the crows, was adverse, but it was more material. The Genoese, drawing out their array, gave a loud shout, advanced a few steps, shouted again, and a third time advanced, “hooted”, and discharged their bolts. Unbroken silence had wrapped the English lines, but at this the archers, six or seven thousand strong, ranged on both flanks in “portcullis” formation, who had hitherto stood motionless, advanced one step, drew their bows to the ear, and came into action. They “shot their arrows with such force and quickness”, says Froissart, “that it seemed as if it snowed.”
The effect upon the Genoese was annihilating; at a range which their own weapons could not attain they were in a few minutes killed by thousands. The ground was covered with feathered corpses. Reeling before this blast of missile destruction, the like of which had not been known in war, the survivors recoiled in rout upon the eager ranks of the French chivalry and men-at-arms, which stood just out of arrow-shot . “Kill me those scoundrels,” cried King Philip in fury, “for they stop up our road without any reason.” Whereupon the front line of the French cavalry rode among the retreating Genoese, cutting them down with their swords. In doing so they came within the deadly distance. The arrow snowstorm beat upon them, piercing their mail and smiting horse and man. Valiant squadrons from behind rode forward into the welter, and upon all fell the arrow hail, making the horses caper, and strewing the field with richly dressed warriors. A hideous disorder reigned. And now Welsh and Cornish light infantry, slipping through the chequered ranks of the archers, came forward with their long knives and, “falling upon earls, barons, knights, and squires, slew many, at which the King of England was afterwards exasperated”. Many a fine ransom was cast away in those improvident moments.
Churchill, Winston S. (2013-04-29). A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Vol. 1: The Birth of Britain (Kindle Locations 4601-4623). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
All of this was before the introduction of gunpowder into modern warfare.
Early shoulder arms appear to have been merely a means of launching pebbles for long distances at enemy formations. More modern long-barrel weapons quickly doomed the armored knight on horseback. A bullet from one of these weapons would penetrate armor, bringing the foot soldier to the level of prime combatant. Armies in those days appear to have regarded the musket as an improvement on the bow or even the pike. Forces still arrayed themselves in opposing ranks and slugged it out. Then came the American Revolution.
The battles of Concord and Lexington in the opening round of the revolution introduced the British to serious warfare made possible by the musket and the long rifle. Following the initial skirmish, in which colonists took a drubbing, the red coats proceeded to march back to their barracks in formation. For the Americans the battle was not over. They slipped among rocks and trees, sniping away at the marching formations, inflicting horrible casualties against their outraged foe.
The revolution may have been the introduction of the sniper, the sharpshooter who targeted individual soldiers at long range:
Early forms of sniping, or marksmanship were used during the American Revolutionary War. For instance, in 1777 at the battle of Saratoga the Colonists hid in the trees and used early model rifles to shoot British officers. Most notably, Timothy Murphy shot and killed General Simon Fraser of Balnain on 7 October 1777 at a distance of about 400 yards. During the Battle of Brandywine, Capt. Patrick Ferguson had a tall, distinguished American officer in his rifle’s iron sights. Ferguson did not take the shot, as the officer had his back to Ferguson; only later did Ferguson learn that George Washington had been on the battlefield that day.
Marksmanship continued to gain favor with the years, but the Civil War saw ranks of soldiers facing each other and advancing under fire from muzzle loading rifles. Things were changing:
The Minié ball, or Minie ball, is a type of muzzle-loading spin-stabilized rifle bullet named after its co-developer, Claude-Étienne Minié, inventor of the Minié rifle. It came to prominence in the Crimean War and American Civil War.
The Minié ball was employed by the Union Army to great effect. The North had the industrial means to manufacture war weapons on a grand scale, and production of the Minié ball was a major endeavor. It brought the Union Army increased rate of fire over the Confederates, but battle tactics changed little from the time of the revolution. Pickett’s Charge exemplifies the thinking that was to continue into the next century. The tale of the repeating rifle underscores the thicker-than-tar military mindset. The Union had them. Commanders didn’t want to employ them. The used up too much ammunition.
The war that engulfed the European continent from 1914 to 1918 saw the final throes of centuries old monarchies, and also the military thinking that went with them. Something new had been added, something which tragically military leaders were slow to recognize. That was the machine gun.
The ‘battles of the frontiers’ were the first occasion on which most French, German and British soldiers came face to face with modern firepower, and they were devastated and disorientated by the effects. Lieutenant Ernst von Röhm, on coming under heavy French fire in Lorraine, thought that at last he would see the enemy and got out his field glasses, ‘but there is nothing to recognise and nothing to see’. As the fire of his own unit slackened, he stood up and called on his comrades to do likewise. ‘I want to see how many are still fit to fight. The bugler, who has remained by my side like a shadow, says to me sadly: “Herr Leutnant, there is nobody there any more!” And in truth nobody is standing on the whole front line. Only three men are still unscathed, everybody else is dead or wounded.’ On the other end of the line, at Mons on 23 August, the British army found itself holding ground against the main weight of Kluck’s 1st Army. Aubrey Herbert recalled that ‘It was as if a scythe of bullets passed directly over our heads about a foot above the earthworks. It came in gusts, whistling and sighing … It seemed inevitable that any man who went over the bank must be cut neatly in two.’
Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 962-972). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
Americans entered this gruesome bit of Hell in 1917, welcomed by their French and British, who were rapidly running out of bodies to face the Maxim machine gun. General John J. Pershing did not relish this prospect, and he insisted that American troops serve under American command. This decision may have accounted for the surprising (to the Europeans) success of American forces in the war.
The Allied forces, particularly the French, eschewed marksmanship. French troops obtained little in the way of target practice during their training. It was the Battle of Crécy all over again, only this time with rifles and machine guns.
Alan Axelrod’s book on the Battle of Belleau Wood is a story of the coming of the modern U.S. Marine Corps. Unlike their British and French counterparts, Marines, as well as American Army troops, received extensive training in marksmanship before being shipped across the Atlantic. The Marines, especially, had a different attitude. It was an attitude that made their German opponents very uncomfortable:
Rushed into the fight on a few hours notice, the Marines prepared to advance on the Wood in evenly-spaced ranks, as they had been trained by the French. As somebody who has never seen organized combat, I can only wonder what people were thinking back then. Author Axelrod wonders, too. There was no waiting for dark. There was no creeping along the ground behind bits of cover. There was no firing of smoke shells to provide concealment. There was no artillery bombardment to even frighten the machine gunners. The approach to the German positions concealed in the woods was across a wheat field, in one region a march of 400 yards. It was recipe for slaughter.
The American approach was to lean into the withering machine gun fire as though walking into a gale wind. Where the distance was short the advance wave was able to reach the woods and engage the enemy. The advance that attempted to cross 400 yards of wheat was reversed, although some men managed to crawl forward into the trees.
What amazed the Germans, however, was the action of the Marines as they advanced. They aimed their rifles and killed Germans one by one.
This tactic was something the Germans were unaccustomed to during the four-years of combat. They understood artillery, machine gun fire and massed rifle fire. These threats were impersonal, and if you were exposed there was nothing you could do about it. If you got hit, you got hit. It was all a matter of chance. The German troops were mentally prepared to take the chance.
The Marines’ rifle fire, however, was personal. A Marine put you in his sights and killed you personally. And Marines were very good at this. If a Marine shot at you, you were very likely to take the hit and die. The Germans did not like that.
All of this was during the final weeks of the War to End All Wars. This does not mean that sharpshooting had all along been dead. In fact, the previous Boer War that the British had just finished introduced modern sniping practice, particularly as practiced by the Boers. The British learned well and from that time have maintained mastery of the art.
Well prior to Belleau Wood, the war of the trenches provided fertile ground for sniping tactics. Vast armies facing each other in static positions for months on end provided the ideal setting for sniping tactics.
Sharpshooting skills and sniper tactics blossom in protracted urban warfare. Movement is slow and concealment is ample. So it was that Stalingrad was the birthplace of sniper legends. I have the book Enemy at the Gates, by William Craig. I also have the movie of the same title, inspired by the book. The main character in the movie is Vasily Zaytsev.
In the first scenes Zaytsev and other Soviet troops are herded like cattle into the battle. Armed political officers shoot soldiers who try to evade the murderous German aircraft gunfire by jumping into the Volga. There are not enough rifles for the newly-arrived troops, but all are given an ammunition clip and instructions to get rifles from soldiers who are killed. A frontal assault on a German position results in almost 100% casualties as soldiers who retreat from the slaughter are killed by Soviet troops in place for this purpose. Zaytsev is one of the survivors, and he teams up with a political commissar to wipe out a party of Germans who tarry too long near the field of dead. Zaytsev and the commissar then embark on a program to make Zaytsev famous in order to build morale among the troops.
Wikipedia provides details of Zaytsev’s origins:
Zaytsev was born in Yeleninskoye, Orenburg Governorate in a peasant family of Russian ethnicity and grew up in the Ural Mountains, where he learned marksmanship by hunting deer and wolves with his grandfather and younger brother. He brought home his first trophy at the age of twelve: a wolf that he shot with a single bullet from his first personal rifle, a large single-shot Berdan rifle, which at the time he was barely able to carry on his back.
It’s a background familiar to American marksmen of the two world wars. Corporal (later Sergeant) Alvin York grew up in the Tennessee hills, where he became an expert hunter. The movie Sergeant York shows his training with a repeating rifle in the army and also the amazement of his trainers as he shoots totally in the black his first time on the range. Audie Murphy was the son of share croppers in Texas, northeast of Dallas, where a single bullet determined whether there would be meat on the table. The first time he encountered the enemy on Sicily he shot two fleeing Italian officers off their horses. Both York and Murphy were Medal of Honor recipients.
The unpleasantness in Korea 60 years ago eventually devolved into a static war and a hunting ground for snipers. The newspapers of the time (I read them) told of an American sniper taking on a Chinese shooter who was killing American troops. He had a buddy named Friday, and the two of them worked out a plan. They needed to make the enemy shooter reveal his position, so our guy got into position, and Friday exposed himself briefly. The enemy took the bait and was killed by the American sniper.
The “Vietnam Conflict” saw a resurgence in sniper tactics. The legend of that brief encounter was Marine Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock:
Hathcock only once removed the white feather from his bush hat while deployed in Vietnam. During a volunteer mission days before the end of his first deployment, he crawled over 1,500 yards of field to shoot a high-ranking NVA officer. He was not informed of the details of the mission until he accepted it. This effort took four days and three nights, without sleep, of constant inch-by-inch crawling. Hathcock said he was almost stepped on as he lay camouflaged with grass and vegetation in a meadow shortly after sunset. At one point he was nearly bitten by a bamboo viper but had the presence of mind to avoid moving and giving up his position. As the officer exited his encampment, Hathcock fired a single shot that struck the officer in the chest, killing him.
Hathcock is also known for killing an NVA sniper who had already killed several Marines. Waiting for the enemy to show himself, he saw a glint of light and shot that. His bullet went through the scope of the enemy’s rifle and into his head. Director Steven Spielberg recreated this event in Saving Private Ryan, when he has Private Daniel Jackson shoot a German sniper through the German’s scope.
Hathcock had 93 confirmed kills in the war. The NVA put a $30,000 bounty on his head, and he killed every sniper that came to try for the prize. He died of natural causes in 1999.
Today’s snipers serve in the Marines, the Army Special Forces and in the Navy SEALs. I have previously recounted the story behind American Sniper Chris Kyle.
The legend continues. Notably, a SEAL team was called in to put down the high jacking of the American-flagged merchant ship Maersk Alabama. With the captain, Richard Phillips, being held hostage in a ship’s lifeboat adrift off the coast of Africa, SEAL snipers were airlifted aboard the guided missile destroyer Bainbridge. One of the four pirates was conned into coming aboard the Bainbridge, leaving only three on the lifeboat. When all three shooters announced they were on target the order was given and three shots took down the three pirates. The Maersk Alabama captain was rescued, and the remaining pirate is now serving a 99-year term in an American prison. The movie Captain Phillips dramatizes the events.
On cable TV The History Channel regularly features stories about historical and modern snipers. Police in the United States and in other countries employ sharpshooters to handle cases involving hostages and barricaded desperadoes. When things get slack I will post some of these stories. Keep reading.