Trench Raids – Tools of the Trade

Today we continue our series on Trench Raids. (See last week’s post here).

In this brutal environment, a number of factors led to the development of improvised weaponry for use in trench raiding. Economically, the wartime industry was already overwhelmed with maintaining pace in weapon and munitions production. The thought of adding to that workload was simply inconceivable. Additionally, the nature of trench raids required the ability for stealth, but also sheer viciousness once engaged in close quarters combat. Consequently, long, unwieldy and loud rifles simply were not practical.

The Push Dagger – Used in trench raids when soldiers might experience hand-to-hand combat, the handle was placed perpendicular to the double edged blade to allow maximum force in a thrusting attack.
Credit: CWM 20060208-001.
The Spiked Trench Club – The head of this trench club is formed from wound steel cable, studded with nails. The nail heads have been cut off to form blunt spikes.
© IWM (WEA 3069).
The Trench Club – This club was fashioned from the handle of an entrenching tool, modified with an eight-pointed cast-iron ring, similar to a cogwheel.
Credit: CWM 19620071-013.

In response, raiding parties had battalion carpenters and armourers begin fashioning improvised weaponry that suited their needs. Many of these crude weapons drew frightening inspiration from medieval warfare. The trench club was one such example – variously fitted with nails, cogwheels or iron studs. The French Nail was a stabbing weapon fabricated from its namesake, an iron nail, bent round into a handle with its point sharpened. Other knives and push daggers were fashioned from discarded bayonets.

Trench Raids – Dirty Tricks

The first trench raid made by Canadian troops is believed to have taken place on 28 February 1915, by Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 88). At the time, trench raids were still small but efficient strikes by groups numbering from a couple dozen to one hundred men. In a war faltered to a standstill, trench raids provided the opportunity for those willing, to get at the enemy in daring operations. Consequently, raiding parties were regarded with an air of both extreme danger and boldness.

“A raiding party of the 10th Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) waiting in nap for the signal to go. John Warwick Brooke, the official photographer, followed them in the sap, into which a shell fell short killing seven men. Near Arras, 24 March 1917”. © IWM (Q 5098).

The men who made up raiding parties came from all walks of life – many would have volunteered for the job, but undoubtedly others were coerced by their comrades to tag along. Simply put, trench raiders needed to be both brutally vicious and exceptionally restrained and self-reliant. Crawling through no man’s land, beneath and over barbed wire, ready to fight at a moment’s notice was not for the faint of heart. Brutal, dirty trickery was also a necessity in order to survive. While the Germans were known to booby-trap potential souvenirs and corpses with explosives, Lieutenant Louis Keene of a Canadian Machine Gun Company reveals the Canadians were just as nasty.

When his men learned the Germans actually liked the cans of bully beef fed to Commonwealth troops, they began to throw cans of it over into the German lines:

“Throw one over… sounds like shuffling and getting out of the way are heard in the enemy trench. Fritz thinks it’s going to go off [as a grenade]. Pause, and throw another. Fritz not so suspicious this time. Keep on throwing until happy voices from enemy trenches shout, ‘More! Give us more!’ Then lob over as many hand grenades as you can pile into that part of the trench and tell them to share those too.” (Cook, Shock Troops – Canadians Fighting The Great War 1917-1918, p. 56).

“A raiding party of the 1/8th (Irish) King’s Liverpool Regiment, 55th Division, at Wailly, France. Photograph taken the morning after a night raid during the 17/18th April 1916”. © IWM (Q 510).