It’s quiet. The battle has died down for a moment and the men are relaxing in the trenches as much as they are able to. The captain walks over to you with a smile on his face and begins to tell you a funny story when he suddenly pauses. His face goes blank, and he crumples dead to the ground. Shot in the head by an enemy sniper. I’m Indy Neidell. Welcome to a great war special episode about snipers during the first world war. By the fall of 1914 the war of motion on the Western Front had degenerated into stalemate. And the individual battles could last for months. There were hours and even days of lulls between the surges and counter surges. And a main feature of these lulls was the single man silently observing the enemy trenches with his rifle. Germany, Austria-Hungary and France went to war in July 1914 with Jäger or Chasseur units, light infantry with a long tradition of woodland combat who were skilled in camouflage, observation and patience. Russia and Britain on the other hand entered the war without doctrines for individual marksmanship and sharpshooters and without telescopic sights for their rifles. And this soon was a big issue. The German Army issued a lot of commercial hunting rifles made by Walther and Mauser to the infantry in 1914. They were not of a high military standard and had an effective accuracy of only 300 meters (900 feet). But they worked well enough for the moment, especially here the trenches were very close to each other. By the end of the year though, they had supplied over 15,000 Gewehr 98 rifles with telescopic sights and a range of a kilometer. 3,000 feet. Well a little bit more but you could do the math yourselves. These were issued to the best marksmen of a battalion, who was often someone who had been a forest guard, hunter or policeman in civilian life. These men most often sniped alone, although they were allowed to work in pairs. They had no fixed location and could even go into no-man’s land. Their sights and binoculars, made by world masters like Zeiss, Goerz, or Hensoldt, gave them a significant advantage over the British in trench warfare, who had pretty much none of these weapons at this time. On one day, in one trench segment early in 1915, the British lost 18 men to German Sniper fire. A single sniper could easily score 40 or more kills before he was dealt with. “Being dealt with” at that time usually meant shelling the area with field guns since there was no real counter sniping ability. It wasn’t just on the western front either. At Gallipoli, Turkish snipers though not often equipped with telescopic sights, were masters of camouflage, and shot from behind bushes, tall grass, or rock formations, making life hell, and inflicting heavy casualties on the ANZACs on the beaches and lower slopes below. The ANZACs for their part had an immensely gifted Sniper there in the person of Billy Sing a Chinese Australian marksman, nicknamed the Assassin. His official kill tally there was 150, but there are estimates as high as 300 men killed. One of the first British officers who determined to improve British sharp shooting was Major Hesketh Prichard of British intelligence. He was a big-game hunter and not only brought his own telescopic hunting rifles to the frontlines, but bought many others to outfit the troops. But you know, just giving a soldier a rifle with a telescope and saying use this was a death sentence. Amateurs were very quickly killed by the enemy. They had no training in camouflage and soon gave their positions away. Or just put their rifles over the top of the parapets exposing themselves to German snipers. Those German snipers by 1915 had a complex system of cover. They made their parapet deliberately uneven using sandbags and debris. They built metal shields with holes in them for firing through. They covered each other’s flanks. They built concrete sniping posts. Hesketh Prichard would have to educate the British if they were to have any chance of competing. With the help of colonel Langford Lloyd, e established the first army sniping school and began taking recommended volunteers. There he taught the essentials of sniping. One: before even thinking about shooting you must know your rifle far better than basic training taught. You couldn’t just screw on a telescope and think you’ll hit anything either. Sights were very sensitive and must be adjusted and corrected regularly. The focusing sleeve and object glass must be kept clean. And after six or seven hundred shots the wear on the rifle ruined accuracy Also, German snipers kept their rifles; the British had to give theirs to an NCO after their shift. That had to go. Two: British Snipers would work in teams of two: one with a rifle and one with binoculars. In the trenches, speed was the key since a target only showed himself briefly. One bit of training was to have the man look through binocular for 15 seconds and then write down everything he could remember. You want to know how important this was? Captured German snipers said they could identify British officers because they had skinnier legs than the enlisted men. “There are hundreds and hundreds of our officers lying dead in France whose death was solely due to the cut of their riding breeches.” The observers work was of immense value in the trenches. Three: they learned the basics of camouflaging themselves and their rifles. Rifles could be wrapped in sandbags and lenses shaded from reflection for example. Sniper lairs were effective, but once spotted they were huge targets. Four: the shooting itself. You could not call yourself a sniper unless you could get off a shot within two seconds of sighting the target. Even a rookie wouldn’t stick up his head from more than that long. Judging the wind or the distance was not only difficult it was vital to success. And the smallest alteration to the ballistic could ruin the shot. On offense the sniper’s job was to target enemy machine gunners or forward artillery observers. And when a trench was captured he was to pin the enemy into the next trench to deter counter-attacks Hesketh Prichard was proud of his work and even wrote in his book Sniping in France: “It was exactly as if a party of really capable sportsmen were shooting an area for big game, or better still, Scottish forest deer. Imagine these sportsmen replaced by careless and ignorant tourists. The ground would inevitably be maltreated. the wrong beasts shot, corries shot when the wind was unfavorable all the deer stampeded into the next forest. Of course in this case the deer did not stampede, but… shot back.” By mid nineteen sixteen, the British sniper was as skilled and experienced as his German counterpart. And German snipers consequently became more careful and shied away from what had earlier been without risk. Both sides now used lures and decoy dummy heads to pinpoint enemy sniper positions, and then take him out. The British even used elephant guns to shoot through the German metal sniper shields. It was a very dangerous game. If you’re wondering, the sniper with the most kills in the war on all sides was the first nation soldier Francis Pegahmagabow who fought for Canada. He had 378 confirmed kills and captured over 300 more men during the war. I’m sure you noticed that most of the talk today was about British sniping development. The French and Germans had similar schools, but they’re not so well documented and as to the Russians I got nothing. Other nations had their own doctrines, but material is either unavailable or in languages we do not understand, which is unfortunate, but that’s how it is. If you know more about sniping on the Italian Front, for example, get in touch with Flo, our social media manager. Today was just a brief introduction to the world of the modern sniper, whose talent and patience have been vital to the conduct not only of this war, but pretty much all of them ever since. Thanks to Marcus our research assistant for the research on this episode. If you want to know more about the best sniper of World War I, click right here for our bio special about click right here for our bio special about. For more great pictures of World War I snipers, follow us on Instagram and do not forget to subscribe. See you next time.