28 February 1915 – Storm Troopers

Before dawn this morning near St. Eloi in Belgium, one hundred men of 4th Company, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry — a volunteer unit raised with private funds and trained at Salisbury Plain near Stonehenge — exit their trenches in silence and rush as one upon a German forward sap in a former farm field just a dozen yards away. The first thirty men carry rifles, and are supported by a handful of men with grenades. The rest carry shovels.

The fight is brief and one-sided, with five Canadians killed and eleven wounded. Following a plan devised in training with their British colleagues (see above), by the time German reinforcements are dispatched to the scene the raiders have already destroyed the ninety-foot trench, killed or captured its defenders, and returned to their own lines. It is not the first trench raid of the Great War; that distinction actually belongs to an Indian unit near Givenchy in November. But it is the latest example of small-scale operations being undertaken on the Western Front, for all combatants are trying to innovate their way out of the deadlock of trench warfare.

Commanders are reducing their expectations, aiming their attacks for very limited objectives in order to conserve force. While this reduces the massive casualty lists of past months, it perversely extends the war while these new tactics are tried, proven, spread, applied, modified, and accumulated into a whole new way of war.

Canadian troops

Canadian troops show off leather pickelhaube helmets and furs they have captured in a trench raid. Via the Canadian War Museum

The bloody, useless assaults by whole divisions or corps of infantry across broad fronts must be replaced with new ways to put infantry on objectives, restoring mobility and the opportunity for victory. Yet in order to answer this challenge — on the largest battlespace in human history, featuring the most modern weapons ever devised and the largest armies ever fielded — the combatants are experiencing an unexpected reprise of ancient techniques and technologies.

One of the first new weapons devised for trench raiding is a club or mace. A common method of constructing these involved repurposing the handle of an entrenching tool with an iron sprocket, creating a deadly weapon that can also be used to subdue an enemy for capture. Taking prisoners is in fact a primary operational goal of trench-raiding, as prisoners provide intelligence that can be exploited by commanders. Moreover, bashing brainpans is much quieter than gunfire, preserving the element of surprise. Trench raiders are deliberately trying to have the sort of unfair, close-quarters, hand-to-hand fight that requires a hand weapon, but it’s hard to swing four feet of rifle and bayonet in a narrow communication trench.

Trench armor

Experimental trench fighting gear included Matrix-ready body armor, eye protection, and helmets. Via Christopher Eger

Every army will consider ideas for this renaissance of armor, most famously Britain. Like the Landships Committee, which will produce the nation’s first armored vehicles, a variety of personal protective and fighting equipment is being considered by the British Army, which is only beginning to hit full stride in the wartime arms race. Meanwhile, specialized troops are already appearing in the mountains of France, Italian Arditi will try to break the deadlock in Tyrolean heights, and German Sturmtruppen (literally, ‘storm troopers’) have been fighting in the Argonne under a young Erwin Rommel since the end of January. Canadians will develop such a strong reputation for trench raiding — apparently crossing open ground and barbed wire like ghosts — that Germans will begin referring to them as ‘storm troopers.’

These specialized forces are the tactical ancestors of our modern special forces. The word ‘commando,’ derived from the Afrikaans word for a light infantry regiment, arrives on the Western Front with a South African army, and becomes a common term for operations like the one conducted today.

Brodie Helmet

Based on the medieval chapel de fer, the Brodie helmet is the only piece of body armor put into full-scale mass production