On 28th February 1915, 100 men from Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry raided German trenches in the dead of night. The raid was a success, destroying 30 metres of German positions near Ypres. Some sources claim that this was the first Trench Raid on the Western Front of The First World War (1). It was certainly the first Canadian raid and it marked the beginning of their acquiring a reputation as specialists in this field. By November 1915 they were planning larger raids. Lieutenant-Colonel Victor Odlum was responsible for adapting the techniques and a volunteer force of 170 men armed with grenades and Lewis guns totally overwhelmed a German trench, taking prisoners and suffering only two causalities themselves.
Benefits of the Trench Raid tactics
The trench raids were so effective for several reasons. First, they utilised methods that allowed ‘hit and run’ to take place. This meant that problems faced in large scale assaults could be overcome: smaller groups could evade being seen by machine-gun posts, navigate through the wire, identify small weak spots in defences etc. Second, the European powers simply weren’t used to raids of this nature. The British, French and Germans hadn’t used them and were ill-prepared to face them, so the advantage was with the attacker. Third, the adaptations to the trench raids were extremely high quality. It was Canadian trench raiding that led to the wider use of the creeping barrage as they had mastered the linkage of infantry and artillery on a smaller scale.
Official War Art: Night Raid
In this charcoal sketch by H.J. Mowat, six Canadians leave the trenches to go on a raid. Given the apparent absence of sandbags, they are possibly exiting from an advanced listening post. Under moonlight, they will thread through their own wire and into No Man’s Land before slipping through the enemy’s wire and launching their attack. Raids could involve only a few soldiers sneaking quietly forward, like the one depicted here, or several hundred attacking with coordinated support from the artillery, mortars, and machine-guns.
Sketch by H.J. Mowat
Beaverbrook Collection of War Art
Impact of Canadian Trench Raiding Methods
The success of the Canadian methodology was not just confined to raids. The concepts that they developed had an impact on larger attacks: Vimy Ridge was taken by Canadians using a creeping barrage and attacking using methods first tried out in the trench raids. Special Forces to this day use the idea of lightly armed groups of 8 men to hit targets fast, extract or destroy and leave before the enemy can respond.
Oral History: British Trench Raids
Trench Raids by other armies did not always use the methods that were developed by the Canadians:
They never used to ask for volunteers; they used to say you, you, you and you, and you were in the party. They usually went over in silence at night and you didn’t carry any equipment. All you carried was a rifle and bayonet, that’s if you were detailed for that. The parties were arranged like this: number one was the rifleman, he carried a rifle and bayonet and 50 rounds of ammunition and nothing else. The next man was a bomb thrower, a grenade thrower; he only carried a haversack which was full of Mills hand grenades. And the next man, he also was a bomb thrower, and he helped the first man replace his stock when he exhausted it. And the last man was a rifle and bayonet man and all he carried was a rifle and 50 rounds of ammunition and a bandolier slung over his shoulder – nothing else. Sidney Amatt of the London Regiment (Source)
(1) The Imperial War Museum cites Indian troops conducting small scale Trench raids on the Western Front in November 1914. Conversely, the Canadian Army website claims the above was the first such raid.