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Remembered Today:

Finding Out Who`s Opposite


PhilB
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A couple of queries on trench raids:-

1/ Identification of the opposing units was a prime object of trench raids - was there any other means of acquiring this information?

2/ If identification of opponents was of great value, why were Allied soldiers allowed to retain battalion/regimental/divisional emblems in line?

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Telescopes or binoculars?

The Germans did not, of course use "cap badges" in the British or French sense. Pickelhaube covers often had a number on them, but as far as I know, steel helmets were plain.

It would have been fairly difficult for the Germans to get much info on divisional, brigade and battalion shoulder flashes without access to some form of crib. Tunic buttons and, earlier in the war, cap badges might have told them the regiment but not the battalion.

Ron

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But how do you identify cap badges/shoulder flashes without a trench raid? :unsure:

You don't. That's one of the reasons why both sides conducted trench raids.

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Deserters, possibly, of course.

Listening posts dug out into NML might have picked up some information.

Regarding the question of badges/titles, etc, I recall reading that in the second outbreak, South African troops going to Italy were instructed to remove national insignia (such as the orange shoulder flash) to hide their nationality. Only two problems: by this stage, all British troops wore black boots, while the South Africans wore brown ... and, of course, the accent.

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It is of course the little details the intelligence chaps add up to make the bigger picture.

Regimental insignia can confirm other details but it is always the little things that add to that bigger picture. Anything unusual is reported up the line for analysis.

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Deserters, possibly, of course.

Listening posts dug out into NML might have picked up some information.

Regarding the question of badges/titles, etc, I recall reading that in the second outbreak, South African troops going to Italy were instructed to remove national insignia (such as the orange shoulder flash) to hide their nationality. Only two problems: by this stage, all British troops wore black boots, while the South Africans wore brown ... and, of course, the accent.

I would image in that to some extent the accent and dialect of German of the men in the trenches opposite would give an idea as to what part of Germany they were from.

Craig

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It did, but the Germans cottoned on and put a stop to it ...

In January 1916 the Intelligence Officer of AOK6 circulated the following:

"Intelligence gathering by the enemy

Prisoners confirm that the behaviour of our own troops frequently enables the enemy to gain insight into the Army’s order of battle. When men stand on the breastwork and shout across to the opposing trenches, the enemy has in many cases been able to identify them, at least as Bavarians, Saxons, etc. When combined with other forms of intelligence, this can give the enemy valuable information. All units must therefore ensure that such activities cease forthwith."

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Sometimes information was gleaned from loose tongues, by listening into the telephone networks of the enemy. I am sure too that there is a picture of a board kept at an HQ that showed the various captured insignia pinned to it. I believe it is within the pages of a book and perhaps someone else can also recall seeing it and give the title but I cannot remember which book it is.

However, on the raids, later in the war, the British went to great lengths to try and conceal the identify of the raiders. They made a point of trying at all costs to bring back any of their own wounded or killed and often took or had stretcher bearers on standby to recover men on a raid. They also issued special identity discs which were allocated and given before the raid. The number on the disc was traceable to the information on their own discs, which were handed in when they collected the special discs.

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It did, but the Germans cottoned on and put a stop to it ...

In January 1916 the Intelligence Officer of AOK6 circulated the following:

"Intelligence gathering by the enemy

Prisoners confirm that the behaviour of our own troops frequently enables the enemy to gain insight into the Army’s order of battle. When men stand on the breastwork and shout across to the opposing trenches, the enemy has in many cases been able to identify them, at least as Bavarians, Saxons, etc. When combined with other forms of intelligence, this can give the enemy valuable information. All units must therefore ensure that such activities cease forthwith."

Thanks - I imagined that they would have caught on but I've never seen anything specific in writing.

Craig

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One that tickles me- 15th August 1915, the Intelligence-Officer of 2/King's Own got into a conversation with the enemy and persuaded them to throw three newspapers over for him to read. The unit's name was written on the papers.

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It did, but the Germans cottoned on and put a stop to it ...

In January 1916 the Intelligence Officer of AOK6 circulated the following:

"Intelligence gathering by the enemy

Prisoners confirm that the behaviour of our own troops frequently enables the enemy to gain insight into the Army’s order of battle. When men stand on the breastwork and shout across to the opposing trenches, the enemy has in many cases been able to identify them, at least as Bavarians, Saxons, etc. When combined with other forms of intelligence, this can give the enemy valuable information. All units must therefore ensure that such activities cease forthwith."

Presumably the Brits also did some shouting and would have been able to be identified by regional accents, not least as quite a number of Germans had worked in the UK - often in hotels and restaurants as well as commercial trade. I've come across a couple of stories where the Germans have shouted asking how the local football team was getting on.

I wonder if there were similar attempts to stop the shouting?

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Hi Phil_B,

There were many ways in which information was gathered. However, a section from Sniping in France by Major H. Hesketh-Pritchard p.92 stands out in my mind:

"Once the Germans started (using) a new and large form of periscope, and we ceased destroying them at once the moment a clever observer found that with the telescope he could read the reflection of the numbers on the shoulder straps of the Germans who used them, thereby allowing us to identify the opposing unit with both comfort and ease".

Regards,

Michael.

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On the contrary, the capture of live prisoners and what was yielded during subsequent interrogations may have been very important. Sometimes the war diaries have snippets on information gleaned from interrogating captured prisoners. One that stands out for me from 1917, is a German prisoner captured, who sang like a canary. He said they knew all about the attack the British were planning on Cambrai because they had captured some men from an English division before the 51st took over and they had told them all they knew of the plans. The Brigadier was absolutely furious and wanted the men tracked down and tried after the war. I would have thought that the captured Englishmen would have known llittle of the plans but it seems from the information the Germans gleaned from them, they knew did know quite a bit of information to pass on.

Other useful information gained from captured prisoners would be the morale of the enemy and any planned handovers of the trenches in front of them.

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On the contrary, the capture of live prisoners and what was yielded during subsequent interrogations may have been very important. Sometimes the war diaries have snippets on information gleaned from interrogating captured prisoners. One that stands out for me from 1917, is a German prisoner captured, who sang like a canary. He said they knew all about the attack the British were planning on Cambrai because they had captured some men from an English division before the 51st took over and they had told them all they knew of the plans. The Brigadier was absolutely furious and wanted the men tracked down and tried after the war. I would have thought that the captured Englishmen would have known llittle of the plans but it seems from the information the Germans gleaned from them, they knew did know quite a bit of information to pass on.

Other useful information gained from captured prisoners would be the morale of the enemy and any planned handovers of the trenches in front of them.

Couldn't agree more- some of the information gained from prisoners and disseminated via Intelligence Summaries was of immense significance. The importance of trench raids needs to be viewed with 'military' rather than the 'civilian' values and is probably an argument that neither ethos will agree upon to meet in the middle. From the military perspective, soldiers should be predator rather than prey and any force that merely reacts to the enemy's raids comes into the latter category. Soldiers must 'know' that they are superior to their foe and if they are just on the receiving end, then the evidence suggests otherwise. Taking the initiative through raids helped foster aggression and improve soldierly skills and cohesion in a unit, which was of benefit in planned offensives and defensive actions.

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There is a story, though I don't know how accurate it is, that when a Scottish battalion took over some trenches, they were greeted with their own regimental march, played by a band in the German trenches opposite.

Regarding the question of badges/titles, etc, I recall reading that in the second outbreak, South African troops going to Italy were instructed to remove national insignia (such as the orange shoulder flash) to hide their nationality. Only two problems: by this stage, all British troops wore black boots, while the South Africans wore brown ... and, of course, the accent.

Broomers, have you been watching Ice Cold in Alex again? :lol:

Ron

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Any guesses as to how a German battalion might know, in advance, the identity of a relieving battalion opposite? :unsure:

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For much of the first couple of years of the war the Germans could effectively "tap" British field telephone lines by intercepting the return to earth. It took along time for the British to accept that this was happening and cut down on the chat on these lines. Staff officers tended to be very prolix, and in this early period everything was in the clear, you'll see in later war diaries that code names were given for units (and changed regularly).

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I may not have explained it very well, it's described in some detail in the "The Signal Service in the European War of 1914-1918 (France)", a scanned version of which can be found in the Internet Archive - https://archive.org/details/signalserviceine00prie.

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Another source of information was, of course, spies. In his book "Echo of the Guns" Siepeman, a british artillery officer in 1916 in a zone where the two front lines were not far apart, describes an incident when he had a surprise inspection by two staff officers who he was convinced afterwards were german imposters. He showed them round and answered all their questions. It was never proven that they were spies but his subsequent checks showed no staff officer inspection of the battery was planned. He concludes " But my reason for keeping my suspicions to myself were not so much a sneaking sympathy for the two masqueraders as the fear of being laughed at for causing a lot of fuss and bother about a cock-and-bull story"

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They were a bit blase about coming and going in the early period of the war. I would imagine the heard pipers in the area but yes I believe a German band played Blue Bonnets Over the Border or something like that. I believe the Jocks responded on the pipes with The Campbells are Coming.

8th Seaforth diaries 1 October 1917 records while monitoring the German communications, they overheard the Germans saying they had captured 5 men of the 8th Seaforth Highlanders. This is also recorded in the Bde. diary. One of the 5 was my granddad. Reading around the diaries during the whole period, the British were not allowed to take normal telephones any further forward that Brigade HQ. Fuller phones were to be used any further forward than that.

The raiders of both sides developed their own special weapons to take with them. The Germans had a particularly nasty one that involved a large, strong spring and a bolt.

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