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Counting latrines to estimate rear area troop strength?


Felix C
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Hello everyone,

I was reading regarding a WW2 battle (Tarawa to be exact)  and it was mentioned the garrison was estimated by counting latrines as was done in WW1 to count German rear echelon reserve troop strength.

If this is correct does anyone know what the formula was used? How many men per seat or stall?

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Felix,

Your joking right?

How would they know a trench four foot long was for four soldiers or forty

There was no way to know unless your sat and counted each man they sat down?

I mean as a NCO I ordered my soldiers to dig these in most cases one (seat) or two for the Troop or 40 men.

No officers seat?

So how would you know a one seat was for one or 100 men?

I think some one is pulling your left testicale

S.B

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Counting latrines to estimate troop strength actually did occur at Tarawa in 1943. Good sources including one of the officers, Colonel Shoup, who was in the attack planning.  What was unknown if this technique was used in WW1 to count German rear echelon strength.  I found the topic intriguing and thought to ask here. Have to admit I am impressed with cleverness of Entente intelligence efforts in this war. (WW2 as well on the Allied side) So it did not seem far fetched.

Pardon the hilarity. I actually had a testicle accidentally yanked during Martial Arts class decades ago and I assure you having a testicle pulled incites intense vomiting. And fetal position, and... 

Edited by Felix C
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Counting latrines on aerial photos doesn't sound improbable to me.

Would not some sort of formula have been used in, er, reserve areas (which would not have had the constraints of the front line), so as to provide x amount of latrine capacity for y number of men in z amount of space?  

I bet there's a British Army handbook or two dealing with encampments and latrines.

With a good quality photograph or, preferably, photographs over a period of time (so as to see latrines being dug and closed), and a suitable enlargement or magnifier, surely it would be possible to make a fairly educated guess at how many people were using it?   The number of tents in an encampment might give a clue as to how many men were there, but one would expect there to be corresponding latrine activity too.

Now to find some references...

 

Edited by pierssc
Pressed send too soon!
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7 minutes ago, pierssc said:

Counting latrines doesn't sound improbable to me.

Would not some sort of formula have been used in, er, reserve areas which would not have had the constraints of the front line, so as to provide x amount of latrine capacity for y number of men in z amount of space?  

I agree.   Or -- given that we are talking about armies - might there not have been a standard training manual/set of instructions/instructions for NCOs (standard operating procedure type of thing) upon which such intelligence estimates might be based. Plenty of more recent examples of such activities.

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I'm on my Ipad just now and struggling to read "Notes on the interpretation of aeroplane photographs" on archive.org as it keeps resizing.  Someone without a touchscreen may have better luck.

https://archive.org/details/notesoninterpre00corpgoog/page/n24/mode/2up

There's an old thread at https://www.greatwarforum.org/topic/63883-photo-interpretation/ which includes a post by @StevieB 

"I used to be a Photographic Interpreter in RAF (first Gulf War era) and to be honest the techniques developed during the Great War have changed very little than those taught today with regards to aerial photographs. It basically follows 5 basic pricinples: Shape, Size, Shadow, Shade & Surroundings. One of the most important features when looking at trench photos is Shadow. Much more information can be gathered from a photo when the sun is shining in oblique, rather than overhead, as you can often gain more info from the shadows being cast than trying to look at that object itself.

Interestingly, stereoscopes were used more and more during the Great War. They had been around since the American Civil War and were a common Victorian parlour toy, but the military soon saw them as a useful tool. Put simply, by taking photos with a slight overlap, and placing them with an together whilst viewed through the lens (the stereoscope) the eye puts together a pseudo-3D image which as you can imagine is great for looking at trench systems, gun emplacements etc.

I have a soem examples in my collection and it never ceases to amaze me the clarity of some of these hand held images."

 

 

Edited by pierssc
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There's a very interesting US Army technical manual "Tactical Interpretation of air photos" from 1954 online at https://maritime.org/doc/photo-interp/index.php#pg45 from which I found the following section which I think is worth quoting from at length.  Ok, 1954 is a bit after the GW, but if interpretation techniques emerged during the GW, and were (in StevieB's opinion) fundamentally very little changed in the 1990s, this advice from 1954 may nevertheless have its roots in WW1. [Edit] It is a matter of recognising small details and making educated deductions from them.  If Stevebecker's men dug one seat for less than a whole troop, and two for 40 men, then that would tell somebody something, wouldn't it, if they could identify the latrine?  

 

CHAPTER 8
AUXILIARY INSTALLATION
Section I. GENERAL 
 
191. Introduction

Auxiliary installations are structures or facilities utilized in the support or service of artillery, armor, infantry, or supply and service units. Some of them have been introduced in previous chapters among the identification characteristics of other subjects. This chapter expands the treatment of these and deals in detail with others not previously considered.  
 

192. Importance

Interpretation of auxiliary installations is important not only because of their own value as targets but because they indicate the presence of the units they support or service, thereby aiding in the identification of the units.

.....

Bivouacs

202. Identification Characteristics and Techniques

a. Location. Bivouacs of frontline units are located close to the rear of the MLR or line of defense. Reserve units will bivouac farther to the rear. Reconnaissance or combat patrols on overnight missions may bivouac somewhere in front of the MLR when necessary.

b. Type of Site. Bivouacs are usually located in woods, orchards, buildings, ravines, or draws that provide-

(1) Cover and concealment.

(2) Room for dispersal of men, vehicles, and equipment.

(3) A network of roads and trails, or terrain capable of bearing personnel and vehicular movement.

(4) Natural obstacles for protection against attack.

(5) Water supply, especially in arid areas.

c. Spoil. Freshly dug earth from foxholes, personnel and vehicle shelters, trenches, garbage pits, trash pits, and latrines will, by the light tone of spoil marks, reveal the bivouac unless concealed by natural (trees, brush) or manmade cover (camouflage, buildings).

d. Tracks. Troops bivouacked under cover of trees often become careless in obliterating track marks or controlling movement. This movement of vehicles in, out, and through the area, and the movement of personnel, in and out of the bivouac, and between the personnel shelters, vehicles, equipment, latrines and kitchens, will beat down the grass and small shrubs, and wear off the surface material causing trackmarks or paths. Frequently these can be seen on air photos through the leaf cover and in bare patches between trees, revealing the presence of the bivouacking troops.

e. Equipment. Trucks, trailers, tanks, artillery, and engineer equipment are bulky and can be detected when studied under the stereoscope if not properly dispersed, or if the tree cover is too thin.

f. Litter. Troops occupying an area usually leave small holes, broken shrubs, uprooted or crushed-down grass, paper, cans, and other odds and ends, which cause an untidy appearance easily detected on air photos.

g. Shelters. These vary from slit trenches or foxholes with covering of individual tents, ponchos, or tree branches, to fairly elaborate shelters or bunkers, depending upon the length of occupancy.

h. Related Features. Bivouacs contain garbage pits, latrines, field kitchens, and sometimes large recreation tents and headquarters shelters. The extent of these depends upon the size of the unit and the length of the occupancy.

i. Comparative Cover. No matter how small a unit or how short the stay, there will be some change to the surrounding terrain that can be detected through comparative study. Spoil marks, tracks, litter, and other signs of occupancy will increase with the length of the occupancy. An estimate of the size of the unit and the length of the stay can be made by the progressive study of the area and recording of changes.

j. Night Photography. Night photos of suspected areas aid the photo interpreter in the detection of bivouacs. This is due to the tendency of troops to bunch up at night, and the overconfidence in the protective cover of darkness.

Edited by pierssc
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Mate,

Yes Shoup, is well known, he was in the John Wayne movie on the Marines, that showed the landing.

But also the poor Intel, that killed so many Marines that morning when stuck on the reef, not the best Intel if counting boggers was the way they did it.

I am sorry boys but are you honestly saying that its away to check numbers of Troops by counting droppings?

We once went throw a Field shower unit (Moblie Bath) where some 120 men + in my Sqn, went in rushes of forty into four (4) shower sprigs for a quick two minute drench.

So would say, a four foot trench, keep one or 200 men happy, and how could you possibly say how many were using it?

Would that also include those who while not with our unit like visiters?

So if you use this method, then I know why enemy strenght states are so wrong

S.B

Edited by stevenbecker
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As a piece of infrastructure that would have had a scaling per man or unit I can see this technique being entirely logical for rear areas and for units battalion size and up.  It wouldn’t be the single source of information of course; tentage, horses, messing facilities, signature pieces of equipment etc would all be used. It would also be effected by the location ie a brigade in the open or one in a town or village.   In a world  with very limited SIGINT and HUMINT, getting a picture of German rear area concentrations or build ups would have relied heavily on aircraft and imagery. Something like latrines which could be easily observed from above are an appropriate scaling item.

 

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8 hours ago, stevenbecker said:

So would say, a four foot trench, keep one or 200 men happy, and how could you possibly say how many were using it?

The 1954 document puts it well

"the movement of personnel, in and out of the bivouac, and between the personnel shelters, vehicles, equipment, latrines and kitchens, will beat down the grass and small shrubs, and wear off the surface material causing trackmarks or paths. Frequently these can be seen on air photos through the leaf cover and in bare patches between trees, revealing the presence of the bivouacking troops."

The number of troops could be estimated by the amount of wear and tear over a known period of time between photographs.  And how often a new trench had to be dug.  But it is just one factor.

Edited by pierssc
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Provision of latrines  is a a very important factor in staff planning. For men living in field the all of the basic functions taken for granted in civilian life, eating, sleeping and going to the toilet, all need to be planned and provided when living in a trench. It still holds true in  modern times. I still remember one of the first lessons taught about living in the field was apersonal latrine should be 9 inches square. 

Iinformation regarding the provision of Latrines is outlined In the Field Service Pocket Book (Chapter  Sct 10). As it points out "The importance of disease on field servive cannot be over-estimated" .  

The formula it gives is "a latrine trench should be 3 feet long, 1 foot wide and 1 foot deep the interspace between each trench being 2 1/ feet. Five trenches will suffice for 100 men per day"

I would think that this planning would continue into the war as the continious trench system emerged and there are probably references somewhere.

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Surely this is a case where a bit of common sense would do to give an indication of numbers.

If you see on a photo that the latrine is a single seater, you can deduce that not many men are there.

On the other hand, if one photo shows a long trench, latrine type being dug on one day, and then the next photo shows another being dug two days later, you can say that there are a lot of men around somewhere.

Trying to be exact is the curse of estimating.

Remember that the economists of the Wilson government in 1964 were astounded that putting up the duty on whisky brought in no more money. "Economics" said it should. Of course, the populace had changed to other spirits that had a lower duty. To their great surprise.

I forget who it was who said that an educated guess was worth far more than a carefully calculated error.

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In the end it’s all about bums on seats. The major  problem with the theory for the enemy occurs when the user unit has an outbreak of diarrhoea. There are statistics and statistics.

 

TR

Edited by Terry_Reeves
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Mate,

Still not OK with this method.

While in Recon Cavalry, I once found an enemy camp in the jungle, all the signs were there of a number of men, while whole numbers can never be 100%, what was interesting was in the hole used as a thunderbox, we found a piece of paper with writting, I was later told it was a picket list for the group. we also found carved into a tree, some writting, which we copied and also sent in.

Now we didn't know how many used that camp and crapper, possibly around twenty or more less in the last 24 hours , and yes that was a guess or in the cavalry, a guess ter mation.

S.B

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The Tarawa forecast was quite close to the actual number on the island. Just FYI. 

 

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Mate,

Possibly, but the around twenty men I mentioned, was not from the single hole used as a crapper, but the sleeping posies we found, unless some were doubling up or in hamocks.

By the way, our intel enabled the Task Force to lay ambushes on there probele route, a few days later they were caught and most killed, from what we found.

Sh-- happens

S.B

Edited by stevenbecker
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Steve, you are surely not pooh-poohing (sorry, I couldn't resist) that aerial reconnaissance played any part in WW1 or any subsequent conflict?  

Your example - yes of course you're right, all you could say is that there had been a relatively low number of enemy in that particular spot, probably not more than 20, though there might have been more or fewer than that.  Men too who knew that they might be subject to aerial and perhaps ground reconnaissance by your side and so sought to frustrate it and conceal their strength by keeping their footprint as inconspicuous as possible.  You came to that conclusion by looking at what you found, and what you found in your experience pointed to a force of 20 or so.    If you'd found multiple latrines there full of fresh human waste, consistent with 500 men having been there for a week until that morning, I expect you'd have been reporting back pretty sharpish that the enemy had recently been there in strength.  You'd have gathered hugely important intelligence from your patrol, largely thanks to the compelling evidence of the latrine, even if other evidence pointed to a different conclusion.  As it was, the latrine use you actually found was consistent with your analysis of the sleeping posies that you were dealing with a relatively small force.  Those things combined with any other evidence you found there enabled you to form a judgment and report accordingly.  Action was taken. Well done.

So you did establish the number of enemy troops partly from the evidence of the latrine, didn't you?  Not very precisely, sure, but accurately enough.

The original question in the opening post was whether it would be possible to judge the strength of Enemy units in reserve from the number of latrines in a camp, when planning a battle, and whether this was done in WW1.  In other words trying to establish how many battalions, brigades, even divisions, are in camps or billets over the hill, and ready either to come and attack your guys, or to mess up your own plan of attack.  Thousands of them.  Would your troops be attacking in sufficient strength?  Will they be rolling up the enemy line by mid-day or subject to immediate ferocious counter-attack which may rollup YOUR line?  You can't send a patrol of Cavalry to do a recce in those areas to count the enemy for obvious reasons.   But you have aeroplanes which can fly over the lines. Taking pictures was a major part of the RFC's job.  So you send some rather slow aeroplanes with cameras which fly up and down over the areas you are interested in, taking photographs.  The enemy don't like that and try to stop them by AA fire or by sending their own aircraft to interfere.  Hopefully some of yours get back with some good pictures.  Other people then look at those pictures in great detail to see if they can work out anything useful from them.  They take as many clues as they can find in the photos to try to come to an informed guess as to how many people are down there.  They're not just looking at latrines.  They're looking at anything and everything which could help., and they're comparing the pictures with other pictures to see what's different.

Of course the enemy won't want you to know this information, and so may try to mask their presence as far as they can.  But they may still be setting out their fixed camps according to the handbook, with so many yards of latrine trench per set number of men, because they don't want insanitary conditions to result in sickness to their men.  They may try to mislead you, making the job of analysis harder.  So your intelligence people try even harder to look for the smallest details which may help to prove that something is (or isn't) what it seems.  This might include a higher use of latrines somewhere than you would expect, suggesting that there may be more people there than meets the eye, or a lower one, suggesting that there may not in fact be as many there as might appear.  Sometimes your interpreters are right, sometimes wrong.  Occasionally the latrine might be the key evidence.

Isn't General Allenby famously credited with misleading the Turks about his intentions at the Battle of Megiddo?  He constructed camps in one area with apparently appropriate levels of activity in them in order to make his enemy think he was going to attack from there.  In fact he was building up in another area, taking great pains to conceal his troops.  I defer to you on this, because I know this is your area, but I wonder whether from your library you could find any indication that Allenby went to the level of ensuring there was appropriate activity in the fake camps (ie latrines being dug and filled in, though not used) and concealing such activity in the real ones - at least well enough to fool an enemy looking at a photograph taken at whatever height their aircraft operated at.  

 

 

 

  

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Mate,

All this alludes to the almost impossible way to gauge how many men are using a hole or trench in the ground.

We could of cause guess, that a four by six trench can hold Ex number of shi--ers, but that would be subjective and fraught with danger to rely of such a way of finding how many were there?

The Bn that caught my so called 20, found there were 16 mixed men and women and they were a carrying party with food and weapons. The extra sleeping areas was in fact where they placed the stores, so I was incorrect on a number of areas. But I leaned early that certain indercaters are not always 100%, what we surpose and think, is not always the right answer

Photos and such is a great way to see whats possibly out there, but the best way is feet on the ground, and the mark 1 eyeball.

S.B

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It may not especially help answer the original question, but in case it is of interest, in early 1916, 11th Division issued instructions to its units on the size, but not, as far as I recall,  the number of latrines for urine (4 feet cubed) and for excrement (9 feet long by 2 feet wide by 8 feet deep). The latter were to be used until they had been filled up by 5 feet in depth before being sealed off.

Given that the division was in the desert at the Suez Canal at the time where the units recorded temperatures up to 114 degrees F, I pity both those who had to dig such trenches, and those who ended up down wind of them. 

David.

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Just FYI, For the Tarawa example it was 64 ORs per hole. I understand from a WW2 US researcher there are different methodologies for latrine manpower calculation. Depends on the doctrine of the army being observed. 

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Felix,

Thanks for the numbers they gave.

I was thinking about the number of holes we dig, when in a base camp, not all for defercation.

Rubbish holes/trenches and others around the mess areas, can be dug and would used by many soldiers, not to mention the defence trenches

They were good the pick out the possible uses of all those trenches.

While most accounts of Tarawa all say around 5000 Jap soldiers held the Island, although a mate who grew up near there on the Islands of Naru and Ocean (his father worked for a bird poo Company) said the landing was not at Tarawa but another island named Bailul or something like that?

But who knowns

S.B

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Betio is the proper name of the island. Tarawa is the atoll name. I suppose the latter sounds more masculine and foe worthy. As when on tv narrators say Wehrmacht and mean Heer. 

Edited by Felix C
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  • 1 month later...

Highly amusing.  There are other issues that have not been discussed, though someone came close.   Having had to use a variety of field facilities, so to speak, during my time as an Australian infantryman in the 70's/80's, I feel qualified to off the cuff talk about this.

First, location, are we discussing tench crappers, or rear are latrines.    Digging a sh*t pit as described in FSR's during trench warfare would have been illogical, as they would effectively have been digging a new one for every platoon every day or so, and where are they going to be dug?  Not in my trench sunshine.   It would bring new meaning to indiscriminate cr*ppers after a while, particularly after bombardments, though that would have contributed to Belgium soil fertility.   Trench cra**ers, the diagrams I have seen describing the location indicates a branch of a communications trench.   Noting this and because of the period of occupation I would imagine that "thunder boxes" were the preferred solids toilet, as digging the necessary hole and space off a communications trench every few days would be futile.   Far better to put a lid on the s**t tin and send it back with the ration/work party (No not for return to the Coy cook).   The second issue most have ignored is the necessity for fluid waste, indiscriminate p'ing is nearly as bad as indiscriminate ***pping.   The most common way I have seen of addressing the problem is p*ssaphones, a long strip of sheetmetal rolled into a horn shape.   However that would not have worked well on the Western Front with its high water level, so I imagine a latrine tin repurposed as p*ss pot would have met the need and been removed by work part daily.    I would also suggest that similar facilities would have been required in the personnel bunkers, so a thunder box and spare cans with lids for both solid and fluid waste.

As for behind front line battalions I am sure there would be Engineer-In-Chief instructions for building communal cr*ppers and serial p*ssaphones, for the hoi polo and officers, who wants to make conversation with their CSM/OC, and vice a versa whilst trying to strain one out.  The further back you go the more detailed and permanent the facilities.

Now in more modern times I am reminded of two stories, which show some of the issues relating to life in the trenches, and for GWF Pals amusement:  First 1978, an RAE drill rig was brought in to dig communal latrines for our battalion on an exercise, the battalion was in area defence, so each rifle company had a hole drilled about 15 metres deep, that was to last for about two weeks. At the end of the second week whilst the battalion was doing mechanised ops training, the RAE Fd Sqn practiced demolitions on the battalions stage two defensive position, each troop had to demolish one different part of each company position with external charges to simulate an artillery barrage.  In one of the company's, the ginger beers dropped a few bags of AMFO down into a latrine with a C4 plastic explosive initiating charge.  If they were trying to show a delayed action shell,  am not sure they backfilled the hole.  Even if they had the fill would have been loose, in comparison to the rock hard ground surrounding it.   If you imagine that the explosives settled to the bottom of the hole when they fired the charge and the 15 metre long hole about 50cms diameter, acted like a blow pipe with little white markers spread for hundreds of metres around the hole, you can imagine the joy of the infantrymen on their return who had to fill in their rifle pits.   The second, during 1981 (K81) the company I was in did a relief-in-place and took over a position from a USMC company.   At one of the platoon positions a soldier, the platoon signaller(?), jumped into a pit just behind a pair of pits,  unfortunately he landed in a "straddle pit" apparently jarheads didn't like going forward of their pits in the Australian boosh, and didn't dig narrow latrines like we/Brits did, hence the straddle pit name.   So you can imagine the consequences of said facilities in the trenches.

 

Cheers, Chris

 

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