World War 1 (Also known as The Great War) began on August 1. 1914 and ended on November 11. 1918. It was a global conflict that involved nations from Europe, the Middle East, North America, and the Asian continent. Battles were primarily fought in Europe, but there were also battles in the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Almost 10 million people were killed.
The terrible losses of WW1 are often connected to the technological advancements invented during the industrial era. Some say that it was the first industrial war where mass production played a major role. Technological advancements were a major problem for both sides of the war. Not only were soldiers poorly educated, but commanders had no idea how to adapt to new tactical systems. Scholars believe this to be the main reason why WW1 saw such a large number of casualties.
One such advancement was the invention of scoped snipers. Right from the Second Boer War, snipers had a reputation of being near-invisible and practiced high-precision shooting. This included not only shooting the rifle but also practicing map reading, observation, general field knowledge, knowledge of weather conditions, and of course military tactics.
Although snipers during the Second Boer War were not nearly as precise as they came to be, they were still feared immensely by opposing soldiers. They encountered what was more or less an invisible foe who was able to kill infantry while staying out of sight, and thereby out of reach.
Thus, when WW1 began and the snipers had acquired high-quality scopes, the infantry had to invent ingenious methods to outplay their invisible enemy in the trenches.
This article covers one such method – the infamous paper mâché heads.
World War 1 Sniper warfare
WW1 began with the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and became one of the greatest military conflicts in history. Not only were nations from all over the world involved, but the number of casualties was unprecedented. The most common assumption is that old-fashioned war tactics were combined with new industrial inventions, resulting in bloodbaths in the trenches.
Not only were infantry exposed to artillery and low precision riffle cascades from their enemy, but they were also exposed to high-precision high-caliber bullets fired from snipers hiding in the landscape.
The Germans were the first nation to take on snipers and their success prompted the British to follow. Regular infantry had almost zero way of detecting these snipers without looking over the trenches and risking their lives in the process. Thus, snipers became extremely feared among infantry in the trenches.
Where snipers in the past had relied primarily on their knowledge of their surroundings, the development of magnifying scopes made the job of finding and killing enemies a lot easier. They did, however, still skillfully use their training to their advantage. Snipers were ingeniously camouflaged and near invisible to the enemies’ men. Thus, they were key personnel for both sides, when attempting to detect enemy movements.
The snipers’ main job was to pay attention to troop movement and kill officers. Thus, snipers would often target high-ranking men from the opposing side. They did this by determining their status based on their uniforms. As for paying attention to troop movements, the snipers would look for troop movement and hit as many targets as possible, while keeping count on where they went and what state they were in. This way they could provide valuable insight into the opposing army.
Sniper decoys at the trenches
As Robert Graves notes in his autobiography “Good-Bye to All That”:
“The Germans had the advantage of having many times more telescopic sights than we did…”
Sniper-wise the Germans were way more advanced than the British at the beginning of WW1. Not only did they have better equipment, but their men were better educated on how to use their weapons. To avert some of the control that the German snipers had on the British infantry, they invented ingenious tactics to calculate where the German snipers were positioned.
One such tactic was to use paper mâché dummy heads, to draw the attention of the German snipers. Major Hesketh-Prichard describes it as such:
“When a German sniper was giving trouble, we selected a good place opposite to him, and drove two stakes into our own parapet until only about a foot of them remained uncovered. To these, we nailed a board on which was fashioned a groove that exactly fitted the stick or handle attached to the dummy head. This stick was inserted in the groove and the dummy head slowly pushed up above our parapet.”
He later remarks that they were able “to locate sixty-seven snipers out of seventy-one”. And by all standards, this must have been not only an ingenious invention but had also to have given the troops a massive boost of morale. Hesketh-Prichard even mentions this in his autobiography:
“It was not only the number of the enemy that our snipers shot that was so important. It was often the psychological moment at which they shot them that gave their work an extra value.”
The paper mâché material used was very cheap at the time, and the modeling of dummy heads was known from amusement parks and expositions all over the Western world. When the enemy became too accustomed to seeing these doll-heads, the British inserted a pipe through the stick that held the dummy head. This way they were able to light a cigarette and make it look like the doll-head was smoking, thus making it more life-like and harder to distinguish from the enemy.
When a dummy head had been hit, it was a simple matter of calculating the trajectory while counting how long it took from the hit to the sound of the shot. This way the distance and the direction could be calculated quickly and the enemy snipers’ position could be revealed.
The dummy heads were usually positioned where the infantry knew the opposing army was present. If the decoy revealed a sniper, he could be eliminated, and the troop movement could begin. If no sniper was revealed, then chances were good that they were clear to move the troops.
Did the sniper decoys work?
Certainly, as Hesketh-Prichard notes, the dummy heads had an effect. Despite the German snipers figuring out their own tactics to counter the British dummy heads, the use of dummy heads still gave the British a chance of discovering the otherwise invisible enemy snipers.
However, as the war evolved and new technology was invented to change the tide of the war, the use of doll-heads became less and less efficient. The enemy snipers began recognizing the heads – and the British kept changing them. It was a cat and mouse play with a deadly prospect.
To counter the dummy heads, the Germans began not only to use two snipers at the same location. One sniper would purposely shoot the decoy, while the other sniper waited for troop movements. This way – if the British hadn’t done their calculations right – the snipers could take out a large number of troops and force them to retreat. The goal was to demoralize the opponent, either by forcing them to retreat or kill their officers so that the troops didn’t have a leader.
However, even at the end of the war, dummy heads were still widely used which in turn tells us about how effective they actually were against the enemy.
So, yes. The dummy heads were a success. The French even expanded on the idea of paper mâché dummy heads and made a paper mâché horse carcass, which they were able to hide in for three days, watching and killing enemy troops.
Sniper Decoys today
Today dummy heads are rarely used. Modern equipment for detecting snipers has evolved substantially since past wars, meaning that dummy heads would need to outdo modern thermosensors, drones, and human intelligence in order to actually have any effect.
However, there have been modern examples of decoys that have actually worked. In the Iraqi wars, the enemy soldiers have been known to use live decoys to draw the ally’s attention away from enemy soldiers. This somewhat morbid use of human lives proved somewhat successful. An example is mentioned in a CBS News article from March 21, 2007, where two kids were placed in a car in Baghdad in order to hide, that the car was in fact a bomb. CBS News cites Maj. Gen. Michael Barbero said that:
“Children in the back seat lowered suspicion, (so) we let it move through, they parked the vehicle, the adults run out and detonate it with the children in the back.”
Using live decoys is an entirely different thing than using paper mâché decoys, but the above quote clearly shows, that decoys are still very usable even in modern warfare.
How do you detect snipers today?
As decoys today are rarely used, military personnel instead utilize the modern advanced technology to detect snipers on the battlefield.
In the U.S. an entire department is dedicated to research on bullets, inventing new methods of detecting bullet trajectories from infrared light and acoustics. While it may sound fancy and highly technological, using light and sound to calculate trajectories is by no means a new thing. It was exactly this, that the dummy heads were used for during WW1.
Today, dummy heads have been exchanged with modern equipment such as the infamous PackBot or The Boomerang. The PackBot is basically a robot with instruments that measure movement by infrared and sound. The Boomerang. They have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan to aid American troops. The Boomerang is a gunfire detector that’s mounted on vehicles. It uses sound to detect acoustic movement in order to determine bullet trajectories and locate enemy snipers.