A Sniper of the Great War

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This photograph from my collection shows a Sergeant from The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment). Helpfully it is signed by the soldier ‘Yours truly Sgt. J. Wyeth’. However on searching the First World War service records and medal index cards (MIC), I could not find a soldier who matched those details.

However, there is a medal index card for a Charles J. Wyeth. Although there is no corresponding service record or pension record to confirm details, there are a few clues that make me think that these are the same person. Firstly Charles J. Wyeth’s MIC shows that he served in The Queen’s, firstly as a Private then as a Corporal. However, although the regiment matches, the man in the photo wears Sergeant’s stripes.

Charles J. Wyeth also has a second MIC, for the award of a Meritorious Service Medal (MSM), which provides some further information. The MSM was a gallantry award for non-commissioned officers, and Charles Wyeth’s was gazetted on 17th June 1918. Unfortunately there are no details as to why he was awarded it, but his rank on this MIC is given as Lance-Sergeant – effectively a Corporal acting as a Sergeant – which could explain why this is not reflected on his main medal card.

Notification of Charles Wyeth’s MSM in the London Gazette states that he was from Reading. A trawl of the census records shows a Charles Wyeth living in Reading in 1911, aged 23, working as a grocer’s porter. His father’s name was also Charles; if this is the correct Charles Wyeth this may explain the use of his middle initial rather than his first.

(Credits: (C) Andy Arnold)

(Credits: (C) Andy Arnold)

The MSM MIC also confirms that he served with the 6th Battalion of The Queen’s, attached to the 37th Infantry Brigade Sniping Company. His service number – G/32 – indicates an early volunteer into the 6th Battalion, one of Kitchener’s ‘New Army’ battalions.

The photo provides further evidence that they are one and the same man. On the soldier’s lower left sleeve can be seen the crossed rifles of the marksman’s badge, and a similar badge at the top of his right arm indicates that he was qualified as an instructor.

Initially snipers were unofficial and operated on an ad hoc basis in response to superior German snipers. As casualties from German snipers grew, a more co-ordinated approach was adopted and sniper training schools established, the first by Second Army near Ypres in December 1915. By the end of the war these schools trained intelligence officers as well as snipers, and a great deal of effort was put in to producing camouflage for snipers. Although it is not clear how they operated within the 37th Brigade, snipers were certainly active in the 6th Queen’s; their war diary entry for 7th January 1916 for example states “Very quiet day…our snipers claim three hits.”

One final clue helps to date the photo. On the soldier’s lower left arm below his marksman badge is a wound stripe; this indicates that the photograph was taken some time after July 1916 as wound stripes were only introduced then, although they were applied retrospectively to wounds incurred since the start of the war.

The evidence seems to point to the man in the photograph being Charles J Wyeth, G/32, 6th Battalion The Queen’s. Part of the 37th Brigade, 12th (Eastern) Division, the battalion served overseas from 1st June 1915 and their battle honours include Loos, the Somme, Arras, Cambrai, and Amiens. Whilst he did not escape injury, Charles survived the war, and died in 1959, aged 70.

Sources
London Gazette
Medal Index Cards
1911 census
Death registers
6th Battalion The Queen’s war diary

Further reading
Pegler, M – Sniping in the Great War (US)
Pritchard, H – Sniping in France (Free Download)




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About Author

Writes and blogs about various aspects of the First World War. Author of 'Their Name Liveth For Evermore: Carshalton's First World War Roll of Honour'

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