Sniper on the Ypres Salient
An infantryman’s war in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers
by Sue Boase with William McCrae
published by Pen & Sword Military in 2022
Hardback ISBN 978 1 39909 557 0
184 pages plus end notes, list of abbreviations, glossary and index. Illustrated.
Cover price £22
I enjoyed this book. It is a careful and well-researched work, based on the war experiences of the author’s grandfather William McCrae. He left a handwritten account in two exercise books, and passages from it form the bedrock of the book.
The title, while being accurate, is possibly slanted towards attracting sales, containing those all-important key words for search engines. While William did train and work as a sniper – not a subject that has attracted much coverage in the past, and his account is certainly valuable in that respect – it was for a relatively small portion of his military service.
William McCrae enlisted in London on 9 November 1914, joining the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and serving with its 15th (Service) Battalion, otherwise known as the 1st London Welsh. This unit came under command of the 38th (Welsh) Division. As such, “Sniper on the Ypres Salient” joins one of the richest seams of Great War historiography, for the regiment and division enjoys coverage in many a memoir and history – more than most. To that extent, the basics of his story are familiar – the move to France; the early days of trench warfare and the move to the Somme; the appalling experience of Mametz Wood in Jult 1916; and after that the many months of trench warfare on the Ypres Canal front. But of course, every man’s experience was different and it is in the minutiae and in particular incidents that, for me at least, his account has value. Sue Boase has edited the account into good sections, and provided well-worked background context and explanations. I liked the way in which the two are differentiated for the reader, with William’s words being in a typewritten-like font. It all goes along at a good pace and at 184 pages could be read in one or two sessions.
For some readers, it will be William’s time as sniper that will be of most interest. He became part of the 38th Divisional Sniping Company, a specialist unit of some 200-250 men that does not appear in the division’s formal order of battle. It drew 16 men from each battalion. William describes the work, routine, methods and armaments of his unit, providing an unusual insight into this deadly role.
The book, unfortunately, does not cover William’s time in training or his later time as an officer, simply as his account did not do so. Sue Boase has provided good content to cover the latter, describing William’s time with 18th Officer Cadet Battalion, his commission in the Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment) and his posting in April 1918 to the 1/5th Lancashire Fusiliers.
Overall, this is a good work that I recommend for the general reader as well as those with more specific interest in the battalion, division or sniping. The only downside for me was the use of endnotes that than footnotes, but that is of course a matter of taste. The notes are informative and provide useful information for anyone wishing to follow up on particular aspects of William McCrae’s story.