MONTREAL – Modern sniping was born amid the muck of the battlefields of the First World War and some of its deadliest practitioners were soldiers from Canada’s First Nations communities.
Foremost among them was Cpl. Francis Pegahmagabow, credited with 378 kills during his four years on the shell-shattered front lines of Europe. Historical records indicate that Canada could claim eight of the top dozen snipers from all countries involved in the fighting.
“Of those eight, at least five and probably six are aboriginal of some sort – Metis, First Nations or Inuit,” said Maj. Jim McKillip, a historian with the Canadian Forces department of history and heritage.
Pegahmagabow was the best known of them and the Ojibway was the most highly decorated aboriginal soldier in Canadian history, winning the Military Medal with two bars. That’s the equivalent of getting the honour three times.
Pegahmagabow, who was from the Parry Island Indian Reserve in Ontario – now know as the Wasauksing First Nation – not only made his mark as a scout and sniper but during combat at such bloody battles as Passchendaele, Ypres, the Somme and Mount Sorel, he also captured dozens of prisoners.
He enlisted in August 1914 and served until the end of the war, when he returned home and became an activist for his people.
“He was very keen,” his granddaughter, Theresa McInnes, said in a telephone interview. “I think he wanted to prove himself. He strived to be better. He just had great determination.
“He just wanted to go to war and represent his people and, I think, all of Canada.”
Even wounds could not keep him from the front lines for long, she said.
“He was really determined to get back after being wounded. He couldn’t wait to get back fighting. That was just him. He wanted to be there for the other soldiers.”
While Pegahmagabow was treated like an equal in the army, he endured prejudice when he returned to civilian life.
“He went to war thinking he would be equal to all people and when he came back he was not, so I think he was quite disappointed in that,” said McInnes, who was born within weeks of his death in 1952 but learned about him from relatives.
Pegahmagabow grappled with his experiences in the war and the after-effects of his wounds when he came back. Poison gas had damaged his lungs so badly, he had to sleep in a chair to stop them from filling with fluid.
But McInnes, whose mother married one of Pegahmagabow’s sons, says her mother remembered the soldier as “a kind man” who cared deeply about his family.
“She said he was the nicest man but when he came back he was very poor.”
While he has often been clouded in obscurity, efforts are underway to recognize Pegahmagabow, who rose to be chief of his band and also later served as a member of his band council, fighting for aboriginal rights and treaties.
“He just didn’t sit back,” said McInnes, who noted a plaque and sculpture in his honour are planned. “He was a fighter all around.”
Among other notable snipers were Johnson Paudash, of Karwatha Lakes, Ont., who was described as a soft-spoken man with keen eyesight; Cree Henry Norwest, who hailed from the Edmonton area and had a reputation for striking fear into the Germans; and Louis Philippe Riel, nephew of Metis leader Louis Riel.
Although Canadians excelled at it, sniping was introduced into the war by the Germans, who equipped soldiers with specialized training and rifles equipped with telescopic sights. The allies were slow to catch on. The Germans had issued 20,000 telescopic sights while the British had none.
“Everyone was getting outshot by the Germans for the first half of the war,” McKillip said.
The British eventually set up a sniper school in late 1915 or early 1916, the historian says, but even then they lagged with equipment. They were reluctant to add a telescopic sight to their rifles because they thought it slowed the rate of fire and when they did attach one, it was in an awkward position on the side of the weapon, which made it difficult to use.
In the Canadian forces, snipers were drawn from the regular infantry and men with an aptitude for shooting were sought.
“The demographics of the Canadian Expeditionary Force meant that there was a fairly substantial proportion of the force that did have an outdoors background, most of it farmers but also hunters and fishermen and trappers,” McKillip said, noting British soldiers tended to be city-dwellers.
Marksmanship wasn’t the only quality needed to be a good sniper, McKillip said.
“People realized pretty quickly that sniping was more. It was shooting and hunting combined – the skills of camouflage and concealment. The kind of hunting that you do to hunt animals at close range were the same sort of skills for concealing yourself from the enemy.”
McKillip said the image of a sniper as a lone wolf is a myth and they operated in pairs, with one man serving as a spotter and zeroing in on a target with a telescope.
The same system exists today except the team has been expanded to three, with the third man acting in a support capacity.
“Personality is a very big consideration in this,” McKillip said of the snipers both then and now. “Probably the quality most required in a sniper is patience. First of all, they had to use stealth to get into a lot of these firing positions and this would take lots of patience and sometimes long, laborious crawls or stealthy walks through the night to get into position and hide.
“It’s not uncommon at all to . . . get into position one night and not move the entire day. A lot of patience and stamina and nerves of steel because they were often put into very dangerous circumstances.”
Usually, snipers set up in their own little outposts away from the main body of troops, not just for tactical but safety reasons.
“Once a team started being effective, the enemy would react, the enemy would hunt these guys,” McKillip said. “Quite often the mechanism for hunting them was to try and spot them and then bring down artillery fire on them.”
McKillip pointed out if the snipers were in with the rest of the troops, that fire would land on everyone, not just the snipers.
The snipers lived in the same conditions as the other soldiers and followed a similar routine. Besides seeking out targets of opportunity, they would also be assigned missions such as taking out machine-gun nests or artillery crews or even hunting enemy snipers.
Ironically, in the early days of the war many soldiers thought sniping was a cushy job because the snipers didn’t have to do as many of the more tiring duties, such as labour.
“They thought you can go anywhere and lie in the tall grass,” McKillip said. “They did get quite a bit of attention from the enemy so I think by the end of the war they were recognized as specialists doing a dangerous job.”