Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Sandbags. Alternate Uses.

            Recently I have been reading about certain aspects of World War One, in particular the Stosstruppen or “Stormtroops”.
            A common and distinctive element of the Stosstruppen equipment is the grenade bags underneath the arms. These were often sewn from sandbags. Sandbags had other uses too. One illustration I saw had a soldier carrying a sandbag to collect any booty or intelligence material he came across in a raid. Another feature of the Stosstruppen was that they did not bother to carry their backpacks into battle. Backpacks were for the march to a position and were usually placed in storage once there. Instead the Stosstruppen created an “assault pack” by rolling their greatcoat in their shelter cloth and strapping it as a horseshoe shape around their mess tin.
            If attempting to capture a position a unit was required to carry four days’ worth of rations. Units in newly captured locations could easily become isolated. The rations of a German soldier a century ago were somewhat more spartan and modest than those of modern soldiers but I suspect he would still be hard pressed to carry four days’ worth in just an assault pack and the “bread bag” on his belt. A feature of trench fighting was that it was often only the lead elements that would be doing any actual fighting. The point would be taken by a couple of rifle, pistol or SMG men and close behind a “bomber” would toss grenades into the next trench section. Most of the unit would be carrying entrenching tools, sandbags and any other items needed to consolidate a captured trench section. These bearers would doubtless have also carried the bulk of the unit’s four day ration. This still raises the question as to how to carry those rations without backpacks. What I suspect is that often the rations were carried in the unfilled sandbags the unit was required to take along.
            Sandbags had many other uses too. A sandbag could be wrapped around a rifle barrel to camouflage it when sniping. Camouflaged face veils for snipers could also be made from sandbags. Sandbags were used to make helmet covers, making your head less of a target when moving behind sandbagged parapets. Frayed bits of sandbag could be sewn to a garment to break up the shape and provide additional camouflage.

            When it comes to using a sandbag as a carrying sack it is informative to look at the Russian veshmeshok. The neck is twisted closed and the carrying strap used to form a sort of lark-tail knot. A typical sandbags is 14-15” x 26-32” and can hold about 30-35lbs of dirt so a carrying bag made from one can hold a useful load. Holes punched in the bottom corners, possibly eyeleted can be used to take a cord and made adjustable with a simple bowline knot. Alternately a small object such as a stone can be placed in the lower corners and a constrictor knot or round turn and half hitches can be tied around the material behind the object. The latter technique, incidentally is useful when you need to use a shelter sheet that does not have eyelets. There is not frame in a veshmeshok or sandbag, of course, so you have to give some thought to what you put in and in what order. Make sure there is something soft against your back!
In my book I mention that claymore mine bags often were used as handy ammunition carriers. A sandbag could provide the basic material for a similar but lighter carrier with just some basic sewing. Sew up the mouth and open one side, divide the compartment in two and add a strap, flap etc.
            To both the World War One and modern soldier sandbags are readily available and worth utilising. If you are a civilian then sandbags can be purchased from builder suppliers and garden stores and can often be found for less than a dollar each. Modern types are of circular woven polypropylene but more traditional hessian is also still available. A synthetic may be better for a carrying bag while hessian is better for adding camouflage to a hunting outfit. Hessian is quite a useful camouflage colour, particularly if used with contrasting browns, greens or greys. If you are wrapping a rifle stock in hessian remember folds, creases and shadows help break up the shape. You can also apply some paint of dye in dabs of a contrasting colour but don’t go overboard. It is the contrast and irregular intervals that help break up the shape.