By Graham Thomson
Can you see in the dark, like a cat ?
As a matter of fact, it is doubtful if a cat can see any more clearly in the dark than any other animal, though it is quite likely that it can, because its eyes have such large pupils. These collect every faintest ray of light reflected by objects round about, and so enable it to see objects that reflect so little light that many other creatures cannot see them at all. I Anyway, whatever cats and owls and bats, and other nocturnal (or night-active) creatures can do, we humans are not naturally very clever at seeing in the dark ; but we can improve ourselves in this respect by training and practice.
First of all you should make yourself really expert at Kim's Game, which is fine training in observation and the use of the eyes. Practice Kim's Game until you are a hundred percent accurate every time, using the variations of the ordinary game that you can think of, and you will find the benefit when you need, to use your eyes at night. You will be better able to concentrate on looking, for one thing.
When you go hiking in the dark, with a pal or two, in open moorland or across country, or through the woods, you find that loss of sight brings with it loss of the sense of direction, and uncertainty about the line you are taking. In the daytime, if you are blindfolded and told to walk forward across a big field, you will not be able to keep going in a straight line ; you will walk in a circle--or rather, a sort of spiral course. This is why people often get lost in a mist or fog, or in a jungle ; if you cannot see, you almost always fail to walk in a straight line.Be Prepared!
The remedy for you on your night hike is to take particular precautions when you start. A compass, a map, and an electric torch [flashlight] with which to read them, will be useful guides, and it is up to you to learn how to use them. Or if it is a clear night, the stars will be your guides. We have already learned how to find the Pole Star, and how to steer a course by it, so a knowledge of the stars will be useful. But if the stars are hidden from you by clouds or rain your difficulties will be considerably greater.
You may be able to discern a slightly stronger light in the west, during the earlier hours of night, due to the sunset's afterglow; or in the east towards dawn. Such light will give you a rough idea of direction.
The wind, if any, may help, provided it blows all night from the same direction, and provided you noted that direction when you started out. But a change of wind, which often occurs just before dawn, may not be discerned by you, and of course it will throw you out altogether as regards your direction.
Really the only thing to do is to try to note landmarks as you go, and memorize them. Look to the skyline on each side, ahead and behind, note objects that stand up against it, such as church spires, prominent trees, factory chimneys, or hills, and try to fix each in your memory. Look back at the landmarks, too, in case you have to retrace your steps; each one looks quite different when viewed from its other side.
But, of course, when you know that you are going into such strange country on a dark night it is best to Be Prepared, by equipping yourself with compass, map and flashlight.
Shades and Shadows
You will all, stalkers and spotter, find that the power to distinguish objects increases with practice, though after a long spell of the game the eyes begin to play you tricks and you think you can see objects where there are none.
You will find that black things show up more than lighter things, if the night is not absolutely pitch black, or if the background is grass or light-colored trees or walls or hedges. A boy with black hair, wearing a khaki shirt and shorts, will look like a small black balloon floating through the air, especially if he covers his face and knees with grass. A dark blue shirt or jersey is visible against grass at as much as thirty-five yards, and a boy's head uncovered at twenty to twenty-five yards.
You should be able to see a moving figure at a distance of about twenty-five yards, though I have known stalkers get as near as twelve yards from the spotter on a pretty dark night, and with a light grass background without much cover. By way of judging distance, the red end of a lighted cigarette can. be seen 560 or 600 yards away, according to the degree of darkness of the night.
It is easy to mistake a bush for a crouching Scout, and a Scout for a bush. If you are uncertain whether, a group of somewhat indistinct distant objects are Scouts or bushes, watch carefully to see whether they move, and count them ; also, fix their position relative to some recognizable stationary object, such as a prominent tree, or a break in the skyline, or the edge of a wood. If there is no movement for some time, and if the number of visible objects remains constant, and if their position in relation to the fixed object is unaltered, most probably the group of objects is a clump of bushes, or something that is not alive.
The objects may, of course, be sheep or cows ; you will have to judge of this by your hearing, your knowledge of whether the field is pasture or not, and whether there were sheep or beasts in it in daytime, and perhaps your sense of smell if you are to windward of them.
Lights Show Up
Lights can be seen a long way at night. A cigarette end has been mentioned. Another thing that can be seen a long way off is the dial of a luminous, wrist watch. Many a soldier was shot in trench raids or scouting expeditions in No Man's Land during the Great War, because he forgot to remove his wrist watch, or cover the dial, or turn the watch round to the inner side of his arm.
The flash of a torch [flashlight] can be seen afar off, too, if the watcher has quick eyes.
If you must use a torch to study your compass, map or watch, or to look for something you have dropped, hold the light low and shine it downwards. Cover as much of the bulb as you can with your fingers and use only a thin pencil of light for the job. If you are with your Patrol, get the other fellows to stand round you in a close ring to shield the light.
When you are night hiking, or going on your First Class Journey, you may need to light a fire to cook your supper. It adds to the fun, both of hiking and of the journey, if an " enemy " Patrol, or pair of Scouts comes out to stalk you; and the thing they will look out for, and will most easily spot you by, is your fire.
A good Scout does not make a huge roaring fire to boil a can of water on, or even to sit by to keep warm. He chooses wood that gives a good heat but little smoke, makes a small fire, and cooks on the red embers, adding only small sticks to keep it going.
What gives away the position of a fire is the reflection of it from leaves of trees overhead. So if you are camping in a clearing in a wood, try to keep your fire right away from overhanging branches-even high ones-if you wish not to be observed.
That sentence in Scouting for Boys has already been quoted in this book, but the Chief's words need to be kept in mind, and the hints he gives are always well worth taking.
He also gives us a game to play, called " Night Patrolling," which is good practice for ears and eyes, too.
Here is another popular night game:
This explanation is rather long, but the game is really quite simple, and fast.
Another good eye-training game is played with three good-sized lamps, either those large square electric ones with a handle on the top, or the old-fashioned but very useful hurricane type.
Spotting Your Foes
Going back to the subject of spotting enemies at night, here are a few hints which you will find useful. First, when looking out for an " enemy," try to face away from the moon. It is much easier to see anyone if you have the moon behind you.
Secondly, always remember the skyline. Anything may form a skyline : the brow of a hill, a wall, the line of tree-tops of a wood. Human or animal figures always show up against a skyline, unless the night is really dark; even then the moonlight or the stars make a skyline against which a figure may be discerned.
If it is absolutely necessary that you cross a skyline, lie down and crawl over very slowly. If you are watching a skyline in the hope or expectation of seeing an " enemy " cross it, select a place to watch where movements are most likely to show-against a distant light or row of lights (such as a railway station shows), or against a light patch in the sky, towards the moon, or the sky-glow of a town.
In strange country you may see the skyline of a dark mass of something or other, and want to know what it is. The skyline of a hill is generally smooth and regular; that of a wood is jagged, and also the shadows vary in intensity.
Hollows or bushes on a hillside will be darker than the rest of the surface of the hill. A level, straight skyline will be a railway embankment, probably with signal lights somewhere along it; or a canal embankment, with no signal lights.
Use your eyes to spot tell-tale things like railway signals, motor headlights on a road, a lighthouse on the coast, moonlight reflected from ripples in water caused by a silently passing boat, the blur of an "enemy" slipping over a skyline, the flash of moonlight reflected from a field-glass, the luminous dial of a wrist-watch, or the unnatural bulge of an enemy hiding up a tree, seen against the stars.
Use your ears for the sound of trains shunting in goods yards or thundering over a bridge, motor-cars slowing down to turn at a cross-roads, the clink of a boot heel on a loose stone, the alarm call of birds disturbed by a passer-by, the lowing of beasts in a farm building, the bleeting of sheep in a field, frightened by an intruder, or the barking of a dog when a stranger approaches.
In conclusion, here are a few more tips about using your ears when Scouting at night. Remember that sound travels upwards best, so that you will hear better at the top of a hill than at the bottom; or near the top of a wall than the bottom, if you are listening to what is going on on the other side of it.
Sound also travels well along water; if you lie on the bank of a stream or river with your ear as close as possible to the surface, you will be able to hear noises made quite a long way up-stream, the sounds being carried down to you by the flow of the water.
You can hear a human voice talking ordinarily, or the hoof-beats of a horse, about 150 yards away, on a fair night ; a group of people talking, or walking along a hard road, about 600 yards away. Sound travels at the rate of about 380 yards a second or about 250 yards for every beat of your pulse if normal.
You can check distances by sound if you can see anything that becomes visible at the same moment as the sound is made, such as (on a moonlight night) the puff of steam from a locomotive's whistle and the sound of the whistle, or the flash of a rocket bursting in the air and the sound of the bang.
Chapter VII: Your Nose at Night
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Last modified: October 15, 2016.