Stealth Raiders: The forgotten World War I story

7 Posted by - 28 August 2017 - Feature stories

In 1918 a few daring low-ranking Australian infantrymen, alone among all the armies on the Western Front, initiated stealth raids without orders. These stealth raiders killed Germans, captured prisoners and advanced the line, sometimes by thousands of yards. They were held in high regard by other men of the lower ranks and were feared by the Germans facing them.

Here, Lucas Jordan, author of Stealth Raiders: A Few Daring Men in 1918, tells Sarah Trevor about these stealth raiders and the central role that the Aussie bush ethos played in their successes. 

IH: Firstly, what were the stealth raids?

Lucas: A stealth raid was an incursion into German held territory by a man operating solo, or a small team of mates, for the purpose of killing, or capturing the enemy and his machine guns, and advancing the line. Because stealth raids were initiated on the spot, they were carried out with only the weapons the men carried. They did not have the support of heavy machine guns, trench mortars or artillery because there were no orders to support them. The weapon of choice was surprise, enforced by a revolver and bombs in the hands of cool-headed men. The Australian, alone among all the armies on the Western Front, was the master of the stealth raid.

I’ll give an example. On 18 May 1918, a small group of Australian soldiers in a post on the Somme sensed that the Germans manning a machine gun post 90 yards away were asleep. Eighteen stealth raiders promptly jogged across the dead ground in No Man’s Land and leapt into the German post. They captured 22 Germans and the machine gun.

The sortie took 10 minutes to plan and seven minutes to execute. It was so swift and silent that Germans in a nearby trench had no idea their machine gun had been captured.

Stealth raids were made possible by the radical change in battlefield conditions that occurred when the German offensives of March and April swept through the war ravaged landscape into farmland untouched by war. Corn fields and wheat fields, coming to maturity in the summer of 1918, and gullies, streams, woods and ditches, gave the stealth raiders the magnificent cover their tactics demanded. Bush skills and a vital sense of direction gave the stealth raiders the ability to navigate these fields to attack and return swiftly to their posts.

IH: How did you first become aware of these stealth raids, and what drew you to writing about them?

Lucas: I first became aware of stealth raids on the advice of Professor Bill Gammage, the author of the classic The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War. Bill supervised my PhD thesis on which the book is based. In a war dominated by artillery, machine guns and impersonal mass mechanical slaughter, I was drawn to stealth raids because they relied on individualism and resourcefulness.

I was determined to understand: who were the stealth raiders? What type of men were they? Why did they act without orders? And how significant were their actions? I read hundreds of first-hand accounts in order to answer these questions. What I learned is borne out in the book, which is a historical narrative from a frontline soldier’s point of view.

IH: What role would you say Australian bush skills and the ‘bush’ ethos more broadly played in these forays?

Lucas: Of the 204 men involved in stealth raids and named in the book, 63 per cent came from the ‘bush’, a percentage that is significantly higher than that of the total percentage of men with rural or outback backgrounds in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).

There is significant evidence suggesting that the Australian soldier valued bush skills and attributed the success of some stealth raids to them. In the fighting ranks, the mythical values and virtues of the Australian bushman — laconic humour, comradeship, suspicion of authority and a high premium on initiative and resourcefulness — were held in high regard by the Australian digger. This led to a distinctively Australian ‘bush ethos’.

In the book I argue that the ‘bush ethos’ was key to the self-image of the Australian soldier. But while most were happy to adopt the ethos because it was a point of difference from rigid British Army discipline, and their own commanders, only a few daring men acted on it by initiating stealth raids. According to the stealth raider Russell Colman the ‘bush ethos’ ‘fell on very fertile ground’, and went something like this:

You are Australians, from the land of the free. You are bred under wider, freer surroundings than the rest of the world, and consequently have more initiative. You are different clay to the rest of them and are as rough as bags out of the line, but in the line nothing can beat you.

IH: Your book Stealth Raiders sheds new light on Australia’s achievements in 1918, addressing misconceptions around Sir John Monash’s role in advancing the Allied position. Could you please tell us more about this?

Lucas: Stealth Raiders is focussed on the sophistication and the ingenuity of diggers of the AIF at the peak of their powers. On 1918 Charles Bean wrote:

All of us knew of instances — I personally found them to occur more often than not — in which the commander’s report on an action contained             important inaccuracies. Commanding officers, for example, constantly — and naturally — believed and reported that some movement made by their troops was the result of an order issued by them, when it had actually been initiated and carried out by a company commander or one of his men on the spot before the order from above arrived — if ever it did.

Such a case was the capture of Chipilly Spur during the Allied August offensive. Monash claimed that Chipilly Spur was captured on his orders by an Australian brigade and the American 131st Regiment, after a British division had failed to take it. But the spur was actually captured by six Australians — two NCOs (non-commissioned officers) and four privates, using stealth raid tactics. Its capture on 9 August was the decisive moment of that battle. These types of scenarios are the crux of the book.

Stealth Raiders is not focussed on generals. It does not seek to take away from General Monash’s achievements as a planner and commander of set-piece battles. But it does demonstrate that he sometimes claimed stealth raiders’ successes as his own. Stealth Raiders also argues that Monash was apt to make poor decisions about the ground and the condition of his men because he seldom went near the front.

 

General Monash. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

General Monash. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

IH: Why do you think the stealth raids remain relatively little known in Australia today?

Lucas: Many historians remain unaware of stealth raiders, as did commanders in 1918. That’s because stealth raids were not always acknowledged in the official sources, which were written by officers, read by staff officers and later used by historians. Put simply, this has lead to a misreading of the role of stealth raids in the AIF in 1918. Some revisionist historians seem preoccupied with command and control hierarchies and official training pamphlets and documents that tell us little about what stealth raiders did because there was no training for it.

Also, perhaps historians and the public are drawn to the sheer scale of the set-piece battles of the First World War. The Gallipoli legend is the most obvious preoccupation with Australians. In regards to the Western Front, most historians tend to write about the big offensives battles in which the AIF took part. This has led to an oversight of events in the spring and summer of 1918, despite it being the longest period that the AIF spent in the frontline on the Western Front during the war. Bean called it the ‘crucial summer’ because the strategic situation had shifted dramatically and it was the Germans who were expected to attack. These oversights have been at the expense of understanding the innovation of some frontline soldiers and the part stealth raids played in the final months of the war.

IH: What were some of the challenges you faced in tracing the stealth raiders’ stories?

Lucas: The biggest challenge was finding stealth raids (and the men who did them) in the historical record. I immersed myself in the diaries, letters and memoirs written by the men of the lowest ranks who were there in 1918.

I dug deep into the private records of soldiers held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra; the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales; the Western Australian Army Museum; and the state libraries of Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia. I also read the private records of British soldiers, who fought alongside Australian troops in 1918, held by the Imperial War Museum, London. I read every diary, letter, memoir and manuscript written by Australian soldiers of 1918 held in these institutions.

My research also included reading the dozens of published diaries and memoirs of Australian soldiers, and published battalion histories, as well as the official war diaries of Australian battalions, brigades and divisional headquarters relating to the period March to September 1918. As I bore into it, names of notable stealth raiders started to emerge.

Then, the challenge became to contact their descendants. Some of the prominent stealth raiders mentioned in the book are brought to life thanks to the contributions of original photographs and diaries given by their descendants.

IH: Were there any personal stories that you uncovered that stopped you in your tracks, or touched you personally?

Lucas: There are many vivid personalities in Stealth Raiders. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to tell their stories for the first time. Some of their exploits were truly epic. But in reading their diaries, letters and memoirs I was also struck by their sense of humour; the ways in which they dealt with war weariness, and how they searched for meaning in the carnage that was the Western Front.

Some personal stories stand out, to the point where I feel as though I carry them around with me more than others: Don McLeod, a miner from the Pilbara region of Western Australia, lost a hand at Gallipoli, yet was leading stealth raids in 1918; the bushman Neil Maddox, who was a fine stockman and buck-jump rider before the war and a prodigious stealth raider in 1918. His war ended when he lost a leg during the Allied counter-offensive in August 1918.

Jack Hayes, a railway engine cleaner from Bathurst, was one of only a few original members of his battalion remaining in the fighting line in 1918. He was a wonderful character and a charismatic leader. On 9 August 1918 a British battle to capture formidable high ground known as Chipilly Spur had been raging for 30 hours, when Hayes and five stealth raiders decided to cross the Somme River.

Using stealth raid tactics, the six Australians captured the village of Chipilly and the Chipilly Spur — the right flank objective of a British division — some 15, 000 men — during the most decisive battle of the war. This event was the supreme stealth raid.

After the war, Hayes was among a group of five returned men who initiated the Anzac Day dawn service at Martin Place, Sydney. His son, the late John Hayes, told me, ‘Jack’s life revolved around his past soldier friends.’

IH: Which resources did you find the most helpful in the course of your research?

Lucas: The book has a comprehensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources. The most helpful were the primary sources. Stealth Raiders is brought to life by the first hand accounts of the men of 1918, held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, and in the state libraries. There is also original primary material in the book that was donated by the descendants of stealth raiders.

The official war diaries of the AIF in the 1914–1918 war and individual soldiers’ service records, digitised by the Australian War Memorial and National Archives of Australia respectively, were another helpful source. Returned servicemen’s journals such as Reveille, Stand To and Mufti also included some vivid anecdotes regarding stealth raids. In so far as secondary sources are concerned, Bean’s Official History, particularly volumes V and VI were invaluable.

IH: What would your top tips be for researchers who want to learn more about frontline soldiers in World War I?

Lucas: I would recommend reading from the archive of diaries, letters, manuscripts, memoirs, photographs and other artefacts belonging to Australian soldiers of the First World War, held by the Australian War Memorial and in the state libraries. They give insight into the lives and times of mostly young Australian men who came to manhood in an age that is practically unrecognisable today.

The returned servicemen’s journals are also a great source of information. Most of the articles were written by returned men and tell ‘war stories’ that illuminate everything from tactical matters, to the humour of the diggers and the pathos of their situation.

IH: If you could track down one thing you haven’t yet managed to find out, what would it be?

Lucas: It’s not so much what I haven’t managed to find out but more of what I wish to find next! Most of the stealth raiders were experienced soldiers — they had big wars. Some of those that returned home struggled to survive the peace, while others seemingly got on with their lives. Stealth Raiders is focussed primarily on their thrilling exploits in 1918. But the next time I pick up my pen I feel I owe it to them to write about what happened next.

Stealth Raiders: A Few Daring Men in 1918 by Lucas Jordan (Penguin Random House, $34.99) is out now

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