Australian infantrymen on the German front line of 1918
“You are leaving the army. I am sorry to lose you but I wish you success. You know gentlemen…it is not my practice to make eulogistic speeches – there will be plenty of time for that after the war. At the same time, I would like to tell you that there is no division, certainly in my army, perhaps in the whole British Army, which has done more to destroy the morale of the enemy than the 1st Australian Division.”
This quote is from an Eton educated man so highly thought of he was interred in Westminster Abbey. Yet Field Marshall Plumer spoke of people so removed from his life style in their other lives that their paths would never otherwise have crossed.
In 1918, irrevocable changes had taken place in the front lines so heavily defended during the previous two years. After a huge German push, the standard trench warfare was no longer feasible and new tactics had to be devised. Incredibly, the most successful tactic of all is one that is almost completely forgotten. The reason, I suspect, is because it came from the ranks and thus has been accorded scant space anywhere. History teacher Lucas Jordan has gone some way to setting that right, telling the tale of small bands of Australian soldiers (from one to about 20) who acted on the spot without orders and made stunning inroads into enemy territory. Stealth Raiders: A few daring men in 1918, is an expanded version of his PhD.
Tired of commanders who had little knowledge of what the front was really like and, more particularly, were short in the lateral thinking department, some Australians started to act on impulse when seeing opportunities, with breathtaking results. A single soldier might duck across to the German lines and bring back 18 prisoners because he saw an opportunity. It almost defies belief that they succeeded.
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While the British soldiers didn’t do stealth raids (one of the many names for this type of exercise) because they hadn’t been ordered, lots of Australians proceeded because they hadn’t been told not to. As the tactic achieved results beyond anyone’s wildest dreams it started to get the recognition it deserved though it took months and some commanders (Monash gets a mention here) took credit for something they hadn’t initiated at all.
The perpetrators were men used to thinking for themselves and solving situations on a daily basis in regular life; thus it should come as no surprise that nearly two-thirds of them came from a bush background. It’s extraordinary to think that on more than one occasion, regiments were being prepared for battle when a few Aussies decided they could do it another way and went over and achieved the objectives before the regiments even moved.
Many of the men were not big on discipline and several had been court martialled but, it was because they were free thinkers that they could achieve such stunning results. ANZAC troops lost more men but captured more enemy on a per capita basis; I would boldly suggest that the latter fact has a great deal to do with the actions of these ultimately outstanding troops.
General Beauvoir De Lisle said that they “..excited the admiration and emulation of us all.” An English Lieutenant wrote, “Without the least decrying the British soldier, it is generally admitted that the Australians had peculiar gifts for this work. His very mode of life, his independence of character, initiative and upbringing fitted him for this special duty.”
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They had the Germans rattled, that fact elaborated on by captured documents recorded here. Lucas has done a wonderful job recording the bravery and acts of these men; a must for any war historian.