Reviewed by Rod McLary
The sub-title of this book immediately provides two clues to its subject. The year is the last year of World War I and ‘daring men’ suggests courage and risk-taking. This book offers a radical reappraisal of the Australian infantrymen and challenges the ‘historical neglect’ they have experienced since the great War historian Charles Bean ceased writing in 1942.
At the beginning of 1918, the Australian Imperial Force [AIF] was facing a major problem with maintaining adequate strength in the field. Australian casualties in 1917 rose to 76,386 with a further 89,084 in non-battle losses – the attempts in Australia to introduce conscription had failed – the numbers of volunteers were falling. Yet, paradoxically, the morale and confidence of the AIF in France was high. Australian soldiers knew in their hearts ‘who is the superior fighter … and the Fritzies know it in their own hearts too’. Trench warfare had finished and there was now open or semi-open warfare which contributed to the rise of the ‘Stealth Raiders’.
Stealth Raiders were Australian soldiers [usually non-commissioned] who – on their own volition – set out from their posts in daylight and searched the deserted trenches for isolated German posts. When the Raiders found such a post, the German soldiers were either killed or captured and whatever weapons held by the Germans were brought back to the Australian lines. One of the first such raids took place in April 1918 and over 200 soldiers were involved in raids from then until September 1918.
The success of the early raids encouraged other battalions to also deploy raids as it was evident at the time that formal raids and night fighting patrols did not succeed. After one stealth raid, a Lance Corporal described what happened.
The Huns were brought in like sheep from shell holes in No Man’s Land & from their outposts in broad daylight – yes, daylight raids. Jove but it was funny – yes and thrilling too!
But not only did the raids capture German soldiers, but later when the Australian soldiers ‘mixed freely’ with the Germans, valuable tactical information was obtained.
This book – with remarkable scholarship – examines the questions – who were the Stealth Raiders; why did they initiate the raids; and how significant were their actions?
The author Lucas Jordan has delved deeply into the diaries, letters and memoirs of ‘men of the lowest ranks’ who were there in 1918 to answer these questions. The book contains many direct quotes from these documents and from personal interviews with the soldiers. These first-hand and sometimes intensely personal reflections add much to the value and interest of the book.
One soldier Dalton Neville – who was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and Mentioned in Dispatches – recalls one incident when he led his stealth raiders across No Man’s Land:
The outpost was only about 35 yards from the main German trenches … I shot him again, this time through the back, and he dropped on his hands and knees and started crawling forward, and I had to shoot him twice again in the back before he stopped. [p49].
But, not all the quotes refer to battles. The following quote from a West Australian digger describes his Captain – one of the most experienced patrollers – Captain Don McLeod.
He could always be seen doing the work of two men, keeping his men well under control, giving orders with his broad Scotch accent, and on all occasions personally leading his men with the full conviction that they were following him to a man. [p59].
Such candour offers the reader intimate glimpses into the hearts and minds of the soldiers on the French battlefields in 1918.
Lucas Jordan argues that the majority of the stealth raiders came from rural or bush backgrounds and that their bush skills gave the raiders an edge in the more open terrain of the Somme. In addition, and perhaps more relevantly, the lower ranks ‘championed personal freedoms over entitlement’. That along with a sense of independence and initiative provided a motivation for the raiders to consider other options of attack rather than the more formal method of attack favoured by the army hierarchy.
This book builds on a PhD thesis written by the author. He states that he was encouraged ‘to bore into’ the subject – which is exactly what he has done. The depth and breadth of information he has obtained through research into many hundreds of documents – letters, diaries, memoirs as well the more academic material – along with personal interviews of soldiers who were stealth raiders offer a rare insight into a piece of Australian war history.
While the origins of the book are never far away, there is no sense of academia overwhelming the personal. The author is well able to maintain the focus on the individual soldiers and their shared experiences. For a reader who wants to broaden his/her knowledge of Australia’s history, Stealth Raiders is an excellent place to start.
The author ends his book with thanks to the ‘men of 1918 who recorded their thoughts and feelings’. It is a sentiment that we can only share.
Lucas Jordan has a Masters Degree in Aboriginal Studies which led to more than ten years research and teaching in the Kimberley and central Australia. This gave him a deep respect for the Australian bush and its people. He is currently a history teacher at Western English Language School in Melbourne. Stealth Raiders is his first book.
Stealth Raiders: A Few Daring Men in 1918
by Lucas Jordan
ISBN 978 0 14 378663 4