Australians on the Western Front: Soldiers mastered the art of stealth warfare

VITAL: Lieutenant Rupert Downes, an orchardist from Camden, addresses his platoon before the advance onto Harbonnieres during the Battle of Amiens. Picture: AWM E02790.
VITAL: Lieutenant Rupert Downes, an orchardist from Camden, addresses his platoon before the advance onto Harbonnieres during the Battle of Amiens. Picture: AWM E02790.

In the months before the major Allied offensive known as the Battle of Amiens on August 8, 1918, Australian soldiers had considerable success with small-scale stealth raids on German outposts on the Somme.

Australian infantrymen would attack enemy posts, often on their own initiative and often in daylight, to kill or capture enemy troops and seize machine-guns.

While the activity came to be called peaceful penetration, historian Lucas Jordan says stealth raids is a more accurate term and was used by the soldiers themselves along with ‘kidnapping, stonkering, one-man raid, sport, and minor enterprise.’

In his book Stealth Raiders, Dr Jordan says they would creep up on the enemy, make their attack and return swiftly to their posts using “intelligence, ingenuity, daring … and often a bushman’s skill to navigate crops, streams and gullies.”

Stealth raids were not without casualties but Jordan argues that sometimes they destroyed machine-gun posts that would have caused far more damage against formal operations.

One raid on the Somme in May 1918 took 10 minutes to plan, seven minutes to execute and netted 22 sleeping Germans at a machine-gun post hidden in a cornfield.

By midday on July 11 near Merris, Australians had captured 75 Germans and nine machine-guns in repeated, spontaneous stealth raids for the loss of one soldier killed and one wounded.  

Stealth raid tactics were used during the Battle of Amiens, launched three weeks after a French counter-offensive at Soissons that marked the end of the Germans’ 1918 offensive.

The British 4th Army’s eastward advance on August 8 was successfully spearheaded south of the Somme River by the whole Australian Corps and the Canadian Corps.

But north of the Somme, British troops failed to take the high ground of Chipilly Spur, key to German defences in that area.

On August 9, six Australians led by Sergeant Jack Hayes of Bathurst crossed the river and spent four hours sneaking up on German positions.

They fired upon the Germans with rifles and captured machine-guns to seize Chipilly Spur and capture scores of prisoners.

The Battle of Amiens was the beginning of the end of fighting on the Western Front.

Historian Peter Burness, in Amiens to the Hindenburg Line, said: “The total ground gained was almost as much as that captured, at enormous loss, by the British Army in the entire 140 days of the 1916 Somme campaign”.

German General Erich Ludendorff described August 8 as “the black day of the German army in this war.”