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In the dark diggers struck German trenches

AAP logoAAP 10/10/2016 Max Blenkin, Defence Correspondent

In the dark of night they prepared, faces blackened and armed with a selection of daggers, maces, morningstars and knuckle dusters to bludgeon anyone unfortunate enough to cross their path.

This wasn't the Middle Ages.

This was France in 1916, with parties of Australian soldiers setting out to raid German trenches, a task at which they came to excel.

A century on, Australians remember the big costly WWI battles such as Fromelles, Pozieres, Bullecourt and Passchendaele.

But most nights, soldiers all along the Western Front would partake in little battles. These took the form of patrols and raids on trenches, sometimes under 100 metres away across "no man's land".

Such raids were designed to gain intelligence, take prisoners for interrogation, to blood inexperienced troops or just to raise mayhem.

Whatever the intent and however raids were conducted, this wasn't a gentle or sporting business.

Australian War Memorial senior historian Aaron Pegram said raiding was bloody and lethal.

Makeshift weapons, generically referred to as knobkerries but typically pick handle clubs, sometimes studded with nails, were intended to silently dispatch sentries. Once surprise was lost, revolvers and hand grenades, were the preferred weapons.

Australians on Gallipoli tried a few night time raids on Turkish trenches with one on May 25, led by the colourfully named Lieutenant Maurice Wilder-Nelligan notably well-planned and successful. He would go on to be one of the AIF's foremost exponents of raiding.

Australian troops arrived on the Western Front in mid-1916, heading into the quiet Armentieres sector to learn the basics of trench warfare.

Unsurprisingly, it was the Germans who landed the first blow. Under cover of an intense localised artillery bombardment, German raiders hit the Australian 20th Battalion in the Bridoux sector, leaving 23 dead for no casualties.

Eleven prisoners were taken, the first of 4000 Australians to become POWs on the western front. Under interrogation, they gave the Germans their first good information on the new Australian arrivals.

Far worse as far as higher command was concerned, the Germans made off with two Stokes mortars, a new and secret weapon.

The officer deemed most responsible for this loss was court martialed but cleared. Years after the war, 20th Battalion members were mocked by other soldiers with the greeting: "Got any trench mortars, Dig?"

Soon the diggers started doing their own raiding, though British, Canadian and Indian troops had been raiding long before the Aussies arrived.

With the Somme offensive approaching, British High Command wanted the Germans to think the upcoming blow could fall anywhere along the line. British commander General Douglas Haig mandated raids to keep the Germans off balance.

A plan proposed by the 7th Brigade was chosen as the diggers' first official raid.

Under guidance of a pair of Canadian soldiers, then the acknowledged raiding experts, a party of 65 diggers spent a fortnight training behind the lines training with revolver and grenade and practising use of the knobkerry for "nut cracking".

They rehearsed attack drills in a replica trench, studied aerial photos of their target with some members even accompanying scouts on night-time ventures into no-man's land.

Their raid, mounted on the night of June 6-7, was supported by artillery and machineguns from across the Anzac sector and proved a complete success.

In six minutes, nine German soldiers were killed and five taken prisoner, at a cost of two dead and three wounded.

Members had blackened their faces with burnt cork and inevitably became known as the "black Anzacs". In recognition of their achievements, members were allowed to go on leave to London.

During the next fortnight, the Anzacs conducted 13 raids and continued right up to the Armistice in November 1918.

Success depended on effective planning and preparation, co-ordinated artillery support and surprise.

Sometimes there was too much of a good thing. On July 2, 1916 raiders from the 11th Battalion found the preparatory artillery barrage had obliterated their target trenches.

Sometimes there wasn't enough. In October 1917, a raid by 88 members of the 10th Battalion ended with 69 dead, wounded and missing because of poor planning, ineffective artillery and a fully alert enemy.

As the war progressed, raids became increasingly elaborate. Such was "the big raid" near Houplines on February 27, 1917, described by official correspondent Charles Bean as the most important undertaken by Australians.

That involved more than 800 soldiers who penetrated German defences on a 700-metre frontage, spending 35 minutes ransacking and killing before withdrawing. Reconnaissance aircraft supported the raid by directing artillery fire onto German guns.

Pegram said the knobkerry was the iconic weapon of trench raiding but they proved very inefficient. Once the fight was on, revolvers and hand grenades were far more effective.

As the war progressed, they were supplemented with white phosphorus incendiary grenades for clearing dugouts and even "stinkpots" a type of teargas grenade designed to render dugouts uninhabitable long after raiders departed.

Raids also became more brutal.

On the night of October 12, 1916, raiders from the 31st Battalion dropped white phosphorous grenades and high explosive mortar bombs down ventilation shafts of dugouts where German soldiers had sought refuge.

The after-action report says between 40 and 50 were killed in this way "with a further 50 being dispatched after coming to the surface to surrender."

Thirteen prisoners were taken and unsurprisingly, they sought to escape. Three survived.

Pegram said killing prisoners defied international law and increased the risk of similar treatment for captured Australians. As well, killing prisoners undermined one of the key purposes of raids, to take live prisoners for interrogation.

Some diggers revelled in the prospect of raiding. For others it was an escape from the monotony of sitting in a trench being shelled, Pegram said.

As the war progressed, some soldiers proved unenthusiastic, with lots drawn to choose raiding party members from the unwilling.

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