Peaceful Penetration - April - August 1918 France
'Peaceful Penetration' was a term applied to Australian infantry tactics used in the period April to August 1918 (although it was also used by the New Zealanders). The term is attributed by Bean (1) to a term coined pre-war to German encroachment of the British Empire. The tactics were a cross between trench raiding and patrolling. The aim was similar to trench raiding (namely, to gather prisoners, conduct reconnaissance and gather intelligence), but increasingly the aim was to dominate no man's land and where the situation presented itself, the additional purpose of capturing and occupying the enemy's outpost line (and so gain ground).
AWM EO4828 Australian soldiers occupying a position around Villers-Bretonneux, France, 2 May 1918. Throughout April to June, the Australians in the sector undertook a series of raids, known as "peaceful penetrations", securing small parts of the German line.
In mid-1918, with the ending of the German Spring Offensive, and presented with a less contiguous enemy front line defended in depth with outposts forward and counter attack forces held further back, the Australian troops started to conduct offensive patrols into no man's land. It was discovered that the patrols could infiltrate the German outpost line and approach the outposts from behind. In this manner, the outposts could be taken quickly, and with minimal force. This tactic was first reported as being used on 5 April 1918 by the 58th Battalion, near Hamel (2). However, within a few weeks all five of the Australian divisions and the New Zealand Division (3) were using the tactic, with some units using the tactic more than others (for example, the 3rd Division conducted the tactic on three out of every five days in April). In some units, it was treated as a competition, with companies of the 41st Battalion competing to see who could capture the most prisoners (4).
A photograph taken on 10 July 1918. Two men of the 7th Australian Light Trench Mortar Battery operate a mortar established in a machine gun post on the new front line. From left to right: 1916 Lance Corporal A J Ellis and 2700 Private A Lawler. This position was part of a few hundred yards captured from the enemy in a silent daylight raid on 9 July by a party of the 27th Battalion. The location is just east of Villers-Bretonneux between the railway and the south side of the Amiens-St Quentin main road, alongside a position called 'The Orchard'. A fine example of the "peaceful penetration" tactics employed by the Australians at this time.
Australian First World War Official Exchange Collection at the Imperial War Museum, copyright image IWM E(AUS)2677
Although these were small scale operations, by 8 July, almost 3 miles had been added to the front, and 1,000 German prisoners had been captured, as well as weapons and supplies. Working in small groups and on their own initiative, Australian soldiers and junior leaders demonstrated their initiative and skill in this type of attack.
Brigadier (ret) Pat Beale, DSO, MC in his book "Legends of War - the AIF in France 1918" is unequivocal in his assessment of the importance of this phase of the fighting. "...This new phase of Peaceful Penetration would last for three months, only a tenth of the time of the AIF in France, but it left a lasting legacy. Its long term impact on Australian Army doctrine was established. Its continuing emphasis on patrolling to 'dominate the battlefield', can be traced back through WW2 to Peaceful Penetration. The need to own 'the two way range where the targets shoot back', or 'the-ground-beyond-the-wire', was embedded in the psyche of the Australian infantry from 1918. It accounts for its successes (and sometimes its survival) from Tobruk and Tarakan to Tarin Kowt (Ed note - Afghanistan). (5)
In this phase of the war, which began in May and extended until the Battle of Amiens on 8 August 1918, "the German's defensive tactics played into the Australian's hands. The second grade Trench divisions (with which the forward German positions were manned) were under-strength, less well-trained, motivated or equipped and were left longer on the front line without relief or rest (compared to the elite 'Storm Divisions'). Further, German tactics, while successful against major attacks, were a liability when challenged by Peaceful Penetration. The main defences were sited up to 2km behind the forward defended localities, which were lightly held as section posts, with even more isolated sentries and listening posts to their front. Spread so thinly, the forward troops were left not only lonely and nervous, but they lacked the man-power to develop their trenches or build meaningful wire obstacles, further enhancing their vulnerability. They offered an irresistible target to the confident Diggers". (6)
German Regimental Historians recorded the impact of Peaceful Penetration. One, writing of the 1st Australian Division, records that: "justice demands recognition of the fact that the enemy here was an unusually daring and enterprising soldiery which often pressed our front line heavily and grabbed many posts from us", while another records 'the enemy here opposed to the division was an exceptionally daring, tough and enterprising soldiery." (7)
Pat Beale makes the point that this phase of the war completed the transition of the AIF from the grind of the 'learning curve' of defensive battles and trench warfare, affording them an offensive and tactical prowess that set them for what was to become the "Last Hundred Days" offensive. In the period 8 August until 5 October, they were defined by an audacity and level of enterprise that marked the culminating point of their evolution from an amateur army to one of consummate professionalism and capability at all levels.
(1) Bean 1942, p42. Note 24
(2) Ibid p42
(3) Ibid p345 Note 13
(4) Ibid p 47
(5) Beale, 2017, p41
(6) Ibid p43
(7) Ibid p 47
1. Bean, C.E.W (1942).”The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Allied Offensive, 1918. Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918. Vol VI. Canberra, ACT, Australian War Memorial.
2. Pat Beale (2017) "Legends of War - The AIF in France 1918", Australian Scholarly Publications 2017 ISBN 978-1-925588-64-4
compiled by Nicholas Egan and Steve Larkins January 2018, with thanks to Brigadier Pat Beale DSO MC