Troops first to try armour in WWI

Name: Hugh Anderson
Date: 1917
Unit: 1st Brigade AIF
Location: France, Belgium

Hugh Anderson was one of the first Australian soldiers to try out the new armour developed to help protect the troops.

He was never one to shirk his duties and when he discovered he had not been included in a raiding party, he talked the Captain into including him.

In a letter to his cousin Margaret dated 8 March 1917, he told her how they had been sent back for special training before the raid.

"There we are supplied with armour," he wrote. "It was the first time it had been officially tried in this war. Of course we had our steel helmets and now got a suit of steel plates, breast and back, thigh and hip which had braces going over the shoulder and a belt to gird it on. For the shoulders and neck was a very heavy pad with high padded collar. Over all this we wore a long white night-short affair and out helmets were covered with a white cloth. You see the weather was intensely cold, everything was frozen, and the ground covered with snow. This shirt was for protection resemblance just the same as khaki in ordinary weather.

"The raiding party was split into three groups, right, left and centre. The right and left were the same and got their names from how they worked up the enemy trench from common point of entry. They comprised two bayonet men, two bomb throwers, two carriers, one officer and one NCO, one spare bayonet man, two dugout bayonet men, and two dugout bombers. The centre part consisted of five wire cutters, two spare men, one NCO, one officer, four stretcher bearers.

Well, the night arrives and we make our way up to the line about 8pm. It is quite dark and we are armed with a loaded rifle and bayonet and two bombs each. The bombers and carriers, of course, have more. At the appointed time our artillery and mortars open out a terrific bombardment on Fritz's trench and we work our way out from our front line up an old disused communication trench running across 'No Man's Land' towards the enemy's line and finishing within twenty yards of his wire. We get to the end and crouch down, keeping well blocked up. Soon the barrage lifted and we made a curtain of fire behind the line.

"Fritz must have got wind of the raid, for as soon as we left our front line his machine guns opened on this communication trench and we had to keep well down to avoid being hit. One sergeant was hit in the arm but not very badly. As soon as the barrage lifted, our wire men dashed out and commenced on the wire. It was supposed to be badly cut by shells at this time but in reality had not been hit at all, and instead of three feet of wire as our patrols had reported, there was 14 or 15 feet of it. Hard on the wiremen's heels came the raiders, but the wire held them up. By this time Fritz had made the place as light as day with hundreds of flares of every colour, and was throwing bombs at us as hard as he could. I got to the wire with the rest, but could not get through. Our bombers threw bombs into Fritz's trench but as we knew that our barrage would come back on us in a very few minutes, there was nothing to do but go back.

"As I re-entered the communication trench, I found several badly wounded and gave a hand getting them in, taking turns crawling along the trench with a man on our back. We all got in, no killed, but several injured. One of the men I helped in lost his leg. Well, it was a failure - it only lasted a quarter of an hour, but was very exciting while it lasted and could have been worse. One machine gun, or several good rifle men, and we would have suffered badly."

Later in the letter he described an attack in which a German officer showed unexpected courtesy to wounded Australian soldiers.

"Well, we joined the Battalion when they came out, and we went to Albert for five days training. We had dose two when the order came to pack up and be ready to move in an hour as the Germans were retiring and our boys were after them. All was excitement and bustle. Off we went ten or twelve miles back to a camp not far from our lines and here we dropped our packs and got 48 house rations, bombs, ammunition, and that night we moved up to the line again. There was no grumbling. The snow had gone and things were much better and we had plenty to eat. We were here for two days on fatigue, and got all sorts of rumours of how the advance was going and how many villages were taken.

"Well, our chance came one night and we were given tools and told that by morning we had to be well out of sight and were taken to our front line and taken over. This line had only just been dug outside a village that was taken the day before. Deep in the night we went out in parties about 1000 yards and dug in advanced posts which were intended to be linked up and form our new front line. We were close up to Fritz's wire and could hear him talking in his trench.

"Well, our men worked well, and we took it in turns to watch and work. The watch was out a few yards in front in a shell hole. This was cold work, and we were glad to get back to the digging. By 4am we had a trench 6ft deep and 3ft wide dug. Our garrison was a poor one, however. We stopped till about 6am with a machine gun playing over us all the time. He must have picked us up with night glasses.

"Well, about this time Fritz's artillery opened a furious barrage on the village and trenches we had taken over and this led us to expect an attack and our officer thought wisest to withdraw the garrison and fall back on our lines, so off we went. The old machine gun missed us getting out, but soon opened up on us, but we got away without casualties and with the rest of the men in support, we stood to and manned the trench waiting for the enemy.

"Well, he never came down as far as us, but he attacked the outposts we had just dug with varying success. At ours he met with no resistance. It is just as well we went in one way as we would have no hope, having only eight men and two bombs to hold it. Another post they caught napping and killed and wounded every man, taking the slightly wounded prisoners, and a machine gun. Those they could not take away the German officer gave each a drink of water and fixed up comfortably, and saluted them and went off.

"At another post there was a fair garrison of bombers, riflemen, and a machine gun came up at the last moment, so they were fairly strong. The morning was foggy and favourable to attack, and the Germans (a party of 50 or 60) crept up. An officer came out in front and was waving his arms and shouting evidently telling the Huns to extend and surround the post. Our officer, a Mr Brown, with the machine gunner on one side and an NCO on the other, kept very cool. Both these men were itching to shoot but 'No, let's see what they are going to do'. At last the NCO could retrain himself no longer and, picking up his rifle, he dropped the officer clean first shot. 'Beautiful shot' said Brown.

"The Germans crowded around in a bunch and our machine gunner, seeing his opportunity, let drive and only about six Huns got away. This turned the German movement on this flank, but they got into the village the other side but our chaps soon chased them out with considerable loss.

"It appears from prisoner's statements (and we got a good number of them) that the enemy had been training for this raid for a week before, and had his two crack regiments, the Grenadier Guards and the 5th Foot Guards, picked to attack the Anzacs, which is certainly a compliment to our men. We nearly always strike the Prussian guards. Later on we got onto them behind their lines with a machine gun and could see that they had many casualties, so all told I think we had by far the best of it.

"The German's shelled us later. Well you can't fight a 9.5" shell, it is just an endurance test. Our men stood it well, as they always do. Well, an affair like this gives you an opportunity to see what our mates are made of, and 50% of them are fine men; the rest, we'll let them rest, perhaps I would be amongst them if others told this tale."


Last updated: 31 May 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Troops first to try armour in WWI, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/troops-first-try-armour-wwi
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