Local Greg Raffin’s love of military history has led him to become a published author, and his new book, Mutiny on the Western Front, details an event from 1918 that is rarely discussed or covered by other historical texts or military experts. Greg seeks to show history “warts and all” – placing himself in the shoes of the people he writes about, showing a rare empathy and understanding of the horrors men faced during World War I …
Hi Greg. It’s been quite a few years since I spoke with you (around 2014!) At the time, you’d released the book Australia’s Real Baptism of Fire. Apart from researching, what’s been keeping you and your family busy since then?
In essence … trying to stay fit and out of trouble! Our girls live locally and are busy with their work and their children, while our son is a chopper pilot currently working in Timor.
You’ve now written a second book, Mutiny on the Western Front. Tell us a bit about the main event/s this book covers.
On 21st September 1918 (just a few weeks before war’s end) over 100 men from the 1st Battalion AIF refused an order to go “over the top” and instead “walked to the rear”. The men were duly charged with both mutiny and desertion at a series of field courts-martial. Contrary to common belief, Australians could, under certain circumstances, actually be executed for mutiny.
All but eleven of the men were imprisoned for terms ranging from two years to ten years. The battle in question was virtually the last military engagement by Australian troops on the Western Front, and it was the culmination of an extended period of fighting which included the heroic endeavours of the AIF in and around Amiens. Amongst this group of men were some who fought at Gallipoli and three of them had previously been awarded the Military Medal.
The word “mutiny” is an emotive one, but there are two sides to every story and both should be objectively evaluated. The story which enfolds in my book is every bit as fascinating as the story of Bligh and the crew of the Bounty.
Australians have long been known for their fierceness under fire and bravery in battle. What has your research led you to uncover about the mutiny, and why these men refused to fight?
The word “uncover” is particularly relevant here, because for decades, historians wrote little about this event. Perhaps the tendency was to see this episode as too shameful, but the fact is that history should be presented “warts and all”.
I wanted to put myself in the shoes of these men who had faced the horrors of the Western Front. I learnt that there were unusual background circumstances and that, had a different approach been employed, there could well have been a different outcome. I discovered that leadership styles differed greatly within the AIF. The gaoled men were all privates under the control of their NCOs, who were reacting to orders from their superior Officers.
What ultimately became of these men; how were they disciplined?
After trials lasting two days, the privates were sentenced to terms of two – three years, while the NCOs were given sentences ranging from five – ten years. When the war ended, they were shipped to Britain and imprisoned there until they were progressively released from late April 1919 and shipped home.
They were later pardoned, and none of them lost any of their medals. However, there are poignant stories of a few who did not make it home. Sadly, their punishments did not end with their release, as most chose to suffer in silence. Some families knew nothing of their involvement; others found out under the strangest of circumstances. Most of the men, though pardoned, still felt ostracised and never spoke of their experiences.
What sources were used to complete your research? In particular, tell us about the “local connections” you found.
For about 60 years little was written about this mutiny, and then in 1979 an award-winning documentary, also called Mutiny on the Western Front, was screened. It seemed to stimulate further research. Interestingly, I only found four sources which discussed the mutiny at length. Two of these, including the only one of those four to discuss it in isolation, have never been published.
In the documentary there was an anonymous voice-over from one of the men gaoled. His family learnt of his involvement when they recognised his voice. One of his grandsons lives in Port Macquarie, and he provided me with full details of his life before and after the war. His is an interesting story in itself, and I thread it throughout the book when dealing with the bigger picture.
I also refer to the heroic exploits of Harold Andrews from Wauchope, who was not involved in the mutiny, other than to give evidence at the courts-martial.
The human face of war and military life can often go unrecognised. How do you feel now you’ve written this book – do you feel you have more insight into the men you researched, as opposed to their military campaigns?
I definitely feel that I have a greater understanding not only of their backgrounds, but also their grievances at the time of the mutiny. I wanted to put myself in their shoes, to empathise with them, not just sympathise with them.
I also learnt about how the authorities and the men themselves strove to maintain morale. In 1914 the term “shell shock” was not in use; today we support “Soldier On”, so it is not just me who has developed a greater understanding.
The preface for your book was written by Peter Stanley. What can you tell us about Peter and his connection to the world of military history?
Peter Stanley is currently the head of the faculty of Military History at ADFA in Canberra. He is well-known and respected as an author of numerous books on military history and also reviews the works of other writers for publishers and the media. He encouraged me and advised me throughout the writing process.
Where can we purchase a copy of your book?
Several bookshops stock my book, including Dymocks and Bookface. It is also available at the Wauchope Newsagency.
Interview: Jo Robinson.