Scottish-born soldier Wellington’s finest

In 1916, Louis Thuillier had returned to his Vignacourt farmhouse after two years in the French army, when Australian soldiers began arriving from Gallipoli as the Australian forces poured into the Western Front from the disastrous Dardanelles campaign. Louis and Antoinette saw an opportunity to make some extra money by offering passing soldiers photographs of them and their mates.

Only a handful of the positive photographic prints from the thousands of Thuillier negatives have surfaced in official collections in Australia. 

I was perusing the collection looking for any military policemen (MP) amongst the images and while doing so, a photo caught my eye. 

Thinking he may have been an MP, I opened up the image in full to read the description. In doing this I found the photo was of Jack Raitt, a very familiar name from when I researched “Wellington’s Finest” several years ago. 

Jack’s portrait is one of the few that is fully labelled, revealing it was taken in October 1918, shortly before the signing of the Armistice. 

The photo shows a confident, well-dressed Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) of the Australian 17th Battalion (Australian War Memorial Negative Number P10550.034).

1276 RSM John William RAITT MM, CdeG 

John William Raitt, known as Jack Raitt, was originally from Inverbie, Scotland, and his parents still lived in the “Old Country”. 

Jack was well known in and around the Gulgong, Elong Elong and Gollan areas where he had worked. He was nearly 27 years old when he joined up on 16 February 1915 and was allocated to the 17th Battalion. 

Jack started off as a private but gradually worked his way up through the ranks. He sailed for Anzac Cove aboard the Themistocles on May 12, 1915. 

Whilst on the Peninsula he was promoted; firstly to lance corporal and later to corporal. He stayed on Gallipoli until the Evacuation in December 1915.

After Gallipoli the 17th Battalion moved to the Western Front in early 1916. Jack’s progression through the ranks continued, as he proved to be a good soldier and a natural leader of men. While with his battalion as a sergeant in 1916, he was involved in the following incident, described in the 17th’s Unit history: 

“On the left, D Company was also having its share of trouble. 

“Earlier it had lost all its officers but one, and had suffered heavily from semi-enfilade machine-gun fire from the left front. Major Holmes, becoming anxious over the failure of the British brigade on the left flank, sent his adjutant, Barnet, up to examine the position and to ensure the taking of adequate measures to protect that flank. 

“Barnet encountered Lieutenant JM Dickens and Sergeant JW Raitt on the railway line, where it ran through a cutting. 

“Observing a number of dugouts in the sides of the cutting, Barnet ordered Raitt to take a party and clean up any of the enemy found there. Raitt collected a few men and with Sergeant CG Schwonberg, proceeded to bomb the dug-outs, during the process of which they accounted for a machine-gun and its crew. 

“A little later Schwonberg was severely wounded, and as Raitt bent down to tend his wounded comrade, a party of Germans came up behind him and took him prisoner. 

“He endeavoured by signs to secure the permission of his captors to carry Schwonberg, but this they refused, and soon Raitt was being escorted by two of the enemy towards their positions. 

“The party had proceeded several hundred yards when a shell burst close by them, one of the Germans falling wounded. 

“With great presence of mind the sergeant swung a lightning right fist on to the jaw of the other German, and then turned and fled back to his own lines, discarding his greatcoat as he went. Although heavily fired on, the plucky fellow got back safely.”

In late 1917, Raitt was recommended for the Belgian Decoration Militaire for the following action:

“In the operations dated 9th October 1917, on Passchendaele Ridge, this NCO showed conspicuous bravery and leadership. 

“Soon after the attack started all his officers, excepting one, became casualties, and he took charge of the left flank and succeeded almost alone in reaching the final objective, where he personally blew up a machine gun and crew and bombed several dugouts.

“Afterwards, when the enemy tried to work round to his left flank, which was exposed owing to the troops to our left failing to come up, he kept his men together, and finally, when forced to withdraw, sent the men back, covering their withdrawal with his rifle, and not until they were in a new position did he withdraw himself. 

“During the whole of the day he exhibited splendid courage and tenacity, and inspired all with the fullest confidence and determination.”

Late 1917 saw Jack promoted to RSM (Regimental Sergeant Major) of the 17th Battalion.  

Raitt remained the unit’s RSM throughout the remainder of the war. In August 1918 he was awarded the Belgian Decoration Militaire for distinguished services rendered. 

The order was later more commonly referred to as the Belgian Croix De Guerre. Raitt was probably one of the 193 Australian officers and men awarded the Belgian award around that time. 

For the Passchendaele actions he was awarded the Military Medal by the AIF. 

Despite all his time in the trenches and his daring exploits, Jack remained unwounded throughout the war. He did, however, suffer from several bouts of ‘trench fever’, but recovered well.

 Jack was able to see his family at their Smiddy Hill farm in Brechin, Scotland, whenever he had a decent period of leave in the United Kingdom. 

Not surprisingly, he married a Scottish lass and he returned to Australia with her in late 1919, settling in the Arncliffe area of Sydney.

The photo above is Australian War Memorial Negative Number P1055.047 and shows Raitt with the other senior non-comissioned officers (NCOs) from the 17th Battalion. Unfortunately, only Raitt is identified to date, but no doubt due to the clarity of the photo, more of the NCOs will come to be identified.

The photo above is Australian War Memorial Negative Number P1055.047 and shows Raitt with the other senior non-comissioned officers (NCOs) from the 17th Battalion. Unfortunately, only Raitt is identified to date, but no doubt due to the clarity of the photo, more of the NCOs will come to be identified.