The Slouch Hat

The slouch hat is the immortal symbol of the Aussie Digger! Perhaps when soldiers are seen marching on the parade ground or through city streets it might be regarded as ornamental or decorative with most people liking the look of it. What I am doing, though, is looking at it in an entirely different way.

The slouch hat has existed around the world for a couple of hundred years but my interest is from the time it really became the iconic emblem of the Australian soldier; the Second World War. A soldier at war has a weapon, and the Australian infantry soldiers' weapon was the 303; the Lee Enfield point 303 rifle. In battle, the 303 was the most important bit of equipment the soldier had. A wonderful weapon, no question about it. His second most important bit of equipment was his slouch hat! And these two bits of equipment worked as a unit!

To explain why that was so, I mention some personal things that first got me thinking. Only six years after the Second World War, I was called up for National Service. The Korean War was in progress and army training was the first step preparatory to going to that war. I was handy with the 303, at 440 yards and beyond, a first class shot, only one rung below a marksman. Despite this success, I had a problem. The bolt action of the 303 was on its right-hand side and was designed for right-handed, right-eyed shooters. Because I was left-handed and left-eyed, this meant I could only manipulate the bolt action by an awkward procedure of reaching across the weapon. I had a big think about how that might function in the duress of battle. I concluded that it was too cumbersome to handle but worse still, reduced the weapon's rate of fire to less than half. That was unacceptable and likely to result in a bad, if not fatal, outcome for me. It was vital that I learn to use the 303 right-handed and right-eyed. So, out to the butts with a few magazines of bullets for some right-handed, right-eyed practice. After a few days and a shoulder swollen and in agony from the 303's violent recoil, I achieved my goal, a first class shot once again.

These sessions at the butts were in mid-summer and while there I made an important discovery about the slouch hat. As a left-eyed shooter and because the slouch hat has its left side turned up, I had been looking through my gun-sights with my eyes unshaded and sometimes dazzled by sunlight. I had hardly noticed any detriment as my eyesight was excellent but when I switched to right-eyed, I aimed from the shade under the hat brim and my targets were much clearer and easier to see.

I began to think further about the slouch hat in a battle situation. I assumed I was behind a parapet or in a trench. If I were a left-eyed shooter my sighting of the 303 meant that the right brim of my hat would be the first thing to project above the parapet, not much, but enough to matter. The enemy would know where my head was about to appear and would aim there ready to shoot me. As a right-eyed shooter, the reverse did not apply because the slouch hat had its left side turned up and pinned snugly to its crown. The enemy would not know from where my head would appear above the parapet and I could fire my shot and be quickly out of sight.

It was at this stage I began to think of the parade ground and the wearing of the slouch hat. Its left side was turned up, supposedly to enable the rifle to be carried on the shoulder without knocking one's hat off one's head, but I believe, because of what I have just explained, that the origin of the side turned up was likely to have been on the battlefield not the parade ground.

Also, on the parade ground the regimental sergeant-major required the slouch hat be worn in an exact position; the left brim to be four finger-widths above the left ear; the front brim to be two finger-widths above the right eye-brow. Although these are parade ground requirements, I maintain their origin, including the measurements, were not the parade ground but the battlefield, the first to minimise being seen by the enemy, the second to maximise accurate aiming of the 303.

One may state the obvious, that left-handed shooters ought simply reverse the wearing of the slouch hat. This, though, fails on two grounds; firstly: too slow a rate of fire, and secondly: soldiers were never instructed that for safety in battle the slouch hat needed to be worn in a precise manner. These points were not contemplated by anyone other than myself. Had they been known and adopted, many soldiers who died in the war would have survived. I cannot say that categorically; I just believe it to be so.

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