Volume VI – The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Allied Offensive, 1918

Introduction by Geoffrey Serle

The Australian War Memorial would like to acknowledge the kind permission of the author and the assistance of the University of Queensland Press in making this Introduction available on–line.

Charles Bean wrote this last of the twelve volumes of the Official History to be completed, and the last of his own six, largely between 1937 and 1940. He worked under the pressures of stringent finances, lack of interest by his governmental employers, consciousness of the distaste for his subject of much of the intelligent reading public, and finally of renewed world war. He worked concentratedly, as hard as ever, for long hours at nights and weekends, scribbling his first draft, which remained largely intact, on the back of page proofs of volume V, maintaining his voluminous correspondence, checking and checking again.

Publication in mid 1942 had been held up for several months by wartime conditions. This culmination and completion of the greatest and most extensive work of Australian history to that time should have been received with celebration and acclaim. Bean himself hoped that the story of “one smashing victory after another” in 1918 would be “very heartening to our people” in the dark days of 1942.1 But volume VI made little impact. The daily and weekly press reviewed it perfunctorily although reviewers in the Melbourne Argus, the Bulletin, the Australian Quarterly and the Times Literary Supplement wrote warm appreciations.2 None of the historical journals noticed it. There was not one serious critical review by a military historian - admittedly possible reviewers were engaged away from home. Every historian craves sympathetic magisterial reviews: Bean must have found it very saddening. Similarly, his one volume summary, Anzac to Amiens (1946), could hardly have been more unfortunately timed. He once confided to Gavin Long that he had never met an academic historian who had read any of his volumes.3

This volume opens in May 1918 with the Allies “panting for breath” after holding the enemy offensive on the Somme and waiting tensely for the next German throw. Meanwhile the four Australian divisions on the Somme and the 1st Division, detached in Flanders, systematically engaged themselves in “peaceful penetration”. Important advances were made in the Morlancourt area in May and June and at Hamel in the set piece battle of 4 July.

The German attacks on the French on 27 May in Champagne, on 9 June on the Aisne and on 15 July near Rheims were held, while Foch and Haig prepared their counter strokes. Following the French counter offensive of 18 July, on 8 August the Australians and Canadians on the Amiens front made the vital break in which developed into a conclusive general offensive. Weary and undermanned though it was, the A.I.F. was at last able to demonstrate its full quality in a series of brilliant victories over the next two months. If the Corps was not always the spearhead, it was constantly one of several. It captured almost one quarter of the prisoners, guns and territory gained by the British Army in the period. It did so at the cost only of about 24,000 casualties of whom some 5,000 died — relatively many fewer than British and French casualties, despite its being always in the van. The A.I.F. infantry was finally withdrawn from action on 5 October when beyond the Hindenburg Line. Five weeks later the war ended at last.

Bean’s general interpretation of the strategy and conduct of the war in 1918, the product of his own scholarship, stands up well against the many other historical investigations that have been made over the forty years since the volume was published. Against the temper of the time he recognized Haig’s virtues and gave Foch his due. His assessment of Franco British military relations was an important independent view. He nominated 18 July as the real turning point of the war — indeed he took trouble to state it dogmatically and prominently as a proper tribute to the French.4

Bean devotes chapter VI to Lieutenant General Sir John Monash’s succession in May as Corps commander and, unprecedentedly in the Official History, gives him a thirteen page biography (see pp. 198–211 and 1092). The background is strange. Their relations on Gallipoli, while fleeting, were inharmonious. Though he quickly came to appreciate Monash’s outstanding capacity, Bean did not like him and distrusted him. His 1918 diaries are thickly sprinkled with prejudiced impressions and harsh judgements of Monash; it is likely that this is the main reason why Bean placed so long an embargo on release of the diaries. In particular he considered Monash was not “straight” enough and so ambitious for glory that the Corps could not safely be entrusted to him. So he, Keith Murdoch and others plotted in May-July 1918 to replace Monash with Brudenell White and for Monash to take Birdwood’s place as commander of the A.I.F. It was a reprehensible affair (condemned by White) which Bean describes frankly and apologetically and came greatly to regret (see pp. 195–98).5 For his part Monash considered Bean a mediocre war correspondent who failed especially in his public relations function; he described Bean’s account of the battle of Messines as “the apotheosis of banality”.6 Their relations in August and September 1918 were particularly unhappy: Blarney once intervened to convince Bean that there were good reasons why Monash had refused to house visiting journalists at Corps headquarters and that he should apologize. Bean feared that Monash might send him home.7

Bean largely changed his mind after Monash’s successful leadership of the Corps and when he eventually realized know few agreed with him about Monash’s character. Much of his treatment of Monash in this volume is highly eulogistic, notably in the strained comparison with Napoleon. Overall, however, it is uneasy Bean could never quite come to terms with Monash - and includes some of his old criticisms, sometimes petty, from his diaries. They are part of a historian’s attempt to qualify and set off praise. But examples of criticisms which need investigation and possible qualification include:

  • Volume VI, p. 209. “the losses of [Monash’s] brigade, division and corps were, if anything higher than the average in the A.I.F.” This judgement seems to be mistaken with regard to the Corps.
  • Volume V, pp. 225–26. The comment that on 28 March at Morlancourt the ground could have been won by patrol approaches and night attacks does not take into account the probability that Lieutenant General Congreve ordered Monash (by telephone) to attack immediately, in daylight.
  • Volume VI, pp. 599–602. The implication that Monash had any discretion to exploit the success of 8 August seems mistaken.
  • Volume VI, p. 994. With regard to the assault on the Hindenburg Line, it needs to be asked what options Monash had after the failure of the attack on 27 September.

Since Bean, Monash’s military career has never, until very recently, been examined in detail. He was of course lucky in that he took command of a superb fighting instrument just when, the tide of war was turning in 1918, and he never had to fight as Corps commander with the odds against him. He has been fortunate also in his treatment by British historians: Sir Basil Liddell Hart’s steady advocacy and Lloyd George’s praise firmly established his reputation, and Field Marshal Montgomery, A.J.P. Taylor, and many another historian have been content to repeat Liddell Hart’s judgements. In his lifetime and after, an inflated myth grew around him in Australia. Requiring a hero leader of the A.I.F., the RSL and many of the public exaggerated his prowess, to the neglect of other fine generals.8

Close study establishes that the myths ate not wildly misleading. Monash’s performance on Gallipoli was perhaps rather better than Bean allowed. As a divisional commander he was, at the least, very good indeed. As Corps commander, while of course he had bad days such as 10 August and 29 September, overall his performance was masterly and sometimes brilliant. It is beyond dispute that none of the other Australian senior commanders, except Brudenell White in some respects, compared with him in intellect, administrative capacity, ability to work harmoniously with others, stability, clarity of mind or articulateness. It is doubtful whether any British general did — he may have been “the best man in France”. Perhaps the most impressive tribute to Monash is that hardly any officer who worked closely with him did not become a devotee and personal friend - Blamey, Coxen and Foott at Corps headquarters, Hobbs, Rosenthal, Elliott and Cannan among the divisional and brigade commanders, juniors such as Morshead, Durrant, Jess and Locke who became generals of the Second A.I.F.; Gellibrand and Brand, however, are exceptions.

Similarly, among the official war historians, F.M. Cutlack and H.S. Gullett, unlike Bean, were total admirers. Monash was, of course, egotistical and a showman, yet the mix of his vanity and modesty is bewildering. He was remote from the men in the line; yet his private informality and lack of swank, as distinct from his public display, eventually led the Bulletin to define him as “the absolute antithesis of the unapproachable, self conscious brass hat”. Bean went far, but perhaps not quite far enough, to appreciate the extraordinariness of a Jewish militiaman of Prussian background achieving what Monash did, and its significance for Australian history.

Bean’s treatment in chapter XIII of “The Origin of ‘August 8th’” is masterly. Monash himself was never quite sure how much he had to do with it and possibly never learned of the secret planning in late May for an Australian assault on the Somme. While in early July, shortly after the battle of Hamel, Monash was urging on Rawlinson the possibility of a Somme offensive, Haig and Rawlinson had independently reached the same conclusion. Bean suggests that Rawlinson, fearing that Prime Minister Hughes might oppose further use of the A.I.F., “encouraged Monash to make the suggestions, hoping that Mr. Hughes would accept them more readily from that source” (see p. 525 n). Bean judged it impossible to assess how much Monash had contributed to the decision but reasonably argued that the months of Australian peaceful penetration and “the methods of co operation between tanks, infantry and artillery … devised by Monash and his staff for Hamel” (see p. 525), and the associated battle drill, had created the conditions for success. A.I.F. veterans in the RSL clubs, naturally exaggerating the leading part they had played, had long believed that Monash had planned the 8 August offensive, just as they believed they had saved Amiens and the Channel Ports in March and April. It is doubtful whether Bean’s reasoned accounts of these matters qualified their views to any marked extent.

Bean took particular care over his treatment of the Americans in his account of the battle for the Hindenburg Line. We may sense his pride in setting the record straight. On 29 September the 27th and 30th American Divisions led the way, with the A.I.F. following.

… from then till now the story has been widespread of how the 27th (New York) Division, exceedingly brave but very raw, broke through the Hindenburg Line and dashed to the first objective without mopping up; whereupon Germans at once emerged in rear from the elaborate tunnel shelters and elsewhere, cut off the Americans and barred the Australian advance (see p. 982).

Using American and German army records as well as Australian and British, Bean built on O’Ryan’s Story of the 27th Division9 to present a very different account. His method was to describe how the battle appeared to the Australian commanders, then to recount what really happened. The impetuous American rush never took place: despite their bravery and high morale, having lost most of their officers, they succumbed to orthodox enemy counter attacks. Bean was concerned to refute traditional unjust Australian criticism and to reassert the view he had formed at the time that Rawlinson and Monash had unreasonably given the 27th Division a far too difficult task. He perhaps puts his view too strongly, but he was almost certainly broadly in the right. Bean staunchly admired the Americans and even in 1918 had a clear view of the importance of long term close relations between the United States and Australia: this was not propaganda tailored to the circumstances of 1942.

The first chapter of this volume, “The ‘Diggers’, 1918”, contains many of Bean’s most interesting remarks on the nature of the Australian soldier from the time he was drafted in like a “half-wild colt”. He remained “incorrigibly civilian”:

However thoroughly he accepted the rigid army methods as conditions temporarily necessary, he never became reconciled to continuous obedience to orders, existence by rule, and lack of privacy. His individualism had been so strongly implanted as to standout after years of subordination (see p. 5).

“He was the easiest man in the world to interest and lead, but was intolerant of incompetent or uninteresting leaders.” (See p. 6.) Bean vividly indicates the nature of the demands on an officer newly promoted from the ranks having to justify himself (p. 22). One hungers for more of this kind of comment and description, especially some elaboration on Bean’s two brief references to mateship: “a man must ‘stand by his mates’ at all costs” (p. 6) and “The Digger’s unspoken, unbreakable creed was the miner’s and bushman’s, ‘Stand by your mate’.” (See p. 1084.) Bean knew his Henry Lawson and had been out “on the wool track”.

Why was the A.I.F. so effective? Bean regarded this as possibly the most important question of all. He makes much of the argument, though he qualifies it considerably, that they were countrymen, or in closer contact with rural life, in higher proportion than in the European armies. He recognizes the importance of the physical qualifications insisted on throughout in recruitment. He stresses that the men of the A.I.F. were “picked” in that they were the only wholly volunteer army: to my mind he does not emphasize this distinction enough. But his chief explanation is magnificent: the A.I.F. was the product of a truly democratic society. Its strength lay in the comparative absence of social barriers between the classes in contrast to the British who educated only one class properly at the expense of the rest and who operated their army on a basis of class suppression. The Australian rank and file reasoned why; they were good soldiers because, not in spite of the fact that, Jack was as good as his master; democratic freedom developed the whole man. The one drawback Bean admitted was the inadequate education in the English language of many officers of lowly origin, attributable to deficiencies in the state education systems, which led to frequent imprecision and ambiguity in situation reports. Overall, however, Bean’s is one of the great professions of egalitarian faith in the twentieth century. And his quotation of Gellibrand: “I often wonder which spur most induced towards the efficiency of an A.I.F. commander - the one from above or the one from below” is perhaps his most telling comment of all.10

Bean’s narrative powers were as strong as ever. The story of the battle of Hamel (chapter IX) and the chapters on peaceful penetration (II, X, XI) are superbly told. His description of the scene when the mist lifted on the morning of 8 August (the tanks “like elephants accompanying an Oriental army” [p 545–47] rivals C.E. Montague’s in Disenchantment.11 His undramatized account of the 18th Battalion’s daylight raid at Morlancourt on 18 May is a gem (see pp. 105–8). He meets the challenge of the tangle of the Hindenburg Line battle (chapter XX) with an account which the reader may follow without much difficulty. The device of describing the behaviour of a company of the 21st Battalion in billets (based on his notebook for May 1918), then reverting to them by name from time to time, succeeds brilliantly in its dimension of personal intimacy. That they were to take part in the very last action of the A.I.F. infantry, and that many of them were to die that day, was a chance of war which proved irresistible to the writer (see pp. 8–18 and 1031–43). The accounts of the exploits of heroes like Wilder-Neligan, Joynt and Hammon12 are as effective and understated as ever. The human detail — “Waitsey get in!” (p. 864), for example — is absorbing. How pleasant to learn that Corporal Ford, DCM, who had announced “This is no bloody good to me” and rushed a machine gun, was a vaudeville artist in civilian life (p. 774). During a fifteen minute halt in an attack on 23 August one man played a piano found in a hut (p. 740) — perhaps Bean does not notice as often as he might the sheerly ridiculous or comic, as well as the appalling, which can occur in the midst of battle. Bean used his diaries and notebooks for much of his colour. He largely neglected battalion histories, volumes of war reminiscences and incidents recounted in RSL journals, and he ignored Monash’s analysis of the qualities of the digger in The Australian Victories in France in 1918; his use of E.J. Rule’s Jacka’s Mob is one exception.13

Bean is open to mild criticism for his reserve in dealing with contentious or discreditable aspects of A.I.F. behaviour; he was perhaps unwilling to be entirely frank in time of renewed war. His treatment of the disbandment mutinies is frank and well told (p. 937–40), although the matter is so interesting in its implications that fuller treatment would have been welcome. He passes over the tragic case of the 1st Battalion mutiny far too briefly (see pp. 933–34 and 939–40). More should have been said: the outline of events remains vague to this day. Bean has little to say about crime and desertion. Admittedly the three volumes of the Official History of the Australian Army Medical Corps by Colonel A.G. Butler14 deal at length with the effects of “shell shock” and associated problems. But the question of morale, of men maintaining or losing their nerve and the ways in which the problem was handled - the extraordinary fact that the great majority of men would continue to face renewed battle with equanimity or resignation — is so inherently interesting that Bean is unsatisfying. His own bravery and conviction of war aims perhaps made him slightly insensitive to the ordeal of the common man, however wracked he was by their deaths and mutilation. Not without embarrassment, he admitted Australian shooting of prisoners, but only when in the heat of battle: “enraged by losses” or, assuming treachery, when some but not all Germans surrendered (see pp. 135, 290 and 660). He counterbalanced these incidents with instances of Australian chivalry to prisoners (see pp. 518 and 628). His remarks on souveniring and alleged drunkenness of Australian troops are convincing (pp. 539–40n). His admission of disasters, such as the heavy casualties caused by German shelling of 4th Divisional Headquarters and the 14th Battalion at Allonville on 31 May as a result of information obtained from Australian prisoners, and Australians attacking each other at Dernancourt, is frank but might have been better not confined to footnotes (pp. 109n and 440n).

On all these matters Bean is restrained, perhaps too much so. He is restrained also when he felt passionately, as he did about unnecessary wastage of life in that last attack of 5 October at Montbrehain (pp. 1077),15 or about the disastrous effects on Australia and the war effort of the attempts to impose conscription in 1916–191716 (although it would be interesting to know just when he reached his conclusion).

Bean shows not a trace, in the main body of his work, of any hatred or contempt for the enemy - a singular virtue in a work published in 1942. He knew very well that the German soldier was as much a victim and bore as little responsibility for the war as the Allied man in the line. He appreciated the friendly collaboration of German historians and archivists who had made possible his constant statement of the enemy account of battle, although he deplored “the inability of German writers to record a real defeat” (p. 915). In his final chapter, however, he would allow no doubts or qualifications about war guilt, condemning the “careless verdict of ‘both to blame’”, and typically contrasting “a ruling class deliberately schooled in the principles of Clausewitz and Bernhardi” with “one brought up in the creed of the English public schools”. Moreover, he saw Nazism as only an accentuation of Prussianism (see pp. 1074–76). On these matters he was a prisoner of his generation.

In forty years, since this last volume by Bean, hardly a single book on the military history of the A.I.F. on the Western Front has been published. Bean has been widely admired and largely unread, at least until the 1970s; academic and other serious historians have been content to allow him the last word. The war itself, as distinct from the impact of the conscription campaigns and other social effects, was for long disregarded in the, teaching of Australian history. Bean’s contribution to Australian historiography and to Australians’ understanding of themselves was passed over. Until very recent times few Australian military historians have emerged; serving or retired army officers engaging in a serious hobby so often to be observed in Britain and the United States - have been conspicuously absent.

That Bean has never been critically assessed as a military historian is no tribute to him. Granted the magnitude of his achievement, several queries might reasonably be made. The Official History is a magnificent tribute to the infantryman but does not do justice to the Artillery, Engineers, Supply and Transport and other ancillary arms. Why did Bean so confine his original plan and why did he not amend it? That there was a separate medical history is to the credit of the Australian branches of the British Medical Association. The obverse of Bean’s frontline treatment (with more than 2,000 biographical references in this volume) is that he gave relatively little attention to A.I.F. operations as seen by higher commanders: the planning at Corps headquarters and staff work in general are conspicuous deficiencies in his work. To what extent, if any, is the Official History a factional product, reflecting the views of his heroes White and Gellibrand (and their friends Glasgow and Howse) rather than those of Monash, Hobbs (whom Bean surely did not adequately appreciate), Blamey, Rosenthal and Elliott? How adequately did professional soldiers consider he had covered technical aspects?

Despite all possible reservations, the Official History is a work well worthy of the quality of the A.I.F. It might so easily have been something much less. It was chiefly written by a self made scholar who shared the dangers of the front line more perhaps than any war correspondent of all the nations and who perhaps more than any other national official historian knew the reality of war. We should be forever grateful that this story of Australian heroism was written an Australian patriot who was also an Anglo Australian gentleman of impeccable manners who would never stoop to score points off British, French, Americans or Germans, and for whom all chauvinism and boastfulness was distasteful. In a period when a philistine solution was standard, it was remarkably good fortune that Bean had the inside running.

Look again at his last three pages, culminating in an agonized passage which wrings the heart - because of what we are now and what we might have become. Bean puts the case for Australia “becoming a nation” during the war as reasonably as it could possibly be put: the A.I.F. did demonstrate to the Australian people in every State that they were capable of the highest achievement - it enabled “Australians to know their own people”. The men at Anzac were “unconsciously setting a tradition that may work for centuries”. So it may - provided Australian men and women retain the capacity to admire the stoic virtues and to insist on the conditions of freedom which shaped the First A.I.F.

Geoffrey Serle

Notes

  1. Bean to private secretary, minister for the army, 27 March 1942, Official Historian’s Correspondence, Australian War Memorial.
  2. A file of reviews is in the Official Historian’s Papers.
  3. Information from Mr A. H. McLachlan.
  4. For Haig and Foch, see especially pp. 1090–92; for 18 July as the turning point, p. 441.
  5. My full account of the plot is in John Monash: A Biography Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1982, pp. 321–28.
  6. Ibid, p. 292.
  7. Bean, Diary 116, 2, 6, 13, 16 and 17 September, Australian War Memorial.
  8. The matters raised in this and the following paragraph are dealt with fully in John Monash, chapter 13.
  9. Major General J.F. O’Ryan, The Story of the 27th Division (New York: 1921).
  10. Pp. 1078 86 cover Bean’s treatment of this question.
  11. C.E. Montague, Disenchantment, 2nd ed. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1940), pp. 194–98.
  12. See Index to this volume.
  13. J. Monash, The Australian Victories in France in 1918 (London: Hutchinson, 1920); E J. Rule, Jacka’s Mob (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1933).
  14. Sydney: Australian War Memorial, 1930–1934.
  15. Cf Bean’s Diary 117, 9 October 1918 with page 1043.
  16. Bean to W.H. Stanner, 4 March 1942, Official Historian’s Papers, Australian War Memorial.