We have tried something different this Wartime, a themed issue. In 1916 the reorganised Australian divisions arrived on the Western Front after the Gallipoli campaign. For the next three years they were to experience warfare of an intensity and scale far beyond that which they had previously experienced. After settling in on a quiet sector, they were to become part of the great Somme offensive.
The Australian initiative started with what was described as a feint, although the participants would scarcely have thought the disaster into which they were plunged could possibly be so described. The feint was the battle of Fromelles, designed to divert attention from the main offensive further south. Fromelles is one of this issue’s themes; the other is the end of the war, the 90th anniversary of which we soon will recognise.
Fromelles was a disaster for the three infantry brigades involved: Australia’s first main engagement ended in total tragedy and failure. The 15th Brigade, led by “Pompey” Elliot, suffered badly: 726 were killed in action and a further 98 died of their wounds. Despite these horrific casualties, few knew about Fromelles until recently. We have had the occasional correspondent enquiring why something more specific might be done in our galleries to commemorate those who died. (I hope, as an aside, this will be possible when the First World War galleries are redeveloped). It was by the sheer persistence of a few that Fromelles has become better known to Australians. The catalyst was controversy over the possibility of there being an unmarked and therefore unrecognised mass grave of Australian and British soldiers in the Fromelles area.
It came to be recognised that this was an unacceptable situation and that a proper investigation was necessary. It was by no means an easy task. At least one historian declared authoritatively that there was no such grave and therefore no such bodies. This issue tells the full story of Fromelles: the battle, the search, and its eventual successful outcome. It’s a tribute to dogged determination and an unquenchable desire to do the right thing by the men who had fallen. The Australian 5th Division suffered over 1,700 killed in action with a further 216 dying of other wounds.
The discovery of the soldiers’ remains has created intense media interest, and I hope you find that the articles in this issue round out your understanding.
What can be said afresh about the end of the First World War? Well, we have found a few interesting aspects for you to reflect on, ranging from the story of the last few Australians to die, the armistice itself, and the eventual development of tactics to take effective advantage of the technology that emerged during the war.
This being the first time we have tried a themed approach with Wartime, please let us have your comments about it.
The federal government recently announced its decision on the review of honours and awards for those who fought in the battle of Long Tan in August 1966. Particularly, as I had been a past strong advocate in this column, I was delighted to see that Major Harry Smith, the company commander, and the two surviving platoon commanders, were recommended for equivalent awards in the Australian Honours system to those for which they were originally recommended in the then Imperial system. My congratulations to Harry and his men.
Finally, we have another new permanent exhibition opening in late November. It’s called Over the front: the Great War in the air and will feature key items from our unique collection of First World War aircraft: three allied aircraft (SE5a fighter, Airco DH9 bomber, and Avro 504K trainer) and two German fighter planes (Albatros D.Va and Pfalz D.XII) that were brought to Australia in 1919 as war trophies. They have all undergone extensive conservation and with computer-generated imagery developed for us by filmmaker Peter Jackson – the absolute specialist in this sort of thing – the exhibition should be a worthy addition to Anzac Hall. Please come and see it.
Steve Gower AO, AO (Mil)
Australian War Memorial