Australians on the Western Front 1916 - 100 years ago

26 May 2016 by Robyn Van Dyk

We thought we knew something of the horrors of war, but we were mere recruits, and have had our full education in one day.”   Ronald Alison McInnis 19 July, 1916

This year marks the centenary of Australia’s first year on the Western Front. It was to become a year of terrible sacrifice. The experiences of some Australians who served in 1916 are preserved in the Memorial’s archive and are now available online.

From the battlefield of Fromelles, the first major battle fought by Australian troops on the Western Front, comes the story of two brothers from Birdwood, South Australia. Theodor and Raymond Pflaum. Theodor writes of finding an injured Raymond in a dugout, as he was moving into position during the Battle of Fromelles on 19 July 1916. Major Geoffrey Gordon McCrae of Hawthorn, Victoria wrote one last letter to his family on 19 July 1916, shortly before leading the battalion into action at Fromelles: "Today I lead my battalion in an assault on the German lines and I pray God that I may come through alright and bring honour to our name. If not I will at least have laid down my life for you and my country, which is the greatest privilege one can ask for. Farewell dear people, the hour approacheth.!." McCrae was killed in action later that same day leading his battalion in the attack against the enemy trenches. He was 26 years old.

Four days later, Australians went into action on the Somme, attacking and capturing Pozières. Under heavy bombardment, casualties grew over the next few weeks, eventually totalling 23,000. On the Western Front in July 1916 Apcar De Vine fought at Pozières on the Somme. He described the destruction “the whole village was absolutely blown off the map, the wreckage ... is awful, dead Germans and English Tommies are lying about the ruin everywhere”. Australia’s Official Correspondent Charles Bean witnessed the battle of Pozieres describing it as a giant mincing machine: "Pozières has been a terrible sight all day … The men were simply turned in there as into some ghastly giant mincing machine. They have to stay there while shell after huge shell descends with a shriek close beside them … each shrieking tearing crash bringing a promise to each man – instantaneous – I will tear you into ghastly wounds – I will rend your flesh and pulp an arm or a leg – fling you half a gaping quivering man (like those that you see smashed around you one by one) to lie there rotting and blackening like all the things you saw by the awful roadside, or in that sickening dusty crater."  Charles Bean, diary, 29 July 1916

The deaths of infantryman in the battles of 1916 greatly affected Arthur Thomas who wrote "I cannot for the life of me make out how sane creatures will combat each other in this fashion year after year...[the Germans] just mowed our chaps down like grass...God, the whole chaos is too terrific for my pencil." Arthur describes the incessant artillery barrages throughout the day and night, the masses of unburied dead, the gruelling route marches, extreme cold and wet weather, and fighting in trenches with mud and slush up to their waist for days or sometimes weeks.

Lieutenant Ronald Alison McInnis of North Queensland was an important figure in surveying and mapping the trenches at Gallipoli. His diary entries describe in great detail the battles in which he participated. One such entry depicts McInnis' brush with death in October 1916 while at the front. He was about to take a rest when a salvo of shells landed nearby. As McInnis looked to see where they had landed he noticed the wall of the trench he was in falling towards him. At first he struggled to free himself from the soft earth, but as it settled and compressed he realised it was slowly crushing him. Fortunately, members of his unit saw what had happened and successfully dug him out.

Continue to follow the journey of Australians throughout 1916 on the Western Front through the Memorial’s digitisation project Anzac Connections and daily on Twitter #DailyDigger