In the early months of the First World War, great European armies manoeuvred and clashed on a colossal scale, while in Australia a small volunteer force – the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) – was preparing to join in the conflict. But instead of going to Europe these Australians were diverted to Egypt and, with New Zealanders, were formed into the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). The Anzacs’ initiation to battle came in a seaborne invasion of the Turkish Gallipoli peninsula, beginning on 25 April 1915.
Australians were thrilled by the stories of their troops’ exploits in action and recruiting surged; but it all came to nothing, and after eight months of combat, this ill-fated enterprise was abandoned. Next year, in early 1916, the Australian divisions finally joined the British army in France and Belgium. At last the Australians had arrived in the war’s main battle theatre. Here, on the Western Front, they met a new form of fighting; for them this was to become a year of terrible sacrifice.
The AIF on the Western Front
By now the AIF was a much larger force. Following the Gallipoli campaign, the two battle-worn infantry divisions had returned to the camps in Egypt. There they were joined by large numbers of fresh reinforcements and more men arriving from Australia. The two divisions were expanded to four, while a further division (the 3rd Australian Division) was raised in Australia and sent straight on to Britain. From March 1916 the first of the divisions from Egypt began arriving in France.
Australia had committed four infantry brigades to the Gallipoli landings; further brigades of infantry and light horse came afterwards. Now, on the Western Front, they had four divisions (each of three brigades). These, the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th Australian Divisions, were initially sent to the region of the Belgian border to gain familiarity with some of the new weapons of modern warfare, including gas. They then moved into the front-line trenches near Armentières, in an area dubbed “the nursery”.
Although the Australians were in a relatively quiet sector, there were periods of sharp fighting, shelling, and some heavy raids; by the end of June over 600 men had been killed. Only a few days earlier, Private William Jackson became the first man of the AIF to win the Victoria Cross in France. He rescued wounded members of his raiding party from no man’s land until his arm was blown off by a shell.
By now the British army’s main efforts had shifted to the Somme, over 100 kilometres to the south, where, together with the French, they launched a great offensive on 1 July. On the main front, the British attacks were heavily repulsed, with 60,000 casualties on the first day alone. Over the next few weeks the fighting and killing continued, and the Australians soon became drawn in, with three of their divisions sent to join the struggle. However, the most recently arrived division, the 5th, remained in French Flanders; there it went into the trenches opposite the shattered village of Fromelles, which sat on commanding ground behind the German front line.
British troops had fought around Fromelles in 1915, with heavy losses, but the village was about to give its name to a further disaster. On the evening of 19 July the Australian 5th Division and the British 61st Division attacked the Fromelles ridge in a diversionary attack intended to draw German attention from the allies’ Somme operations.
The two divisions chosen for this battle were both new to the sector and lacked local battle experience. The men had to assault over open fields criss-crossed with drainage ditches and in the face of heavy machine-gun and artillery fire. Many fell, while others were overwhelmed by German counter-attacks. The attack failed, with 5,000 Australian casualties, and no ground was taken. It was a cruel introduction to major combat, one from which the 5th Division was a long time recovering.
Brigadier General H.E. “Pompey” Elliott, a veteran officer who commanded the 15th Brigade later said: “Practically all my best officers, the Anzac men who helped to build up my Brigade, are dead. I presume there was some plan at the back of the attack but it is difficult to know what it was.”
Meanwhile, further British attacks on the Somme had brought the front line close to the village of Pozières. There, in darkness on 23 July, the 1st Australian Division made an assault supported by heavy artillery fire. The ruined village was taken in hard and intense fighting and enemy counter-attacks were repelled. The Germans responded by pounding the area with their artillery. The capture of Pozières was a significant achievement, but within five days the 1st Division had lost 5,000 men.
Sergeant Archie Barwick wrote: “All day the ground rocked and swayed from the concussion … we were all nearly in a state of silliness and half dazed, but still the Australians refused to give ground.”
The 1st Division was replaced by the 2nd, whose first attack met with disastrous losses. In further fighting the division captured some ground but suffered more casualties – overall, almost 7,000 in twelve days. The 4th Division was the next to take part, pressing its attacks towards the adjoining Mouquet Farm. With this move, the Australians were trying to threaten the enemy positions at Thiepval, where the British had been stuck for weeks. However, in attacking on a narrow front they became increasingly exposed to murderous shell-fire and yet more counter-attacks.
The three Australian divisions took their turn at Pozières and all suffered heavily. Then, with their numbers built up to only two-thirds strength, each was sent into the inferno for a second tour. Over a period of 42 days the Australians made 19 attacks, 16 of them at night; as a consequence, the casualties finally totalled a staggering 23,000 men, of whom 6,800 were killed.
For men thrown into the fighting at Pozières the experience was simply hell. The battlefield had become the focus of artillery fire from both sides. Attacks went in, some ground was taken, and then the enemy would counter-attack. Throughout this action the fighting was wild, and all the time the shelling tore up the ground, folded the trenches in, and blew away any protection.
Major Walter Claridge wrote to his wife:
I knew you would be ashamed if I played the coward, so I kept straight on at the head of my platoon. I was thankful to get [wounded] as it got me out of the firing line for a rest. Australia may well be proud of the part its boys played in taking Pozières.
The ordeal at Pozières, both physical and mental, was more than men could put up with for very long. Courage made little difference, what each man needed was endurance and luck. Sergeant R. Baldwin, of the 27th Battalion wrote:
We came out this morning as best we could. We are a very shaken lot. Well, we went in and relieved the first division on the night of August 1, six days ago. I saw some awful things although I never got a mark, we are all on the edge, all our nerves are wrecked, we lost some fine men.
Five Victoria Crosses were won. One of these was a posthumous award to Private Tom Cooke, a 35-year-old husband and father whose hobby before the war had been playing cornet in a band. In the opening days of the fighting, he was sent with a Lewis machine-gun crew into a dangerous part of the line. Soon he was the only man left. Against impossible odds, Cooke fought a lone action. He was later found dead at his gun – “a splendid example of determination and devotion to duty”. After the battle Cooke’s body – as with so many others – could not be found, and he remains one of the thousands of “the missing”.
Australian infantrymen who were once taught that “the bullet and bayonet are the deciding factors in fighting” saw at Pozières that the destructive power of artillery now dominated the battlefield. Shrapnel tore men to pieces, high explosive blew them to bits and destroyed trenches, smoke covered the turned-up, stinking ground. Added to this were gas shells. It was the worst artillery shelling that the Australians experienced in the entire war.
Stretcher-bearers worked to exhaustion, usually exposed to fire, carrying men to the aid posts close behind the front line. Sergeant Albert Coates recorded:
Many men buried and torn to pieces by high explosive. For a mile behind the trenches it is a perfect hell of shell fire. Terrible sights. The stretcher-bearers are having a terrible time, some blown to pieces together with their living freight.
Finally, in early September the Australian divisions were taken out of the main battle and sent back to Flanders to recover and rebuild their strength. During this time the New Zealanders went into action on the Somme, fighting an important battle near Flers, a few kilometres from Pozières, an action in which tanks were used in combat for the first time.
The conscription referendums
The Australian Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, was aware that the scale of fighting on the Western Front would make heavy demands on the nation. He had visited troops in France in June before the big battles. In a minor aside in the Great War, there he had a brief reunion with 49-year-old William Johnson a former labour member of the Federal parliament now serving as a private in the AIF. Like so many others, Johnson did not last long; shortly after the meeting he was mortally wounded during the first attack at Pozières.
Hughes had always wanted to introduce conscription rather than rely solely on voluntary recruitment, and the losses at Pozières had only reinforced his views. However, the Labour party was split on his proposal, and he knew he could not get support in the Senate. Finally the matter was put to a referendum on 28 October 1916. The “No” vote narrowly prevailed, but the population remained bitterly divided over the issue. Forced from the Labor Party, Hughes formed a new coalition government.
The onset of winter
Meanwhile in Flanders the Australians got the grim news that they were returning to the Somme; and this time the 5th Division accompanied the others. In November they made attacks near Gueudecourt and Flers, but the muddy conditions destroyed any hopes of success. The main Somme fighting came to an end on 18 November in the rain, mud, and slush of the oncoming winter.
Over the next months winter trench duty with its shelling and raids became almost unendurable and only improved a bit when the mud froze hard. The wet and the cold made life wretched. Respiratory diseases, “trench foot” – caused by prolonged standing in water – rheumatism and frost-bite were common. Many survivors would later say that this was the worst period of the war and that their spirits were never lower. Large-scale fighting did not resume until early 1917 when spring approached.
The 3rd Division had been training in Britain and missed the heaviest battles of 1916. It finally reached France in December and went into the front-line near Houplines not far from Armentières. There it had to suffer the terrible winter conditions. The division remained in Flanders and in the following year entered the major battles at Messines and in the third battle of Ypres; it did not fight on the Somme until 1918.
The slow progress of the British battles through 1916 destroyed any hopes of a breakthrough and the hastening of the war’s end. Instead, the high casualty rate crippled the British volunteer “Kitchener” army – among it those who had responded to the famous “your country needs you!” appeals. It also tore the strength from the AIF. The British government thereafter relied on conscription to maintain its army’s strength; but for the rest of the war the Australians had to make do with reduced intakes of volunteer reinforcements. High command tried to put a brave face on the year’s progress with the British commander-in-chief, General Sir Douglas Haig talking up the few successes. But Charles Bean, the Australian official correspondent (and later official historian), noted that “the cost was dangerously high”.
The long slow road to final victory
By year’s end the war was becoming a heavy burden for all Australians. The excitement and enthusiasm of the early weeks of the Gallipoli campaign had evaporated and the period of strong voluntary enlistments was long past. After a while almost everyone knew some young man killed in the war; now the heavy losses were intruding into a great many households. Making things worse, victory appeared to be nowhere in sight. A schoolboy at the time, Brian Lewis later recalled: “There was no rush for the paper before breakfast to read of the new victory; there were victories in the paper but we did not believe in them any longer.”
The early troops in France had not expected the losses and the horrors that they would face on the Western Front. But the next year would prove just as bad, beginning with the continuing Somme winter conditions, then the battles at Bullecourt and Messines, followed by the fighting in third Ypres. This last was the first offensive in which all five Australian divisions and the New Zealand Division fought – and it produced the highest aggregate casualties. With volunteer numbers still falling, in late 1917 Hughes again sought to introduce conscription. But once again, he failed.
There was further alarm and disappointment for the Australians in the spring of 1918. Early in that year a German offensive re-took areas previously heavily fought for, including the blood-soaked fields around Pozières. However by mid-year the allies had fought back, finally gaining an ascendency over the enemy.
A terrible year
1916 was the halfway point in four years of slaughter. For the French, there was the horror of the battle of Verdun. For Britain and the Empire forces – and the French who were also there – the period is remembered for the series of battles known as the First Battle of the Somme. The British and Commonwealth casualties from this fighting totalled an appalling 420,000, and the French lost 204,000. Combined with the German losses, there were more than a million battle casualties on the Somme.
For Australia, there had been few bright spots in a year that seemed to begin well enough. But once its troops became committed to the Western Front battles from July, their war quickly soured, with heavy losses and suffering at the front and widespread mourning at home. In the attack at Fromelles the cost in lives had been the highest in any 24-hour period in the war, while the casualty rate in the six weeks at Pozières was the worst ever experienced. Then there was the conscription referendum which caused widespread and long-lasting divisions in the population.
The Australians had played a full part in 1916. The Somme offensive did not achieve its goals, but it was one of a series of hammer blows that eventually weakened the German army. In this war of attrition, the allies suffered similarly but had this advantage, that their burden could be shared between the French, the British and Empire troops, and ultimately, in 1918, the Americans. On 11 November 1918 Germany signed an armistice. The tragedy of so many deaths in battle during the Great War was only exceeded by the failure of this sacrifice to achieve an enduring European peace.