Tragedy and Triumph – 1917

“….at least they’ll remember me in Australia”.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Address to the National Press Club
The Honourable Dr Brendan Nelson AO


Australians all let us rejoice…for we are young and free.

We pause here ‘in the heart of the land they loved’, free and confident heirs to a legacy born of idealism, forged in self-sacrifice and passed now to our generation.

We do so a century from our nation’s most tragic, damaging year - 1917.

It was the worst of times.

It was the worst of times.

Barely a year later we emerged victorious - but inconsolably mourning 60,000 dead. Yet from this wrenching cataclysm, embittered, deeply divided - we remained true to our democracy.

We had our story.

We were Australians.

Our young nation’s innocence was brutally lost in the bloodbath at Fromelles and hard-earned victory of Pozieres in 1916.

The bitter conscription referendum rendered us a deeply divided people facing the new year of 1917.

The AIF began in the snow of Bullecourt and finished in the quagmire of Passchendaele, the cost - 77,000 casualties; 22,000 dead and missing.

We were three years into a war in which victory seemed an ever receding horizon. No solace to anguished families in humble homes where telegrams and letters spoke to suffering, death and lives given.

The harsh realities of British military leadership were revealed to the man who was witness to it all - Australia’s official war correspondent, Charles Bean:

“Bullecourt”, he said, “more than any other battle shook the confidence of Australian soldiers in the capacity of the British command”.

He saw the struggles of the ordinary soldier, men simply ‘flicked aside’.

Aghast, he watched in April the 4th Australian Division torn to pieces attacking into a hail of machine gun fire and German artillery at Bullecourt. 

Of the 3,000 men from the 4th Brigade, 2339 were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

In May, Bean returned to Pozieres where a mortally wounded Australian had asked him:  Will they remember me in Australia?

Here he collected the first artefact for the Australian War Museum he had conceived - The ‘Centre way’ trench sign.

These were the sacred relics of triumph and tragedy, of heroism and bloody sacrifice.

As Bean searched amongst the detritus of the Pozieres battle, the Australian War records Office was established at AIF Headquarters in France. Birth had been given to what would become the Australian War Memorial.

The Americans joined the war in April, but not the battlefield for another year.

Russia was seized by a Bolshevik revolution. Lenin would rule by year’s end.

Prime Minister Billy Hughes left the Labor Party, splitting it asunder to triumph in an electoral landslide. Australians wanted a wartime leader.

Ireland’s independence revolutionaries stirred negative Catholic opinion led by Bishop Daniel Mannix.

Months of Industrial warfare broke out in August, 97,000 striking workers crippling transport and industry.

Hughes crushed the unions with sweeping powers. Cynicism and anger spread.

Recruitment stalled. Hughes ran a second pre-Christmas conscription referendum. Again, a majority of Australians voted No.

But it was the events in Europe that would weigh heaviest on any residual Christmas cheer.

One word from 1917 would describe inconsolable grief and mourning for an entire generation of Australians.

Hell on earth now had a name – Passchendaele.

The ‘suffering of Christ’ - and suffering it was.

This small Flanders village - lent its name to a series of battles that would epitomise the war of brutal attrition, of suffering inflicted on so many for so little.

For purists - the Third Battle of Ypres.

With the French army in exhausted turmoil, British operations shifted north into Belgium.

General Douglas Haig dusted off his plan to force the Germans from the Belgian coast.

His first objective was the strategically important Messines Ridge.

On 7 June, after months of tunnelling the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company detonated 1 million pounds of TNT at Hill 60, part of the coordinated, explosive prelude to the battle.

Captain Robert Grieve VC of 34th Battalion recorded the melee:

Suddenly Bedlam was let loose….impossible to describe the inferno. The earth seemed to vomit fire…. shaken as though by an earthquake – the air screamed shells and snapped bullets, above all was the roar of the guns, crackle of machine guns and the hum of aeroplane propellers.

The official photographer, Frank Hurley wrote:

Until my dying day, I shall never forget this haunting glimpse down into the mine crater on Hill 60 – three hideous, decomposed fragments of corpses of German gunners…. one tragedy of thousands

At the No. 2 Australian Casualty Clearing Station near Messines Ridge, 21 Australian nurses were told casualties would be light.

Within 18 hours, 2,800 patients were admitted.

Sister Mimie Procter wrote:

It was a nightmare….blood, blood, blood everywhere and suffering.

Sister Ada Smith:

Droves of dying men….nearly all head cases…. unconscious or else raving in delirium….

Recorded as one of the great set-piece victories of the war – Messines still inflicted 6,800 Australian dead and wounded.  Two Victoria Crosses.

In July, Sister Alice Ross-King was blown into a blood soaked crater getting to the ward tent.

Trying to get a delirious patient into bed:

I had my right arm under a leg which I thought was his, but when I lifted I found to my horror that it was a loose leg with a boot and a putty on it… of the orderly’s legs had been blown off and  landed on the patient’s bed.

The Passchendaele campaign began on 31 July.

The Germans had seven weeks after Messines to fortify their defences in the Ypres-Salient. They built concrete pill boxes, bloc houses, machine gun nests, barbed wire and fortified field artillery batteries.

Over 15 days in late July, the British fired 4.3 million artillery shells from 3,000 guns into the north, attacking on 31 July with a creeping barrage in front of troops with tanks – 27,000 casualties in a day.

Then it began to rain.

With the intricate drainage system of the Flemish lowlands destroyed, the battlefield was a quagmire.

The weather improved in early September as the five Australian Divisions were brought together in support of the imminent battles.

General Herbert Plumer’s ‘first step’ on the road to Passchendaele was the Menin Road.

Side by side, the 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions attacked in the centre flanked by 11 British Divisions.

It went to plan, the advancing barrage winning ground occupied by the infantry.

In less than three hours across a 12 kilometre front, all objectives were taken.

Another 5,013 Australian casualties, two Victoria Crosses awarded.

Clinical enough a description, but the ‘mad photographer’, Frank Hurley wrote:

The way was gruesome, awful beyond words….the dead and wounded lay about everywhere, the ground had the appearance of having been ploughed by a great canal excavator and then re-ploughed… through this the wounded had to drag themselves - and those mortally wounded pass out their young lives …

…the battlefield on which we won an advance of 1500 yards was littered with bits of men….. literally drenched in blood

Charles Bean described the men coming out of the line on the Menin Road:

…..looking like a dead man looks. A man of the 20th Battalion had a wound inside the thigh still bleeding…..passing, he grinned, “We got the bastards good on the second ridge”.

Plumer’s second ‘step’ was at Polygon Wood on 26 September. The 4th and 5th Australian Divisions attacked with the British.

The intensive artillery preparation and the ‘creeping barrage’ was the best ever. The infantry came in behind five layers of bombardment described by Bean as:

….roaring, deafening, it rolled ahead of the troops like a Gippsland Bushfire

Of the 55th Battalion Bean wrote:

Captain Cotterell led its advance, walking easily, cigarette in mouth, map in hand, behind him the thick line of “worm columns” each led by an NCO. All pillboxes were immediately outflanked……from some came whimpering boys, holding out hands full of souvenirs.

Walter ‘Jimmy’ Downing of the 57th battalion was in the thick of it:

…We were caught in the barrage…no time for caring as we stumbled past reeking bodies….. heads down as though in a hurricane of rain, not ripping steel.

… running, staggering, bent low…. dropped into shell holes, tautened faces…. crouching as they burrowed for dear life….on all sides the groans and wailing of mangled men.

A sergeant ran around his platoon…..the top of his skull was lifted from his forehead by a bullet, as on a hinge, and his body fell on two crouching men, washing them with his blood and brains

…bodies, living and dead were buried, tossed up, and torn fragments buried again…..the most awful sound, the muffled voice of a man buried under three feet of dirt, was heard…. dig me out!

….relieved, we were a pathetic band….all hysterical to varying degrees, the strong supporting the weak, we walked through Polygon Wood…

Sinclair Hunt of the 55th Battalion was a school teacher from Croyden, Victoria:

...though we suffered much….the capture of Polygon Wood was a most difficult operation brilliantly executed.

Hunt was killed a year later in France.

Polygon Wood came at a price – 5,770 Australians dead, missing and wounded. Two Australians were awarded the Victoria Cross.

The strategic, elevated Germen held Buttes was captured. Upon it today stands the memorial to the Australian 5th Division overlooking its men’s headstones beneath.

Plumer’s third step was Broodseinde Ridge.

Launched in teeming rain on 4 October, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Australian Divisions attacked with the New Zealand Division as part of the British offensive.

The Germans fought tenaciously from their pillboxes - machine gun fire, vicious bombing duels and hand to hand combat.

Private William Vincent fought in the 21st Battalion:

At 5 am a very heavy artillery barrage started and we went forward about 2 miles, our lads falling in dozens….we dug in for our lives and held it…we lost heavily.

But in Plumer’s bite and hold strategy, success had to be consolidated. Guns and ammunition had to be brought forward; units replenished with reinforcements, communication and supply re-established.

Although most objectives were achieved, mud made ‘hold’ impossible - another 6,400 Australian casualties. Two Victoria Crosses.

Morale was haemorrhaging.

Private Dudley Jackson, a Lewis Gunner with the 20th Battalion came out of Broodseinde with just 25 in his company and only two men left in his own platoon.

Victories at Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde had cost Australia 17,000 men to advance 3.6 kilometres.

Then it rained, and rained, and rained.

On October 9 in conditions of utter misery and driving rain, with two British divisions the 2nd Australian Division attacked the slopes below the Passchendaele village - the battle of Poelcappelle.

It marked the month of brutal attrition.

With any hope of a breakout washed away by unrelenting rain, Generals Plumer and Gough told Haig they were happy to end it here.

Haig pressed on, determined to annexe the last piece of high ground for winter.

After Plumer’s headquarters briefing, Bean wrote:

They don’t realise how desperately hard it will be to fight down such opposition in the mud, rifles choked, Lewis Guns out of action, men tired and slow…

After five days of continuous rain, the battlefield was a morass. Mud crippled everything. Bogged tanks and guns were useless; weapons clogged; high explosive shells buried and guns simply sank when fired.

The attacking Australian battalions which had held the front lines since Broodseinde were walking dead - days under fire in appalling conditions, struggling to lay cables and tramways.

In Bean’s words, of those not suffering severe trench foot or melting away to the rear, many ‘temporarily deserted’.

When finally they attacked, the Australian battalion strength averaged just seven officers and 150 men. Yet into battle they went, 1200 men lost from heavy flanking enemy fire. Nothing gained.

Even more futile was the second Australian assault against the Passchendaele Ridge on October 12.

The 3rd and 4th Australian divisions would attack with the New Zealanders and British.

No tanks, aircraft and heavy artillery - nothing could move.

Entire field companies tried desperately to extricate guns from the mire.

Bombardier Frederick Corder of the 7th Australian Field Battery wrote:

…the guns had been bogged for three days until we put 26 horses onto each gun…. ploughing through mud up to the horses’ stomachs.
Even then, it could take 17 hours to get shells up to guns.

And yet, they kept at it, Bean writing of them:

Australian soldiers hung on to their agreed task – whether their own death or the destruction of the world should come.

The night before the assault of the 3rd Division, Corporal George Mitchell wrote a last letter to his family in Thebarton, Adelaide:

Tomorrow many men must go to their God. And if I die – I die.
We must all die. Best we can do - is to die with good grace.

The Anzacs advanced with almost no artillery protection - the 3rd Division sustained 3,000 casualties by nightfall.

One who ‘went to his God’ that day, was Corporal John ‘Jack’ Ison whose Sergeant Major later wrote to Ison’s father:

When I lost him I lost a friend….we went through Gallipoli, Egypt, France, Pozieres, Belgium, the Somme and again at Ypres together….I miss Jack as much as my own brother. I know it is an awful thing to part with one’s son….but you have no idea of the troops’ suffering…

…It really is a mercy from God to take us….at times I have asked God to take me from this life.

The New Zealanders advanced into a thick belt of uncut barbed wire on the Bellevue Spur, torn to shreds by deadly machine gun fire spewing from German pillboxes.

Lt G M Carson of the 33rd Battalion recounted his battle:

On the night of the 11th we marched off at 6.30 pm and walked until 5 am on the morning of the 12th….we had lost men like rotten sheep…

…we attacked at 5.25am and fought all day, at times bogged up to our armpits….lots drowned

Sergeant T. Berry tried to save a man up to his neck with a chain of rifles:

We heard screaming from another crater....he went down gradually….begging us to shoot him. But we couldn’t …who could shoot him?

We stayed with him, watching him go down in the mud.

Private Bert Fearns of the 2/6th Lancashire Fusiliers described conditions:

……our whole battalion was moving up this single duckboard track. As it got dark you had to make sure to keep close to the fellow in front as the track meandered around the lips of shell holes.

…shells started coming in, bunches of men got separated…. falling off the boards and shouting….we were not to stop; if one man stopped we all stopped.

You could hear those poor blokes calling out from the darkness….pitiful….mud like wet soap….we knew the poor devils would die….

We met a party of pack mules coming…..the track was meant to be one way….the poor things were shot by our officers  to clear the path.

We just kept going, hour after hour.

Finally, we took shelter behind a big concrete pillbox (the left hand one at Tyne Cot Cemetery) and I fell asleep on my rifle….I didn’t care if I lived or died; a bullet would have been welcome.

…..I was woken by an explosion….in a cemetery on the edge of the railway cutting; I just emptied my rifle into a dark mass of men.

I then crept into a pillbox and fell asleep – on the shoulder of a dead German officer…. next day I was awoken by a voice:

“You the Lancashire Fusiliers?” - well piss off! We’re Australians here to relieve you”.

Lieutenant Wade Fisher of the 42nd Battalion was 23 years old. Assigned to relieve the ‘Manchesters’, he went ahead of his men:

I got to one pillbox to find it a mass of dead….I passed on to one ahead and found about fifty men of the Manchesters. Never have I seen men so broken or demoralised, huddled up close in the last stages of exhaustion and fear.

Fritz had been sniping them all day and accounted for fifty seven – the dead and dying lay in piles.

Fisher and his men went back in again on October 13:

We got up to our positon somehow….the fellows dropping out unconscious along the road. They have guts….

We found the line yards behind where we had left it, shell stricken and trodden ground thick with dead and wounded

…some of the Manchesters were there, seven days wounded and not looked to.

My men walked over to them….and gave all their food and water - all they could do.

That night my two runners were killed sitting next to me….I was blown out of my shell hole twice, so shifted to an abandoned pillbox.

....twenty-four wounded men inside, two dead Huns on the floor….the stench was dreadful.

The images of Frank Hurley and Hubert Wilkins came to exemplify the entire campaign.

On 12 October, Frank Hurley took the most tragically poetic photograph of his career at the Ypres-Roulers railway cutting:

Every twenty paces or less lay a body. Some frightfully mutilated, without legs, arms and heads, and half covered in mud and slime….we pushed on….. shells….bursting all around….ten or so telephone men - all blown to bits.

Under a questionably sheltered bank lay a group of dead men. Sitting by them in little scooped out recesses sat a few living, but so emaciated by fatigue and shell shock, it was hard to differentiate.

The exhausted and demoralised Anzac Divisions were finally relieved on October 18 by the Canadians who made the final assault on Passchendaele.

They clawed forward to capture the Passchendaele Ridge on 6 November.

For Haig, no more could be achieved in Flanders. His break-through had failed – miserably.

After three months the British line advanced 8 kilometres, only to expose it to German artillery. British losses stood at 275,000 dead, wounded and missing.

Thirty five Australians had been killed for every metre of ground taken.

Nine of 61 Victoria Crosses awarded, were to Australians.

Barely five months later, in three days the Allies lost Passchendaele and all the ground won in the Third Battle of Ypres.

Mounted on the German concrete blockhouse at the centre of the Tyne Cot cemetery today, is the cross of sacrifice. Amidst manicured lawns and 12,000 graves, including those of 1369 Australians, it bears a plaque:

This was the Tyne Cot Blockhouse
Captured by the 3rd Australian Division
4 October 1917

A world away in the Middle East, the Anzacs fought a vastly different war.

The Turks had effectively been driven out of the Sinai Peninsula and seaward approaches to the Suez Canal.

But they held a fortified defensive line running from Gaza near the Mediterranean Coast towards the town of Beersheba, 45 kilometres inland to the South East.

Any allied advance into central Palestine was blocked.

Two costly assaults in March and April 1917 failed to capture Gaza.

Craving a fresh offensive, General Sir Edmund Allenby arrived to command the Egyptian Expeditionary Force.

An artillery and naval bombardment of Gaza would mislead the Turks into expecting a frontal assault.

Meanwhile, a flanking move against Beersheba presented the Turks with a feint, but would be the main attack.

The dramatic charge by the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba on 31 October was the climactic opening to the 3rd Battle of Gaza.

On the morning of 31 October, 3 British Divisions supported by 100 artillery guns attacked Beersheba. The well-fortified Turks resisted ferociously, slowing the Allied advance to a standstill.

Mid-afternoon it was obvious that the town had to be taken before sunset or face failure for lack of water.

Beersheba’s 17 wells were deep.

Allenby instructed General Harry Chauvel to take Beersheba.

Chauvel ordered Brigadier General William Grant’s 4th Light Horse Brigade “straight in”.

The NSW 12th Light Horse Regiment would take the town with the relatively untested Victorian 4th.

In lengthening late afternoon shadows, one of history’s great cavalry-style charges was about to take place.

But these were mounted riflemen - no swords or lances.

Some slung rifles over their backs, riding bayonet in hand. Others couched rifles beneath arms, bayonets fixed, stock braced against the thigh.

Their mounts were mostly ‘Walers’ – hardy, stocky, sure of foot and able to carry heavy loads long distances. The tired horses were desperate for water.

Six kilometres from Beersheba, hidden from the Turks by a low ridge across a front of 1100 metres, 800 Light Horsemen formed up. 

By squadrons in three lines, 300 to 500 metres apart, they were ready.

Saddle-worn, overloaded and parched, the horses began to fidget, tossing their heads. They’d caught the excitement.

At 4.30 pm they moved forward at a slow trot.

Cresting the ridge, the formation tightened and began to canter. A kilometre on they were in a gallop, 5 metres apart.

Two kilometres from the town, it was on - a reckless, headlong charge down the long gentle slope to Beersheba.

The thirst crazed horses pinned back their ears and flared their nostrils, eyes widened, heads outstretched and mouths frothing, tails flying.

Turkish rifles, machine guns and artillery opened fire. Bullets twitched the horses’ ears. Horses and men at the front fell.

Expecting the Light Horse to stop and dismount to attack, the Turks held most fire until too late.

As the first wave approached the trenches, the Turks opened up with everything including grenades.

The official historian, Henry Gullet described the Light Horse sweeping over the deep, wide trenches like ‘steeple chasers’.

As they did, Turks slashed at the horses’ bellies with bayonets.

Some Australians dismounted and fought in savage hand to hand battles. Others rode on into Beersheba.

By nightfall the town, wells, reservoirs and ammunition dumps were captured and horses watered.

The Australian Light Horse had ridden not only into Beersheba, but to history.

The charge captured the war weary world’s imagination.

Gullet wrote:

The enemy was beaten by the shear recklessness of the charge, rather than by the very limited fighting powers of this handful of Australians.

One soldier said:

It was the horses that did it; those marvellous bloody horses.

Grant proudly told his men:

(This is) the greatest cavalry ride in the history of warfare

Victory had cost 31 Australians dead, 36 wounded and 70 horses dead.

The capture of Beersheba turned the eastern flank of the Turkish defensive line. Gaza fell to the British on 7 November as the Turks withdrew to Palestine.

It is tempting, human beings that we are, to settle for the broad brushstrokes of history.

Our comfortable lives breed easy indifference to individual sacrifices made in our name, devotion to duty and Australia.

Trooper Robert Morley was killed in the Charge.

A 26 year old farm hand from Taralgon, on reading the Gallipoli casualty lists in 1915, he enlisted with his brother Charlie.

Buried the day after the charge, a grave marker plate was made from an old tank by his Warrant Officer, Jim French.

His widowed mother, Sarah saw five of her children die at home during the war. 

She had already given five of her sons to the AIF.

George had been killed at Pozieres, Robert at Bersheeba. Edward died of wounds at Bullecourt while Archie, severely wounded, returned to Australia.

Charlie returned home on compassionate grounds in 1918.

Sarah chose the epitaph for Robert’s headstone at the Bersheeba war cemetery:


As the Morely tragedy unfolded, Passchendaele shattered the Seabrooks in Petersham, Sydney.

William and Fanny Seabrook had given their three eldest sons, George, Theo and William to the AIF.

On the 20th of September 1917 – one hundred years ago, in the battle of the Menin Road, the 17th Battalion attacked near the village of Westhoek.

Lieutenant William Seabrook was hit by a phosphorous shell that killed or wounded the full section of the platoon he was leading.

In the early hours as William was stretchered from the battlefield, George and Theo were both hit by a single artillery shell - killed instantly.

George was 25 and Theo, a year younger.  

William died a short time later. In the breast pocket of his tunic was a photograph of his mother, Fanny. The fragment that killed him had gone through the photo.

He was 21 years old.

One day, one family, three sons – all dead.

George and Theo’s bodies were never found. Their names are on the Menin Gate Memorial to the missing in Ieper (Ypres). Two of 6,191 Australians so named. 

At her kitchen table, Fanny Seabrook penned William’s epitaph for the grave she would never see in the Lijssenthoek cemetery:


Despairing, she wrote to the authorities about Theo and George:

….if you could explain to me we would be much obliged….. losing three sons in one battle…we are heartbroken.

In a later letter to her member of parliament:

Having given our three boys as a sacrifice to the country…. I will never recover….my husband is a complete wreck…I have put my property up for sale….there is no other way. Mr Seabrook has been raving about our three boys and has delusions….please pardon me for telling you all these things, but I have no one to confide in.

In 1928, Fanny Seabrook was among the 1 million Australians who clogged the streets of our towns and cities to glimpse William Longstaff’s painting, Menin Gate at Midnight.

That was the closest she and they would ever get to the dead son, husband or father.

In May 1928, the friend of an Australian mother, inconsolably grieving her missing, only son wrote asking for a photograph of the Menin Gate:

…his mother is very old and feeble and it would give her great …comfort, to know her son’s name is inscribed among those heroes and is not forgotten….. He was all she had.

Years later, Charles Bean wrote:

….many a youngster when he was hit out there at Passchendaele… in his last few minutes of life, when he knew that the end had come….thought: “well….at least they’ll remember me in Australia”.

And we do.

The daily Last Post Ceremony at the Australian War Memorial is our offering, to give meaning where there is none.

This simple gesture, including reading of the life, love, service, suffering and loss of just one of them, is our national tribute.

It is an expression of loss, suffering and love reaching into us all.

Pilgrims bound by a single, reverent emotion pause with awkward humility as stillness descends. 

The Last Post sounded in the commemorative area, cloaked by the Roll of Honour, arrests the soul.

The silence that surrounds it is the most powerful sound heard.

In that silence, I always look up to the names of these young lives - silent witnesses to the future they have given us.

I am reminded that we are all equal in death.

I am reminded that we are Australians, that there are truths by which we live that are worth fighting to defend. 

As the doors of the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier close, we are stirred by the most fragile yet powerful of human emotions - hope.

We are all driven to believe in a better future. Sustaining that precious belief, we honour them best by the way we live our lives and shape our nation.

Sarah Morley and Fanny Seabrook, in their despair and inconsolable grief, asked, ‘why?’

In the tragedies of 1917, the Seabrook brothers, Robert Morley made their ‘willing sacrifice for a better world’ and ‘the love of friends’.

A century on, they ask of every Australian, are we prepared to make our sacrifices for others and for a better world?

In reflection Bean wrote:

Wherever they fought – the Australians were sustained by a belief in their worth.

We are Australians defined less by our constitution than we are by our values and our beliefs, the way we relate to one another and see our place in the world.

We are shaped most by our triumphs and our failures; our heroes and villains; the way we have endured adversity and how we will face adversities coming, responding to new, emerging and unseen horizons.

From this worst year, we emerged with a greater belief in ourselves and a deeper understanding of what it means to be - Australian.

For we are young, and we are free.

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