Volume IV – The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1917

Introduction by Bill Gammage

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.

Early in 1917 the AIF was beginning to gather its wits after Fromelles, Pozières and a bitter winter. It had become used to France, and it had learnt what German artillery and machine–guns could do. A new capacity was informing its operations; and it was developing that combination of skill and aggression which made it so formidable in 1918.

C.E.W. Bean’s chief interest was in the character of the AIF and the men who composed it, but he begins his 1917 volume with an account of Allied plans for the coming year. He presumed (wrongly as it transpired) that the British Official Histories would analyse these adequately, and he used them merely as background to his description of Australian front line activity. Here and elsewhere he wrote lucid summaries of the conduct of the war, but his level of detail would rarely satisfy a serious student of politics, command, or staff work, and when he described battle the higher command almost vanished from his narrative. Roughly seven of his 1917 chapters outline the various Allied plans during the year, and one chapter describes the brilliant German withdrawal of February-April which so seriously disrupted those plans. All should be read not as narratives of planning and strategy, but as aids in telling the story of the AIF.

During the first third of 1917 Allied planning was dominated by Nivelle, the engaging and energetic Frenchman whose strategy, albeit put more exhilaratingly, was essentially what had failed in 1916: to punch through the German defences on the Western Front, pour through the gap in overwhelming force, roll up the German rear, and sweep to victory. This plan demanded a concentration of the French infantry, and this in turn required the British to extend their front and to make diversionary attacks, including those involving the Australians at Bullecourt in April and May.

Nivelle failed. His attempt wore down the French Army, and to relieve their allies the British took the offensive in June. Their strategic problem remained what it had always been: how to crack the German defences. Head-on assault had failed in 1916 and early in 1917. In June at Messines a new method was tried: long and careful preparation against a particular enemy position, a huge concentration of artillery fire upon it, mines beneath it, a big bang, and infantry poised to walk forward and mop up what was left, if anything. These tactics succeeded, but they would have continued the war into the next generation, so a compromise was found in the “step by step” battles. The “step by step” technique concentrated thorough preparation and overwhelming firepower onto a very limited sector of the German line, obliterated it, occupied it with infantry, then moved artillery forward and repeated the process. Three very satisfying steps were thus taken, at Menin Road, Polygon Wood, and Broodseinde, and Bean and many others began to think the war won. But after Broodseinde rain fell, and the next step into the terrible mud and slaughter of Passchendaele. Probably that was inevitable: it is difficult to imagine in France a stretch of dry weather long enough to enable the “step by step” method to chip through the German defences, while a halt for rain or winter allowed the Germans to build defences in the rear more quickly than the Allies could destroy them at the front. In short, during 1917 the Allied leaders failed to find a way to defeat the German Army.

Yet the Allied experiments committed their soldiers to a year of toil and sacrifice. At the beginning of 1917 the AIF had five divisions on the Western Front, and in February began to raise a sixth – an attempt soon abandoned for want of men. Although each division was given some rest during the year, all were among the hardest worked British divisions. The Fourth Division in particular had a hard year: Bean knew that this was good division, and he took its experiences as testimony that by 1917 the British High Command was beginning to use Australians as storm troops. Certainly for most of the year they were attacking: early in February in the Le Sars-Gueudecourt sector, between February and April in following up the German withdrawal, in April and May at Bullecourt, in June at Messines, from July to November in the Ypres salient. In a rare defensive action, in April they fought off a determined German attack at Lagnicourt.

These front line activities are at the core of Bean’s histories. His intellect told him that only at the front could a historian truly learn what happened in war (see for example p.xxxii, and Volume III, p. xxxix), but also his heart was with the front line men, and his writing is most alive when describing them. At the front men were most like the warriors of old he had grown to manhood admiring, and at the front he could best achieve his essential purpose of explaining how the war affected ordinary Australians, and revealed Australian character. To this end he undertook the largest oral history project ever attempted by an Australian, questioning hundreds of soldiers, as they came out of the line and again in after years, checking and filling the details of the history forming in his mind. By contrast, not only was he content merely to summarize command problems, but also it did not occur to him until February 1918 to portray the lives of soldiers in the back areas, and he never seriously depicted them on leave or in training, in France or in England. Yet in the front line his history is brilliant – unequalled elsewhere in military historical writing, rarely surpassed in literature, and setting the standard for good official histories throughout the western world.

None of the twelve volumes of the Official Histories, however, treat so much so briefly as that for 1917. Even among the six volumes dealing with the Australian infantry, 1917, is relatively neglected. Although Bean focussed his writing on the experiences of front line soldiers, the following table shows that he covered the operations of 1917 less fully than those of any other part of the war:

No of volumes Period covered Approximate period in front line (months)
2 August 1914 – December 1915 8
1 January – December 1916 7
1 January – November 1917 11
1 December 1917 – May 1918 3
1 May – November 1918 5

Yet in 1917 the AIF suffered its worst defeat, lost most prisoners, lost most casualties in a single battle, and probably suffered more casualties than in any other year of the war. 1917 was also significant in the development of the AIF front line experience: it provided the first clear evidence of that professionalism which was to flower so brilliantly in Australian operations in 1918. Finally 1917 was important to Bean: he tells us (p. xxxii) that the compilation of this volume, more than any other, proved the necessity of investigating front line experience in order to discover what actually happened in war, and in 1917 he found at Hermies in April, the first occasion in Australian experience in which a major operation went according to plan. So 1917 was significant for the AIF, and for what Bean wanted to say about the conduct of war and about writing military history. Why did he treat it relatively lightly?

The 1917 volume was written during the Depression, between 1929 and 1932, which may have restricted Bean’s ability to gather material, but by 1929 he had assembled most of his evidence, and the events of 1917 had been limited to one volume at least by March 1919. It is just possible that Bean was not allowed to write two 1917 volumes at the expense of combining Volumes VIII, IX and X, as would have more proportionately reflected the Australian war effort, but so far as is known he had a free hand in planning his history. There are, however, signs that Bean found 1917 difficult to write about.

It is central to understanding Bean to realise that his skills always remained those of a first-class observer and reporter. His own notes dictate his volumes: even though he realised in February 1918, for example, that soldiers in back areas were worth writing about, he does not seriously discuss them until Volume V, the volume dealing with early 1918, which he began writing in 1932. More obviously his personal experience of the war fires his narrative, and to the end of his work on the history in 1942, his text is vivid because his memory and his imagination remained clear. He often visited the front line, to see or to question or to photograph, and during battle he took the hurried but careful notes which later threaded his account together. For example, before First Bullecourt he got into an old infantry post to the right of Central Road near the Australian front line: “The snow had ceased to fall”, he recalled later, “It was bitterly cold – our hands froze as we sat there…in the dark…it was too cold to hold a pencil”. For a time nothing happens, then the artillery opens, and with a shivering hand Bean begins: “4.30 our bomb starts. 4.35 green flare from Bullecourt. 4.36…” and so on. These notes and the recollections they prompted appear on page 292, illustrating how the method of a skilled observer has shaped the final narrative. In the sense that they enable a reader to follow the observations and the feelings of a man who witnessed every major Australian engagement except Fromelles, Bean’s histories are autobiographical.

For Bean 1917 was the low point of the war. A comparison of his final 1917 paragraphs (pp. 947-48) with those of any of his other volumes reflects the flatness and dismay he felt when he reviewed the year. To an extent this was because 1917 contributed relatively little to his essential purpose, to show how Australian citizens passed the test of war and founded a national tradition. 1915 was the year of Anzac, the nation-making year. 1916 was the year of Pozières, that climactic battle in which Australians first met and defeated German infantry, and which destroyed Edwardian Australia forever, and reshaped the mental boundaries of the known world. 1918 was the year of victory, and the year in which the Australians combined their formidable fighting skills and a new professionalism with such devastating effect. 1917 was the year in between.

There is more to it than this. Certainly 1917 was the year of the “step by step” victories, which Bean treats most briefly of all, but in which the Australians made almost as much of their opportunities as in 1918. But 1917 was also a year of disaster: it began with a winter which Bean and others considered the worst experience the AIF ever endured, it continued with First Bullecourt, and despite the “step by step” victories it ended in the mud and despair of Passchendaele. Whereas 1916 and 1918 showed that men might still triumph over machines, that in the face of the German guns they might still take Pozières or Mont St Quentin, 1917 was the year in which machines and mud crushed remorselessly the highest endeavours and the most noble aspirations.

This was a particular tragedy for Bean. Throughout his life he never abandoned his conviction that nations and peoples were made strong by the moral excellence of individuals. In olden days battles were won by the moral and physical strength of individual warriors, and in Bean’s own time Australia was being built by similar qualities in its pioneers. Bean’s vision of the ideal Australians, although broad, was quite specific. There were two ideal types – the Britisher and the bushman. Together these two types had built Australia, and together they spearheaded Australia’s magnificent achievements in the war.

Bean’s notion of the Britisher derived from his heritage and upbringing. The Britisher was a gentleman and a leader, from a public school or with public school values, upright, brave and honourable. Most of the leaders Bean admired in the AIF, men like White, Gellibrand, the Leanes, the Howell-Prices, Humphrey Scott and Milligan were Britishers, while leaders Bean liked less, notably Monash and Elliott, often were not.

Bean’s notion of the bushman probably began to inspire him in western New South Wales before the war. The bushman answered his search for an individual who might exemplify Australian national distinctiveness, and who with the Britisher might define Australian excellence. The bushman was the supreme individualist, the ideal nco – resourceful, brave, aggressive, never without a solution to any problem in the war or in the bush. If the Britisher showed how the public school system might preserve the highest capacities of the race in the far antipodes, the bushman showed how the Australian environment might actually improve the old stock. Although the two remained distinct, their values and capacities were to some extent interchangeable, and together they were capable of lifting a future Australia beyond the achievements even of the Old Country, and of explaining the brilliant record of the AIF during the war.

1917 dealt with Beans’ vision cruelly. In that year more than any other, so far as Australians were concerned, mud and the German artillery battered down individuals without distinction. Certainly the calibre of the Australian infantry allowed the AIF to maintain its distinctiveness and its reputation for excellence, but at the end of 1917 all men, Allied and German, seemed helpless before the caprice of the weather and the technology of the enemy. And between late 1916 and late 1917 Bean saw many of his heroes destroyed. Two of the Leanes, two of the Howell-Prices, and Humphrey Scott, all Britishers, were killed in this period, as was Harold Wanliss, whom Bean and others expected one day to be Prime Minister of Australia. And Percy Black, the best known bushman of all, “the old prospector, known from Yilgarn to the Murchison”, to many the bravest man in the AIF, was shot before the wire at Bullecourt.

The same fate befell Australian formations in 1917. Bean described the Fourth Division before First Bullecourt as largely composed of country men, which in him was synonymous with stating that they were exceptionally fine soldiers (p. 281), and he considered the Fourth Brigade of the Division at this time as probably the best led brigade in the history of the AIF (pp.293-94). Yet this was the Division which suffered Australia’s worst defeat, and the Brigade which suffered most during it. Bean does not juxtapose magnificence and ruin. For him the loss was too great for such classical neatness, for in the wire and trenches at Bullecourt and amid the terrible disappointments of 1917 he saw his Australia – past, present, and future – destroyed. When he came to write of First Bullecourt in 1930 his grief was still apparent, and probably the pain of 1917 remained for the rest of his life. Indeed in some ways he never recovered from the war: except in relation to his racial and sectarian opinions, his ideas and his views of the world did not materially advance beyond that vision which began to inform his writing in 1915. He was a great Australian, he stands among Australia’s greatest historians, but like thousands of his comrades his world was destroyed by the war. This is worth remembering when reading how well he wrote about it.

Yet Bean can mislead readers by what he does not say. For example, he is reluctant to name himself, and masks his presence by calling himself “an observer” or “an Australian”, or simply by using the passive voice – 1917 examples are on pages 429, 699n, and 754. This trait emerges even when Bean takes a part of some significance in events, and readers should be alert to it. More importantly, he is reluctant to condemn, especially senior officers, and especially if they were still alive. He is one of Haig’s more tolerant judges, for example, and he describes as sick at least one senior officer who got drunk before an attack. 1917 examples of this restraint are on pages 23-25, where Bean discussed changes in AIF command. Bean’s drafts suggest that he reworked these paragraphs often, each time softening his criticism. For example he dropped from page 23, paragraph 3, sentence 3 the phrase “just as the breakdown of any man under the physical or moral stresses of war was not regarded by his comrades as a disgrace… ” – presumably he felt any reference to breaking down unkind at this point. Again, pages 23-24 leave all but the most informed readers uncertain as to which general is being referred to when (sic). Bean’s draft of page 24 shows that at lines 6-12 he had in mind Legge certainly and M’Cay possibly, and that in note 11 the words “from the first” are ambiguous: more exactly he might have written “at first”, for Birdwood later reversed his opinion of M’Cay’s competence. Only on learning what Bean really means in these passages can a reader see why he chose to refer to the transfer of Legge and M’Cay before them, and Cox after them.

Yet even Bean’s drafts are restrained, and his diary alone makes his own opinion clear. On 16 February he accused Legge, M’Cay, and Anderson, all named on page 24, of fighting for themselves rather than for victory, which was a crime in his eyes, and he observed, “…no doubt Birdwood made a mistake in not telling him [Legge] straight out he was not competent in the field”. On 17 February he named Legge as the source of the politicking in England he hinted at on page 24, and clearly he was furious at the cable Legge and Anderson sent behind Birdwood’s back to Australia, recommending M’Cay’s appointment to Salisbury Plain. To Bean this was disloyalty, and not at all how a Britisher should behave. His diary called Legge, M’Cay and Anderson “a set of crooked (men)”, yet only a shadow of these feelings appeared in his history.

On page 24 Bean also discussed the transfer of Cox, a general he apparently admired. After “4th Division”, in line 8 of the last paragraph on page 24, Bean’s draft dropped the words “and who on December 20th was sent for a short rest to the south of France”. In other words, Bean decided not to say that Cox had no appointment at all for a time. The information would have at least have implied that Cox was among those generals referred to on page 23 as in need of a rest, or in Bean’s draft as having broken down, but apparently Cox took his dismissal like a Britisher – he did not politick – and so he had Bean’s approval. At the same time the words omitted leave more weight attached to Bean’s remaining explanation for Cox’s dismissal – that Cox was not an Australian – than Bean knew to be accurate. He therefore revised his draft, calling Cox an “Anglo-Indian” and in the same paragraph calling Legge’s replacement, Smyth, an “Anglo-Egyptian”, thereby conveying that Cox’s nationality was not the only factor in his transfer.

In short a reader must be constantly alert to what Bean hints at. Nowhere is Bean consciously inaccurate, but he is far readier to praise than to blame, and at several points his account, both of command and of combat, displays a tax accountant’s facility in balancing accuracy and indirectness.

These points of caution are easily outweighed by Bean’s strengths. Two in particular underlie his achievement. The first is his concern for accuracy. Except when condemning, his detail is meticulous and astonishingly thorough. Often he could have written an article, occasionally a book, on what he compressed into a footnote, and often he pursued small points long after the relevant volume was published, even until the end of his working life in 1964. Points of disagreement remain – in the 1917 volume for example he states that 48th Battalion scouts did not detect the beginning of the German withdrawal (p. 61) whereas that battalion’s history claims they did.1 Compare also Bean’s account of the remarkable incident involving Australians and New Zealanders on Bellevue Spur (pp. 918–19) with that in the Otago Regiment’s history.2 Yet Bean’s thoroughness and integrity is such that almost invariably his account can be relied upon.

Bean’s second great strength is his sense of purpose. By 1915 at least he had determined to write not merely about soldiers, or about battles, but about a momentous experience in the lives of Australian civilians, and about how this shaped the history of their country. We have seen that he had firm opinions on how their heritage and their environment had moulded Australians before 1914. His histories trace how these fitted Australians for the test of war, and how this experience in turn showed the way to a future Australia. Bean’s histories never abandon these purposes: they form a mighty theme, and as in all great history, having something to say elevates his writing, lifting it beyond its time and context, to become what Bean says of the AIF, “a monument to great–hearted men; and for their nation, a possession for ever”.3

Bill Gammage
Department of History
University of Adelaide


  1. W. Devine, ‘The Story of a Battalion’, (Melbourne: Melville & Mullen, 1919), pp. 69-70.
  2. A.E. Byrne, ‘Official History of the Otago Regiment, NZEF’, (Dunedin: J. Wilkie, 1919[?]), pp. 217-19.
  3. C.E.W. Bean, ‘The Story of Anzac’, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, 12 vols (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1983), VI: 1096.