The Simpson Prize

This is the current (2018) Simpson Prize question and source material. Previous years are available here.

The Question

Some historians have described 1917 as “the worst year of the Great War” for Australia and Australians. To what extent is this an accurate statement?


The Simpson Prize requires you to respond to the question above using both the sources below and your own research.

You are encouraged to agree with, debate with, or challenge the statement from a variety of perspectives—individual, national and global—and to use sources in a variety of forms.

You are expected to make effective use of a minimum of three of the following sources. Up to half of your response should also make use of information drawn from your own knowledge and research.

Information about word or time limits, the closing date, entry forms and judging can be found at the Simpson Prize official website.

Note: students who submit winning entries for this year's Simpson Prize question will travel in 2018.

Source 1: Statistics

a) Graph showing rates of Australian enlistment 1914-1918

Australian enlistment rates during the years of the First World War peaked in 1915.

Adapted from Ernest Scott, "Australia during the War", vol. XI, 1936, pp. 871-72, in C.E.W. Bean, ed., Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 12 vols, 1921-36. Copyright Australian War Memorial.

b) Table Showing Deaths in the A.I.F. Abroad


Year From Battle Casualties From Non-Battle Casualties Total Progressive Total
1914 - 14 14 14
1915 7,819 655 8,474 8,488
1916 12,823 873 13,696 22,184
1917 20,628 1,108 21,736 43,920
1918 12,553 1,687 14,240 58,160
1919 27 597 624 58,784
1920 - 6 6 58,790
Totals 53,850 4,940 58,790 58,790



From A.G. Butler, ed., The Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918, Australian War Memorial, Melbourne, vol. III, 1943, p.900. Copyright Australian War Memorial.


Source 2: Letter


Dear Sister …

Your parcel came to hand last evening about 4.30, contents: Tin Coffee & milk, already broken open, or burst open at one end, indelible pencil, broken in two, envelopes OK, tin of Chocolates with side bashed in, but alright … Yours is the only parcel I have received and I don’t think I would have received even that, only that you enclosed it in hessian. Accept my best thanks. Glad Trise and you (now) are the only two I have told I have been bowled over [on leave due to being wounded], don’t tell Mum – understand? I can’t say further, if I do my letter will be torn up, so you’ll understand. All my pals, or the lads I came over with are gone, but 7 out of 150 remain, it's simply scientific murder, not war at all. As for seeing Germans it's all lies; you never get close enough to do that, unless in a charge. I keep smiling, but I tell you it takes some doing, but I’m not meant to be killed, I know that, yet the premonition I had when leaving Sydney, that I would never see home again still hangs about me. One would be unnatural to go through uninjured, if I get out of it with a leg, and arm off I’ll be perfectly satisfied …

Well, the lads lost 9,500 in one and ¾ hours at Pozieres, picked up Reinforcements, and on 22 Oct, were sent to an even worse hell. The Somme, Mum’s letters from me will tell you all about that, the boys simply got butchered there … its simply murder … indescribable … I‘ve said enough here I suppose to get me 10 years imprisonment … … Eatables in France extortionate prices, same here [England] no butter or pastry or eggs procurable unless at prohibitive prices …

The whole of the bay and parts of the ocean are frozen here, taps can’t be turned on, prunes left in a dish after tea last week, could not be dug out of the dish – frozen into ice, even the Thames is frozen hard, this is the coldest winter for 78 years in England …

I’m no saint and to hell with religion after this war … If ever I get out of this soldier business I’ll cut my throat before I take it on again.

With best love to you all,
EO Neaves.



From private record, AWM 3DRL/3130(A).



Pte. Erle Neaves wrote the above letter while recovering in England from wounds. He returned to the front, and was killed in action on 6 November 1917 near Polygon Wood. He has no known grave. His brother was also killed in action. His mother in Australia died before the war ended.

Source 3: Film

Fighting in Flanders, Part I, Frank Hurley and Hubert Wilkins, 1917.

This film deals with the participation of the Australian troops in the third battle of Ypres during the autumn of 1917. The scenes include Australians preparing for the attack; being reviewed by Sir Douglas Haig before going in to action; shells falling amongst the ruins of Ypres, and then the battlefields over which Australians fought and incidents connected with the fighting.

Source 4: Photograph

Unknown Australian Official Photographer, Bapaume, 1917.

Unidentified Australian troops resting beside their rifles after the occupation of Bapaume, on 17 March 1917. They appear to be completely exhausted.

Source 5: Cartoon

Daryl Lindsay, Optimism, 1917.

An Australian soldier carries a load of wood in the rain and through the mud. Conditions on the Western Front were harsh, with many soldiers suffering from diseases in the trenches. A note by the artist on the reverse of this work says, 'Optimism "Well thank god at least there are no flies!".

Source 6: Painting

The Charge of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba, 1917, George Lambert, 1920.

Late on 31 October 1917 the 4th Light Horse Brigade was ordered to gallop towards Beersheba and seize the town. Two regiments, the 4th and the 12th, made the charge. This bold and successful move was one of the last major cavalry charges in history. Lambert's work depicts the impact of men and horses on the Turkish troops and trenches. A tangled mass of horses and soldiers is shown against a backdrop of barren and undulating landscape. The buildings of the town are just visible on the horizon at left.

Source 7: Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services

Extracts from A.G. Butler, ed., The Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918, Australian War Memorial, Melbourne, vol. III, 1943.

The Year 1917 stands out as as the period of the greatest advance in the surgery of war wounds to the head …
Chapter VI: "Some Surgical Problems of Repair and Re-Enablement", p.302.

During the early spring of 1917, operating teams were fully organised with surgeon, anaesthetist, nurse and trained orderly … They were grouped as close to the front as possible …

These arrangements were fully tested during the Third Battle of Ypres …
Chapter VI: "Some Surgical Problems of Repair and Re-Enablement", p.304.

In busy areas eight operating tables were available. As each team was capable of dealing with at least 12 severe head wounds in its 12 hours on duty, a total of 220 to 250 patients could be dealt with in 24 hours ...
Chapter VI: "Some Surgical Problems of Repair and Re-Enablement", p.306.

At the beginning of 1917 … the Australian Government negotiated with an American firm to provide an expert and make available the patent for a type of [wooden] limb … In March 1917 the Director of Medical Services Australian Imperial Force was informed that the factory at Caulfield [Australia] was working and that both arms and legs could be fitted in Australia … [T]he accumulation of limbless Australians in Engand, waiting with nothing to do, was found most detrimental to the interests of all concerned and General Howse was insistent that the supply [of wooden limbs] in Australia should be expedited … “Am sending you by hospital ship a certain number of unfitted legless men (the first batch). Shall be glad when you are able to deal with all limbless, as they take such a long time getting ready to be fitted. Possibly you will be able to send me a cable when you are ready for more legless.
Chapter XV, "Medical Problems on the Home Front", p.768.

From a body of apparently normal men subjected to the Pozières bombardments (and similar experiences later) there arrived at the aid posts and ambulances men suffering from confusion, signs of mental and physical exhaustion, acute fears, phobias, amnesia, tremor … deafness, speechlessness, visual defects and so forth … “shell-shock”.
Chapter II: "Moral and Mental Disorders in the War of 1914-1918", p.114-5.

Source 8: Leaflets

a) E.J. Dempsey, Claude Marquet & W.R. Winspear, The Blood Vote, 1917.

This black and white conscription referendum leaflet in favour of a ‘No’ vote referred to a mother’s guilt.

b) Fred P. Morris, A Mother’s Lament, 1917.

This pro-conscription leaflet was written in response to The Blood Vote.

Copyright statement

For all copyright enquiries relating to the above sources write to:

Head, Research Centre
Australian War Memorial
GPO Box 345
Canberra ACT 2601