It has become known as Australia’s blackest night.

On 19 July 1916, the troops of the 5th Australian and 61st British Divisions attacked a strong German position, at the centre of which stood the Sugar Loaf salient, near the small French village of Fromelles. The overnight assault – the first major battle fought by Australian troops on the Western Front – was mainly intended as a diversion to draw German troops away from the Somme offensive further south.

The attack failed, and losses were great: the 5th Australian Division suffered 5,533 killed and wounded; the 61st British Division suffered 1,547.

A Victorian farmer, Sergeant Simon Fraser, was a member of the 57th Battalion AIF – one of the 5th Division not in the initial “hop over” that night, but who were present throughout the battle of Fromelles. In a letter home dated 31 July 1916, Fraser tells of the battle, its preparations and its aftermath.

“I have been through the mill and came out without a mark,” Fraser wrote, “except for scratched hands through cutting and putting up wire entanglements. “I have been in the trenches since the 10th ... for the first ten days, we were in Hell, bombardments of high explosives and shrapnel from both sides every day, but two nights in particular were ‘horries’.”

Fraser was sent out over several nights before the main attack “to get the barb wire ready for the charge over”. He had become something of an expert in cutting through the enemy entanglements, and was told he would be Mentioned in Despatches for his work – “though why I don’t know, but it is satisfactory to know that you have been appreciated.”

The 57th Battalion were “supporting” when the charge was made, he wrote, “and had to hold our old line; the battalions who went over, met with too hot a reception and suffered severely; the distance was too far: when we came up the artillery was mixing things up a bit; high explosives and shrapnel were flying everywhere. The bombardment kept up all night and a good few of my mates passed out that night; so far, three of my section have been killed and two wounded badly out of twelve.”

When the battle was over, Fraser and others began the dangerous and difficult task of retrieving the wounded from no man’s land. “I must say Fritz treated us very fairly, though a few were shot at the work,” he wrote. “Some of these wounded were game as lions and got rather roughly handled, but haste was more necessary than gentle handling and we must have brought in over 250 men by our company alone...It was no light work getting in with a heavy weight on your back especially if he had a broken leg or arm and no stretcher bearer was handy. You had to lie down and get him on your back then rise and duck for your life with the chance of getting a bullet in you before you were safe.”

 Sergeant Simon Fraser, 57th Battalion AIF, wrote home about the battle of Fromelles

Over three days the men made these missions to no man’s land, looking and listening for those still alive. “One foggy morning in particular I remember, we could hear someone, over towards the German entanglements calling for a stretcher bearer; it was an appeal no man could stand against so some of us rushed out and had a hunt,” Fraser wrote.

“We found a fine haul of wounded and brought them in, but it was not where I heard this fellow calling so I had another shot for it and came across a splendid specimen of humanity trying to wiggle into a trench with a big wound in his thigh: he was about 14 stone weight [90 kilograms] and I could not lift him on my back, but I managed to get him into an old trench and told him to lie quiet while I got a stretcher. Then another man about 30 yards [27 metres] out sang out ‘Don’t forget me cobber’. I went in and got four volunteers with stretchers and we got both men in safely.”

Fraser was not decorated for his great courage in retrieving the wounded from the battlefield; his efforts were just part of what had to be done. However, his heroism has since been recognised in a sculpture of him by artist Peter Corlett that stands in the Australian Memorial Park at Fromelles. More recently a copy of the sculpture was unveiled on Melbourne’s St Kilda Road.

The Victorian farmer never returned home: he was killed at the second battle of Bullecourt on 12 May 1917, aged 40. His body was not found.

One of the more unusual items to be found in the Memorial's collection is the item shown above. It was purchased by an Australian soldier, Eric Keast Burke, while he was serving with 'D' Troop, ANZAC Wireless Squadron in Baghdad, Mesopotamia in 1918-1919 and was originally identified  as a piece of an ancient Babylonian cuneiform tablet.

 Eric Keast Burke

Demonstrating the strong interest in archaeology and architecture he developed while serving in Mesopotamia, Burke collected a number of other items there: A fragment of tile from an unknown shrine in Baghdad; a piece of coarse marble from the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh; basalt he thought might have come from the sacred way in Babylon; and black pitch used as mortar in 'Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon' (possibly Nebuchadnezzar II who ruled from 605 to 562 BCE).

When I first saw this item and held it, I was pretty excited. To hold something so ancient was a thrill and Burke may have felt the same way. However, I knew there was always the possibility it was not a real antiquity so I contacted an expert in cuneiform tablets at the British Museum, who, after studying several images of the item, noted that some of the script seemed to be the wrong way round. He also noted that the surface was curved and looked as if it could have come from a cylinder rather than a tablet. Cylinders were generally used for royal inscriptions and were carefully inscribed - this item was not and after further assessment he confirmed it is a fake.

Eric Keast Burke with the ruins of a lion standing over a prostrate man roughly carved in black basalt, 1919.

Strangely enough this did not disappoint me. In fact I thought it was an even more interesting item. Fake tablets have been made and sold in Mesopotamia since the early nineteenth century, when the area was 'rediscovered' by archaeologists, diplomats and tourists. While not as large as the famous Egyptian trade in fake antiquities, the trade in fake 'Babylonian' tablets was still a decent money earner - especially during the war, when thousands of soldiers made their way through Mesopotamia. This 'Babylonian tablet' certainly is one of the more unusual souvenirs collected during the war and despite not being a genuine antiquity it is still one of my favourites.

Soldiers explore the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon in Mesopotamia c 1919.

On Saturday 10 July 1911, King George V gave his approval for the Commonwealth Naval Forces to become known as the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). One hundred years have now passed since this event. To celebrate the centenary of the Royal Australian Navy, the reports of proceedings for fifty RAN ships and establishments are being made available online via the Australian War Memorial's website. This is part of an ongoing project to digitise the Official Records series, AWM78 Reports of Proceedings, HMA Ships and Establishments.

Some of the 166 boxes of AWM78

Within these pages, some of the history of the Royal Australian Navy and its activities since 1939 is revealed. These reports of proceedings were submitted by Commanding Officers of RAN ships, administrative units and shore establishments. Depending on the creating agency, these files cover promotion tests; mess activities; accounting; training; exercises; social events; arrival and departures from ports; visits; official calls; operations; weather conditions and outstanding incidents. There is also a very brief summary of the performance of the ship's machinery and other systems. Some also include photographs and newspaper articles.

A selection of files from AWM78

The digitisation of AWM78 is currently being undertaken by the Research Centre. This project began with a pilot project to scan the files of HMAS Perth on 9 January 2009. HMAS Sydney, HMAS Vampire and HMAS Vendetta followed in quick succession. Since then, we have steadily been working our way through the remainder of the series in alphabetical order. To date, 25 191 images from this series have been scanned and are available online. The files for each new ship or establishment will be released online on a regular basis according to when they are scanned. The final figure for the project is expected to result in about  300 000 images.

Scanning the AWM78 files

While searching through the Memorial’s Research Centre collection looking for stories relating to the upcoming exhibition on nurses I came across the collection of Sister Beryl Maddock (nee Chandler), containing a typed memoir, newspaper clippings, letters and a scattering of photographs. Beryl’s story stood out to me as she was one of a small number of nurses selected to join the RAAF's newly formed Medical Air Evacuation Transport Unit in 1944. As a nurse in the air rather than on the ground, Beryl’s wartime experience combined regular nursing duties with airsickness, altitudes of up to 18,000 feet, anoxia and medic pilots who wished they had been fighter pilots (and flew as such).

 As a nursing student in 1939 when war broke out, Chandler watched with some frustration as her colleagues left to join the Australian Army Nursing Service while she stayed behind to complete her training. Off marched her friends Sisters Florence Trotter, Joyce Tweddell, and Pearl Mittelheuser. These girls left for active service and for a wildly different wartime experience to Beryl, however their paths were to cross again at the end of the war. In 1941, after completing her training, it was suggested to Beryl that she apply to join the Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service and after a series of applications and interviews she was, to her delight, accepted in May of 1942.

   Northern Australia. Sister Beryl Chandler of Longreach, Qld, at the Medical Receiving Station RAAF with the mascot of the station, a wallaby named "Josie" and a patient, an officer of the RAN.

Northern Australia. Sister Beryl Chandler of Longreach, Qld, at the Medical Receiving Station RAAF with the mascot of the station, a wallaby named "Josie" and a patient, an officer of the RAN.

Beryl’s memoirs record a lively introduction to defence nursing as she acclimatised to sleeping on a bed made of hay, cold showers and the camaraderie of life in the RAAF. It was while working as Sister in Charge at the Air Base in Narromine in 1944 that Beryl heard about a plan to train nurses for medical air evacuations. The idea of being a ‘Flying Sister’ appealed to her and so she applied, and was one of the 25 nurses accepted to No. 1 Medical Air Evacuation Transport Unit (MAETU)- the first of its kind in the RAAF.  After their establishment in 1944, RAAF Medical Air Evacuation Transport Units flew in and out of combat zones taking in supplies and returning with patients, proving vital in rescuing seriously ill and wounded servicemen. By September 1945 Beryl’s initial unit, No. 1 MAETU, which was based at Nadzab in New Guinea, had carried 14, 209 patients since its formation in March of 1944. The use of MAETU were particularly important in relation to New Guinea where an enemy controlled sea coast and the rigours of land travel made medical evacuations time consuming and dangerous. For the nurses, this type of work brought them ever closer to the front line and introduced a new series of challenges. 


A rigorous training course for the ‘Flying Sisters’ had to be undertaken before deployment. This included everything from weapons handling, jungle and ocean survival as well as how to cope with psychotic patients and patients with brain injuries and lung damage at changing altitudes. 


Perhaps the most memorable deployment for Sister Chandler as a member of MAETU came in September of 1945. With the war with Japan ending in August of that year, there were roughly 14,000 Australian Prisoners of War awaiting repatriation in the South West Pacific and on the 13th of September Sister Chandler found her name listed among the MAETU crew whose primary mission was to locate and repatriate a group of missing Australian Army nurses- including many of the girls she had originally trained with. Seeing the names of her friends on lists of Prisoners of War, and reading reports of atrocities such as the Banka Island massacre and the sinking of the hospital ship Vyner Brooke in 1942 added a personal element to her involvement in the search. However upon landing at Palembang on the 15th September, Sister Chandler and her crew found that many of the remaining Japanese either could not or would not provide information as to the whereabouts of the missing nurses. Finally, working from the tip of a Mother Superior who had been in contact with some of the missing women, Chandler and her crew left for Lahat and on the 16th of September 1945 were reunited with the nurses, including Banka Island Massacre survivor Vivian Bullwinkel. On the flight out of Lahat Beryl writes that she remembers checking the list of missing nurses against her new charges and asked one what her name was. The woman replied ‘Chan, you have to be kidding, I am Tweddell’. Due to the physical deterioration during her years as a POW- Beryl had been completely unable to recognise her friend Joyce Tweddell from their training days only a few years earlier. Similarly, Beryl’s memoirs detail a bittersweet reunion with her friend Florence Trotter, and her feelings upon learning the news that Pearl Mittelheuser had died only a few weeks before. A joyful photograph from her collection shows Chandler, Trotter and Tweddell embracing upon their return to Brisbane, their arms full of flowers. Her flying log book for that day, however, reads simply: ‘RESCUE OF NURSES – Palembang Lahat, Sumatra.’

 Flying log entry for the date the POW nurses were rescued.

Beryl’s memoirs record many other adventures with MAETU, including a patient who chewed through the electric wiring of the plane whilst in flight and the loss of a colleague, Flight Sister Marie Craig who died after her plane disappeared in September of 1945. (The wreckage of F/Sister Craig’s plane was recovered 25 years later when the crash site was spotted on the side of a 14,100ft mountain in the Carstensz Ranges in Indonesian Papua.)  She braved nights stranded with her crew in thick jungle and slept in a (vacated) Sultan’s bed while stopping over in Singapore- requiring a ladder to get into it. She nursed soldiers suffering burns, gunshot wounds and terrible shock. She assisted with the repatriation of a young soldier who, as a prisoner of war had had his back broken as punishment for trying to smuggle rice into his boots and another whose legs were amputated in a POW camp, using only a solid punch as means of anaesthetic.

  During her experience as a ‘Flying Sister’, Beryl Chandler/ Maddock felt the camaraderie, joys and sorrows of service and found herself facing the same challenges that seem to appear for many defence force nurses, treating patients returning from active service bearing the physical and mental wounds that only a war zone can seem to inflict. In a note toward the end of her memoirs Beryl writes ‘we who have had the privilege of serving with the RAAF feel a great deal of pride... and congratulate all who have served and are serving today with the RAAF and wish it the great future we know lies ahead.’

Further information: 


In the early morning of 1 July 1916, more than 100,000 British infantrymen were ordered from their trenches in the fields and woods north of the Somme River in France, to attack the opposing German line.

Within 24 hours, the British army would suffer almost 60,000 casualties, a third of whom were killed, and record the most costly day in its history.

Today marks the 95th anniversary of the start of the Somme offensive, a series of fierce and ultimately futile battles that consumed the British, Australian and Dominion forces for much of 1916. The offensive was eventually abandoned on 18 November with staggering troop losses and little ground gained.

The assault was originally planned as a joint French–British offensive which was part of a wider strategy of attacking Germany simultaneously on the Western and Eastern Fronts, with the aim of destroying Germany’s reserves of manpower. The massive German attack launched on the French fortress of Verdun on 21 February 1916 significantly reduced the French contribution to the Somme campaign, which was also being launched, in part, to divert the Germans’ attention from Verdun. Britain’s “new army’’ – a volunteer force similar to the AIF – was required to step up.

“At the start of 1916, the French called on the Brits to play a bigger role on the ground, which they agree to do at the Somme,” explains Peter Burness, a senior historian at the Memorial. “But these were not professional forces, or large conscript ones such as the German and French armies were – these were men from all walks of life who joined up in their communities.” Hundreds of men from communities large and small would join up together, give their units nicknames such as “Pals”, and die together, leaving their towns and villages devastated.

Britain’s generals lacked confidence in the abilities of their men, which meant there was a distinct lack of imagination or innovation in the tactics employed.

“The application of artillery was still rather simple in 1916: to bombard the enemy’s position, then send in the infantry and charge through after with the cavalry,” Burness says. “The British and French were always looking for the breakthrough, to fracture the enemy and drive them out. They wanted to see the Germans in disarray, to make a wild retreat.”

The Germans, however, were deeply entrenched on the Somme. They had been honing their defences and their war weapons since the trench line zig-zagged its way across France and Belgium in the autumn of 1914. The Germans had built an impregnable and sophisticated wall of barbed wire, deep dugouts and machine-gun posts on favourable locations in difficult country. They had a formidable position on the Somme, and the British underestimated their preparedness.

Despite days of shelling immediately before the assault on 1 July, the British were unable to smash the German dugouts, and belts of wire remained uncut. The Germans also had many guns that outranged those of the British, or were kept silent and well hidden until the offensive began.

In his memoir The old front line, British poet laureate John Masefield, who spent months at the front, includes a German’s account of the start of the assault, at 7.30 am on July 1:

They came on at a steady easy pace as if expecting to find nothing alive in our front trenches ... a few minutes later, when the leading British line was within 100 yards, the rattle of machine-guns and rifle fire broke out from along the whole line of craters.

The advance rapidly crumpled under this hail of shells and bullets. All along the line men could be seen throwing their arms into the air and collapsing never to move again. Badly wounded rolled about in their agony, and others less severely injured crawled to the nearest shell-hole. The noise of battle became indescribable ... Again and again the extended lines of British infantry broke against the German defence like waves against a cliff, only to be beaten back. It was an amazing spectacle of un-exampled gallantry, courage and bull-dog determination on both sides.

All along the 30-kilometre front, the same annihilation was taking place. In his book, The first day on the Somme, Martin Middlebrook records the experience of Private W. Slater, 18th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment (known as the 2nd Bradford Pals):

For some reason nothing seemed to happen to us at first; we strolled along as though walking in a park. Then, suddenly, we were in the midst of a storm of machine-gun bullets and I saw men beginning to twirl round and fall in all kinds of curious ways as they were hit – quite unlike the way actors do it in films.

The first day of the Somme offensive has a relevance to the British today that is akin to the landing at Gallipoli for Australians.

“It was a day of high hope and expectation, and it ended in disaster,” Burness says. “To a new generation, that realisation had a real impact. There was so much expectation that was destroyed on the battlefield.”

Despite the enormous losses of that first battle at the Somme, the offensive continued through summer and a particularly wet autumn until the first snow fell on 18 November 1916. The Australian Imperial Force, consisting of men who had fought at Gallipoli and fresh volunteers from home, arrived at the Somme in late July.

The major contribution of Australian troops to the Somme offensive was in the fighting around Pozières between 23 July and 3 September. The 1st, 2nd and 4th Australian Divisions suffered more than 24,000 casualties at Pozières, including 6,741 dead. Official war correspondent C.E.W. Bean described the small village as “more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth”.

When the Somme offensive ended, the allied forces had managed to advance only 12 kilometres. It had come at a cost of 430,000 British and Dominion troops and 200,000 French casualties. The offensive destroyed Britain’s mass volunteer army, and for the rest of the war it would be reliant upon conscription for reinforcements. It had also resulted in heavy German casualties, about 230,000 according to current scholarship. The German army never recovered from its loss of experienced junior officers and non-commisisoned officers on the Somme. To those who fought there, and for the present generation, the Somme was synonymous with slaughter.

More information


Talmadge Johnson in 1940 (Photograph courtesy of L Johnson)

The Australian War Memorial recently received a significant donation associated with an American sailor, Gunner's Mate Talmadge Johnson, who served aboard USS Mugford, when she rescued the survivors from the sinking of AHS Centaur on 15 May 1943.

The items are two emergency lights with their battery cases. They came from one of the Centaur survivor’s life vests collected by Talmadge after the rescue. He managed to keep these two lights throughout the war even though the life vest itself deteriorated due to humid conditions and the oil coating the vest.

Emergency lights collected by Talmadge Johnson from an AHS Centaur survivor's life vest. The wires are more recent additions as the original wires rotted away.
Emergency lights collected by Talmadge Johnson from an AHS Centaur survivor's life vest.

The Memorial has a very small collection of items associated with some of the survivors. This is the first donation to be associated with one of the rescuers and we are thrilled to add the emergency lights to the National Collection.

USS Mugford
USS Mugford

Talmadge Nelson Johnson was born on 24 December 1919. He enlisted in the American Navy in 1940 and was posted to USS Mugford, a Bagley class destroyer. He was serving aboard the Mugford,which was docked at Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese attacked on the morning of 7 December 1941. He was asleep in his quarters below the #4 gun when the attack began and was woken by a shipmate who told him Pearl Harbor was under attack. Talmadge was one of the few Gunner’s Mates on board at the time and had a set of keys to the ammunition magazines.

Talmadge ran the length of the ship to open the magazines. He then broke into the storeroom where the firing locks were kept for the 5” guns. He returned to the other end of the ship, passing the firing locks to each of the four gun mounts. Johnson’s battle station was the forward starboard 50 calibre machine gun, located below the bridge. At 8.05 am the Mugfordopened fire and within ten minutes, two Japanese torpedo planes had been shot down by the destroyer’s aft guns. Over an hour later a third aircraft – a Japanese dive bomber – was shot down by Talmadge himself. He never spoke of this after the war and his family did not discover this until they read his war diary after his death.

After America’s entry into the war, USS Mugford served in the South Pacific, taking part in convoy escorts, patrols and assaults. The Mugford’s base during much of this period was Brisbane in Queensland. On 15 May 1943, Mugford departed Brisbane, escorting the British steamer Sussex, when they came across and rescued the survivors of the Centaur.

Australian Hospital Ship Centaur
Australian Hospital Ship Centaur

During the rescue, Talmadge was at the #3 gun on top of the after deckhouse. He observed the rescue of the survivors by his crew mates, while he kept an eye out for any sign of the enemy. The rescue was conducted swiftly due to the threat of enemy submarines. The survivors’ life vests were initially left on the deck and he collected one with the lights attached. The survivors received medical treatment and were clothed, fed and put to bed. The Mugford's crew also donated clothing, cigarettes, soap and other essentials, as well as about £239 for the survivors’ immediate needs.

Talmadge did not keep a diary from the end of November 1942 to the end of December 1943, however he later recorded about this period that ‘...the last year has been full of harrowing experiences, hard work, and plenty of hell.’ and, in relation to the Centaur rescue, ‘...One day out of Brisbane we picked up the survivors of the hospital ship Centaur, about 57 [sic] men and one woman at from 1 to 4 in the afternoon.  Everyone else out of 325 [sic] aboard were lost. They were sunk by a Jap sub at 4:30 in the morning before.’.

Whenever Talmadge took leave at Brisbane he visited an Australian family - Fred and Olive ‘Mom’ Watson of Herston Road, Kelvin Grove and spent time with their family, including their three children, Fred [Jnr], Dawn and Cherrell.


Talmadge Johnson with Olive Watson and Fred Watson. Johnson is wearing a borrowed jumper showing the rating of Fire Controlman. (Photograph courtesy of L Johnson

Talmadge Johnson with Fred Watson (Jnr) and with Cherrell (front) and Dawn Watson. Talmadge is wearing a borrowed jumper showing the rating of Fire Controlman. (Photograph courtesy of L Johnson)

 After serving in the Pacific, Talmadge was transferred to the Naval Gunnery School in Washington DC in 1944. He was promoted to Chief Gunner’s Mate and retained by the gunnery school as an instructor for the rest of the war. Talmadge was discharged in March 1946.

Talmadge Johnson in 1946 (Photograph courtesy of L Johnson)

 Talmadge Johnson died on 26 June 2002. As a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack, he was entitled to have his ashes scattered there, which they were. His name is commemorated on a memorial plaque at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (the Punchbowl), Honolulu, Hawai’i.

Memorial plaque at the National Cemetery of the Pacific (the Punchbowl), Honolulu, Hawai'i (Photograph courtesy of L Johnson)

Question: What’s the definition of “tough”?

Answer: Australian service nurses

In early April 1941, the nurses and physiotherapists of 2/5th and 2/6th Australian General Hospitals (AGH), were transported to Greece with the men of the 6th Division. They were moved around frequently, often at short notice, as the Germans advanced down the Greek peninsula. Hospital supplies and food were in short supply, and many of the incoming wounded were suffering from frostbite.

Sister Nalder wrote of a new group of patients on 17 April;

Such a tired, haggard looking crew. It made me feel like weeping. Most of them were able to walk, and we gave them hot baths – where possible – a hot meal - and got them into bed.

As the fighting around them intensified the matrons of the two hospitals were ordered to prepare for immediate evacuation. This proved to be somewhat of a confused and dangerous operation. An air raid occurred while Matron Joan Abbott and the staff of 2/6th AGH were embarking on 20 April, and the hospital ship Aba sailed for Egypt without some of the group.

The next day, thirty year old Senior Matron Kathleen Best was asked to choose only 44 women from 2/5th AGH to be evacuated. Space was limited, which meant 40 would have to remain behind.

I told the Sisters what was to happen, and also made it clear to them that those who volunteered would stay behind with the hospital and that they would in all possibility be captured. I asked them to write on a slip of paper their names and either ’stay’ or ‘go’ and hand them to me ... Not one Sister wrote ‘go’ on the paper. I then selected 39 sisters to remain [with me].
Matron Best 2/5th AGH 23 April 1941

After dark, upon discovering that the railway line had been blown up, the departing group were bundled into trucks for the trip south to the port of Piraeus. During an air raid the next day the nurses sheltered in a cemetery, and as they set off again at night, medical officers warned them that it would now be “every man for himself.”

Sisters Hammond and Crittenden of 2/6th AGH shelter from air attack in a Greek cemetery.

Upon arrival at the beach in Navplion, they discovered ships burning in the harbour from an earlier air raid. Greek fishing boats ferried them out to the waiting destroyer HMAS Voyager.

We sisters had to judge the gap, and leap to the destroyer, equipped with tin hat, respirator, great coat and a very tight mid-length skirt.

Sister Barnard 2/5th AGH

They sailed for Crete on 25 April.  The ship’s anti aircraft gunners were kept busy when they came under attack from enemy bombers. Later that day, on arrival at Crete, they set to work at a British tent hospital as incoming wounded flooded in by the boatload.

Australian and New Zealand nurses arrive in Crete.

Meanwhile, Matron Best and the 39 nurses of 2/5th AGH that had been left behind in Greece, continued to work despite constant air raids. They all moved into the main hospital building, and on matron’s orders wore their red capes and white caps, hoping they would be easily recognisable as non-combatants.

They were evacuated on a merchant ship full of troops in the early hours of 26 April.

We were all very upset at having to leave the hospital, the Officers and the men, and not one of the Sisters appeared to consider the personal risk that evacuation at that stage might entail...

We took one small suitcase each and a rug ... Some nurses thought it a pity to leave their stockings, so they pinned them inside the sleeves of their coats ...

The Sisters as usual accepted the situation with as much quiet dignity as possible, lying full length on the floor with steel helmets on and even during the worst barrages there was no panic and no comments

Matron Best 2/5th AGH

Reunited on Crete, AANS sisters enjoy a meal together.

A few days later, all the nurses were evacuated from Crete, reaching Alexandria on 1 May 1941. They worked in various hospitals for the remainder of the year, wherever the need was greatest.

When Greece and Crete fell to the Germans, our hospital expanded from 1,000 to 2,000 beds in ten days. We worked eleven hours a day without any days off for three and a half months til reinforcements joined us.

Sister Bette Uren 2/2nd AGH El Kantara

On board the Greek vessel Toria, nurses take cover under a lifeboat during their evacuation from Crete to Alexandria.

By early 1942, most Australian nurses had left the Middle East, along with the men of the 6th and 7th Divisions of the AIF, which were withdrawn to defend Australia from what was feared to be imminent Japanese attack.

Nora Heysen, Lieutenant Colonel Kathleen Best, 1944,

On hearing of the proposed evacuation of nurses from Greece, Matron Best wrote that, “I felt myself responsible for their welfare.”

For her courage and efficiency throughout the evacuation Matron (later Lieutenant Colonel) Kathleen Annie Louise Best was awarded the Royal Red Cross.

This is just one of the many stories highlighting the work of Australian service nurses in the up-coming exhibition, Nurses: from Zululand to Afghanistan. The exhibition opens to the public on 2 December 2011, at the Australian War Memorial.

Robyn Siers, Exhibitons


With the Centenary of the Great War of 1914-1918 only a few years away, staff in the Research Centre at the Australian War Memorial are busily working on a variety of special projects aimed at supporting the Australian community's commemoration of this momentous occasion. 

One such project involves the re-cataloguing and in-depth indexing of the Memorial's remarkable Private Records collection from WWI.

The AWM holds over 5,000 personal records from the First World War, mainly letters and diaries written by Australian men and women on active service. While earlier cataloguing for these personal records provided an index of such things as the unit with which the collection's maker served (e.g. 8th Light Horse Regiment), and the places in which he served (e.g. Gallipoli), the new standard of Private Records cataloguing involves far more detailed description.  Many more subject headings (like 'mud', 'camels', 'prisoners of war' and so on) have been added to the online catalogue record of individual collections, as well as biographical information about the collection's 'maker' - information previously only available on a paper file.  To get an idea of what I mean, take a peek at 2DRL/0481 - (papers of Lt John Alexander Raws & Lt Robert Goldthorpe Raws, both of the 23rd Battalion, AIF.)

As a family historian myself, I feel the most exciting aspect of this project is identifying individuals named in letters and diaries.  I record the name of every person mentioned in each collection, even if the reference is only very brief.   This ensures these names are made ‘searchable’ on the Memorial’s online catalogue. 

It’s wonderful what these references can bring to light.  Take for example the case of 1120 Private Leonard Arthur Thomas Beggs of the 22nd Battalion...from his official war service record, he would appear to have been less than a model soldier – but just look what his commanding officer had to say about him in a letter home from Gallipoli.

“[N]ot forgetting Beggs, a terrier of a chap, will do anything. Put up entanglements under fire, work...on sandbags at night, scout round for provisions for us at the beach, my word he’s the one to find the illicit canteens...He’s a real scout and will do anything to oblige us”. –

1DRL/0554 (papers of Captain Louis Carl Roth, MC, 2 Pioneer Battalion & formerly of 22 Infantry Battalion, AIF)

With the WWI centenary fast approaching, I'm delighted to see the burgeoning of private commemoration sites online, particularly on social networking sites like Facebook. ™  Ordinary Australians are increasingly taking an interest in their own family’s connection with our military history, helped along, I have no doubt, by the excellent work done by the National Archive of Australia in digitising almost all of the WWI service records, and making them freely available online.  The NAA also has the excellent Mapping Our Anzacs interactive project up and running.

I'm confident that this in-depth cataloguing of WWI private records held here at AWM will be a great help to Australian families in their quest to learn more about their own Great War heroes, as well as a boon to military historians, researchers and museum curators in the lead up to 2014.

One of the many problems trench warfare presented to soldiers in the First World War was finding out what the enemy was doing behind his lines.  The simple solution to this was height, and in a relatively short time many ways of getting men and a camera off the ground were developed.

Some are simple and ingenious, others were more complex: two German examples are an observation post disguised as a tree, and a periscope which can extend up to 25m in height.  Observation balloons were successful but have their limitations, being tethered to the ground and full of flammable gas are the two most obvious.  It was the infant technologies of aircraft and photography that quickly become the most effective form of aerial observation.

In a couple of years there are hundreds of aircraft taking thousands of aerial photographs which are used to update maps and provide a view of what is in the front line and beyond.  Some of these valuable photographs are held in the collections of the Australian War Memorial.

Aerial photos come in two main types, vertical and oblique.  A vertical photo is taken with the camera pointing straight down towards the ground, while in an oblique the camera is at an angle.  Here are two photos of what is now Old Parliament House in Canberra, taken by a training flight from RAAF Fairbairn on 1 February 1943.

In the photo you can see trenches that have been dug as air raid precautions on the grounds behind Old Parliament House, and between West Block (right) and the (now) National Archives of Australia on the left.

During the First World War aerial photography was often conducted using two-seater aircraft and simply having one of the crew stand up and lean over the side with a camera.  From these humble beginnings spring a number of technological and tactical developments – camera and aircraft technology; a whole new branch of intelligence called photo interpretation; the science of converting information in a photo onto a map; the rapid reproduction of both maps and photos in large numbers, and even the way in which aircraft are organised and deployed in the air.

Technological developments soon see cameras attached to the side of the aircraft and allow for several photos to be taken relatively quickly in a single run. Single photos of a particular spot are useful, but it was soon realised that multiple images which overlap were better as they allowed for more detail to be noted.

Understanding what you are looking at in a photo becomes an important job in the intelligence field, and lessons learned there feed across into developments in camouflage, such as dummy field works.  The main feature of this photo of the village of Bullecourt are the belts of barbed wire that start in the top of the picture, four lines thick at the very top, which continues down the entire picture.

Part of the Bullecourt defences

This photo shows another part of the Bullecourt defences, and the preparation that went into the Hindenburg Line defences is clear.  In the belts of wire on the left you can see the posts on which it was strung.  Then there is some open ground before reaching the first line of trenches and the dugouts behind these where the troops would live and shelter during artillery bombardment.

An oblique view of part of the Bullecourt defences

In the image below you can see the wire at the bottom, then examples of the different shapes of front line trenches including the square and curved traverses.  The white colour in front of trenches is the chalky soil thrown out when the trenches were dug.  Running from bottom to top are the communications trenches - the wavy line on the left and zig-zagged line on the right, which lead to the second line on trenches.  Behind these on the grass can be seen the tracks of the horse-drawn transport and foot traffic of men and supplies moving in and out of the lines, and then the circular features of what may be an artillery battery.  Photo interpreters would note all this detail and more onto maps which are then printed and distributed to the various units in that area.

Many of the defensive features of this period are visible here

The following photographs show what could happen to a landscape when the focus of battle fell on it.  The area is Polygon Wood, east of the Belgian city of Ypres, and for most of the war it is behind the German lines.

Polygon Wood, August 1916

In mid-1917 Ypres and its environs became the strategic focus of the entire Western Front, part of a plan of the British Commander General Haig to breakthrough to the Belgian coast.  Known to history as the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele, it began with the capture of the Messines ridge in June.  Though it was far from the breakthrough battle Haig had hoped for, over the following months the front line crept steadily closer towards Polygon Wood.

Polygon Wood, July 1917

A feature of this phase of the war is the understanding that artillery is the key to victory, in both offense and defense, and it is being applied to the battlefields in ever increasing numbers and sizes of guns.  By September, Polygon Wood is now part of the German frontline, and the full fury of hundreds of guns begin to fall on it.

Polygon Wood, September 1917

It is on the right flank of a four kilometre objective line which on 26 September is attacked and captured in a spectacular victory.  Oblique photos are useful in showing how completely artillery, (in combination with geology and weather), could reduce productive farm land into an almost impassable, featureless morass and how suddenly the landscape can become normal again.

An oblique view of the Polygon Wood battlefield

Some technological developments (machine guns and quick firing artillery being two) are widely attributed as creating the stalemate of trench warfare in the First World War. Aerial photography was a crucial development that helped that stalemate to be broken.

The Australian War Memorial operates the Official War Art Scheme, one of the longest running and largest commissioning programs of art in Australia. The Scheme makes a rich contribution to Australian art, while playing a significant role in Australia’s interpretation of its wartime history.

The term “official war artist” is used to describe artists who have been expressly employed by either the Australian War Memorial or the Army Military History Section (or its antecedents). The Memorial also commissions artists outside the Scheme to produce specific works of art.

The Official War Art Scheme was initiated during the First World War and was based on similar models in Britain and Canada. The Scheme was reactivated during the Second World War, and for the Korean and Vietnam wars. In 1999 the Scheme was renewed when artists were appointed to depict peacekeeping operations in East Timor (Timor-Leste). Commissions since then have seen artists deployed to Afghanistan and other regions in the Middle East, and to the Solomon Islands.

Typically, the Scheme has involved an artist being embedded with Australian military forces in conflicts or peacekeeping missions, for the purpose of creating a personal and informed representation of that conflict. From the outset, the Scheme has covered both the frantic and hellish experience of soldiers in battle as well as more routine subject matter, such as service people at rest or industry in wartime.

Official war artists have always balanced an objective intention with an exploration of a visual and sensory dimension of war that is often absent in written histories or other forms of reportage. The works produced by official war artists display a highly diverse range of imagery and perceptions of conflict, and more recently of peacekeeping. What has also contributed to the diversity of this imagery has been the selection of skilled and established career artists, who work with different media and have a variety of interests, styles, and approaches to art.

Today the Official War Art Scheme continues to play an important role in the Memorial’s activities, particularly as it records and commemorates Australia’s involvement in contemporary conflicts.

Tetanus by eX de Medici

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