1918: Australians in France - The cost of war

ART02231The mate, by Will Dyson. ART02231

I have just been writing to next of kin of those of my boys who were killed in the recent fighting ... As far as possible I try to write to all the relatives but sometimes the list is a long one and one hasn't the opportunity.
- Letter, Captain Francis Fairweather, 19 September 1918.

The First World War had been a long and destructive conflict for all the nations involved. Throughout the course of the war, of the 330,000 Australian soldiers who saw active service, approximately 60,000 were killed, 82,000 were wounded in battle, and a further 88,000 suffered a variety of illnesses and injuries. By December 1918, 104,000 Australian soldiers had returned from service as invalids.

It was also the first war in which Australia had felt a real national involvement. In 1918, for the first time, Australian troops had acted directly against a main enemy as an independent force in the main theatres of a war, and on an unprecedented scale. Despite their successes, for Australian troops and their families, the loss and suffering is hard to imagine. On the Western Front alone, approximately 45,000 Australians died.

H03349Members of the 1st Australian Army Divisional Train attending to graves in an Australian cemetery at Villers-Bretonneux, 1918. AWMH03349

Despite the devastating cost of the war, Australian forces had made an invaluable contribution to the Allied effort in 1918. Although making up only about 10 per cent of the total British army, since March, Australian soldiers had captured around 30,000 prisoners (23 per cent British total), 338 guns (23.5 per cent), and 40 miles of ground (21.5 per cent).

Marshall Ferdinand Foch, the Commander of the French forces, stated in 1918:

From start to finish the Australians distinguished themselves by their endurance and boldness. By their initiative, their fighting spirit, their magnificent ardour, they proved themselves to be shock troops of the first order.

Similarly, Major General R.L. Mullens, Commander of the 1st British Cavalry Division, stated:

It was a pleasure and an honour to be fighting alongside troops who displayed such magnificent morale.

At Home

On the home fronts, the morale and consciousness of Australian and European societies were greatly affected by the war. The First World War was a tragic and traumatic experience. In some European cities, there was documented a high suicide rate among returning soldiers, who after living through the horrors of the war, found it impossible to find their place in society again.

The war also prompted new intellectual discussion and debate. Many questioned the rationality of a war that had not lived up to their initial romanticised notions. Before the war, technology, industry and science were seen as vehicles for the advancement of progress and civilisation. It was thought that technological warfare would result in a quicker and more efficient war, rather than a war that was more destructive. By the end of the war, society's conceptions of technology and progress had changed dramatically, and there was a sense of bitter disillusionment. Despite the positive developments of some wartime technology such as better communication systems and increased industrial efficiency, weapons technology had also killed hundreds of thousands of Australian men. With the end of the war, the reality of national economic burdens and debts from the war effort was felt during and long after 1918 in Australia.

chrismem.jpgChristmas memories, by Will Dyson, 1929. The middle figure remembers those who died; he will never forget the experience of war. ART50203