The Western Front entry in The Oxford companion to Australian military history provides a useful summary of the two and a half years the Australian Imperial Force spent fighting in France and Belgium (Peter Dennis, et al., The Oxford companion to Australian military history, 2nd edn, OUP, South Melbourne, 2008, pp. 586–598).
The fight that changed Australia—an article by military historian David Horner on Australia’s role on the Western Front between 1916 and 1918 (Australian Magazine, 7–8 August 1993).
In ‘The end of the Great War: Australian soldiers and the armistice of November 1918’, Ashley Ekins describes the reaction of Australian troops to the end of the war, and the massive task of demobilisation (Wartime, no. 4, Summer 1998).
The worst war in history, also by Ashley Ekins, sets out the effect of the end of the war on both the soldiers who fought in it and the country to which they returned (Age, 8 November 2008).
Australian battles on the Western Front during World War I, a Parliamentary Library Research Paper (16 August 1993) by David Anderson, which includes maps and short descriptions of the major battles in which Australian soldiers fought.
The Department of Veterans’ Affairs website, Australians on the Western Front 1914–18, has links to pages describing the major battles of each year of the war.
After the Allied withdrawal from Gallipoli in December 1915, five Australian infantry divisions were formed to fight in France and Belgium. Four of them, the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th Divisions arrived between March and June 1916 (the 3rd Division was formed in Australia and trained in England in the second half of 1916). Initially the four divisions were in ‘a relatively quiet sector’ around Armentieres known as the ‘nursery’ sector, although there were periods of ‘sharp fighting, shelling and some heavy raids’ resulting in more than 600 deaths by the end of June (Peter Burness, ‘1916: a terrible year’, Wartime, no. 36, 2006, pp. 10–16).
The 5th Australian Division which remained in French Flanders, took part in ‘an ill-planned diversion at Fromelles on 19 July and lost 5,533 men’, including 1,917 killed. Over seven weeks from late July 1916, three other Australian Divisions, the 1st, 2nd and 4th which had been sent to join the fighting on the Somme, launched 19 attacks in fighting around Pozieres and Mouquet Farm taking their objectives, but at a cost of 23,000 casualties (David Horner, The fight that changed Australia, Australian Magazine, 7–8 August 1993).
In ‘The battle of Fromelles’, Ashley Ekins describes the fighting on the late afternoon of 19 July 1916 as the ‘worst day in Australian military history’. Ekins argues that ‘the battle of Fromelles was a model of how not to attack on the Western Front. It reflected the lowest point of military incompetence in the Great War...’ The major failing was not the inexperience of the Australians who fought gallantly, but ‘the piecemeal planning of the attack, which in turn stemmed from the ineptitude of senior commanders’ (Wartime, no. 44, 2008, pp. 18–23).
Figure 7: Written on 23 July 1916, these excerpts were drawn from the 15th Australian Brigade’s report on the Battle of Fromelles. The 15th Brigade suffered huge casualties during the battle. From 21–22 July 1916, two of the Brigade’s four Battalions—the 59th and 60th—suffered around 1,450 casualties out of a strength of at most 2,000 officers and men. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.
Up to 400 Australian and British soldiers, missing and presumed dead after the battle of Fromelles, were believed to have been buried in a mass grave by the Germans at Pheasant Wood, near the battlefield. The possible burial site was located in 2008 due to the efforts of a Melbourne group, the Friends of the Fifteenth Brigade Association, led by a school teacher, Mr Lambis Englezos.
In May and June 2008 archaeological excavation work was carried out on the site of the mass grave confirming that it contained human remains, likely to be those of a number of the 170 Australian soldiers and 327 British soldiers missing after the Battle of Fromelles in 1916. The Army History Unit re-engaged a team from Glasgow University’s Archaeological Division which had conducted a non-invasive survey at Fromelles in May 2007. This earlier survey revealed underground anomalies matching five pits seen in aerial photographs taken after the battle.
The Australian and British Governments announced on 4 October 2008 that the remains would be recovered and re-interred in a new cemetery and work to exhume the soldiers’ bodies began on
5 May 2009. Plans for a new cemetery in an open field in Fromelles were subsequently unveiled. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission began construction of the new walled cemetery in June 2009.
On 2 April 2009 the Australian Government published a list of the names of 191 Australian soldiers whose remains may be among those recovered from the site. On 17 June 2009 a contract was announced for the analysis of viable DNA from the site. The Department of Defence has a website containing details of the project.
The excavation of the site was completed in early September 2009 with the remains of 250 soldiers being exhumed. The remains were sent to LGC Forensics in London for testing in an effort to identify as many individual soldiers as possible. In his announcement of the completion of the excavation, the Minister for Defence Personnel, Materiel and Science stated that ‘a large number’ of the remains belonged to Australians, but cautioned that it would take many months, and in some cases years, for proper identification to be completed. A Joint Australia/UK Identification board began considering the forensic findings in early March 2010.
In mid-2010 construction of the new Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery was completed at Fromelles. This was the first new CWGC cemetery to be established since the end of the Second World War. Further details can be found on the CWGC website. The cemetery is not located on the site of the grave pits but is set further up the slope overlooking the original site. It was decided to place the cemetery in a new location due to concerns about flooding and easier access for visitors (the original site is further down the slope and flooding is a regular occurrence). A small car park has also been built adjacent to the cemetery.
Figure 8: Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The CWGC carried out the re-interment of the majority of the 250 sets of remains in individual graves during February 2010, with headstones which list the person buried as ‘unknown’. Names will be added to the headstones as information gained from the results of the DNA testing program becomes available. On 17 March 2010 the Minister for Veterans Affairs announced that the DNA testing had identified 75 of the men and that relatives had been informed. The Australian Army website carries a list of the men who have been identified. As at 8 April 2011 when the Minister announced the identification of 14 more sets of remains, the total number of men identified stood at 110. However, this process is ongoing and nine more soldiers were identified in early 2012. The total again increased with the identification of five more men in April 2013. These five were buried on 20 July 2013.
The cemetery was officially dedicated on 19 July 2010. In order to mark the completion of the project, a commemorative event took place at the cemetery at which the last of the 250 soldiers was buried and the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, delivered an address. The 94th anniversary of the battle of Fromelles was also commemorated by a ceremony in the Commemorative Area of the Australian War Memorial where Ashley Ekins, Head of Military History at the Australian War Memorial, gave a special closing address.
Two months earlier the Royal Australian Mint issued a special twenty cent coin to commemorate the Battle of Fromelles. The coin carries an image of the statue by Peter Corlett which depicts Sergeant Simon Fraser carrying a wounded soldier over his shoulder.
The website of the Office of Australian War Graves contains links to overseas memorials, with information on current projects overseas and in Australian memorials.
In ‘Men of Pozieres’, Peter Burness describes Australia’s first fighting on the Somme which began in darkness on 23 July 1916 when the 1st Australian Division took the village of Pozieres in a costly but successful attack (Wartime, Issue 34, 2006, pp. 38–42). In ‘Pozieres hell’, Burness examines the human cost of the battle on those who survived (Wartime, no. 22, 2003, pp. 14–19).
According to the Australian Army History Unit’s description of the battle of Pozieres, during which four Australians won Victoria Crosses, Australian casualties comprised:
|1st Australian Division
||5,285 officers and men
|2nd Australian Division
||6,846 officers and men
|4th Australian Division*
||4,649 officers and men
(*as at 16 August when relieved.)
The National Film and Sound Archive working in collaboration with the Australian War Memorial have made available online actual footage of the Australians at Pozieres. The original filming was carried out under the direction of Charles Bean, and shows the Australians building trenches and preparing for the battle as well as British and Australian artillery shelling the German trenches.
According to the Australian War Memorial:
Mouquet Farm was the site of nine separate attacks by three Australian divisions between 8 August and 3 September 1916. The farm stood in a dominating position on a ridge that extended north-west from the ruined, and much fought over, village of Pozieres. Although the farm buildings themselves were reduced to rubble, strong stone cellars remained below ground which were incorporated into the German defences. The attacks mounted against Mouquet Farm cost the 1st, 2nd and 4th Australian Divisions over 11 000 casualties, and not one succeeded in capturing and holding it. The British advance eventually bypassed Mouquet Farm leaving it an isolated outpost. It fell, inevitably, on 27 September 1916.
The Australian Army History Unit’s description of the fighting at Mouquet Farm lists the casualties as:
|1st Australian Division
||2,650 officers and men
|2nd Australian Division (6th Bde only)
||896 officers and men
|4th Australian Division
||7,158 officers and men
The year 1917 started with the armies bogged down in the frozen trench lines that stretched virtually from the North Sea to Switzerland. In February, the Germans began withdrawing to newly prepared positions called the Hindenburg Line. In pursuit Australians occupied Bapaume on 17 March—the objective originally set for the Somme offensive of 1916.
Figure 9: One of the best-known images of Australians on the Western Front: artillery men walk along a duckboard track at Chateau Wood, Belgium, during the final stages of the Third Battle of Ypres (Battle of Passchendaele). Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.
The British and French high command agreed to a spring offensive. Australians were not allotted to the main operation, but the 4th Division was selected for a supporting action, to attack the fortified village of Bullecourt. The 4th Division lost more than 3,000 men, including more than 1,000 captured—the largest number of Australian POWs in a single action during this war.
Although the Arras offensive also had failed, the 2nd Division and British 62nd Division were ordered to attack Bullecourt again on 3 May. The Australians breached the Hindenburg Line, but lost heavily against counter-attacks. On 8 May, the 5th Division took over, making more ground, and on 17 May British troops took the objective. It was a hollow victory: 7,000 casualties for ground not needed.
The 3rd Division—the last of the five Australian divisions to arrive on the Western Front—entered the fray in April 1917, in the Ypres Salient, Belgium. This area was to dominate the Australian experience of 1917. On 7 June, the 3rd and 4th Divisions, with New Zealand and British troops, attacked at Messines. They suffered nearly 7,000 casualties, many from gas and ‘friendly’ artillery fire, but it was a clear victory. Unfortunately, high command hesitated in ordering a follow-up attack. British troops fought courageously against a now well-prepared enemy, but faltered.
In September, the Third Battle of Ypres started. On 20 September, the 1st and 2nd Divisions attacked at Menin Road; on 26 September, the 4th Division at Polygon Wood; on 4 October, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions at Broodseinde; and on 12 October, the 3rd and New Zealand Divisions at Passchendaele. Ground was made in all places, but the front became bogged down after heavy rains. The mud was said to be ‘incomprehensible to anyone who has not experienced it’. In those two months, more than 8,900 Australians lost their lives, and nearly 24,000 were wounded or gassed.
During the broader Arras Offensive (April–June 1916) Australian forces played a central role in the First and Second Battles of Bullecourt. Between February and April 1917, German forces on the Western Front withdrew to a defensive line known to British forces as the Hindenburg Line.
On 11 April 1917 the Australian 4th Division and British 62nd Division attacked German positions either side of the village of Bullecourt, attempting to capture Hindenburg Line trenches. This attack was made with the support of a small number of British tanks, rather than with the customary preliminary artillery barrage of enemy positions. All the tanks were out of action within a couple of hours, and while some trenches were captured, they could not be held, and Australian troops were driven back by midday. Casualties were very high—the 4th Division suffered 3,300 casualties on this day alone.
A second attempt was made to capture Hindenburg Line trenches around Bullecourt between 3 and 17 May. Australian troops seized and held some parts of the Hindenburg Line and the British 62nd Division captured the village of Bullecourt on 17 May. Three Australian Divisions (the 2nd, 1st and 5th) took part in the two weeks of fighting at Bullecourt, and suffered a total of 7,000 casualties. Bullecourt is now the home of the Australian Memorial Park.
In ‘The battles for Bullecourt’, Peter Burness describes the horror and devastation experienced in April and May 1917 by Australian soldiers who fought battles around the French town of Bullecourt. Heavy Australian casualties were incurred in an attempt to capture a strongpoint in the Hindenburg Line (Wartime, no. 18, 2002, pp. 24–29).
The other major Western Front campaign in 1917 involving Australians was the Third Battle of Ypres in Belgium, and its precursor the Battle of Messines.
The purpose of the Battle of Messines was to capture a German-held ridge that bulged into the Allied lines. If the ridge was not captured prior to the main battle (Third Ypres), German forces would have been able to rain artillery fire down on the British flank as it moved forward. For more than a year prior to this attack, British, Canadian, New Zealand and Australian engineering units had been tunnelling under the German trench system at Messines. The mines laid in these tunnels were detonated on the morning of the battle, resulting in one of the most powerful (and certainly most deadly) non-nuclear explosions ever created. It is estimated that 10,000 German troops were killed when the mines were detonated. More information on the Australian role in the tunnelling and mine detonation is available in a chapter from the Official History.
The preliminary artillery barrage at Messines was also significant: in the week prior to the attack British artillery fired more than 3.5 million shells of various sizes onto the ridge at Messines.
Following the mine detonation, and advancing behind a creeping artillery barrage, nine divisions attacked the ridge from three sides. By mid-morning on 7 June all objectives had been taken in the limited offensive, although Australian, New Zealand and British troops fought off German counter-attacks for about a week. Australian participation in Messines consisted of the 3rd and 4th Divisions; the New Zealand Division also played a key role in the battle, being the Division that actually took the village of Messines. The two Australian divisions suffered 6,800 casualties in the two-week battle.
Messines was a startling success compared to the Third Battle of Ypres (July–November 1917). One of those huge, costly and largely unsuccessful battles of the Western Front, Third Ypres cost hundreds of thousands of British, Australian and Canadian casualties (and hundreds of thousands of German casualties), with little change in the strategic situation. At the end of the battle, and after three months, the Allies had gained just a few miles of ground; German forces would subsequently re-take this ground over a couple of weeks in April 1918. Of the eight or so sub-battles that made up Third Ypres, Australian forces were most heavily involved in the following:
Between the start of August and the end of November 1,917 the Australian forces suffered about 38,000 casualties, of which 11,200 were killed in action or died of wounds. In October alone the Australian divisions lost 6,405 men—with a total casualty figure of 26,000—making it the bloodiest month in Australian military history. More Australians were killed during Third Ypres, not including Messines, than were killed in the entire Gallipoli Campaign.
In ‘Byways to hell: Australian soldiers in the Battle of Passchendaele’ Ashley Ekins describes the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917 which cost 38,000 Australian casualties over three and a half months (Wartime, no. 1, 1997, pp. 7–13).
In 1918, the First World War entered its fifth calendar year. The strength of national pride and of the fighting capacity of Australia’s forces had been acknowledged in late 1917 with the formation of the Australian Corps, comprising the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th Divisions. However, casualties made it difficult to keep the Australian divisions at strength. In May 1918 Lieutenant General John Monash was made the first Australian commander of the Australian Corps.
During 1918 the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) consolidated its ‘reputation for reliability, competence and skill‘.
On 21 March 1918, Germany, freed in the East by the defeat of Russia, launched Operation Michael, an initially successful final offensive on the Western Front in France aimed at splitting the Allied forces in the Amiens area and driving towards the English Channel. After the German offensive stalled, the stalemate on the Western Front began to turn in favour of the Allies with their more effective use of combined infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft. During the final months of the war, the AIF was involved in a number of significant battles leading up to the Armistice on 11 November 1918.
Figure 10: Members of the 54th Infantry Battalion in Peronne, the day after the battle, 2 October 1918. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.
This year, 2014, is the 96th anniversary of five major battles in which Australian forces participated in 1918—the battles of Villers-Bretonneux, Hamel, Amiens, Mont St Quentin and the Hindenburg Line.
The First (4 April) and Second Battles of Villers-Bretonneux were fought in 1918, the second battle taking place on 24 and 25 April and involving a night-time counter-attack by the 15th Brigade of the AIF under Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott in a desperate attempt to recapture the town of
Villers-Bretonneux. The successful counter-attack by the Australians during the second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux was described by Brigadier General Grogan VC as ‘perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war’. The words ‘Do not forget Australia’ are on a sign in the playground of the Victoria school in Villers-Bretonneux that was rebuilt after the war with money raised by donations from Victoria, Australia.
In ‘Perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war’: the battle of Villers-Bretonneux, 1918’, Ross McMullin describes the AIF’s ‘daring night assault [which] saved the city of Amiens and decisively checked the German advance’ (Wartime, no. 2, April 1998).
‘ANZAC Day at Villers-Bretonneux’, by Brad Manera, also describes the fighting, featuring the actions of two Western Australian soldiers (Wartime, no. 22, 2003).
Peter Burness describes the hard fighting in ‘Anzac Day at Villers-Bretonneux‘, quoting a sergeant’s description: ‘The moon sunk behind clouds. There were houses burning in the town throwing a sinister light on the scene. It was past midnight. Men muttered, ‘it’s ANZAC Day’. It seemed there was nothing to do but go straight forward and die hard’ (Wartime, no. 42, 2008).
In 2008, to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the battle on Anzac Day 1918, an Australian-led Dawn Service was held on Anzac Day at the Australian National Memorial near Villers-Bretonneux. This was the first official Australian Dawn Service to be held at the Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux.
The Department of Veterans’ Affairs has a website with information and advice for those planning to attend Anzac Day commemorative services on the Western Front.
Figure 11: The ruined Church in Villers-Bretonneux after the second Battle; image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.
The Allied operation to capture the town of Hamel and the surrounding area on 4 July 1918 was under the command of Lieutenant General John Monash whose planning and careful arrangements led to what Monash himself described as a ‘brilliant success’.
The Australian War Memorial summarises the battle on its ‘1918 Australians in France’ website: ‘Hamel the textbook victory—4 July 1918’. Another summary of the battle of Hamel, by Chris Coulthard-Clark, argues that this ‘model of [a] completely successful all-arms battle … set new standards of generalship which were emulated subsequently by other commanders on the Western Front’ (Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians fought: the encyclopaedia of Australia’s battles, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1998, pp. 148–149).
In ‘Hamel: winning a battle’, the authors argue that Monash applied the principles of war, including ‘sound administration, meticulous planning, maintenance of morale, [and] concentration of force … with flexibility … Monash was an outstanding corps commander, with the ability to coordinate a wide range of available technology to form a coherent plan … Hamel reveals his complete mastery of the set-piece battle’ (Journal of the Australian War Memorial, no. 18, April 1991).
The Battle of Hamel, fought on American Independence Day, was the first significant instance of Australian ‘Diggers’ fighting alongside their newly-arrived American ‘Doughboy’ allies. The relationship between Australian and US troops on the Western Front is described in an article by Dale Blair (Journal of the Australian War Memorial, no. 35, December 2001).
In ‘Independence Day at Hamel’, Mitchell Yockelson describes how the successful first Australian-American battle alliance happened despite the objections of the American Expeditionary Force’s commander, General John Pershing (Wartime, no. 28, October 2004).
The quote in the title of Ross McMullin’s article, ‘The black day of the German army: 8 August 1918’, was the German strategist General Ludendorff’s description of the Allied offensive aimed at ending the enemy threat to the French town of Amiens and its vital railway network. The battle involved meticulous planning by the Australian commander, General Monash, and for the first time all five Australian divisions fought together (Wartime no. 3, Spring, 1998).
In ‘8 August 1918: the battle won’, Peter Burness quotes from General Monash’s message to his troops:
Because of the completeness of our plans and dispositions, of the magnitude of the operations, of the number of troops employed, and the depth to which we intend to over-run the enemy’s positions, this battle will be one of the most memorable of the whole war.
Burness also quotes an Australian captain who expressed what would have been in the minds of many Australian soldiers at this stage of the war: ‘Wouldn’t it be delightful if one could get home and start the new year as a civilian’, a hope which Burness says, would have been unthinkable six months previously (Wartime, no. 33, January 2006).
A summary by Chris Coulthard-Clark of the fighting around Amiens, Lihons, Etinehem and Proyart between 8 and 12 August 1918, demonstrates that progress on subsequent days was not as spectacular as that of 8 August, although the action fought around Chuignes on 23 August 1918 ‘was a stunning success’ (Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians fought: the encyclopaedia of Australia’s battles, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1998, pp. 151–155).
In ‘The capture of the Amiens gun’, Robert Nichols outlines the story of the capture of the large
ex-naval gun which the Germans had been firing at Amiens, and the subsequent controversy over competing claims to its ownership based on involvement in its capture by the 31st Australian Infantry Battalion, British and Canadian Cavalry, a British Sopwith Camel aircraft and the French nation (Wartime, no. 23, July 2003).
The summary by Chris Coulthard-Clark of the Australian fighting on the heights overlooking Peronne between 31 August and 2 September 1918 describes the Mont St Quentin action as a ‘brilliant operation … [which] to many minds … was the crowning achievement of the AIF, if not of the entire war’ (Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians fought: the encyclopaedia of Australia’s battles, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1998, pp. 157–158).
Figure 12: Special congratulatory wire sent from General John Monash to the 2nd Australian Division in early September 1918, noting that ‘the capture of Mont St Quentin has evoked a chorus of praise throughout the press of the world’. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial [page 29].
The Australian War Memorial’s summary points out that once the Germans were forced out of Peronne they had to ‘retreat to their last line of defence—the Hindenburg Line’.
The Official History describes the capture of Mont St Quentin and Peronne as having ‘dealt a stunning blow to five German divisions’.
On 29 September 1918 Australian and US forces spearheaded the attack on the German Army’s last and strongest line of defence, the Hindenburg line. This second attack followed the breaching of the line by the 1st and 4th Australian Divisions on 18 September. On 3 October 1918 Australian troops broke through the final defensive system of the Hindenburg Line. This was followed on 5 October 1918 by the last Australian Western Front action in which Australian infantry captured Montbrehain village. Australian divisions were withdrawn from the front in early October for a period of rest and refitting.
The entry on General Sir John Monash in the Oxford Companion to Australian Military History sums up Monash’s character:
He had a cool head, an ability to make rapid decisions, a facility for logical exposition, a warranted obsession with detail and the determination and ruthlessness to obtain the maximum effort from his troops. His reputation as Australia’s greatest field commander is secure.
(Peter Dennis, et al., Oxford companion to Australian military history, 2nd edn, OUP, South Melbourne, 2008, pp. 369–372).
‘Master at arms‘ is a biographical article by Peter Pedersen on General Sir John Monash who, as commander of the Australian Corps in the last months of the war, oversaw successful Australian actions at Hamel, Amiens, Mont St Quentin and Peronne (Australian Magazine, 7 August 1993).
‘Pompey Elliott: true leader’, profiles the commander of the AIF’s 15th Brigade on the Western Front (Wartime no. 19, 2002).
‘Front-line angels’ by John Laffin describes the role of nurses in the Australian Army Nursing Service who worked on the Western Front (Australian Magazine, 7 August 1993).
In ‘The last hours of the Red Baron’, Thomas Faunce examines the role played by Australian airmen, soldiers and medical officers in the shooting down of the German flying ace on 21 April 1918 (Wartime, no. 32, October 2005).
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