Title: The Anzacs Gallipoli to the Western Front
Author: Pederson, Peter
Edition: 1st Edition
Publication Date: 2007
Cover: Hard Cover with Dust Jacket – 447 pages
Comments: Dusk on 10 October 1917 found Lieutenant Paddy King and a handful of the 2/5th East Lancashires huddling in shell holes near Passchendaele, at the apex of the Ypres Salient. The 66th Division had floundered towards it through waist-deep mud but German machine-guns shattered the attack and King’s party was among the few survivors. Protected by no more than a few slush-filled sandbags, under constant fire, they were exhausted, frozen and racked by cramp. Another miserable night loomed and King did not expect to see it out. Then he heard voices behind him.
King spun around. He was stunned to see three tall figures, one of them smoking. Blurting out ‘who the hell are you?’, King told the smoker to put out his cigarette in case a German sniper spotted the glowing end. A voice returned: ‘We’re the Aussies, chum, and we’ve come to relieve you’. The ecstatic King now realised that he knew next to nothing about the situation. ‘There are no trenches to hand over, no rations, no ammunition, but I have got a map. Do you need any map references?’ he asked. The laconic reply came: ‘Never mind about that, chum. Just fuck off’. ‘They didn’t seem a bit bothered’, King said. ‘The last I saw of them they were squatting down, rifles over their shoulders, and they were smoking all three of them. Just didn’t care!’
The identity of these men will never be known, except that they were Anzacs. Perhaps they survived the next battle, maybe even the war. But all the Anzacs are gone now. The Australian Imperial Force (AIF) to which they belonged was the instrument of their country’s first great endeavour. Their deeds and sacrifice during its course transformed Australia from a collection of disparate states into a true nation and earned it the esteem of the world. Along the way they established a tradition that gave the nation its soul. Without this inspirational force, Australia would have been a different place.
A glance at a sepia photograph or some grainy newsreel footage gives an idea of what the Anzacs were like at the time of their bequest. They recalled the war afterwards in contrasting tones, setting the warmth of comradeship and shared effort alongside the misery of privation and the shock of battle. It was the most intense period in their lives. They had escaped, temporarily at least, the humdrum existence that is the lot of all but a very few. Since their passing though, the letters, diaries and memoirs that they left have become the only means of getting to know them. Yet these writings carry an emotional risk. Browsing through the weekly letters of a soldier makes the reader part of the family to whom he addressed them. When they stop because he has been killed, the reader shares the sadness his family felt.
The sorrow at such a loss can also transcend the years in other ways. Private Charles Johnston of the 56th Battalion fell at Fromelles in 1916. A highly regarded teacher, he had influenced many lives and his passing was widely felt. His parents were devastated to lose a second son, Frank, on the Somme later that year. They could not bear to tell their other children that Charles and Frank were never found. Margaret, a sister, believed that they rested in war graves in France. Curious, her son found out from the Office of Australian War Graves that Charles was commemorated on the wall of VC Corner Australian Cemetery at Fromelles, and Frank on the wall of the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. Her grandson subsequently visited them. Nothing was ever said to Margaret, who remained unaware of the truth to the end of her life. Far from fading with time, the deaths of her brothers had touched three generations. I am Margaret Johnston’s grandson. Charles and Frank Johnston were my great-uncles.
Mention the First World War to many Australians and they immediately think of Gallipoli. The image of bronzed men storming ashore at Anzac Cove and clinging desperately to cliff-top positions is appealing, if not wholly accurate. Romance also attaches to the Light Horse, who spearheaded the advance that secured Egypt and cleared Palestine. Theirs was a war of hard riding and old-fashioned mounted charges set on a biblical stage. But there was nothing romantic about the Western Front, which summons up images of dreadful slaughter for a few acres of mud. In France and Flanders, Australia sustained more casualties than in all of the conflicts it has fought since put together. Yet the war could never have been won anywhere else and Australia made its greatest contribution to victory there. Indeed in 1918, it influenced the destiny of the world for the first time in the nation’s history and arguably more than at any time since. An account of the Anzac experience must therefore focus on France and Flanders. It must also cover the New Zealanders, who have just as much claim to the title ‘Anzac’ as the Australians. Both called themselves ‘Diggers’.
The outstanding performance of the AIF reinforced the belief, held by many Australians pre-war, that they were natural soldiers. Charles Bean, the Australian Official Correspondent and, later, Official Historian, waxed lyrically that they came from a culture that was independent, resourceful and freer from class distinction than most and hence were born with the courage, initiative and impatience essential in first-class fighting men. Another romantic notion, it fitted in well with the Anzac tradition. But it also had some substance. In his famous Disenchantment, British soldier-author Charles Montague remarked that Dominion troops like the Australians were ‘prouder, firmer in nerve, better schooled, more boldly interested in life, quicker to take means to an end and to parry and counter any new blow’ and viewed their English counterparts ‘with the half-curious, halfpitying look of a higher, happier caste at a lower’. Yet the natural ability that these qualities indicated was insufficient. Gallipoli soon revealed that training was necessary as well. On the Western Front, it became even more important. Here too the Anzacs were initially caught short.
Nor were the Anzac commanders and staffs any better off. The round-the-clock intensity of the fighting at Gallipoli surprised even those with previous experience of active service. Adjusting to it was a painful process, marked by all too frequent foul-ups. From mid-1916 onwards, the Anzacs were at the forefront of the attempt to breach a trench system, scientifically sited and skilfully defended, that stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss border. Both sides deployed masses of men and applied the full power of modern military technology, in the form of artillery, machine-guns, aircraft and gas, on a vast scale. New weapons such as tanks appeared. The direction of operations and the logistic support they needed became more complex than anything that had gone before.
On the battlefield the outstanding characteristic was ‘the almost total lack of control once the battle started. Communications invariably broke down. Very few commanders at any level had the faintest idea about what. . . was happening on their own side, let alone ‘on the other side of the hill”. Service in colonial wars was of little relevance in these conditions. The generals had to start virtually from scratch. As Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Allied Generalissimo in 1918, remarked: ‘I have only one merit. I have forgotten what I taught and what I learned’. So did the Anzac commanders, who arrived on the Western Front confident that their Gallipoli experience stood them in good stead. But the ball-game was new nonetheless and they sometimes blundered badly while learning its rules. Not until the middle of 1917 did they master them to the extent of being able to capitalise on the natural ability and training of their men. Not until 1918 did the commanders and their men become as one. Both underpinned the astonishing successes of the Australian Corps that year!
Throughout the war the Anzac formations served under British higher commanders, whose Staff College at Camberley had never, even in theory, contemplated dealing with a body larger than a six-division expeditionary force. By 1917 the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was approaching sixty divisions and each of its five armies usually contained more than six divisions. In getting used to commanding large formations, as well as gripping the tactical problems, the British generals, too, made appalling mistakes. That great Australian soldier, General Sir John Hackett, who led a parachute brigade at Arnhem and became Commander-in-Chief of the British Army of the Rhine in NATO, liked to say that the military is the only organisation that can require its members to make the supreme sacrifice. An unfortunate result is that crippling losses can result when generals have to learn as they go and when they err. The Anzacs suffered on each count at the hands of both their own generals and British ones.
The following narrative dwells on the Australian soldier and his commanders in tracing the development of the AIF from its raw origins in 1914. It demystifies the lines that the generals drew on their maps and allows the soldiers to describe what advancing towards them meant on the ground. The role of Australian airmen and sailors has also been described so that Australia’s military effort can be seen in its entirety. That effort has been set within the context of the British endeavour of which it formed part and against the backdrop of the wider conflict.
At the very end of his great chronicle, Charles Bean paid an immortal tribute to the AIF:
What these men did nothing can alter now. The good and the bad, the greatness and smallness of their story will stand. Whatever of glory it contains nothing now can lessen. It rises, as it will always rise, above the mists of ages, a monument to great-hearted men; and for their nation, a possession for ever.
This book is itself a tribute to those great-hearted men and a reminder to their nation of the legacy they left it.