Most Australians know something about Gallipoli and very little about the Western Front and the Somme battlefields. Most Australians, if asked, would assume that the ill-fated Anzac campaign was a victory and our country's finest hour.
Few Australians know enough about the part played by the Diggers on the Somme to compare it with GalIipoli. Yet nearly 10 times the number of soldiers fought at the Somme than did at GalIipoli and they fought more than five times as long, in shocking conditions.
The Anzacs fought the Turks for close on eight months at Gallipoli and Australia had nearly 40,000 troops engaged there. The number
of Australians killed and wounded - about 8000 - shocked the Nation. The casualty figures were so grim in the first few days of the landing that they were with-held from the public for months. Information was only trickled out and many families did not find out about the loss of their loved ones for months after their deaths. Most Australians at first thought it a gallant victory against the unspeakable Turk. They weren’t told anything else.
Gallipoli was lost from the first day, appalling casualties were suffered in brave but futile charges across open ground once the ridgeline was gained. Little over 400 acres was held by the Australians and New Zealanders and the front line was no more than the ridgeline overlooking the landing beaches. No part of ANZAC was safe from shelling or sniper fire. The ANZACs dug into the seaward side of the ridge, tunneling in to get cover from bombing (grenades), shrapnel and sniper fire. To show your head for a second or two was suicide. The dead lay on the parapets and in no-mans land to rot. The stench was unbearable. The flies were everywhere and eating was impossible without a fly soup forming. Water was precious and hygiene was difficult to maintain in the heat and the difficult conditions. Gunfire rang out every few seconds of the day, the air rang continuously with explosions and whizzing bullets. There was no-where where the sound of battle could be
avoided. Men were killed carrying water, stretcher bearing, in their dugouts, swimming, eating tea. Fear was ever present. A wound was a death sentence for a large percentage of men. The rifle wounds were fearsome at close range.
The leadership was appalling. Men were hurled at machine guns with bayonets and unloaded rifles. The Commanding Officers wanted to evacuate on the first night but were over-ruled. If the Turks could have advanced 10 yards and taken the first line of trenches then the ANZAC area would have been open to their fire. Losses would have been horrendous and disaster inevitable. To prevent this the reserve trenches were only feet behind the front trenches. The reserve troops were for all intents and purposes on the front line. There was no rest and recuperation for anyone for months on end.
The Turks hurled themselves at the trenches and were mown down in their thousands. The General Staff watched this and still sent ANZAC troops out of the trenches in futile head-on charges. The massacre at the Nek being but one example. When you think of our dead don't forget the Turkish dead, many of whom were Arabs and Albanians as well. They loved life as well and were defending their land and their religion. Poorly shod, poorly dressed, poorly fed they may have been, but they fought tenaciously and many brave men died. Their bodies often were not buried at the time and vast amounts of bones were collected after the war and buried in unmarked graves. The Anzacs and the Turks grew to respect each other and this respect has been maintained to this day. The war was vicious and little quarter was given but by the strange rules of war, this was seen as a "clean war." A funny view as prisoners were rarely taken in such close quarter fighting and the wounded were left to die in no-mans land.
The New Zealanders staged one of the most outstanding achievements in the campaign when their troops struggled up Rhododendron Ridge and briefly held Chanuk Bair against tremendous odds. Their casualties were appalling. Relieved by the British the position fell the next day and the soldiers were slaughtered as they fell back in disarray.
Each year on Anzac Day we remind ourselves of this sacrifice, and yet very few Australians are aware that on the Western Front in France and Belgium, from 1916 until the end of the war in November 1918, over 500,000 Diggers, all volunteers, fought in the trenches of the Somme in hideous conditions and for most of the time under equally poor leadership.
This was a long and vicious battle made even worse because the General Staff of the Allied armies was out of touch, remote from the troops, callous, incompetent, over concerned with personal advancement, reputation and class and unconcerned for the lives of the rank and file.
Largely as a result of this disgraceful situation, the bodies of nearly 40,000 Australians lie in the well maintained war cemeteries of France and Belgium. A further 11,000 have no known grave.
More than three times this number were wounded - many of them on more than one occasion. In the years that followed the war, tens of thousands more died from their wounds and the aftermath of being gassed. The effects of war left a generation shattered and many men could never settle back to normality. They and their families suffered. Fit as well as wounded men could not find work. Many committed suicide, unable to cope with the horror. A generation of women could not marry and have children, prospective husbands were dead or crippled. In many ways, the best, the fittest, the adventurous, the willing and the brightest men of a generation were wasted in far off lands fighting to achieve the war aims of political leaders whose view of the world was corrupt. They were prepared to sacrifice the very people they claimed to be defending to secure a place in history for themselves. Nothing much was achieved, except another century of war.
The Gallipoli landing was the first time an Australian expeditionary force had fought in Europe and against insurmountable odds. The fortitude and bravery of our troops was of the highest order and forms the basis of the Digger legend; but, a cloud hangs over the Gallipoli campaign. The Australian assault was. a disaster, for at least three reasons: first, the whole concept was strategically unsound; second, naval support for the operation was practically non-existent; and third, the expedition was incompetently planned and directed by the British and Australian/New Zealand higher commands.
The Anzac evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula took place during the third week of December 1915 and as the Aussies crept down the escarpment to the waiting ships and boats, they did so with regret and the overwhelming feeling of abandoning the thousands of their mates whose bodies either lay in shallow graves or in the open where they could not be reached. Many bodies remained unburied even from the first day of the landing, behind Turkish lines and only recognisable in later years by the sad scraps of battalion colour patches that survived the weather and fire. Few of the troops leaving ever wanted to return to Gallipoli and fewer still could imagine that things could get even worse.
They made their way back to Egypt where the heat, the sand, poor nutrition and water and the flies did little to help them recover from the exhausting and debilitating campaign. Yet they were back in training within a few weeks and between March and June 1916 they moved to France.
Soon John Monash, who from the time the Australian Imperial Force was formed had been commanding the 4th Infantry Brigade, was promoted and given command of the 3rd Division that had arrived in England. (He was again promoted in 1918.) Camped on Salisbury Plain, Monash moulded this division into an effective fighting formation and it was here that the depth of his military knowledge and the brilliance of Monash as a commander and a teacher became evident (he had not excelled in the confusing and limited situation of Gallipoli). Senior British generals visited his division and watched it not only on the parade ground but also in the field carrying out divisional manoeuvres. Without exception the generals went away astounded that a colonial citizen soldier could achieve such remarkable results.
During Monash's first year as a divisional commander, another battle was being fought well behind the Australian trenches. From the time of their arrival in France in the middle of 1916, the Australian and New Zealand divisions and brigades, although they were officially called the First and Second ANZACs, were deployed piecemeal as a part of many different corps and armies, sometimes British and sometimes French. The British high command, especially Haig, regarded the Australians as ill disciplined and untested. He threw the Australians into a frontal attack against dug-in and fortified German positions at Fromelles, largely to toughen them up in his view. Despite achieving the remarkable success of reaching the German lines the Australians could not hold the contested ground against German counter-attacks and fell back leaving thousands of dead and wounded and even having a large number surrounded and taken prisoner. It was a debacle. No-one could survive covering open ground against machine guns in concrete bunkers. Even today Australian dead are being discovered in mass graves. In one day Australian casualties were not much less than those of the whole Gallipoli campaign. So much for toughening these Australians up. How much use are dead soldiers.
The Australian Generals told the higher command and the Australian government that their divisions were fragmented, being wasted and becoming less effective, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. However, as the months passed and the casualty lists grew longer, Prime Minister Billy Hughes and his cabinet put pressure on the British government to direct that the Australians should fight together under one command. It was thus that the First Australian Army Corps was formed, with the top-class British general William Birdwood, who knew the Australians well, appointed Corps commander.
During this time Monash had been fighting his own battles. Despite his organisational genius and his leadership skills, he craved recognition and complained when it was not acknowledged. His enemies used this trait against him, Some, such as Keith Murdoch, resented his success; others criticised his German heritage; and at least one, the unabashedly anti-Semitic war historian Charles Bean, denigrated him for both these reasons and because he was a Jew.
Almost everyone else; however, regarded Monash as an outstanding officer, and the biographer of British prime minister David Lloyd George wrote that, had the war continued into 1919, it was the PM's intention to rid himself of Haig and appoint Monash in his place. The Australian government was proud to have its own corps and wanted it to be commanded by an Australian, and Monash was the first choice, Murdoch and Bean wanted Brudenell White, a staff officer who had never had a senior command in battle, and they were prepared to stop at nothing to get their way.
At the beginning of 1918, in the depths of the unusually cold and wet winter, with impassable roads and the fields of Flanders and Picardy like quagmires, activity on the Western Front was limited, The Australian divisional commanders used this time to rest, regroup, replenish and train their troops, against an expected German offensive.
The Big Push came, as expected, pushed aside the British resistance and continued towards Amiens, the only major city between the Germans, the Channel and Paris, All that stopped them was the extraordinarily resolute defence offered by the 3rd Australian Division (under Monash) at Dernancourt. This was followed on April 25 with a spectacular Australian victory at ViIIers- Bretonneux.
After the Villers-Bretonneux victory, Monash was appointed commander of the First Australian Army Corps. But even after his appointment had been gazetted, Murd.och and Bean continued their vendetta. Their problem was that in the months that followed, Monash's series of outstanding successes at the Somme made him a national hero and the two conspirators were left exposed and with severely tarnished reputations.
Under his dynamic leadership the Australian advance gathered momentum. On July 4, at the town of Le Hamel, Monash created history by planning and executing (in record time and with sensational success) the first battle plan in which infantry, armour and the air force were integrated. Without even a day's delay he started the detailed planning of his next move. He and his staff worked night and day for five weeks preparing for what would be known as the Battle of Arniens, possibly the most decisive battle of the war.
On Anzac Day, when we remember those left behind, spare a thought for the memory of the 500,000 Diggers who fought at the Somme, and remember with pride their phenomenal achievements, especially between March and October 1918.
In those months the First Australian Army Corps comprised less than IO per cent of the British imperial forces, yet it captured almost a quarter of all prisoners taken, a quarter of the enemy guns and 20 per cent of the ground wrested from the Germans. The corps' sensational victories over this period were - and still are - regarded as a decisive feat of arms that brought to a victorious conclusion the so-called war to end all wars.
(with due recognition to Rex Lipman whose article in the Australian of 8 Sep 2007 inspired this summary and whose words make up a good proportion of this write-up, I couldn’t improve on his work.)
From a letter published in the Sydney Morning Herald 11 Sep 2007:
"Your article 'At last, service for Anzacs on Western Front' (Sept 7-9) may convey to some readers the unfortunate impression that the loss of almost 50,000 Australians on the Western Front during World War I has hitherto not been commemorated. Nothing could be further from the truth. For decades, every Anzac Day the sacrifice of Australians who died on the Western Front has been commemorated in a simple moving ceremony at the Australian National Memorial near Villers-Bretonneux and in the town which was liberated by Australian troops on Anzac Day 1918. On an adjoining day, similar ceremonies are held at the tiny villages of Bullecourt-Hendecourt, 20 kilometres south of Arras, the scene of two disastrous battles in April-May 1917 which resulted in more Australian casualties than the Gallipoli campaign. These are hosted jointly by the local mayors and the Australian ambassador to France.
In Belgium, every Anzac Day similar commemorations are held at Ieper (Ypres - "Wipers", as the diggers called it) in the south-west of the country, and at nearby Tyne Cot cemetery at Zonnebeke. They are also jointly hosted by the mayors and the Australian ambassador to Belgium. Many of the Australian visitors have family members who are buried not only at Villers-Bretonneux or Ieper but at one of the hundreds of other war cemeteries spread across northern France and southern Belgium, all beautifully maintained by the dedicated staff of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Small commemorative services are held from time to time at others of these cemeteries where Australians are buried, and at divisional memorials, usually on the site of major and frequently appallingly tragic battles: Armentieres, Bapaume, Fromelles, Messines, Pozieres, Passchendaele, Mont St Quentin.
The ceremony proposed for Anzac Day 2008 may perhaps be the first service on the Western Front to be actually held at dawn - I do not know; it will certainly come close to being a first if it receives much Australian media coverage, which would be a welcome development.
But it would be unfortunate if a higher profile were to detract in any way from the quiet dedication of the mayors and citizens of all these many small towns and villages across the poppy-strewn fields of the Western Front, who, generation after generation, have cherished and honoured the memory of all the Australians who gave their lives there during that terrible carnage."
Edward Pocock - former ambassador to France and to Belgium
See more on the Western Front here