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Australians on the Western Front

the Malcolm family

The four siblings of the Malcolm family from Victoria. Left to right: Lt Norman Malcolm, 2 Pioneers; Sister Stella Malcom, Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS); Lt Eric Malcolm, 3 Division Artillery; Staff Nurse Edith Malcolm, AANS. Norman, Stella and Eric all served on the Western Front and Edith in the Middle East. All four survived the war. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

The 'Great War' (First World War) of 1914–1918, was devastating to all countries involved and was played out on a huge scale. From 1914–1918, about 65 million men marched to war. Over 8 million never returned; more than half the men were wounded (French, 2008, p. 267).

It was unlike any other conflict experienced in human history. For Australia, it was a time when the notions of duty and responsibility were debated, when elements of our national identity began to evolve and, overwhelmingly, there was the experience of shock, grief and loss.

In a military sense, the Western Front, which stretched 750 kilometres from the Belgian coast, through France to the Swiss border, was a baptism of fire for the new nation of Australia, who for the first time 'engaged the main army of the main enemy in the main theatre of war' (Dennis & Grey, p. 667).

I have gained an appreciation for the deep wounds this conflict has left on Australian society even today I can't help but think of a stone dropping in water and the ripples flowing out to today and well beyond
Historian Michael Molkentin, in the ABC TV documentary Lost in Flanders .

Australians in service—volunteers

Australian and American soldiers in a trench

Monument Wood, France. 11 July 1918. Australian and American soldiers in a trench. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

During the conflict, around 300,000 Australians served in this part of Europe. These were ordinary young men and women, from towns and cities across Australia, who fought, nursed, cooked, dug tunnels and trenches, drove ambulances and did whatever else was necessary in the service of 'King and country'.

They were not professional soldiers as we imagine soldiers today, but volunteers with limited training.

They're not heroes. They do not intend to be thought or spoken of as heroes. They're just ordinary Australians, doing their particular work as their country would wish them to do it. And pray God, Australians in days to come will be worthy of them.
C. E. W. Bean, journalist, war correspondent, historian and author of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 .

In Australia, there was a great deal of pressure on young men, and their families, to enlist. Fierce debates over the issue of conscription raged, and a referendum was held on the issue in 1916. A pro-conscription poster produced in 1916 focuses on how Australia's contribution was perceived by other nations:

VOTE YES! Unless you want the world to think that Australians are a set of miserable cowards who are content to have their lives and liberties saved for them by the sacrifices of better men.

soldiers struggling and appealing to the viewer, with the slogan

A recruitment poster by Norman Lindsay, created in 1918. It depicts two Australian soldiers, hard pressed by a larger German force, one on the ground appealing for help. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

The referendum was defeated. Consequently, every Australian who served was a volunteer. For the most part volunteers were eager, looking to seek adventure and serve Britain. However, after the horrors of Gallipoli, enlistment numbers waned.

Interestingly, the service records of men and women who were born in Australia state that they were 'British born'. At the time, the feeling was that one's duty was to serve the 'mother country' — a reality for most Australians whose parents or grandparents really were British born.

The recruitment campaign, and the conscription debate, were highly effective. The 331,781 Australians who served during the war represented around eight percent of our population at the time; over half of all eligible men joined up. It is a vast number that in the context of today's population in 2009 would see 1.6 million Australians on active service overseas.

'The sacrifices of better men'

In March 1916, after Gallipoli, the ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) were sent to France to an area known as the Western Front, where the war was bogged down in trenches and mud. During 1916–17, the warring sides advanced only metres at a time. In 1917, the United States of America (USA) joined the war. In March 1918 the German army launched a massive offensive to break the deadlock, hoping to win an advantage before significant numbers of USA soldiers arrived. Finally, between April and November 1918, the armies combined infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft more effectively with American troops and their medical support. Germany surrendered on 11 November 1918.

In proportion to forces fielded, Australia's casualty rate was almost 65 per cent—the highest in the British Empire. One of the reasons for this was that Australians were exposed to the front line in massive numbers. During the course of the war, almost 60,000 Australians (nearly all men) died after sustaining injuries or illness. Most of these deaths (45,000) were on the Western Front. A further 124,000 were wounded (sometimes multiple times) and as a result, these men endured years of ill health, disfigurement or disability.

the angel of death had been abroad throughout the land: we had almost heard the beating of his wings. We were the generation whose fathers, uncles, and sometimes elder brothers were either dead, or 'returned'
Patsy Adam-Smith in The ANZACS, p. 2.

Kandahar Farm Cemetery

Kandahar Farm Cemetery, a small Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery in Belgium, near Messines Ridge, still surrounded by farmland.

Australians who died in France and Belgium are now remembered in over 500 cemeteries and memorials that stand amidst peaceful farmland and on the edges of small villages where battles once raged. 11,000 of these Australians have no known grave.

One of these, VC Corner Cemetery, contains the remains of 400 Australians who died nearby during the Battle of Fromelles (19–20 July 1916). Unusually, there are no headstones in this cemetery, as none of the men could be identified after their deaths. They now lie at rest together under two large stone crosses set into the grass. A total of 1299 names are etched in plaques set on the walls of the cemetery — all of them Australians who died or were 'missing in action' after the battle, which has been described as 'the worst 24 hours in Australia's entire history'. It is a unique cemetery and a special place for Australians, because no soldiers from any other country are buried here.

Those who were not killed or physically wounded bore mental and emotional scars of their time in the muddy fields of Flanders. The suffering and fear were great.

Despite their training, most young Australians were completely unprepared for trench warfare and mechanised weaponry, which made for a terrifying and horrifying experience.

Went into the trenches today for the first and Fritz made it pretty lively - must have known it was my first. Lost my dinner.
Sapper Samuel Francey, from Brisbane who served in the 3rd Division. Diary entry 19 December 1916, Armentieres. Killed in action at Messines, 7 July 1917.

We thought we knew something of the horrors of war, but we were mere recruits, and have had our full education in one day.
Lieutenant Ronald McInnis from Mackay. A Gallipoli veteran of the 53rd Battalion, in his diary at the Battle of Fromelles, 19 July 1916. Returned to Australia 1919.

The exaggerated machinations of hell are here typified. Everywhere the ground is littered with bits of guns, bayonets, shells and men Oh, the frightfulness of it all Until my dying day I shall never forget this
Captain Frank Hurley , Official Photographer of the AIF, 23 August 1917, at 'Hill 60'.

...promptly on the tick of five, there belched a blinding sheet of flame: and the roar – Nothing I have heard in this world or can in the next could possibly approach its equal
Captain Frank Hurley, diary entry 20 September 1917, Passchendaele.

Nursing the sick and wounded

medical personnel applying a dressing to the leg of a wounded French soldier

Forges-les-Eaux, France, c. 1918-04. A medical orderly, Major Davidson and Sister Lynette Crozier applying a dressing to the leg of a wounded French soldier, at a mobile hospital south-west of Amiens. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: P01790.001.

Thousands of women journeyed to the battlefields to work officially as army nurses or with the Red Cross as members of the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment). Many more had no official role at all but worked setting up canteens to distribute food to soldiers travelling to and from the front and as ambulance drivers and volunteers in the casualty stations, assisting doctors and nurses. Leave was almost unknown except in special circumstances.

The casualty clearing stations treated men brought in from the regimental aid posts at the front line in ambulances and trucks. Some stations were set up in requisitioned buildings while others were tents with wooden planks for floors where medicines and bandages were stored in packing cases.

Some nurses and VADs were wounded from shrapnel. Australian Sister Rachel Pratt received the military medal for gallantry for staying at her post and continuing to work, despite being wounded. Others died young.

Most women suffered from severe infections, especially to their hands, from the suppurating wounds they trended ... The women too caught the diseases of the trenches: typhus, dysentery, measles, mumps and influenza.
J French, A Rose for the Anzac Boys, 2008, p. 272.

Many of the 2139 Australian nurses who served during the war kept diaries. One was Sister Alice Kitchen from Melbourne, who left Australia with the first convoy of nurses in 1914. She served in Gallipoli, Egypt and the Western Front, and finally returned home in 1919.

Sister Kitchen was appalled by the conditions nurses worked in and the suffering and waste of life she bore witness to. Her daily entries in her uncensored diary are often indignant and angry, critical of the hardship and horror men and women on the Western Front endured.

Yesterday we went on duty Was very tired having had very little sleep but the wounded were constantly being evacuated. They must have had over 20 000 through Rouen already Everything here is beyond description one feels helpless to deal with such a situation, no order, no organisation – no anything that makes for efficiency
July 5, 1916.

Another nurse, Sister Edith Avenell of Queensland, wrote a letter home in June 1916 describing her days:

the sisters are having a very trying time here. Our hours are fearfully long, from 7am till 8pm on day duty and 8pm to 8am on night duty. I should now be sleeping but we had a big convoy in last night, shocking cases, I simply ran for ten solid hours without a stop

The gratitude and affection towards the nurses and women volunteers by the soldiers was recognised in a song that came out of the trenches:

'Neath the War's dark curse
Stands a Red Cross nurse
She's the rose of no-man's-land
Quoted in J French, A Rose for the Anzac Boys, 2008, p. 246.

Sister Minnie Hough

Sister Minnie Hough posing in a gas mask at a mobile hospital behind the lines on the Western Front. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

Australian hospital admissions, over 120,000 of them, were overwhelmingly the result of injury from bullet wounds, shell fragments or shrapnel. Gas attacks, infections, infestation and trench feet accounted for many thousands more. 'Shell shock' was a new sickness that medical experts struggled to cope with though it accounted for a surprisingly small number of hospital admissions due to the reluctance to pay pensions to the number of men suffering from shell shock. Instead many casualties were stamped 'lacked moral fibre' (French, 2008, p. 268). For many men, though, it was shell shock and the awful memories of battle that had the most lasting impact on their lives.

We thought we managed alright, kept the awful things out of our minds, but now I'm an old man and they come out from where I hid them. Every night.
Jim McPhee from Drouin in Victoria, a Field Ambulance veteran of Gallipoli and the Western Front. Quoted in The ANZACS, p. 470.

'Fini retreat - beaucoup Australiens ici'—Villers-Bretonneux

Residents of Flanders usually left their farms and villages when fighting approached and this was the case in 1918, when the residents of a small town in France called Villers-Bretonneux began evacuating the area. At various stages of that year, the area was in Allied, then German hands. In August, supported by the Canadian and British Army, all five divisions of the Australian Army under the command of Sir John Monash, were to fight together with the objective of breaking the German line and re-taking the strategically important town of Amiens.

During 1918, as the Australians moved through the area, they were greeted enthusiastically by the locals.

How excited these French people were over us Australians! They pelted us with flowers and sweets
Lieutenant Hugh Knyvett, 15th Brigade.

we received coffee, vino and fruit from warm hearted French people, who made us feel that they and their beautiful country were worth fighting for
Sergeant Harry Preston, 9th Battalion.

in some remarkable way, we seem to have awakened hope in hopeless hearts and left happiness in cheerless homes
Captain Gordon Maxwell, 21st Battalion.

One old couple passed me arm in arm, all they had was a shawl and a loaf of bread 'English soldat no bon', these people said. Shouting 'Vive l'Australie!', they embraced 'Nos Australiens!'. Hearing the Diggers say 'Fini retreat – beaucoup Australiens ici' many returned to their villages
Private Arthur Sindrey, quoted in The ANZACS Gallipoli to the Western Front, p. 319.

Welcome back to the Somme, lithograph on paper, by Will Dyson, Official War Artist, AIF. Depicts a group of marching troops in the Somme district. Beside them, on the side of the road, are a group of women and children welcoming Australian troops as they returned to the Somme area to counter the German attacks on March 1918. It has been noted that 'probably in no other year have Australians influenced the destiny of the world as Australian soldiers did by their achievements in these (and later) weeks of 1918.' Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: ART02252.001.

The battle was won, but at a huge cost. On the 24 April 1918, 1200 Australians died liberating the village. By 8th August the area around Villers-Bretonneux was back in French hands — this time for good. It was a turning point of the war, a day the German commander Erich Ludendorff remembered later in his memoirs as 'the black day of the German Army in the history of the war. This was the worst experience I had to go through'.

After the war, and particularly after the battles of 1918, the people of Villers-Bretonneux and the people of France promised to always honour and remember the sacrifices of the Australians who helped liberate them.

In 1921, Marshal Foch, a French general during the war, reflected that 'the passionate valour of the Australians served as an example to the whole world. You saved Amiens, you saved France. Our gratitude will remain ever and always to Australia'.

The survivors of the war began returning to Australia in 1919. While there was great joy at finally going home, there was also some regret at leaving, from both the Australians and the French. For years, thousands of Australians had slept in their homes, defended their villages, worked on their farms and died in their fields. The experience had forged a lasting bond based on mutual respect, friendship and affection.

The Digger, an AIF 'trench journal' that was produced in France, included a poem by H. Leonard Hyde that demonstrated these feelings.

Adieu, fair France, we leave you now
For tropic, sunny skies
Remembering the kindly smile
That lit your saddened eyes

The Australian National Memorial

The Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux.

The Australian National Memorial was opened in 1938 on a hill overlooking Villers-Bretonneux and the Somme Valley. As well as the graves of many Australians and others from Commonwealth nations, it lists 11,000 names of Australians with no grave. At the opening, the President of France spoke:

once again the wheat ripens upon this earth, drenched in their blood. The tortured grass grows once more upon these fields The pilgrimage which we have just made between the double ranks of their tombs up to the Temple which looks over them moves us to the very depths of our being.

N'Oublions Jamais l'Australie — Let us never forget Australia (Villers-Bretonneux)

Back in Australia, women and children also 'did their bit'. Throughout the war patriotic funds had been set up, the proceeds of which were to help people directly affected by the war. By 1920 cities and towns across Australia were 'adopting' French towns that had been scarred by war. The City of Melbourne adopted Villers-Bretonneux.

Using the slogan 'By Diggers defended, by Victorians mended', an appeal went out to the people of Melbourne to help their friends in France. The town, in ruins by the end of war, had been devastated. School children were urged to each donate one penny to the cause, yet businesses, church groups, women's leagues and RSL groups across the nation responded. In all 10,000 pounds sterling was raised and then matched by the Victorian Department of Education.

The exterior of Villers-Bretonneaux town hall today

The exterior of Villers-Bretonneux town hall today.

Today in the town, there is a great deal of evidence that the relationship forged between Australians and the people of the area is still strong. Memorials and plaques recall the bravery and selflessness of the Australians who fought there. The town hall flies the French and Australian flags and the building itself is decorated with kangaroos. On a hilltop nearby, the white tower of the Australian National Memorial is visible in the distance.

Walk down the main street, Rue de Melbourne, turn into Rue Victoria and you'll come across the local school, Ecole Victoria. The pennies raised in Australia were used to rebuild this school. On the wall of the playground in large letters are the words 'N'Oublions Jamais l'Australie'.

In 2009, the kindness shown by Australians almost a century ago was repaid. The children of Villers-Bretonneux raised money to help rebuild one of the schools that was burnt down in the February 2009 bushfires.

Lost mates: Fromelles 2010

Rising sun collar badge

Rising sun collar badge, uncovered at Fromelles during preliminary excavations. Image courtesy of the Department of Defence.

Given the massive numbers of men who were 'missing' during the course of the war, it is shocking but not surprising that a mass grave containing the bodies of 250 British and Australian soldiers who died during the Battle of Fromelles was not located until 2008.

In the days after the battle, German troops buried hundreds of men who were killed upon reaching their trenches, in a series of burial pits. It was the largest mass grave to be found in Europe since the Second World War. Its location, pinpointed by an Australian teacher and amateur historian Lambis Englezos, was on a farm adjacent to Pheasant Wood, not far from Fromelles.

Between May and August 2009, the bodies of 250 Australian and British soldiers were systematically removed and DNA samples were taken from teeth and bones. By July 2010 the 250 soldiers had been reinterred at the Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery, the first new cemetery built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in over 50 years.

The Army has compiled a list of 191 First Australian Imperial Force soldiers it believes may be buried at Fromelles. Australians who have relatives who were missing or killed at Fromelles yet have no grave, have been asked to provide DNA samples in the hope that accurate matching of the soldiers' remains can take place and their headstones can be engraved with their names.

It was quite moving when I got there I said 'G'day boys, I know it's been a long time but be patient, don't worry, we'll get you
Lambis Englezos in Fromelles by Patrick Lindsay, p. 338.

Useful links

Fromelles reinterment

Print references

Dennis, P & Grey, J, The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History , Oxford University Press.

French, J, A Rose for the Anzac Boys , Angus & Robertson, Australia, 2008.

Last updated: 13th November 2010
Creators: Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd, Kathryn Wells

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