Australians on the Western Front still offer a lesson to us today
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 28 July 2016
Australians didn’t need reminding about the Gallipoli campaign but we do need to learn from all the other theatres of the Great War in which we fought. Although Gallipoli was our “baptism of fire” as a nation, it was a sideshow compared to our involvement on the Western Front which, beginning 100 years ago last week, lasted nearly three years, cost three quarters of our total First World War dead and turned out to be the moment of Australia’s greatest influence so far on world history.
Over the past week, we have marked the centenary of the battles of Fromelles and Pozieres. Fromelles was the worst day in Australian history with nearly 2000 men killed in a single night. To put this in perspective, it’s more deaths in a few hours than in the whole of the Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea and South Africa campaigns. Pozieres was the most ferocious battle Australians have ever fought, with more men killed in just six weeks than at Gallipoli over eight months. “No place on earth is more thickly sown with Australian sacrifice” said Charles Bean, our official historian.
Between 1914 and 1919, from a population of less than five million, more than 400,000 Australians volunteered to serve, more than 330,000 fought overseas, more than 150,000 were wounded and more than 60,000 never returned. Nearly half of all Australian men aged 18 to 42 were in uniform.
But Australians didn’t just fight at Gallipoli and in France. An Australian battery fired the Empire’s first shot in anger to stop a German ship leaving Port Phillip. The Australian Light Horse was the spearhead of the British army that liberated Jerusalem and Damascus. In 1919, Australians won two VCs fighting against the Bolsheviks at Archangel. Crucially, a Melbourne-born Jew, Sir John Monash, was the general who best “cracked the code” of trench warfare that turned stalemate into victory. If we are fully to understand our country and the wider world, we need to remember what our forebears did and the difference they made.
Even today, a hundred years on, our first reaction is to weep at the slaughter. We mourn those who died struggling to win a few yards of trench amidst the mud, barbed wire and screaming shells. We lament all that they might otherwise have achieved. At one level it was such a waste; yet that’s not quite how the soldiers of that time saw it. They saw achievement, as well as futility; and in remembering their tragedy, we must not deny these men their victory.
They were fighting for things that are worthy of sacrifice: the right of all countries to live in peace and the right of small countries not to be bullied. We should never glorify war but we should honour the character that it can bring forth, in Bean’s words, “the mettle of the men themselves”. Importantly, under Monash, we learned from the mistakes of 1916 and 1917 so that 1918 was not just another year of futile heroism albeit in a good cause.
By mid-1918, commanding the Australian Corps, Monash had mastered the “all arms” battle – the co-ordination of infantry and armoured attack just behind a creeping artillery barrage that gave the defenders no time to man their machine guns. It sounds simple enough but it required extraordinarily precise movements on a massive scale and remarkable trust between gunners and men. For this achievement, he was described by UK Prime Minister David Lloyd George as “the most resourceful general in the whole of the British army”.
Between March and November 1918, the five divisions of the AIF, operating together for the first time, bested no fewer than 39 enemy divisions. They took 29,000 prisoners, captured 338 guns, and advanced over more than 40 miles of contested ground. They comprised less than 10 per cent of total British Empire forces but made almost a quarter of all the gains in the war’s decisive final months. In the words of Professor Robin Prior, it’s the only time in our history when Australian forces have engaged the main enemy on the main battlefront and made an appreciable difference to the outcome.
An early decision of my government was to construct the John Monash centre behind the Australian Memorial at Villers Bretonneux to tell the story of how Australians helped to win this war. It should make the terrible victory on the Western Front as important to future generations as the heroic failure at Gallipoli.
To face the future without flinching: for all time, may that be the lesson of these dauntless men.