A history of the transits of Venus

venus-transit-01-800The transit of Venus across the sun is a rare celestial alignment, that like London buses then comes along twice in quick succession. Venus orbits the sun roughly every 225 days and its path occasional overlaps Earth’s. The transit lasts several hours with Venus visible from earth during the day as a black dot travelling across the sun’s surface. This happens roughly twice every century coming (usually) in pairs eight years apart. We’ve had it twice in the 21st century but few of us will be alive to see the next one in December 2117. There is a gap of 105.5 years if the previous transits were in June (like they were in 2004 and 2012) or 121.5 years if the previous transits were December (as in 1874 and 1882). Together they form a cycle of 243 years.

Venus has always been a bright giant of the night sky as the Morning or Evening Star closely monitored by astronomers for thousands of years. The Egyptians called it “Benin”, the heron who disappeared under the Nile only to rise again. Once Copernicus discovered the Earth and other planets went around the Sun, there was a growing realisation that the planets closer to the Sun (Mercury and Venus) could move between the Earth and Sun.

It took the mathematical genius of Kepler to figure out when that would happen and he correctly predicted the transit of Venus in 1631. Kepler did not live to see the transit, he died in 1630, but he realised transits were important not just as a celestial event but as a way of using parallax to determine the precise distance between the Earth and the Sun. Unfortunately it was night-time in Europe when the 1631 transit happened so no one saw and no one in south Asia, where it was daytime, recorded it.

Kepler’s maths wasn’t completely accurate – he failed to realise the transits come in pairs and he completely missed the fact another was due eight years later in December 1639. That realisation fell to English astronomer Jeremiah Horrocks barely months before the 1639 event. Horrocks was the first ever written witness to a transit of Venus on an unusually clear winter’s day. Horrocks used the transit to estimate the distance between the Earth and the Sun as 191 million kilometres, about 40 million too high, but the most accurate distance yet recorded.

By the time of the next transit in June 1761, scientists had a much better what to look for and where and when to look for it. Almost 200 astronomers had trained their telescopes on the transit from 100 locations with the best views in Asia. The British Royal Society sent two expeditions, despite the distraction of the Seven Years War with France. One expedition to St Helena in the south Atlantic was a flop as the day remained cloudy. The second was led by Greenwich Observatory’s Charles Mason assisted by surveyor Jeremiah Dixon. Their later work surveying the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania made them famous for the Mason-Dixon line but in 1761 Britain was sending them to Sumatra to observe Venus. After their ship became involved in a skirmish with French forces, they were delayed and instead only made it to Cape Town. Though the transit was partially blocked by clouds they successfully timed the moment Venus moved off the Sun. Mathematicians used the data of Mason and Dixon and others across the world to work out the Earth-Sun distance to within two million kms. The war made science difficult, but it was over by the time of the next transit.

That transit was in June 1769. Like the previous one, the British Government sent out an expedition with scientific goals but it also had political ends and would accidentally end up with the founding of a British colony. With the best viewing in the Pacific Ocean the Royal Society petitioned the government for funds to observe the transit and noted the other European nations were making similar plans. The request was an ideal excuse to fund a voyage of discovery to the South Seas and James Cook was the ideal captain to make it happen. Though not a commissioned officer he had the perfect combination of leadership, seamanship, astronomical knowledge, mapmaking and mathematics to understand the new method of finding longitude at sea.

His instructions from the Admiralty were to sail to Tahiti to make observations on June 3, 1769. Then when this was completed he was to “put to Sea without Loss of Time and carry into execution the Additional Instructions contained in the inclosed Sealed Packet.” Inside the Packet were Cook’s secret instructions to find the fabled Terra australis incognita (unknown south land) in the southern ocean. If he could not find this, he was to chart New Zealand and return to England via whichever route was most convenient.

Cook arrived in Tahiti in April 1769 after an eight-month journey from Plymouth via Cape Horn aboard the Endeavour. He erected Fort Venus to accommodate 45 men, an observatory, a forge and an oven. On the day of the transit they were ready to observe with the help of two telescopes, a quadrant and an astronomical clock. To guard against cloudy weather he sent parties to two other nearby islands. But as Cook observed, “not a Clowd was to be seen the whole day and the Air was perfectly clear,” and they saw the “dusky shade” around the planet as it crossed the path of the Sun. They gathered excellent results although the exacting Cook saw the experiment as a failure because they missed the exact time of first contact, and the measurements his team took did not match precisely.

After charting Tahiti’s islands, Cook left on July 13 to map the Society Isles before sailing south to find the terra incognita. By September he had found nothing and put off by heavy gales, he set sail for New Zealand. He circumnavigated the islands to prove they were two islands and not part of a southern continent, concluding his mission in March 1770. The idea of going through Cape Horn in winter did not appeal so he decided to go home via the coast of New Holland and the East Indies.

The Dutch had mapped most of the north and west coast of New Holland but had found its inhabitants intimidating and there was little wealth by way of spices they could trade in Europe. The entire east coast was unknown to European navigators until Cook came calling. Cook first called this strange new land New Wales before renaming it New South Wales, though it looked nothing like the principality it was named for. Cook was aware of human habitation up the coast thank to the columns of smokes he saw, but the people kept their distance and were often hostile when Cook made landfall at Botany Bay, Bustard Head and Endeavour River.

Rounding the Torres Strait, Cook proved New Holland was a different land mass to New Guinea. At Bedanug, which Cook called Possession Island, he laid claim of all of New South Wales in the name of King George III. Returning home via Batavia and the Cape of Good Hope, he landed at Deal, Kent on July 13, 1771 to the shock of many who assumed the Endeavour had been lost at sea.

The Royal Society was disappointed with Cook’s results from the transit and the blame was laid on ship’s astronomer Charles Green who conveniently died on the way home. Cook’s discovery of New South Wales was also temporarily laid aside. But Botany Bay wormed its way into the British consciousness in a way the science could not and although Cook did not live to see it, his New South Wales became a reality within two decades as a home for transported prisoners. Australia was born out of a rare celestial event, a fact remembered in Melbourne and Sydney a century later as a confident and wealthy (but white) Australia had the prime position to record the 1874 Transit of Venus. At a cloudless Mornington near Melbourne professor of maths William Parkinson Wilson observed the transit with great delight but the excitement was too much for him and he died two days later.

The results from 1874 and 1882 (where Europe and the US had the best viewing) showed the distance from Earth to the Sun to be around 149 million kms. The science from the 2004 and 2012 events has moved on to the study of exoplanets by measuring the dip in the planet’s brightness as it crossed the sun. With any luck, by the time of the next transit on December 10, 2117, humans – if we survive the next century – will be making plans to visit one of those exoplanets, and like Cook find a new frontier. Let’s hope they will be more gentle on any of its inhabitants than those who followed Cook were.

The Redmonds in Australia 1883 – Part 3 Queensland and northern NSW

British flag raised in 1883 when Queensland annexed the southern part of New Guinea.
British flag raised in 1883 when Queensland annexed the southern part of New Guinea.

The 1883 visit of Irish nationalist brothers to Australia, John Redmond MP and Willie Redmond, was a massive and controversial event wherever they went including Adelaide and Sydney, but they found Queensland busy annexing a different foreign nation.

With Germany and France becoming a more visible colonising presence in the South Pacific from the early 1880s, there was much concern in Queensland about the threat of their expanding power. On April 4, 1883 Queensland premier Thomas McIlwraith ordered Henry Chester, the Police Magistrate on Thursday Island, to formally annex the south-eastern section of Papua New Guinea and adjacent islands in the name of the British Government. But the British Government was appalled, strongly rebuking McIlwraith for his actions and repudiating the claim.

A member of the British parliament the MP for New Ross John Redmond was already in Queensland at the time, having arrived from Sydney aboard the Derwent on March 22, 1883. Redmond was smart enough to keep his opinions on Queensland’s New Guinea adventure to himself and set about winning a new colony over to his views on Irish nationalism. The newspaper The Express wrote that his reception in Brisbane was much friendlier than in Sydney but he continued to be plagued by a lack of suitable venues to make his case.

At a breakfast meeting the morning after his arrival in Queensland parliamentarian Kevin Izod O’Doherty introduced Redmond to the audience at Lennon’s Hotel. O’Doherty was a doctor and a Young Irelander transported to Australia for treason after the short-lived 1848 rebellion in Ireland. Later pardoned he practiced in Brisbane and became a president of the Queensland Medical Association and a member for Brisbane in the Legislative Assembly. He retained a strong interest in Irish politics and was president of the Queensland branch of the Land League. It was Easter weekend and Redmond stayed in Brisbane as a guest of O’Doherty. On Easter Monday O’Doherty again presided as Redmond spoke to 2000 people at a picnic in Goodna and set up a local branch of the Irish National League.

A few days later Redmond told a Brisbane meeting the purpose of the League. The Brisbane Courier was impressed by Redmond’s moderate tone. It approved the Queensland Government’s decision to offer Redmond a free rail pass, something NSW could not bring itself to do. The Courier was nuanced but remained an opponent of Irish home rule. It explained on March 28 why Ireland could not have self-government unlike Queensland and the other colonies. Australian colonies were too distant from Britain to be governed by London (though it also castigated the Brisbane government for its New Guinea adventurism) while Ireland was an integral part of the UK. “It is not a mere dependency, and cannot be one while the British Empire exists… it is preposterous to suppose that any Englishman loyal to his country can sanction the disintegration involved in national Home Rule for Ireland,” the Courier wrote. They said a separate Ireland would impose duties on English products, raise a militia and would eventually proclaim a separate nation.

The Courier accurate predicted what would happen in the 20th century but its view was curiously Anglo-centric, never putting itself in Irish shoes. Meanwhile the Redmond Brothers split up to cover regional Queensland. Willie Redmond spoke to meetings in Brisbane and Warwick while John took a ship to Maryborough. At nearby Gympie there was a large contingent of Irish there for the goldrush and the town created Australia’s first Land League branch. He spoke to a crowd of 3000 and was presented with gold by the ladies of Gympie. In Maryborough Redmond was initially refused the use of the town hall but that decision was overturned when citizens petitioned the mayor. He then went on to Rockhampton where he gave an address at the Hibernian Hall before departing back to Brisbane.

On Friday, April 13 Redmond gave his main address in Brisbane at the Theatre Royal. He explained what self-government for Ireland would look like. He wanted decentralisation not separation, and a parliament responsible for internal affairs answerable to the Queen. Westminster would continue to regulate international functions. The Courier commended Redmond’s plain-speaking but remained opposed to Irish home rule.

Moving on to Toowoomba, Redmond attacked the Australian press which had accused him of being a mouthpiece of “an intolerant faction… about 100 years behind their brethren at home in intelligence and information”.  There were more meetings in Warwick and Stanthorpe before crossing back to NSW following in his brother Willie’s footsteps. At Tenterfield a cavalcade of 200 people on horseback and in buggies escorted him into town. Refused use of the hall and school of arts he spoke at the Catholic Church and attacked anti-Irish politician Henry Parkes in his own electorate.

Parkes had asked parliament to adopt a “loyal and dutiful address” to Queen Victoria to disapprove of the “strangers” in their midst. The move failed as Premier Alexander Stuart dismissed as absurd the idea the Redmonds could undermine colonists’ loyalty but Redmond was angry. He called Parkes a “political charlatan” who made false allegations against him and the Irish National League.

There were more meetings in Inverell, Glen Innes, Tamworth and Tingha where the meeting was disrupted by “an explosion of Chinese crackers, gunpowder and cayenne pepper.” The meetings in Armidale, Maitland and Newcastle were less eventful. The gruelling tour ended with a short break in Sydney in early May. Willie Redmond lightened the tone with a lecture on the poetry of Ireland at St Patrick’s Hall while John recited Longfellow’s The Golden Legend, a tale of the Monk Felix. The Golden Legend told of the miracles and martyrdoms of the saints. Redmond was no saint or martyr to his cause, but as 1883 passed its half way mark, he remained hopeful of a miracle conversion of Australia’s press to the Irish cause.

The Redmonds in Australia 1883 – Part 2: Sydney and NSW

Detail from a cartoon in the Protestant Standard, March 17, 1883
Detail from a cartoon in the Protestant Standard, March 17, 1883 “The Redmond Brothers and the cause they are begging for”.

The visit of Westminster parliamentarians John and Willie Redmond to Australia in 1883 fired up uncomfortable issues of Irish nationalism which did not sit well with the Empire jingoism of their hosts. Part 1 discussed the reasons for the Irish brothers’ visit and their reception in Adelaide. Part 2 takes up their arrival in Sydney on February 19, 1883.

The Redmonds arrived in NSW as news the men charged with the Phoenix Park murders were facing trial in Dublin. The hostile Sydney dailies reported with horror the news and tried to implicate the Irish nationalist politicians now in their midst. One paper said a defendant in the trial admitted they had money from a “murder fund” raised by the Irish Land League. The Echo said the Land League “stinks in the nostrils of decent people” while the Sydney Morning Herald quoted Willie’s seditious Cork speech and said John Redmond was an “itinerant preacher of sedition”.

Redmond wrote to the papers refuting the allegations, condemning the murders and disputing the existence of the murder fund. The papers were unimpressed with the Echo saying the connection was “too clear even to admit a doubt”.

Redmond planned to speak in Sydney’s Masonic Hall but its directors withdrew permission at the last minute, much to the delight of the Echo. Organisers found an alternative venue and the meeting was packed out, despite MPs and bishops steering clear. Redmond accused the Sydney press of “malicious and criminal falsehoods” and he condemned “the stupid insolence” of local MP James Young who tried to ban the meeting.

The Echo compared Redmond’s politics to “germs of smallpox” saying Sydney should “shut its doors and say ‘Pass on’”. Catholic organ The Freeman’s Journal denounced the other papers “insulting slanders on (the Irish) race and nation” and dismissed the link between the Land League and the murders in Dublin.

Redmond’s cause wasn’t helped when his supporters disrupted a meeting at the Protestant Hall organised by opponents of the League. Henry Parkes moved a motion to protest the Redmonds’ visit amid howling and fights in the audience. Chairs and sticks became weapons and protesters attacked Parkes as he left the meeting, surrounding his cab and pelting it with stones. Redmond regretted the attacks but said they were provoked by false speeches. The Daily Telegraph said Redmond was “a public enemy” and called for his removal from Australia.

In early March, Redmond left Sydney to tour the central west of NSW. He spoke in Bathurst and arrived in Orange on March 5 (an ill Willie stayed in Sydney). About 1000 people met him at the railway station and he went by carriage to Duntryleague, home of prominent local Catholic citizen James Dalton. Dalton warmly welcomed Redmond as the ablest of Parnell’s lieutenants who had won the world’s admiration by “resolute resistance to the oppressive proceedings of a foreign senate.”

Redmond again was denied local halls and made a speech at Orange’s auction rooms, with Dalton presiding. The meeting set up a branch of the Irish National League and Dalton was praised for his courage facing the remarks “of an insolent section of the press”.  Two days later MP John Burns told parliament that Dalton, who was a magistrate in Orange, had made an address where the British government was spoken as a foreign one and his language was not that of a loyal citizen. Premier Alexander Stuart wrote to Dalton to ask if newspaper accounts of his speech were accurate. Presumably satisfied they were, Stuart dismissed Dalton from his post a month later, along with two other Irish magistrates in Orange. The Irish party in Westminster protested the decision but British government endorsed Sydney’s actions. The Redmonds would become closer to the Daltons in ways that would reveal themselves later in the year.

John Redmond moved on to Dubbo and then back to Bathurst and Orange, calling at Duntryleague to say hello to Dalton before leaving for Sydney’s St Patrick’s day celebrations. On the day itself, Redmond first addressed a crowd of 30,000 people at Botany, one of the largest Irish gatherings ever seen at Sydney, and they enrolled 1500 new Irish National League members. He criticised the riot at Protestant Hall as “Old World seeds of bitterness and hate” and he and Willie received medals engraved with the words “St Patrick’s Day – from the sympathisers of the Irish cause in New South Wales.”

That evening Redmond was guest of honour at Sydney’s premier event for St Patrick’s Day. The St Patrick’s Banquet was traditionally an occasion for the well-heeled Irish to demonstrate loyalty to the crown and empire and attracted the wealthiest Catholics in the city. The Echo predicted Redmond would use the occasion to “set Ireland against Ireland, marshal Ireland against Britain and divide Ireland from Australia”. Redmond did no such thing. He was careful to avoid criticism of England or the press and reiterated his abhorrence of the Phoenix Park murders. Three days later, the brothers would sail north for Queensland and temporarily leave the hostility of Sydney’s press behind.

Staying in Europe will be David Cameron’s acid test for Britain

(photo: Telegraph.co.uk)
(photo: Telegraph.co.uk)

Tony Blair’s former spinner-in-chief Alastair Campbell wrote a (mostly) perceptive piece on his blog early on the day of the British election. Campbell was doing hindsight history showing how the electorate always gets it right on the day. Unfortunately his conclusion was they were about to get it right again by making Ed Milibrand prime minister, a dream that would be crushed in the following 24 hours. Britain had spoken again, but Doctor Campbell had misdiagnosed the illness. The patient wanted more of the drugs it already had, not a completely new treatment.

Campbell thought his analysis of the previous six election results in the UK would provide answers to a series of questions about the 2015 election. Twenty-eight years ago in 1987 Margaret Thatcher won a third election because she had the form and the agenda. Five years later Thatcher was gone but Britain said Labour was not yet fit for government under Neil Kinnock. In 1997 Britain finally thought “New Labour” (a slogan Campbell had significant investment in) meant something and gave them a landslide. That margin was enough to win again in 2001 but by 2005 Tony Blair was on the nose after Iraq. Like Thatcher he won a third victory and like Thatcher, his biggest problem was on his own side.

By 2010, Blair was gone and it was Gordon Brown against David Cameron. Was Britain ready for change and was Cameron the answer? Campbell said the answers were “yes, and we are not sure.”  The political gravity shifted to between the Tories and the LibDems and the Coalition was born.

Campbell said the questions in 2015 were was Britain on the mend and were Cameron and Osborne trusted with the keys? Also, could Cameron keep the country together? Campbell says the referendum result was too close for comfort and Cameron was now playing off English nationalism against Scottish, with disastrous consequences.

“Ed Miliband, if he does become Prime Minister, will do so having shown he can make and win difficult arguments and do so in the face of a wave of powerful vested interests who have thrown all the money and the lies they can muster,” Campbell said. Campbell was right about the powerful vested interests and there will certainly be plenty of smiles in Wapping from newspaper owners, who are still packing a punch despite the decline of their product.

But that was as good as it got and the rest of Campbell’s interpretation of history proved badly miscued. Labour made no inroads on the government, were smashed in Scotland and the collapse of the Lib Dems handed a thorough victory to the Conservative Party. When the message the electorate sent was they wanted the Tories with something to spare, Campbell was suitably chastened.

“Sometimes, when advising people I work with, I will say beware the dangers of being so deep inside your own team’s bubble that you end up believing your own propaganda and lose sight of what is really happening,” Campbell said. Campbell blamed the process for picking Miliband saying Cameron had clear air after the last election while Labour dithered over its complicated ballot. Yet Campbell is saying Labour should take even longer time to have that “debate” this time round. “After a result as awful as this, there has to be real deep soul-searching, and honest analysis about how and we have gone from being a Party identified as the dominant force across UK politics over a decade and more, to where we are today.” Campbell didn’t really say what the party stood for “today” other than being “the dominant force.”

Right wing libertarian Brendan O’Neill is not surprised Labour has no vision saying it had been captured by a “largely London-based opinion-forming set” which insulated it from the “incomprehensible” lives and aspirations of those in the real world. O’Neill’s contrarianism must be taken with a pinch of salt but in Campbell’s world of dominant forces, one man now stands supreme: David Cameron, unshackled from the Lib Dem coalition.

Cameron’s key item of business will be negotiating his major election promise, the tricky EU Referendum. Even here he is in the box seat, and can tell the EU he will walk away unless he gets significant concession he can sell to his electorate. He knows Germany wants Britain to stay in the Union and he will extract every euro cent from that advantage. But Cameron will have to take the matter to the electorate and from that point on, cannot control the result.

Predicting results of voter intentions in the UK is fraught, as this election proved. But smart money would be on a similar result to Scottish independence a roughly 55 to 45 split in favour of those wanting to stay in Europe. Opinion polling supports this outcome too. The position of the newspapers will be important, particularly those inclined to be Euro-sceptic. But Scotland itself will be the wildcard, especially as the vast majority there want to stay in the EU as Scottish citizens.

Alastair Campbell is right about the electorate knowing what they are doing: they chose the Conservatives because they offered the most certainty. The problem is there are many factors outside the control of the prime minister and the voters. Cameron has tighter control of the reins of power but whether he can hold the horses and keep them running in the one direction remains to be seen.

The Redmonds in Australia 1883 Part 1: Adelaide

Irish brothers and Westminster MPs John and Willie Redmond.
Irish brothers and Westminster MPs John and Willie Redmond.

As white colonials completed the destruction of Aboriginal Australia in the second half of the 19th century, there was a strong push to turn the colonies into a Southern Britain. The pro-Empire jingoism of the times was passionately upheld by the colonial press. Enemies were everywhere, and the numerous Irish especially were considered a nest of treasonous vipers. When a deranged Irishman attempted to kill Prince Alfred in the Sydney suburb of Clontarf in 1868, prominent politician Henry Parkes sought to turn the affair into a Fenian plot.

Sectarian tensions and distrust of the Irish was still simmering 15 years later when Empire attitudes and Irish politics collided. In 1883 two visitors, a pair of brothers, arrived in Australia looking for publicity and money for Irish “home rule”. Home rule, or a parliament distinct from London was a privilege the five eastern Australian colonies had since the 1860s, but Westminster and its Australian supporters were disinclined to offer the same privilege to Ireland. While the visitors sought to change attitudes in Australia, arguably Australia had a bigger effect on them: the brothers both married into the prominent Irish-Australian Dalton family, cementing bonds that would last a lifetime.

The Irish brothers were John and William Redmond, from a wealthy Wexford Hiberno-Norman Catholic family. Elder brother John Redmond would eventually become the most prominent Irish politician in London in the 20th century urging his people to enlist in the First World War in the cause of Home Rule, but a revolution in Dublin destroyed that hope and Redmond died a broken man in 1918. Younger brother Willie followed John into parliament and the First World War killed him too. He enlisted and died at Messines Ridge in June 1917, the only Westminster MP to be killed in action in the war.

The Redmonds had a long and distinguished history in Irish and British affairs. John Redmond followed his father William Archer Redmond into Westminster politics taking the seat of New Ross after his father died in 1880. William Archer Redmond was aligned with Isaac Butt’s moderate Home Rule Party and his son John became an early ally of Charles Stewart Parnell who brought together Irish home rule and Irish land rights into the one powerful argument.

In 1882 Parnell established the Irish National League superseding the National Land League, a tenants’ rights organisation suppressed by the British. The Irish National League agitated for land reform but also had a wider aim of national self-government. Parnell wanted the support of the Irish Diaspora and the member for New Ross was given the job of explaining the new organisation to the world.

While Parnell sought a parliamentary solution, more radical Fenians wanted a clean break from Britain. That same year 1882, Fenians assassinated the two top British administrators in Ireland in what became known as the Phoenix Park murders. The Land League was not connected to the crime but there were plenty happy to accuse. The Redmonds arrived in Australia as the country was scandalised by the murders which Australia saw as proof Ireland was not to be trusted.

John Redmond was a pacifist and gifted orator who was appalled by the Phoenix Park murders. He was an ideal choice to travel to Australia and then on to America to raise funds and awareness for the Irish cause. However his younger brother Willie was far less cautious and had a reputation for fiery speeches.

John’s decision to take younger brother had ramifications as Willie suffered ill health in Naples delaying the trip. More importantly Willie had a warrant for his arrest in Ireland for a speech he made in Cork deemed seditious by British authorities.

The brothers arrived in Adelaide on February 5, 1883 and were welcomed by a thousand Irish well-wishers, Irish flags and a brass band playing “national airs”.  Redmond held a meeting in Adelaide Town Hall attended by MPs and the Catholic bishop. He made a 90-minute speech criticising British rule in Ireland and outlining the Irish National League’s agenda. Willie made a shorter but more fiery speech saying reform could only be won from the British by “fierce and threatened agitation”.

The Australian anti-Irish nationalist press were already suspicious of the Redmonds but these speeches incensed them. Their attitude was not helped by news from Ireland implicating the Land League in the 1882 Phoenix Park murders of two senior British diplomats in Dublin. On the day the Redmonds left Adelaide, Englishman Edward Riley hosted an “Anti-Land League lecture” which described the Redmonds as trouble-makers. Sydney’s The Evening News described the Redmonds as “men of the firebrand order, public agitators and disturbers of the public peace while their speeches were “violent, seditious, disloyal and inflammatory”.

New South Wales would also bring the Redmonds into contact with the Dalton family, which would have major personal ramifications and that will be the subject of Part 2 of this story.

Australia in the First World War – The Ottoman campaign 1916-1918

Members of the Australian Light Horse in the Sinai Desert 1916.
Members of the Australian Light Horse in the Sinai Desert 1916.

While the entire Australian army fought at Gallipoli, only a small number stayed on to fight against the Ottomans for in the rest of the war. The Australian Light Horse stayed in the Middle East while the vast majority, five Australian divisions, split off to fight a separate war on the Western Front against Germany.

The Light Horse were a ghost of previous wars whose most effective tactic was the cavalry charge with sabres, and both weapons (horses and sabres) were becoming obsolete in the 20th century. The Light Horse was the embodiment of the Australian bushmen but the horses were ineffective on the cliffsides of Gallipoli and in the trench warfare of France and Belgium. The horses however did give them mobility and they would be useful in the Sinai and Arabian Deserts.

In 1915, the Light Horse sat out the April 25 landing at Gallipoli but as the death toll mounted in May, they were drafted in without their horses and suffered casualties in large numbers.

The Light Horse again missed out when the infantry was sent to France. They would stay behind in Cairo to help defend the Suez Canal and launch raids into Ottoman-controlled Palestine.

The Aussies repulsed the Turks in Romani in Sinai and under new leader Harry Chauvel pushed east. Gaza was a crucial gateway to the Holy Land and the Allies failed to take it in two sieges in 1917. For the third attempt Chauvel’s men made an audacious charge on the wells at Beersheba, armed with bayonets instead of traditional swords.

The full-pace charge advance late in the afternoon of October 31, 1917, over machine gun fire, crashed through past the terrified defenders. Beersheba fell and within days the Turks abandoned Gaza. Before the year was out, the British Army had taken Jerusalem.

The war was still far from over for the Light Horse who endured reverses in 1918 in the Jordan Valley. There the enemies were heat, flies, lice, scorpions, dust and sickness as much as the Ottoman army. They were re-issued with swords, allowing them to fight on horseback and took part in a big coastal offensive which forced the Turks to retreat.

The Light Horse marched into Damascus in triumph bringing the desert war to an end in October 1918. About 1500 Australian soldiers died in the campaign, many of sickness and disease.

The Light Horse had 130,000 sturdy Waler horses that they loved as dearly as life. But none but one would go home to Australia with them. At the end of the war they were either sold or transferred to the British and Indian armies. Many soldiers preferred to shoot the horses rather than have them put to cruel use. In later years the talk of Light Horsemen was of their beloved horses and the tragedy of leaving them behind.

The only horse to return home was Sandy, the mount of commander of the Australian 1st Division, Major General Sir William Bridges. General Bridges was killed in a sniper attack at Gallipoli in 1915. It was his dying wish that Sandy should return to Australia.

The horse was transferred to France and in 1917 the Minister for Defence called for Sandy to be returned for pasture. He arrived home in 1918 and the official record says he was “pensioned off”, or turned out to graze for the next six years at Remount Hill, the home and training ground of the Light Horse Brigade.
Sandy’s eyesight failed with age, and his growing debility prompted the decision to have him put down, “as a humane action” in May 1923.

Australia on the western front: 1918 – The nightmare ends

The ruins of Villers-Bretonneux photographed in April 1918 (Australian War Memorial).
The ruins of Villers-Bretonneux photographed in April 1918 (Australian War Memorial).

As 1918 began, Germany was deeply worried by the US entering the war. The Americans were mobilising in large numbers so the Germans needed to win the war before they arrived. The Russian Revolution ended the war on the Eastern Front, and Germany rushed its troops to France for a major offensive in March.

Using massed artillery and “stormtrooper” tactics which foreshadowed Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, they forced the British Army back 50km to the Somme over the graves of previous battles. General Gough’s Fifth Army took refuge in Amiens, a vital communications hub, and Gough diverted the Australian divisions from Flanders to defend gaps in the line. By the time they arrived, German momentum was weakening. They attacked heavily at Villers-Bretonneux, 25km east of Amiens but the Australians drove them off. The following day they repulsed the Germans further north at Hébuterne and Dernancourt.

The Germans launched another major assault on Villers-Bretonneux on April 24. Two Australian brigades with British units counter-attacked that night in a pincer movement, yelling as they charged under machine-gun fire. The following morning, Anzac Day, the Germans were in full retreat. Amiens was safe. A hill overlooking Villers-Bretonneux was selected as the site of the Australian National Memorial in 1938. It was repaired again after being damaged in the Second World War.

As 1918 progressed, the Americans arrived on the battlefields in large numbers shifting the balance to the Allies. Birdwood handed over command of the Australian army to Sir John Monash. Monash was a civil engineer from Melbourne who understood the need for organisation, initiative and good morale. The division in Flanders defending Hazebrouck was moved to the Somme bringing the five divisions under Australian command. Monash attacked at Le Hamel using Australian and American troops on a battle appropriately set for July 4.

Supported by new Mark V tanks, aircraft and artillery, Monash’s infanty achieved their objective in a brilliantly planned attack. Le Hamel was possibly Australia’s finest hour in the war. On August 8, two Australian divisions joined a massive attack on weakening German positions on the Somme. Over 2000 Australians died in one day, but the Germans were routed. General Ludendorff called it “Der Schwarze Tag” – Germany’s black day.

Monash drove the troops to Mont St Quentin and Péronne, a strongly defended riverside town. In bloody hand-to-hand combat, Australians won eight Victoria Crosses in three days, the largest of any engagement in the war. The Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line while Monash urged on the exhausted Australians, despite crippling losses.

It was a race against time with winter approaching. In his final attack of September 29 at St Quentin Canal, Monash commanded more “doughboys” (as the Americans were called) than Australians. The Allies finally breached the Hindenburg Line and Germany’s war was lost. Amid a total retreat, most of the Australians saw their last action capturing Montbrehain on October 5. They handed over to the doughboys and sat out the last month of the war.

The year 1918 claimed 12,000 Australian lives on the Western Front. The last to fall were three pilots and three tunnellers in a British attack at Sambre-Oise on November 4. The war ended on Armistice Day a week later though a defeated Germany never admitted the word “surrender”.

Around 60,000 Australians died in the war of a total of 17 million worldwide, seven million of those civilians. The war changed borders, with ramifications the world is dealing with 100 years later. European power was fatally weakened and three empires collapsed. Yet nations did not heed the lesson of the “Great War”. The unsatisfactory nature of the peace led to an even bloodier conflict 20 years later. Australia would again serve in Britain’s interest, but would also be forced to defend its own borders as Japan emerged as a global military power.