Australia at War: 1916

Australian soliders at the Somme (Australian War Memorial).
Australian soldiers at the Somme (Australian War Memorial).

The Australian Army spent the new year of 1916 in Cairo licking its wounds from the Gallipoli campaign. It needed a fresh injection of blood and got it in large numbers as “Dungaree Marches” across Australia landed new recruits by the thousands for the volunteer army.

From March 1916, the Australians began leaving Cairo. Four divisions (1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th) were sent to Flanders in Belgium. Though half were already battle-hardened by Gallipoli, the Western Front presented a fresh set of hells such as wet and cold weather, muddy trenches, murderous machine guns and nerve gas, and later tanks and airplanes. The Australians were given ‘the nursery’ to defend, a quieter part of the Front near Armentières just over the border in France.

This was no place for infants and 600 Australians died in under three months defending the borderline. Private William Jackson became the first AIF soldier to win the Victoria Cross in France. He captured a POW (greatly valued for their information) and then rescued wounded members of his raiding party from no man’s land until his arm was blown off by a shell.

It didn’t take long for the Australians to outgrow the nursery. The main British Army in France was 100km south of the border, concentrating its force on the Germans on an important river crossing. The Battle of the Somme was planned as a massive war of attrition to frighten the Germans into retreat. British soldiers were ordered to deliberately walk slowly across no man’s land as bluffing generals thought this would unnerve the Germans. It didn’t unnerve German machine gunners and 20,000 died in the first hour. At the end of the day 60,000 attackers were slaughtered – Britain’s highest ever one day casualty list.

A Northern Irishman who fought on the Somme sent a letter home to his Orange Lodge telling them to expect the worst. “There is no doubt that when you receive this note I shall be dead…The more I brood on what may happen the surer I am I shall not survive it. All of us say, ‘It’ll be the other fellow who’ll be killed’. I feel that I am one of those other fellows.”

As more of those other fellows died in the battle, the Australians were sucked in and three of its four divisions left “the nursery”. On July 19, 1916 the 5th division attacked Fromelles but the poorly prepared Australians lost ground to a German counter-attack. It was the worst 24 hours in Australian military history. More Australians died that day than in the combined Boer, Korean and Vietnam wars. They suffered 5500 casualties, a devastating blow with some divisions losing entire ranks.

Pozières was the next killing field for many Australians. On July 23, the 1st Division attacked the town under artillery fire for five successive days at the cost of 5000 men. The 2nd Division came to relieve the 1st and suffered another 2000 casualties. They were followed by the 4th division who attacked nearby Mouquet Farm. The narrow front exposed the Australians to murderous shell fire and counter-attacks. Over 42 days, the three Australian divisions attacked Pozières 19 times, 16 at night, at the cost of 6000 dead and another 17,000 injured. Those who survived put it down to endurance and luck. The front line barely moved at the end of it. In September the exhausted and depleted Australians were sent back to Flanders to recover their strength.

Prime Minister Billy Hughes could see appalling losses taking a huge toll on the AIF. Britain’s own volunteer “Kitchener Army” was also cut to pieces (and Kitchener himself was dead) and needed conscription to top it up. Hughes became convinced Australia also needed conscription. The issue split his Labor party and the Senate was hostile. When Hughes took it to a referendum on October 23, 1916 the No vote narrowly won, but Hughes remained committed. He left Labor to form a coalition government dedicated to over-turning the result.

The news was no better for the resting men in Flanders, ordered back to the bloodbath in the Somme as winter approached. All four divisions were posted to France as this enormous battle rolled to an unsatisfactory conclusion after five months. Muddy conditions left both sides virtually immobile in an uneasy truce punctuated by raids and shelling. Men succumbed to respiratory diseases, rheumatism, frost bite and “trench foot” (a rotting condition caused by prolonged standing).

A bloodfest that started in high summer, the Battle of the Somme ended in the damp wintry squib of November. Hundreds of thousands lay dead and only a handful of kilometres changed hands. The overall state of the war was the same in January 1917 as it was in January 1916. The Australian Third Division was finally raised by trainees in England and they arrived on the front as the year ended to make it five divisions in France. But the patriotic enthusiasm Australians had in 1914 and 1915 for this great adventure was long gone. Those who went home wounded brought back news about deadly modern warfare. Their missing limbs and broken spirit spoke of a quieter horror no one was yet ready to confront. The nightmare would continue for two more years.

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