Links for WW1 Australian Tours
The acronym of ANZAC is one of - if not the - most iconic of the Great War with its images of 'lack of respect' by the 'laid back' Aussie soldiers especially for the 'puffed up finery' of military authority - balanced by their incredible bravery and ferocity in battle. This is a GREAT article on the respect that even the British generals had with the 'undisciplined' Australians .. The trouble with Australians...
The Australian men who formed a major part of the ANZAC contingent in WW1 in France and Belgium volunteered to support the 'mother country' believing in the concept of Empire, or joined up looking for a different type of adventure.
What they found was certainly different. After the 'eye openings' of Gallipoli, the men of Australia found their way to the Western Front where they made a significant contribution to the campaigns of 1916-1917. However, it can be argued that the role of the Australians, firstly at Villers-Bretonneux and Le Hamel, in 1918 were more than just significant. Many would say that these battles fought to protect Amiens in 1918 changed the course of the war.
This is a tremendous story, within which are many rich and vibrant tales. Join us with our expert Australian War historian guides on voyages of discovery and understanding with the battles in France & Belgium where Australians fought and died, forever changing the course of history.
Like all the other countries of the British Empire, Australia immediately came to the support of the "mother country" at the outbreak of the war in August 1914. This marked the birth of the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF), under the command of the British General Birdwood and consisting entirely of volunteers.
Australia, along with its neighbours from New Zealand this force set out for the front, making up the famous Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or ANZAC, whose first important mission, together with French, English Newfoundland and Indian troops, was to mount an attack on the Turkish army, German's ally (the troops disembarked on 25 April 1915 on the Gallipoli peninsula.)
In the First World War following the Gallipoli campaign Australians would also fight with great distinction in the campaign that liberated Ottoman controlled Palestine.
The charge of the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade at Bersheeba is remarkable on several counts – the length or the charge – more than four miles and the fact that the soldiers were mounted infantry – not cavalry – and consequently used the 17 inch Sword Bayonets of their SMLE rifles in place of sabres. In December 1917 troops of the Australian Mounted Division became the first Allied mounted troops to enter the recently liberated Jerusalem.
France & Belgium:
The first bloody battle in France was at Fromelles (Nord), on July 19th 1916, designed to provide a diversion for the Franco-British offensive that had been launched on July 1st on the Somme. The Battle of Fromelles on the 19th July 2016 was a total disaster for the Australians, costing them over five and half thousand men wounded and killed in 24 hours. It still remains the worst military defeat in Australia's military history.
On their arrival at Pozières on July 23th, the Australians' goal was to "unlock" Thiepval. After murderous fighting (at "Gibraltar" and "the Windmill") where they suffered the most intense artillery bombardment of the war and with appalling casualties of over 23,000 dead and wounded, they finally took Pozieres village but were totally exhausted by the time of the battle for Mouquet Farm ("Moo-cow farm") where the Canadians relieved them on September 5th. Sent to rest after Pozières, the "Diggers" returned to the Somme in October, in the Flers-Gueudecourt sector where they suffered the rigours of an exceptionally severe winter.
With the end of the Battle of the Somme in mid-November, they settled into their winter quarters as did the British, the French and the Germans.
Back in the Somme again in 1918, the Australians tried to halt the offensive at Sailly-Laurette on March 28th, at Villers-Bretonneux on April 4th and at Dernancourt on April 5th: but their finest hour was at Villers-Bretonneux on April 25th - the third anniversary of Gallipoli.
The Allied counter-offensive, known by the Germans as "the black day", began on August 8th; the Australians liberated the area from Villers-Bretonneux to Montbrehain (Aisne), after first liberating and striking through the Hindenburg Line with the people of Amiens, on September 2nd at Bellenglise and the great battle at the tunnel of the Saint-Quentin canal. In October they went into a rest area, not thinking that the armistice would be signed a month later.
Interestingly however they were not the first Australians to serve in France, as early as August 1914 expatriates in Britain had formed an Australian Volunteer Hospital and deployed to the Continent within a month.
When they arrived in Britain Australian soldiers were billeted in huge hutted camps on Salisbury Plain and at Fovant in Wiltshire they added their AIF cap badge to those constructed out of chalk on the hillside above the camp.
The famous AIF 'RISING SUN' badge was designed in 1885 by Major Joseph Gordon symbolising the concept of 'active defence' and was adopted for slouch hats by Australian soldiers in South Africa in 1902.
Australian soldiers would fight on the Somme in 1916 and at Ypres in 1917/1918. The battles in which the men of the AIF fought are - and always will be - a roll call of immense courage and amazing sacrifice.
Fromelles: 19/20 July 1916: An Australian Disaster... (Link to our Battle of Fromelles page)
It was on the Somme in 1916 that Private William Jackson would become the first Australian in the war to be awarded the VC on the Western Front for selfless courage under heavy fire while rescuing his comrades. Aged just 19, Jackson is the youngest Australian soldier ever to have been awarded the Victoria Cross. Back in Australia Sergeant Camden who had assisted Jackson summed up the spirit in which the young man had crossed the dangerous ground to makes these rescues. "Bill was not looking for a VC that night, he was looking for his cobbers."
Pozières 23 July–5 August 1916
Between 23 July and 5 August 1916, the Australian First and Second Divisions captured Pozières village and Pozières heights … In five days the First Division suffered 5285 casualties, killed and wounded. The Second Division suffered 6848 casualties, the greatest number ever endured by an Australian division in one tour in the front line. Pozieres was a horrific, relentless 'grinding machine' that swallowed over an appalling 23,00 men killed and wounded. The Australian Official Historian, Charles Bean, described Pozières as "a ridge more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth".
Mouquet Farm (moo-cow farm) 8 August–3 September 1916
In less than seven weeks in the fighting at Pozières and Mouquet Farm three Australian divisions suffered 23,000 casualties. Of these, 6800 men were killed or died of wounds. It was a loss comparable with the casualties sustained by the Australians over eight months at Gallipoli in 1915.
Flers and the Somme Winter October 1916 – February 1917
The fight now was about seizing suitable positions for the winter during which major campaigning was impossible. These actions were made in some of the worst conditions the Australians were to experience on the Western Front the main battle was against mud, rain and frost-bite.
Advance to the Hindenburg Line February–April 1917
The Germans planned to have the Hindenburg Line ready in early 1917, and then they would withdraw to these new trenches. The new line would be straighter and shorter requiring fewer divisions to man it
First Battle of Bullecourt 11 April 1917
Attacking the Hindenburg line, Australians fought incredibly costly battles at Bullecourt on 11 April and again in the Second Battle of Bullencourt between 3-17 May 1917. No real gain was achieved at either battle. Controversy still reigns today over the mistakes made in these two battles - the first battle was a total breakdown in communications between the high command and the front line officers, and like Passchendaele - the battle itself was for absolutely no strategic advantage whatosever.
This battle marked the first strategic use of tanks in the war, however early-model tanks moved slower than a walking man, their armour was vulnerable to German artillery fire so none reached the wire before the Australian infantry. Coupled with this with rudimentary communications HQ staff believed that the advance was not being held up, thus NO artillery was allowed to fire and the Germans were able to counter-attack with impunity. The use of tanks here was such a disaster that the Australians refused to fight with tanks for the next 12 months. The two brigades of the 4th Division that carried out the attack, the 4th and 12th, suffered over 3,300 casualties with 1,170 Australians taken prisoner - the largest number ever captured in a single engagement during WW1.
Second Battle of Bullecourt 3–17 May 1917
British and French leaders agreed to a joint British and Australian attack on the Hindenburg Line around Bullecourt where the previous attempt had failed so disastrously. The Australian infantry of the Second Division advanced east of Bullecourt village at 3.45 am on 3 May 1917. The right and centre flank achieved success but were heavily attacked on both narrow flanks of the trenches they gained but they held on after some furious hand to hand fighting and multiple grenade battles.
At dusk on 3 May, the Second Australian Division had reached and held most of its first objective. On 6th May, after 18 hours of continual saturation artillery shelling bombardment, the Germans launched their sixth counter-attack. They had almost reached the Australian positions when Corporal George Julian Howell made an amazing sprint along the top of the enemy trenches showering the enemy with hand grenades as he ran. This combined with the stubborn resistance of the other troops saved the day. Howell amazingly survived (he had 28 separate wounds), and received the Victoria Cross for his bravery.
Most of Bullecourt was seized by the British on 7 May and ten days later all the ruins were in their hands. On 15 May the Australians battled off a final counter-attack and the Germans decided to leave this bit of the Hindenburg Line forever to to Australia. One Australian historian described the fighting at the second battle of Bullecourt "as the taking of a small, tactically useless village at a cost of more than 7,000 Australian casualties".
The town of Bullecourt has several Australian memorials, the largest of which is the Australian Memorial Park, which overlooks what was once the battlefield. From the Bullecourt road there is a line of trees which mark the railway embankment and the Australian trenches which formed the starting line for the battle, and in the the park stands the bronze 'Bullecourt Digger', designed and sculpted in Melbourne by Peter Corlett from a photograph of his WW1 dad in uniform, who incidentally fought at Bullecourt. . The commemorative plaque reads:
"Sacred to the memory of the 10,000 members of the Australian Imperial Force who were killed or wounded in the two battles of Bullecourt, April-May 1917, and to the Australian dead and their comrades-in-arms who lie here forever in the soil of France. 'Lest we Forget'." The Bullecourt Memorial Park was inaugurated on Anzac Day in 1992 and the 'Bullecourt Digger' was unveiled on Anzac Day in 1993. Also in Bullecourt is a superb private WW1 museum ran by the ex mayor and and in the main street is the 'Australian Slouch Hat Memorial', a bronze sculpture of the iconic Aussie Slouch hat.
The Battle of Messines 7 June 1917
At the Messines Ridge in 1917 two British Corps and the II ANZAC Corps would demonstrate that prior preparation, good training and the awesome effect of mines – huge buried explosive charges – could achieve results without the huge loss of life suffered on the Somme. Messines was a low cost "bite and hold" operation. Some 19 mines with a total weight of 1,000,000 lbs of explosive were detonated, destroying the German front line. These mine craters are still highly visible today.
Battle of Menin Road 20 September 1917
On 20 September 1917, the Australians sustained 5,000 killed and wounded but the 'bite and hold' tactics developed by Monash had been vindicated. The final objective, 1,500 metres from the start line, was secured. By noon, the Australians had taken all the objectives and were at the western end of Polygon Wood
Battle of Polygon Wood 26 September 1917
The ground was dry, and the shell-bursts raised a wall of dust and smoke which appeared almost to be solid. Seven divisions, five British and two Australian, advanced behind the rolling barrage of shells and seized most of their objectives
Battle of Broodseinde 4 October 1917
The Australians gained all their objectives on the ridge. Along the whole line the attack had been successful, thereby giving the British forces their first glimpse of the lowlands since May 1915.
The Third Battle of Ypres (known as the Battle of Passchendaele): 9 and 12 October 1917
Overview: Horror, Incompetence and Utter Futility
Passchendaele has been become a byword and probably the worlds most potent symbol of the incredible horror - and futility of the Great War. The name itself is symbolic of images of a shattered, blasted 'moonscape' of cold, filth, slime, mud, barbed wire, blasted tree stumps, a sea of mud and corpse-filled shell craters and of thousands and thousands of incredibly brave - but doomed young men scythed down by machine-gun fire, horrific artillery barrages and drowning in the filthy rat infested mud of no-mans land. The capture of the Belgian village of Passchendaele (Passendale), near Ypres (Ieper) in Flanders, became in the end - an utterly pointless objective that cost the lives of many thousands of young Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians.
This, even more than the horrific slaughter of the Somme in July the year before - along with other horrific battle casualties shows the gross incompetence, pomposity and the incredible tactical errors that Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig was criticised for in this battle - and in general in his handling of the war for the Allies. In Churchill's devastating judgment, Haig "wore down alike both the manhood and the guns of the British army almost to destruction." Of the battle of Passchendaele, British military historian J.F.C. Fuller, wrote, "To persist… in this tactically impossible battle was an inexcusable piece of pigheadness on the part of Haig." It is said that Haig's chief of staff being driven to the front and viewing the true horror of the mud and blasted landscape said as he burst into tears:, "Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?"
Fought in terrible weather this battle was an unmitigated disaster as well as wholesale slaughter, even by the horrific casualties of trench warfare on the Western Front. It is particularly remembered by the New Zealand Division as the darkest day in their proud military history with over 490 men killed in one day with a further 800 men killed a few days later. Australian losses alone for 12 October were 3,000 casualties for the Third Division and 1,000 for the Fourth Division for absolutely no gain. More extensive information is here under the Ypres page:
Dernancourt: 28 March and 5 April 1918
On 28 March, the Germans attempted to resume their advance fighting spread along the whole front between Dernancourt and Albert. On 5 April, the Germans made a renewed effort, the Australian reserves counter-attacked and succeeded in pushing the Germans back, ending their action
Morlancourt: March–May 1918
On 27 March 1918, elements of the Australian Third Division relieved exhausted British infantry in the triangle between the Somme and the Ancre where they effectively stemmed the German advance in this area. Further action at Morlancourt between 4 and 9 May led to the the seizure of the new German front line
Villers-Bretonneux: April 1918 (** See our 2015 100 year anniversary Anzac Day tour to Villers Bretonneux)
The Germans initially captured Villers-Bretonneux on the 24th April, which then brought Amiens within range of their artillery. The following day (the third anniversary of the Anzac landing at Gallipoli) it was recaptured by the 4th and 5th AIF Divisions (serving under Australia's famous Major General Pompey Elliot) with over 1200 men losing their lives in the battle. This action marked the effective end of the German drive towards Amiens.
The site is now the location of the Villers-Bretonneux WW1 Memorial, the main Australian National Memorial in France commemorating all Australian soldiers who fought and died in France and Belgium in the First World War, and also to soldiers who have no known grave. The memorial was unveiled by King George VI in July 1938, with the cemetery and memorial designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. The 10,700 Australian servicemen whose names are on the memorial died on the battlefields of the Somme, Arras, the German advance of 1918 and the Advance to Victory in 1918.
From the top of the tower looking over the undulating countryside of the Somme you can see Amiens and its cathedral. At the bottom of the interior stairs, leading to the top of the tower, a large wall plaque displays a map of the Western Front and the location of the five Australian divisional memorials in France and Belgium: First Division, Pozières; Second Division, Mont St Quentin; Third Division, Sailly–le–Sec; Fourth Division, Montbrehain; and Fifth Division, Polygon Wood, Belgium.
The Anzac Day ceremony itself - held on the early morning of the 25th April at the Villers-Bretonneux Australian War Memorial is now acknowledged as being as famous as the Gallipoli service at Anzac Cove, with Australians from all over the world now coming to France to attend this moving and amazing service. The Anzac Day Ceremony at the memorial is followed by another ceremony in the Villers-Bretonneux village at the French Memorial and another in the afternoon at the village of Bullecourt in Artois.
On France's national day, 14 July 1919, the people of Villers–Bretonneux showed their gratitude in handing over a plaque (now in the Australian War Memorial's Western Front Gallery) with the town establishing itself forever as a small part of Australia, with the plaque reading:
"The first inhabitants of Villers–Bretonneux to re–establish themselves in the ruins of what was once a flourishing little town have, by means of donations, shown a desire to thank the valorous Australian Armies, who with the spontaneous enthusiasm and characteristic dash of their race, in a few hours chased an enemy ten times their number … Soldiers of Australia, whose brothers lie here in French soil, be assured that your memory will always be kept alive, and that the burial places of your dead will always be respected and cared for."
** It is rumoured that an Aussie digger uttered this gem to an old lady in a nearby village on the day prior to the attack: "Fini retreat madame, beaucoup Australiens ici" ('no more retreat Madame, many Australians here!').
The school at Villers-Bretonneux is called Victoria School and the inscription above every blackboard reads: 'N'oublions jamais l'Australie'.
Battle of Le Hamel 4 July 1918
When the German offensive towards Amiens ended in late April 1918, the Allied forces wondered where the Germans would strike next. The Australians were put to guarding the line east of Villers-Bretonneux from where they proceeded to harass the Germans between April and July 1918 by adopting tactics which became known as 'peaceful penetration'
The action at Le Hamel on July 4, 1918 by the Australian Corps under Major General John Monash is the first example of a fully integrated and meticulously co-ordinated battle (of only an hour and half in duration) of combined arms action by infantry, armour artillery and close air support. Monash summed up his approach to the all arms battle thus:
"The true role of infantry was not to expend itself upon heroic physical effort, not to wither away under merciless machine-gun fire, not to impale itself on hostile bayonets, nor to tear itself to pieces in hostile entanglements—(I am thinking of Pozieres and Stormy Trench and Bullecourt , and other bloody fields)—but on the contrary, to advance under the maximum possible protection of the maximum possible array of mechanical resources, in the form of guns, machine-guns, tanks, mortars and aeroplanes; to advance with as little impediment as possible; to be relieved as far as possible of the obligation to fight their way forward; to march, resolutely, regardless of the din and tumult of battle, to the appointed goal; and there to hold and defend the territory gained; and to gather in the form of prisoners, guns and stores, the fruits of victory."
Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who was a young officer in the First World War, would say of Monash "I would name Sir John Monash as the best general on the western front in Europe." It is a reflection of Australia's tolerant multi-cultural society that nearly a hundred years ago Monash – whose family were German Jewish migrants to Australia, could rise to high command in the AIF.
Battle of Amiens 8 August 1918
The Canadian and French attacks had gone as well as those of the Australians and 25 kilometres of the German front south of the Somme was swept away in a victory that far surpassed any previous success of the British Army on the Western Front.
Mont St Quentin – Péronne 31 August–2 September 1918
The battle of Mont St Quentin on 31 August 1918 was the definitive battle and pinnacle of success by by the Australian Army on the Western Front, again under Monash. In capturing the key to the German defences on the Somme, Australian troops forced the Germans to withdraw to the Hindenburg Line. Although the soldiers were exhausted after days of marching and hard fighting against a still strong enemy force, Monash decided to push them even harder and to take Mont St Quentin and Péronne. On those three days the Australians – at a cost of 3000 casualties – dealt a stunning blow to five German divisions causing a general German withdrawal.
Hindenburg Outpost Line: Bellenglise – St Quentin Canal 18 September 1918
On 18 September 1918 Australians captured 4300 prisoners and 76 guns at a cost of 1260 casualties. They had shown how vulnerable the Hindenburg defences were it now seemed possible that the war just might be brought to a successful conclusion before the winter of 1918–19
Hindenburg Line and Montbrehain 27 September – 5 October 1918
In Australia's last infantry actions on the Western Front, despite being exhausted and undermanned, the troops fought hard to break through the Hindenburg Line and capture Montbrehain village
The War in the Air
Australia had been training pilots prior to the outbreak of the First World War and they would serve in all roles during the war. Aerial reconnaissance proved invaluable on the Western Front allowing accurate trench maps to be produced. Bombing missions hit German front line and logistic bases. However it was in Palestine that an Australian pilot would win the first VC to be awarded to a pilot in the Flying Corps.
The citation for the decoration awarded to Lt. Frank Hubert McNamara, Aus. Forces, R.F.C. reads:
"For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty during an aerial bomb attack upon a hostile construction train, when one of our pilots was forced to land behind the enemy's lines.
Lt. McNamara, observing this pilot's predicament and the fact that hostile cavalry were approaching, descended to his rescue. He did this under heavy rifle fire and in spite of the fact that he himself had been severely wounded in the thigh
He landed about 200 yards from the damaged machine, the pilot of which climbed on to Lt. McNamara's machine, and an attempt was made to rise. Owing, however, to his disabled leg, Lt. McNamara was unable to keep his machine straight, and it turned over. The two officers, having extricated themselves, immediately set fire to the machine and made their way across to the damaged machine, which they succeeded in starting.
Finally Lt. McNamara, although weak from loss of blood, flew this machine back to the aerodrome, a distance of seventy miles, and thus completed his comrade's rescue".
The War at Sea
On November 9, 1914 in the battle of the Cocos Islands the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney sank the German light cruiser SMS Emden The Emden had waged a successful war against British shipping in the Indian Ocean and her destruction removed a significant threat in the south west Pacific.
During the First World War over 421,809 Australians served in the military with 331,781 serving overseas. Over 60,000 Australians lost their lives and 137,000 were wounded. As a percentage of forces committed, this equalled a casualty rate of almost 65 percent, one of the highest casualty rates amongst the British Empire forces.