Fighting for Mother England: The Australian Infantry in WW1

 
Australian soldiers searching German prisoners of war for "souvenirs" in October 1918. Australian soldiers generally treated captured Germans humanely, but routinely stole their belongings.
Australian soldiers searching German prisoners of war for "souvenirs" in October 1918. Australian soldiers generally treated captured Germans humanely, but routinely stole their belongings.
 
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The Australians were ordered to attack German trenches across an exposed strip of land in broad daylight.

When the United Kingdom declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914 (after Germany disrespected Belgium’s neutrality by marching troops through it to reach France), Australia immediately followed suit and also declared war.

Such was the enthusiasm to assist “Mother England” that thousands of Australian men rushed to enlist in the Australian Army. They were given the title of the First Australian Imperial Forces (1st AIF). At the time, only men were eligible for enlistment. It took a further 65 years before women were integrated into the armed services.

In the early stages of the war, Australian troops saw action against Turkish forces in the Dardanelles at the boundary between Europe and Asia. After withdrawing from this theater, Australia was to lose tens of thousands of troops in operations against German forces on the Western Front.

France, December 1916. Unidentified members of the Australian 5th Division, enjoying a “smoko” near Mametz, on the Somme. Some are wearing slouch hats, steel helmets, sheepskin jackets and woollen gloves, demonstrating both the variety of official battledress, and how it was modified and augmented, for local conditions.
France, December 1916. Unidentified members of the Australian 5th Division, enjoying a “smoko” near Mametz, on the Somme. Some are wearing slouch hats, steel helmets, sheepskin jackets and woollen gloves, demonstrating both the variety of official battledress, and how it was modified and augmented, for local conditions.

Australian troops arrived on the Western Front in March 1916 and were engaged in some of the most vicious fighting of the war, including hand-to-hand engagements.

The following accounts are the most notable battlefields where Australians fought and died on the Western Front. The names of the battles and notable individuals who fought in them are engraved in Australia’s military history.

Australian Infantry Forces (1st AIF) Western Front, 1916-1918
Australian Infantry Forces (1st AIF) Western Front, 1916-1918

This photo from the Western Front depicts the complete devastation caused by German artillery fire. It was not unusual for members of the 1st AIF to disappear during a German bombardment, likely due to being buried alive in the mud and swamp-like conditions.

Fromelles, France

This was the first significant battle the 1st AIF participated in on the Western Front. The Battle of Fromelles commenced on July 19, 1916, with the Australians fighting alongside British Forces. The Australians were ordered to attack German trenches across an exposed strip of land in broad daylight.

The result: 5,500 casualties, including almost 2,000 killed and just over 400 taken prisoner. These prisoners spent the remainder of the war in German POW camps.

Soldiers of the 53rd Battalion, Australian 5th Division, waiting to attack during the Battle of Fromelles, July 19, 1916. Only three of the men shown survived the attack and those three were wounded.
Soldiers of the 53rd Battalion, Australian 5th Division, waiting to attack during the Battle of Fromelles, July 19, 1916. Only three of the men shown survived the attack and those three were wounded.

Pozieres, The Somme, northern France

This offensive began in late July 1916 and was centered around the French town of Pozieres. Australian troops were initially instructed to assist British troops, but it was the Australians who attacked and secured the town in the final weeks of the battle.

However, this success came at an enormous cost, with 6,800 men killed in action or dying of their wounds. The battle lasted a little over seven weeks, and most Australian casualties were as a result of German artillery fire.  

Road to Pozières- In the distance the village of Contalmaison is under German shellfire.
Road to Pozières- In the distance the village of Contalmaison is under German shellfire.

Bullecourt, City in France

The attack by Australian troops under the command of a British General, Sir Hubert Gough, was carried out in two stages on April 11, 1917, and May 3, 1917.

However, Gough’s poor planning and aggressive manner resulted in the loss of over 10,000 Australian troops. His decision to send thousands of Australian troops against entrenched German forces behind barbed wire with only a dozen tanks to spearhead the attack resulted in excessive Australian losses.

Such great losses had the effect of lowering morale and breeding contempt for British generals in the main.

Hubert Gouch and King Albert I of Belgium 1918
Hubert Gouch and King Albert I of Belgium 1918

Messines, France

The offensive against the German Forces at Messines on June 7, 1917, was the first time since the Gallipoli campaign of 1915 that Australian and New Zealand forces (ANZACS) had participated in a military campaign. The forces were led by the legendary commander, Sir John Monash.

Prior to this offensive, British engineers had been digging a tunnel under the German camp in Messines and placing a huge amount of explosives in the tunnel. The detonation of this cache paved the way for the successful capture of Messines.

Australian military truck travelling to Hill 63 during an attack on the ANZAC batteries in Messines.
Australian military truck travelling to Hill 63 during an attack on the ANZAC batteries in Messines.

Although the death rate of Australian soldiers was not as high as in other similar battles, what made Messines significant was that, before the massive underground explosion, there was a relentless barrage of gas shells fired at Australian troops.

This resulted in up to 5,000 Australian soldiers suffering gas inhalation. Many of these victims went on to experience breathing difficulties for their shortened lives when they returned to Australia.

Portrait of Australian Victoria Cross recipient, Private John Carroll, 33rd Battalion AIF, taken 21 August 1918 in London. Carroll was awarded the VC for his actions during the Battle of Messines, June 1917.
Portrait of Australian Victoria Cross recipient, Private John Carroll, 33rd Battalion AIF, taken 21 August 1918 in London. Carroll was awarded the VC for his actions during the Battle of Messines, June 1917.

Passchendaele, France

This battle occurred at the end of July 1917. Although it is known as the battle at Passchendaele, the name only refers to a ridge of the same name. It was part of the larger battles in the Flanders offensive — specifically, Ypres.

Initially, continuing rain hampered the Australian’s attempt to drive the Germans back. However, once the ground dried out, the Australian were able to advance and drive the German troops up to Passchendaele Ridge. After that, those who were left surrendered to the Australian forces.

The battle casualties on both sides were horrific, with the Australian forces suffering over 38,000 casualties. Major Frederick Tubb, an Australian Victoria Cross (VC) recipient from a previous battle, was unfortunately killed at the battle of Passchendaele.

 

Villers-Bretonneux, France

On April 4, 1918, the Australians were ordered to assist British troops who were attacking German Forces occupying the French town of Villers-Bretonneux.

Such was their determination that the German troops were forced to abandon their positions in the town and retreat two kilometers (just over one mile) back to a trench line — but not before over 900 German troops were taken prisoner.

The ruined church of Villers-Bretonneux after the second battle that took place in the village, in WWI.24 april 1918
The ruined church of Villers-Bretonneux after the second battle that took place in the village, in WWI.24 april 1918

However, the town of Villers-Bretonneux was completely destroyed. The Australian forces suffered over 1,000 casualties in total. This was the last major offensive Australian troops participated in Europe in WWI.         

Read another story from us: ANZAC “History War” Debates Australia’s Role

In conclusion, the statistics give some indication of what Australia suffered during World War I in the European theatre of war. Some 53,800 men were killed, and over 130,000 men were either wounded (including gassings) or taken prisoner. To put these figures in context, the population in Australia at the time was just under five million people.

 
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