Battlefield History Tours

Battlefield History Tours
Incorporating History and Heritage tours

 Sadly all our 2020 tours have been cancelled due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. The tours will run in 2021. ... 

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About the Western Front

 About the Western Front  

CHARLES Edwin Woodrow Bean, the journalist who wrote the 12-volume official history of Australians in World War I, defined the term Anzac thus: "Anzac stands for reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship and endurance that will never own defeat."

This is a definition that resonates strongly with succeeding generations. But the truth is that 90 years ago, as World War I raged in Europe, defeat is all we knew.

The road to success on the Western Front of France and Belgium was long, hard and stained with senselessly spilled blood. From Gallipoli to Pozieres, our young volunteer soldiers were sacrificed in a slaughter that cost millions of lives.

Today, a combination of good manners, family ties and time have largely obscured the main causes of the carnage: the tragic incompetence of Britain's military leadership. Because of the blundering of Britain's most senior generals, led by field marshal Douglas Haig, tens of thousands of Australians were needlessly sent to their deaths.

No action highlights the folly and bungling of the British leadership more than the battle of Fromelles in northern France in July of 1916. This was the first significant action in Europe for the young Australians sent to answer Britain's call for help to repulse Germany.

After days of indecision and confusion among the British commanders, our troops were ordered into an utterly unnecessary battle. On a single night, 2000 Australians were killed and more than 3500 injured.

The carnage didn't stop there. In the following six weeks Australia suffered 23,000 casualties. No amount of courage, tenacity, fighting skill or sacrifice could mask the fact that a succession of battles involving Australia from 1915 until 1918 ended in failure.

After their withdrawal from Gallipoli in December 1915, Australian troops were sent to France. They were assigned to a so-called nursery area in Flanders, where fighting was subdued. Haig was concerned the Germans might move troops from the Flanders front to reinforce their forces farther south in the area of the Somme River. He wanted to keep the Germans in place. All he needed was to show his forces and keep the Germans guessing about his intention. They would not have moved men south if they feared an attack.

For days generals bickered about the best plan. Some were in favour of a feint attack; others wanted a pure artillery barrage; infantry operations were proposed, planned, cancelled, reinstated and finally ordered.

The attack plans were drawn up by lieutenant-general Richard Haking, described by lieutenant-colonel Phillip Game - later to become famous as the NSW governor who sacked premier Jack Lang - as "a really impossible, untruthful bully; not to be trusted". He added "vindictive" for good measure.

After two days of indecision the Australians, with the British alongside, were ordered to leave their trenches and perform a full frontal attack on the well-fortified German positions. It was a rout. The 60th Battalion from Victoria went into the battle with 887 men and came out with one officer and 106 men. The 32nd Battalion from Western Australia had 17 officers and 701 men hit.

Australian brigadier-general Harold "Pompey" Elliott wrote a scathing indictment of the Fromelles attack and of the nonexistent battle plan: "The whole operation was so incredibly blundered from beginning to end that it is almost incomprehensible how the British staff who were responsible for it could have consisted of trained professional soldiers," he wrote, before asking "why, in view of the outcome of this extraordinary adventure, any of them were retained in active command".

But Haig survived. A cold, aloof man, he remained in his chateau headquarters behind the lines and ordered more men into the mincing machine that was the Western Front.

Conditions were appalling. Constant shelling had smashed the delicate drainage system on the flat farmland that became the battlefield and water was dammed by each shell crater. Glutinous mud, waist-deep in places, made movement difficult. Men had to pick their way between shell holes on wooden footways known as duckboards and as many slipped off - or were blown off - they sank and were suffocated. Those still on the duckboards were mown down by machinegun fire. More and more bodies were left to rot in the ooze.

After Fromelles, Australians went into battle at Pozieres and suffered 23,000 casualties in six weeks. After a winter lull, hostilities resumed in 1917 with Australians in action at Bullecourt, Messines, Ypres, Polygon Wood and Passchendaele. While few of the actions could be described as successful, and Australian casualties continued to be high, there were some promising signs. Small gains were being made.

Bullecourt was secured after two fierce battles, at a cost of 7400 casualties; the Australian attack at Messines was considered the finest of the war to date; the objective was reached in the battle for Menin Road outside Ypres, and while the Australians had to withdraw from Passchendaele, Canadian troops managed to secure it two weeks later at a cost of 15,000 casualties.

Between August and mid-November in 1917 the British and dominion armies suffered 448,614 casualties. Haig had captured a mere 130sqkm of enemy territory.

In the spring of 1918, Germany launched a new offensive, a do-or-die push to capture Paris. Its troops got as far as Villers-Bretonneux, near the strategic city of Amiens.

The job of retaking Villers-Bretonneux fell to two Australian generals, Elliott and Thomas Glasgow. Elliott proposed an audacious night attack; Glasgow put forward some critical modifications. After a night of fierce battle on April 24-25, 1918, the town was recaptured in an action described as "one of the greatest feats of the war".

By this time Haig had ceded overall control as commander of military activities to French general Ferdinand Foch, and after Villers-Bretonneux Australian lieutenant-general John Monash was made commander of the Australian Corps, the first time an Australian had been in charge of Australian troops.

The Australians excelled at open warfare. They devised ways to silently patrol no-man's land and skirt heavily trenched areas, and they planned integrated assaults using artillery, infantry, air power and armour. The first tank battles in history were staged in this period.

The military genius of Monash was demonstrated in the battle for Le Hamel on July 4, 1918. He declared his integrated assault should last 90 minutes. It lasted 93 before Australian troops, assisted by some US platoons, took the town in textbook style.

Monash's assault became the template for further actions as the Allies wore down Germany. Its effectiveness was not lost on the Germans, either.

Two decades later, in World War II, they used the same concept, calling it blitzkrieg.

Just before the end of the war, Haig met a party of Australian newspaper proprietors. Instead of praising the soldiers for their feats, he complained bitterly about their lack of discipline and their larrikin refusal to salute properly. He proposed Australia should follow Britain's lead and introduce the death penalty to deal with such insubordination.

Australia unquestionably punched above its weight on the Western Front. Our 330,000 troops represented 10 per cent of the Allied total, yet they accounted for 20 per cent of all ground won, 20 per cent of all prisoners taken and 20 per cent of all artillery captured.

Among the ranks, criticism of British generals was rife, but in Bean's official histories it is muted. There are several reasons for this: Bean's accounts were painstakingly written a decade after the event and his chapters were submitted to his British counterparts for checking and cross-checking. This process was bound to blunt criticisms.

Nor was there much heart in Australia for laying blame. Australians were war-weary; almost every family in the land had been touched by tragedy, and most reasoned that comparisons were odious, given that Britain had lost a million men. Family relationships with Britain were strong and Australia was still economically dependent on the mother country. Few could see benefit in reliving the horror of the Western Front, so the subject of Haig's incompetence was quietly dropped.

He even had supporters who pointed to his unwavering nerve and the ultimate outcome of the conflict. There may have been many defeats, but the war was won.

 The Victoria Cross for Australians on the Western Front go to top of page

AS shells exploded around him and flares pierced the night sky, Lieutenant Cliff Sadlier and his platoon found themselves pinned down by the murderous machinegun fire of tracer bullets coming from a wooded area to the left. Sadlier's path to his objective was blocked. The words of his commanding officer rang in his ears: "Nothing will stop you getting to your goal. Kill every bloody German you see. We don't want any prisoners, and God bless you." Sadlier's second-in-command, Sergeant Charlie Stokes, crept up to Sadlier on his stomach. "What are we going to do?" he asked. "Carry out the order. Go straight to the objective," Sadlier said.

"We can't do it," Stokes replied. "You'll all be killed."

"Well, what can we do?"

"Collect your bombers and go into the wood and bomb those guns out," Stokes said.

And so they did. In what official World War I historian C.W. Bean described as "an extraordinarily bold move", Sadlier ordered his men to rush the woods, which hid crack Prussian troops manning six machinegun emplacements.

"The Germans were not expecting it," Bean wrote. "Before they recovered from their surprise the Australians were in among the trees, fighting wildly in the dark, advancing around bushes and trees, stumbling on unsuspected posts. Sadlier and Stokes, who had secured a bag of bombs grenades, were leaders. To suppress the first German machinegun they fired rifle grenades over the trees and when the gun stopped firing they rushed it."

Two machinegun posts were taken out before Sadlier was shot in the thigh. He later recalled: "Felt a burning pain in the leg, a machinegun bullet point-blank through it.

"It didn't seem to give much trouble, so I kept going, hurling grenades and firing my pistol. I concentrated on one machinegun that seemed to be doing a lot of damage."

As recorded in the official citation that came with his Victoria Cross, "By this time Lieut. Sadlier's party were all casualties, and he alone attacked a third enemy machinegun with his revolver, killing a crew of four and taking the gun. In doing so he was again wounded and unable to go on."

Stokes took over, soon running out of bombs. He grabbed some German stick bombs from one overwhelmed post and hurled them at the enemy to blow away another machinegun crew, then another, and another.

In all, six machinegun nests were taken out and the attack plan, aimed at wresting back the village of Villers-Bretonneux from the Germans, was able to proceed.

Sadlier, a travelling salesman, and Stokes, a former Cobb and Co coach driver, both from Subiaco, Western Australia, were recommended for the Victoria Cross, but only Sadlier won it. Stokes had to make do with a distinguished conduct medal.

Stories of extraordinary bravery such as this fill the pages of history of World War I, when 180,000 Australian troops served on the Western Front, from Belgium through northern France. Fifty-two thousand of them died, far from home, but 11,000 were never accounted for and lie where they fell in the fields.

Today, they are largely forgotten.

A the Anzac legend resonates strongly with new generations of younger Australians, the heroics of our men in France have played second fiddle to the soldiers who went ashore at Gallipoli in 1915. In remembering Gallipoli, we have forgotten the Western Front. It is as if the glorious failure in the Dardanelles has blinkered us to the extraordinary successes of the Australians in France.

Yet the accounts of their actions paint a compelling portrait of young Australians as we imagine ourselves today: laconic, no-nonsense folk imbued with common sense and an attitude that there's a job to be done, so let's get on with it. They exhibited a Jack's-as-good-as-his-master kind of insouciance that cocked a snook at authority with the confidence that comes from knowing they should be judged by what they did, not how sharply they saluted. They were proud to be seen as rough but effective. T

Typical of the Australians' laid-back approach is this account given by medical officer Captain P.B. Sewell, of Malvern in Melbourne: "A Tommy (British) corporal came stumbling in, weeping like a kid and holding his arm. 'Pain bad?' says I. 'No, sir,' he squeaked, 'this is nothing, but I can't get the boys to go forward.' He had evidently been trying to rally a very young platoon with a bullet in his arm. A wounded Digger soothed him. 'Never mind, kid,' he said. 'The boys will hunt Fritz without yous kids.'"

The battle of Villers-Bretonneux on April 25, 1918 - Australia's other Anzac Day - was a turning point in the war. Four years of horrible, muddy, gas-filled trench warfare had yielded a stalemate. Early in 1918, the Germans went on an offensive, pushing to within 100km of Paris. They took Villers-Bretonneux, a strategic rail town on the way to Amiens. If the Germans could capture Amiens, Paris was in mortal danger. Villers-Bretonneux had to be retaken. After three days of battle, it was, at a cost of 2473 Australians dead, along with 9529 British and 10,400 Germans.

Australians excelled in open war and surprise attacks. In the months that followed they routed the Germans time and again, until the Armistice was forced on November 11, 1918.

Fifty-six VCs for valour were won by Australians on the Western Front between 1916 and 1918. Les Carlyon, in his recent book The Great War, records some of them:

* Lieutenant Lawrence McCarthy, a farmer from WA, worked his way down an old trench network and, often alone, stormed enemy positions armed with a revolver and grenades. He captured five machineguns and 50 prisoners, and single-handedly took 500m of German front line, a feat labelled by Bean as "perhaps the most effective feat of individual fighting in the history of the AIF".

* Private Harry Dalziel, a railway fireman from north Queensland, rushed a machinegun post alone with a revolver, shooting two Germans. Part of Dalziel's trigger finger was blown away and, bleeding badly, he was sent to the rear. He twice disobeyed orders and returned to the fight, only to be shot in the head, a terrible wound that smashed his skull and exposed his brain. But he lived to receive his VC.

* Corporal Phillip Davey, a 21-year-old horse driver from South Australia, came under fire from a machinegun and his platoon commander was killed. Davey twice went out alone with bombs, wiped out the gun crew, then turned the machinegun on the Germans. He was wounded in the back, legs and abdomen.

* Lieutenant Alfred Gaby, a farmer from Tasmania, single-handedly attacked machinegun posts armed with only a revolver. He came back with 50 prisoners, but he never knew he had been awarded the VC. Three days after his conspicuous bravery, he was killed by a sniper.

Not all encounters led to VCs but were nevertheless marked by ferocious savagery. As British and Australian troops encircled Villers-Bretonneux, cutting off the Germans, Captain E.M. Young, of St Kilda, Melbourne, spotted an enemy group and, "in a calm, easy voice", gave the order to charge.

Sergeant R.A. Fynch of Fitzroy, Melbourne, who was later killed, wrote in his account of the action: "With a ferocious roar and the cry of 'Into the bastards, boys,' we were down on them before the Boche realised what had happened. The Boche screamed for mercy but there were too many machineguns around to show them any consideration. With a cheer that would have turned a tribe of Red Indians green with envy, we 'hopped the bags' (slang for jumping over a parapet) and the night was turned into day by flares and a terrific machinegun barrage, but in very few instances did the enemy put up a fight and he was quickly dealt with. Every man was in his glee and old scores were wiped out two or three times over."

Today, in the verdant valley of the Somme, there are few signs of the fighting 90 years ago. But the cemeteries are there, lines of white sandstone headstones rising amid blooming roses and freshly mown lawns, mute testimony to the carnage of the war to end all wars. It is a powerful and haunting experience for an Australian to walk among these graves, one that has moved many grown men - military men at that - to break down into racking sobs. These heroes must not be forgotten.

Colonel Graham Fleeton 2007

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