100 Years

1918 - 2018

Marking the end of World War I

Few escaped the destruction of the Great War

What began as the Great Adventure maimed and destroyed a generation as Martin Curtis writes in an overview.

ON Monday November 11, 1918, after 1559 days of fighting, Germany capitulated and signed an armistice that would bring the calamity of World War I to an end.

The end of what became known as the Great War was greeted with jubilation. But Australia had paid a staggering price. From a population of just under five million, more than 416,000 men had enlisted. More than 60,000 Australians had been killed and 156,000 wounded or taken prisoner.

To put it another way, for every five that had gone away only four would return. Three of the original five would return sick, wounded or injured.

Long after their return many continued to deal with physical and psychological injuries and many women had to assume the financial burden of caring for families without an income-earning husband.

The “war to end all wars” changed Australia irrevocably.
Many believe Australia came of age during World War I. Its fighting men certainly earned a reputation for courage and bravery. And Australian military commanders like John Monash showed a compassion and interest in the welfare of the men under them that was lacking in many British officers.

But the legacy of broken bodies, broken hearts, widowed women, grieving mothers and fathers, and fatherless children hit Australia hard. A generation paid a high price for assisting Britain and its Allies defeat the German military machine.

 

WHEN the First World War began on August 4, 1914, Australian men and boys volunteered to join the fight – out of a sense of duty, and a chance to experience the world beyond our shores.
Australia might have been tucked away at the bottom of the world, but as a British dominion it pledged full and immediate support, just as Britain had done for its ally Belgium after it was invaded by Germany.

Age-old grievances, territorial disputes and petty jealousies over colonial empires had been held in check by a complex set of European treaties and alliances. The spark that lit the fuse was the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne by a Serbian nationalist. The declaration of war by Austria-Hungary on Serbia in retaliation for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife brought the major powers into the dispute. Russia pledged support for Serbia, Germany for Austria-Hungary and later Turkey and Bulgaria sided with Germany.

Britain declared war on August 4, 1914, after German troops invaded Belgium on their way to the prizes of Paris and the English Channel.

 

Anzac Head Quarters Gully, Gallipoli, 1915Anzac Head Quarters Gully, Gallipoli, 1915State Library VictoriaBY 9am on August 5, men were already lining up at recruitment centres around Australia, offering themselves for God, King and Country. Around the enlistment depots and drill halls crowds gathered to cheer the men who answered the call.

Men like 26-year-old Edwin Bennett Spargo of East Malvern who enlisted eleven days after the declaration of war and became part of the 6th Battalion, one of the Victorian units that fought its way to the front line at Gallipoli on the first day, Sunday April 25, 1915.

Before he was killed in a dash at one of the well-defended Turkish positions on August 7, – over a cricket-pitch sized No Man’s Land – Lieutenant Spargo wrote to a friend in East Brighton likening the cliffs at Gallipoli to the cliffs at Red Bluff near Half Moon Bay. He wrote “these sandy bluffs are exceedingly difficult to climb and should be easily defended. In fact it looked the worst part of the coast to attack … We had to land in water up to our waists, but the sea being as smooth as glass this was no inconvenience … We were climbing up hill, into valleys, up again, through tangled undergrowth and low scrub, almost too steep in places to climb, and where we could (climb) only in single file.”

He described his company’s approach to the front line at Plateau 400: “What does it feel like? Imagine what a beehive sounds like when it is disturbed – buzz, buzz and zip, zip and ping, ping. But it is marvellous how used one gets to fire. We soon learn that the bullet we hear does not matter, as it has passed.”

Spargo was hit in the chest by a bullet on the first day of fighting, but was back on the front line for the August offensive.

Spargo was single, a clerk, and his educational qualifications were given as “junior public: University of Melbourne.” He had served three years in the City of Melbourne Infantry militia and was made Lieutenant on the basis of his militia experience.

A court of inquiry found Lieutenant Spargo was killed in action in the assault on German Officers’ Trench on August 7, but his body was never recovered. According to one report in his file he may have been taken prisoner. He does not have a grave in any of the war cemeteries at Gallipoli.

 

AS Christmas 1915 approached the Australian troops had left Gallipoli but the war was far from over, as the optimists predicted. Instead the war mired in the knee-deep mud of the Western Front and the casualties mounted for little gain.

By the second anniversary of the war’s start the home-front mood was sombre with any thought of an easy victory long faded. Australia’s forces, still new to the Western Front, had already been decimated in two bloody battles – at Fromelles in northern France and at Pozieres in the Somme Valley to the south.

Fromelles remains the most expensive battle in Australian war history in terms of lives lost in a 24-hour period. Almost 2000 died and more than 3500 were wounded.

At Pozieres, where fighting raged back and forth, there would be a massive 23,000 Australian casualties, including 6800 dead, in a series of attacks under almost constant bombardment.

As the third anniversary of the war’s start arrived, British and dominion troops were embarking on the eight weeks of the Third Battle of Ypres, a strategic Belgium town that had already been fought over in 1914 and 1915.

The ambitious British plan was to split the German line and drive the enemy back to the North Sea – but the offensive literally bogged down in mud and blood as a series of battles – Menin Road, Glencorse Wood, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde Ridge and, finally, Passchendaele – brought huge losses for little reward.

By April 1918, as the third anniversary of the Gallipoli landing was dawning at home, Australia’s soldiers on the Western Front were involved in what would be one of their greatest triumphs. In March the Germans had unleashed a series of massive attacks across Europe as the war’s fate hung in the balance.

From early April, Australian troops had been involved in what became an on-going battle for the French town of Villers-Bretonneux, which stood in the way of the Germans taking the city of Amiens, a strategic prize.

At Dernancourt, a sector of Villers-Bretonneux, the Australians held the line until they were relieved by British troops. But the Germans regrouped and in the ensuing battle, involving tanks on both sides, they took the town.

Immediately, Australian and British troops launched a surprise counter attack, the Australians closing under darkness to drive the enemy from the town and nearby woods. All up, they lost 1200 men but the enemy advance was halted.

French children tending graves of Australians killed in battle on the Western FrontFrench children tending graves of Australians killed in battle on the Western FrontAustralian War Memorial: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/E05925Ever since, Australia and its soldiers have held a special place in the hearts of Villers-Bretonneux’s citizens. After the war, donations raised by Victorian children helped rebuild the town’s school, called Victoria school, where an inscription reads in part: “May the memory of great sacrifice in a common cause keep France and Australia forever in bonds of friendship and mutual esteem.”

By Sunday August 4 1918, the fourth anniversary of the war’s commencement, Australian troops were part of an Allied push that increasingly had the Germans under pressure after two high-risk attempts to advance on Paris had failed. In July the Australians, under the command of their own Lieutenant-General John Monash, took the northern French town of Hamel using an innovative combination of infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft that undoubtedly saved a considerable number of infantrymen’s lives.

In August, supported by newly arrived American troops, they took the high ground of Mont Saint-Quentin, overlooking the Somme River, and the nearby town of Peronne in a campaign that saw hand-to-hand combat.

In September they would breach the Hindenburg Line, Germany’s key fall back position behind its increasingly fragile frontline. The end of the war was near.

 

Green Point, Brighton War MemorialGreen Point, Brighton War MemorialPhoto by Graeme StoreyMOST Australian towns and suburbs have a memorial to the soldiers who served in the Great War. Many list members of the same family – brothers, cousins and uncles – who did not return. It’s said that in some country towns there weren’t enough young men to field a football team for several years after 1918.

In the Bayside area, there are Avenues of Honour in Sandringham, Hampton, Black Rock and Brighton while the Green Point Memorial at Brighton Beach honours soldiers with connections to the local area. Researchers list 93 men from the district who died at Gallipoli alone.

Like other housing subdivisions in the 1920s, streets in the Castlefield housing estate off South Rd in Hampton were named after WWI battlefields. The streets were named after the battles at Passchendaele, Amiens, Rouen, Lagnicourt, Avelin, Villeroy and Hamel. Imbros St was named after the Greek island where Australian and British wounded were taken off Gallipoli.

Important and enduring as these monuments are, it’s been the words of poets like A.D. Hope, Wilfred Owen and John McCrae who have seen through the fog of war. No triumphalism or myth-making here. Just the shocking reality of young men’s bodies torn apart by bullets and shells.

During the early days of the Second Battle of Ypres (1915) a young Canadian artillery officer, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed by a German shell. He was serving in the same Canadian artillery unit as the Canadian military doctor and artillery commander Major John McCrae. As the brigade doctor, John McCrae was asked to conduct the burial service for Lieutenant Helmer. Later that evening McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Sources

As Rough as Bags: the History of the 6th Battalion: Ron Austin 2005
The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18: Charles Bean 1941
The Great War: Les Carlyon 2006
The Wounded Warrior and Rehabilitation (including the history of No 11 Army General Hospital Caulfield): Bruce Ford 1996
The Fallen Diggers from Bayside, Victoria: Sandringham and District Historical Society 2015
Australian Associated Press War Stories Project 2016
The Australian War Memorial Canberra

Martin Curtis, 2018

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