Australia on the Western Front, 1916-1918
ANZAC DAY | Wednesday 19 July, 1916. It was a warm, bright early evening in northern France, on the Armentières Sector of the Western Front. Australian troops were readying themselves in earnest.
By Steve Garnett
Wednesday 19 July, 1916. It was a warm, bright early evening in northern France, on the Armentières Sector of the Western Front. Australian troops were readying themselves in earnest. The Battle of the Somme, nineteen days old, was raging to the south. Just weeks before, on Saturday 1 July, Britain had suffered its worst casualty figures in a single day: 57,470. 19,240 of those soldiers were dead.
Despite the heavy toll, the day had seen some successes, ensuring that the battle continued. However the village of Pozières, one of the bastions of the German defences on the Somme, remained in German hands. And so it came down to a group of ‘colonials’, the 1st Australian Division, to capture the village and the ridge it sat on. Half of the Division’s men were Gallipoli veterans, hardened to warfare but not to the Western Front. Their time would come. And very soon.
Meanwhile, the 5th Australian Division, who had formed in Egypt earlier that year, were preparing as well. Half, like the 1st Australian Division, were veterans of Gallipoli; the others having joined up in late 1915, motivated by the exploits of the ANZACs in Turkey. The Division of 12,000 infantrymen had arrived in France in late June. In early July, they had received training in Gas Warfare. The sector they had arrived on was known as the ‘nursery’ sector; a safe sector where troops could learn the art of fighting on the Western Front. Under German observation on the Aubers Ridge, they would soon learn to survive shells, machine-guns and snipers.
In May 1915, the British had disastrously attacked the Aubers Ridge. Over a year later, the same commander, Sir Richard Haking, took charge of an offensive upon the slopes below the ridge, north of the French villages of Fromelles and Aubers. In the days following the opening exchanges of the Somme, Haking had been ordered to keep German units from reinforcing their comrades, by ‘pinning’ them to their positions. The 5th Australian Division had been in Europe three weeks and only half the Division had ever briefly experienced the front-line. For the Germans, the 6th Bavarian Division, including Adolf Hitler, had sat on the Aubers Ridge since late 1914. They had had eighteen months to create defences: strong breastworks, barbed wire and artillery cover. They were prepared. They were waiting.
The 5th Australian Division attacked Fromelles at 6pm on that bright evening of 19 July 1916. They lost 5,533 men. It remains the bloodiest day in Australia’s history. Four days later, the 1st Australian Division entered the Somme Battle and went on to capture the village of Pozières further down the line. During the next six weeks, 23 July – 5 September, Australian troops would suffer 23,000 casualties on the Pozières Ridge.
At Bullecourt, Messines and Passchendaele in 1917 and at Villers-Bretonneux and Hamel in 1918, the Australians would engage and win significant victories against the enemy. By the Armistice, of a country with a population of under five million, 416,809 men had enlisted, 156,000 had become casualties and 61,520 were dead; 46,000 of these on the Western Front.
These 46,000 lie within a morning’s travel from London. Long may we remember them and ‘lest we forget’.
Steve Garnett runs Battlefront Explorations, which delivers guided tours of ‘Australia on the Western Front, 1916-1918’. For more info, visit Battlefrontexploration.co.uk