It would take volumes to write a comprehensive history of the war on the Western Front, something that is clearly beyond the scope of this blog. However, family members of the Sydney University Graduate choir served across all main offensives, right through to 1918. Their stories provide us with a glimpse of what it may have been like as we try to imagine life on the frontlines of the Great War.
We steamed into Marseilles last Tuesday [date erased] and after disembarking marched to the railway station where we were soon aboard a train and off, having a splendid journey through France…We were delighted with the scenery, the beauty of which it would be difficult to surpass, with its beautiful green fields, orchards and many vineyards…The women are the principle workers in the fields, all the eligible men being away at the way. In some cases old men and boys may be seen working in the fields, but even they are in the minority.
The cordiality between the French and ourselves was very much in evidence. The women living near the line all have a cheery smile and a wave for us, but it was like a shadow on our sunshine when we noticed only too often how the women would start crying. But they soon dashed the tears away again. (Pte GE Weir, letter to his family on his arrival in France in May 1916, as published in the Kiama Independent and Shoalhaven Advertiser 22 July 1916)
From April 1916 they arrived from the training camp in Egypt, those veterans from Gallipoli and the reinforcements from Australia. It was now Australia’s turn to take their place on the Western Front, that long, blood-soaked line which stretched from the coast in Belgium to the Swiss Border.
For the next two and half years, they fought, pushing beyond endurance to gain a few miles, lose them, then push and push to gain them again.
It is almost impossible to find words to convey the horror, the destruction and the loss that the battles on this front of the war imposed. What must they have thought, especially the young, untried reinforcements who had enlisted on the strength of brave (and positively spun) tales from the Gallipoli campaign?
1916 – ‘An Abysm of Desolation’In France, the Australians were joining their British counterparts, who had been confronting trench warfare since late 1914: soldiers like Leslie Dixon, from the 16th Northumberland Fusiliers who had arrived in France in November 1915, going into the trenches in December. After four months the 16th were taken out for a respite, before moving up the line to a position near Thiepval at the end of June 1916.
When the British artillery fell silent at 7:30am the next morning, Leslie’s Company was the first company to go over the top in what is now known as the first day of the Somme, 1 July 1916. To north and south, along a 20,000 yard front 120,000 British soldiers attacked the German trenches. Losses were horrendous, on both sides.
Over the next two weeks the battalion attacked, was driven back, counter-attacked. By August the survivors were moved to the rear for rest and training. By November the German trenches at Thiepval were occupied, with the dead of 1 July still awaiting identification and burial.
Australians first taste of major action was in the carnage at Fromelles, between 16 and 20 July 1916, and this was closely followed by action at Pozières. (Film clips [here] show members of the 11th Battalion in preparation.)
The casualty rate was enormous –about 12,000 from both the First and Second Divisions AIF in just two weeks of fighting.
Constant bombardment by artillery ensured that what was once beautiful, fertile farming land became a moonscape terrain of desolation. CEW Bean having described the shattered and charred trees, the blasted fragments of buildings, the upheaval of the land ‘as with a giant plough’, went on to say:
But even this did not prepare one for the desolation of the place itself. Imagine a gigantic ash heap, a place where dust and rubbish have been cast for years outside some dry, derelict, God-forsaken up-country township. Imagine some broken-down creek bed in the driest of our dry central Australian district, abandoned for generations to the goats, in which the hens and the goats and all traces of any living or moving thing. You must not even leave a spider. Put here in evidence of some old tumbled roof, a few roof beams and tiles sticking edgeways from the ground, and the low faded ochre stumps of the windmill peeping over the top of the hill, and there you have Pozières. I know of nothing approaching that desolation… (CEW Bean, Letters from France, Chapter 16, p111)
George Weir was ‘in the thick of it’ at Pozières. He later wrote to his family:
I suppose you have heard that I have been admitted to hospital, but there is really very little the matter with me. I stopped a bit of shell with my jaw…don’t worry about me…
…The poor old 3rd Battalion has got a bad hiding. I knew such a lot of real good fellows who have gone under. It all happened within a few days, and most of the casualties were inflicted by the artillery of the enemy. To tell you the truth, I was glad to get out of it for a while. (Pte GE Weir, letter to his family, as published in the Kiama Independent and Shoalhaven Advertiser 22 September 1916)
It was not just the 3rd Battalion who suffered badly. George Chesney was wounded on 4 August 1916 as the 27th Battalion pushed towards Pozières Windmill. He was sent to England, just missing a visit from His Majesty the King, George V on 10 August.
Walter Eastment had arrived in France on August 1916, and was soon in the front lines around Pozières, including around Mouquet Farm, before being withdrawn to the Ypres sector (in Belgium).
Lisle Lane, now promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, also saw action during Somme Offensive, but was once again wounded as the 4th Battalion relieved the 51st Battalion at Mouquet Farm. Lisle’s injuries were very serious, enough to warrant him being evacuated to England, where he remained for some time.
Over the remainder of 1916 the weather deteriorated sharply, leading into the worst winter on record – a new enemy for the soldiers to confront. The ploughed up earth described by Bean quickly turned to mud, trenches filled with water, soldiers were unable to escape from the wet, the cold, the misery. Illness abounded, on top of everything else.
Young George Weir –who had initially written with such excitement to his family about the adventures he was having—returned to his battalion in September 1916. The 3rd Battalion continued to move in and out of the front line, and on 6 November 1916, during fighting in the vicinity of Flers —in freezing rain and gale force winds—George was killed in action. Such a long, long way from home, from the sea, from the heat of an Australian November, from the coral trees and jacaranda that would have been flowering around the farm.
1917 – Mud, mud, mud and blood
Frozen trenches, frozen armies, stalemate and misery. That’s how 1917 began.
In February, the Germans began withdrawing to the Hindenburg Line. In pursuit, Australians occupied Bapaume on 17 March—the objective originally set for the Somme offensive of 1916.
Following an extended convalescence in England, Lisle Lane, Gallipoli veteran and survivor of the Somme, returned to France in January 1917. He was killed in action on 2 March 1917 in the Le Barque area, near Warlencourt.
Walter Brewster had enlisted in March 1916, leaving Australia in October 1916. He was taken on strength with the 53rd Battalion, and moved to the region north east of Albert on the Somme in early February 1917. Engaged in pushing the front line further east, he was wounded in action on 29 March—just one year after he’d enlisted—in the vicinity of Baupaume/Peronne.
Conveyed to a Casualty Clearing Station, then to the 1st Australian General Hospital in Rouen, Walter was sent to England where he spent nearly 2 months in the 1st London General Hospital, Camberwell, before being repatriated to Australia.
The contributions made by the medical teams such as those that aided Walter—and, in particular, the women who selflessly went into danger to serve in advance field hospitals and clearing stations—is inestimable. One such was Sister Dorothy Cawood who had enlisted in November 1914 in the AIF and had embarked for Egypt in November that year. She served at the2nd Australian General Hospital at Mena and on hospital ships during the Gallipoli campaign, and then was transferred to France. On 22 July, 1917, while nursing at the 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station at Armentières in Flanders, Sister Cawood, together with two other Sisters and a Staff Nurse, evacuated patients from burning buildings while the station was being bombed. All four were awarded the Military Medal. Sister Cawood was also awarded the Royal Red Cross medal.
Also vitally important, the signallers—part of the Engineering brigades. Sapper Milne Barry Gow from Strathfield spent two years in France during some of the worst of the fighting, and helped to provide critical communications infrastructure.
Private William Wright had arrived in France in December 1916 as part of reinforcements for the 1st Battalion. He was wounded during the Battle of Bullecourt in May 1917, and then, more seriously, following action at Passchendaele Ridge, in October 1917. He remained in England until the end of December 1918, when he was repatriated to Australia. The effects of the gas, and of the bullet hole through his leg, stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Passchendaele—both an individual battle, and an overarching term for the Third Battle of Ypres—involved many Australians over the latter part of 1917. Like the Somme, the name has become synonymous with terrible conditions and inconceivable losses.
One of the phases of this operation was the battle of the Menin Road. Australians formed part of the attacking force here on 20 September 1917. One of their brothers-in-arms, Alexander McGregor from the 1st/7th Battalion of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was also there, and killed in action on that day.
A week later, the Australian Divisions attacked at Polygon Wood. ‘Wood’ was something of a misnomer –there were no trees left standing, all had been obliterated through constant shell-fire. The ground underfoot was a dreadful quagmire as a result of the constant heavy rain.
Alex Weir, originally from Clunes in NSW, and dreaming of his ‘sound future’ in Brisbane, had arrived in France on 14 April as part of the reinforcements to the 31st Battalion. Due to the catastrophic losses suffered by the battalion in the previous year, particularly at Fromelles, the 31st Battalion had seen little major action since then. The next major attack in which 31st Battalion played a significant role was at Polygon Wood. Alex was one of the 5770 Australian casualties here. Killed in action—‘blown to bits’, as his mother bitterly wrote to the War Office a few years later.
Harold Bartrop had enlisted in December 1915, and arrived in France in August 1916 as part of the 13th Field Company of Engineers attached to the 4th Division. He was awarded the Military Medal near Zonnebeeke (on the further side of Polygon Wood) on 26th September 1917 for:
…conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during the operations. This man formed one of a taping party and made several trips carrying Engineer stores over very bad ground and under heavy shell and machine gun fire with apparently an utter disregard for all dangers and thus setting a splendid example and enabling the track to be quickly laid. On completion of his work he assisted to carry out wounded from the front line when there was a scarcity of stretcher bearers, and finally when a stretcher was not available he carried out a wounded man on his back for a considerable distance to the advanced dressing station, although he was sniped intermittently on the way. (Military Medal citation)
The year ended as it began, in rain and mud and freezing conditions. The British, Australians and Canadians had advanced perhaps 3 miles, at a cost of 310,000 casualties.
1918 –…to the bitter end
The New Year brought new, young recruits.
William Rhoden joined the army at the age of 18 without his father’s agreement, serving with the Royal Army Service Corps as a driver for the majority of his (ultimately) seven years’ service. But the principle benefit, as he saw it, is that he could learn to ride, and spend time with horses.
James Macefield, also just 18, joined the Royal Navy in January 1918. He served as an Ordinary Seaman on the HMS Victory (Portsmouth Barracks) and HMS Princess Royal, being promoted to Able Seaman before discharged in 1919.
Early in 1917 Bede Avery had been transferred to the 14th Field Artillery Battery (53rd Battery), serving at Bullecourt, and the push towards the Hindenburg Line. Bede Avery was killed in action on 24 April during the battle to retake Villers-Bretonneux. Reports in the Red Cross file indicate that Bede was on duty on the wagon lines, and died whilst looking after one of the horses. He was ‘the best liked man in the Battery’.
William Bartrop, high school teacher from Bathurst and newly married, had enlisted in February 1917 and arrived in France in late 1917 as part of the First Field Artillery Brigade. He served in the Second Somme Offensive during August-September 1918– the counter attack to Germany’s Spring Offensive. Casualties on both sides had been enormous at this time, and had included Hans Schmidt from Mühlhausen, Thuringia, aged just 20. Hans’ older brother, August, had been killed the year before on the Eastern Front, a double blow for the family.
In early October 1918 William Bartrop was attached to the AIF Educational Scheme, which was part of Australia’s plan for occupying troops whilst they waited to return home, and also to equip them with skills to make the transition to a peace-time life.
Australian troops continued to see action until October (at Montbrehain), after which they were withdrawn from the front. On 11 November the Armistice was signed at Compiegne, bringing a cessation to hostilities.
George Weir – Rosalie (alto)
Leslie Dixon – David (bass)
George Chesney – Deb (alto)
Walter Eastment – Catherine (alto)
Lisle Lane – Andrew (tenor)
Walter Brewster – Annette (soprano)
Dorothy Cawood – Marilyn (soprano)
William Wright – Deb (alto)
Alexander McGregor – Janine (soprano)
James Alexander (Alex) Weir – Rosalie (alto)
Harold Bartrop – Roger (bass)
William Rhoden and James Macefield – Jo (soprano)
Bede Avery – Cath (alto)
William Bartrop – Roger (bass)
Hans and August Schmidt – Horst (bass)
Further reading: About the battles