First World War Centenary: A Time Line
by Dr John Weste, Director, South Australian Parliament Research Library
Over the course of 1916, the focus of Australian military activity shifted from the Middle East to Western Europe where the principal Australian presence would lie in France and Flanders. Following the withdrawal from Gallipoli, Australian infantry initially returned to their bases in Egypt where their numbers were augmented with reinforcements from Australia. A further division raised in Australia was sent directly to Britain. The first Australian divisions from Egypt arrived in France in March 1916 and over the next few months, Australia committed four divisions (the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th) to the Western Front. These divisions were soon involved in heavy fighting and the casualty rates were telling.
On 1 July, the British and French launched an offensive at the Somme and as part of which, the Australian 5th Division and the British 61st attacked Fromelles Ridge on 19 July: no ground was taken for the cost of 5,000 Australian casualties. Several days later on 23 July, the 1st Australian Division launched an attack to capture the village of Pozieres. Pozieres was taken and held despite German counter-attacks, but again at the cost of 5,000 men over five days. The 2nd Division replaced the 1st and suffered even greater casualties: almost 7,000 men over 12 days. The 4th Division was next engaged and pressed its attack upon Mouquet Farm to further heave losses. In total, three Australian divisions fought at Pozieres where each saw two tours of duty: over a period of 42 days they launched a total of 19 attacks (16 at night) at the cost of 23,000 casualties, including 6,800 deaths. Five Victoria Crosses were won. It was not until early September that the Australian divisions were withdrawn from the front to Flanders to recover and rebuild. The 3rd Division, which had been training in Britain, reached France in December 1916 and so did not engage in large-scale battles until 1917 (Messines and the third battle of Ypres) (2).
This year marked the first of two conscription referenda that would be put to the Australian people (the second in 1917). As the number of casualties described above would suggest, voluntary recruitment could not meet the envisaged development and projection of Australian military forces. Moreover, as the casualty lists grew so, conversely, did those of volunteers shrink: loyalty to King, Nation and Empire was by no means unconditional. Opposition to conscription did not necessarily reflect an anti-war perspective and economic concerns, such as the fear that compulsory military service would tell heavily upon the rural labour force, can also be cited.
Both referenda emphasised the underlying divisions in Australian society, namely in terms of class, religion and nation of origin. The first referendum was held in October 1916 and the proposal for conscription was narrowly voted down. Both referenda were extremely divisive, politically and socially, in Australia. The Australian Labor Party was opposed to conscription. After the first referendum’s defeat, the Labor prime minister, Billy Hughes, crossing the floor with approximately half of the parliamentary party, created the National Labor Party and retained his position as prime minister by relying upon Commonwealth Liberal Party support. Hughes and his followers were expelled from the Labor Party and the split was the source of much long-term bitterness.
The question of South Australia’s German heritage continued to exercise the State’s parliament. The Education Act, for example, was amended to ensure that all teaching in primary schools be conducted in English. The affect upon German speakers was clear, particularly as the German language was an important tool in teaching articles of the Lutheran faith. Indeed, at least one House of Assembly Member described the measure as a religious attack aimed at a specific segment, namely German-Australians, of the community.
Europe’s Western Front was marked by some major battles, which remain well known to this day: Verdun and the Battle of the Somme. Two powers entered the War on the side of the Allies. Italy declared war on Germany in August as did Romania. Within months, however, German forces had conquered Romania and occupied Bucharest. Kaiser Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, died in November and was succeeded by his grand-nephew, Archduke Karl, who would prove to be the last Hapsburg to sit on the imperial throne of Austria.
While Australia’s major military commitment centred on Western Europe, British and Dominion forces also remained active in the Sinai Peninsula. Ottoman forces launched an initial attack on the Suez Canal in February 1915. However, it was the end of the Gallipoli campaign in December that year which freed Turkish forces for renewed assaults on the Canal, commencing in April 1916 and again several months later over July-August. This culminated in the Battle of Romani. Desert warfare posed extreme logistical difficulties where mobile forces came to the fore and the mounted rifles of the Dominions played important roles. In terms of military forces at least partially raised in South Australia, the 3rd Light Horse Regiment, the 9th Light Horse Regiment and the 11th Light Horse Regiment can be named. By December 1916, British and Dominion forces had reached the Palestine frontier.
2 Peter Burness, ‘1916: Australians in France’, Australian War Memorial; https://www.awm.gov.au/ww1/1916/essay/