The Great War 1-7 February, 1918
At the beginning of February 1918 allied forces on the Western Front continued their winter defensive preparations for an anticipated German offensive being planned by Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff that came to be known as Ludendorff’s Spring Offensive. The German forces were bolstered by the withdrawal of troops from the Eastern Front following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the subsequent signing of the Russo-German ceasefire in December 1917.
On the other side of the ledger the continued arrival of three million Americans brought not only a renewed sense of optimism but also a welcome increase in armament supplies.
In February 1918 it was approaching three years since the landings on Gallipoli. British commander of the Australian Imperial Force for most of the war, Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood was continuing to receive news about the famously resistant to authority Australian troops well known for taking ‘French Leave’ (going on leave without permission).
Field Marshal Douglas Haig estimated that nine in every 1,000 Australian troops were languishing in military prisons in early 1918 compared to less than 2 per 1,000 Canadians, New Zealanders or South Africans. Birdwood was wise enough to conclude that applying the death penalty for absenteeism to Australian troops would be unfair on men who had volunteered to fight and counter-productive to morale. The Australian Imperial Force instead relied on the leadership and example of its officers and the use of other penalties, such as the publication of lists of offenders in Australian newspapers.
This was not the case in the British Army where over 300 soldiers were executed for desertion during the Great War, including boys who were officially still too young to serve at the time of their execution. This disregard for the psychological state of soldiers under extreme stress, then known as shell shock, after witnessing the horrors of World War One battlefields is controversial to this day. The New Zealand government enacted a pardon to five executed soldiers in 2000; the Canadian government offered an “expression of regret” for 23 executed soldiers in December 2001; and a conditional pardon to British soldiers was granted by the British Government in August 2006. In France, the 49soldiers executed in connection with the 1917 mutinies received an informal pardon in 1998. No American or Australian soldiers were executed during World War One. With the benefit of hindsight it is hard to imagine a mindset that saw benefit in asking soldiers to execute their comrades who may have been suffering from what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress.
Between 2 February and 7 February, 1918, 3 South Australians died from fighting and wounds sustained in earlier battles. Private Peter Watson Christian of Carey’s Gully, Service Number 2650, 50th Infantry Battalion, died 2 February 1918, Private George Henry Morris of Second Valley, Service Number 4326, 32nd Infantry Battalion, died 6 February 1918 and Lance Corporal Charles Henry Godlee of Keith, Service Number 1075, 43rd Infantry Battalion, died 7 February 1918.
In early February 1918, The Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, British General Edmund Allenby, was making final plans for his next objective – to occupy the western side of the Jordan Valley from the Dead Sea to Wadi el Auja following the key successes of late 1917 at Beersheba and the capture and defence of Jerusalem. The advance to Jericho was imminent.
Official historian, Henry Gullett made the following observation of the Australian Lighthorsemen:
Three years of camp and battle had served to emphasise the strength and distinctiveness of their Australian quality…they were in appearance and bearing more like young Australian countrymen of the days before the war than they were when first they landed in Egypt…during the campaign they had with their strong will re-cast the rigid rules of the British Regular Army in a peculiarly Australian mould…clinging doggedly to old hats and old clothes, their leggings and boots usually strangers to polish…They saluted their commanding officer and the brigadier, but only recent reinforcements or ambitious non-commissioned officers wasted such courtesies on officers outside their units…In no force was there ever a happier association between officers and men. There was a complete absence of that wide gulf which separated British leaders from the men in the ranks. On all the war fronts Australian and Scots were close friends. Not only were both great fighters, but they shared the same strong habits of independent thought, the grasping of the essential things in their military training and bearing, and their frank dislike for time-honoured, purposeless formalities.
Under the command of Australian Lieutenant General Henry ‘Harry’ Chauvel, the 34,000 strong Desert Mounted Corps, of which the Australian Lighthorsemen were a key element, had proven to be extremely effective. The combination of horsemanship, both in riding skills and care for their mounts, deadly shooting while mounted and dismounted, dash, cunning and tenacity in the harsh desert conditions, absolute discipline when ordered to move against the enemy and the trust and bond that existed between mates made the Australian Lighthorsemen the elite mounted infantry of the Middle East campaign in World War One.