The Great War – 11 – 17 January, 1918
Winter’s short days and inclement weather kept aircraft on the ground for much of the time. Australian scouts, when they could fly, engaged in low-level reconnaissance and offensive patrols and escorted photography aircraft and bombing formations over the German lines.
No.4 Squadron, the last Australian Flying Corp squadron (AFC) to be formed, had arrived in France and was based at Bruay Aerodrome for training under the command of the British First Army 10th (Army) Wing. The squadron was on its first patrol and experienced its first air combat on 13 January. It was on this day that Lieutenant F.B. Wilmott, a motor mechanic from Adelaide, having fallen behind his formation with engine failure, was cut off by three German scouts and forced to land behind enemy lines. He spent the remainder of the war as a POW.
A large number of Australian troops were based in a camp near Sutton Veny, a small village in southern England. The churchyard at Sutton Veny contains the graves of many Australian soldiers who died in nearby military hospitals, either from the influenza epidemic or other illnesses. One of those buried here is Signaller Patrick Degidan from Yorketown in South Australia who died of tuberculosis at the Military Hospital on 13 January 1918, aged 28 years. He had left his job as a porter on the South Australian Railways and enlisted with his younger brother in Burra on 30 May 1916. In his farewell speech at the Yorketown cheer-up society he foreshadowed his ultimate fate with the words ‘if he did not come back they would have the satisfaction of knowing that he had done his little bit in the great struggle.’
The diary entry of Corporal Doug McKay on 16 January 1918 painted a grim picture of winter on the Western Front. ‘There was heavy rain, a terrific wind and a sleet and snow storm after dinner and very cold … All our camp and depot was flooded and the tents at the casualty stations were blown down…’ Despite the obvious discomfort he managed to end his entry with ‘but the lads next to us had a great night’s fun as they found a good supply of rum although they were a bit sick and sorry the next morning.’
Early in January reports were received of Arab forces, under command of the King of Hejaz, working northward through the desert and beginning to appear in strength south-east of the Dead Sea. These forces had raided and captured Turkish posts north of Maan, and on 13 January they entered Et Tafile, a few miles south of the lower end of the Dead Sea. British General Edmund Allenby was without communication with the Hejaz Arabs and was also aware of the need to track the activity of the enemy between the Jordan and Amman. Having been advised that no further reinforcements could be sent from the Western Front for some time, he knew that immediate fighting on the ground would be limited.
It was at this point that the work demanded of the British and Australian airmen was to be increased and expanded as they were called to play a major role in the final stage of the Palestine campaign. It had become apparent that the existing army maps were so inaccurate that they would have to be drawn afresh. The positions of important roads and villages in the enemy’s front areas were incorrect and points of military significance were not shown on the maps at all. It was decided that most of the front-line region would be re-mapped and a complete overlapping series of air-photographs was therefore required.
This involved the photographing of a strip of country 32 miles deep from the Turkish front lines backwards – an area of 624 square miles. The task was allotted to No. 1 Australian Squadron and was begun on 15 January. Despite unfavourable weather and frequent anti-aircraft fire, the task was completed within 14 days by five pilots – Lieutenants A.R. Brown (a draper from Launceston, Tasmania), H.L. Fraser (a station overseer from Rockhampton, Queensland), E.P. Kenny (an accountant from Trafalgar, Victoria), L.T.E. Taplin (an electrical engineer from Unley, South Australia) and L.W. Rogers (a station manager).
The method was for five machines, Martinsydes and B.E.12.a’s to fly in line 1,000 yards apart at a height of 12,000 feet, ensuring an overlap of the exposures of each camera. This patrol worked under the escort of three Bristol Fighters, two from No. 1 Squadron, manned by Captain S.W. Addison and Lieutenant W.H. Fysh and Captain Ross Smith and Lieutenant E.A. Mustard. As Captain Ross Smith recorded in his diary ‘it was rather a hard job because they were all spread out so much … in this way we got a lot of the country at once.’
The Survey Section was able to produce a new series of maps of the whole region, accurate to the smallest detail. Brigadier-General A.E. Borton, Commander of the Palestine Brigade, R.A.F., in congratulating No. 1 Squadron for their work acknowledged that “the photographs are a very fine achievement, and probably mark the highest point which has yet been reached in map-making photography.”
In South Australia the State Recruiting Committee continued to call for ‘men who desire to join the home service unit to apply to the enrolling officer at the back of the Adelaide Town Hall’, as well as reinforcements for the AIF Divisions abroad, imploring that ‘every man with a drop of patriotic blood in his body should have not the slightest hesitation in making up his mind to do his duty, and that is to enlist now – today; tomorrow may be too late’.
Debate continued at the State Premiers’ Conference in Melbourne over the terms and conditions of repatriation and the uncertainty about a promised British loan to support soldier settlement schemes.
In an emotional outburst, Prime Minister Billy Hughes attempted to unite the divided states over the issue – ‘‘Our soldiers fight not for Queensland, New South Wales or Tasmania but for Australia. They are enlisted under the Commonwealth banner. They go out to fight our battles. We say to them: ‘When you come back we will look after you’…The soldiers will say to the Commonwealth Government: ‘You made us a promise. We look to you to carry it out.’