The Great War – 28 Dec 1917 – 3 Jan 1918
The festive season brought with it thoughts of home, and the ever present question of when the war might end so that families could be reunited on home soil.
Reports were emerging in the newspapers at home about the mistreatment of soldiers in the Prisoner of War camps.
On 29 December 1917, Adelaide newspaper, The Mail, published that prisoners were being maltreated by the guards at the camps. Internees from Switzerland claimed that the treatment was getting worse, stating that “parcels are rifled and sometimes food, soap, and cigarettes are chopped up together before being handed over”. At Schneidenmuhl camp north of Posen in Germany, a doctor is alleged to have frequently struck the prisoners with a sword.
Private Harold Hoole, a shop assistant from Smithfield in South Australia, fought with the 32nd Battalion. PTE Hoole was reported missing in action near Bapaume, Northern France, on 9 December 1916 and subsequently reported as a Prisoner-of-war. Harold spent nearly a year in captivity and had been moved from the Prisoner of War Camp to Convalescent Home 526 according to German records. His death voucher, stated that he died of Bronchitis and suspected Tuberculosis. However, attached to his service record is a report from a repatriated prisoner-of-war (2937) Private William Clarence Mitchell who states “I saw Private Hoole. H 32nd Battalion die at this hospital (Tournai) on 29/12/17. He was there only a short time and died from starvation. If he had been given something to eat he would have been saved. They gave him an injection and 10 minutes later he died”.
As 1917 drew to a close, the people at home in Australia and troops overseas reflected on what was Australia’s bloodiest year on the Western Front. With over 21,000 men dead by years end, the campaigns at Bullecourt and Messines and the final campaigns at the Ypres Salient, saw Major General Sinclair-MacLagan declare his own 4th Division, which had been used constantly through 1917, “not fit for the line”. The campaign at the Ypres Salient had exhausted all of the trained reserves and the troops meant for the 6th Australian Division that was being raised.
Enlistment numbers had dropped to 45,101 in 1917 from 124,352 in 1916. Members of High Command were at a loss as to how they would reinforce the units as they headed into 1918. Birdwood, though reluctant, was being forced to consider reorganising or disbanding parts of the AIF.
Major General J. J. Hobbs Commander of the Fifth Division appealed to men back home in his new year’s message: “Grateful thanks from the Fifth Division for your untiring work and generous gifts, which have helped so much during the past twelve months. You will be glad to know the health of the division is exceedingly good. We are living under infinitely better conditions than last winter. We look to the future with cheerfulness and determination, confident of our ability to beat the Boche and maintain and add to the glorious records of the Australian Soldiers. Surely we shall not appeal in vain for men to take the places of our gallant and splendid comrades who have fallen in the great cause. You must enable us to avenge them and prevent the dissolution of our divisions before the work is finally crowned with victory”.
The Light Horse having captured Jerusalem and the men in the trenches on the Western Front, suffering through another European winter, were preparing for another year on their respective fronts. Despite the slower tempo throughout the winter, the South Australian casualties list continued to rise with troops in action around Messines.
The New Year’s message from Australian Commander General, Sir William Birdwood, published in the Adelaide newspaper, The Mail, on 29 December 1917 read:
“The Australians in France greet those near and dear to them in Australia. Though apparently separated by many thousands of miles they are in fact united by the same sea where the British Navy keeps guard. We who are fighting realise that much is yet before us. The German menace to freedom is as rampant as ever. This menace we are determined must be conquered if we are to remain a free country and hand down the inestimable gift of freedom to our children and our children’s children. We are confident Australia, who can never forget the many brave men fallen fighting for her safety and honour, will continue to support us in our trials as before”.
The first of January bought the news that many of the soldiers and those back in Australia had been waiting for. High Command signed off on the formation of the Australian Corps. This had long been the want of the Australian Government, to see all Australian Units combined into one Army under the command of General Birdwood. Having suffered high casualties under inept British Staff Officers in the Fromelles, Bullecourt and Pozieres offensives, Birdwood took the initiative and started the “Australianisation” of his staff, replacing many of the British Officers with Australians.
The Australian Corps was formed with the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th Australian Divisions, with the exhausted 4th Division withdrawn to serve as a depot division. The 3rd Squadron, Australian Flying Corps and two siege batteries were also added to the Australian Corps. Birdwood’s previous inclination to appoint Australians became the general policy after the formation of Australian Corps, resulting in no British officers being appointed to Australian staffs or commands in France, any non-Australian members were reabsorbed by the British forces. A few exceptions did exist including Birdwood’s own office which although containing many Australians was still a British unit.
War Correspondent F. W. Cutlack captured the feeling of the Australian troops: “a wonderful spirit was springing up among the Australian ranks – a deep running and vivid development of national character, a sense of military renown which is desired to see definitely labelled with the Australian name; especially as these Australians were now fully conscious they had outgrown the tutelage of others” (King, 1942,)
Curtlack also reported that: “All Australian Soldiers were ordered to turn up the left side of their slouch hats ‘like all dinkum Anzacs’ from that moment on, to consolidate the distinctive image they had become known for”. (King, 1942,)