The Great War – 25 to 31 January 1918
The end of January 1918 saw the troops of the Australian Corps undertaking an immense amount of work preparing the defences on the Western Front for the forecast German offensive to come. Monash, then still Commander of 3rd Division described the preparations:
‘Now, in the very depth of the worst season of the year, the demand came to prepare the region for defence and resistance to the last; for the threat of a great German offensive in the opening of the 1918 campaigning season was already beginning to take shape. It was the Australian Corps which was called upon to answer that demand. There followed week after week of heart-breaking labour, much of it necessarily by night, in draining the flat land, in erecting acre upon acre of wire entanglements, in constructing hundreds of strong points, and concrete machine gun emplacements. Trenches had to be dug, although the sides collapsed unless immediately revetted…; roads had to be repaired, and vain attempts were made to provide the trench garrisons with dry and bearable living quarters’.
The War Diary of 12th Battalion, 3rd Brigade, for 31 January notes:
‘No Casualties during this tour in the line, and no case of trench feet. The amount of work done by the Brigade in general & this Battalion in particular has been very pronounced during the 6 weeks tour in the forward area. … On relief, every post in the line was left in a dry state, with a raised duckboard bottom, revetted and shelter for the garrison’.
In an order issued in December 1917, the Commander of British Forces in Europe, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, directed all allied forces to prepare for a German Offensive in the spring by constructing a formidable defensive system and resting and training for all troops in preparation for a defensive battle. Haig’s instructions went further directing that raids be minimised unless for a specific purpose, and the use of artillery should be reduced to lessen the likelihood of enemy artillery fire disrupting those involved in preparing the ordered defences. Despite the order, the allies continued aggressive patrolling of no man’s land, particularly in the Messines region which saw a number of casualties result.
These actions were necessitated by the need to reorient Allied operations from offensive operations to defensive operations resulting from a manpower shortage and the ongoing strategic struggle between the British Prime Minister and Haig. David Lloyd George had become increasingly concerned about the Allies’ ability to provide the necessary manpower to strike a decisive winning blow to end the war as a direct result of the enormous casualty numbers directly attributable to Haig’s operational plans. Lloyd George considered that holding back reinforcements would force Haig to reconsider remaining constantly on the offensive to enable the Allies to recruit, retrain and reconstitute. This battle of wills continued through much of the early part of 1918 with Lloyd George not willing to remove Haig, and Haig continually wishing to throw more manpower at the Germans regardless of the potential for casualties.
Elsewhere Australia’s 2nd Division was replacing the 3rd Division at Ploegsteert on 29 January and the 5th Division’s time manning the front line at Messines was coming to an end only days later on 1 February 1918. The Australians were well in the thick of things despite the orders to rest and recuperate.
Morale was lifted with an Australian Rules Football game on the 28 January between the 27th Battalion and the 48th Battalions with the 27th Battalion scoring 11 goals and 8 behinds to the 48th Battalions 8 goals and 9 behinds.
In the Middle East, things were also quiet. Following the capture of Jerusalem in December 1917, General Allenby had advised the War Cabinet that any further advance would be delayed by at least two months as a result of the wet season. This was not news that Lloyd George wanted to hear. While he was aware that the defeat of Germany, if it were to occur, would have to happen on the Western Front, Allenby’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force was very much part of the grander strategy for total victory.
With the onset of the wet season, Allenby’s war now became a battle for logistics. He was forced to send Australian Divisions south to shorten their lines of communication to avoid starvation. By late January Allenby had become increasingly concerned that his eastern (right) flank was exposed to Ottoman forces and he began to plan for an advance to Jericho to secure his right flank against the Dead Sea with his left flank already secure against the Mediterranean. The Battle for Jericho was a little over three weeks away.
The Imperial Japanese Navy, which had provided naval support since 1914, withdrew from Australian waters at the end of January 1918 and returned to patrolling seas south of the equator from the middle of the Indian Ocean to Tahiti. Australian waters where then guarded by Australian war ships only. The support provided by the Imperial Japanese Navy had been invaluable as it had undertaken many roles including escorting the first convoy of troopships, patrolling the waters around Australia and the Pacific and in 1917 defended Australia in the absence of an Australian ship, which were all serving elsewhere.
Many Australian ships remained deployed else with the Navy maintaining its commitments in European Waters including the HMAS Sydney which was at Scapa Flow, Scotland. It was here on the 26th of January that a brown haired hazel-eyed boy from Angaston fell to his death. Boy First Class David Tavender suffered a fractured skull after an accidental fall. David had been enlisted on 27 June 1916 and had only served on HMAS Sydney since 5 October 1917. David was only 16 years and 8 months at the time of his death