The Great War -The Final Year

On 23 April 2015, 134 weeks ago, we commenced our Think Piece series, an initiative of then Manager of the Anzac Centenary Coordination Unit, Sharon Cleary. Our first Think Piece, titled We Must Remember Them, was appropriately authored by then President of the Returned and Services League – South Australia, Brigadier Tim Hanna AM. It was a compelling call to pause and to remember the courage and sacrifice of those who have served and continue to serve, and those who kept and continue to keep the home fires burning hoping their loved ones return safely.

The Think Piece series has been a resounding success with contributions from a wide cross section of authors wishing to highlight an issue, reflect on a moment in history, or acknowledge the service of a mate, relative or loved one. Think Piece authors have included the Hon Martin Hamilton-Smith MP, former Governor of South Australia the Hon Sir Eric Neal, prolific author Peter Fitzsimons, channel 9 News presenter Brenton Ragless, Military Cross recipient Mike von Berg, historian Professor Melanie Openheimer, Ms Leesa Vlahos MP, and Veterans SA Deputy Director Chantelle Graham to name a few. Theirs, and other contributions, can be viewed at http://anzaccentenary.sa.gov.au/stories/think-piece-series/. Their contributions have provoked thought, challenged us and, I hope, inspired us to reflect on the service and sacrifice of those who have served or supported them through a century of service.

As we head into the centenary of what we now know was the final year of the First World War, I have elected to move away from the Think Piece series to focus our attention on the 12 months leading to the Armistice. Researched by Veterans SA staff, The Great War – The Final Year, seeks to shine a light on events 100 years ago, on a weekly basis, leading to the centenary commemorations of the Armistice on Remembrance Day 2018.

The main street of Beersheba shortly after its capture by General Sir Edmund Allenby’s Forces. The buildings on either side of the street were in flames when Allenby’s forces entered the town on 3 November 1917. (AWM P01668.005)

Before embarking on this journey it is worthwhile reflecting on the state of the war in early November 1917 and Australia’s contribution.

In Europe as 1917 came to a close, Australian troops were buoyed by the news that a decision had been taken to group all five Australian Divisions into the Australian Corps. While the Australian Divisions had for the first time fought together at Passchendaele in September 1917, it was not under unified command and could be broken up by the British High Command as it saw fit. Despite Australian successes at Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde that would add another chapter to Australia’s military history following Gallipoli, the Passchendaele campaign had cost more than 38,000 Australians casualties, or two of every three Australians who fought there.

In the words of Charles Bean the decision to form the Australian Corps, with effect 1 January 1918, ‘…came as a complete surprise to the divisions emerging from Passchendaele, (and) was everywhere hailed with delight.’[1]  It was also due recognition that the Australian forces were generally viewed by all sides as the best troops the Allied commanders had at their disposal. Captain Philip Ledward of the 8th Infantry Division (UK) said of the Australians:

It is my considered opinion that the Australians, even in 1918, were

            better in battle than any other troops on either side … They were

            untidy, undisciplined, cocky, not ‘nice’ enough for the taste even of

            [us Tommies]. But it seems indisputable that a greater number of

            them were personally indomitable, in the true sense of the word,

            than of any other race. I am glad they were on our side.[2] 

In the Middle East the fall of Beersheba on 31 October 1917 had opened up the road to Hebron and beyond that Jerusalem. The Allied Commander, General Sir Edmund Allenby, was wary of the Commander of Turkish Forces, German General Friedrich von Kressenstein, pushing troops east from Gaza to bolster his defences along the Hebron Road. Allenby’s desire to maintain momentum while continuing to confuse von Kressenstein, saw the 52nd UK Division dispatched to attack towards Gaza while the remainder of his force continued to push towards Jerusalem.

At home, talk of the need for conscription began to dominate. The British High Command wanted a sixth Australian Division but voluntary recruitment was assessed as being insufficient to raise and sustain the 7,000 troops per month required.

The first instalment of our Final Year series focuses on the week 16 – 22 November 1917.

I trust you will enjoy the series and welcome your feedback throughout The Final Year.

[1] Bean, in Fitsimons,2016: Victory at Villers-Bretonneux, p. 25
[2] Hart, 1918: A Very British Victory, pp. 257-8