Another weekend passes spent in isolation…
Although this one was particularly strange.
It was ANZAC Day without the dawn service, the march, or the footy.
ANZAC Day has always been a special day in my family. My Dad was a ‘nasho’, which means he was called up for national service during the Vietnam War.
He was shot and wounded in battle. Nothing too serious, but enough to enable him to finish his two-year stint six months early.
He was engaged to my mum at the time. Not long after returning home, they got married.
I don’t remember much from my younger years. Dad didn’t march then. I’m not sure why. He never used to talk about it. But I’m guessing it had something to do with the political nature of the war.
It certainly wasn’t popular and those who fought in it weren’t considered ‘noble warriors’, like the vets from the two World Wars.
But as I got a bit older, I remember going to watch the march, and trying to get a glimpse of dad walking down Crown Street, the main street of Wollongong. I also remember it was the one time of year I used to wear his slouch hat around the house.
Probably because it wasn’t discussed, I grew up with little interest in the Vietnam War. It was something to be avoided.
But from a young age, maybe seven or eight, I was fascinated by the First World War. When I was younger, ANZAC Day TV coverage after the march was full of grainy footage of troops in trenches, in either France or Gallipoli.
I started reading about the Western Front battles when Gallipoli was still the main game.
Something about the futility of it all struck me even at that age.
When I was backpacking as a 22-year-old I had a chance to see some of the battlefields in Belgium. I caught a train from Bruges to maybe Ypres, although I can’t remember now. I hired a bike and rode around Flanders fields until it was dark. It was winter, but not too cold.
I remember seeing the Menin Gate in Ypres. It’s a forbidding structure. It has the names of nearly 55,000 soldiers inscribed on its walls. A grave of sorts for those never found in the mud. They play the last post there, every evening.
Ypres was the gateway to the Battle of Passchendaele. Many, many thousands marched through there, never to return. There is perhaps nothing more that symbolises the futility and wastefulness of that war than the Battle of Passchendaele (also known as Third Ypres), fought in 1917.
But by the time the Aussies fought in that campaign, they’d had some experience of futility and wastefulness.
Australia’s First and Second division arrived in France in late March, 1916. Unbeknownst to them, plans were underway for the Battle of the Somme.
When that battle didn’t start as planned, the need for fresh troops was acute. So they were called down from up north to get ready for battle.
In the meantime, the Fifth Division had newly arrived from training in Egypt. No sooner had they arrived they were thrown into battle. It was perhaps one of the most ill-planned battles of the war.
In about 18 hours, over 5,500 from the Fifth Division were killed or wounded at the Battle of Fromelles.
Such was the debacle that its real horror was covered up for decades. The people of Australia who sacrificed their sons certainly didn’t get the facts.
Pompey Elliott, who commanded the 15th Brigade in the battle, and did his best to have it called off, railed against it for the rest of his life. But in the end it got him too. He committed suicide in 1931, at the age of 52.
I only understood the whole story after reading Patrick Lindsay’s excellent book on the battle in 2007. In it, he told the story of the indefatigable Lambis Englezos, an amateur historian from Melbourne.
Lambis knew there were hundreds of Aussie soldiers missing. He had a hunch that the Germans had buried them in a mass grave dug soon after the battle. He was right, but it took him years of effort and dealing with various bureaucracies to be proven correct.
Thanks to him, hundreds of diggers were finally laid to rest.
A few days after the Fromelles disaster, the First Division went into action in the Battle of the Somme. They took the village of Pozieres. Then the Second Division came in to hold it. They were shelled mercilessly from the high ground for days.
Alec Raws, who was in the Second Division, wrote to a friend back home about his experience.
‘We are lousy, stinking, ragged, unshaven and sleepless. Even when we’re back a bit we can’t sleep for our own guns. I have one puttee, a dead man’s helmet, another dead man’s gas protector, a dead man’s bayonet. My tunic is rotten with other men’s blood, and partly splattered with a comrade’s brains. It is horrible, but why should you people at home not know? Several of my friends are raving mad. I met three officers out in No Man’s Land the other night, all rambling and mad. Poor Devils!’
Alec’s brother died in the battle on the day he arrived to join the battalion. They never got to reunite, except in death. Alec died a few weeks later.
What would they think of our experience?
Pozieres was perhaps the worst experience of the war for Australia. They took the ridge, but it cost them over 23,000 killed and wounded.
Within about five months of being on the Western Front, Australia had suffered nearly 30,000 causalities.
And there was still a long way to go.
Yet go they did. By 1918, the Aussies were under the command of John Monash and were at the spearhead of all the major battles in that year. Never before or since was Australia’s military force so prominent on the world stage.
Not bad for a volunteer army.
On ANZAC Day 2008, I went to the dawn service at Villers-Bretonneux. It seemed like the right thing to do. The Western Front heroics were finally getting the attention they deserved.
What must have it been like?
What must have it been like for those on the home front?
For most of them, the war didn’t end in 1918. Most of them died way too young. Many of them took their own lives.
What would they think of our experience? A few months lockdown…less than 100 deaths?
They would probably tell us to harden up.
If their legacy means anything, we should be able to do so easily.