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On the Western Front 1917-1918

25 Apr

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Sydney Anzac Day Parade 2009

Good move

One of the current government’s better decisions has been to support The Anzac Trail.

Australians will soon be able to trace the footsteps of World War I diggers who fought on the Western Front using a new tourist trail meandering through northern France and Belgium.

The Australian government will spend $10 million over the next four years developing the Anzac Trail, which will take visitors to seven sites where Australian diggers fought in key battles and suffered heavy losses.

While detailed plans for the trail are yet to be finalised, part of the money will be spent on improving museums dedicated to the diggers who fought at Villers-Bretonneux, Fromelles and Bullecourt in the Somme as well as linking various battlefield trails through other parts of France and Belgium.

A new interpretive centre to help visitors understand the Australian troops’ part in the conflict will also be built at the small rural village of Pozieres. In mid-1916 Australian forces suffered a massive 23,000 casualties in six weeks on the Pozieres battlefields as they fought to push the Germans out.

The town, where tanks were used for the first time in battle, already features a handful of memorials to the diggers including the remains of a German concrete bunker the Australians captured and which was later nicknamed Gibraltar.

The trail replaces a $30 million plan by the Howard government to build an interpretative centre at the Australian National Memorial near the French town of Villers-Bretonneux, where the second annual Anzac Day dawn service honouring diggers who fought on the Western Front will be held on Saturday…

There was a documentary on ABC on Thursday on the Polygon Wood and the identification and subsequent military burial of some Australian soldiers who died there in 1917: Lost in Flanders.

An overview of the role of Australians on the Western Front.

Family Connection

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Kenneth Ross Whitfield 1897 – 1967

Age 20

I remember Uncle Ken in Shellharbour as a remarkably calm and steady old man with white hair, even if I now realise for some of that time he was rather younger than I am now! He talked little about World War I (or World War II in which he also served.)

It turns out he was in the 3rd Battalion, 25th Reinforcement embarking on board HMAT A14 Euripides in Sydney on 31 October 1917. He would have arrived, then, in time for the events following the battles described in the documentary I saw on Thursday.

The overview linked above says:

In 1918, the Germans planned one final great offensive in an effort to win the war. At first the Allies were taken by surprise, and the Germans captured many towns and soon were within sight of the town of Amiens. The British High Command feared that if Amiens were captured, the war may be lost. The ANZACs were raced back from Belgium as ‘storm troops’ – special fighting soldiers who would be put into battle where they were needed most. At first, the ANZACs fought at Dernancourt (Dern-an-cor)…, a town on the road to Amiens, where 4000 Australians beat off an attack by 25,000 Germans.

Next the Germans attacked the French village of Villers-Bretonneux (Bret-on-er)…, after first using poisonous gas and artillery. When night fell, the ANZACs stormed from their trenches and counter-attacked. A British General, who himself had won a Victoria Cross for bravery, called the ANZACs’ attack “perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war”.

The ANZACs then had to enter the village and fight from house to house. Finally, Australian and French flags were raised over Villers-Bretonneux. The ANZACs stopped to bury their dead – 1200 Australians had been killed saving the village. It was not until they were putting the date on some makeshift crosses that they realised the date – it was ANZAC Day 1918, three years to the day since they had stormed ashore at Gallipoli.

The Australian flag is still flown at Villers-Bretonneux. It flies atop the Australian National Memorial, on which is listed the names of the 10,982 Australians killed in France who have no known grave. The French have called the main road through Villers-Bretonneux, Rue de Melbourne. The town has a restaurant called Restaurant le Kangarou, and the school, called Victoria College, was built from the donations of Victorian school children in the 1920s. Above every blackboard are the words “N’oublions jamais l’Australie” – never forget Australia…

In May 1918, the ANZACs were finally commanded by one of their own. The officer chosen was General Sir John Monash. Monash had seen too many ANZACs killed, and was determined that the Australians were from now on were to be used properly.

In his first battle, at a place called le Hamel…, Monash used aircraft, tanks and artillery to soften the enemy before he sent in the ANZACs. He also rehearsed the attack time and time again. Monash had planned it to last 90 minutes. After 93 minutes, his men had taken 1500 prisoners, caused 2000 German casualties and captured nearly 180 machine guns. But perhaps his best attack took place at Mont St Quentin…, where the Germans held several thousand of their best men in reserve. The German General had decided that no one would be foolish enough to attack the hill, but just in case ordered his best-trained units to hold “to the death”. With less than a thousand men who had already been in combat for nearly three weeks, Monash planned his greatest attack. The ANZACs stormed the hill from three directions, and in two days had not only secured the hill, but had also captured 2500 prisoners. Victoria Crosses were awarded to another seven ANZACs for this action. It was to be the last great fight of their war.

He really must have seen a lot.

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Australian soldiers on HMAT Euripides 1916

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Peace Celebrations Shellharbour 1919

From Shellharbour Images.

Australia in those days had a population around 5,000,000 and of these 324,000 AIF members served overseas and 9,000 Navy personnel. 61,511 Australians died in action, and 155,000 were wounded.

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Posted by on April 25, 2009 in Australia, Australia and Australian, events, History, memory, personal

 

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