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Issue #1652      August 20, 2014

Culture & Life

Slaughter on the Western Front

As assorted politicians on both sides of the House wax lyrical about the supposed “glory” associated with Australia’s participation in the horror that was the First World War, we should spare a thought for the poor young blighters who had been suckered into volunteering for what they thought was going to be a great adventure (from which they would soon be home again).

When, after eight months of futile killing and being killed on the Gallipoli peninsula, the Australians and New Zealanders were finally ignominiously withdrawn, instead of being sent home they were reorganised and reinforced and sent to make up losses in the British lines on the Western Front. By now, even the least imaginative of them was aware that the “great adventure” was actually nothing but a full-on dust-up between the various imperial powers to re-divide the world’s colonies and markets to make them even more profitable for the biggest trusts and cartels. Freedom and humanity never entered into it.

The fighting, however, was not done by bankers or politicians but by poor put-upon Tommy Atkins backed up by Australian diggers along with Canadians, South Africans, Indians and anyone else British imperial reach could rope into the conflict in the name of “God, King and Country”. The Germans, Austrians, Hungarians and Russians of course, also fought for the same ideals (different kings, but the sentiment was the same).

On Gallipoli, the fighting had settled into a stalemate of shelling and skirmishing from entrenched positions, with neither side in a position to achieve a decisive breakthrough. The situation was even worse on the Western Front, where the trenches were longer and deeper, the reinforcements and concrete forts stronger, and the sodden fields of No Man’s Land, criss-crossed by barbed wire entanglements and pock-marked by mud-filled shell holes, were even more open to the murderous fire of dug-in machine guns.

Armour and planes would break the deadlock of trench warfare, but planes had only recently been developed and armoured cars and armoured trains – both of which were used effectively in Russia during the war against imperialist intervention after the Revolution – needed made roads or train tracks flanking the battle lines to be of use. Tanks would eventually end trench warfare but they only appeared in numbers towards the end of the war.

In the meantime, the Australians were sent into battle by British officers notorious for losing thousands of troops in a day. The first Australian engagement was in the Battle of Fromelles on 19-20 July 1916. Fromelles was 80 kilometres north of the Somme where the British General Headquarters (GHQ) was determined to achieve a breakthrough by means of a frontal assault by 100,000 men. Half of them would become casualties.

Anticipating that the Germans would move troops from the Fromelles sector to reinforce their positions on the Somme, the British generals ordered their forces at Fromelles to launch an attack, to keep the Germans busy so they would not move troops south. British and Australian soldiers were sent over the top against three divisions of Germans.

“Preparations for the attack were rushed, the troops involved lacked experience in trench warfare and the power of the German defence was significantly underestimated, the attackers being outnumbered 2:1. The advance took place in daylight … on a narrow front which left German artillery on either side free to fire into the flanks of the attack.” Australian casualties alone came to 5,533. By the second day, a German counter-attack had already forced the attackers back to their original front line.

This almost casual waste of life to create a “show” in support of an attack somewhere else prompted bitter, anti-war poems by the troops, such as this by serving war hero Siegfried Sassoon:

The General

“Good morning, good morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on the way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card”, grunted Harry to Jack,
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both with his plan of attack.

Such was the carnage at Fromelles, and the earth so torn up by artillery that of the five and half thousand Australian casualties, 1,299 were never found (or if found could not be identified) and were simply listed as “Missing”. No less than 410 mutilated bodies were buried in graves marked “Unknown”.

Sassoon, in the British army, served on a different part of the front, but the destruction was just the same. His younger brother had been killed on Gallipoli. “He soon became horrified by the realities of war, and the tone of his writing changed completely: where his early poems exhibit a Romantic, dilettantish sweetness, his war poetry moves to an increasingly discordant music, intended to convey the ugly truths of the trenches to an audience hitherto lulled by patriotic propaganda. Details such as rotting corpses, mangled limbs, filth, cowardice and suicide are all trademarks of his work at this time, and this philosophy of ‘no truth unfitting’ had a significant effect on the movement towards Modernist poetry.” – Wikipedia.

The Battle of Fromelles had inflicted some losses on the German defenders (some 1,600 - 2,000 men killed) but gained no ground nor deflected many German troops bound for the Somme. The Australian War Memorial describes the futile battle as “the worst 24 hours in Australia’s entire history”. Of 7,080 BEF (British Expeditionary Force) casualties, 5,533 losses were incurred by the 5th Australian Division.

By the following year, opposition to the war had grown apace: there were mutinies in the French army, the Russians walked away from the front, overthrew their government and withdrew their country from the war altogether, Sassoon wrote a declaration that he would not participate any more in the war, a declaration read out in the House of Commons.

Despite the popular opposition, however, it would be another year before the slaughter was brought to a halt.

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