Military history

1916 – Part 1, the build up

IMG_7136 11916 was a year of terrible sacrifice.

The beginning of the Great War in 1914 saw the unprecedented mobilisation of European armed forces. The volunteers of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) prepared to join in the conflict, and many anticipated joining the fighting in Europe. Instead, they were sent to Egypt, joining their New Zealand counterparts to form the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). In Egypt, they prepared for a seaborne assault on the Turkish Gallipoli Peninsula – this would be their initiation into battle. You will know the date, 25 April 1915.

Australians at home were thrilled by stories of their troops’ exploits in action and recruiting surged. However, the invasion came to nothing. Turkish forces held the ANZACs at bay, and after eight months of stalemate, this ill-fated enterprise was abandoned and the ANZACs were evacuated back to Egypt in December 1915.

IMG_3057 resizedFollowing the Gallipoli campaign, the battle-worn 1st and 2nd Australian infantry divisions were joined in Egypt by large numbers of fresh reinforcements and more volunteers arriving from Australia. The two divisions were expanded to four, while a further division (the 3rd) was raised in Australia and sent straight to Britain. From March 1916, the Australian divisions began arriving in France to serve on the Western Front.

1916 was the halfway point in four years of slaughter. For the French, there was the horror of the battle of Verdun. For British and Commonwealth forces, 1916 will be remembered for the series of battles known as the First Battle of the Somme. British and Commonwealth casualties from this fighting totalled an appalling 420,000. The French lost 204,000. Combined with German losses, there were more than a million casualties at the Somme.

For the Australians, 1916 began well enough, but once committed to the Western Front from July, their war quickly soured with heavy losses, and suffering at the Front and widespread mourning at home. In the attack at Fromelles the cost in lives had been the highest in any 24-hour period in the war, while the casualty rate in the six weeks at Pozières was the worst ever experienced by the AIF.

Australia had committed four infantry brigades to the Gallipoli landings; further brigades of infantry and light horse came soon afterwards. Now, on the Western Front, the Australians had four divisions each consisting of three brigades (each brigade consisted of between 2,500 to 5,000 troops). These, the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th Australian Divisions, were initially sent to a region of the Belgian border to gain familiarity with some of the new weapons of modern warfare including gas. They then moved into the front-line trenches near Armentières, in an area dubbed “The Nursery.”

NEDA9357WAlthough the Australians were in a relatively quiet sector, there were periods of sharp fighting, shelling, and some heavy raids. By the end of June, over 600 men had been killed. Only a few days earlier, Private William Jackson became the first man of the AIF to win the Victoria Cross in France. He rescued wounded members of his raiding party from no man’s land until his arm was blown off by a shell.

Stay tuned for more on the 1916…


Thank you to Robert Finlay of the Australian Great War Association – Queensland for sharing his knowledge of WWI.

Five things you probably didn’t know about World War II Germany

BrettCroese-3030 (2)Being a re-enactor attracts many questions, especially if you’re a Second World War re-enactor. While many people may not understand what I do, and some even criticize it, it is something I have become quite passionate about.

I’ve always loved military history, especially the two World Wars. Re-enacting is living history; it’s a way for me to get closer to what I am most passionate about. What was it like to be a German soldier? From what is it like to sleep in a foxhole or to dig a trench, to doing extensive research into what made them tick, is something I find incredibly satisfying.

Naturally this has always been met with opposition; “But the Germans were all Nazis” or “They caused the Holocaust” and while this is true, I’ve always devoted my time as a re-enactor to try and help educate people to see past the stereotypes. Because of this, I’ve created a little list of little known facts about the Germans during the war, which I’ve frequently used to stun and shock when asked about my impression.


ONE: Not all German soldiers were Nazis

This has to be the most common misconception people have about the German army – that they were all Nazis. Saying that every German soldier was a Nazi is like saying that every current serving Australian soldier is a Liberal. The German army had roots in strong Prussian tradition, and part of this tradition was that every soldier was to reject any political ties. In the Wehrmacht (the German army), it was illegal for any soldier to be affiliated with, or a member of, a political party, including the Nazi party. People, of course, argue against this with, ‘the German uniform has a Swastika on it’, and this is true. However, people often forget or ignore that the Swastika was the official flag of Germany at the time. It is also worth mentioning that between 1933 and 1945 there were more than 25 assassination attempts on Adolf Hitler’s life, with nearly all the attempts made by German army, and even SS, officers.


TWO: German U-Boats made it to Australia20140607-1231200458-9365 (2)

Throughout 1944, the German U-Boat U-862 sailed around the coast of Australia, sinking American ships in Sydney and Fremantle. Launching from a U-Boat pen in the Japanese occupied East Indies, U-862 sailed down the coast of Western Australia, across the Great Australian Bite, around the coast of Tasmania then up to Sydney and across to New Zealand. There is an urban legend in New Zealand that while U-862 was secretly docked in the port of Napier in New Zealand, members of the crew snuck ashore and stole fresh milk from a farm. Whether or not this is true, we’ll never know.


THREE: The German army had Chaplains

I’ve seen first-hand the expressions of shock and disbelief when people see a man dressed, not only in a German uniform, but in the uniform of a Wehrmacht Chaplain. This is quickly followed by comments such as, ‘The Germans didn’t believe in God’ or ‘The Germans weren’t religious’. This is false. During the 30s and 40s, 95% of the German population were Christian, and during that time many Wehrmacht soldiers continued to belong to their churches. Even on their uniform, their belt buckles were inscribed with ‘Gott mit uns’, which translates to ‘God is with us’. Germany had a strong tradition of appointing Catholic field Chaplains in the army, and this continued throughout the Second World War. Hundreds of photos exist of German soldiers participating in field services conducted by Chaplains, and many civilian accounts exist of German soldiers taking part in mass at the local church.


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FOUR: Foreign Volunteers in the SS

It is ironic that the Waffen-SS, an organization that prided itself on its German radical heritage, would eventually end up recruiting soldiers from all over the world to fight for Germany. At first, the Waffen-SS only allowed volunteers from acceptable European origins, such as Dutch, French, Danish, Norwegian and Belgian backgrounds. However, as the war progressed, so did the SS ‘Foreign Legions’ which would eventually include Latvian, Estonian, Ukrainian, Muslim, African, Indonesian and even Indian soldiers fighting for Germany against the Allies. The Waffen-SS even had British volunteers, who formed the British Friekorps.


FIVE: Operation Paperclip

Following the conclusion of the Second World War, many people believed it was the US that led the world’s technological advancement. This may or may not be true, but any and all success and progress that the US had following the war was because of one thing – German scientists. Nazi Germany was the pioneer in innovative technology such as, jet fighters and rocket science and while this may have come too late to help them in the war, the US was desperate to acquire this knowledge. The process of retrieving this knowledge came to be known as Operation Paperclip, a covert operation launched in 1945 with the aim of recruiting as many German scientists, technicians and engineers as possible before the Russians. Operation Paperclip was tremendously successful, with over 1500 scientists recruited, transported and employed in the US. In fact, most of the research relating to the Saturn V rockets and the Apollo spacecraft, came from Wernher von Braun, the scientist who had designed the V1 and V2 rockets.


Mitch Henson is a World War II Re-enactor with Army Group South. He is also studying history at university.

The Battle of Mont St Quentin

If you’re wondering what this year’s WWI battle on the Riverfront Arena each day will be about, keep reading!

From the Battle of Amiens on the 8th of August 1918 until the Armistice on 11th of November 1918 is the period known as the ‘Hundred Days’. This was a time of almost constant advance for the Allied armies.

As the Allies were pursuing the Germans the greatest obstacle to crossing the Somme River to reach them was a natural feature – Mont St Quentin. Situated at a river bend dominating the countryside for kilometres in every direction,  the Mont was only 100 metres high but was key to the German defence of the Somme line, and the last German stronghold. It overlooked the Somme River approximately 1.5 kilometres north of Péronne. Its location made it an ideal observation point and strategically the hill’s defenses guarded the north and western approaches to the town and key to the German defense of the Somme line and as such Lt. General Sir John Monash was keen to capture it and thus possess a valuable position.

This Australian operation is sometimes regarded as the finest achievement of the 1st AIF during the Great War.  On night of 31 August, the 2nd Australian Division crossed the Somme River from the north-west and attacked Mont St Quentin at 5:00 am. The uphill terrain was difficult for the Australians and attacking across open ground made them vulnerable to attack from the German positions on the slopes above.

On 29-30 August the 5th Brigade comprising the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th Battalions of the 2nd Australian Division seized hills that dominated the river crossings and proposed approach route. Their numbers had been depleted during earlier fighting and the troops were exhausted. Each battalion’s strength was down to around 300 men.

The 17th Battalion on the right flank was to seize the village of Mont St Quentin and the small forest on the summit beyond the road. The 20th Battalion on the left flank was ordered to seize the line of the road down the northern slope to the Feuillaucourt Bridge and the 19th Battalion was to guard the right flank by occupying two parallel trenches which ran down the south western slope of Mont St Quentin and overlooked Peronne. The 18th Battalion was assigned the job of close support to the assault battalions.

Rifle grenades and trench mortars were used to outflank outpost positions. The battalions positioned to the right of the line of attack made a lot of noise to distract the Germans, while the centre and left battalions gained footholds on the hill and in the village of Feuillaucourt on the left of the line.

The demoralised Germans, fearing they were being attacked by a superior force, surrendered in large numbers. The 20th Battalion moved up to make a bayonet charge and captured the Gottleib trench. As the Australians reached the summit, large numbers of German soldiers were sent fleeing down the slopes. By 7am the troops had occupied the village of Mont St Quentin and the slope and summit of the hill. However, the small size of their forces meant that their hold on the position was tenuous.

The five German divisions defending Mont St Quentin were confused and dispersed by the ferocity of the Australian attack and many had fled.

By midnight on 31 August, the Australians had captured 14,500 prisoners and 170 guns since 8th of August. The next day on 1 September, Allied troops also broke through lines to Péronne by 8:20am.

However, the Germans quickly regrouped and launched a counter-attack and that first day of September saw fierce fighting and heavy losses. Germans attacked and heavily shelled Péronne with much of the fighting being hand-to-hand combat.

The outnumbered Australians were pushed back off the summit of Mont St Quentin, and lost Feuillaucourt. Relief battalions were sent and duly reinforced, all areas lost were retaken by the Australians, but at the cost of 3,000 casualties. One casualty, Private Alex Barclay of the 17th Battalion was shot in the head by a sniper’s bullet during the attack. Miraculously the bullet passed right through his skull and he survived to re-enlist in the Second World War.

On 1 September, the 6th Brigade consisting of the 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 24th Australian Battalions seized the summit on their second attempt. The 14th Brigade of the 5th Australian Division, which included the 53rd, 54th, 55th and 56th Battalions, captured the woods north of Péronne and after defeating a short-lived German attack took the main part of Péronne. An attempt to pass the northern side of the town was stopped by heavy fire from the ramparts. On 2 September, the 7th Brigade, which included the 25th, 26th, 27th and 28th Australian battalions, drove beyond Mont St Quentin and the 15th Brigade made up of the 57th, 58th, 59th and 60th Battalions seized the remainder of Péronne and the 3rd Division advanced on the northern flank. By the evening of 3 September, the Australians held Péronne, captured Flamicourt the next day and then advanced three kilometres to the east.

Monash said of the Mont St Quentin and Péronne campaign that it furnished the finest example in the war of spirited and successful infantry action conducted by three divisions operating simultaneously side by side.

Eight Victoria Crosses were awarded to Australians between 31 August and 2 September 1918.

The fight had also included battalions from every Australian state. British Commander General, Lord Rawlinson remarked that this feat by the Australian troops under Monash’s command was the greatest of the war.

Forced out of Péronne, the Germans had to retreat to their last line of defence, the Hindenberg Line.

Your day at History Alive

So you’ve made the decision to bring the family to History Alive: A Journey Through Time on the Queen’s Birthday long weekend and you’re ready for an awesome day. But with 2000 years of history in one place, where do you begin?!

If you’re coming by car, you’ll need to drive to 91 Sandy Camp Road, park the car and take the free shuttle bus to Fort Lytton National Park. Or you can take the train to Wynnum North train station and take the free shuttle bus to Fort Lytton.

Accessible parking is available at Fort Lytton, please have your Australian Disability Parking Permit clearly visible so traffic management can wave you through.

The shuttle buses are provided by the Queensland Omnibus and Coach Society.


So what is happening at History Alive this year?

Below is just a sample of the events during the day. Make sure to check out the program here.

64-pounders10am: The day kicks off with a World War I Memorial Service and the firing of Fort Lytton’s 64-pounder cannons to commemorate the Anzac Centenary, followed by a WWI scenario in the Riverfront Arena where you’ll get to see our WWI groups in action.

11am: Take a wander through the encampments and learn about 14th Century cooking with the Knights Order of Lion Rampant or head over to the Lytton Arena for a 1930-40s Dance workshop and show the kids some new (old) moves! Immediately afterward in the Lytton Arena Dance Kaleidescope will be hosting a Regency dance workshop so there is no excuse for not getting some fun exercise in for the day.

TankNoon: You can watch WWII re-enactors in action with an Eastern Front battle playing out in the Riverfront Arena. For those of us who are hopeless romantics, Company of the Phoenix is hosting a 15th Century betrothal ceremony in their encampment.

1pm: Lunch time! Go visit our food vendors for a yummy feed. There really is something for everyone. Pancakes on the Go, Roam’In Pizza and Hungarian Langos (to name just a few) will all be on hand to satisfy the whole tribe. A new addition this year is The Curious Caravan, a 1957 vintage caravan coffee bar. Do not miss it!

Once everyone is fuelled up for the rest of their adventure, head to the Riverfront Arena to catch a tribute to the Battle of Waterloo by La Belle Alliance, or work off some energy at the Lytton Arena with a Medieval dance workshop.

Knights2pm: Knights! That’s all we need to say to get you back up to the Riverfront Arena to catch the 14th Century Tournament of War. Also, don’t miss the Costume Competition in the Lytton Arena. Open to all children up to the age of 14. Find more details here.

3pm: Learn some techniques in the noble art of fencing from the Prima Spada School of Fence in their encampments. The Saga Vikings close out the action in the Lytton Arena with Viking Shield Walls, while Army Group South have the final battle for the day on the Riverfront Arena with the Pacific Theatre Battle.

4pm: After a full day of fun the 64-pounders fire for the last time and we sadly say goodbye for another year and start getting excited for next year. Of course you can make a whole weekend of it and come on both Saturday and Sunday to make sure your family doesn’t miss a thing!

See you there!

5 special ways to commemorate ANZAC Day with kids

Standard BearersThis weekend we will come together as a nation to remember the ex- and current service men and women who have served in our defence forces, and the sacrifices they have made in all wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations over the last 100 years. With this year marking the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing — our nation’s first big test in an armed conflict — it remains an ever-present and important job to pass on the meaning of ANZAC Day to our kids. However, we all find that it can be hard to start the conversation about war and ANZAC, especially with the very young. We love getting kids involved in history and believe in the importance of sharing our past with our future, so we’ve come up with some ideas on how to commemorate ANZAC Day with them and start the important work of sharing our ANZAC legend.

1.    Bake ANZAC biscuits
Baking in many families is a very social and relaxed activity, with a lot of room for conversation. Why not involve the kids in your life and get them baking some ANZAC biscuits. You can use this time to start the conversation and ask them what they think ANZAC means. Explaining how the ANZAC biscuit — or the ANZAC wafer or tile — was used by soldiers while baking and eating the biscuits can make it easier for kids to relate. The Australian War Memorial has a great explanation of the significance of the ANZAC biscuit, as well as some traditional recipes to try:

2.    Take them to a dawn service or an ANZAC Day March
While it can be a daunting prospect getting the whole tribe up and ready for a dawn service, the experience can be a great opportunity for kids to gain a deeper understanding of ANZAC and why it is so important to Australia as a nation. Being with thousands of other people in solemn remembrance is powerful for all ages. For some however this can be too much with very young kids, so consider going to the Anzac Day March in your local area. It is incredibly moving for adults, and the fanfare is engaging for kids. Check your local RSL website to find out times. Families Magazine wrote a great post on how to make it as easy as possible.

If you are in the Brisbane area, click the link below to find out the when and wheres on ANZAC Day:

3.    Put an ANZAC plant in your garden
There are many plants with special meaning to ANZAC that you can plant with kids in your garden. Rosemary is a popular and easy to care for choice, and it can be a daily reminder and conversation starter. You can explain that Rosemary was growing in abundance on the Gallipoli peninsula and is inextricably linked to our ANZACS. Next year you can wear a sprig on ANZAC Day.
Have a look at the link below for some ideas on some plants significant to ANZAC:

4.    Help your kids learn the facts
Some kids will be keenly curious about ANZAC Day and having a kid-friendly way to learn the facts and stories of ANZAC can really help keep their interest alive. For really young kids there are many picture and story books that introduce ANZAC Day:
Once they get a bit older, help them find accurate and reliable information by vetting websites and books before they read them. Here is a suggestion:

5.    Write a message to our troops
While we remember those who have been lost and given the ultimate service in past conflicts, we also remember the service of our service men and women who are currently overseas. Talk to your kids about the men and women serving overseas at the moment and try to explain why in a gentle way. The Department of Defence runs an amazing service that allows the public to show support to our defence personnel. Kids can put in a great amount of effort into a tangible project such as decorating a card to send overseas and it is a wonderful way to support our troops and thank them for their sacrifice, devotion and loyalty.


How do you commemorate ANZAC Day with kids? Join the discussion on our Facebook page.