1916 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.
Following 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.”
Although 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.