Remembrance Day, Concord Hospital, 2017
Robert Lusby AM
“The bodies of the fallen were consumed by the mud rising up to engulf them”, noted Winston Churchill referring to the horrors of the Western Front. Words I clearly recalled when seeing the bodies of the victims of the genocide in Rwanda. Half buried in the mud where they had been killed, I began to understand the impact it must have had.
It was indeed the Battle of the Mud as the third battle of Ypres or Passchendaele became known. It was fought by the only reliable assault soldiers virtually remaining to General Haig, British Imperial Force commander, to deploy, being those of the ANZAC and Canadian Corps.
The best divisions of the British Expeditionary Force, BEF, had fought themselves out by August 1917, having been decimated in the battle of the Somme in the previous year…to little avail in terms of winning the war and at a momentous cost in lives.
The problem facing the allies, according to the Official History, was similar to storming a fortress where force was concentrated on the weakest part and several subsidiary points hoping to cause minor breaches and being strong enough to carry the attack through.
Unfortunately, the distribution of forces was uniform along the western front and methods of attack stereotyped and not adapted to the conditions. There was not enough artillery to counter the Germans and little appreciation of the importance of pillboxes and machine guns.
Unbelievably the problem could be traced back to pre-war training where semi-siege warfare and the principles of concentration of guns necessary for large field defences had never been studied. It was Frederic the Great of Prussia who said, “he who defends everything defends nothing” – the principle of concentration of forces had been lost. In the end, it is leadership and understanding and innovation that wins wars and these were both in short supply.
The campaign for the Passchendaele ridge started with the Australians joining the fray at the Menin Road, Belgium, on the 20th September with the 1st ANZAC followed by the 2nd ANZAC Corp and was successful. General Monash who commanded the 2nd Anzac corps subsequently set up his headquarters near the Menin Gate. He described Ypres as an ‘old walled town encircled by ramparts, which presented a sufficient thickness of breastworks to be fairly safe against enemy shells. Beside the ramparts, numerous tunnels, dugouts, cabins and galleries have been constructed’. The old town which was on a slightly elevated site, hence its military importance was a stark, pitiable ruin.
In the subsequent weeks, success on the 4th October was followed by setbacks when the ANZACs were caught in front and flank machine gun fire and had to withdraw in what was described as a pointless sacrifice. Rain began falling on the 6th October and grew steadily worse. The soldiers were handicapped by having to carry a 60 pound pack, about half their body weight that really meant and any attack across the muddy and potted fields was slow and they were easy targets for the well-placed machine guns. Even the army mules only carried one-third of their body weight!
There was little intelligence coming through with the bad weather, ‘no flying, no photography, no definite information of the German dispositions, no effective bombardment and no opportunity to replenish our ammunition’ reported Monash. ‘The whole country forward to our previous captures was literally a sea of mud, in most places waist deep’ he noted. On his flank, the New Zealanders had some 3000 causalities attempting to pass through uncut barbed wire attempting to cross the Ravesbeek.
The Canadians against their better judgment, as they had calculated the possible causality rate, were prepared to follow orders. They relieved the ANZACs and continued the push with some 15, 634 men killed or wounded.
All up some 12,000 Australians died and twice as many were wounded. The questionable military gain was an advance of 8 kilometres.
On the 18 October, Monash wrote to his wife his thoughts—” our men are being put into the hottest fighting and are being sacrificed in hair-brained ventures like Bullecourt and Passchendaele, and there is no one in the War Cabinet to lift a voice of protest. It all arises owing to the fact that Prime Minister Hughes, for political reasons has been unable to come to England. Australian interests are suffering badly.” Indeed, Lloyd George, the British Prime minister was in two minds about the attacks and much discussion occurred at the War Cabinet level, he finally being persuaded by Haig the professional soldier.
The point of Passchendaele is inexplicable – it may have taken some of the heat of the French further south where they were struggling with the aftermath of the mutinies of the 1 and 2 armies. One argument was that it tied up some 88 German divisions compared to the 43 British and Dominion divisions however it pitted only a third of the Germans against over half of the British and Dominion forces.
The Official History suggests a breakthrough could hardly have had decisive results! The Germans were expecting reinforcements from the Russian front as by now the 1917 revolution had taken the Russians out of the war. Haig had been advised his artillery was limited and spread thinly along the western front, unable to concentrate firepower for any real effect.
Haig was optimistic, nevertheless, and believed the artillery could flatten the opposing army, “nothing could exist at the conclusion of the bombardment, in an area covered by it”, allowing the British forces to move in with safety. He had not appreciated the strength of the bunkers and the fact the artillery was limited on the British side allowing many gun emplacements to remain intact and subsequently mow down the soldiers as they advanced. Haig’s optimism passed down through the command and when reports came back stating the bombardments were ineffective and the machine guns had not been silenced divisional staff ignored the reports and dismissed them claiming the soldiers were scared!
One has to ask why the career officer class was optimistic yet in denial of the facts. It is suggested it may have been a reflection of their very human nature wanting to protect their careers and follow the lead from above. The nineteenth-century military system had fostered blind loyalty and this had caused the confused system of avoiding reality despite the consequences for the lives soldiers under their command. Indeed, according to war historian Liddell Hart, army instructions noted: “all criticisms by subordinates…of orders received from a superior authority will in the end recoil on the heads of critics”.
The Official History notes explanations and excuses but failed to note the obvious cause for failure – the ”stout use of the machine gun by the enemy and his scientifically planned defences… a lesson obvious to most regimental soldiers”.
Some of this attitude started to modify with the call-up of civilians and officers who had an alternative career on leaving the services. Monash fell into this latter category but noted it was bad to cultivate the habit of criticism of higher authority.
It was with a degree of hesitation he was prepared to outline some of the difficulties encountered at Passchendaele. Each division had to make its own preparations in regard to roads, rail, pushing forward its guns, supplying ammunition dumps, burying telegraph cables, establishing headquarters, aid posts and many other aspects of mounting an attack. Not every division engaged in the battle was up to the work, due in part to their losses of key personnel and untrained new recruits. In the heat of battle, the higher command cut corners and did not allow appropriate preparations to be undertaken so the success was limited and the causality rate higher than Monash would have liked.
On 12 November 1917, 99 years ago this week, Haig called a halt to the fighting. In total from July to November under Haig’s command on the Western front over half a million causalities paid the price for an 8km advance at its deepest all of which was lost in the German March offensive the next year.
As a result of this carnage, Monash formed the theory that the true role of the infantry was “not to expend itself upon heroic physical effort, nor to wither away under merciless machine-gun fire, nor to impale itself on hostile bayonets….but, on the contrary, to advance under the maximum possible protection”.
The newly arrived Tank became key to this protection.
In the following year, Monash was to become commander of the Australian Corps an amalgamation of the ANZAC corps with all Australians under Australian command. He pioneered the successful combination of Tank and ground troops, aeroplane observation and rapid delivery of information, advances with radio communication, and a clear understanding among the troops of what to do which was successful at the battle of Hamel. This set the pattern for further conquests and eventually the end of the Great War.
The development of the Monash approach led to his reputation as possibly the greatest General of the war, as Montgomery ranked him and his Knighthood in the field by the King.
It is rightly said on occasions such as this when we honour the memory of our fallen and the supreme sacrifices the men and women serving our nation made –“lest we forget”
Reflecting on the causes of the Great War the human failings and those involved in the politics and command there are many lessons to be learnt which are as applicable now as they were then and should also not be forgotten.
Finally General Sir John Monash in his book “War Letters” which I have quoted extensively from, also remembered those at home and dedicated it –
“To the women of wartime Australia, who, like those to whom these letters were written, worked and waited through four years of war”
Let us truly not forget.
I have used the following sources for this address
War Letters of Sir John Monash, Angus and Robertson, Australia, 1934
B.H. Liddell Hart, History of the First World War, Pan Books London and Sydney, 1970
John Keegan, The First World War, Hutchinson London, 1998
In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, mourning the fallen at Ypres
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved, and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe To you from failing hands we throw The torch, be yours to hold it high If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.
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Author: Robert Lusby AM
Emeritus Professor University of Sydney, Retired Colonel Royal Australian Army Medical Corps and Surgical Consultant to the Australian Defense Force
Former Associate Dean and Head of Concord Hospital Clinical School, The University of Sydney
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