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BEERSHEBA AND ITS MYTHS It is time to put this deservedly famous charge into its historical context

THE MOST DANGEROUS BATTLE At Passchendaele, Haig endangered the Allies’ cause almost fatally

A DIVIDED AUSTRALIA The intense confl ict over conscription during the First World War

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100 years on







DEFENDING COUNTRY Indigenous service

MIDDLE EAST CONFLICTS Australian experiences


Charles Bean and the Australian Historical Mission to Turkey in March 1919.


After a rocky start, Australian stretcher-bearers became the most respected men in our fighting force.

The ground-breaking refurbishment of the Australian War Memorial’s First World War galleries.




Facing entrenched discrimination, why did black diggers enlist to serve their country?

Discovering the stories of Indigenous service personnel will help to heal old wounds

The shaping of the Australian War Memorial began with a compromise




Memorial curators recording experiences of Australian forces in Iraq

The talented artists depicting those moments that seem to defy description

The intensive restoration of the Memorial’s Lockheed Hudson

ISSUE 69 | $8.95 (INC GST)

CELEBRATING 20 YEARS Th rough 80 issues Wartime has aimed to provide insight into Australia’s experience of war. Although the magazine has changed over the years, our objective remains the same.

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The fine art of tank deception in the First World War.

PASSCHENDAELE REMEMBERED The battle of Passchendaele was fought 100 years ago. Th is panoramic photograph shows troops of the 2nd Australian Division at Hyde Park Corner behind Hill 63, Ploegsteert, Belgium in December 1917. E01588 (detail) Shop online at the Australian War Memorial In their time of need: Australian overseas emergency relief operations, 1918–2006 Steven Bullard Official history of Australian peacekeeping, humanitarian and post–Cold War operations, Volume VI. This latest volume recounts the activities of Australia’s military forces in response to overseas natural disasters. Each chapter centres on a different operation, providing broad context of both the disaster and Australia’s political relationship with the affected country, and tells the story of the relief operation. Beginning with the 1918–19 influenza epidemic that ravaged the Pacific and culminating with the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, this book covers Australia’s response to some of the most catastrophic natural events of the past century. Steven Bullard weaves together official government records and archival images with the personal narratives and photographs of those who served, making this an authoritative and compelling history of Australia’s efforts to help its neighbours. Hard cover, photographs, maps, 577 pages. 9781107026346 $125.00 plus postage

Rounds complete: R an artillery forward a observer in Vietnam o Steve Gower S Former Memorial Director Steve F Gower was a young gunner in the G 1101st Field Battery when he was ssent to Vietnam in 1966. His role was to provide “timely, accurate w and effective fire support”, his a ttask to guide the guns of the Australian artillery in providing A fi fire support to soldiers on the ground. Gower would quickly learn that this job description failed to mention the terror and nerve-jangling tension of jungle warfare. Rounds complete is a frank and compelling tribute to the men who served and until recently were denied their nation’s gratitude. Soft cover, photographs, 224 pages. 9781925520583

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G Gimme shelter: stories o of courage, endurance and survival from the a ffrontline and back home Paul Field P Read the deeply personal and R often hidden stories of 16 special o men and women, including m Vietnam veterans, peacekeepers, V first responders and relatives, fi whose greatest struggle has been w tthe return to everyday life after sservice or dealing with the loss of loved ones who lost that battle. These are the stories of those who have seen it all, and fought to find a way to live with the aftermath of their experiences. Royalties earned from the sale of Gimme shelter are being shared with Soldier On.

Soft cover, photographs, 273 pages. 9781760404352 $32.99 plus postage

Browse through our extensive range of books, posters, DVDs, CDs, gifts, memorabilia and more. Shop online today or contact the Australian War Memorial’s eSales Unit. Phone: (02) 6243 4555 (select option 2) Email:



The Amiens gun began service with SMS Hessen in the battle of Jutland. BY JAMES GOLDRICK








At Passchendaele, Haig endangered the cause of the Entente almost fatally.

The effective leadership behind the French Army’s successes in 1917.

Tanks were at fi rst ineffective and a real danger to the men inside.

The Australian soldiers whose lives were changed through severe facial wounds.







In the centenary of the deservedly famous charge, it is time to put it into its historical context. BY JEAN BOU






Repeated assaults could not overcome bad planning and the infamous mud, resulting in immense losses.

The confl ict over conscription during the First World War created intense divisions.



By 1917, Australian infantry battalion commanders had been given ample chance to learn their craft. BY WILLIAM WESTERMAN



Dr Brendan Nelson AO 05 MAIL CALL

Your letters 06 IN THE PICTURE

Putting photography in the frame


Souvenirs of Passchendaele 09 BRIEFING

Capturing the flag 54 FRIENDS OF THE MEMORIAL



Corporal Ernest Lionel Bailey

As Wartime celebrates its 20th birthday, four editors share their favourite moments. BY ANDREW MCDONALD

OUR NEXT ISSUE Issue 81 (January 2018 ): Special forces




ABOUT WARTIME The opinions expressed in Wartime are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian War Memorial or Hardie Grant Media. It is not the intention of the publisher to sensationalise human tragedy that is the result


of war, nor to promote militaristic or chauvinistic sentiment, but to offer truthful, readable and entertaining stories that reflect the Australian experience of war. © All material appearing in Wartime is copyright. Reproduction in whole or part must be approved

Supervising Editor Ashley Ekins Editor Andrew McDonald Manager Michael Kelly Contributing Editor Aaron Pegram Photograph Research Lachlan Grant, Michael Kelly, Emma Campbell, Annabel McWhinnie and the AWM Multimedia Unit. Image sales (02) 6243 4542 Memorial Editorial Staff Lachlan Grant, Karl James, Michael Kelly, Aaron Pegram Editorial Contributions The Editor, Wartime Australian War Memorial GPO Box 345, Canberra ACT 2601 E: General Enquiries Australian War Memorial T: (02) 6243 4211

Wartime is published for the Australian War Memorial by Hardie Grant Media Level 7, 45 Jones Street, Ultimo, NSW 2007 T: (02) 9857 3700 W: Acting General Manager Alison Palfrey Account Executive Tiff any Eastland Managing Editor Sophie Hull Art Director Dan Morley Designers Geraldine Lanzarone, Luke Atkinson, Sue Morony Ad Manager Francesca MacKay Production Alana Young Print PMP Print Subscriptions Magshop 136 116



BEERSHEBA AND ITS MYTHS It is time to put this deservedly famous charge into its historical context

THE MOST DANGEROUS BATTLE At Passchendaele, Haig endangered the Allies’ cause almost fatally

A DIVIDED AUSTRALIA The intense confl ict over conscription during the First World War

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t was our worst year. Victory seemed an ever-receding horizon for the allies in 1917. We began in the frozen mud of Flers and Gueudecourt and finished in the blood-soaked slime that was the quagmire of the Passchendaele battlefield. At year’s end there were 77,000 Australian casualties, including 22,000 dead. It was the year in which the harsh reality of British military leadership was revealed to the AIF. Charles Bean witnessed the 4th Australian Division torn to pieces on 11 April 1917 attacking on the Hindenburg Line near Bullecourt. Inadequate, ineffective artillery and tank support contributed to this costly disaster. Of 3,000 men from the division’s 4th Brigade, 2,339 were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Bean wrote: “Bullecourt, more than any other battle, shook the confidence of Australian soldiers in the capacity of the British command.” With the exhausted French army in turmoil, British operations shifted north into Belgium. Key German positions were captured along the Messines Ridge in June, followed by four bloody months in the third battle of Ypres. The Australians fought at Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Poelcappelle, Broodseinde. Finally, a single word would later describe inconsolable suffering and grief: Passchendaele.

Australia sustained 38,000 casualties in just eight weeks – 6,800 dead in October alone. Among them, three Seabrook brothers from Sydney, all killed on the Menin Road in just 24 hours. Captain Frank Hurley was the 31-yearold Australian official photographer. He wrote: “Every 20 paces or less lay a body. Some frightfully mutilated, without legs, arms and heads and half-covered in mud and slime.” Having seen them endure brutal artillery attacks, drown in mud, and advance against withering machinegun fire from concrete blockhouses, Bean wrote: “Australian soldiers clung on to their agreed task – whether their own death or the destruction of the world should come … wherever they fought they were sustained by a belief in their worth.” In the Middle East, two regiments of the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade mounted on parched, thirst-crazed horses, conducted their exhilarating charge at Beersheba. Against fierce opposition, the Australians suffered 31 dead and 36 wounded, earning their place in history. In 1927, at the dedication of the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, was the Australian war artist Will Longstaff. More than 6,160 Australian names are among the 54,000 missing inscribed into the memorial’s panels. Returning at midnight, Longstaff conceived and then painted in London Menin Gate at midnight. This iconic work toured Australia in 1928–29, when Australia’s population was six million. One million went to see it – the closest they would ever get to the dead son, husband or father. Much that is precious was given in 1917. But from it and what would follow, we would emerge with a greater belief in ourselves and a deeper understanding of what it means to be Australian.

Cover image: Australian troops on Gordon Road head for the front near Zonnebeke, Belgium, November 1917. AWM E01480 by the publisher. Every effort has been made to determine and contact holders of copyright for materials used in Wartime. The Memorial welcomes advice concerning omission. Indigenous readers are advised that this magazine contains stories and images of deceased people.





The Editor, Wartime Australian War Memorial GPO Box 345 Canberra ACT 2601 E:

Wrong Taylor Just belatedly noticed that Xavier Fowler wrote about Brigadier Maxwell Taylor in his interesting article on the fall of Singapore in Issue 77. But I think he means Harold Burfield Taylor; Max was the US general. MARK LATCHFORD

Editor: The alert Mr Latchford is correct; apologies for any confusion caused.

Chevrons I hope you can answer a question I have been pondering for many years with no real answer. I am now a guide at the Army Museum in Fremantle, and an eight-year-old reminded me of the question. Why did Australian soldiers wear rank chevrons only on their right upper arm before the Second World War? I joined the Western Australian police force in 1978, and we also wore our chevrons only on the right upper arm. We also had a 3rd class sergeant rank that was two thick stripes with a third slimmer stripe in the middle. Hope you can help, as I have searched the web to no avail. I have every edition of Wartime and love it to death. TONY CUMING

Jane Peek: The British army had chevrons on both sleeves in the First World War; the Australian army did not adopt the practice until 1948, delayed until late 1949 owing to fabric shortages. The Royal Australian Air Force used chevrons on both sleeves from the start.

Image: P01393 010

First sunk It was good to see Mike Carlton’s story on the Scrap Iron Flotilla (Issue 79); but it states that Waterhen was the first Australian warship lost in the war. Six months before, on 30 November 1940, HMAS Goorangai, an auxiliary minesweeper, was sunk in collision with the liner Duntroon in Port Phillip Bay and so must claim that dubious honour. JOHN SMITH Navy History

Tanked Reading Issue 79 of Wartime, I was pleased to see an article on the 2/28th Battalion at Ruin Ridge. It reminded me of a couple of 2/28th Battalion photo collections I came across a few years ago. One set had an image of a destroyed Grant tank. In the AWM’s collection I found a diff erent shot of the same tank (P01393.010). The caption for this image claims that the Grant was destroyed after being hit by a German 88 anti-tank gun. I thought that the damage was too extensive for an 88 hit, and guessed that the tank had been destroyed by a large mine. Then I came across a photo of a knocked-out 88 gun in a set of photos collected by a chap in the 2/28th Battalion’s mortar platoon. The same destroyed tank can be seen in the background. I wonder if it is the tank shown on page 33 of Issue 79.


By George Thank you for the error in the caption (page 61 of Issue 78) for the photo of the King inspecting the Australians: “King George IV”. I had to look at the photo again to make sure it was taken in 1946. It made my day. REVD JOHN WYNDHAM (Chaplain Rtd)

Editor: Apologies to both their highnesses. It should have said “King George, 4th from the left”.



The most comprehensive collection of Australian military history is available on the Australian War Memorial’s website: It contains 200,000 photographs, 102,800 names of Australia’s war dead, details of 8,000 private records, items available at the Memorial shop and much more.





Here is a beautiful example of First World War official photography. Men of the 2nd Australian Pioneer Battalion are hard at work laying a plank road to keep vehicles from becoming bogged in muddy conditions at Chateau Wood, 1917. The photographer has captured some of the essential work performed on the Western Front by men who did not usually go over the top. But what is that on the right-hand edge of the image, almost out of shot? A cinecamera! A very deliberate choice was made by the photographer to capture his Debrie Parvo cinecamera in this image, almost as a self-portrait documenting his role in recording history. Photography equipment at this time was heavy and cumbersome, using large wooden cameras and tripods and boxes of fragile glass-plate negatives. A productive day

may have included taking as many as 18 “frames” – for us in the digital age, an unbelievably small number of photographs. Thus the composition and framing of each shot was very well considered, rather than just being snapped at random. Capturing the cinecamera in this scene was intentional. In Western Front official photographs, you see familiar images at or near the front line: muddy trenches, barren wastelands of countryside ruined by artillery bombardments, injured soldiers moving back from the lines, motor- and animal-drawn transports on the move. What the casual viewer may not know is that many of the now familiar or iconic First World War photographs have a corresponding scene in the official film collection; E00800 is one of these images.

There is a scene in the 1917 film Fighting in Flanders (F00056) in which the footage directly corresponds with the point-of-view of the cinecamera seen in photograph E00800. The same men who are frozen in time in the glassplate image can be seen moving about in the film, giving us a more candid view of their world as they go about their work. Numerous other scenes in Fighting in Flanders (and other First World War films; see page 67) can be “matched” with still images in the 1917 official photographs. However, E00800 perfectly demonstrates the connection between the glass-plate and film cameras, the men who recorded history, and the men whose stories have been immortalised in the frame. JENNIFER SELBY Curator, Photographs, Film and Sound





A vital part of the German MG 08/15 machine-gun, without which the weapon could not operate, this lock was removed by the German operator on 4 October 1917 and thrown away, shortly before he surrendered to troops of 1 ANZAC Corps advancing towards him at Broodseinde. The lock was found by Private John Nicol of the 1st Pioneer Battalion, AIF. RELAWM00619

Much of the fighting in Flanders took place in desolate, waterlogged landscapes. Particularly at night, navigating was fraught with difficulty. Troops on both sides were constantly replacing signs lost to shellfire, and creating new names for trenches and roads. This improvised British sign comes from where the 20th Battalion fought near Ypres at the battle of Menin Road in September 1917. The small metal plaque names those who collected it for the battalion’s museum. RELAWM00594

The Australian War Memorial holds numerous items of “trench art”, jewellery made by soldiers from the remains of munitions or equipment such as melted down aluminium mess kits and canteens. This aluminium and brass ring, inscribed simply YPRES, was worn by Lance Corporal William Ingram, who enlisted on 20 August 1914, served with 3rd Field Company Engineers on Gallipoli, and later on the Western Front. He returned to Australia in December 1918. REL 06572


One of the iconic landmarks of the Western Front fighting was the shattered remains of the great medieval Cloth Hall of Ypres. This small panelled oak door was taken from the wreckage by Sapper John Francis Street, 4 Field Company Engineers. Street was a 41-year-old from Cottesloe in Western Australia who enlisted in December 1915, served in Belgium and France, and returned to Australia in July 1919. REL 06572



Above: Polygon Wood, 1917. The shell-torn bodies of more than a hundred German, Australian and British troops were strewn around this mound. AWM E00987 Left: The captured Red Cross flag. RELAWM1592

The 53rd Battalion had reached their objectives just 35 minutes after the battle began.

On 26 September 1917, the 4th and 5th Australian Divisions took part in the battle of Polygon Wood in the Ypres Salient, Belgium. The 53rd Battalion was tasked with capturing Polygon Wood itself. As they moved forward, they were faced with the most prominent feature of the area. Known as the Butte, it was an earthen mound previously used by the Belgian army for rifle practice. Two platoons were tasked with capturing the Butte. When they were about halfway up, a German emerged with a Red Cross flag tied to a rifle, intent on surrendering. He was the first of 58 men, mostly medical personnel, who would surrender from their dugouts on the Butte. The flag was quickly taken off the rifle by Lieutenant Alban Charles Elliot, acting adjutant to the 53rd Battalion. He put the flag in his tunic and continued with the rounding up of prisoners from the dugouts. Lieutenant Elliot went on to receive the Military Cross for his leadership during the battle of Polygon Wood. He kept the flag as a souvenir until 1960, when he donated it to the Australian War Memorial. Polygon Wood was a resounding success. The 53rd Battalion had reached their objectives just 35 minutes after the battle began. As a testament to their achievement there, the Butte feature was chosen as the location of the 5th Division Memorial on the Western Front. The Red Cross flag is currently on display in the Memorial’s First World War galleries. CAMERON ROSS Assistant Curator, Military Heraldry and Technology


THE MOST DA N G E R O U S B AT T L E At Passchendaele, General Haig endangered the British army and the cause of the Entente almost fatally. BY ROBIN PRIOR


At Pilckem Ridge British stretcher bearers carry a wounded man to a casualty clearing station near Boesinghe, 1 August 1917. Imperial War Museum Q 5935


he battle of Passchendaele (or the third battle of Ypres, to give it its proper title) held for decades the most evil reputation of any of the battles of the Great War. That commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the battle are so mute, compared with those for the Somme last year, tells us that Passchendaele holds this position no longer. Nevertheless, it was the second-largest battle fought by the British army on the Western Front. And it was a major Commonwealth battle, involving every Australian, Canadian and New Zealand division in the west. However, in the major conference on allied strategy that met in Rome in January 1917, a large British offensive out of the Ypres Salient was not even on the agenda. David Lloyd George, who had just become British prime minister, wanted no repeat of the Somme, which he regarded as a bloody fiasco – a monument to the stupidity of the British High Command (that is, General Douglas Haig). He thought it time that other allies pulled their weight and suggested to the Italians that it was their turn. Sensibly, the Italian government turned down the opportunity to slaughter their own army – which left the Russians and the French. The French army had suffered mightily in 1916, first at Verdun and then at the Somme. But they had a new commander, General Robert Nivelle, who announced that he had a new method for winning battles that did not involve protracted attritional struggles [see page 17]. Indeed, if such a situation was to occur he would break off his attack and go over to the defensive. All he required from the British was a diversionary attack to draw away German reserves. The Russians too sought to play their part. They would attack in the northern section of their front no later than May with no fewer than 60 divisions. Lloyd George approved all this. Haig was to be hamstrung by placing him under Nivelle’s command – later modified, under furious military pressure, by confining his subordination to the duration of the battle – a very short space of time, according to Nivelle. But the plans of January and the circumstances in which they were made soon changed. The proposed Russian campaign never got to the start line. Already in February it was evident that the Russian capacity for offensive operations was crumbling. Transportation on the Eastern Front was approaching collapse, as were the troops who had undertaken one desperate offensive too many. By March, revolutionary elements within the Russian army were making themselves felt. Desertion, a trickle in 1916, reached two million by the end of April 1917. In the end the Russian civilian regime collapsed entirely. Food riots in Petrograd were not suppressed by the army. Indeed, they rather supported the


rioters. The Tsar, widely despised by this time, was forced to abdicate. A new government under Alexander Kerensky agreed to continue the war, but few believed him. By June 1917 Russia was a broken reed – one third of the Entente had ceased to be a factor, leaving only Britain and France. The next to wobble were the French. Like all other diversionary attacks on the Western Front, Haig’s at Arras failed to draw any Germans away from the obvious French preparations on the Chemin Des Dames. (The allied attempt at deception was not aided by the capture of the entire French plan by a German raiding party.) Despite the spectacular capture of Vimy Ridge by Canadian forces on 9 April, Haig’s further attempts got nowhere. On 16 April Nivelle put his new method (which consisted largely of prolonged artillery preparation) into practice. Some ground was gained – indeed, in comparison with some efforts at Verdun and the Somme, the early results might have been deemed satisfactory. But such hopes of a large breakthrough had been raised that when it did not materialise, morale slipped. And when Nivelle, so far from breaking off the offensive, kept hammering away in a style very similar to that of Joseph Joffre, morale snapped. The French Army had had enough. It entered a period of “collective indiscipline” – not a fullscale mutiny, because it undertook to hold the line against German attack. But it would take part in no more offensives – certainly not any that were led by Nivelle. He was replaced by Philippe Pétain, who had some 50 of the ringleaders shot and then got on with improving leave and conditions for the French infantry, the poilus. The main bulwark of the Entente, if not a broken reed, was swaying alarmingly in the wind. There was however more than a shred of good news for the Entente. In early 1917 the German High Command had launched an unrestricted submarine campaign. Why was this good news? For two reasons – British counter-measures, mainly in the form of convoys, deprived the U-boats of easy prey and anyway, despite the prodigious losses inflicted on British and neutral merchant shipping, there were not enough U-boats to keep up the pace. The second reason was that the sinking of United States ships had led President Woodrow Wilson, who


Above: Troops of the 16th Canadian Machine-Gun Company at Passchendaele Ridge on 14 November 1917. Imperial War Museum CO 2246

Right: The headquarters of the 24th Australian Battalion, in a dugout on Broodseinde Ridge the day after its capture, 5 October 1917. AWM E04513

At one point, 16 men were employed in digging a companion from the mud. They failed.

had been “too proud to fight” in 1916, to declare war on Germany in April 1917. The USA had quite a small army, but unlimited resources for war. In essence, Germany had now lost the war. Nevertheless, America’s large manpower and other resources would not start to cross the Atlantic in numbers until 1918. Until that happy day, the Entente had just one major functioning army – the British. This surely was a time for caution. The shadow of the Somme loomed large over Haig’s force. One more “victory” of that nature, and the Entente might not have a major offensive force at all. The temporary demise of the French and the collapse of Russia certainly meant that the British Expeditionary Force could not remain quiescent. But why not pin down the Germans by limited offensive “bite and hold” operations in the meantime? In short, inflict on the Germans the maximum damage while limiting the liability of the attacking forces. For the conservation of the BEF, this seemed an obvious strategy.


It was not however obvious to Sir Douglas Haig. He had long hankered for a large offensive from the Ypres salient with the idea of forcing the Germans away from the Belgian coast. In the aftermath of the Nivelle fiasco, he put forward his ambitious scheme once more. There was no need for his political masters in Britain to acquiesce in such a scheme. Indeed, on gaining power Lloyd George had declared himself the custodian of the BEF; but on coming to office he had said something else. He had condemned what he saw as the irresolution at the heart of the Asquith government. In its place he promised to deliver the “knock-out blow” to the Central Powers. And who but Haig was offering that sort of punch? In the end, the prime minister, despite many misgivings and caveats, sanctioned the operation. So there would be a grand offensive launched out of the Ypres Salient with the aim of clearing the Germans from the Belgian coast and perhaps forcing

a general retreat of their northern section of the Western Front. The preliminary phase of this action began well enough. Haig needed to capture the Messines Ridge, which overlooked the salient, to prevent the Germans from observing his main battle preparations. General Herbert Plumer, of the Second Army, had been laying a number of gigantic mines under this ridge since 1915. On 7 June 1917 these were detonated. At the same time an enormous artillery bombardment was directed at the German batteries behind the ridge. This combination of mine and shell enabled the British infantry (which on this occasion included the New Zealand Division and the 3rd Australian Division) to occupy the heights at modest cost. But now there followed an extended pause. Despite his familiarity with the ground around Ypres and his successful conduct of the Messines operation, Haig deemed Plumer to lack the essential qualities to carry out his main design. Those qualities (the cavalry spirit, dash) were, Haig thought, to be found in Sir Hubert Gough, the commander of the Fifth Army. Gough, however, would require time to familiarise himself with the new battlefield. Seven weeks went by, during which the Germans, who could hardly fail to see the build-up of men and machines taking place behind Ypres, strengthened their defences facing the salient. They introduced a system of defence in depth, which included many concrete pillboxes in which machinegun nests and field artillery batteries would be provided with shelter from the coming artillery storm.

That storm opened on 16 July and continued for an unparalleled 15 days. In all, 4.3 million British shells were thrown at the German defences, and these were supplemented by those of the French Sixth Army supporting the British in the north of the front. And unlike the first day of the Somme offensive, the cavalry were not massed for a breakthrough, so the bombardment did not attempt to break down all German defences in order to facilitate their advance. Moreover a creeping barrage accompanied all the troops who advanced to the attack on 31 July, and in certain areas a number of tanks were employed. Thus in some ways the British showed some increase in sophistication since 1916. The results reinforced this picture. On the left of the attack the Pilckem Ridge, Gough’s main objective in that area, was, with the aid of some tanks, captured. So was some ground in the centre. But on the higher ground on the Gheluvelt Plateau on the right, where the strongest concentration of German guns was to be found, no ground was made at all. Casualties amounted to 27,000 for the first day, an improvement over the 60,000 for the first day of the Somme but hardly cheap. Then on 1 August rain started to fall and it continued to fall for most of the rest of the month. Although no one in the high command seemed to grasp it, rain rendered the increased artillery resources available to Gough, the tanks and augmented air support and the creeping barrage, useless. Gough pressed on, though the quagmire into which the battle had rapidly descended made progress impossible.


1917: PASSCHENDAELE Haig refused to intervene, merely noting that he left such matters to Gough’s judgement. He thus ceased to fulfil his function as commanderin-chief. Troops drowned in the mud. They were in many cases unable to drag themselves from their trenches because of the mire, let alone follow a creeping barrage. In some places the mud was over four feet (1.2 metres) deep. The offensive stalled. In a month the line had hardly moved. Gough’s response was to blame the troops, accusing them of “not liking” the enemy shell-fire. This was too much, even for Haig. Gough was sidelined to command only the northern section of the front. Plumer was brought back to command the main event, which would be the capture of the Gheluvelt Plateau. Plumer made several crucial demands before he was ready to proceed. He insisted on time to ensure that his preparations were thorough and he insisted on a period of fine weather when his technological superiority to the enemy could be brought to bear with effect. In the first instance he would aim in three distinct steps to capture the Gheluvelt Plateau. The required fine weather appeared on schedule in mid-September, and in three battles (Menin Road, 20 September; Polygon Wood, 26 September; Broodseinde, 4 October) he captured the plateau with Australian and New Zealand forces in the thick of the action. His method was not pure “bite and hold”, which had the single aim of killing Germans; he always wanted to gain ground – with the idea of driving the Germans off the Gheluvelt plateau that so dominated the British area of attack. Once it was in his hands, he could launch a full-scale offensive towards the Passchendaele Ridge. His methods were based on British artillery superiority. Huge amounts of shells were fired at the German defences. Objectives were strictly limited to a distance of 1,500 yards (1,350 metres) or even less. The creeping barrage was thickened with many more shells and slowed, so that difficult pillbox defences could be assaulted under its cover. When objectives were reached, the troops were protected by a “standing barrage” of some thousands of yards in depth, which German counter-attack forces found impossible to penetrate. The German army could find no answer to these tactics. The vastly


superior British artillery resources overwhelmed them in attack and prevented any kind of concerted counter-attack. But there were some limitations in Plumer’s method. The first was that these small advances were not cheap. His three steps had cost no fewer than 55,000 casualties. No doubt those inflicted on the Germans were heavier but there was a limit to how many more such encounters the BEF could incur and remain at peak efficiency. The second was that fine weather was an absolute requisite for “bite and hold”. Periods of rain grounded the aircraft spotting for the artillery, thus reducing its effectiveness; rain rendered tanks useless, and made any kind of infantry advance behind a creeping barrage impossible. Thirdly, Plumer might be winning a battle of attrition against his foe but that did not fit with Haig’s larger purpose. At the end of Plumer’s last step (Broodseinde) the BEF was still some thousands of yards from the Passchendaele Ridge. Of these three factors, the critical determinant was the weather. When the rains returned on 4 October so did the quagmire. Moreover, Haig’s forces were now occupying low-lying ground that sloped gradually up towards the ridge. Needless to say Haig, with the steadfast

agreement of the like-minded Plumer, pressed on. German morale was deemed to be cracking. This was always Haig’s default position to justify a battle, but even if he had on this occasion been correct, the mud was so bad that there was little that his forces could have done to get to grips with the enemy. Haig recognised reality to some extent. The Belgian coast was forsaken as an objective. It was the Passchendaele Ridge – a feature, as it happened, of no tactical importance at all – that was now declared vital. The dreary, bloody and indecisive battles of Poelcapelle and First Passchendaele followed on the 9th and 12th of October respectively. In the second battle, New Zealand forces suffered the most casualties in a single day in their history. At one point, 16 men were employed in digging a companion from the mud. They failed. Still the battle went on. The Canadian Corps were introduced to try to capture the ridge. In conditions that beggared belief, they clawed or crawled or even swam their way forward. Finally on 17 November Haig announced that the Passchendaele Ridge had been captured. It had not – all the troops had managed to do was to establish a tenuous hold on part of it. This ground, gained at such cost (250,000 British casualties), was evacuated in three

This ground, gained at such cost (250,000 British casualties) was evacuated in three days following year.

Below: New Zealand Infantrymen moving up to the Ypres sector for the attack on Broodseinde Ridge two days later. AWM E00874

Above: Canadian troops pass the ruined Cloth Hall on their way to relieve Australian troops near Passchendaele, 25 October 1917. It was captured on 10 November 1917 by the 1st Canadian Division. AWM E04715

days when the Germans attacked the following year. Meanwhile, what had Haig’s political masters who had sanctioned the battle been doing? During the course of the battle they were noticing the overall lack of progress, and they were noticing the mounting casualty bill, but they were actually just spectators to the unfolding tragedy. At one meeting of the War Policy Committee, which was supposed to be overseeing the battle, Lloyd George noted that Haig had not yet captured the Passchendaele Ridge and predicted that when they met again in three weeks’ time he still would not have captured it. With that statement he was condemning tens of thousands of men to death or injury. It was not a matter of the civilian leadership sacking Haig, as some have suggested. All they had to do was tell him to bring the offensive to a halt. Whatever else he was, Haig was a good constitutionalist. There is no doubt that when ordered to stop, he would have stopped. But Lloyd George, apart from wringing his hands, took no action at all. Perhaps he feared the military. But he was not uncertain about his constitutional rights. He simply lacked the courage to act, while others at the front had no such luxury. Passchendaele cast a dark shadow over the British army on the Western Front. The casualties suffered there could not easily be replaced. Moreover, the censors’ examination of soldiers’ letters from the front revealed that the morale of the ordinary Tommy, while short of mutiny, had never plunged to such depths. There were other serious ramifications. The failure of Haig’s great offensive had handed the initiative for some months to the Germans. And while Passchendaele had been proceeding, the Russian armies collapsed into rebellion or Bolshevism

– a matter that allowed the Germans to transfer around a million men from the eastern front to the west. And the British were soon to find that, without the Americans, they were forced to take over a greater length of front from the depleted French. This front, around St Quentin to the west of the old Somme battlefield, was found to have very rudimentary defences. And Gough’s Fifth Army, which was directed to hold it, had because of the depredations of Passchendaele insufficient men to hold it in depth or to improve its defences. On 21 March 1918, the Germans attacked this area and for the first time on the Western front, broke right through. Only the most desperate measures by the British and the French in rushing reserves to the area, and the increasing exhaustion of the German attacking troops, prevented disaster. As it was, by the end of April 1918 the Germans had advanced over 50 miles, an unprecedented success. The reserves that might have stopped this offensive in its first days were not available. They had been consumed for no good purpose the year before at Passchendaele. Such was the legacy of the delusions of the military command and supine political leadership in 1917. •



Robin Prior is Visiting Professorial Fellow at the University of Adelaide and the co-author of Passchendaele: the untold story. He is working on a military history of Britain from 1914 to 1945.


From mutiny to renewal The French Army in 1917 achieved successes, thanks to effective leadership. BY ELIZABETH GREENHALGH



French soldiers inspect a concrete shelter near Fort Malmaison, Laon, France, 27 October 1917. AWM H04419

opular memory seems to retain only the so-called mutinies in the French Army when the events of 1917 are examined: the centenary year is a timely opportunity to correct this misperception. For the United States, 1917 marks their entry into the war; for Britain, the mud of Passchendaele is a dominant theme; in Russia the two revolutions meant the country’s exit from the war. These events also affected France, and they provide the broader context for an account of what France’s army achieved in that troubled year. By the end of 1916 the French Army had fought two battles: two armies fought on the Somme alongside the British, and, at one time or another, the majority of French divisions experienced the tenmonth ordeal at Verdun. Together, the Somme and Verdun cost the French well over half a million casualties, of whom 334,800 were killed. The French commander-in-chief, General Joseph Joffre, was a different kind of casualty – as he was replaced by General Robert Nivelle, who had commanded the Second Army in its successful recapture on 24 October of Fort Douaumont at Verdun. Nivelle changed the plans for the 1917 campaign, giving the French Army the principal role, with the British attacking in support in what became the battle of Arras. He believed that he had discovered the formula for mounting a successful offensive, and said that if success evaded him, he would halt the operation after 24 or 48 hours. The British prime minister, David Lloyd George, was persuaded by Nivelle that there would be no repeat of the months of Somme fighting, and placed Haig under Nivelle’s command for the 1917 campaign. The British opened it on 9 April, pinning down German forces around Arras, with the Canadian Corps capturing Vimy Ridge. A week later, on 16 April, in dreadful conditions of snow and sleet, the French assault began on the Chemin des Dames, the strong German defensive position north of the river Aisne. By 20 April it was clear that the anticipated success was beyond reach, so the British and French military and politicians met in Paris on 4–5 May to decide the best way forward.


The nature of “mutiny” This then was the context for the events of May–June on the French front. The term “mutiny” is too limited. Acts included a group of soldiers singing the Internationale; or slipping away during a march to the front, to appear a day or two later, claiming to have lost their way; or refusing to relieve another unit in the front line. These acts occurred in the rear areas only (not in the front trenches) and on leave trains; they occurred in infantry units, not among artillery, cavalry or air units. They began in May, peaked in June and then died away gradually until around January 1918. The phrase “collective indiscipline” describes the range, extent and chronology of such events much better than the emotive term “mutiny”. Though more than half of French divisions were affected by mutiny (more than 60 of the 107 total at the time), it is important not to be misled by claims that the road to Paris lay open to the enemy. The three regiments of any division were not necessarily all involved, thus leaving a core of reliable men to help the cavalry and gendarmerie repress any incidents. It is important also not to be misled about the scale of the repression by lurid tales of summary executions or films such as Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of glory (1957). A review of French historical studies shows that the number of executions is not known exactly, but it is above 20 and less than 60 – a small proportion (perhaps as low as one-tenth) of the death sentences imposed.

The causes of indiscipline were multiple. At first the generals blamed it all on pacifist propaganda from the home front, but this was clearly an inadequate explanation. The first historian to be given access to the military justice files, Guy Pedroncini in 1967, restricted his study to the Chemin des Dames offensive and its immediate aftermath. He laid the blame squarely on the failed Nivelle offensive and the men’s refusal to continue with the same failed methods. More recent research, however, has widened the range of relevant factors considerably. Apart from what may be termed lassitude after the third winter of war (with extreme cold, reduced coal supplies, and the beginnings of food rationing) political factors were important. The revolution in Russia and the abdication of the tsar were widely reported. There were strikes in Paris and among munitions workers in other French cities; German munitions workers went on strike as well. Soldiers attempted to reach Paris to complain that they were owed leave but had been denied it – a complaint based on their right, granted by the parliamentarians, to that leave. What united the thousands of men – who, sometimes emboldened by drink, refused for a short time to obey an order to return to the frontline trenches – was an overwhelming desire that the war should end. This did not mean that they would accept defeat, as they did indeed return to the trenches. The defensive and offensive

Right: French soldiers carrying out trench mortar manoeuvres at Belleville, Verdun, January 1916. AWM H04320 Below: A French Army patrol leaving the trenches in the La Harazée sector, 11 July 1917. AWM H04628

battles of 1918 were even more costly in casualties than Nivelle’s offensive had been, but there was no repeat of 1917’s episodes of collective indiscipline. As just one example: the 77 Infantry Division was a new division, created in September 1914. In 1917 it had been in the north until 20 May, following up (slowly) the Germans as they retreated to the Hindenburg Line. Therefore they had not taken part in the Nivelle offensive, and were rested between 20 and 30 May. The recorded incidents all took place between 1 and 5 June, a very short timeframe. The principal complaint was about the lack of leave, which the men demanded before they would consent to risk their lives yet again in the front line. The division consisted of two



regiments of infantry and three battalions of the élite chasseurs (light infantry), equal in number to about another two regiments. Of the chasseur units: in 57 battalion, about 150 men demanded leave on 2 June and refused to obey orders, but they were disarmed and arrested during the night. Charges were laid against 122 men (11 for desertion and 63 for conspiracy to desert); of these, 23 were sentenced to death, the remainder to hard labour; of the death sentences, 22 were overturned and one man was pardoned. This short-lived incident hardly represented a danger to the integrity of the front line, and even less was an example of fierce repression. The two other chasseur battalions were treated leniently. During the

evening of 31 May, 150 men from 60 battalion demanded leave, but their officers calmed them down. The next day, however, the demand for leave was repeated because the order to return to the front line had just arrived. About 400 men attempted to drum up support among other units billeted nearby, but returned to their quarters that evening. The next day, 2 June, between 250 and 300 men abandoned their weapons and dispersed into nearby woods. The rest of the battalion, however, refused to join them and moved up to the front, and the battalion commander persuaded the men in the woods to return to their duty. As a result 18 charges were laid, 15 of them for refusal to obey an order; of the 15 death sentences, nine were overturned

on appeal, four were commuted and only two carried out. Eleven men from the third chasseur battalion, 61 battalion, were charged with desertion and conspiracy to desert; the sentences were for hard labour for periods of between five and twenty years, three of them suspended. Similar events took place in the two infantry regiments. Most of those brought to justice had no previous convictions; they were predominantly younger, therefore less used to wartime conditions; they came from all over France, and had a variety of occupations. There seems to have been little in common to these men, other than anger at what they considered to be unfair treatment in the matter of leave.


A fresh start Nivelle was replaced as commanderin-chief on 15 May 1917; he had lost the government’s confidence completely. His replacement, General Philippe Pétain, set about restoring the French Army to offensive health. First, he prepared some limitedobjective operations in order to restore confidence; he also dealt with leave arrears, living conditions and, more importantly, training in the changed conditions of warfare. British and French leaders had drawn up a new agreement on 5 May. It declared that although Nivelle’s plan had failed, it was essential to continue offensive operations. Acting only defensively was tantamount to admitting defeat, but operations with limited objectives, using artillery to the full, could exhaust the enemy while keeping allied losses as low as possible. Haig’s Passchendaele campaign cannot be said to have followed this intent, but the military actions ordered by Pétain certainly did. First of all, he supplied an entire French army under Haig’s command for Third Ypres, which began on 31 July. First Army under General Paul Anthoine was to guard the British left flank in Flanders and provide liaison with the Belgian troops, who were to join the operation once progress had been made and Haig’s planned amphibious landing had become possible. The French achieved their objectives in the opening days, but were held up by the British failure to capture the high ground of Gheluvelt plateau [see page 13]. They were forced to mark time until October when, once again, the French were able to advance and, by the end of the campaign, had reached the southern edge of the Houthulst Forest. First Army’s six divisions had suffered over 8,500 casualties (1,625 killed), which were very small numbers compared with the British figures. The reason for their better performance was the weight of artillery and Anthoine’s careful planning of logical phases in order to reach the allocated objectives. In this way, he followed completely the Franco-British agreement to undertake limited-objective operations, using artillery to keep losses to a minimum.

Pétain at Verdun Pétain’s second military operation took place around Verdun. The appeal of a success in this sector, which had dominated military communiqués in


1916, is obvious. Success here would confirm Pétain’s self-awarded accolade as the “saviour of Verdun”, and vindicate his selection as commanderin-chief to replace Nivelle, the general who had ended the Germans’ tenmonth offensive. The aim in 1917 was to recapture the high ground on the left bank of the Meuse, which had remained in German hands. This ground permitted the enemy artillery to fire into the citadel, the railway station, and French positions on the right bank. Although planned to begin on 15 July, the artillery preparation began only on 11 August, and the infantry assault was launched on the 20th – as a result of German counter-attacks on the newly won French positions on the ridge

Above: General Pétain chatting with a soldier.

Right: French soldiers inspect what is left of Zouaves trench located on Hill 304 in the Verdun sector, 24 August 1917. AWM H04335

known as Chemin des Dames, and because the collective indiscipline was still at its height. The German positions on the left bank, especially the heights of Mort-Homme and Hill 304, were immensely strong, since the enemy had spent a year improving them. They had dug tunnels below Mort-Homme, one a kilometre long, in order to bring up troops quickly when needed, and they had the fortifications of the Argonne Forest at their back. Careful French preparations countered these advantages. Roadways and 60-centimetre track were laid to bring up munitions for the large

numbers of French guns; troops, both front-line and second-line, were acquainted thoroughly with the terrain and rested before the infantry assault. The four divisions on the left bank gained all their objectives on the first day, except for Hill 304. This feature had exceptionally steep slopes on its north and south sides, but the French worked around it to the east and west and had completed its capture four days later. Possession of these heights enabled the French artillery to fire on the German positions on the right bank, where the French attacks were more costly and slower. Here the fighting continued until November, when the original line of February 1916 was retaken, yet the extended fighting gave no rise to any recorded incidents of indiscipline. In addition to gains of territory, the French took large numbers of German prisoners: 11,000 during the fighting in August and September alone. The third of Pétain’s operations achieved the greatest success. This was another meticulously planned and artillery-intensive action in a sensitive and significant sector, the Chemin des Dames itself. It took place at the end of October against its western end where it joined the Hindenburg Line. It was an artillery battle using all the guns that the French Sixth Army commander requested: over 2,000 of them, more than half of them heavies, for a front of 10 kilometres. Plentiful munitions, tanks and large aviation resources added to the power of the attack, which was limited to taking the Chemin des Dames ridge and the northern slopes as far as the next river valley (the Ailette). Possession of this ground would enable the remaining German positions on the ridge and its northern slopes to be enfiladed from the west. Launched in the early mist on 23 October, the operation was terminated on the 25th with all objectives taken at a cost of fewer than 14,000 killed, wounded or missing. This figure should be compared with the greater British casualty total on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme. Despite the low French casualties, 11,500 enemy prisoners were captured during the operation, along with almost 500 guns and mortars. The Battle of La Malmaison had been a huge success. Pétain had been prepared to use French troops in yet another operation in November. He offered a large army


detachment of two infantry and two cavalry divisions to Haig for the Cambrai tank battle [see page 29]. He moved these troops speedily to a position just south of the Cambrai sector so that they would be available to help in any exploitation. Haig was not prepared to share the glory of the successful opening of this action and turned down Pétain’s offer of help. However, when the equally successful German counter-attack was launched 10 days later, Haig requested French help, and a further two French divisions were despatched. These French reserves remained in sector until 16 December for Haig to employ if needed. In summary, the French Army under the command of Pétain carried out, with notable success, the strategy agreed by the allies in May after the battles of Arras and the Chemin des Dames. Haig’s conduct of the Third Ypres campaign in Flanders reduced the strength of the BEF by between 10 and 12 divisions – and those divisions

were sorely missed in March 1918 when the German Spring offensives began – for territorial gains that could not be retained. What had taken four months in the Flanders mud to capture was abandoned in three April days the following year.

Further improving military effectiveness These military successes were not Pétain’s only achievements. He improved conditions for the men by insisting on better food, and training for cooks; he repressed drunkenness by limiting alcohol supplies in the villages in rear areas; he ordered iron bedsteads, so that time spent out of the front line could be somewhat more comfortable than in a muddy dugout. More than these long overdue measures (by August the war had lasted, after all, for more than three years), he ensured that arrears of leave were granted. The French parliament had granted in 1915 the right to a week’s leave for every four months of service at the front,

and Pétain increased this to 10 days in September 1917, with travel time added on. Rest and restaurant facilities were provided at stations, so that going home on leave was less of a struggle against troop and munitions trains going to the front and medical evacuations from the front. Moreover, Pétain made frequent personal visits to the front to speak to troops and to see for himself that conditions were improving. More important than these practical measures, important as they were, was the organisation of better training. He created a new training section at his headquarters to oversee the tactical preparation of all combat arms. The opinions of those in the front line were sought. Training texts paid attention to liaison between the artillery and infantry, between tanks and artillery, and between aerial observers and those on the ground. The 12 companies within each regiment no longer consisted of riflemen, but comprised several specialised 40-man “combat sections” (platoons), armed with grenades or


1917: BEYOND MUTINY light machine-guns. The reorganisation reflected both the reduced numbers of available infantry and the development of a greater range of trench weapons. These reforms were helped by France’s industrial mobilisation, which was now in full flow. New models of rapid-firing heavy guns and mortars were being delivered, which enabled such great density of artillery fire in battle. For La Malmaison, for example, there were 170 guns of all types per kilometre of front. Pétain believed firmly in the value of aviation. France produced 14,915 aircraft during 1917, and over 23,000 aero engines, many of the latter being allocated to Britain. In order to make the most of these increased resources, Pétain established a special air service and promoted strategic photo air reconnaissance. He supported the development of the lighter (and cheaper to produce) Renault tank: the experience of the Chemin des Dames and La Malmaison showed that a lighter, more manoeuvrable tank would be of greater use than the heavy types that had been produced thus far. It should be remembered that, in addition to equipping its own French

The Chemin des Dames, devastated by years of heavy fighting, c. 1918. AWM H04453


troops, France also trained and equipped the arriving US forces. A French mission to Romania of 1,400 men under General Henri Berthelot led the revival of the Romanian army that resisted the Central Powers’ attacks on it as Russia descended into chaos and revolution. The French supplied rifles, guns and munitions. Most of the guns of the Russian armies were Frenchsupplied, as were those of the Serbian divisions. A misperception arose in the 1920s that connects the French so-called mutinies and the Passchendaele offensive. It was claimed that in September 1917 Pétain came to Haig to beg him to continue attacking in Flanders in order to save the French Army – because its discipline was bad. The story is unlikely for several reasons. Pétain was not the sort of man to beg anyone, especially not someone British, and incidents of collective indiscipline had more or less ceased by September. Pétain never approved of the Flanders operation, and would have preferred British divisions to take over more of the front held by the French instead, so that he could make up for the arrears of leave more

quickly. Indeed, by October it was Haig urging Pétain to launch the La Malmaison operation to help the British, but Pétain refused to overrule his army commander. The only pressure on Haig was selfimposed; the state of the French Army had nothing to do with his decision to continue operations in Flanders until November. What is more, without Pétain’s achievements, the French Army would have been unable to send reserves to bolster the British front after the German breakthrough in March and April 1918 and to make good Haig’s missing divisions. •



Elizabeth Greenhalgh is based in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, Canberra. She is the author of Victory through coalition and The French army and the First World War.

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Two German officers with a captured British Mark II female tank, disabled near the German trench lines at Bullecourt and abandoned, c. 1917. AWM G01534J


NO WONDER WEAPON The First World War tank was at first ineffective and a real danger to the men inside. BY BRYN HAMMOND


Left: Bullecourt, 11 April 1917. Germans with captured British Mark II tank No. 799, later wrecked and buried. Its remains were uncovered decades later and acquired by the Australian War Memorial; they are on display in the First World War galleries. AWM P12411.001

Right: A group of British soldiers at rest beside a Mark I female tank, Flers, c. 1917. AWM H09244


y the autumn of 1914, as war raged in northern France and Belgium, the antagonists realised that they were facing a wholly new tactical problem. The destructive power of modern artillery and machine-guns had inflicted immense losses on the infantry and cavalry of the combatants. To protect themselves, they had been forced to resort to digging trenches and putting up barbed wire entanglements to hamper any attack by their enemy’s army. The losses each side had suffered in the early months of the war, with shortages of ammunition and a front line of trenches stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss Alps, introduced the stalemate known as trench warfare. As the war continued, the defensive systems created by each side deepened with additional lines of trenches. They were more sophisticated in making use of tactical features and the lie of the land, and tougher to overcome, with the addition of strongpoints constructed from concrete. These usually housed machine-guns, which further strengthened the defences. The tactical problem of how to break this stalemate immediately inspired soldiers in all the combatant armies to look for solutions. In particular, there was a need to develop a means of crossing the shell-torn ground which would give some protection from the maelstrom of fire generated by artillery, machine-guns and rifles. They needed to overcome the barbed wire and trenches so as to kill or capture the opponent’s infantry.


By separate routes, and until 1916 without knowledge of each other’s endeavours, both the British and French worked to develop similar weapons. What was eventually produced became known as the tank. On 15 September 1916, at Flers-Courcelette during the battle of the Somme, the British Army in France was given this entirely new weapon, the Mark I tank, to use in operations against the Germans for the first time. The British commander, General Sir Douglas Haig, was convinced from what he had seen, and what he had been told by those who had been most closely associated with the weapon’s development, that tanks could make a major contribution to a war-winning offensive; indeed, he believed there was little to be gained from holding them back. At some point the new weapon had to be committed to action in order to establish its strengths and shortcomings under fighting conditions. This British employment of the tank rightly infuriated their French allies, who argued that had the secret been preserved for some months longer until they had their own version ready, this would have greatly increased the shockand-awe factor of the tanks’ appearance on the battlefield. Because they were developed in haste while the war was in progress, the first tanks had many flaws. They were mechanically unreliable and underpowered, with little thought given to arranging things so that the crew could operate efficiently

and safely. The engine was in the same compartment as the crew and, along with the weaponry, generated considerable heat and fumes. The first British tanks also had no suspension, and were slow and difficult to steer. The men in the body of the tank acted on signals from the driver and changed the gears for each track to enable the tank to turn. But first, the tank had to stop, which made it even more vulnerable to German artillery fire. Nevertheless, when they were first used, the tanks did enough to convince General Haig of their potential. He ordered 1,000 more. Improved tank designs, or “marks”, were used in all the major offensives of 1917 and 1918, including at Cambrai in November 1917 and Amiens in August 1918. Australian troops first encountered tanks at Bullecourt in April 1917. The entire battle was an unmitigated disaster and prejudiced many Australian commanders against tanks for a considerable time afterwards. Ideas for using tanks were still being developed at the time of the battle, and the army commander responsible for the Bullecourt operations, General Sir Hubert Gough, allowed himself to be persuaded to accept the idea of deploying tanks in place of the artillery barrage leading the attack. The tanks, which were still mechanically very unreliable, either arrived late or not at all, and drew fire when they did appear. They were not an adequate substitute for artillery, resulting in a very heavy


loss of life for the attacking infantry. Australian reports were unanimous in attributing the disaster to the failure of the tanks. One report by two Australian battalion commanders declared: “The organisation seemed to be bad, and no one appeared to be in direct command of the show.” The tank crews did not escape criticism: “The whole outfit showed rank inefficiency, and in some cases, tank crews seemed to lack ‘British tenacity and pluck, and that determination to go forward at all costs’, which is naturally looked for in Britishers.” With hindsight, it seems unfair to denigrate the efforts of the tank men, who wanted to help and had volunteered for transfer to a new arm that they hoped could help win the war. During the battles of the Arras offensive of April and May 1917, they were

The tanks, which were still mechanically very unreliable, either arrived late or not at all, and drew fire when they did appear.

fighting in tanks without armour plate and intended for training. Only the gun housings (the sponsons, cannibalised from the earlier tanks used on the Somme) were armour plated and thus provided some protection to the crews. The failure at Bullecourt did not stop Australian troops from working with tanks. The 3rd Australian Division operated with some of the new and improved Mark IV tanks only two months later, when the tanks first saw service at Messines in June 1917. The Mark IV was the first tank to feature improvements based on combat experience – although these were limited by the fundamental flaws of the tank design already in place. Each tank still required three men to drive and steer it, and still had the limitation of side-mounted guns; the tanks were


Wounded Australians of the 15th Brigade stand near wounded German prisoners in front of a Whippet tank. Harbonnières area, 9 August 1918. AWM E02880

still underpowered and still gave little consideration to the crew’s fighting efficiency, let alone their comfort. However, the tanks did now have the means to help get themselves out of shell-holes. Poor visibility for the driver and commander, and the nature of the shell-torn ground, meant that tanks could frequently “ditch” in shell-holes. Now a large, heavy timber beam called a balk, carried on the tank roof, could be used to give the tank purchase to



climb out of a hole, offering the crew a way of trying to keep the tank in action. But the crew needed to leave the tank’s relatively protective environment and, under fire, attach chains to the tracks and the “unditching beam”. Some crews in action during the fighting around Ypres in mid-1917 were prepared to do this more than 30 times, which gives an indication of their courage and preparedness to try to overcome many difficulties and play their part.

15 SEPTEMBER 1916 Battle of Flers– Courcelette: Mark I tank used in combat for the first time. Of 49 tanks deployed, only 27 actually reached the front line. Weight: 28,450 kg. Top speed: 6 km/h. Interior temperature: 50° C

9 APRIL – 3 MAY 1917 Arras Offensive: Mark II training tanks with only mild steel plating, which was not even bulletproof, used with some success in unintended role as main battle tanks.

Meanwhile, French tanks had first seen action on 16 April 1917 as part of the Nivelle Offensive on the Aisne front. The performance of the French heavy tanks was considered sufficient to inspire improvements in tank development – but they displayed many of the limitations characteristic of a weapon developed under the pressures of a global conflict, with fighting conditions unlike any previously encountered. It was clear by mid-1917 that, to be

7 JUNE 1917 Battle of Messines: First use of Mark IV tank. It was the most produced British tank of the war; 72 available for limited operations.

31 JULY 1917 Third battle of Ypres: More than 200 tanks available on the first day, but low-lying terrain criss-crossed with drainage ditches and areas of woodland was not suited for tank use. Only limited success for tanks.

FIRST WORLD WAR: TANKS effective, tanks needed appropriate ground on which to operate. The problem was that the tank units equipped with such a new and imperfect weapon could not dictate where the fighting should take place. The low-lying, almost flat, terrain around Ypres, with its complicated drainage system of dykes and water courses, was clearly unsuitable for heavy tracked vehicles that easily became bogged in thick mud. Heavy artillery, in greater numbers than ever, tore up the ground and destroyed the sophisticated drainage systems, further miring the attackers, while substantial rainfall made everything worse. But Flanders, the region in which Ypres lay, was where the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was to fight its main offensive operations in 1917. The third battle of Ypres, as it became known, was Field Marshal Haig’s

every other arm of the army, would have a vital role to play. Ironically, much focus is placed on images of tanks stuck in the mud of Flanders as a indicator of the failure of the British attacks in the Ypres offensive. Yet on the first day of battle, 31 July 1917, it was not mud that defeated the tank operations so much as trees. In the attack, some infantry divisions reported significant success with tanks cooperating well with infantry in the tactical methods the BEF had established for overcoming the chief element of the German defence in Flanders: the pillbox. However, the attackers operating either side of the Menin Road, leading almost due east from Ypres, encountered woodlands, in which tanks could not easily operate. The Germans skilfully used the woods to channel tanks into killing grounds where they could be tackled and

Tanks played successful role on the first day of the Cambrai attack.

battle, aimed at clearing enemy from the Flanders coast and removing the threat posed by German submarines operating from the Belgian ports. Haig believed the battle was a chance to launch an offensive that would break into his opponent’s defences and force the Germans to use up their reserves in a “wearing-out fight” (an attritional stage) before leading to a breakthrough beyond the trench systems. Tanks, like

20 NOVEMBER 1917 Battle of Cambrai: Around 376 Mark IV tanks were used as part of all-arms battle plan. As the battle progressed, tanks showed they were still unable to cope with fortified villages and woods.

destroyed by artillery, just as barbed wire was used to channel the infantry into zones where machine-guns could be used to best effect. After this first day in the fighting at Ypres, the problems of rain-soaked, churned, muddy ground prevented tanks from operating anywhere other than along the few remaining vestiges of roads. This meant that successes (and there were a few) were tactical, local

MARCH 1918 German Spring Offensive: First action by Medium A Whippet tanks on 26 March. Smaller, lighter, faster, machine-gun armed with three-man crew.

24 APRIL 1918 Near Villers Bretonneux: fi rst tank vs tank battle when British Mark IV tanks faced German A7Vs. A draw.

and limited to small-scale operations. Only after the Ypres offensive had failed in the muddy, shell-torn ground of Flanders did the British look to fight with tanks on ground better suited for their use. The dry, rolling chalk downlands near Cambrai offered ideal ground for tanks, and on 20 November 1917 almost 400 were used at the opening of an attack that produced an advance of almost four miles (six kilometres). Tanks in the Cambrai attack had a very specific role assigned to them that used their strengths to great advantage. The attack was planned on the basis of surprise, without a preliminary bombardment: more than 1,000 guns were to open fire as the attack started. These guns were positioned carefully by scientific methods, ready for the best chance of destroying German artillery, communications and strongpoints. But some means also needed to be found to destroy the barbed wire that protected the German infantry in their trenches. Tanks were ideal for this purpose: they could crush barbed wire entanglements flat enough to allow infantry to walk through. This was why so many tanks were used. The tanks could also be equipped to carry large brushwood bundles, called fascines, to dump into trenches – thus enabling the tanks to cross the wide trenches the Germans now used as an anti-tank defence. So, as part of an all-arms battle plan that exploited their strengths to good effect, tanks played a hugely important and successful role on the first day of the Cambrai attack. However, on the second and subsequent days, many of their frailties and failings were again exposed. They could not operate well in woods. They were ill-equipped for fighting in villages, where defenders

4 JULY 1918 Hamel: First Mark V tanks used alongside Australian troops during successful attack for limited objectives. Tank was now capable of being driven by one man and responded better to battlefield situations.

8 AUGUST 1918 Battle of Amiens: 534 tanks used in successful battle that began sequence of war-winning offensives known as the Hundred Days. The Mark V* tank was introduced.


could get to close quarters with them. They were still too mechanically unreliable and slow moving, making them very vulnerable to artillery fire. The latter days of the Cambrai battle, when the Germans counter-attacked and recaptured a large proportion of the ground they had previously lost, clearly demonstrated that the tank was an offensive weapon, with only limited value in defence. This was important, because in the first half of 1918 the allies were on the defensive as the Germans launched a series of major attacks in an attempt to win the war before the arrival in strength of American forces. These attacks were notable for the introduction of a few examples of the first German tank, the A7V, in fighting against the British. The first tank-against-tank fight took place on 24 April 1918. But the value to the Germans of the A7V in attack was negligible, since German tactical methods depended on rapid advance and exploitation. The A7V was simply too slow and cumbersome to play a prominent part. Meanwhile, French tank development produced the Renault FT-17, first introduced in fighting in May 1918. This light tank was the first to incorporate all the elements of what remains the standard tank design layout to this day – a revolving turret, a crew compartment at the front, with a separate engine compartment at the rear. The Renault was produced in large numbers (more than 3,000) and was a


very successful design. Its speed and manoeuvrability in particular suited it for the demands of the more mobile warfare of 1918. The British too introduced new tank designs. The Medium A, or Whippet, was a light and more manoeuvrable tank with a crew of three. Armed only with machine-guns, it proved useful in certain situations but not, as had been hoped, in successful cooperation with cavalry. The cavalry moved too quickly for the Whippets when they were both operating over open ground, but could not get forward to support the tanks once they were under machine-gun fire. The Mark V main battle tank was important as the first British tank that could be driven by one man. Now an officer could order the driver at his side to “go that way” and expect the tank to turn almost immediately. There was also means to mount a machine-gun on the tank’s roof to help tackle German infantry in the upper storeys of houses (a response to experience at Cambrai), and a more powerful engine. But these improvements were somewhat offset by the fact that the crew conditions were even worse than in earlier marks. The engine was cooled by air drawn in from outside the tank. This meant the crew were constantly breathing carbon monoxide fumes; the heat from the engine, combined with the fumes and the cordite from fired weapons, must have made fighting in a Mark V appalling. A larger version of the tank, the Mark V* – which in theory could be used as a form

Left: A captured

Right: Officers of

German A7V tank named “Elfriede” at Saleux, 26 May 1918. AWM E02369

the Tank Corps in the Ypres sector consulting maps. The nearer tank is a Mark IV male, armed with two 6-pounder guns; the other is a female, armed with Lewis machine-guns. AWM E00860

of armoured personnel carrier to carry infantry machine-gun squads forward in the attack – proved doubly flawed. Its size and underpowered engine made it even more vulnerable to artillery fire, while the infantry carried inside were frequently incapacitated by the heat and carbon monoxide poisoning. The Mark V’s mechanical reliability and responsiveness to battlefield situations were demonstrated in their first outing on 4 July 1918, when they played a successful role in cooperation with Australian (and a few American) infantry in the battle of Hamel. This was an attack for limited objectives, planned and delivered through close cooperation between Lieutenant General John Monash, commander of the Australian Corps, and Brigadier General Anthony Courage, commander of 5th Tank Brigade. The two men worked assiduously to come up with ways to overcome the Australian infantry’s considerable lingering doubts about the tanks’ efficacy. A strong bond was forged between infantry and tank crews that was built on and reinforced through plans for the much larger battle of Amiens, which began on 8 August 1918 and started the series of war-winning operations later known as The Hundred Days. The attack involved more than 530 tanks of several types operating in a variety of roles, as well as armoured cars – the one weapon developed during the war that had the potential to exploit any breakthrough of the trench stalemate. By now the role of the tanks as part of an all-arms, warwinning combination was clear. They could not win battles by themselves. They could offer the infantry the means to overcome machine-gun-equipped infantry in strong points or behind barbed wire, and they could help hold positions during consolidation after


the attack. The French, as well as the Americans, discovered that the use of “swarms” of Renault tanks was an effective method, as was repeatedly demonstrated through operations in late 1918. In the last months of the war, the value of the tank to the allied infantry is evident from the number of occasions on which requests for armoured support were made. It would be wrong to say that the infantry depended on them, however. Many, even the majority, of attacks were made by infantry steeling

themselves to advance against their opponents, protected by an artillery barrage that might be of great strength and effectiveness, but on occasion was still weak and ineffectual. Always there would be the prospect of casualties, frequently heavy, from any attack. That tanks helped to reduce these casualties in the latter months of the war is clear. However, the effective use of these new weapons in combination, as well as the greater material strength of the allies, was the key to success and ultimate victory. •



Dr Bryn Hammond is Head of Collections and Curatorial at Imperial War Museums. His books include Cambrai 1917: the myth of the first great tank battle and El Alamein: the battle that turned the tide of the Second World War.


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Wartime Spring 2017  

Wartime Spring 2017