BLOOD, DEATH & HARD DECISIONS
THE BATTLES OF 1917 ARE MARKED BY TALES OF HEROISM, BUT SET AGAINST THE WORST LOSSES IN OUR HISTORY, WRITES JUSTIN LEES
Sister Ada Smith can’t sleep. The noise of the guns doesn’t help, but the real reason is the crushing knowledge that, within hours, thousands of men will be slaughtered and maimed.
For days, Diggers passing through her Trois Arbres nursing station in northwest France have been talking about the next “big one” — a push on some ridge called Messines. Engineers have tripled the number of operating tables in the surgery tent, and Ada is told she will be in charge of wounded men with no chance of recovery, “the moribund ward”.
“I felt things were almost beyond me,” she writes.
Today we remember Messines as the site of a spectacular and successful Australian victory.
But Ada’s fears more closely mirror the reality of 1917 — and they would be validated at the front and at home.
The third year of World War I, 1917, was the most devastating year in Australia’s history in terms of lives lost overseas and domestic upheaval in a country looking anything but lucky.
“It was without a doubt the costliest year,” noted historian Peter Stanley says. “Australia lost as many men in 1917 as in the first three years of fighting combined — almost 22,000. It was the year of the heaviest death toll and the most social division.”
That’s not just the costliest year of WWI, but of all time. Twenty per cent of all Australia’s deaths in war
happened in 1917. Behind the military losses, which we pause to remember today, were social and political disruptions of a scale never seen before or since.
The bitter conscription debate, setting communities against each other in rifts that would not heal for decades; the Great Strike that sowed bitter enmity between “disloyal” unionists and “scabs”; a plague of mice that devastated crops; food riots; and a constant undercurrent of tension and suspicion that had innocent men hounded, impounded and banished for the crime of having a name that sounded a bit foreign.
At the front, we remember battles such as Messines, Polygon Wood, Beersheba, Passchendaele, and Gaza. All marked by tales of heroism, but always set against horror and loss.
For example, the extraordinary exploits of Victoria’s Captain John Eldred Mott (inset below). Muchloved by his men, he is wounded multiple times at Bullecourt. Retreating in the face of overwhelming forces the Diggers bandage him and hide him in a dugout, where he somehow stays alive for three nights until found and captured by Germans. Within months he recovers enough to escape from a German prison camp and makes it 146km across the enemy heartland to freedom and a Military Cross.
It’s boys’ own adventure stuff — but the backdrop is a defeat where Australians were annihilated (10,000 became casualties in the two battles for Bullecourt); and John’s younger brother Arthur is killed just weeks after the escape in a training flight.
Another amazing escape, this time at Messines. NSW infantryman George Eccleston is shot in the shoulder and abdomen and left alone in No Man’s Land. The thick, sticky mud appears to have sealed his wounds, stemming the blood loss as he crawls back inch by agonising inch to Aussie lines. Alive, yes, but wrecked inside, as his son Redge told AnzacLive: “He never spoke about the war, but had loud nightmares yelling out during the night for Amby his brother, my uncle, who was killed after arriving in France only three weeks earlier.”
Before George’s action at Messines are the famous mine blasts that obliterate German positions. Rightly, we remember the exploits of the tunnellers led by Captain Oliver Woodward and immortalised in the film Beneath Hill 60. But the men are mortal and many, many die during the subterranean work to make the explosion happen — in collapses, accidents and short, sharp underground fights with enemy raiding parties. Among them NSW coal miner James Sneddon, who followed his son Walter to war to look after him — but is buried by a German countercharge.
Even senior officers suffer. The legendary General Harold “Pompey” Elliott stuns subordinates at Polygon Wood by going right into the front line — unheard of for his rank — and steers his men to victory. Somehow he maintains his calm and sterling leadership, despite learning halfway through the battle that his brother George has been mortally wounded.
Then there are the thousands killed at Passchendaele, including three brothers gone on the first day of battle among 38,000 Aussie casualties over three months of carnage.
Nurses, such as Ada, shine not just as care-giving angels. Our beloved Alice Ross-King and Alicia Kelly are among those awarded medals for their bravery and swift thinking in devastating German air raids on casualty clearing stations
The bitterness endured for generations; people did not speak to each other for years Author Peter Stanley
— in the case of Melbourne’s Alicia, covering patients’ heads with enamel wash basins and bedpans, knowing they are practically useless as helmets but might give a sense of security to the bed-bound men. Their stories stand out in wartime commemorations, but what about the men and women at home, on the frontline of a society riven by division? The conscription debate had already torn through Australia the previous year, with communities divided against one another, often along loose religious lines — Catholics opposed and Protestants for enforced service, and a referendum at year’s end a narrow win for the antis that saw the Labor Party split. Prime Minister Billy Hughes’ second doomed push to introduce conscription, in 1917, turns those wounds septic and the rancour bleeds into other social issues in a country weary of war, where every family is in some way suffering.
“Communities, families were torn apart,” says Stanley, research professor at UNSW Canberra and former Australian War Memorial principal historian. “Propaganda was appallingly divisive, not just from the factions but even coming from the Prime Minister.”
By comparison, he says today’s same-sex marriage conversation is a model of civilised debate. In addition to mass demonstrations and brawls the conscription battle leaves communities divided for years to come.
“The bitterness endured for generations; people did not speak to each other for years,” Stanley says. Those for conscription accuse those against of disloyalty and worse; those opposed can be just as vitriolic.
Stanley, whose new book The Crying Years: Australia’s Great War examines the issue, gives an example of a man “dobbed in” by Commonwealth Bank officials for voicing anti-conscription opinions in the queue.
The “Great Strike” that spreads across the country mid-year raises similar levels of vitriol with similar accusations: strikers are traitors to the cause, those who continue work are
In the midst of it all, there is hunger from a mouse plague that ruins crops; and bread riots in Melbourne where hundreds of women storm Parliament chanting for “food and fair play”. Among those arrested is Adela Pankhurst, daughter of British suffragette Emmeline.
Women are some of the first to fill gaps left by strikers and soldiers, especially those whose menfolk are fighting. For two years the same women were the driving force in the voluntary war support movement.
While Australian women did not quite achieve the leap towards equality and emancipation achieved by their British counterparts in WWI (that would come Down Under in the next great conflict, 25 years later) the scene was set for change.
However on November 11, 1917, with the second conscription referendum a month away, positivity is hard to find. It will be another bitter year — and 8000 more Australian deaths — before the Armistice comes, and with it Remembrance.
Adela Pankhurst, daughter of British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, is arrested during food riots in Melbourne. Injured Aussies of the 3rd Australian Division during the battle for Messines. General Harold Elliott at a captured German divisional HQ at...
So-called “patriots” turn out to replace striking unionists in the Great Strike of 1917. Australian nurse Sister Ada Smith. The morning after the first battle of Passchendaele showing Australian infantry wounded around a blockhouse near the site of...