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

The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) - - Remembrance Day -

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

scabs.

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 Har­bon­nieres. A pho­to­graph taken by an un­known Aus­tralian sol­dier show­ing the at­tack on Poly­gon Wood.

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 Zon­nebeke Rail­way Sta­tion. Pe­ter Stan­ley’s new book The Cry­ing Years, and the au­thor (be­low). Ex­hausted stretcher bear­ers at Pass­chen­daele.

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