IN the Australian memorial cemetery outside the French village of VillersBretonneux a tombstone is inscribed, ‘‘ Another life lost, hearts broken, for what’’. Compared with most memorial messages lamenting the loss of a loved one, this is an unusual epitaph. But Arthur and Annie Rae of suburban Sydney asked a question about the fate of their son, Private William Rae, which is relevant this Armistice Day weekend. Because the circumstances in which he died still underpin the sense of Australian achievement that was born on the battlefields of World War I.
There are three elements to the popular version of the Australian story in World War I: the huge sacrifice of an all- volunteer army; the way it did deeds that the struggling British, the exhausted French and the inexperienced Americans could not manage; and how the discredited imperial high command refused to accept the genius of Australian commander John Monash, the man who knew how to win the war.
In this legend other armies are extras, the typical British commander resembles Blackadder ’ s blithering General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett, and the generic Australian soldier, from Monash to Rae, was Crocodile Dundee, a man whose courage and ability to learn on the job ensured success.
Rae’s fate illustrates some of this story. The 24- year- old died on August 8, 1918, the first day of a brilliantly planned and well- executed Australian offensive that marked the beginning of the end for the German army, which had come close to breaking the Allied line on much the same ground five months before.
There is no doubt Monash and his five divisions, a fraction of the Allied armies, made a significant contribution to winning the war. But the cult of the Digger, and especially their commander, goes further. For example, in his recent biography of the general, Monash: The Outsider Who Won a War, Roland Perry presents the general as a military thinker far superior to his peers. Monash’s ‘‘ strategies delineated the Australians from the rest of the Allies. They marked a change in the way war was conducted from a 19th- century mentality whereby men were cannon fodder . . . his thinking ( was) perhaps a half- century ahead of his contemporaries,’’ Perry writes.
Perry also argues that Monash’s use of infantry and tanks to break the German lines inspired the theory of the German blitzkriegs of 1940- 42. He even suggests the Monash model inspired Adolf Hitler’s military approach.
Perhaps. The German general Perry quotes, Heinz Guderian, was familiar with the works of other World War I veterans who laid the foundations for armoured warfare, Basil Liddell Hart, J. F. C. Fuller and Charles de Gaulle among them. But Guderian made no mention of Monash and referred to the Australians’ victory at Amiens as ‘‘ not a worthwhile operational breakthrough’’.
There is also a difference between the way the Allies used armour in 1918, to help the infantry punch a big hole in the enemy’s line, and the way the Germans beat the French and the Russians in 1940- 41 by sending an expanding torrent of armour and mechanised infantry through a gap in their opponent’s front. Nor is Perry’s the only interpretation of the evidence he cites to support his claim Hitler was inspired by Guderian’s analysis of Monash’s 1918 victory.
Perry’s enthusiastic assertion of Monash’s achievement aside, his thesis reflects the accepted wisdom of the way World War I was fought in France, including the Australian experience.
Dan Todman’s recent book The Great War: Myth and Memory explains how the established ideas of criminally incompetent generals wasting the lives of their men started in the 1930s and took off in the ’ 60s as an adjunct to the decade’s social revolution in Britain. And ideas of incompetent Poms getting Australians killed in a war that was not our fight has always appealed to isolationists who hate the idea of our alliances with great and powerful friends.
But what arguments of imperial incompetence and Aussie exceptionalism ignore is that Monash was not working in a vacuum. The methods he used to defeat the Germans in August 1918 ( and the ones they had used to beat the Allies the preceding March) grew out of the lessons all armies learned during four years of deadly trial and murderous error as tactics caught up with technology.
Even if Perry is right to suggest that Monash was a war winner, this does not mean we can ignore the deaths of the millions of Frenchmen, British Empire troops and Americans, whose sacrifice won the victory on the Western Front.
Just as important, we do not need bold claims of Australian achievement to take pride in what Rae and the many men like him did. By 1918 the Australian infantry were very good soldiers, resourceful and innovative. With the Canadians and New Zealanders, they were perhaps the best troops on the Allied side. But they were not supermen, and to inflate their achievements diminishes the awful price they paid; a price the Rae family, like tens of thousands of others, understood too well.
Bill Rae had two younger brothers who also fought in France. The youngest, a gunner, survived, but the middle one, Donald, also died, and in heartbreaking circumstances. Don was wounded fighting in France in 1917 but rejoined his 19th battalion in time to face the German offensive of April 1918, when he was captured. He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner, only to die in February 1919 in Scotland of typhoid.
The Rae boys seem ordinary Diggers, typical of the Australian infantrymen who fought in Flanders and on the Somme. In combination with their mates, they did great things, especially towards the end of the war when they fought under Australian leaders, from corp commander to corporals. But they paid a wretched price for their achievements and they did not win the war by themselves ( they were out of the line when the fighting stopped). Nor did Monash.
There is something of a resurgence of interest in Australian achievements on the Western Front as the 90th anniversary of the armistice approaches. But the detailed record of the war has already passed from the land of living memory to the record of history. So there is a choice. We can remember the Raes, and all the others who fought in France, as ordinary blokes who were killed or wounded doing their best. Or we can remember them as super soldiers commanded by a military genius. The second is the appealing explanation, but it’s a simplistic story.
Matchetts@ theaustralian. com. au