En­trenched war­fare

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - STEPHEN MATCHETT

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

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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