traordinary exploits of Victoria’s Captain John Eldred Mott. Much-loved 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 those killed at Passchendaele, including three brothers 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 – 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 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 anticonscription opinions in the queue.
The “Great Strike” that spreads across the country midyear raises similar levels of vitriol with similar accusations: strikers are traitors to the cause, those who continue work are scabs.
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 Australians will die – before the Armistice comes, and with it Remembrance.