After­math of War


Australian Geographic - - Contents - STORY BY ALAS­DAIR MCGRE­GOR

As the grim task of bury­ing the dead be­gan af­ter WWI, troops set­tled in for a long wait be­fore re­turn­ing home.

WHEN THE ARMISTICE was f in­ally signed to end the Great War be­tween the A l l ie d Power s and Ger­many, its tim­ing was set de­lib­er­ately to come into force at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. But af­ter t he r oa r of g u n s h a d d ie d away, t he bit t er l y con­tested swathe of ground that had been the Western Front re­mained a mon­strous and per­sis­tent wound stretch­ing across north­ern France and Bel­gium.

In time, the rub­ble of once post­card-per­fect towns and vil­lages would be cleared away, build­ings re­stored or re­placed, and cratered f ields ploughed back into use­ful­ness. The scarred land­scape would be­gin to heal as sur­vivors strug­gled for nor­mal­ity and or­der.

Yet at war’s end, tens of thou­sands of bod­ies re­mained en­trapped in the mud. While bat­tles raged, some had been hastily con­signed to mass graves. Many more were lost, be­yond know­ing and with no recorded rest­ing place, while the du­bi­ous for­tu­nate at least lay be­neath makeshift crosses not­ing only the barest de­tails of their iden­tity.

The task of lo­cat­ing and ex­hum­ing the dead, and then rein­ter­ring them in for­mally des­ig­nated and con­se­crated ceme­ter­ies, was as daunt­ing as it was dis­tress­ing. About 295,000 Aus­tralians had fought on the Western Front with 46,000 dead among nearly 180,000 ca­su­al­ties from the fight­ing in France and Bel­gium. Of those, about 18,000 had no known grave at the war’s end.

THE IM­PE­RIAL WAR GRAVES COM­MIS­SION be­gan its work in 1917, at­tend­ing to the re­mains of sol­diers of the Bri­tish Em­pire. An Aus­tralian War Graves De­tach­ment worked un­der the Com­mis­sion’s di­rec­tion, and, at its great­est strength, 1100 men were de­ployed on and around the for­mer bat­tlef ields.

A Sergeant Syd­ney Wigzell, de­scribed in the press as “a 1914 man” (one who had fought right through the war), wrote to a friend in May 1919 with his let­ter find­ing its way into Wagga Wagga’s The Daily Ad­ver­tiser. “You know that our boys are all ‘dig­gers’,” he be­gan in grimly la­conic jest. “Well there are 1000 of us who are

us who are re­ally ‘dinkum dig­gers’. It is cer­tainly a grue­some and very sor­row­ful task, but...who more f it­ting to per­form it, than their mates who were be­side them when they fell.”

Our Graves De­tach­ment worked through the “rain, hail, sleet and snow” in what Wigzell hoped would be a “win­ter’s farewell”. The group’s com­mon de­sire was to “ren­der unto the fallen” all they could, en­joy some re­lief vis­it­ing the sights of Eu­rope, and then f in­ally turn for home. Sergeant Wigzell was sav­ing for a trip to Venice and had al­ready seen “many an­cient places”, but he longed for Aus­tralia prefer­ably, in his opin­ion, “be­fore grandeur and his­tory and an­tiq­uity”.

Be­cause there were no sur­viv­ing houses in bombed-out towns and vil­lages, the men with the de­tach­ment lived in huts erected on damp ground, grate­ful for the oc­ca­sional load of straw “to make it more com­fort­able”. The army’s lo­gis­tic ma­chin­ery had been largely with­drawn, leav­ing them “badly off for clothes and boots” and re­liant on the char­i­ta­ble Aus­tralian Com­fort Fund with its of­fer­ings from home of socks and other warm gar­ments.

Some, like Wigzell, were vol­un­teers and sur­vivors of the hor­rors of bat­tle. But the Graves De­tach­ment was also manned by men who had never fired a shot in anger – re­in­force­ments who had ar­rived in Eu­rope close to the time of the Armistice and were drafted into the de­tach­ment rather than be im­me­di­ately sent home. Ten­sions arose be­tween the vol­un­teers and the new­com­ers.

Nine­teen-year-old Pri­vate Wil­liam MacBeath, of the 58th Bat­tal­ion, left Aus­tralia at the end of Au­gust 1918 and ar­rived in France the fol­low­ing Jan­uary. In April, Will (as he was known) wrote to his mother, telling of the re­bury­ing of 200 men in a week, and the pres­ence “all day long...of the rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the var­i­ous al­lied armies...tak­ing pho­tos and par­tic­u­lars of the graves”.

He also wrote of the dis­con­tent within the de­tach­ment, re­port­ing that “although we’ve only been go­ing a few weeks, we have had two strikes, we re­fused to work un­til we had bet­ter means for han­dling the bod­ies, had bet­ter food and cut out cer­e­mo­nial pa­rades”.

Will thought it strange that af­ter a hard week’s work he and the rest of the de­tach­ment crew were ex­pected to “go and play pa­rade ground sol­diers”. For Sergeant Wigzell, such dis­com­forts and in­con­ve­niences were noth­ing com­pared with the re­cent re­al­i­ties of life and death in the trenches.

He was sorry the men of the de­tach­ment were not all vol­un­teers like him and, to his friend in Wagga Wagga, made clear his con­tempt for the new­com­ers. “I of­ten wish I had them in the front line dur­ing a hot at­tack,” Wigzell wrote, “they would not then have time to worry about these in­ci­den­tals.”

How­ever, the new­com­ers’ mil­i­tancy did pay off and im­prove­ments were forth­com­ing – bet­ter food, sup­plies is­sued from the Com­fort Fund and, as Will put it, ef­forts were made to “get a few shillings a week ex­tra off the Red Cross for us”.

THE AUS­TRALIAN WAR GRAVES De­tach­ment con­tin­ued its grim work un­til 1922. By then, 40 war ceme­ter­ies had been es­tab­lished by the Im­pe­rial War Graves Com­mis­sion on the Western Front. The dead were gath­ered up and for­mally in­terred across all bat­tle­fields, with 30 Com­mon­wealth ceme­ter­ies also com­pleted on the Gal­lipoli Penin­sula.

While the work of the hard­ened dig­gers and the untested re­cruits of the War Graves De­tach­ment came to an off icial end in 1922, in re­al­ity their ef­forts will al­ways re­main in­com­plete. Many sol­diers from World War I are still un­ac­counted for a hun­dred years af­ter the conf lict ended.

As re­cently as 2009 a mass grave con­tain­ing Aus­tralian bod­ies was found near the small north­ern French town of Fromelles, the scene of per­haps the great­est sin­gle dis­as­ter in Aus­tralian mil­i­tary his­tory. In the course of a few ghastly hours on 19 and 20 July 1916, 5133 men of the newly ar­rived Aus­tralian 5th Di­vi­sion, as well as sol­diers from Bri­tish Mid­lands reg­i­ments, were re­lent­lessly cut down by their wait­ing Ger­man foe. More than 2000 of the Aus­tralians were killed in ac­tion or died later from their wounds. A fur­ther 400 or so be­came pris­on­ers of war. Wounded and taken pris­oner, my great un­cle – 23-year-old Lance Cor­po­ral Ger­ard Ber­nays of the 8th Aus­tralian Brigade Ma­chine Gun Com­pany – was among the for­tu­nate sur­vivors.

Off icial Aus­tralian war his­to­rian Charles Bean trod those char­nel f ields more than two years af­ter the f ight­ing moved on from Fromelles. He de­lib­er­ately chose to visit this most trag ic of bat­tlef ields on the day of the Armistice, and there ob­served the shock­ing sight of the “old No-Man’s-Land sim­ply full of our dead”. The re­mains of his coun­try­men still lay where they had fallen, torn scraps of army uni­form cling­ing like thread­bare funeral shrouds to their bleached bones. In the fol­low­ing months, the men of the Graves De­tach­ment gath­ered up their com­rades from Fromelles and in­terred them in VC Cor­ner Ceme­tery, the only one on the Western Front ded­i­cated solely to Aus­tralians. But more than half of the Fromelles dead were still miss­ing.

The mass grave found in 2009 con­tained the bod­ies of some 250 men, 203 of them Aus­tralian. Hur­riedly buried by the Ger­mans in 1916, their iden­tity tags had been sent to the Red Cross, mak­ing in­di­vid­ual iden­ti­fi­ca­tion an enor­mous foren­sic chal­lenge all those years hence. But on 20 July 2010, 94 years to the day since the con­clu­sion of the fight­ing, the last of the re­cov­ered dead was re­buried – this time with full mil­i­tary hon­ours. Through painstak­ing de­tec­tive work over 90 of the 250 had been re­united with their own names. They were no longer un­known sol­diers of the Great War.

WHILE THE GRAVES DE­TACH­MENT laboured in the frozen win­ter fields of 1918 and be­yond, the re­main­der of the men of the Aus­tralian Im­pe­rial Force (AIF) waited for a ship to take them back home. Get­ting the troops back to their home coun­tries at war’s end was a pro­tracted busi­ness for all dis­tant na­tions. A force that had been as­sem­bled and re­in­forced pro­gres­sively over four years could not just be turned around en masse. Up­wards of 200,000 Aus­tralians were ef­fec­tively stranded for months in Bri­tain, Eu­rope and the Mid­dle East.

With so many idle sol­diers yearn­ing for home and a civil­ian life, frus­tra­tions could eas­ily de­scend into ill dis­ci­pline and vi­o­lence. In March 1919, ri­ot­ing broke out among vet­eran Cana­dian sol­diers at Kim­mel Park in Eng­land. They were re­sent­ful that re­cently ar­rived men, with no record of ser­vice at the front, had al­ready turned for home. Two days of vi­o­lence left f ive sol­diers dead and 23 wounded be­fore or­der was re­stored.

To keep the troops oc­cu­pied and main­tain morale, ed­u­ca­tional and vo­ca­tional cour­ses were of­fered – from trade through to univer­sity en­try level – but were in­suff icient on their own to dampen pent-up frus­tra­tions. Sport­ing com­pe­ti­tion was also seen as a healthy and re­ward­ing way of oc­cu­py­ing the wait­ing men. Mil­i­tary lead­ers, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia’s Gen­eral Sir John Monash, were en­thu­si­as­tic sup­port­ers of such ac­tiv­ity.

Ac­cord­ing to Magda Kear­ney, for­mer Se­nior Cu­ra­tor at the Aus­tralian War Memo­rial, Monash seized the


Sig­na­to­ries to the Armistice that ended the Great War in­cluded Al­lied mil­i­tary com­man­ders Fer­di­nand Foch, Mar­shal of France, and Ad­mi­ral Ross­lyn We­myss, First Sea Lord of the Bri­tish Ad­mi­ralty. Sig­na­to­ries on the other side were Ma­jor Gen­eral Det­lof von Win­ter­feldt from the Ger­man Army, and Matthias Erzberger, Re­ich Sec­re­tary of State and head of the Ger­man del­e­ga­tion. The Aus­tralian War Graves De­tach­ment’s No. 5 Com­pany digs graves at the Villers-Bre­ton­neux Ceme­tery. A memo­rial there later com­mem­o­rated the names of 10,982 Aus­tralians killed or miss­ing on the Western Front be­tween the 1916 Bat­tle of the Somme and the Al­lied vic­tory in 1918.

The Armistice was ne­go­ti­ated in Mar­shal Foch’s pri­vate train in the For­est of Compiègne in north­ern France. This artist’s im­pres­sion shows Matthias Erzberger stand­ing (at right) op­po­site Mar­shal Foch. The doc­u­ment was fi­nally signed at 5am (Paris time) on 11 No­vem­ber 1918.

Gen­eral Sir John Monash led Mel­bourne’s 1931 An­zac Day march on a grey charger. Monash com­manded the Aus­tralian Corps on the Western Front from May 1918 un­til af­ter the Armistice.

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