Aftermath of War
AS THE GRIM TASK OF BURYING THE DEAD WORLD WAR I, GOT UNDERWAY AFTER TROOPS SETTLED IN FOR A LONG WAIT BEFORE THEIR RETURN TO DISTANT HOMELANDS.
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
MANY WORLD WAR I SOLDIERS FROM ARE STILL UNACCOUNTED FOR A HUNDRED YEARS AFTER . THE CONFLICT ENDED
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.