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Australians in the Great War

 

Marching soldiers

Australia pledged its full support to Britain when war broke out with Germany in August 1914, and as in other countries the conflict was met with a great sense of enthusiasm. Thousands of Australian men enlisted into the newly formed Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and were sent to Egypt where, with the New Zealanders, they were formed into the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC).

After four and a half months of training, the ANZACs' baptism of fire took place on 25th April 1915, when the men landed on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey alongside British and French troops. After eight months of fighting, the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign was abandoned and the troops evacuated.

The AIF was reorganised, expanded and progressively transferred to the Western Front. Here the Australians met a new form of fighting in trench systems that extended across Belgium and France, from the English Channel right down to the Swiss border.

Australians on the Somme

The first major fighting for the Australians on the Western Front took place in July 1916 at Fromelles in Northern France, and then at Pozières during the Batt

Australians
le of the Somme, where the Australian unitsrepeatedly took their turn in the fight for this highly strategic position. They were eventually relieved by Canadian troops in early September but losses were atrocious; from 23rd July to 5th September 1916, 23,000 men had been killed or wounded in just six weeks of fighting. In late 1916, the Australians were sent back to the trenches of the Somme to help hold the front line over one of the coldest winters on record. By the end of the year, some 40,000 Australians had been killed or wounded on the Western Front.

In early 1917, the Germans made a strategic withdrawal to a newly constructed line called the Hindenburg Line, pushing the front farther north and out of the Somme. Of course, this did not mean the fighting had ended, and a further 76,000 Australians were lost in the battles of Bullecourt, Messines and Passchendaele.

1918

The German Army launched a huge offensive from the Hindenburg Line in March 1918, in the hope of defeating the Allied forces before the arrival of the United States. They swept across the former 1916 battlefield and reached the gates of Amiens and its major communication lines when Australian troops famously helped to bring the Germans to a halt at Villers-Bretonneux, three years to the day after the Gallipoli landings, and also at Dernancourt.

The Allied armies then began their own counter-offensive combining infantry, artillery, tanks, and aircraft to great effect, demonstrated in Monash's Battle of Le Hamel on 4th July 1918. The German Army suffered their “Black Day” on 8th August, when the Allies, spearheaded by Australian and Canadian troops, launched their major counter-offensive. This period was particularly tough on the Australians, who fought relentlessy as they pushed the Germans back, taking Mont-Saint-Quentin and Péronne in early September and capturing the Hindenburg Line later that month.

In early October, after the fighting at Montbrehain, the Australian divisions withdrew from the front; they were preparing to return to the fighting when Germany signed the Armistice on 11th November.

For Australia, the First World War remains the costliest conflict in terms of deaths and casualties. From a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted, of whom more than 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.