WWI The Western Front

E03137 Streatcher bearers of the 6th Field Battalion carrying wounded.

By early 1916, recruiting in Australia had raised sufficient troops to replace the ANZAC losses. The Australian Imperial Force in Egypt was expanded to four divisions before being transferred to the Western Front, with a fifth division raised in Australia.

Photograph above: Stretcher bearers of the 6th Field Ambulance carrying the wounded from an Advanced Dressing Station to a waiting motor ambulance for conveyance to the Casualty Clearing Station. 2 September 1918. AWM E01317.

On arrival in France, the divisions were initally organised into I ANZAC Corps (1st Division and 2nd Australian Divisions, and the New Zealand Division) and II ANZAC Corps (4th and 5th Australian Divisions). The 3rd division did not arrive in France until November 1916. The composition of the two Corps changed significantly in response to operational needs and for most of the war, I ANZAC Corps included the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th Divisions, while II ANZAC Corps included the Australian 3rd Division, the New Zealand Division and one or two British divisions.

In March 1916, the Australian Imperial Force moved to France, and by July and August, the Australians were heavily involved on the Western Front. The 5th Division was the first to encounter the Germans on 19 July 1916 in a small but bloody engagement at Fromelles in Northern France. Shortly after, the 1st, 2nd and 4th Divisions became embroiled in the Somme offensive at Pozières and Mouquet Farm. In six weeks of operations, the Australian divisions suffered approximately 28 000 casualties.

In November 1916 the 3rd Australian Division arrived in France from England where it had been training since its arrival from Australia in July. The division was sent to the ‘nursery’ sector around Armentieres as part of II ANZAC Corps, had returned to the trenches in the final phase of the Somme campaign, which ended in November and spent the terrible winter of 1916-1917 consolidating the forward positions near Bapaume.

In 1917, the Australians were again heavily engaged: in March at Bapaume, in May and June at Bullecourt and Messines and from September to November, in the great battle of the Ypres offensive – Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Poelcapelle and Passchendaele. The casualties sustained made it difficult to maintain the strength of the Australian divisions and a partially formed 6th Australian Division was disbanded in order to provide reinforcements. In November 1917, the five divisions were formed into the Australian Corps, although it would not be until May 1918 that this amalgamation was completed and an Australian – Lieutenant General Sir John Monash, previously General Officer Commanding (GOC) the 3rd Australian Division – appointed to command it.

In March and April 1918, the Australian Corps played a prominent part in the defence of Amiens, Hazebrouck and Villers-Bretonneux, during a massive German multi-pronged attack in France and Belguim known to history as the Kaiserschacht or the Spring Offensive. The German offensive was halted and the Allies mounted their own offensive from July. Following a successful Allied attack just east of Amiens in August, which featured the Australian and the Canadian Corps operating side by side, the Australians were engaged in a number of battles as the Allies drove the Germans back towards eventual defeat. During this period, known as’The Hundred Days’, the Australian Imperial Force was engaged at Mont St Quentin, St Quentin Canal and Montbrehain. The Corps, which had been fighting almost continually since March, was in reserve rebuilding for the next offensive when the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918.

While the Australian Imperial Force strength in France varied in response to battle casualties and problems with recruiting, it never fell below 117 000 men. Its battle casualties for three years of trench warfare between 1916 and 1918 amounted to over 181 000 men of whom more than 46 000 died. Another 114 000 were wounded, 16 000 gassed and almost 4000 taken prisoner. In terms of total deaths per 1000 men mobilised, the Australian Imperial Force figure was 145 – the highest of all the British Commonwealth armies.