A Revolution in Military Affairs
While the twin stories of the Australians on Gallipoli and later on the Western Front are familiar, little attention has been paid to the remarkable transformation of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and its technology between the campaign in 1915 on Gallipoli and 1916-1918 on the Western Front.
Gallipoli, arguably, was still an infantry war. The infantry’s weapons and tactics would have been familiar to and well-understood by Boer War veterans. The principal weapon on the Gallipoli Peninsula was still the infantryman’s rifle, augmented a little by the improvised ‘jam-tin’ bomb. Machine-guns were present but in comparatively small numbers. The same was true for artillery and aircraft. Communications systems were few and primitive. Even the infantryman’s uniform was largely unchanged from its pre-war version. While artillery, frequently including naval gun fire support, played a role, the outcome of every battle was still the domain of the infantry.
This changed dramatically between December 1915, when the AIF left Gallipoli and July 1916, when they participated in their first major battle on the Western Front. That it constituted a revolution in approach is no overstatement. In that brief period of seven months, the Australians had almost to re-learn all the elements of the soldier’s craft and do so while absorbing unimaginable new weapons and combat related systems. That they did so, and quickly, was testament to their adaptability, flexibility and willingness to learn. This was just as well, for there was much they had to do to learn to survive and fight on the Western Front.
Some technologies changed, many new ones emerged and some trusty old ones soldiered on. The Australians had to become familiar with them all. The trusty .303 rifle remained their primary weapon, although its utility within the confined spaces of a trench was a problem and its long range was somewhat excessive in trench warfare, where engagement ranges were close.
Similarly, the machine gun, which for the Australians meant the Vickers or Maxim gun, was familiar from Gallipoli. However, on arrival in France, the infantry battalions lost their control of these excellent weapons. The Vickers from all four battalions in the infantry brigade were re-grouped into a Brigade-controlled machine-gun company. To compensate for the loss of their Vickers, each Battalion was given a number of new light machine-guns, known as Lewis guns. They had to learn how to operate, employ and exploit these new weapons. New tactics had to be learned, new organisational structures created (Lewis gun sections were quite different from any that had existed on Gallipoli) and new specialists trained. The Lewis gun was a prime cause of a fundamental rethink of infantry minor tactics.
The Australians did not endear themselves to Sir Douglas Haig, the Commander-in-Chief of British forces, when they managed to allow one of these new, and still secret, weapons to be captured by the Germans during an enemy raid on their trenches early in 1916.
The Lewis gun was but one of the new technologies the Australians had to absorb and understand. The venerable ‘jam-tin bomb’ became the more sophisticated grenade, coming in two forms: hand grenade and rifle grenade. Each required new trained specialists and new organisations within the infantry battalions.
The other big technology was the mortar. Essential for fighting in the trenches, mortars came in three types: heavy, medium and light. The light trench mortar was an infantry weapon and a critical support weapon for attacking troops. When the Australians launched their first big attack at Fromelles on 19 July 1916, none of the Australian light mortars were in action: their crews were still under instruction and many had not yet even received their weapons.
Other new technologies to be absorbed and understood ranged from new items of personal equipment such as the ubiquitous steel helmet and the new gas helmet, through to the vastly greater numbers, range, and power of Allied artillery, to the presence of significantly greater numbers of aircraft, both friendly and enemy. The Australians had to become familiar with whole new classes of guns and howitzers, including monster weapons with calibres of 12 or even 15 inches.
The power of German artillery came as a rude shock to the Australians. On Gallipoli, artillery was comparatively rare: so much so the Australians could give names to individual guns, such as ‘Beachy Bill’. The Germans had so many, and used them with such skill, that there was little enthusiasm for ‘humanising’ them with names.
Communications, the basis for much of the contemporary revolution in military affairs, was also a major contributor to the Australian learning curve in 1916. The telephone was familiar, although the size and complexity of Western Front telephone networks surprised them. But few Australians knew much about power buzzers or the new and rapidly expanding wireless technology.
And, of course, hanging over the Australians was the fear of gas. This new and dreadful weapon was still in its infancy in early 1916 but its terrible effects were already evident among the dead and wounded of both sides. The AIF had to learn very quickly how to operate their protective equipment and build confidence in it. They also had to learn how to operate in a ‘gas rich environment’ when their own side used gas during attacks.
This is just a brief overview of the challenges the AIF met and overcame in that brief period of transition to the main theatre of that great conflict. It serves to show adaptability is not a new skill required of soldiers but one that has been present on every battlefield since the Army’s beginning. The Australian soldier has a proud history of successfully meeting such challenges.
Mr Roger Lee
Australian Army History Unit