Australians on the Western Front: Guns finally fall silent

ANTICIPATION: Miss Myra Harvey (centre) waits in at the Anzac Buffet in Sydney’s Hyde Park to welcome home the soldier she would soon marry. Picture: AWM H11576
ANTICIPATION: Miss Myra Harvey (centre) waits in at the Anzac Buffet in Sydney’s Hyde Park to welcome home the soldier she would soon marry. Picture: AWM H11576

In the early hours of November 4, 1918, Corporal Albert Davey was lying under drizzling rain in a shallow trench in northern France, convinced that he was soon to die.

Davey, a miner from Ballarat, was in a group of Australians waiting to construct a bridge for British tanks to cross the Sambre-Oise Canal.

He had pressured his commanding officer Captain Oliver Woodward the previous day to take care of his belongings and send them to his wife Margaret if he was killed in the battle ahead.

Before dawn broke, Davey was hit by a German bomb, becoming one of the last three Australians to die on a First World War battlefield along with fellow sappers Arthur Johnson and Charles Barrett, both from WA.

On the same day, two ‘aces’ of the Australian Flying Corps were among pilots shot down by German aircraft while escorting British bombers over Belgium.

Adelaide-born Captain Thomas ‘Rich’ Baker, credited with 12 combat victories, was killed along with Lieutenant Jack Palliser, of Ulverstone (Tas), who brought down five German aircraft in the preceding seven days.

When the guns fell silent at 11am on November 11, 1918, Australia had been at war for four years and three months; they had been fighting battles on the Western Front for almost 850 days.

A generation of young men was shattered. No community and few Australian families remained untouched by the war.

From a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 Australians enlisted for King and Country and 330,000 served overseas. The cost of victory included more than 60,000 dead, 152,000 wounded or gassed and 4000 taken prisoner.

Another 60,000 soldiers died of war-related causes in the decade to follow.

Photographs show triumphant scenes of euphoric Australians gathered in capital cities to celebrate the Armistice.

A generation of young men was shattered.

But for soldiers such as the much-decorated Captain Oliver Woodward of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company, the feeling was more sobering.

The mining engineer wrote of November 11: “The outward manifestation of joy which could be expected on such a memorable occasion was absent.

“We were as men who had completed a task which was abhorrent to us. The occasion called for thanksgiving. It was … too great for words.”

For Geelong-born nurse Elsie Tranter, November 11 was another heartbreaking day caring for deliriously ill soldiers in an army hospital.

Sister Tranter wrote in her diary that “France went almost mad with joy … singing and dancing in the streets … everyone kissing everyone they met.”

But inside the hospital, a fair-haired soldier nicknamed ‘Sunny Jim’ was dying. “This poor little lad finished his battle towards evening. He was barely 18 years old and we were all so fond of him.”

According to historian Peter Burness, writing in Wartime, about 20 Australians died of illness and wounds in hospitals on the day the war ended.

INSPECTION: Australia’s official war correspondent Charles Bean (left) escorting Prime Minister Billy Hughes at Mont St Quentin on September 15, 1918. Picture: AWM  E03292

INSPECTION: Australia’s official war correspondent Charles Bean (left) escorting Prime Minister Billy Hughes at Mont St Quentin on September 15, 1918. Picture: AWM E03292

For soldiers such as Bendigo carpenter Lieutenant George Ingram, who’d lost family members and so many battalion comrades, the end of hostilities must have been bittersweet.

Ingram was the last of 64 Australians awarded the Victoria Cross in the First World War, for leading attacks at Montbrehain on October 5, 1918.  His brothers Ronald and Alex were both killed on the Western Front in 1917.

Australian Corps Commander Sir John Monash said the Australian troops had advanced almost 60kms, captured almost 30,000 prisoners and liberated 116 villages and towns in the last months of the war. They also suffered almost 35,000 casualties.

The toll of war had left battalions at a quarter of their original size or less. Troop numbers were further reduced when Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes insisted that surviving veterans from 1914 immediately return to Australia on leave in September 1918.

Australian war correspondent Charles Bean drove from Lille to Fromelles on Armistice Day finding the battlefield “simply full of our dead … the skulls and bones and torn uniforms were lying about everywhere.”

The Australians had suffered dreadful casualties in the trench warfare of Fromelles, Pozières, Mouquet Farm and Bullecourt.  After success at Messines, the four-month campaign at Passchendaele in 1917 cost another 38,000 casualties.

Finally, after Germany’s Spring Offensive in 1918, the Australians enjoyed victories at Villers-Bretonneux, Hamel, Amiens, Mont St Quentin and through the Hindenberg Line.  

Australia’s volunteer army had faced the power of modern artillery and machine-guns; they’d tasted the horrors of poison gas; they’d endured the inside of German prison camps. In 1918 they were hit by the deadly Spanish Flu.

The dead were buried in scores of cemeteries from Flanders to the Somme.  

The remains of an Unknown Soldier who died on the Western Front were exhumed and interred in the Australian War Memorial on November 11, 1993. His tomb reads 'He is all of them and he is one of us. '

  • The Road to Remembrance is published by Fairfax Media in partnership with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.