(To the British Tommies, Australian soldiers were known as 'Diggers' - erstwhile gold miners - whilst the New Zealanders were 'Kiwis - after their national bird. The Australians and the New Zealanders called each other 'Digger').
A fact that impresses the student of the Great War, is the crucial role in the fighting that was played by soldiers from the Dominions, Colonies and Protectorates of the British Empire. In this article we shall relate the part played on the Western Front by two of the four so-called white Dominion countries - Australia and New Zealand. The former sent to fight overseas 14% of its entire male population (330,000), and the latter 20% (100,000+). In line with the patriotic fervour with which these countries supported the mother country, all of the Australians were volunteers whilst of the New Zealanders 74% were.
The genesis of ANZAC.
The formation of what was to become the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) began on the 10th August 1914. It followed the decision of the Australian Government on the 3rd August 1914 to put at the disposal of the British Government, in defence of the Empire, a force of 20,000 men from its Regular Army and 45,000 part-time militia. Recruitment was made on an egalitarian regional basis.
The tone of patriotism was set by the two principal political leaders in the Australian Parliament. Quote:
Liberal Party Prime Minister, Joseph Cook - ' If the old country is at war, so are we.' 'Our duty is quite clear - to gird up our loins and remember we are Britons.'
Labour Party Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Fisher - 'Our last man, our last shilling.'
Australian supporters of the Irish Nationalists chose to not give their open support to the war effort, but as in Ireland itself, many settlers of Irish ancestry volunteered and fought overseas in the war.
Soon afterwards a volunteer force was created for overseas service. This force was called the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).
Almost simultaneously, the New Zealand Liberal and Reform Parties gave their unqualified support to a national force to participate in the Great War. The Reform Party government of William Massey used the Regular Army - 600 men - and its 25,000 Territorials as the nucleus for a volunteer force. It was designated the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF).
N.B.: Canada and South Africa - the two other white Dominion countries - also each promised, and subsequently provided, a considerable force of volunteers for the Western Front who played a crucial role in the struggle. The latter also made a vital contribution in the various African campaigns.
New Zealand also gave a commitment to expand its main exports of wool and refrigerated meat. Inevitably, this somewhat curtailed the availability of additional manpower for the armed services. This combined commitment tended to make the overall New Zealand contribution to the British Empire war effort proportionally greater than that of Australia.
From the outset, the troop transport ships for the conveyance of the two forces were co-ordinated. The first Australian/New Zealand troopships left Western Australia in convoy for Europe on 7th November 1914; a second convoy sailed on the 31st December 1914. Many others followed over the duration of the war, carrying a total of more than 400,000 ANZAC servicemen.
The acronym ANZAC was formulated for the joint Australian and New Zealand forces that were deployed together in Egypt and on the Gallipoli Front - more about which later. Thereafter, the two forces were usually deployed together and became virtually indistinguishable, even though the Australian element was separated out in late 1917 to become the Australia Corps. This joint identification was not always to the New Zealanders advantage, as their successes on the battlefield tended to be overshadowed by the more numerous Australians. But there was never any doubt by all the combattants of the Great War about the exceptional military prowess of the soldiers of both countries.
The deployment of ANZAC on the Western Front.
Whilst in sea transit to the UK, it was decided that the Australian Imperial Force and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force should be diverted to Egypt as the availability of accommodation and training areas in the UK was considered to be inadequate, swamped as they were with Kitchener's volunteers. There was an urgent need for the Australians and New Zealanders to be trained in the more modern British weapons and tactics that they would be using on the Western Front. Training took place at Mena near Cairo, and adjacent to the Pyramids.
After some months of 'getting a suntan' in Egypt, in 1915, the newly designated ANZAC, as the closest available large Allied force, was committed to the first Gallipoli campaign fighting the Turks. In a generally disastrous eight month campaign - the highlight of which was the splendid military effort at what came to be called ANZAC Cove - the ANZAC were withdrawn in December 1915 and evacuated back to Egypt. The Gallipoli campaign had cost the ANZAC around 30,000 casualties, with 10,000 dead.
After extensive expansion, reorganisation and training in Egypt, the force was divided into two parts, one (about 25% of the total strength) was destined for deployment in the Middle East and the remainder was assigned to the Western Front.
ANZAC 1 departed Egypt for France in February 1916. It consisted of the reorganised 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions and the New Zealand Division. Once in France, ANZAC 1 took over a quiet, or 'nursery', sector near Armentiéres on the French/Belgian border where they learned the new dark arts of trench warfare. ANZAC 2 - 4th and 5th Australian Divisions - followed in May 1916 and also passed through the Armentiéres sector.
Once transferred to the Western Front the five divisions of ANZAC 1 and 2 became absorbed into the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and were under the direction of the British High Command led by General Sir Douglas Haig. The BEF, with 44 Divisions, also provided much of the support arms; artillery in particular. So, in effect, ANZAC was never a purely Australian/New Zealand force. There were always considerable contingents of British support troops; although most of the 'front line' combat troops were from the Antipodes. Later in the war the ANZAC also included some small elements of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). The comparative heavy casualties suffered by the ANZAC troops were in some part due to the high proportion of combat troops that they represented in the strengths of their units. Throughout the Great War the casualty rate in the infantry was consistently much higher than that in the support arms.
Whilst the ANZAC generally fought as a single unit in the field, there were considerable variations in both space and time in the deployment and rotation of the six individual divisions, and their component battalions: as will be seen from the different location of their divisional memorials. Each division had its own successes, and failures.
The commanders of the ANZAC.
The first commander of the ANZAC, was a British General, Sir William Riddell Birdwood, who was appointed in 1914. He had previously served in India (mainly in the Northwest Frontier Province) and South Africa. Known to the ANZAC as 'Birdy' or 'Bill', he built up an excellent rapport with these robustly unconventional soldiers. Other more conservative British officers often regarded the ANZAC soldiers with some scorn: one described them as 'looking like a bunch of dustmen'. Widely known as the 'soul of ANZAC', Birdwood remained in command of the ANZAC until May 1918, when he handed over to an Australian, Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash, former commander of the 3rd Division.
General John Monash was one of the strange phenomenons of the Great War. Civil engineer-cum-Australian Territorial militiaman in 1914, he rose through the officer ranks of the Australian Army from his appointment as the commander of the 4th Australian Brigade in September 1914. He became the commander of the Australian Corps in May 1918. A natural soldier and commander, he mastered the close support of the infantry by artillery, tanks, machine guns and aircraft better than many of his more experienced professional military colleagues. It is even said the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, in one of his moments of pique over the obstinacy of the BEF Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, seriously considered giving Haig's job to Monash. Monash was, without a doubt, Australia's most famous soldier of the Great War. His idea of 'peaceful penetration' of the enemy lines by surprise raids was one of the more innovative strategic concepts of the war. Introduced by the Australian Corps in April 1918, the war ended before its potential could be fully developed and evaluated.
Throughout the war, the commander of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) component of ANZAC was Major-General A. J. Godley - a professional soldier in the classic late 19th/early 20th Century mould.
The ANZAC on the Western Front.
The baptism fire of the ANZAC came on the Western Front soon after the Allied offensive was launched on the Somme on the 1st July 1916. Thereafter, the ANZAC participated in the fighting in both the Flanders and French sectors until the Armistice in November 1918.
As the story is highly complex and eventful, it is perhaps best to consider the record of the six ANZAC divisions separately. As explained earlier, the ANZAC tended to be deployed as a cohesive unit with the individual divisions being employed variously over space and time. Accordingly, a certain repetition in this otherwise brief narrative is inevitable as is a certain amount of chronological inconsistency, but for clarity sake this is desirable. This divisional separation also allows the New Zealand Division to be better shown in its true light and worth.
1st Division AIF. (Part of ANZAC 1).
After orientation at the aforementioned Armentiéres sector 'nursery', on the 23rd July 1916 the 1st Division was given the objective of taking the strategically important Somme village of Poziéres that was situated mid-way along the Albert-Bapaume Road - the D929 road. It achieved its objective at great cost - over 5,000 casualties in four days. In August it was again assigned to the Poziéres sector. The next objective on the Somme was at Flers/Courcelette in October 1916.
With rest breaks in the Ypres sector, the Division was readied for its next objective. On the 4th February 1917 the Kaiser had ordered his troops to withdraw behind the newly constructed fortified Siegfried Line - the Hindenburg Line to the British. The 1st Division was one of the units set in pursuit of the German Army as it voluntarily withdrew to its new defence fortifications along east of the Somme battlefield.
In May 1917 it participated in the Second Battle of Bullecourt and the Third Battle of Ypres at Menin Road in September 1917, and Broodseinde in October 1917.
April 1918 saw the Division stemming the German Offensive - the Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser's War) - at Hazebrouck, where it remained active in the line until it rejoined the Australian Corps on the Somme in the Battle of Amiens. It fought in the breaking of the Hindenburg Line in 1918.
The 1st Division has its memorial at Poziéres, on the Somme battlefield.
2nd Division AIF. (Part of ANZAC 1).
The 2nd Division - which was formed in Egypt July 1915 - relieved the 1st Division at Poziéres in July 1916 and captured the Poziéres Heights, suffering considerable casualties in the process.
Thereafter, its involvement mirrored that of 1st Division with intensive fighting on the Somme in August and November 1916.
It formed part of the flying column in pursuit the German Army in its retirement to the Hindenburg Line. That action culminated in an assault on the Hindenburg Line on the 3rd May 1917 during the Second Battle of Bullecourt.
The 2nd Division also fought in the Third Battle of Ypres at the Menin Road in September 1917 and Broodseinde in November 1917.
The Division participated in the halting of the 1918 German Offensive on the Somme, fighting in the Battles of Hamel, in July 1918, and Amiens in the following month.
Perhaps its most notable feat of arms was the capture in August 1918 of Mont St. Quentin, which dominated the town of Perrone. Regarded by both the British and German commands as an impregnable fortress, many historians believe the capture of Mont St. Quentin to be the most skilfully conducted action of the war on the Western Front. The casualty roll for the Germans was 15,000 against 2nd Division's 3,000.
The 2nd Division completed its fighting on the Western Front by participating in September 1918 with the other ANZAC Divisions in the final break through of the Hindenburg Line and the advance beyond it. It was the last ANZAC Division to be withdrawn from the fighting on the Western Front.
The 2nd Division has its memorial located at Mont St. Quentin, to the south east of the Somme battlefield.
3rd Division AIF. (Part of ANZAC 2).
The 3rd Division - which was formed in Australia in March 1916 and trained in
the UK from July to December 1916 - moved to the 'nursery' sector at Armentiéres before the year's end.
In July 1917 it was given an important role in the Battle of Messines.
October 1917 saw it collaborating with the 1st and 2nd ANZAC Divisions in the
Battle of Broodseinde.
In October 1917, at the Battle of Passchendaele, the 3rd Division was repulsed with heavy losses.
As the German Offensive of 1918 advanced into the 1916 Somme battlefield, the 3rd Division was pushed into the defence and in running battles brought the Germans to a halt in the Morlandcourt and Villiers sectors.The 3rd Division also participated in the ANZAC actions at the Battles of Amiens, Hamel, the Hindenburg Line and Mont St. Quentin in 1918.
Its frequently quoted feat of arms was a series of innovative offensive operations in the area of the hamlet of Sailly-le-Sec on the banks of the River Somme.The 3rd Division memorial is located at Sailley-le-Sec in the Somme battlefield.
Coincidentally, recent forensic research has indicated that it was a rifleman, or a machine gunner, of the 5th Division of the ANZAC who shot down the famous German fighter ace, Rittmeister Baron Manfred von Richthofen - the Red Baron - by fire from the ground, near Sailly-le-Sec, on the 21st April 1918.
4th Division AIF. (Part of ANZAC 2)
The 4th Division moved from Egypt to France in June 1916 and established itself
at Armentiéres. From there, in August 1916, it moved with the 1st and 2nd ANZAC Divisions to Somme sector. Subsequently it relieved the 2nd Division on the Poziéres Heights where it repulsed heavy German counterattacks, leading to an assault on the environs of the infamous Mouquet Farm.
After a short period in reserve, it again served in the Mouquet Farm sector in September 1916, and also participated in the Battle of Flers/Courcelette in October 1916.
April 1916 saw the 4th Division participating in the first Battle of Bullecourt where played a vital part in the unsuccessful assault on the Hindenburg Line - the almost continuous line of German fortified defences east of the Somme battlefield. The action was notable for the number of Australian troops (nearly 1,200) that were captured by the Germans.
The Division moved to Flanders where it participated in the highly successful action at Messines in June 1917 and the September 1917 Battle of Polygon Wood in the Passchendale Offensive.
It also took part in the rush to the Somme in March 1918 to stem the German Offensive. It participated that month in hard fought actions at Hebuterne and Dernacourt, followed by a successful counterattack at the strategically key village of Villiers-Bretonneaux in April.
The 4th Division concluded its participation in the 100 Days Campaign of 1918 by action at Hamel and Amiens, and the breaching of the Hindenburg Line. Its final action was at the town of Bellenglise, located on the German defence line of the St. Quentin Canal.
The Divisional Memorial is located at Bellenglise.
5th Division AIF. (Part of ANZAC 2).
The 5th Division was also part of the move of the ANZAC to the Somme sector in
June 1916 after having passed the usual, but in this case exceptionally brief, stint of 'acclimatisation' in the Armentiéres sector.
In July 1916, it was involved in the tactically unnecessary, and ultimately unsuccessful, diversionary action at Fromelles as part of the Battle of Aubrey Ridge. The division lost 1,700 dead and 4,000 wounded in this action which was the first major battle of the ANZAC on the Western Front.
By October 1916 it had joined three other ANZAC divisions at Fliers/Courcelette
on the Somme.
In March 1917 it had joined in the pursuit of the Germans as they retreated to their
new defences - the Hindenburg Line - taking Bapaume at the head of the road from Albert.
May 1917 saw the Division participating in the first Battle of Bullecourt after
relieving the 1st Division, holding the fort in hard fought actions against strong German counterattacks.
In September 1917 the action of the Division was crucial in the achievement of the Allied success in the Battle of Polygon Wood.
During March 1918 the Division was involved in the rush to stem the 1918 German Offensive on the Somme, where it played a vital role by holding the Somme bridges. It achieved acclaim in April 1918 for launching the counterattack that captured the town of Villiers-Bretonneaux.
5th Division concluded its service on the Western Front, fighting at Hamel and Amiens in, respectively, July and August 1918, It forced a crossing the Somme River in September and participated in the breaching of the Hindenburg Line.
The Divisional Memorial is located on the raised site of a pre-war shooting range in Polygon Wood, Flanders.
The New Zealand Division. (Part of ANZAC 2).
When the New Zealanders left for Europe in 1914 they were known as the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF), or the New Zealand Main Body. In March 1916, during their sojourn in Egypt, after their withdrawal from the Gallipoli Front, the force was reorganised into a Division using replacement and new reinforcement drafts from New Zealand.
The Division left Egypt for the Western Front in April 1916 and, like the Australians served both in France and Flanders.
Their first tranche of service in France involved actions on the Somme battlefield at Flers/Coucelette in September 1916, followed by Morval and, in October, Le Transloy.
In May 1917 they moved to Flanders for the Messines offensive followed by Polygon Wood (September/October), and Broodsiende and Passchendaele in October 1917.
The Division hastily returned to the Somme in March 1918, where they were involved in an incredible series of actions in that final year of the war. These can be summarised as: Arras (March), Ancre (April), Albert (August), Bapaume (August/September), Havrincourt (September), Canal du Nord (September/October), Cambrai and The Selle (October) and, in November, The Sambre.The NZ Divisions last battle was at Le Quesnoy, close to the Belgian border, on the 5th November 1918 when the Division distinguished itself yet again by scaling the walls of the town and capturing it.Whilst the Australian Divisions rightfully complained, and close to mutinied, about their over-deployment in the field, it is difficult to conceive that any of their - or the British - Divisions had the same degree of exposure as did the non-complainant New Zealand Division.
There are several memorials to the New Zealand Expeditionary Force/NZ Division in both France and Flanders. France: e.g. Le Quesnoy, Longeval, Marfaux; Flanders: Graventalfel, Messines, Polygon Wood and Tyne Cot. Not all of these memorials are Divisional in the strictest sense, several are to 'The Missing', but as there was only one NZ Division on the Western Front, they can be taken somewhat as such.
The ANZAC contribution.
The five Australian and one New Zealand Divisions represented less than 10% of the British and Empire military manpower on the Western Front. Apparently, because of its relatively small size of the ANZAC, the British High Command did not consider it to warrant any title other than simply 'the ANZAC'. But collectively the ANZAC was responsible for 23% of the enemy prisoners taken, and nearly 25% of the land captured from the Germans.
The human cost.
It may be thought invidious and misleading by some to make direct comparisons of the casualties that were incurred in the Great War by the individual Divisions of the ANZAC. It may also be averred that a meaningful analysis of these units requires that such a tally is useful to better understanding their contribution to the overall effort.The Table below details the total casualties suffered by the ANZAC in the Great War subdivided into the toll for each Division and both countries. The total casualties on the Western Front for the AIF and NZ Division are also shown.*
|Division||Dead/Missing||Wounded||Total Causalties||Total on Western Front|
* The range of figures given for the ANZAC casualties is considerable. This is due to the different classification criteria used by the various sources: it is quite possible that researchers have gone mad trying to find the definitive casualty figures. The classification used here for 'Killed' is, 'Died of wounds' plus 'All other deaths', since if a soldier died of malaria or influenza he died in the service of his country equally well as if he was shot or blown to death. The classification for 'Wounded' is 'All wounds'. But even here there will be some inherent inaccuracies, since some soldiers were wounded more than once and the records do not differentiate these wounds. However, these 'ballpark' figures convey the overall casualty roll eloquently enough.
** The 3rd, 4th and 5th Divisions, AIF, did not take part in the Gallipoli Campaign although the 4th and 5th did participate in the defence of Egypt.
** Deducting from the overall Great War casualty figures the known ANZAC casualty figures for the Gallipoli Campaign (i.e. approximately 30,000 with approximately10,000 dead/missing), the overall ANZAC casualty figures for the Western Front are, approximately: 228,100 with 78,500 dead/missing.