Back to the Front: The Battlefields of World War 1


Paul Daley

Paul Daley is the author of Armageddon: Two Men On An Anzac Trail,
with Michael Bowers (Melbourne University Press).

23rd January 2012

The cruel beauty of the battlefield, 100 years on.

Those who visit the World War I battlefields of the Western Front during the glorious Belgian and French summer will find themselves quickly captivated by the cruel beauty of the setting for such a vast horror. The milky French light is dreamily resonant of an impressionist palette. It reflects off the endless fields of wheat as they bud in every conceivable hue of gold and green, their hypnotically uniform, sun-ripened splendour streaked with painterly flourishes of vivid red poppies (now a symbol of Remembrance Day, November 11, when Australians dedicate a minute’s silence to mark the moment when the guns fell silent). Ubiquitous lark song and the peal of countless church bells from postcard-perfect villages carry on the warm breeze well into the long twilights – final touches to a tranquillity belying its wartime history.

You notice the blond stone tablets very quickly, of course, standing sentinel in their tens of thousands, each one marking a life wasted, in hundreds of picturesque and well-tended cemeteries that punctuate the fields along the highways and lazy country lanes. But the peaceful settings of these cemeteries can inure you to the sombre reality that row upon row upon row of young men are buried there. For it is only when visitors walk the battlefields with an experienced guide to describe the fighting that claimed so many young lives that the poignant incongruity of this haunting landscape becomes apparent. If ever a place spoke of the senseless and cruel human cost of battle, of the absence of glory in war, then this must surely be it.

Australians on the frontline

The abysmally botched landings at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915, have long been seared into Australia’s historical consciousness as a seminal, even nation-defining, moment. Over eight months, the Gallipoli campaign claimed the lives of 8709 light horsemen and infantry of the First Australian Imperial Force. News of the Gallipoli horrors, unfolding in terrible episodes such as the Battle of the Nek (portrayed in the movie Gallipoli) slowly reached Australia – tragic proof that the war would not, as anticipated, be over quickly. But even defeat and inglorious retreat from the Dardanelles did not dent the irrepressible enthusiasm of the Australian men and boys for a fight.

Most of those who volunteered after mid-1915 went to the Western Front – a line of meandering trenches extending almost 725km from the French-Swiss border to the coast of Belgium. The British had been fighting the Germans on the front since 1914 and the stalemate between the opposing trenches – sometimes only a grenade lob apart, fortified with barbed wire and protected by machine-guns, distant artillery and aircraft – would last until late 1918.

In 1916 and 1917, the disparity between modern weapons – machine-guns, tanks, grenades and accurate artillery – and the traditional infantry method of relentless bayonet charges across open ground, would be brought into sharp, ugly relief. The clash of the new industrial equipment of war and such antiquated methods of foot-soldiering would claim the lives of up to four million soldiers on the Western Front, among them some 53,000 Australians including about 18,000 who still have no identifiable graves. Bodies were sucked down by the swampy earth and churned up by the machinery of war. A part of Europe famed for its bucolic grandeur became an apocalyptic landscape of black mud and viscera, of razed woods, burnt-out machinery, barbed wire and flattened villages.

The Australians came to the Western Front to reinforce the British in mid-1916. They were quickly ordered into the front line at Fromelles in French Flanders – a baptism of fire that would quickly eclipse Gallipoli as a simile for the ineptitude of British command; 1900 Australians were killed and 3100 wounded in a single day, which dramatically overshadows the worst that came from any single action on the Dardanelles. The night of July 19, 1916, and the next morning, still constitute the blackest day in Australian military history. The Australian 5th Division was ordered to attack a heavily fortified German position known as Sugarloaf. The English generals had primarily mounted the attack as a diversion, to stop the Germans sending reinforcements to counter the great on-going British offensive further south on the Somme that had begun on July 1.

The commander of the Australian 15th Brigade, Brigadier General Pompey Elliott, implored the British to cancel the attack, so convinced was he that it would become the “tactical abortion” he later christened it. They ignored him. Elliott is said to have wept openly as the slaughter unfolded through his field glasses.

Remembering the fallen

Today, Flanders and the Somme are beautiful once more. But to the trained eye, the scars of WWI are still on the landscape amid the more obvious signs – not least the dozens of memorials and hundreds of cemeteries – of the awful suffering that occurred here.

Australians and New Zealanders have gone to Gallipoli for decades now in the hope of discovering a little more about their country and in the process, perhaps, themselves. But only in recent years have they begun venturing to the Western Front to learn about another theatre of the same war that, perhaps for reasons of historical chronology, has been slow to achieve the same cultural acknowledgment.

Tours now cater specifically for Australian and New Zealand travellers who want to connect first-hand with this important part of what is effectively their countries’ DNA. On a recent four-day tour of the Western Front with the Back-Roads Touring Company, most of the clients were antipodeans with family members who fought and in some cases died there. I was privileged to witness several Australian couples find the graves of long-dead ancestors in cemeteries that were sometimes out of the way. Guide Mark Banning made great efforts to track down the significant graves before standing back so his clients could place small wooden crosses, upon which they’d written intimate messages, in the perfect lawns before the tombstones. “My view is that if people are willing to come halfway around the world from Australia and New Zealand to find the places where their family members are buried, then I will do absolutely everything I can to help them locate the graves. It is invariably a very moving experience.”

A football game in No Man's Land

It is similarly moving to stand at the various memorials, such as the one at VC Corner – set in what was, in 1916, the No Man’s Land at Fromelles – and to have the story of the battle recounted in terrible detail. This is where the Australians were ordered to charge, on foot, across open marshy ground that still contained the decaying bodies of the English infantry who had tried just as pointlessly to take the same German stronghold the previous year. Thirteen hundred of the Australians went missing. Today at VC corner, two flat memorial stones tell the story of 410 Australians, who could not be personally identified before being buried in dual communal graves. A nearby bronze statue, Cobbers, by Melbourne sculptor Peter Corlett, depicts a scene that played out across No Man’s Land after the Battle of Fromelles, as the Australians carried wounded mates back to safety. The tour went on to trace the battles in which the Australians participated until the Armistice almost two-and-a-half years later. A mound near Pozieres is all that remains of the infamous windmill that marked the rear of the German defences on the high ground outside the town. The Australians of the 2nd Division improbably captured this position during six weeks of heavy fighting around Pozieres and Mouquet Farm (“Mucky Farm” to the antipodeans).

Over six weeks in August and September 1916, the fighting around Pozieres claimed 23,000 Australian casualties, including 6800 dead. Thousands of those killed could be neither found nor identified. But that is such a big part of the story of the Somme; just about anywhere you step, a forgotten soldier lies not too far beneath your feet. For the living, however, such grim history is offset by a delightful modern cultural experience, based – in the case of this tour – around excellent food and wine, and friendly, family-run hotels. And not all the stories were of death and chaos. Banning opened the tour with a visit to the spot near Ploegsteert (“Plonk Street” to the Tommies) on the Ypres Salient where, during a short-lived truce over Christmas 1914, the German and British soldiers collected their dead, exchanged gifts and cigarettes, and sang hymns. There was even, so legend has it, a game of football in the muddy quagmire of the No Man’s Land between the trenches. Today, a memorial to the episode stands at the edge of the field of maize that was once the battlefield. Recent visitors have left soccer balls at the memorial. The majestic (and since rebuilt) spire of the church at Messines stands on the horizon. It is where a young German dispatch runner, Adolf Hitler, spent part of 1915.

Stories from the front.

As we trace the Western Front, Banning entertains us with stories about Pompey Elliott, who loved to reminisce on his fonder wartime experiences. One recounts that the commander was with his battalion in Cairo when the men broke into ribald laughter as a nearby donkey became noticeably aroused at the sight of a female of its species. The incredulous owner savagely twisted its ear. Shortly afterwards, the battalion’s leading company, marching behind the captain and the sergeant, came across a horsedrawn carriage carrying two attractive women. One of the women bowed and smiled at the captain who instantly gave an enthusiastic salute in return. A voice from the ranks called out: “Twist his ear, sergeant.”

Our tour finishes at Le Hamel. Amid fields of wheat overlooking the town, a memorial marks the July 1918 victory of Australian and American troops against the German lines. It is one of the more uplifting Western Front stories for Australians. General Sir John Monash used shock tactics with tanks and covering fire from artillery to protect his infantry as they ran at the German trenches. The troops were also resupplied in the field from the air during a short, highly successful attack in which Australian casualties were comparatively small and which marked the advent of modern infantry warfare. As evidenced by the Anzac Day crowds that converge in ever-greater numbers annually on the Australian memorial at Villers Bretonneux, the Western Front is slowly starting to win its place in Australia’s cultural consciousness. It is no less a part of the Anzac story than Gallipoli.