IN AN exclusive in The Weekly Times, the Secretary/Vice President of Gladesville RSL Sub Branch Peter Astridge writes about the significance of The Great War of 1914 to 1918.
Next year on the 11th of November 2018 marks 100 years since the end of World War One.
At the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the Great War ended.
At 5am that morning Germany, bereft of manpower and supplies and faced with an imminent invasion, signed an armistice agreement with the Allies in a railroad car outside Compiegne, France.
The First World War left nine million soldiers dead and 21 million wounded, In addition, at least five million civilians died from disease, starvation, or exposure.
World War One was known as the ‘war to end all wars’ because of the great slaughter and destruction it caused.
Unfortunately, the peace treaty that officially ended the conflict (the Treaty of Versailles of 1919) forced punitive terms on Germany that destabilized Europe and laid the groundwork for World War Two.
At the Somme on March 21, 1918 the Germans launched a massive offensive and they drove the British back about 60 kilometers, an immense distance considering the conflict had been mostly static for more than three years.
For the British, this was the biggest crisis of the war.
There was widespread concern that after years of fierce fighting, awful hardships and frightful casualties, Britain and its allies might well lose the war.
Units from the Australian Imperial Force were rushed to the rescue.
One of them, the 15th Australian Brigade, was led by an extraordinary character.
Brigadier-General Harold Edward “Pompey” Elliott, a brilliant tactician who was remarkably brave, and renowned for never sending anyone anywhere he was not willing to venture himself.
Elliott had seen plenty of the war. He was wounded at the Gallipoli landing.
At Lone Pine, with his inspiring frontline presence, four of his men won the Victoria Cross.
His brigade however was destroyed in the disaster of Fromelles. Despite all that Elliott had endured since April 1915, he had no doubt that the German assault in March 1918 ushered in the climax of the war.
Although the Australians fought on many fronts, the battles of Fromelles and Pozieres marked Australia’s entry onto the Western Front of the Great War.
On April 7, 1916, first Anzac Corps took up positions in a quiet sector south of Armentieres, known as the “Nursery” The Australians were spared from participating in the disastrous first day at the Somme. Nevertheless, within three weeks of the beginning of the Allied offensive, four divisions of the AIF had committed to the battle.
Only the 3rd Division did not take part, having only just recently arrived in England from Australia.
The 5th Division, positioned on the left flank of the salient, was the first to see action during the Battle of Fromelles July 19, 1916.
Next morning the Australians who had breached the enemy’s lines were forced to withdraw to their own lines.
The Australians suffered 5,533 casualties in one night, the worst 24 hours in Australia’s military history.
Many fell victim to German machine-guns and the Australian toll at Fromelles was equivalent to the total Australian casualties in the Boer War, Korean War and Vietnam War put together.
It was a staggering disaster that had no redeeming tactical justification.
For Australia, as for many nations, the First World War remains the most costly conflict in terms of deaths and casualties.
From a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted, over 60,000 of whom were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.
Gladesville RSL Sub Branch
Secretary/Vice President of Gladesville RSL Sub Branch Peter Astridge served as a Commando.