Roger Lee’s The Battle of Fromelles and Meleah Hampton’s Attack on the Somme are part of a relatively recent shift in the focus of Australian military history: they revisit big battles on the Western Front, which few works have done since Charles Bean’s Official History (1921-42). It’s as though, inflated with myths of Gallipoli, our Great War literature has had little use for strategic reality. Perhaps it takes a century to get clear of the revulsion aroused by the killing in that war – which Bean blocked out by writing the original romance of it as heroic achievement.
In The Great War (2007) Les Carlyon repackaged Bean’s Anzac story in a popular history that may be taken to have marked the change in Australia. Yet such centennial narratives as these by Lee and Hampton consolidate that change by building on new ways of thinking about the Western Front. By the 1990s analytical historians could no longer blame all the horror on bone-headed British generals. New studies of military geography, strategy and tactics and the armaments industry came out. David G. Hermann’s The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War (1997) was influential. Two battle histories by Australian historians Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson also made a mark: Passchendaele (1995) and The Somme (2002), both republished in 2016. They emphasise the incapacity of the British political as well as military leadership in the war and the collective slowness to realise that artillery, would be the determinant of victory on the Western Front.
Lee’s Fromelles 1916 (2010) is published by the Australian Army History Unit’s Campaign Series, partly created by him in 2004 (around the time of the Iraq War) to offer cut-back, illustrated versions of scholarly analyses of our battle history. Conversely, Hampton’s Attack on the Somme: 1st Anzac Corps and the Battle of Pozières Ridge 1916 was published as an already sleek 2016 monograph in Britain and has been accepted for adaptation for the Campaign Series. It will be published soon. As distinct from Bean’s thousand page tomes, these new battle histories are short glossy books. They package the command failures in those battles leading to 28,000 casualties in seven weeks (compared with 20,000 at Gallipoli in eight months) in dry-eyed, professional analyses enhanced by colourful text-boxes, maps and illustrations.
This semi-official commodification of analytic military history does not quite come out of the blue. While our governments maintain the US Alliance, they have no direct strategic interest in the wars in which we have been involved in Iraq and Afghanistan – and this means our military forces have a determined tactical focus. The Campaign Series, published by Sydney-based Sky High Publishing, caters for that tactical interest and chimes with a requirement to educate junior army leaders for operations in the digitised ‘battle space’.
In a society where the first world war is the foundation topic in the high school modern history syllabus, the Campaign Series has a wider resonance. Its readable, well-illustrated analyses provide as good an introduction as there is to that topic for anyone from senior high-school students on. One effect of the centennial analyses, as opposed to popular histories, which continue to promote Bean’s romance of Anzac heroism and Australian exceptionalism in battle, is that their new narrative of our two large military disasters in 1916 replaces his romance with technical detachment. Unlike Bean’s romance, however, these analyses show no interest in why we were involved in the disasters in the first place.
After the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was withdrawn to Egypt where it was rapidly expanded from one to four and later five divisions, or from some 18,000 to 90,000 men. While the 3rd Division would be formed in Britain from July, the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th Australian Divisions had already reached France in March-April 1916 and soon became involved in two battles.
The first of these, the Battle of Fromelles, which Australian Major-General Sir James McCay’s 5th Division fought in northern France on 19-20 July 1916, represents the bloodiest 24 hours in our military history. The 5th Division lost about half its fighting strength: 5533 casualties, of which over 1770 were dead or missing.
Even today, Lee has a lot to defuse. His analysis is not only set in recent advances in Great War scholarship, but in an ongoing political tension with popular accounts. As he puts it: ‘the distinction between British and Australian appears to be of much greater concern to the writers of today than it was to the troops in 1916’. Obviously, he is a writer engaged with that concern and Patrick Lindsay’s Fromelles: The Story of Australia’s Darkest Day (2007) is a popular history he mentions more than once. Lindsay may be going too far to suggest an official cover-up of the disaster. Yet he did well to remind us of our historical amnesia about the battle, which partly resulted from the fact that its outcome was almost immediately overshadowed by the even more terrible shock of the 23,000 casualties in the battle for Pozières Ridge. Later in 1922, the British Army’s Battles Nomenclature Committee (with Australian representation) tended to confirm the Battle of Fromelles as an historical blank, by classifying it as a ‘subsidiary attack’ under the Somme. For many years, the battle was not then listed separately on major Australian war memorials.
Nonetheless, Lee’s criticism of the shortcomings of popular history is generally balanced. He argues that its authors distort history by generating emotion around ‘the numbers killed or wounded’, emotion that continues in turn to entrench the figure of the all-powerful ‘bungling British general’. His reasonable argument is that the battle must be ‘considered in the strategic and tactical circumstances of the time’; that ‘no one person’ could have determined the outcome; and that there were factors over which individuals had ‘no control.’
Despite some acerbic tilts at ‘popular belief’ and ‘popular opinion’ – for instance, Lee writes that ‘contrary to popular opinion, the battle commander Sir Douglas Haig was no dim-witted fossil out of touch with the realities of war’ – the early chapters offer a helpful primer on what configured the Western Front within the wider frame of the French, Russian and, indeed, German geo-political situations: modern weapons technology. Had not the instruments of machine-age killing, the machine gun and modern artillery, forced the French, British and German armies to dig into the earth to survive and fight on its battlefields by late 1914? What we call the Western Front consisted of an approximately 475-mile long line of opposing trench systems that went down automatically into the ground from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. Manned by some 2.5 million men on each side, it could not be outflanked without violating Swiss or Dutch neutrality; it could only be attacked frontally or defended.
Since the Germans invaded Belgium and France in August 1914, Lee draws out another elemental detail from military geography: the French and British had for almost four years no alternative other than to attack the German defensive line, mainly uphill, because the Germans had chosen the higher terrain to defend. Modern weapons combined with the heightened battle-field observation tended to confer a large tactical advantage on the defender. The strategic tensions between operations designed to break through the usually formidable German line and achieve rapid victory or ‘bite and hold’ operations designed to make modest gains along the enemy line and draw him into battles of attrition are covered.
In such a war, the rapid expansion of the British Army from seven to 77 divisions or by well over a million men between August 1914 and mid-1916 was inevitable. So was the unprecedented array of major political, industrial, administrative and military problems, which that massive development caused for Britain’s war leadership.
Into the jaws of the monster: the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1 July-18 November 1916) was the bloodiest day in British military history: some 20,000 men were killed and 40,000 wounded. There were 432,000 British casualties during the entire battle, some 200,000 French and 500,000 German. After the scandal of the shell shortage in 1915, the hasty manufacture in Britain of the shells meant to cut the barbed wire and to suppress the machine gun and artillery fire defending the enemy’s line was one significant cause of British casualties. Of 19 million British shells fired during the battle, probably a third were duds. The generals were not responsible for that. From 19 July to 3 September, both the Battles of Fromelles and Pozières Ridge were, in any case, part of the same technologically and industrially conditioned slaughter.
In his fourth chapter, ‘Planning for Disaster’, Lee describes a battle that was doomed from its inception. We see that popular accounts of heroic Anzac achievements thwarted by British bungling are too simple-minded. This narrative overlooks the basic fact that the AIF was for operational, but not necessarily, as we will see for political or cultural purposes, a part of the British Army. At Fromelles, the Australian 5th Division was part of British XI Corps – there were two or three divisions in a corps, and two or three corps in an army, and five British Field Armies commanded by General Haig in France. Major-General Sir Richard Haking commanded XI Corps in the battle, in which the British 61st Division fought beside the Australian one, taking some 1700 battle casualties. A writer like Lindsay largely ignores the British half of the battle, except where he narrows in on his bête noir, the ‘higher (British) staff’, particularly Haking.
Lindsay characterises Haking as an obsessive, dishonest fool: ‘really impossible, untruthful and a bully not to be trusted’. He told ‘outright lies’. By contrast, Lindsay endorses wholly the uncorroborated opinion of Brigadier-General Pompey Elliott, whose 15th Brigade suffered in the battle, that the disaster stemmed from ‘loose thinking’ and ‘somewhat reckless’ decision making.
Lee handles this well. He does not excuse Haking’s command errors. He explains them when the evidence permits and, in any case, counters unreasonable anti-British bias by placing the battle in its historical and operational context. The First Army Order to XI Corps of 15 July seemed clearly to state the aim: ‘to prevent the enemy from moving troops southward to take part in the defence of the Somme.’ Yet planning for an opportunistic battle against perceived German intentions was always going to involve vacillating instructions from levels higher than Haking’s and hasty improvisations. In Lee’s words, ‘the constant modification and variation of the plan was a major problem for all involved.’
In that uncertain situation, the decision to ‘show’ (rather than keep secret) the preparations for the XI Corps attack was made. That might have been justified, if the battle was designed to pin the Germans in the north by confusing them about British intentions with a light show of force. But it might be disastrous, if heavy fighting was intended to convince the Germans that a serious threat existed to their line. German artillery might then disrupt the necessary build-up of forces before the battle was joined. In the event, the decision to show the preparations, for which Haking and his advisers were responsible, turned out to be disastrous.
Then there was the ‘quandary’ in the artillery plan: insufficient guns and ammunition and the use of barely trained Australian gunners, problems that, however, did not seem sufficiently cogent to Haking or his advisers to justify cancellation of a mere ‘pinning’ operation. The infantry plan was defective. Haking wisely minimised the size of the attacking force, but had no time to remedy the inadequate training of both his divisions.
The decision to launch some of the infantry attacks through ‘saps’ or ‘sally ports’ was highly controversial at the time of the battle and has remained so. It was, however, a considered rather than a reckless decision, as Lee shows, even if the outcome was dreadful. Saps were trenches dug into no man’s land to protect the infantry, as they filed through them and exited to form up for the final assault as close as possible to the enemy line. However, if the German artillery and machine guns were not effectively suppressed, they might register the egress points. In which case, the men exiting one by one would be cut down in turkey-shoots – until the exits were clogged with bodies and no more men could exit for the attack – as happened along the British part of the line.
Another major tactical error for which Haking was responsible was his decision to have an inter-divisional boundary line along the centre of the vital ‘Sugar Loaf’ salient. A single Divisional Headquarters should have had responsibility to facilitate cohesive tactical coverage of that crucial centre-line. Haking also failed to allocate enough time for his divisions to familiarise themselves with the battle plan once it was decided.
And then there was the fundamental problem of communications technology: it was insufficiently developed to maintain adequate command and control of a big battle in 1916. Runners took time and were all too frequently killed. Pigeons, signal flags and lights were problematic. Phone lines were frail and once the infantry went over the top, the commanders usually heard nothing of them for hours – if ever. Typically, once the troops entered no man’s land, the higher operational command could do little to influence the battle.
Lee relates the command failures to the grisly outcome in a lucid fashion. He paints an appalling picture of how, seriously disrupted by enemy artillery as the preparations were ‘shown’ before the attack began on an almost two-mile front at 6pm on 19 July, the infantry was trapped thereafter in clogged saps, decimated again by friendly as well as enemy artillery fire, shredded by machine gun fire and uncut barbed wire, and rendered significantly leaderless with heavy losses of officers and NCOs in many battalions. Some groups from especially the 14th and 8th Australian Brigades fought their way into the German lines; but the attack failed within an hour – which was before Haking and his divisional and, even, brigade commanders had much idea of what had happened.
After 8 pm, the British 184th and Australian 15th Brigades, which had been badly shot up on either side of the centre-line on the Sugar Loaf, were exhorted to renew the attack on it. Haking cancelled this attack at 9pm, but the commander of the Australian 15th Brigade Pompey Elliott did not get word of it. Lacking all support (again), his men alone put in their thin attack, which was destroyed by withering machine gun fire. Bean said: ‘there was opened from the salient a fire of machine guns so severe that the line was shattered and the men dazed.’ Scattered actions continued until 5 am. Tactically, the attack at Fromelles failed completely.
Lee says some recent evidence ‘suggests’ that the battle was successful in terms of its stated aim of holding German troops in the north. But, while I doubt he really thinks any ‘success’ was proportional to the cost, another speculation resonates more meaningfully for me. Lee concludes that, as the weather disrupted Haking’s inadequate preparations for the battle, he must have felt that ‘even the elements favoured the Germans.’
Haking made serious errors. But, in operational context, which the popular writers overlook, Fromelles 1916 persuades me that numerous errors were made for Haking and few were unforced. With the situation significantly beyond his control, he can appear to have been remarkably ‘resolute’, as Lee suggests. For Australia’s part, we see with distressing clarity what happened when the AIF was submerged in British battle planning – such as it was or, for the most part, could have been at Fromelles.
Three days after the disaster at Fromelles, 1st Anzac Corps was caught in another at the Battle of Pozières Ridge. The Corps was a part of British General Sir Hubert Gough’s Reserve (later Fifth) Army. Commanded by British Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood, 1st Anzac comprised 1st, 2nd and 4th Australian Divisions, each of which were rotated twice into and out of the line between 23 July and 3 September 1916. In that six weeks, 1st Anzac fought over ten divisional or smaller size operations and, for no significant gain, suffered a further 23,244 casualties.
If Roger Lee contextualises his battle, Meleah Hampton reconfigures hers. Most battle histories, including both of theirs, are constructed using high-level army staff reports and appreciations, planning documents and orders. The limitation of those records is that they are unlikely to provide details of what might be described as the awful unknown, that zone in which the combat goes on. Hampton’s access to a rare collection of ‘5000 messages written in the field of battle’, which Charles Bean collected at Pozières and later deposited in the Australian War Memorial, was a windfall for her and helps to demystify for us that little known area of awfulness.
The 5000 messages were generated in the fighting by those trying to manage it below the division, at brigade, battalion and company levels. Unlike the high-level records, their banal technical content has not often inspired much attention. Hampton uses them to detail what she calls the ‘structures’ of command and control at the lower as well as the higher levels of the battle. What does she mean by this? Mainly, the disciplined hierarchy of military authority as the records reflect it working or, as for much of the time in her incisive account, not working at the level of the fighting. She also assumes the structures that manifest in the broad British Army principles of strategic coordination, battle preparation and the all arms coordination of especially the artillery and infantry.
Before getting to the lower battle-field action, which is her main focus, several of her seven chapters indicate problems in high-level strategic coordination. In her second chapter, we find that by late July 1st Anzac was slipping into a support role for what the Army Commander Gough hoped would be a large attack by another Corps on its left. Yet such an attack was still notional and did not change in Gough’s mind the immediate need for action to capture the ‘high ground’ on 1st Anzac’s right. Gough’s Staff at Reserve Army had noted that possession of Pozières Ridge gave the enemy ‘a marked advantage in command and observation and cover[ed] from view a considerable part of his second line of defence.’ Hampton says that ‘what 1st Anzac was doing was slowly being lost’ in that strategic discrepancy.
I was not certain, however, that she explains the overall – or underlying – structure of that failure of coordination, which was unsettling from top-to-bottom. As Hampton shows, Gough was by nature an impatient, unreflective commander. Yet it helps to encapsulate the historical scope of the problems faced by the British Army in 1916, if one recalls that his command style had been conditioned in the pre-war, imperial world.
In their essay on Gough, Garry Sheffield and Helen McCarteny quote from pre-war Army Field Regulations (1909), largely drafted by Haig:
the object to be attained … should be briefly and clearly stated, whilst the method of attaining the object should be left to the utmost extent possible to the recipient with due regard for his personal characteristics. Operation orders, especially in the case of large forces should not enter into details except when details are absolutely necessary.
The point is that Gough’s apparently cursory and decentralised command style fitted the small-scale, regimental basis of the pre-war British Army, which had been developed for global dispersal in the imperial culture – as did Haig’s. It was, moreover, that culturally and politically conditioned command style, which was, in 1916, still overwhelmed by the new demands for machine like precision in the discipline of a concentrated European-style mass army on the Western Front.
Gough’s nature was, nonetheless, likely to have contributed to the way Hampton shows him spurring on his subordinate commanders. As early as 17 July, a day before British Major-General Harold Walker’s 1st Australian Division had even begun to reach the sector, Gough, who had, to make haste, temporarily cut Birdwood out of the command loop, was trying to rush Walker into action. Walker stood up to Gough – although not always to Birdwood – and delayed the attack until 1st Division was ready on 23 July.
In fact, some idea of the battle Walker fought for Pozières village on 23 July sets the standard for what failed to happen over the next five weeks. It also draws us into Hampton’s main interest in the complexity of what also had to be integrated for a battle to work at the lower levels of command. First Division attacked Pozières village from the south-east on a half-mile front. Walker’s assault waves were sparsely populated – perhaps 800 of the division’s 10,000 infantrymen plus engineer support troops were in the first wave of the attack. The infantry was however arrayed in great depth with many waves. His plan also emphasised coordinated fire power.
A creeping barrage was planned with three ‘lifts’ against the successive enemy trench lines across the front of the village. Each lift to the next enemy defence line was timed to cover fresh waves of infantry, as they moved through the troops consolidating the captured line and advanced to take the next one. The artillery plan was designed to pull the infantry into the village. As the attackers consolidated their positions therein, a standing barrage would continue beyond it to break up the enemy counter-attack.
On the left, where the German defence was lighter than on the right, much of the battle went to plan. The assault waves of 1st Brigade moved through each other and achieved most of its objectives by daylight. On the right, Hampton writes, there was ‘a definite danger of failure’. The 3rd Brigade’s right flank had to contend with the strong German defence lines, to which neither Gough nor Walker had paid sufficient attention. The brigade commander issued unclear orders. By 1 am there was a ‘confusion of units’. Some couldn’t find the trench lines they were supposed to be attacking. Casualties mounted as units lost their officers, including, for instance, Lieutenant Edward Rogerson of 11th Battalion, who was buried twice after shell-bursts, while working to consolidate objectives and was finally ‘rendered insensible by the burst of a very high explosive shell’.
Such a loss of command structure was eventually redeemed by individual actions. Captain Ferdinand Medcalf of the 11th Battalion is especially remembered for organising otherwise leaderless troops to consolidate positions. By making himself a ‘primary conduit of messages into and out of the field’, he was one of a few who reconstituted the command and control in his sector. By 3.45 pm 1st Division had occupied the village. It took a second divisional attack on 25 July to secure an outer village perimeter. Altogether, the division lost 5285 officers and men, only slightly fewer than that of the 5th Division at Fromelles.’
If Walker’s attack showed that by 1916 the British Army had generic principles relating to preparations for battle and tactical ‘all arms’ coordination, the rest of the battle revealed how application of them varied from division to division and was overall hit and miss.
The variety of new weapons, light and heavy artillery, Lewis guns, trench mortars, gas, smoke screens and aircraft had provided commanders with innumerable new tactical options. With many levels of command suddenly inserted into the rapidly-expanding mass army between 1914 and 1916, the detailed standardisation of options and disciplined adherence to new methods was always going to be fraught. By giving agency to lower-level commanders at battalion and company levels Hampton shows individual initiative and innovation going on in the battle. Such initiative might work in some tactical contexts and not in others.
Reserve Army’s interests were shifting to the left. But less than 40 hours after the Australian Major-General Gordon Legge had taken command in the line, Gough still pushed him into an attack on the right, from where hell-fire continued to rain down on the village. Awry in its timings, intensity and target selection, Legge’s artillery plan turned out to be ‘woefully inadequate’ to support an infantry attack that, unlike Walker’s, pushed as many men forward as possible with no effective artillery protection.
Some thought Legge overconfident. Yet Gough was no help to him. Neither were Birdwood nor his Chief of Staff Major-General C.B.B. White, who appear in Hampton’s new assessment of them as passive cyphers for Gough’s orders. They voiced no concern about the lack of time Legge allocated for preparations or his dangerously inept battle plan.
With no effective artillery cover, the infantry assembled in the open just after midnight on 29 July. German artillery and machine guns ripped into them before they reached uncut barbed wire in many places. Despite remarkably brave efforts, the ‘individual initiative’ of men like Medcalf during the 1st Division attack ‘had no effect here’. A successful artillery plan was fundamental to any success on the Western Front.
Legge’s second attack on 4 August finally reached the objective but repeated many of the mistakes of the first attack at more horrendous cost. Altogether, the division lost 6846 killed, wounded and missing, the highest casualties for any Australian division during a twelve-day stint in the line. A large proportion of the wounded were not only maimed, but suffered from serious shell-shock. Those costly 1st Anzac divisional attacks north of Pozières village had also pushed out a bulge in the line, a precarious salient, into which the Germans could pour fire from three sides. Rather than remedy this problem by coordinating the units on 1st Anzac flanks, Gough did the reverse.
On 3 August, he issued a memorandum. Corps commanders should ‘impress upon their subordinate leaders the necessity for the energetic measures and offensive action.’ They ‘must think out and suggest enterprises instead of waiting for orders from above, which is entirely the case at present.’ Hampton’s hunch that this push for small, local action was an instinctive attempt to reduce the appalling casualties seems right. But, then, as she also records, the casualties continued at the same overall rate in the dispersed, piecemeal actions, for which the higher staff could now absolve themselves of responsibility.
Major-General Hubert Cox’s 4th Division relieved 2nd Division on 7 August and conducted more than six battalion-size or larger offensive operations during its eight days in the line – while the Germans poured fire on the division from three sides. By this time, Mouquet Farm, with its strongpoints and tunnel systems, was seen to be important to German defences north of the salient. As brigade and battalion commanders pursued local initiatives and ‘small-raids’ with more dynamism than is commonly imagined, there were many costly attacks in the direction of Mouquet Farm, but none on it, because no one had thought to target it. Soldiers, with orders from ‘cloud-cuckoo-land’, died in meaningless assaults. This went on after 4th Division was also expended by 15 October and all three divisions were rotated back into and out of the line until 3 September at a cost of another 11,000 casualties.
Despite ‘countless memoranda, notes and messages with clearly expressed “lessons learnt”’, Hampton concludes ‘there is almost no evidence of learning from … experience’ during the battle – although the experience may later have influenced fighting methods. And when the Canadians, also meaninglessly pushed to the right, finally took Mouquet Farm on 26 September, it did not matter a ‘jot’ to the Somme campaign.
The Battle of the Somme, of which the Australian actions at Pozières Ridge was a small bloody part, is usually remembered in top-down histories for its big days: 1 July, 14 July and 15 September, the days when great pushes were on. Hampton offers an original guide to what happened on the other 138 days: ‘small-scale, disjoined, interminable attacks’ by one or two divisions on narrow fronts, as at Longueval, Delville Wood, Guillemont and other places as well as Pozières Ridge.
She’s a talented exponent of bottom-up as well as top-down history and she lets us see into the chaos that effectively destroyed for some time 1st Anzac Corps in the Battle for Pozières Ridge. Since similar low-level British documents are yet to be found and analysed, she also gives us a good idea of what went on more generally in the British Army at the time. On the Somme, as she put it, ‘this was the war’: groups of men struggling ‘towards ill-defined objectives on a moonscape battlefield’ littered with bodies and beneath sustained bombardments that were a benchmark for duration and intensity during the entire war.
In their ways, both authors describe the lack of the structures of command and control in the British Army and, thus, in the AIF – which is to say they describe those armies without the discipline to fight efficiently on the mechanised killing fields of the Western Front in 1916. While human agency has some place, both convey a technologically and, Lee to some extent, a geo-politically determined sense that the losses in the rapidly expanded mass army could not have been any other way. This is, I think, the importance of their work.
Yet neither says exactly that the loss of great numbers for no or, possibly in the case of Fromelles, for little gain was inevitable in historical context or connects that point with the next question. Neither asks why should Australians, or for that matter anyone, have been part of such an unavoidably vast, terrible and futile bloody mess? Prior and Wilson acknowledged the question in The Somme and Passchendaele. Their best answer is that even though the battles they describe were futile, the war was not. They assert in passing that the soldiers who died in their hundreds of thousands had a ‘good cause’, but that they ‘deserved a plan and competent leadership as well as a cause.’
But is that good history? Was there a magic wand that might have produced such leadership? Does not their assertion and, indeed, the scathing tone one could demonstrate in their writing, smack with the blame game? When they mention a ‘good cause’, they assume sole German war guilt, a position that can no longer be seriously argued – even if British and British Empire soldiers believed it at the time. The absence of ‘competent leadership’ also assumes that British political and military leaders should have had a grip on the very battles that Lee and Hampton show had a grip on them.
So, what of Lee and Hampton? They simply take their battles for granted and imagine them as dark stages on the road to final victory – which is not defined. Both want to advance scholarship, general education and interest. Presumably, both realise that, by levelling the heroic hump that Bean built into the Anzac myth, their new analyses offer a wider view of what happened. Neither attempts, however, to connect with the fundamental questions about political context that Bean asked in the 1926 volume of his Official History.
With Fromelles also in mind, Bean’s chapter on ‘The Effects of Pozières’ referred democratically to the problems of fighting ‘in a distant land in a quarrel not peculiarly Australian’. He emphasised that ‘the Australian reader will ask, and has a right to ask, “was this great effort of our countrymen – so pregnant with trouble for our nation – directed by prudent and capable generalship? Was it guided along lines likely to render a return for which it was worth incurring these crushing casualties?”’ Bean tells us the troops came to ‘dread and detest’ these pointless battles.
Today, our governments manage such political questions about contemporary military engagement by minimising the casualties. They provide ‘token’ and ‘niche’ to ‘small’ contributions to wars that will minimise the human cost and so maintain the American alliance with little to no political liability. That is a management strategy but it still does not answer the ongoing questions about why, in the face of no objective threat to Australia, our soldiers die in farflung places. These are questions our military historians tend to avoid answering in relation to the Great War too.
Based on what Bean said in 1926, the difference Lee raises between British and Australian identity being a ‘much greater concern’ for writers today than it was for the soldiers at the time seems overdrawn. For one thing, the writers today are not getting killed. And is not Lee’s attempt to collapse that difference both at odds with Bean’s democratic questioning and a denial of the very political tension, in which it shows his own military history is set?
Lee argues well that Haking and the disaster at Fromelles must be understood in operational context. Yet no matter how loose the popular accounts may be, many stem from a reasonable expectation that Australian battle histories should relate to an Australian perspective. Their position echoes the old nationalist opposition to imperial plans for Australian defence that go back before 1914 and were set in the political culture during the conscription referendums of 1916 and 1917. Since the national narrative has withered in the face of the AIF cum ANZAC cultural bias since 1918, it has left us with the simplifications of popular history today. That rift is indeed the origin of the tension, which Bean registered in 1926, and in which work like Lee’s is historically set. His partisan engagement in that conflict – sometimes expressed in a reaction against Australian Pom-bashing as Anglophile Anzac-bashing – then cuts across his good argument and clouds its point that, in large measure, the outcome of Fromelles was beyond human control.
Interested in analysing Bean’s documentation, Hampton tends not to engage with the popular writers and avoids getting into a political tension with them. Yet her firm reminder that many histories ‘fail to identify Australian formations as part of the British Army’, which gives her work wide relevance, is problematic. To repeat: the AIF was operationally integrated into the British Army. But that is not the end of the matter.
Australian soldiers spoke distinctively and did not have the vote in Britain. Hampton herself criticises Birdwood for doubting Legge’s ability to command 2nd Division after his early failures at Pozières and only retaining him because, with few Australians in high positions, the Australian Defence Minister Senator George Pearce wanted him kept in place for that reason. That rings true, but hardly shows that the AIF was ‘part of the British Army’. Additionally, Gary Sheffield, who wrote the Foreword to Hampton’s book, seems somewhat embarrassed by the closeness of that identification. His Foreword praises historians who do not take a ‘narrowly nationalist’ view of the AIF, but observes that the Australian divisions formed a ‘slightly unusual’ component of the British Expeditionary Force in France.
Fromelles 1916 and Attack on the Somme change Bean’s Australian imperial narrative. They helpfully substitute realistic analysis for his Anzac myth. But they are written in a less democratic vein and, while taking the war as given, maintain his imperial frame.
References and Further Reading
Charles Bean, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume III, ‘The AIF in France, 1916’, 1926.
Ian F.W. Beckett & Steven J. Corvi, Haig’s Generals, 2006.
Christopher Duffy, Through German Eyes: The British & The Somme 1916, 2006.
J.P. Harris, Douglas Haig and the First World War, 2008.
Roger Lee, British Battle Planning in 1916 and the Battle for Fromelles, 2015.
David Stevenson, 1914-1918: The History of the First World War, 2004, 2012.