Category Archives: The AIF

43. August 1915

Eight men from the Shire of Alberton died on active service at Gallipoli in August 1915, most in the period 6-8 August: Frederick Bird 559, 4 LHR, died of wounds 6 August; James Moysey 138, 8 LHR, killed in action 7 August; James Pickett 232, 8 LHR, killed in action 7 August; Patrick Sweeney 451, 8 LHR, killed in action 7 August; John Adams 31, 15 B, missing from 7 August then killed in action same date; George Tyler 2194, 7 B, missing then killed in action 8 or 9 August; Alexander John McLeod 1709, 7 B, killed in action 16 August and William Dewell 1153, 14 B, missing then killed in action 21 August. Only two of the men – Frederick Bird and Alexander McLeod – have known graves, the rest feature on the Lone Pine Memorial. Another soldier from the Shire of Alberton – David Geoffrey Willis – died of meningitis in camp in Melbourne on 26 August 1915.

The men will be covered in separate posts. This particular post looks at the 2 distinctive actions of the time – Lone Pine and the Nek – in an attempt to give some sort of context to the deaths. At the time, one hundred years ago, people in Australia needed to be reassured that the increasing sacrifice associated with the campaign in the Dardanelles was warranted. Newspaper reports continued to conceal and misrepresent the real military situation. The primary focus for the stories was the heroism and the fighting qualities of the Anzacs. The Gallipoli campaign was reported as a military adventure.

Lone(some) Pine

Despite the high level of Australian casualties – over 2,000 Australians in 4 days of hand-to-hand fighting in covered trenches – the action at Lone Pine (Lonesome Pine) was intended as yet another feint. It was designed to hold Turkish troops in place immediately prior to the major assault in the north on Chunuk Bair and Hill 971. The overall strategy in the north was to secure the high ground of Sari Bair and achieve the breakthrough that had eluded the allied troops from the very first day of the Dardanelles campaign. The action in the north was to be supported by a series of feints in the south and there was also to be a major, concurrent, British action based on Suvla Bay. The actions in the north – Suvla and Chunuk Bair – failed. In fact, the action at Suvla Bay is generally regarded as one the low points in British military history.

In Australia, the misreporting of the Gallipoli campaign continued. Heroism remained the dominant theme.The news about Lone Pine reached Australia by early September. On 4 September 1915, The Age (p. 11) published an extensive account, again by Ashmead-Bartlett – special representative of the British press at Gallipoli – which led with the heroic headlines: Gallipoli Battle.   Fight For Main Crest.   Position Taken And Lost.   Australia’s Glorious Part   Amazing Dash Shown    “Attack With Fury Of Fanatics.”

In the article Ashmead-Bartlett expressed some frustration with the failure of the main attack on Sari Bair. According to him, victory had been so close. He was setting down what was to become the conventional wisdom of how the attack had so nearly succeeded. The failure of the British action at Suvla was even written into the record, albeit discretely:

“There was bitter disappointment in relinquishing the crest [of Sari Bair] when it was almost in our grasp after so many months, but there was no alternative. The Anzac Army Corps fought like lions, and accomplished a feat of arms almost without parallel in climbing those heights, although handicapped by the failure of another army corps to make good its position on the Anfarta hills further north for the purpose of checking the enemy’s shell fire.

The article also presented the background to the specific action at Lone Pine and gave a vivid account of the savagery of the fighting:

“In order to enable the forces detailed for the main movement, which had for its ultimate object the occupation of Sari Bair, from Chanak Bair to Kojachemen [Hill 971], it was necessary to attract the enemy’s attention towards the south and force him to keep his troops in front of our lines while our main forces debouched from Anzac. This was the reason for the Australian advance on 6th August, and the desperate attack on the Lonesome Pine plateau…

“The Turks have fortified the place carefully, and it was a veritable fortress. The trenches were roofed with huge pine logs, railway sleepers and immense teak planks, and were covered with earth, making the trenches impervious to shells except from heavy howitzers.

EXTRAORDINARY STRUGGLE UNDERGROUND.

…The Australians rushed forward to the assault with the fury of fanatics, little heeding the tremendous shrapnel and the enfilading rifle fire. Great difficulty was experienced in forcing a way into the trenches. Mighty physical effort was required to remove the obstructions. …The Turks were caught in a trap. Some surrendered, but the majority chose to die fighting. There was a desperate hand to hand fight in every trench and dugout. Four lines of trenches were captured in succession, additional infantry pouring in as the advancing lines thinned. …

“The Turks massed their forces, and counter-attacked desperately for three days and nights. They frequently retook sections of the trenches, only to be again driven out. The extraordinary struggle was almost entirely underground. Both sides showed an utter disregard of life. The wounded and dead chocked the trenches almost to the top, and the survivors carried on the fight over heaps of corpses. Despite the most determined courage shown by the reinforced Turks, the Australians held their ground finally, and the Turks wearied of the struggle. The trenches are now merely battered shambles. The removal of the dead and wounded occupied days. The bodies of 1000 Turks and colonials were removed from the trenches, and hundreds more corpses lay outside.

Clearly, the fighting was brutal and both sides fought with incredible bravery. But the high losses for the Australians had to seen against the military objective of the action. Lone Pine was a feint. As Ashmead-Bartlett told his readers:

“Although the capture of the Lonesome Pine plateau was the most desperate hand to hand fight yet on the peninsula, it was merely a diversion and preliminary to the main movement northwards, which commenced the same evening under darkness.

However, as indicated, the main movement was itself a failure. Moreover, 100 years on, Prior (2009, p.171) only rates the military success of Lone Pine as ‘ambiguous’. By any standard, Lone Pine was an incredible loss of men for such qualified military outcomes. As for Gallipoli in general, Lone Pine demonstrated that the relationship between heroism and sacrifice on one hand and military success on the other was very tenuous.

The Nek

The futility of the action at the the Nek very early in the morning on 7 August was even more striking. Perhaps it was more the orchestration or performance of the famous charge that was its most distinctive feature. This is the action that was immortalised in the Peter Weir film, Gallipoli. It was essentially another diversionary action timed to support similar operations at Quinn’s Post and Pope’s Post. Critically, it depended on the success of other actions, particularly the New Zealanders’ push to Chunuk Bair. But the New Zealanders were well behind and, in fact, Prior (p. 176) argues that Birdwood ordered the doomed attack at the Nek to proceed because he wanted it as a diversion to support the New Zealanders. The military plan was in effect turned on its head at the last minute. In the event, 4 waves – 150 men in each – of the 8 and 10 Light Horse Regiments rushed to their deaths. Of the 600 men involved more than 300 were killed or wounded and the bodies lay on the battlefield for weeks after. The 8 Light Horse Regiment, the first to attack, suffered most, with 234 from its 300 strength either killed or wounded.

The war diary for the 8 Light Horse Regiment is a very concise and sobering read:

At 4.40 we led the attack on the TURKISH trenches on the NEK. The C.O. led the first line which consisted of about 9 officers and 150 other ranks and the second line of equal strength by 2nd in command. Moving into a deadly machine gun fire, the attack failed to get home.

The Commanding Officer was 33yo Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Henry White and he was killed in the first few seconds. Bean (1941, p. 614) claimed he made 10 paces.

At least at Lone Pine some military objective had been achieved – whether it was worth the casualty level is another issue altogether – but the Nek achieved no military outcome. Against this background, the reporting of the episode in Australia posed a significant challenge. Not surprisingly, the tactic was to talk up the heroism and sacrifice.

The story was reported some 6 weeks after it occurred, appearing in The Age (p. 6) on 30 September 1915, although the date for the copy was earlier – Gaba Tepe, 16th August.  The headlines proclaimed: A Victorian Charge.   Light Horse Storm Trenches   Terrific Hail of Bullets Faced.   Imperishable Glory Won.  It was sourced:  [From the Special representative of “The Age”]

The article featured a description of the Nek itself and gave a picture of the task facing the men:

The nek [sic] is 150 yards wide, and the space between our and the enemy’s trenches is 80 yards. In some places it is less. On the right hand is a sheer drop over the cliffs into the valleys, now captured by us. Out towards the left flank, on the left of the position, is the head of Monash Gully. The plateau is crossed and re-crossed by enemy works. The nek is on the left, and on the right is the famous Pope’s Post. Between Pope’s and our next trenches is a ravine, and then comes Quinn’s Post. Opposite these points the Turkish trenches are sometimes only a few yards distant – they are scarcely ever more than 80 yards apart.

The work before the Light Horse was to charge over the enemy parapets, up a slight incline, against row after row of gradually rising trenches.

The heroic style of writing is intended to put the reader there at the Nek, to make them part of the action. The obstacles are insurmountable. This is a glorious but doomed attack.  Then came the charge:

The Victorians [8 LHR] on the sound of a whistle scrambled over the parapets into the face of a fearful fire. I cannot describe the volume and intensity of the waves of lead that swept across the tops of the parapets. The Turks had never before disclosed the positions of many of their machine guns, but now ten or more were sending a rain of bullets thudding against the parapets or skimming over the top.

Against this “hell fire” the Light Horse leaped out, led by their officers. Lieutenant-Colonel White, a more gallant leader than whom never faced fire, insisted on leading his squadron, and he had gone but a few yards when he was riddled with bullets. Still our men went on, only to be shot down, crippled or killed outright. The second and third lines had come out at intervals of a few minutes…

… The parapets were covered with the wounded and dying. Stretcher bearers rescued men where they could, dragging them down into the trenches, while over the parapets went other men, doomed like their brave comrades. Many only reached the parapet.

Bean (1941, p. 622) summed up the challenge facing the Light Horse at the Nek: On no other occasion during the war did Australians have to face fire approaching in volume that which concentrated on The Nek.

In case the reader questioned why the pointless killing was allowed to continue for so long, the article already had an answer. It was the claim that some men had made it to the Turkish trenches and therefore they had to be supported. In his Official History, Bean (p. 615) also featured the report of the pre-arranged small red and yellow flag that people claimed to have seen in the enemy trenches. Bean stated that reports had it there for 10 minutes before it was torn down. He surmised that it was almost certain that a few men from the first wave managed to get into the first Turkish trench on the extreme right. Flags or not, it was clear to those directly involved at the Nek that morning, that the military objective was not attainable. Several attempts were made to call the action off. Presumably, after the carnage, people sought to rationalise what had happened.

The Age described the flag incident and employed it to exonerate the military commanders:

A handful of men from the second line reached the first line of the Turkish trenches… They flung themselves into those trenches somehow but there is scarcely a soul alive to tell the tale. According to a prearranged signal, the Turks having been driven back along the communication trenches, our men raised a red and yellow flag about a foot square. Ten minutes had scarcely gone by when this, as wonderful a feat as any in the campaign, was accomplished. Each minute had rendered the position more desperate; each minute ten, twenty or thirty men had gone down, yet the general had no option, when those heroic men of the Eighth reached and captured the first trench, but to send support. And so the third line went forth to death and glory.

The article does not acknowledge it but, In the confusion, a large number of the fourth wave also charged. The second 2 waves of the attack were made up of men from 10 Light Horse regiment.

More than anything else, the article focussed on the heroism of the men involved. And, of course, there was strong provenance for doomed but heroic attacks like this. The image of the resolute British soldier, following his officers’ orders to certain death was a staple in British and Imperial culture at the time, and the The Age exploited it forcefully:

There is a parallel between this charge and the famous charge at Balaclava. The Light Horse knew that to leave their trenches was to charge into valley after valley of death. They never questioned those orders, but went at the word of command, and their deed stands on that same glorious pedestal. “Was there a man dismayed?” I venture to think that after one engagement, with the knowledge of all that trench warfare meant, the troops never presented a braver front. “Theirs not to reason why; theirs but to do – and die.” Words never conveyed a fuller meaning than did these for the men who left the trenches at 4.30 a.m. on 7th August.

We might want to dismiss this style of newspaper reporting as mawkish claptrap and an unconscionable cover-up for gross incompetence on the part of military commanders, both British and Australian, but the historical reality is that such sentiments would have comforted many families at the time. This was a picture of the Empire at its greatest. Moreover, stripping out all the jingoism, there is no doubting the bravery shown by the men who did literally run to their deaths.

This particular report on the charge at the Nek is arguably one of the lowest pieces of military propaganda ever published in WW1. The last paragraph reads more like a sermon than a piece of reporting. It exploits the heroism shown by the men to insist that no one should ask any hard questions about what had happened; and its claims about the overall success of the charge at the Nek and the wider great flanking movement are grossly inaccurate:

The Glory of the Dead
In this way in a brief few minutes did a regiment perish, but it left behind an imperishable name. Yet the regiment did no more than its duty, but the men did it against fearful odds, in the face of certain death, because their leaders led them. No one may ask if the price was not too great. The main object had been achieved. The Turks were held not only here, but right along the line – tied to their trenches, crowded together, waiting to be bayoneted where they stood, as they had been at Lone Pine. Above all, the way had been kept clear for the great flanking movement, which the New Zealand and Australian infantry, British, Indian and Maories [sic] carried out, ending with the linking of hands with the new army flung ashore at Suvla bay. Victorians, and indeed all Australians, will “honor the charge they made – honor the Light Brigade.”

Even before Lone Pine and the Nek there was an established pattern of newspaper reporting that minimised military failure and extolled the fighting quality and bravery of the AIF. Lone Pine and the Nek took the practice to new levels. However, the extent of the military failure, and the shocking level of casualties meant that the seemingly unchecked pursuit of sacrifice and heroism would eventually be questioned. For those in Australia reading the mainstream press the doubts began to appear not very long after the disasters of early August. Ashmead-Bartlett was one the most important Imperial war correspondent at the time – certainly he was the most popular one in Australia, where he was famous for his depiction of the heroic AIF – yet in the Argus (p. 9) on 18 October 1915 he questioned the worth of the entire Gallipoli campaign. Under headlines including, Blunders At Gallipoli.   Ashmead Bartlett’s Warning  and  Some Plain Speaking, he was quoted as questioning whether the appalling slaughter at Gallipoli had been worth it. It was a nuanced report but the gist was that while Australian soldiers had made a name for themselves for their fighting qualities, the overall campaign had been a litany of military blunders. The enormous sacrifice had achieved no significant military outcomes.

References

The Age

Argus

Prior, R  2009, Gallipoli: The End of the Myth, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney

Bean, CEW 1941, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume II – The Story of ANZAC from 4 May, 1915, to the evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula, Chapter XXI – The Feints of August 7th., 11th Edition 1941

War Diary of 8 Light Horse Regiment, August 1915

 

37. “They Rose To The Occasion” : the AIF’s image emerges victorious

This post looks at the narrative of the AIF at Gallipoli as it was presented in 2 newspapers of the time: The Argus as a Melbourne metropolitan daily and the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, published twice weekly, as the local paper for the Shire of Alberton.

At the time, newspapers were the only media source of information. From the very start of the War they were subject to strict censorship, and the release of information covering ‘war news’ was highly controlled. In Australia, there was intense interest in the AIF’s fortunes, matched with the understanding that its first engagement in the War would represent a defining moment in the young nation’s history. Before Gallipoli there were 2 overriding preoccupations: would the AIF prove itself as equal to the British army on the field of battle; and how would the AIF mark itself as a distinctive Australian fighting force? Further, the first major campaign involving the AIF represented the chance to counter the negative publicity it had drawn to itself in Egypt. Overall, even before the first shot was fired, the legendary status of Gallipoli was assured.

The first reports of the landings at Gallipoli came very early. On Monday 26 April 1915 The Argus reported on the ‘allies’ landing in the Dardanelles. The troops were described as British and French and the Australians were not specifically listed. There were significant inaccuracies in relation to the landing sites given. Two days later – Wednesday 28 April – there were more accounts of the landings: they had taken place at several points on the Gallipoli Peninsula, covered by a naval force. The reader was reassured, falsely, that:

In spite of serious opposition from the enemy behind strong entrenchments and entanglements, the Allied forces were completely successful.

On 30 April there was a map of the Dardanelles with landing sites, but there were still major inaccuracies.

On 4 May came the first indication of casualties – the Roll of Honour – giving the AIF dead as 10 officers and 42 other ranks, plus another 96 wounded. In the same edition came the first of the congratulatory telegrams. The Governor General was reported to have congratulated Birdwood on the Australian troops’ … successful entry upon active field service. Birdwood’s cable responded that the … troops have all done splendidly. Importantly, there was also reassuring praise from the British. The Secretary of State for the Colonies, speaking on behalf of the Admiralty, cabled praise for the Australian troops. The First Lord of the Admiralty (Churchill) was reported as extending congratulations to both Australia and New Zealand … on the brilliant and memorable achievements of their troops in the Dardanelles. Churchill was also reported as claiming that Admiral de Roebeck in charge of the British Fleet had expressed the fleet’s … intense admiration of the feat of arms of the Australian land forces.

On 6 May there was an article with the headline Heavy Losses of Officers. The death toll had doubled to 108, the majority of whom were officers. The Argus noted that if so many officers had been killed the number of deaths from the other ranks must have been far greater. It stated that despite the level of casualties, people appeared determined to see the campaign through; and it claimed that the true extent of casualties needed to be revealed as soon as possible. The tone of grim determination was being established.

On May 7 The Argus gave the first account of the actual Australian landings on 25 April. It was sourced from the Reuter’s correspondent in Cairo and it claimed to be the … first report of the actual fighting during the landing of the Australasian troops at Gaba Tepe. There was an accompanying map, showing the point of landing near Suvla Bay. The key headline was “Nothing Stopped Us”. The account highlighted the fighting qualities of the Australians:

When approaching the shore the Australians and the New Zealanders jumped from the boats into water that was often neck deep, and waded to land. They found the Turks occupying the ridges, and took three of these in succession in a running fight, extending over a length of three miles.

The picture of the Turkish defenders was far less complimentary. Prior to the campaign it been widely and popularly believed that the Turks, an inferior race, would be no match for the superior forces of the white British Empire. Now this seemed to be exactly what had happened:

One Australian said afterwards: – “Nothing stopped us. Our big lads lifted some of the Turks on the end of their bayonets and the other Turks ran screaming and howling in fear.”

The inferior Turks were also uncivilised:

The ambulance men were under fire, the Turks making a dead set against them, and shooting them down mercilessly. … It has been established that the Turks used dum-dum bullets.

The Turkish losses were great:

The Turks’ losses were enormous, the bayonet rushes of the Australians and New Zealanders causing great slaughter.

The same article made the incorrect claim that Krithia was practically captured.

May 7 also saw the first article in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – to do with the Gallipoli campaign. There was a brief reference noting that the list of dead was increasing and that as only officers’ names had been released to that point, the true casualty rate must have been far greater and worse news was to come. There was a local connection because one of the dead officers, whose name had been published, was a Major Hamilton from Malvern who had married a local girl – Una Bland, daughter of Mr & Mrs W Bland of – Yarram. He was described as … a brave man who had died for his country.

The local paper was always keen to promote the link to the local community and one of its preferred options was to include the letters sent back to Australia from local men serving in the AIF.

The same edition of the local paper reprinted an article from the The Age about men flocking to recruiting stations as the list of casualties grew. Rates of volunteering seemed tied directly to casualty levels. This was said to be the British way and another example of true British determination in the faced of tragedy:

Last week the recruiting figures were growing smaller and smaller, and fears were raised that there were few men left to come forward voluntarily. On Monday [3 May], simultaneously with the publication of the lists of Australia’s killed and wounded, the men came forward again in the old way, eager to do their part in the fighting.

Then on 8 May – some 2 weeks after the event – The Argus published the extensive account by Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett of the initial landing on 25 April. This piece turned out to be one of the most significant newspaper reports in Australia’s history.

Ashmead-Bartlett was a war correspondent for the British. He had seen service as a lieutenant in a British unit in the Boer War in and had worked as a war correspondent in the Russo-Japanese War (1904). In its introduction to the article, The Argus emphasised his credentials, noting that he was … chosen to represent the British press at the Dardanelles … and claiming that he was at … the very forefront of war correspondents. This claimed status as the British expert was employed to give credibility to his account. Ashmead-Bartlett went ashore at Gallipoli on the night of 25 April.

Any reader of the account by Ashmead-Bartlett would have been left in no doubt that the Australians had proved themselves on the field of battle to be the equal of the British troops. Apart from anything else, the claims were highlighted in the headlines of the article: They Rose To The Occasion and No Finer Feat in the War. Equal to Mons and Neuve Chapelle.

The article described in detail the fighting qualities of the Australians who had morphed into a race of athletes:

The Australians rose to the occasion. Not waiting for orders, or for the boats to reach the beach, they sprang into the sea, and, forming a sort of rough line, rushed the enemy’s trenches.
Their magazines were not charged, so they went in with cold steel.
It was over in a minute. The Turks in the first trench were either bayoneted or they ran away, and their Maxim was captured.
Then the Australians found themselves facing an almost perpendicular cliff of loose sandstone covered with thick shrubbery. Somewhere, half-way up, the enemy had a second trench, strongly held, from which they poured a terrible fire on the troops below and the boats pulling back to the destroyers for the second landing party.
Here was a tough proposition to tackle in the darkness, but those colonials, practical above all else, went about it in a practical way.
They stopped for a few minutes to pull themselves together, got rid of their packs, and charged their magazines.
Then this race of athletes proceeded to scale the cliffs without responding to the enemy’s fire. They lost some men but did not worry.
In less than a quarter of an hour the Turks were out of their second position, either bayoneted or fleeing.

He was impressed by the reckless and ruthless pursuit of the enemy – But then the Australians whose blood was up, instead of entrenching, rushed northwards and eastwards, searching for fresh enemies to bayonet. – and the courage of the wounded. He claimed he had never seen the like of it before:

The courage displayed by these wounded Australians will never be forgotten. Hastily placed in trawlers, lighters and boats, they were towed to the ships, and, in spite of their sufferings, cheered on reaching the ship from which they had set out in the morning.
In fact, I have never seen anything like these wounded Australians in war before.
Though many were shot to bits, without the hope of recovery, their cheers resounded throughout the night. You could see in the midst of the mass of suffering humanity arms waving in greeting to the crews of the warships.
They were happy because they knew that they had been tried for the first time and had not been found wanting.

While the Turks were referred to as a brave enemy, there were other less flattering descriptions of them:

Amidst the flash of bayonet and the sudden charge of the Colonials, before which they broke and fled, and amidst a perfect tornado of shells from the ships, the Turks fell back, sullen and checked.

and

Early in the morning of April 26 the Turks repeatedly tried to drive the colonials from their position. The colonials made local counter-attacks, and drove off the enemy at the point of the bayonet, which the Turks would never face.

Interspersed with the account of the fighting there was more commendation from the British. The British PM (Asquith) was quoted as declaring in the House of Commons:

The landing of the Australians and New Zealanders was opposed by a heavy fire at point-blank range, but they carried their positions with a rush, and their attack was pushed forward with the greatest dash.

Lastly, there was the greatest of claims, under the headline, No Finer Feat in the War. Equal to Mons and Neuve Chapelle.

There has been no finer feat in this war than this sudden landing in the dark and storming the heights, above all holding on whilst the reinforcements were landing.
These raw colonial troops in these desperate hours proved worthy to fight side by side with the heroes of Mons, the Aisne, Ypres, and Neuve Chapelle.

Both the tone and intention of Ashmead-Bartlett’s account were that of the Imperial Boys-OwnAt 3 o’clock, when it was quite dark, a start was made for the shore. There was suppressed excitement. Would the enemy be surprised or on the alert? – but the more relevant point is that the report suited the time perfectly. Here was what was accepted as definite, independent and expert proof from a British war correspondent that the AIF had come though its ‘baptism of fire’ and could count itself as a genuine part of the British Army. Moreover, here also was the beginning of something special: a fighting force that had its own, unique qualities. And now that the ‘truth’ had been presented in the paper it could never be undone. Ashmead-Bartlett’s account became the incontestable foundation for everything that was to follow.

There was more of Ashmead-Bartlett in The Argus on 10 May. Again he portrayed the Turks as not having the nerve to stand up to the Anzacs. And under the heading “These Colonials are Exceptions” he wrote:

Most troops, when under fire, especially volunteers with only a few months’ training, keenly feel losses at the beginning, more especially if these occur before they have had time to settle down, but these colonials are the exception to the rule.
Despite their heavy losses, the survivors were as keen as ever.

There was more praise for the AIF from Birdwood:

General Birdwood told Mr. Ashmead-Bartlett that he could not sufficiently praise the courage, endurance, and soldierly qualities of the colonials. The manner in which they hung on to the position day and night was magnificent, considering the heavy losses, the shortage of water, and the incessant fire of shrapnel to which they were exposed in a position where they were without cover. They also had to face incessant infantry attacks of the enemy, after they retired to a contracted line. They set their teeth, and refused to budge a foot.

Ashmead-Bartlett found the Australians reckless, careless and dismissive of danger. He wrote, under the headline, Bathing Under Shrapnel Fire:

These colonials are extraordinarily good under fire, often exposing themselves rather than take the trouble to keep under shelter of the cliff. One of the strangest sights was to see the numbers bathing in the sea with the shrapnel bursting all around them.

On 11 May, in The Argus under the headline – The Dardanelles Australians’ Bravery. Disdain Of Cover. – an unnamed correspondent continued the same theme of reckless indifference:

An account has been received at Athens from an eyewitness of the recent fighting in the Dardanelles. He states: “The heaviest losses were borne by the Australians and New Zealanders, whose one fault was a complete disdain of cover. Their bravery and dash were amazing. In some cases the men, after rushing the first Turkish trenches in ten minutes, charged ahead despite the appeals of the officers, penetrating several miles inland and suffering heavily when Turkish reinforcements compelled them to retreat.

Back in Gippsland, the account by Ashmead-Bartlett was published, in full, in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – on 12 May, 4 days after it appeared in The Argus. The same edition ran a short report on local casualties. It gave total losses to that time as 172 dead and 936 wounded and specifically referred to several locals who had been wounded:

Private A .W. C. Avery, son of Mr. and Mrs. Geo Avery, Port Albert and Private F. W. Butler, Jack River and Private H. George, Murrumbeena, who some years ago was a resident of Port Albert, and later was employed in a store at Yarram.

Both Butler and George were subsequently killed. Avery was discharged as ‘medically unfit’ in 1917.

The local paper also began to publish its own accolades for the AIF. On 14 May, it reported a Reuter’s cable:

The “Times” states: – ‘The essence of the Dardanelles enterprise is the resource and vigour of the Australians and New Zealanders, who have been asked to carry out a task which would test the mettle of the most seasoned soldiers. They have already done well, and are now facing more deadly obstacles with the passion of enthusiasm.

In The Argus, Bean’s account of the Gallipoli landing did not appear until 15 May and by that point Asheamd-Barlett’s account had already effectively written the history of the event. Bean’s report – dated Alexandria, May 13 – was introduced as an account of the later stages of the landing of the Australian troops at Gaba Tepe. It was described as supplementing the earlier account by Ashmead-Bartlett. Bean’s account was more precise and while it lacked the jingoism of Ashmead-Bartlett’s style it did reinforce the heroic efforts of the AIF:

“Early on the second morning the 8th Battalion (Victoria) repelled four Turkish charges, and the 4th Infantry Battalion (New South Wales) made a most gallant attack with the bayonet. They drove the Turks back through the scrub till they came on the Turkish camp. Nine-tenths of our men went straight through that, until they were faced by three machine-guns in position farther back, and came under the fire of a battery. This battalion (the 4th) was afterwards ordered to retire somewhat, as its position was difficult to support.

On 19 May in The Argus there was more from Ashmead-Bartlett. This time he was keen to present failure as success. The British had been well and truly been checked in the south (Cape Helles) but he managed to represent this defeat as follows:

”The British,” he reported, “are not yet in possession of Achi Baba, at the southern end of the Gallipoli Peninsula, but have forced the Turks to disclose the strength and character of the defences, and we are in a position to estimate the difficulty of the task.

For Ashmead-Bartlett the failure had been a stunning success:

Our successful landing administered a staggering blow to the Turco-Germans, who, not without reason, regarded the peninsula as impregnable.

Also, on this occasion, Ashmead-Bartlett acknowledged that the Turks had fought with extreme bravery.

On 19 May, the local paper featured more international congratulations for the AIF. Under the heading of War News an unsourced report noted:

General Sir Ian Hamilton says the Australian troops are fit to meet any troops in the world. Outside the Guards they are the largest and heaviest army in the world.

Another also unsourced report claimed:

The heroism of the Australians at the Dardanelles is stated to be unique in the history of modern war.

The paper reported casualty levels as 255 dead and 1841 wounded. Intentionally or otherwise, the casualty level was increasing in proportion to the praise bestowed on the AIF.

The first poem to feature in The Argus on the action in the Dardanelles did so on 20 May. Predictably it touched on death in the cause of the Empire, with gallant souls set free by death in battle.

On 2 June, Bean’s account of the death of General Bridges featured prominently in the local paper. The tone was heroic: Bridges had scorned danger and had been dodging snipers for months. When he was hit, he did not want his men endangered taking him down to the beach:

General Bridges had proved himself a capable and strong commander, absolutely imperturbable amidst the turmoil of operations and wholly without fear.

There was a reference to the Turks not firing on the stretcher as Bridges was evacuated:

The enemy, probably because he saw it was a party carrying a wounded man, did no fire any shots in this direction till the stretcher had passed.
We have noticed that the Turk, whilst not always a scrupulous or humane fight[er], has sometimes acted very fairly and humanely. It probably depends on the individual.

In the same article Bean wrote about the Turkish attack on the morning of 19 May and the huge losses:

Our men were in magnificent spirits, never shooting without a good target, even sitting on the parapet or traverse, laughing and firing as fast as they could load. The next morning the Turks lying in front of our position were far thicker than I have ever seen. There cannot be less than 1500 dead. Our loss was trifling – certainly not more than one to ten of the enemy, and probably only one to twenty.
I have never seen men in better fighting form. They are earnestly hoping the Turks will attack again, which probably they will in spite of the severe lesson, as they are ready to stake a great deal on driving the Australians into the sea.

In The Argus on 7 June there was a report that set out to explain why earlier optimistic forecasts about the British and allied fleet’s ability to destroy the forts and force the Dardanelles had been wrong. The forts were proving too hard to hit and destroy and the mines and guns of the Turks were too great an obstacle and had caused major ship losses. Therefore the current land invasion, supported by artillery, was required. But the Turkish force by itself was only ever portrayed as a second-rate opponent. Without the leadership of the Germans it would have failed:

The Turkish soldier fights very well behind entrenchments, but he is a very bad gunner, and possesses absolutely no knowledge of the science of war. Had the defence of the Straits been left in his hands alone the Allied fleet would most probably have taken Constantinople by now. But the Turkish army, directed by highly trained German officers, and having advantage of their science and technical skill, is a very different enemy.

On 16 June, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative published a lengthy soldier’s letter home from the young – 18 yo – Syd Collis who was serving in the Medical Corps. He had written it in early May to his father, Mr Geo. Collis of Alberton. At the time, he was based at Heliopolis. He described his work tending to those who had been wounded at Gallipoli:

Soldiers will be returning to Australia now disabled, some with arms and lefts shot off. I saw a chap get his leg amputated. Some have their toes and hands shot off. It was awful that some of them got shot before they landed. Shrapnel is doing the damage. They are standing the pain like Britons, and wishing to get back to the front – quite as anxious as we are. Light Horse is no good, and all of them have volunteered to go to the front as infantry, our crowd included.

Collis focused on the claimed perfidy of the Turks. He told his father that the general consensus was that if you were wounded you needed to keep a bullet to shoot yourself:

They all say keep one bullet for yourself, because if you see the Turks coming and are wounded shoot yourself, because they have gouged our boys eyes out, and cut their heads off with the bayonet.

He also claimed the Turks also shot stretcher bearers, and they were scared of the Australians and ran from them:

The Turks run when the Australians make the bayonet charge. The Australians slaughtered thousands of them, and took lots of prisoners. They have great name and intend to keep it up.

Another report from Bean – dated 13 May, Gallipoli – appeared in The Argus as late as 18 June 1915. It gave a detailed account of the landing and fighting on the first day. The detail covered the specific action of each battalion on the day and the circumstances surrounding the deaths of individual officers. The language was more restrained than Ashmead-Bartlett’s. Bean described how the men pushed inland, with the Turks reluctant to face their bayonets:

With a shout the first boat-loads fixed bayonets, on the inner edge of the beach, and rushed straight up at it, and the Turks did not wait. Later he wrote: The enemy could be seen quite thick upon the third ridge, but they did not attack. … They did not advance; on the contrary, when parties of our men overshot the general line on the second ridge and went up to the third, they retreated before them and waited for reinforcements.

Bean also made the point about the battalions being mixed up and how the men formed small parties and then headed inland under the command of any available officer. It was an example of the men themselves exercising judgement and initiative in the heat of battle. These were troops who could think for themselves.

On 11 August the local paper featured more reports from Ashmead-Bartlett. He was keen to emphasise not just the physical prowess of the Australians:

The colonials are of amazing physique. No European nation possesses anything to compare with them. The Prussian Guard consists of picked men, but they are fat and ungainly. The colonials are great big-limbed athletes, with not a pound of superfluous flesh among the lot.

but also the collective and independent way they discharged their military responsibilities:

It is not so much an army as a community which has come together for the job, and framed its own laws to carry it out. They work in little groups, which are united either by home ties or mutual regard. These groups discipline themselves.

The preceding analysis shows how, in the weeks following 25 April 1915, Australians reading their newspapers were left in no doubt that the AIF’s first major engagement of the War had been an outstanding success. The men of the AIF had proved themselves to be true ‘Britons of the South’. They were at least the match of the British soldiers. They had proved their worth to the Empire. They had also began to craft a distinctive identity: ruthless in battle; contemptuous of danger; physically bigger and stronger than other soldiers; self-disciplined and enterprising; and with a natural cynicism that brought out the larrikin. It was a very tough, reassuring picture of the AIF, infinitely preferable to that of out-of-control, poorly disciplined rabble destroying Cairo, trashing the reputation of Australia and even being sent home in disgrace with VD. It was also a picture that both helped offset the grief generated by rapidly increasing casualty levels and promoted a surge in enlistments.

The preceding analysis also suggests that what was lacking over this period was any independent, objective analysis of the campaign. The reports were filtered through tight censorship, the tone was celebratory and jingoistic and no criticism of the campaign was even entertained. There was no place in the press for doubt, disbelief or question, at least at this early point. The simple motif throughout was the heroic struggle of the Australian soldier, in difficult circumstances, against an enemy who was in every way inferior and who could be treacherous.

Future posts will show how doubts over the worth of the Gallipoli campaign inevitably arose and a complex play of blame and counter-claim developed to cover what came to be seen as an unqualified military disaster. Indeed the historical debate over Gallipoli – certainly in Australia – continues to the present. See, for example, Robin Prior’s defining work, Gallipoli: The End of the Myth.

At the same time, there has never been any chance that the qualities of the AIF, identified and pushed so hard in the popular press in the first few weeks of the campaign, would ever be seriously questioned or significantly qualified.  True, the Turks could be humanised, over the years, to become a more worthy and noble foe; but, realistically, there was little, if any, chance that the hyperbole of Ashmead-Bartlett and others, once published, could ever be scaled back.

For the press of the time, Gallipoli established Australia’s complete loyalty to the Empire, and proved to all back home that its soldiers were at least the equal of the British. For Australia, Gallipoli was – and has continued to be –  more a proof of national character than a military campaign.

References

The Argus

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

Prior, R  2009, Gallipoli: The End of the Myth, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney

35. Image problems for the AIF before Gallipoli

Typical souvenir sent home from Egypt, 1916.

Typical souvenir sent home from Egypt, 1916.

Prior to 25 April 1915, the AIF was an army in search of an image. The basics of the image were there from the start and the AIF was created to be a national (Australian) army within the greater (British) Imperial army. The name – Australian Imperial Force – succinctly defined the basic building blocks for the image.

All the volunteers for the AIF enlisted as British subjects. Many of its early officers were British. Organisation, training, equipment, weaponry  – all matched the British standard. All essential components were designed so that the AIF could function effectively as a module of the British Army.  In its infancy, the AIF was not capable of acting as an independent military force and relied, for example, on British intelligence and artillery.

At the same time, the AIF was a national army. It was the first, genuinely national military force that the new Commonwealth of Australia had created. While it was created to demonstrate Australia’s total commitment to Britain and the Empire, it still had to reflect a distinctively Australian character. The 20,000 men who landed in Egypt from late 1914 represented the first, large-scale collection of Australian soldiery on the world stage, and it was inevitable that those back home, the soldiers in Egypt, and the rest of the world would try to define this new army in ways that made it unique. The quest was on to define its distinctive national character and explain how it differed from the British Army, and also other Dominion forces, particularly the Canadians and New Zealanders.

The struggle to define the essential character of the AIF began as soon as it was formed and continued throughout the War and in the years after the War. Indeed, it is still a concern today, principally because it has always been argued that the character of the AIF goes to the core of what defines Australia as a nation.

One of the most important commentators on the early AIF was the official war correspondent Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean.  Bean’s own life matched in many way the pursuit of the distinctly Australian (male) character. Born in Australia, Bean was an avowed Imperialist and spent many years at school and university (Oxford) in England; but, once back home in Australia, he became committed to identifying the distinctly Australian national type, and like so many others he was drawn to the itinerant, rural worker.

Bean started his war reporting with a distinctive Australian type in mind. You can see this in some of his earliest reports from Egypt. The following passage is taken from copy he wrote on 22 December 1914. It was published in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – on 3 February 1915. Immediately prior to this section of the article, Bean had explained how the Australians, because of their higher pay, were being feted all over Cairo, even in the most exclusive hotels. However, it was not just the pay, because Bean also intimated that the Australian, even at the rank of private, had a natural presence and authority to him that promoted respect:

It is a study to see the Australian from beyond the wheat belt with his weather beaten brown wrinkled old face and his rather ill fitting khaki suit sitting at a table in a big grill room amidst over-gorgeous columns and salmon coloured upholstery, surrounded by wealthy Turkish merchants, Italian students, French and Syrian clerks and smartly dressed women, and drinking his coffee or whisky with his mate and waited on by a tall Berber blackfellow in enormous red Turkish pantaloons and wreathed with twice as much gold lace as a field marshall.

Bean captures what he sees as the essential image: the tough, hardened, no-pretence Australian soldier and his mate might appear out-of-place but, in fact, the whole scene revolves round them. However it is all rather simplistic, and for all his efforts to make the connection between the rural working class and the newly formed AIF, Bean must have appreciated that the lifestyle of the rural, working-class male was not ideally matched to the world of military discipline.

In fact, all was not well in Egypt at that time with the AIF.  The Australians were forging a reputation for drunkenness, debauchery and hooliganism and their lack of regard for military discipline was an ongoing concern for their commanders.  For a more detailed account of Australian ‘high jinks’ at the time see Stanley (2010) and in particular his account of the ‘Battle of Wazza’ on Good Friday , 2 April 1915 when Australian and New Zealand troops attacked the brothel district of Cairo.

Australian behaviour in Egypt did not reflect well on either the AIF or Australia. Bean was even asked to write a sort of ‘how to behave in Egypt’ for the newly arrived AIF troops – What To Know In Egypt. It masqueraded as part tourist brochure, part good-health guide and part handbook on understanding-the-local-culture, but it was intended principally to curb the sort of behaviour that was creating a negative image for the AIF. The section on VD was clearly intended to keep the men out of the brothels:

Lastly, Cairo has itself a name in the world as a hotbed of both gonorrhea and syphilis. There is a reason for this. Egypt is not a country under the full control of its government. The Egyptian officials even though they had able British administrators to help them have possessed little control over the foreigners who live here. Egypt has been one of those countries which European nations have only admitted to their circle as probationers, as it were.  …The consequence is that although Cairo has long been a resort of foreign women riddled with diseases it has been almost impossible to check this disease. Egypt has been an ancient home of syphilis – it was certainly here in Roman times; and there is found in the skull bones of mummies a disease which is almost certainly syphilis. Modern Cairo with its mixture of women from all nations, East and West has long been noted for particularly virulent forms of disease. Almost every village contains syphilis. And if a man will not steer altogether clear of the risk by exercising a little restraint, his only sane course is to provide himself with certain prophylactics beforehand to lessen the chance of disastrous results.

However, stronger action was required and Bean was then pressured to write a newspaper piece that left the reader back home in no doubt that there was a problem with the AIF’s image in Egypt. It was written at the very end of December 1914 and it appeared in Australian newspapers about 3 weeks later. Locally, it appeared in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 22 January 1915. Bean emphasised that he was only describing the actions of relatively few men, and he was keen to talk up the great potential of the AIF, but it was a most uncomplimentary picture. It appeared under the headline: Our Soldiers in Egypt.  High Jinks At Cairo.   “Do All Australians Drink So Much.”

There is only a small percentage – possibly one or two per cent – in the force which is really responsible for the occurrences about which Cairo is beginning to talk; the great majority of the men are keen, intelligent, well restrained young Australians, whom you will meet enjoying their hours of leave in front of the cafes or in the museum or the zoological gardens or the post card shops, dressed as neatly as any of the other soldiers in the town, and behaving themselves in the way in which any rational Australian on a holiday would behave. They have the material in them not merely for as good a force as the New Zealanders or the Territorials, but, to one’s own thinking, of a better force, because the Australians here, besides having the best physique, are, man for man, more highly strung, and, if anything, quicker witted.

But there is in the Australian ranks a proportion of men who are uncontrolled, slovenly, and in some cases – what few Australians can be accused of being – dirty. In a certain number of cases it is noticeable that these men are wearing the South African ribbon. Possibly they are the men who since returning from that war, have never had any skilled occupation, and who therefore were the first to enlist when recruiting for the present force was begun; or it may be that the discipline in the South African campaign was very much slacker than that required of troops before they will be permitted to go to the front in the present class of warfare. Or it may be merely that a certain class of old soldier is given to the very childish habit of showing off before the young soldier, and giving him examples of the sort of thing that he thinks may with impunity be done by anyone who knows the ropes. Whatever the reason it has been noticed by too many people to admit of doubt that whilst many of the most capable and splendid members of the force are men with South African experience, there is a class of old soldier who, so far from being the most suitable member of the force, is the least suitable of any. Many young soldiers take these men at their true worth. “It’s the likes of them that are going to spoil the game for the rest of us and lose us our leave,” I heard one youngster say a few days since. “The fellows are getting a bit fed up with them down amongst our lot.” But they are really doing a very much more serious thing than losing other soldiers their leave – they are losing Australia her good name in the outside world, and those Australians who happen to be living in Cairo or are in touch with the world outside the camps have the mortification of looking on whilst day by day the reputation of Australia slowly vanishes before the actions of a handful of rowdies who do not really represent the country. The Territorials have not our physique, and some of the Lancashire regiments seem to be composed largely of mere children; but by dint of hard work they have become thoroughly smart soldiers; and although both amongst them and the New Zealanders there has been a certain amount of the hard living which will always be found where great numbers of men are collected, none who is not deaf can hide from himself the fact that the talk at present current in Cairo attaches to the Australian force rather than to the Territorials, or as far as I can judge to the New Zealanders.

One does not want to give the impression that things have reached the stage of a scandal or anything approaching it. Steps will doubtless be taken to correct it, as they have been taken before, and the Australian force will be doing itself credit before it has finished its training, and be worthy of the majority of men comprised in it. The New Zealanders have just taken steps to get rid of a certain number of men who were doing little good in their force, and the same, or some similar steps, will no doubt be taken with the Australians. But it is just as well that the Australian public should be aware of the reason for the return of the majority of the men who are returning, or have returned, since the expedition sailed. It is easy for a man to return to his native village and reap a certain amount of hero worship on the ground that he was invalided, or to pitch a story before an admiring crowd at the local hotel of how he was going to show them that he was not going to stand any nonsense, and finally “pitched in” his resignation. The facts are that a certain number of men have been invalided through serious sickness or accident, neither of which was their own fault. A certain number also were sent back some time ago from Albany and Colombo, because some of them – no doubt on conscientious grounds or for reason best known to themselves – refused to be vaccinated. A few others have been, and will be, sent back because they contracted certain diseases, by which, after all the trouble of months of training and of the sea voyage, they have unfitted themselves to do the work for which they enlisted. And a percentage will probably find their way back from here, the reason for whose return has been that they have damaged their country’s reputation, and a few of them have been got rid of as the best means of preserving it.

The tone of the piece is cautious and hesitant and the language is qualified, indirect and oblique, if not obtuse. You had to read into it, for example, that men were being sent back to Australia because they had contracted VD (certain diseases).  In the context of Egypt and the the triumphalism of the White Australia Policy, references to Australians being ‘dirty’ would have had all sorts of offensive associations. The attempt to pin responsibility on the veterans of the Boer War was bound to win enemies but, presumably, it was preferable to target this specific group of older men than suggest there was a problem right across the force. You can sense Bean’s wariness in writing the piece; and the article was, potentially, a career-ending move for him. In fact, his reputation with the troops was severely damaged and it was only his bravery in the subsequent action at Gallipoli – he was recommended for the Military Cross and mentioned in despatches for his work with wounded men – that restored his standing.

Some idea of the fury that the article sparked amongst the troops in Egypt at the time, comes from another piece published in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative  on 30 April 1915. By this point the local paper was regularly publishing extracts of letters sent home by soldiers serving overseas. This particular letter came from Athol Woods who was the son of (former) Major Woods of Woodside. Alexander Thomas Woods was a grazier of Darriman and his son – Harry Athol Woods – had enlisted as a 34yo in Brisbane on 27 August 1914. It appears he was farming on the Darling Downs prior to enlistment.  Overall, Athol Woods was critical of the way newspapers were reporting events from Egypt, and he specifically targeted Bean. He described Bean’s articles as unjustifiable and unpardonable and he wanted Bean severely dealt with. He was prepared to admit that there were some Australians who were a problem, but he did not want their actions to be publicised, in any way:

Of course, in a body of men like we have here, there are sure to be a few who go over the odds, but it is a very poor percentage, and even these few have not done anything very dreadful. It seems hard that all we Australians should be termed a disgrace to the Empire and Australia by an animal wearing the stars of a captain who has not got the nous of a mule. But enough of this. I think the people of Australia will treat these articles with the contempt they deserve.

The barely concealed rage evident in the letter home from Athol Woods points to just how sensitive the whole issue of the AIF’s image was. Everyone – the troops in Egypt, their officers and all those back home in Australia – knew how critically important the image of the AIF was to the image of the nation as a whole.  Prior to Gallipoli, the fear that the AIF was creating the wrong image weighed heavily on people’s minds. And Bean had come to understand that using the Australian press to hammer home lessons to the troops on how they should behave was not going to work.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

Stanley, P 2010, Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder and the Australian Imperial Force, Pier 9, NSW

C E W Bean: entry in Australian Dictionay of Biography

Bean, C E W 1915, What to Know in Egypt: A Guide for Australian Soldiers, Cairo

The ‘Souvenir of Egypt’ is held by the Cashen family. It was sent to Marie Ziesing from Alfred Carr – both of Mile End, SA – in 1916.

26. Soldiers of Christ

James_Clark_-_The_Great_Sacrifice

The Great Sacrifice, by James Clark [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

ed 2 church window

Detail of stained glass window by William Montgomery in St. Martin’s Chapel, based on The Great Sacrifice. Photo courtesy of Saint George’s Anglican Church, Malvern (Victoria).

In December 1914, just before Christmas, a commemorative print of the painting – The Great Sacrifice – by James Clark (1858-1943) was issued in the (British) illustrated weekly publication, The Graphic. The print had an immediate appeal and became one of the key religious images of WW1. It was picked up and adapted across the Empire. For example, the basic image appears in the stained glass window in St. George’s Anglican Church at Malvern (Victoria). In this particular work a distinctly Australian slouch hat has been included.

Some idea of how influential the poster was and just how quickly it was pressed in to service across the Empire comes from the following article which appeared in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 8 January 1915.

Special services in connection with the Empire’s Day of Intercession concerning the war were held in the Anglican churches throughout the district on Sunday last. At Yarram the pulpit was flanked with the Union Jack draped round a copy of the new painting by James Clark, entitled “The Great Sacrifice,” depicting the Saviour on the Cross, at the foot of which lies a dead soldier, in the uniform of the present-day British infantry, whose hands rests on the Saviour’s feet, as though seeking to identify himself with the “Great Sacrifice.”

Reverend Cox (Church of England, Yarram) was still employing the image of The Great Sacrifice in a sermon that was reported in detail in the paper in May 1915 (7/5/15). It is difficult for us, 100 years on, to appreciate just how influential the idea of the British or Australian soldier as a ‘soldier of Christ’ was at the time. In a far more religious Australian society and at a point in the War well before the AIF had established its own more secular ideology that represented sacrifice as an expression of ‘mateship’, it was seen as natural that religious leaders like Cox explained such sacrifice in war in terms of religious teaching. Cox stressed in this particular sermon:

“Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

He was definitely not talking about secular notions of ‘mateship’ but about Christian love and duty.

For Cox, the soldier lying dead at the foot of the cross, his hand touching the foot of the crucified Christ, was at one with the Lord who had sacrificed His Life for the sins of the world and the One who would rise triumphant over death. In his death, fighting the just war, the soldier had also won his eternal life with the Saviour. The soldier’s individual sacrifice was an expression of The Great Sacrifice.

On this particular occasion Cox was also keen to emphasise that Christ Himself identified with the dead soldier. Referring to the text quoted and the actual picture of The Great Sacrifice, Cox told his congregation: I want by means of this text, illustrated by the picture, to show you Christ suffering, bleeding, dying, thereby identifying Himself with suffering humanity. For Cox, Christ in His compassion was taking the soldier to Himself. We might find all the imagery overdone – perhaps uncomfortable and even unfathomable – but for religious congregations of the time, the sermon would have been easily understood; and later in the War as death became so common, parents, families and whole communities could take consolation in such religious teaching. As tragic as the death of a soldier fighting overseas was in the bitter world of everyday reality, there was higher purpose to all the suffering and Christ would take to himself those who died in His name. These were profoundly powerful religious beliefs.

Such a religious perspective on the thousands of Australian deaths that, in early 1915, were still to come was based on several key beliefs. The first was that God was on the side of the Allies: it was a just war against an enemy that had turned its back on Christian principles and conducted war in a barbaric manner. The second belief was that there had to be both a moral and martial campaign against Germany. The War called for religious renewal because for the Christian believer it did not make any sense to see the War simply in terms of competing armies. There had to be a higher, more divine purpose to all the suffering and horror. True Christians had to turn again to God in prayer and commit to leading upright lives. The third belief was that those on the front line facing the enemy were acting selflessly to protect those at home, and their sacrifice would be recognised by God. Therefore they were under His protection. However, the significant qualification here was that the individual soldier, exercising his free will, had to stay true to his religion and live a decent life as a soldier. He could not allow himself to be corrupted, or even seduced, by the evil that war inevitably spawned. War could destroy innocence and the young and impressionable had to be both warned and protected.

All these beliefs could be seen in the sermon Reverend Cox delivered that day in May 1915. He reminded his congregation of the suffering of those in Belgium and he then added the outrages inflicted on those in Poland, alluding to the sexual predations of the German army on the women and girls of that nation. Continuing the theme of German perfidy, he turned to the treatment of British prisoners of war: We read almost daily of the treatment meted out to British prisoners in Germany of their being fed on stuff that we would scorn to give to our pigs, of their being insulted, cruelly treated and murdered in cold blood. He even gave an example of the brutality of German colonising methods, citing an incident from 1897 when a leading German colonial officer ridiculed British attempts to deal ‘fairly’ with the Massai and proceeded to shoot dead any native who challenged – even in the most moderate and reasonable way – German authority. Germans were ruthless tyrants and Cox warned his congregation that because Australia had pledged such strong support for the Empire against Germany, and had already done everything possible to exasperate the enemy, they could expect no mercy if ever Germany overcame Britain; and therefore God must always be their last refuge: If ever the enemy gets a foothold we will have to look to God for help. So for Cox, prayer – and the attendant recognition of God’s supremacy above everything – was the primary line of defence: Prayer – earnest, believing prayer. Why do I put this first? Because we are fighting not against flesh and blood, but against the powers of evil. Therefore no other weapon will avail. But as Cox saw it, people were not turning to God in this hour of national crisis and the power of prayer was not being realised. As Cox, lamenting the size of congregations, noted … it seems as though prayer has lost much of its meaning nowadays.

Faced with this indifference, Reverend Cox believed strong action was required to force people to wake to the national crisis at hand. Sacrifices had to be made and, again, football was high on his list. He declared:

And what do we see? Many a man who ought to be on the battlefield, fighting for the sufferings and honor of womanhood staying home to play football, and women and girls flocking to watch them play. I have no quarrel with football. I have played the game, I like the game, but under present conditions! no, certainly not.

The local football competition in the Shire would be wound up several months later, under the relentless pressure from patriots. Cox was also keen to push the cause of temperance and hoped that many more would follow the lead of King George V who had only recently pledged to abstain for the duration of the War. There was also a passing shot at trade unionists undermining the war effort by holding up ships with war supplies.

For the young men who could enlist, Cox had the simple message that they should: Go, because your country needs you. Go, above all, because Christ needs you. As such ‘soldiers of Christ’, they needed encouragement and direction and therefore Rev. Cox was keen that young man enlisting had access to the Scriptures:

There is one object for which I would ask. The men who are going to the front are going to face death – they know it – they volunteer with that in mind, and at such times men are prepared to receive divine truth. There is then a unique opportunity presented to us of helping them. The British and Foreign Bible Society undertakes that every man who cares to have it receives a copy of the Scriptures. This requires funds, and I will gladly forward any contributions for that purpose handed to me.

The sermons of Reverend Cox were repeated from countless pulpits across the nation. Protestant churches tended to have a sharper focus on Imperial duty but the Catholic clergy definitely preached for the War. There was a collective sense of turning to God in the hour of need. God Himself was enlisted in the cause. The AIF was charged with doing God’s work to overthrow evil. And death in war was seen as an expression of Christian sacrifice.

However, the AIF – idealised as some sort of righteous army of God, with its individual members, as soldiers of Christ – could easily fall short of religious benchmarks. It was inevitable that the pressured creation of the AIF would concentrate the very anti-social behaviours – drunkenness, gambling, ‘filthy’ and blasphemous language, disrespect for proper authority, larrikinism .. – that religious leaders had railed against for years. Certainly in the early months of the War, the image of the AIF was not as wholesome as the sermons suggested.The following account is taken from The Argus of 21 December 1914. It covered one of the riots in Melbourne by soldiers from Broadmeadows. The headlines read: SOLDIERS ATTACK CHINESE. TUMULT IN THE CITY. ORGY OF WINDOW BREAKING. POLICE USE THEIR BATONS. SEVERAL ARRESTS MADE.

Little Bourke street, the scene of many a conflict, probably never witnessed such a serious disturbance as that which occurred last evening in consequence of certain members of the Expeditionary Forces acting on a desire to wreck the place. From Swanston street to Russell street hardly a window which was not sheltered remains whole, and during the conflict, which in this quarter lasted for more than an hour, many extraordinary scenes were witnessed.

The article claimed that the trouble began when a story circulated that a soldier had been treated roughly on the previous night by a Chinese shop owner. The story eventually had the soldier involved dying from his injuries in the Melbourne Hospital. There was no such death, nor possibly even any injury, but as the paper pointed out, … the indignity of having been kicked by a Chinese evidently rankled so bitterly that the story became magnified… .

The paper suggested that the attack on Chinese business along Little Bourke Street was an organised affair:

About half-past 6 o’clock last evening a number of soldiers assembled in Little Bourke street , and shortly afterwards a brick hurtled through the plate-glass window in Wallach’s furniture shop. The crowd then dispersed, but returned to the same place about an hour later, and there were then indications that the disturbance was more or less organised. Several men carried bandages and Red Cross outfits to salve the wounds of those who might come into conflict with the police, and the bugle call to assemble brought hundreds of men to the lane. The soldiers by this time had reached a state of extreme anger, and talked openly of running all the Chinese out of Little Bourke street at the point of the bayonet. It was stated on all sides that 7,000 men had broken camp, and were marching from Broadmeadows to avenge their comrade’s death.

The picture that the paper gives of the men’s sense of military discipline was not encouraging:

Major MacInerney, provost marshal, was on the scene shortly after the disturbance became general, and many of the men obeyed his command to fall in and march away. Every time, however, that a missile found its objective, the men would break their ranks and cheer vociferously. On one occasion, when being marched away from a side lane, the soldiers came upon a heap of stones and bricks which almost seemed to have been placed there for some fell purpose. On seeing them, joy filled their hearts, and they instantly broke their ranks, and made a dash for Little Bourke street, where hostilities were resumed.

It appeared that the larrikin defence of the White Australia Policy proved far stronger than military discipline.

The episode in Little Bourke Street was not the only such ‘riot’. The most serious one was the ‘strike’ at the Liverpool camp in NSW in February 1916.

Historians -e.g., Stanley, P (2010) – have written extensively of the struggle military authorities faced with the new volunteer army – made up primarily from the working class – that was the AIF. In time, however, some of the very qualities that proved so intractable at the beginning -for example, attitudes towards military authority – would come to be extolled as the distinguishing strengths of the AIF.

The larrikin soldier of the early AIF hardly appears compatible with the idealised image of the soldier of Christ, but the more important observation is that both realities were at play, in obviously complex and often contradictory ways.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

The Argus

Stanley, P 2010, Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder and the Australian Imperial Force, Pier 9 (Murdoch Books Australia), NSW.

For more on The Great Sacrifice see this entry in Wikipedia

For more on the stained glass window in St George’s Anglican Church, Malvern see this entry on the collection of Stained Glass in the Church.

POSTSCRIPT
The attached image of a memorial card based on ‘The Great Sacrifice’ was kindly supplied by the Stratford and District Historical Society. It comes from a photograph album kept by a family in memory of their son, and it shows just how common the imagery of ‘The Great Sacrifice’ was in WW1.