Long overshadowed by the national obsession with the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, the breathtaking story of what really happened on the Western Front has finally been brought into the bright light of day.
The Anzacs’ Western Front campaign had a greater impact than Gallipoli in almost every respect: five times more soldiers served and were killed there, more than five times as many battles took place — and it was there that an astounding 53 Victoria Crosses were awarded to Australians. The diggers serving on the Western Front also helped win the war, but it was at an almost unfathomable cost.
Using hundreds of brutally honest and extraordinary eyewitness accounts, The Western Front Diaries reproduces private diaries, letters, postcards, and photographs to reveal what it was really like at the Front, battle by bloody battle.
PRAISE FOR JONATHAN KING
‘It’s absolutely incredible. It’s five hundred pages of absolutely absorbing material the likes of which you otherwise can’t get your hands on.’ ABC Radio, The Conversation Hour
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About the Author
Award-winning historian Dr Jonathan King is the author of Gallipoli Diaries: the Anzacs’ own story, day by day (Scribe, 2014), and has been producing books and films about World War I since 1994. He leads battlefield tours to Gallipoli and the Western Front, and is a regular television and radio commentator, as well as a writer for newspapers. After lecturing at The University of Melbourne for many years, he has written more than 30 books and produced 20 documentaries. He is based in Sydney with his fellow adventurer and wife, Jane. They have four daughters and seven grandchildren.
Read an Excerpt
The Western Front Diaries
The Anzacs' Own Story, Battle by Battle
By Jonathan King
Scribe Publications Pty LtdCopyright © 2014 Jonathan King
All rights reserved.
THE STAGE IS SET FOR THE ANZACS' ARRIVAL
'There was a strange temper in the air. Unsatisfied by material prosperity, the nations turned restlessly towards strife, internal or external.'
winston churchill, first lord of the admiralty, wwi, 1956
Despite the many years of peace which preceded it, the outbreak of war in 1914 did not come as a complete surprise to many Europeans because it had been brewing for so long. Although Europe had enjoyed nearly a century of relative peace following the Napoleonic wars, which finished in 1815 with the British victory at the Battle of Waterloo, this peace had become increasingly uneasy towards the end of the 19th century because of Prussia's militaristic initiatives, which challenged the status quo.
Initially, the Duke of Wellington's convincing defeat of the expansionist Emperor Napoleon had not only put an end to the French Empire, but had also confirmed Britain's status as the dominant world power. Britain then consolidated her position throughout the 19th century by developing an unrivalled industrial base and a creative technological lead that included modern battleships and armaments. This enabled Britannia to rule the high seas unchallenged and expand or establish new colonies around the world well ahead of rival colonial powers, creating an Empire on which the sun never set. With decades of stability provided by the long reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901) and an efficient democratic political system, Britain appeared an unshakable superpower. Certainly, for most of the 19th century, Britain had no real challengers, including her old rival, France.
Inevitably, other nations began to copy British innovations and gradually narrowed the gap. In the second half of that century, the increasingly militaristic Prussians threw down the greatest challenge, expanding to create the German Empire at the expense of France. Shattering the prevailing calm on the continent, they defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) and proclaimed the Second Reich in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles in January 1871. This put other nations on notice and undermined the sense of security enjoyed by those European countries geographically closer to Germany than the island nation of Britain.
Inspired by the victory over France, German chancellor Bismarck continued fast-tracking industrial development. Before long, Germany surpassed Britain's output of steel, pig iron, and coal, and soon became more self-sufficient in food production. Germany initiated a naval armaments race and competed with the British for colonial territories. By the turn of the century, Kaiser Wilhelm II's bellicose foreign policy was focused on acquiring even more colonies and global resources to fuel this growing industrial might. Following Britain's bold initiatives in southern Africa — the Boer War (1898–1902) — the Germans argued they had every right to increase their colonial holdings, especially as Britain had harnessed troops from other far-flung colonies like those in Australia to aid her cause. Fortunately for Britain, this war had also given them experience in modern warfare and weapons that would soon come in handy.
Now Britain had a rival to be reckoned with, and one that would have to be stopped sooner or later. British statesmen suspected they would have to play a dominant role in meeting Germany's challenge, because Britain's likely allies — France and Russia — were so weak. The Germans had already defeated France, while Russia had been humiliated by its 1905 defeats by Japan on land in Manchuria and at sea off Tsushima. The incompetent tsar was also unable to deal with the increasing number of uprisings by political reformists, and had alienated any remaining popular support that year when his troops massacred 500 protesters who approached the Winter Palace in St Petersburg with a petition.
Britain had established an entente cordiale with France (which brought with it an 1894 Franco-Russian agreement for each to assist if either were attacked by Germany). Back in 1839, Britain had also signed a treaty committing the nation to safeguard Belgium's neutrality. But Britain could not count on the support of other European nations, especially the equivocal Italy (which seemed much closer to the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary, initially, although it did eventually align with Britain). Britain did, of course, have her dominions, including Australia, which had fought well in South Africa, but across the Atlantic the USA seemed unlikely to become involved because of its isolationist foreign policy.
Germany's likely allies — Austria-Hungary (the Dual Monarchy), the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), and possibly Bulgaria — would probably all contribute forces to any German campaign because of their negotiated alliances, prospects of aid, and their hopes of gaining territorial spoils from a German victory. Having formed an alliance in 1882, the Central Powers appeared a formidable force.
The fuse for the conflagration was lit on 28 June 1914, when a young, revolutionary Bosnian student, a southern Slav named Gavrilo Princip, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at Sarajevo, the capital of the provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Smoke could be seen long before this fire started, however, especially in the unstable Balkans region that was still recovering from recent conflicts. Princip had been lucky because the archduke's car stopped outside a shop right in front of him to check the route. Seizing the moment, he leapt from the crowd lining the street, lunged towards the open car, lifted his pistol, and began shooting at close range. His first bullet hit the archduke's wife in her right side, penetrating her corset and killing her immediately. His second bullet hit the Archduke, piercing the right side of his coat collar and his jugular vein, lodging in his spine and killing him within minutes.
A SEEMINGLY INEXORABLE BUILD-UP
It was a sad and shocking moment that burst the idyllic bubble in which Europe had lived so peacefully for so many decades. But this assassination of an heir apparent might not have started World War I had it not been for a series of earlier events. These had created a level of tension between the European powers where such a spark could ignite a subsequent inferno. It all began with the retreat of the Ottoman Empire's occupation forces from the Balkans. Their exit inspired other rising powers to scramble for influence. Russia, for example, had offered its Slavic brothers in Serbia assistance in return for influence in the region. But in 1909, the Dual Monarchy had annexed Russia's protégé Serbia, forcing Russia to recognise Austria-Hungary's rights to the region. The subsequent 1912 and 1913 Balkan Wars further destabilised the region as the Balkan League (Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro, and Greece) drove the Ottomans from much of their land in a bloody conflict (during which Bulgaria also turned against her allies), before an uneasy and delicate peace was established in this multiracial region of shifting alliances.
Princip dreamed of a southern Slavic federation. Young Bosnian Slavs like him may have been unhappy living under the influence of the Dual Monarchy, but they were not actually speaking for Serbia itself, because the Serbian government had established a modus vivendi with Austria-Hungary. The last thing the exhausted province of Serbia wanted was another conflict — her army was depleted from the Balkan Wars. When the Austrians protested to Serbia and issued a ten-point ultimatum, the Serbian government accepted the Austrian demands, dissociated itself from Princip and his like, and agreed to hold an independent inquiry into the incident.
Nevertheless, one month after the assassination — having carefully obtained the support of Germany — the Austro-Hungarian Empire sent a telegram on 28 July declaring war on Serbia as retribution for the assassination. The Dual Monarchy simply claimed that the Serbian government would not allow Austrians enough control over the inquiry, and totally ignored the Serbian government's pleas of innocence. So the premise on which the first formal act of war was based was actually false.
Everything then happened very quickly. What started as sabre-rattling soon built up a momentum that propelled different nations towards war. Serbia's patron Russia mobilised her closest forces to the region in case the Central Powers invaded her protégé. This sent signals to the Central Powers, especially an opportunistic Germany anxious to expand its territory by creating a series of resource-rich puppet states around itself. Three days later, on 1 August, having already pledged itself to the Dual Monarchy, Germany declared war on the mobilising Russia — inviting because of its vast areas of land and resources, and poorly defended by an incompetent and crumbling tsarist government. The conflict had now widened dramatically.
The pace quickened. On 2 August, Germany issued a demand that neutral Belgium allow German troops access en route to northern France, an area long coveted by German expansionists. On 3 August, Germany declared war on France and the following day invaded Belgium. The German forces were following their long-established Schlieffen Plan. This prescribed a simultaneous offensive against Poland and Russia to Germany's east, and a wide sweep of German forces across Belgium to the coast, forming an umbrella-shaped movement that would then march south across this wide front, encircling Paris from both north and west.
But the invasion of Belgium tipped the balance against them. The British, true to their earlier agreement with Belgium, now took a strong stand, and the world's strongest superpower declared war on Germany on 4 August — the first contestant to declare war on Germany rather than the other way around. With German troops now occupying Belgium, Germany's ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, also declared war on Russia on 6 August. But rather than defend Belgium, Britain decided to stop the German invasion of France, and on 7 August the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) landed in France to join forces with the French Army and move towards the advancing German troops.
1914: THE FIRST YEAR OF WAR
Britain's declaration of war against Germany also brought in Britain's dominions, including Australia, which had remained fiercely loyal even though its colonies had federated 13 years earlier — creating the self-governing Commonwealth of Australia. The new nation, with a population that was predominantly still British, announced support for Britain on 5 August, inspiring strong and widespread community and media outpourings.
The bipartisan enthusiasm for war was almost as great in Australia as 'the mother country' itself. The Labor leader Andrew Fisher had already declared support 'to the last man and the last shilling' on 31 July and the Liberal prime minister Joseph Cook offered 20,000 troops. Enlistment started on 10 August, with the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) launching their recruitment drive hoping to draw on the reservoir of veterans from the Boer War (1898–1902). More than 16,000 Australian volunteers had fought there with considerable distinction, winning the nation's first Victoria Cross. But there would be no shortage of volunteers anyway, especially those with a conscience. As Western Front veteran Ted Matthews of Sydney told the author in 1996, 'I was so outraged by the way German soldiers treated the women and children of poor little Belgium that I had to enlist to stop those sort of atrocities happening again.' The German Kaiser, who had provoked Britain into declaring war when he invaded Belgium on 4 August 1914, was certainly confident of victory and asked his parliamentary members of his Reichstag to unite in an all-out effort, 'We can no longer care about the differences between our political parties or creeds because we are all Germans now and so I ask you all to give me your hands so we can win this war.'
After Russia cried out for help, Britain and France also agreed to declare war on Austria-Hungary on 12 August, widening the conflict still further. Now the basic line-up of combatants was in place. In later developments, the Central Powers would persuade Bulgaria to join in their invasion of Serbia, and Turkey would formalise its support for Germany — which in turn sent advisers to help the Turks defend their homeland from invasion. The Germans were moving fast and on 20 August occupied Brussels, greatly strengthening their position in Belgium. On 23 August, after a bloody battle, they compelled the Anglo-French armies to retreat from Mons, forcing them back towards the River Somme in northern France. This was shaping up as a possible last line of defence for Paris.
Japan declared war on Germany on 23 August, putting this rising Asian power firmly on the side of Britain, France, and Russia — even though the latter was still suffering from its humiliation by the Japanese nine years earlier. The Russians could not be choosy, as their mounted cavalry and infantry forces were easily defeated on 31 August at Tannenberg by the modern mechanised German war machine as it pushed further east.
With the principal contestants firmly in place and the war under way by the end of August 1914, the politicians and their military leaders developed their strategies. Accustomed to mounted cavalry and infantry charges, most generals prepared for traditional fighting, not realising that newly evolving weapons like rapid-firing magazine-loading rifles, machine guns, heavy artillery, tanks, planes, aerial bombing, submarines, and poison gas would call for totally new strategies.
Not that there was any shortage of willing infantry on either side, at least initially, because the outbreak of war was popular from the start. The people of Western Europe and its colonies seemed keen to fight a war to express their newfound sense of nationalism. They had acquired this patriotism with the rise of new nation states over the past century — with increasing political representation, more participating voters now identified with their governments.
New nationwide daily newspapers were also now spreading sensational news about their governments' exploits, uniting and exciting readers as never before. The people of the main superpower had been lapping up romantic descriptions and jingoistic reports about British successes in the battles of the Boer War, some written by the young journalist Winston Churchill. This readership was now on a much greater scale because, thanks to late-19th century educational reforms, many had recently learned to read, and popular newspapers were now distributed to all corners of the new nation states. Churchill, who went on to become First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I, claimed that the strange temper in the air now favoured war. The would-be soldiers were ready, willing, and able to rush off to war, becoming unsuspecting cannon-fodder — and, as this war revealed, machine-gun targets.
Aware of the urgency, Australians, who were enlisting and training around the nation, breathed a sigh of relief when they heard that Anglo-French forces, on 6 September, had finally stopped the Germans at the River Marne, north-east of Paris, forcing the Germans to retreat, and thus safeguarding Paris. Having acknowledged the impasse, both sides began digging a line of trenches from the English Channel to Switzerland, creating the Western Front. This front — on which so many Australians would serve — eventually stretched 460 miles (741 kilometres) from the Belgian coast to Switzerland, and was up to 20 miles (32 kilometres) in breadth. It became history's greatest killing field: over the next 50 months, six million soldiers were killed there and 14 million were wounded.
Excerpted from The Western Front Diaries by Jonathan King. Copyright © 2014 Jonathan King. Excerpted by permission of Scribe Publications Pty Ltd.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Dr Brendan Nelson,
'In Flanders Fields',
Preface — Five Times Greater Than Gallipoli,
Introduction — All Too Quiet on the Western Front,
PART ONE: 1914–1915,
The Stage is Set for the Anzacs' Arrival,
PART TWO: 1916,
Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire,
First Big Battle,
Second Big Battle,
Third Big Battle,
PART THREE: 1917,
The Year of Neck-and-Neck Struggle,
Fourth Big Battle Series: Bullecourt (i) & (ii),
Fifth Big Battle Series: Ypres in Flanders,
PART FOUR: 1918,
Year of Victory on the Western Front,
Sixth Big Battle Series: battles that halted the German offensive,
Seventh Big Battle Series: Villers-Bretonneux and beyond the Somme,
Eighth Big Battle: the long-awaited breakthrough,
Ninth Big Battle: Amiens, Germany's 'black day',
Tenth Big Battle Series: post-Amiens mop-ups,
Eleventh Big Battle Series: final victory roll,
PART FIVE: POST WAR,
The High Price of Peace,
Who Was Who,