The Australian and New Zealand Corps, the ANZACs, did not fight through these areas in chronological order, but were moved up and down the frontline as necessary, either to fight or for periods of rest. In summary the major actions in which the ANZAC troops were involved were: -
Following the disaster of the Dardanelles Campaign, the first Australian soldiers began arriving in France and Flanders during March 1916 and the New Zealanders began arriving at Marseilles on 13th April that year. The Australian and New Zealand Divisions were once again grouped together under the I ANZAC Corps, which was commanded by Lieutenant General Sir William Riddell Birdwood. In June the 4th and 5th Australian Divisions arrived in France and the 4th Australian Division joined the I ANZAC Corps whilst the New Zealand Division transferred to the II ANZAC Corps commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Alexander John Godley. Initially the Divisions of the two ANZAC Corps occupied the less active sectors of the frontline, but as time went by became increasingly involved in some of the most bitter of struggles.
The first major action in which ANZAC forces took part was at Fromelles on 19th–20th July 1916 when the 5th Australian Division of II ANZAC Corps and the British 61st (2nd South Midlands) Division took part in an action intended to draw German reinforcements away from the Somme further to the south. This action was disastrous for the forces taking part and 5,533 Australian, 1,574 British and more than 2,000 German soldiers lost their lives. The New Zealand Division and British 20th Division that were both part of the II ANZAC Corps were deployed to the left of the 5th Australian Division.
Men of the 53rd Battalion in a front line trench a few minutes before launching an attack in the Battle of Fromelles (AWM H16396).
Just 3-days later on 23rd July 1916 the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Australian Divisions of the I ANZAC Corps were to enter the fray on the Somme in the Battle of Pozières. Here they attacked the German defenders holding the vital ground that was once the village in an effort to push forward the Allied advance. The attack was to prove the most costly battle of the war for the ANZAC forces with more than 23,000 Australians becoming casualties in the six weeks of fighting.
Gibraltar blockhouse at Pozieres on 28th August 1916 (AWM P09114.020)
On 10th/11th September 1916 the New Zealand Division entered the frontline between High Wood and Delville Wood in preparation for the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. This was to be the battle that tanks were used for the first time. On 15th they attacked and secured all of its objectives, capturing 500 prisoners, with 15 machine guns and a mitrailleuse (a volley firing multi-barrel gun of rifle calibre) and 3 mortars. The losses on the 15th were approximately: NZ Rifle Brigade 1,200 and 2nd Brigade 800.
In November 1916 the I ANZAC Corps was once more in action on the Somme attacking the German positions near Flers. In atrocious weather on 5th November 1916 they attacked and managed to capture a number of their objectives, but in the face of fierce German counter-attacks were forced to retire having sustained heavy losses.
In March 1917 the Germans withdrew eastwards from the Somme to their prepared defences of the Hindenburg Line. In this fortified system of deep trenches, dug-outs and concrete bunkers behind thousands of miles of barbed wire they waited to hold back the Allied Armies. In front of this line they fortified a number of outpost villages, which they manned with highly trained soldiers and it was against some of these villages that the ANZAC forces were to see action in March and April 1917.
On 11th April 1917 the 4th Australian Division and the British 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division attacked the Hindenburg Line near the French town of Bullecourt as the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) sought to build on the success of the Canadians at Vimy Ridge and other British Divisions fighting further north in the Battle of Arras. Supported by tanks, the Australian and British soldiers advanced. The tanks were supposed to break through the wire making lanes for the infantrymen to pour through, but most either broke down or were knocked out by the German artillery before reaching the German lines. The infantrymen continued their assault and the Australians succeeded in breaking into the Hindenburg Line where they spent a day and a very long night fighting hand-to-hand with the enemy. They were eventually cut-off and without further support forced yet again to retire in the face of the enemy sustaining heavy losses, including 27 officers and 1,137 men taken prisoner, the largest number captured in a single engagement during the war. The 4th Australian Brigade sustained 2,258 casualties out of an approximate strength of 3,000 whilst the 12th Australian Brigade lost 909 out of their 2,000; the Germans lost just 750 all ranks.
Australians in the second line of the trenches before Riencourt (near Bullecourt), in May 1917, cleaning their rifles in readiness for an attack. (AWM E00454)
On 3rd May 1917 the ANZACs were in action at Bullecourt again, this time the 2nd Australian Division assaulted supported by the 1st and 5th Australian Divisions. Again they managed to get into the Hindenburg Line and over the following two-weeks resisted all efforts of the Germans to dislodge them. Eventually they secured Bullecourt which has little strategic value proving that the 'impregnable' Hindenburg Line could be penetrated, but at what cost. In all the Australians lost 7,482 officers and men and the British lost a further 6,800 in what one historian labelled a struggle for a 'small, tactically useless piece of ground'.
On 7th June 1917 the BEF carried out one of their most successful major set piece battles of the 1914-18 Great War when they attacked the German forces occupying the Messines Ridge to the south of Ypres (Ieper). At the southern end of this advance the ANZACs were to enter the fray across the ground to the north of Ploegsteert Wood and against the ruins of the village of Messines (Mesen). The battle was opened by the simultaneous detonation of 19 out of a total of 25 great mines, the noise of which was heard as far away as London, and was considered to be the most successful action of the war to date. The II ANZAC Corps lost 377 officers and 12,014 men, approximately half of the casualties sustained by the attacking British Second Army.
Australians of the 13th Brigade studying the large contour map near Petit Pont, Belgium. (AWM E00632)
On 31st July 1917 the BEF mounted its major assault of the year when it attacked across the Ypres Salient in an effort to drive the German Forces back towards the east and seize the ports along the Belgium coast. Initially the Third Battle of Ypres, as it would become known, began well, but soon ground to a standstill as unseasonable torrential rainfall turned the low lying shattered ground into a sea of mud. Eventually, General Gough's Fifth Army Headquarters was replaced by General Plumer's Second Army and a series of 'bit and hold' actions took place as the weather improved that resulted in the BEF going forward once more.
The first of these 'bit and hold' actions began on 20th September 1917 and the ANZACs entered the battle once again with the 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions joined the fray in the Battle of the Menin Road. They pushed forward approximately 1¼ miles (2 kilometres) which they secured over the next 5-days. During the battle the 1st Australian Division sustained 2,754 casualties whilst the 2nd Australian Division sustained a further 2,259.
Battle of Menin Road by H Septimus Power. (AWM ART03327)
On 26th September 1917 the 5th Australian Division took over from the 1st Australian Division and the 4th Australian Division took over from the 2nd Australian Division to push forward once again. Facing the 5th Australian Division was the heavily fortified and defended area of Polygon Wood. In what was to be a hard fought and fiercely contested battle the ANZAC forces once again drove the enemy back to secure their objectives and consolidate their gains. The cost of this success was 1,729 casualties within the 4th Australian Division and a further 3,722 from the 5th Australian Division.
Battle of Polygon Wood.
On 4th October 1917 General Plumer's Second Army continued its advance with the ANZAC forces taking a sideward step to assault the German positions along the Broodseinde Ridge. This time both ANZAC Corps would fight side-by-side with the New Zealand Division on their left, the 3rd Australian Division centre left, the 2nd Australian Division centre right and the 1st Australian Division to their right. To the left of the II ANZAC Corps was the British 48th (South Midland) Division and to the right of the I ANZAC Corps was the British 7th Division. The German pillboxes proved difficult to overcome, but once again the ANZACs managed to secure all of their objectives. The cost of the Battle of the Broodseinde Ridge was 1st Australian Division 2,448, the 2nd Australian Division 2,174, the 3rd Australian Division 1,810 and the New Zealand Division 1,643. This is considered to be one of the finest victories of the ANZACs within the 1914-18 Great War.
A 3rd Division Regimental Aid Post on the Broodseinde Ridge
Following the success of the Broodseinde Ridge the weather broke once more as light rain began to fall just after noon on 4th October. It continued as a drizzle through the 5th and turned to constant showers on the 6th. By the 7th the showers had turned into heavy squalls and on the 8th these squalls became torrents. In the torrential rain the ground over which the ANZAC, British and subsequently the Canadian forces were to fight deteriorated once again into a muddy morass over which it was virtually impossible to walk without the aid of duckboards.
The "Capitol", the New Zealand Division's headquarters between 11 and 16 October 1917. (NLNZ 1/2-012927-G)
On 9th October 1917 the BEF push forward once again, this time with the intention of capturing the small Belgium town of Passchendaele (Passendale). The two British Divisions attached to the II ANZAC Corps, the 49th (West Riding) Division and the 66th (2nd East Lancashire) Division, had taken over the front from the New Zealand Division and 3rd Australian Division respectively. The 2nd Australian Division remained in the line to the right of the II ANZACs to secure the flank. In atrocious conditions the Divisions of the two ANZAC Corps pushed forward, but this time their attack ground to a halt short of their objectives. The 2nd Australian Division sustained 1,253 casualties during this action.
The two British Divisions were quickly replaced by the New Zealand and 3rd Australian Divisions and on 12th October 1917 they attacked again. The conditions prevented the supporting artillery from being properly repositioned for the assault and consequently the preparatory barrage proved ineffective leaving many of the German pillboxes undamaged and a large proportion of the enemy's wire still intact.
In the driving rain the ANZACs pushed forward at 5.30am on 12th October only to find their way blocked by the uncut wire. From their strongpoints the defending Germans in the New Zealand Division's area poured murderous fire into the exposed infantrymen. The New Zealand Division were soon seeking shelter in the shell holes and craters of the churned up battlefield and late that afternoon the assault was called off, but not until more than 2,700 officers and men of the Division had become casualties. The 3rd Australian Division also pushed forward across the waterlogged morass of the battlefield. Here too the poor artillery bombardment had left the German defenders entrenched. The 9th Australian Brigade on the right fared better than the 8th Australian Brigade on the left and they managed to push forward to their second objective. After a day of vicious fighting however, they too were forced to abandon their gains and by 8.00pm they were back where they had started, having sustained 3,199 casualties for their pains. To their right the 4th Australian Division had replaced the 2nd Australian Division. They too had reached their second objective before being forced to withdraw losing some 1,018 all ranks in the process. This bloody failure to seize Passchendaele on 12th October 1917 ended any major involvement by the ANZACs in the Third Battle of Ypres and the Canadian Corps took over the assaults to finally secure the village on 10th November 1917.
On 1st November 1917 the I ANZAC Corps and II ANZAC Corps ceased to exist when all five Australian Divisions were brought together to form the Australian Corps and what remained of the II ANZAC Corps, including the New Zealand Division, became the British XXII Corps.
Following the collapse of the Russians, the Germans transferred many of the Divisions that had previously been massed in the East to the Western Front. Here they were ranged against the Allied Armies in preparation for a final massive and decisive assault designed to bring about victory before the American Army fulfilled its fighting potential on European soil. Of the 110 German Divisions drawn up along the Western Front fifty were directed against the BEF's area. A further sixty-seven Divisions were in reserve of which thirty-one were waiting behind the front opposite the BEF. It was against the British that Generalquartiermeister Erich Ludendorff launched the Kaiserschlacht (the German Spring Offensive).
A German Assault Division preparing for the Kaiserschlacht (the German Spring Offensive).
On 21st March 1918 fifty-eight waiting German Divisions were unleashed along a section of the British front guarded by just sixteen British Divisions. Within a space of hours many of these British Divisions were virtually annihilated and a wide breach had opened in the British frontline. Those British units that still maintained some form of cohesion fought a fighting withdrawal before the ranging storm of the advancing German Army. Behind this screen of retreating soldiers the British rushed reserves and reinforcements into the vicinity of Amiens to defend this vital and strategically placed railhead. After a few days the German advance began to slow as their supply lines became stretched and the British resistance stiffened. Slowly but surely Ludendorff's initial and spectacular success began to flounder.
On 26th March 1918 a gap four and a half miles wide opened up between the British 2nd Division on the left flank of V Corps in the vicinity of Beaumont-Hamel and IV Corps' right flank near Bucquoy. The Germans were pressing forward into this gap with determination and there was a distinct danger that the British line would be breached. The newly arrived New Zealand Division and 4th Australian Division were pushed forward to plug this gap and form a defensive line. To assist them the new faster and lighter 'Whippet' tanks of the 3rd Tank Battalion were sent in support. This was to be first time that the 'Whippet' was used in battle.
Whippet Tanks of the 3rd Battalion at Maillet-Mailly passing infantrymen the New Zealand Division.
In the ensuing fight the New Zealand Division pushed up from the south-west and supported by the Whippet tanks thwarted the Germans in the vicinity of Colincamps as they attempted to breach the British line. The 4th Australian Division closed from the north and in the morning of the 27th liaison was established between the New Zealanders and Australians effectively closing the gap.
Further south another gap had opened up between the British Third and Fifth Armies along the inter-army boundary of the River Somme. As the British fell back Lieutenant General Sir William Congreve's VII Corps withdrew to the line of the River Ancre. This left a triangle of ground virtually undefended between the Ancre and the River Somme and the Amiens Defensive Line was consequently held by little more than a scratch force made up of the remnants of infantry and cavalry units screened by the 2nd Cavalry Brigade. Whilst the New Zealand Division and the 4th Australian Division were occupied in the vicinity of Hébuterne, the 3rd Australian Division took over the Amiens Defensive Line within this triangle establishing its right flank at Sailly-le-Sac on the River Somme. This however, still left a six-mile stretch of the River Somme between the Third and Fifth Armies undefended and the left flank of the Fifth Army exposed and in danger of being turned.
On 27th March 1918 the left of the German Second Army advanced into this gap and two of their Regiments crossed over the river in the rear of XIX Corps on the left of the Fifth Army's line. Despite valiant attempts by the cavalry screen and sappers of the 16th (Irish) Division to prevent a crossing, they were on the south side of the river by 2:00pm. A hastily organised counter-attack was made, but by 7:00pm the Germans were in Lamotte and Warfusée-Abancourt. Realising that the only way to prevent his army from being enveloped, General Gough had Marshal Foch, the commander of the Allied Armies, woken at 3:00am on 28th March and got his consent to allow XIX Corps to withdraw through Caix and re-establish a coherent front at Marcelcave. At 4:30pm that same day General Sir Hubert de la Poer Gough was relieved and General Sir Henry Rawlinson took over responsibility for the Fifth Army's sector, the scapegoat for the retirement of the BEF since 21st March 1918 had been identified and replaced.
On taking over General Rawlinson assessed that the Fifth Army was in such a bad state that he wrote to Marshal Foch informing him: "The situation is serious, and unless fresh troops are sent in the next two days, I doubt whether the remnants of the British XIX Corps which now hold the line to the east of Villers-Bretonneux can maintain their positions."
Whilst the situation along the Anglo-French Front had been stabilised everywhere else, the situation in front of Amiens between the River Somme and the River Avre remained critical. Field Marshal Haig in an effort to strengthen General Rawlinson's weak left flank sent the 9th Australian Brigade across the Somme and attached them to the British 61st (2nd South Midland) Division for counter-attacks and the 15th Australian Brigade from the 5th Australian Division replaced them covering the River Somme crossings.
By this time the German assaults of Operation Michael had virtually ground to a halt, but Ludendorff was too close to seizing Amiens not to have one last try. Realizing that his grand intent to breach the British line and then head north to envelop the remainder of the BEF was no longer probable, he knew that if the railhead of Amiens could be denied to the British he would be able to claim that Operation Michael was a success and so gathered his forces south of the River Somme for one more push.
On 4th April 1918 he unleashed fifteen Divisions against the seven defending British Divisions and pushed westwards towards the River Avre and Amiens. The assault was centred on the village of Villers-Bretonneux and included the first ever tank verses tank battle to take place. The Germans briefly took control of the village, but a hastily organised counter-attack that night launched by the Australian and British units drove them back out. The Germans attempted to recapture the village the following day, but when this failed Ludendorff finally called a halt to Operation Michael bringing the first phase of the Kaiserschlacht to an end.
On 9th April 1918 the German offensive shifted its centre of gravity northwards when Ludendorff unleashed his forces in Flanders in the Battle of Lys. On 11th, just two-days later, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig issued his famous 'Order of the Day' stating: "With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end."
The German offensive however, stalled again due to over extended supply lines, and Ludendorff called off Operation Georgette on 29th April 1918.
In an effort to draw the Allied Forces away from the English Channel Ludendorff unleashed a third assault, Operation Blucher-Yorck the objective of which was to capture the Chemin des Dames and push on Paris, thereby splitting the British and the French forces apart. The German assault was launched on 27th May, between Soissons and Reims, against a sector of the Allied frontline partially held by six depleted British Divisions that had been sent to this 'quiet sector' to rest and recuperate following their exertions in the earlier 1918 battles. It drove the allies back to the River Marne and the prospect of capturing Paris seemed to be a realistic objective. Behind their retreating line however, allied forces had been preparing to make a stand. On 18th July 1918, in one the first engagements in which the American Forces took part, the Allied Army under the direct of command of Marshal Foch, the Allied Supreme Commander, counter-attacked and halted the Germans along a 25 mile (40 Kilometre) line that extended between Fontenoy and Chateau-Thierry.
During the period over which Operation Blucher-Yorck was taking place the British sector remained relatively quiet and the shattered remnants of the Fifth Army were withdrawn to be replaced by the Fourth. On 31st May 1918, John Monash was promoted to Lieutenant General and took over command of the Australian Corps. For the first time all five Australian Divisions on the Western Front were united under an Australian commander. After just over a month of meticulous planning and preparation he launched an assault against the German forces in the vicinity of Le Hamel.
On 4th July 1918 the 4th and 9th Australian Brigades supported by 1,000 American soldiers from the US 33rd Division attacked in what was one of the most innovative assaults of the 1914-18 Great War. In just 93 minutes, 3 minutes longer than had been planned, they had seized all of their objectives overwhelming their German opponents.
American and Australian soldiers in the captured German trenches overlooking Le Hamel.
Whilst Le Hamel was a limited assault it was notable for a number of reasons. It was the first time that American troops had participated in an offensive action and was the first time that American troops served under non-American command, each of the American Companies committed to the battle fighting under the command of an Australian Battalion Commander.
Perhaps the most important however, was that the tactics used were a combination of those that had been evolved from the lessons learned and the different arms were brought together in a 'combined arms' battle. Artillery was used for the preparatory bombardment, which was augmented by aircraft dropping bombs. This was not however the normal barrage to cut the wire, that would be left to the tanks. Close cooperation during the attack between the artillery and attacking forces was maintained through air observation. Tanks and infantry went forward together each supporting the other.
The Australians sustained 1,062 casualties, including 800 dead, and the Americans 176 casualties of whom almost 100 died. Around 2,000 Germans killed and some 1,600 captured, along with a great deal of their equipment. Whilst it was a limited victory it came at an important time and gave the Allied commanders hope. The French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, had a habit of visiting a French unit every weekend, but on the Sunday following the battle it was the Australians who he went to see. At the 4th Australian Division Headquarters in Bussy-la-Daours near Corbie in the company of Lieutenant General Monash, George Clemenceau addressed the assembled Australian soldiers. In English he said: " … When the Australian Army came to France, the French people expected a great deal of you … We knew that you would fight a real fight, but we did not know that from the beginning you would astonish the whole continent … I shall go back tomorrow and say to my countrymen: 'I have seen the Australians. I have looked into their faces. I know that these men … will fight alongside us again until the cause for which we are all fighting is safe for us and our children."
The next major battle in which the ANZACs were involved took place just over a month later on 8th August 1918 when the Allied Advance to Victory began. At Villers-Bretonneux the Australian Corps and Canadian Corps surged forward spearheading the assault of General Rawlinson's British Fourth Army and drove the Germans back more than 5 miles (8 kilometres) in one day. The Germans were simply overwhelmed, and General Ludendorff would later describe 8th August 1918 as der Schwarze Tag — Germany's "Black Day".
8th August 1918 by H Septimus Power. (AWM ART12208)
On 31st August 1918 the 2nd Australian Division became embroiled in a battle centred on Mont St Quentin near Pérrone and in the three-days of fighting that followed, this under strength Division would capture the hill that had been turned into a veritable fortress. Their victory dealt a particularly strong blow to five German divisions, including the German elite 2nd Guards Division, and, due to its commanding position, meant that the Germans would not be able to stop the Allies west of the Hindenburg Line. At the same time the 5th Australian Division assaulted against and captured Pérrone. General Sir Henry Rawlinson described the Australian advances of 31st August to 4th September 1918 as the greatest military achievement of the war.
The Taking of Mont St Quentin by Cecil Percival. (AWM ART03291)
On 5th October 1918 at a village called Montbrehain the Australian Corps would fight in their last action of the war. Following the battle the five Australian Divisions were withdrawn for a period of rest and on 11th November 1918 were heading up the line into battle once more when the Armistice was declared.
As the fighting came to an end the participants were left to come to terms with the cost of the war. Out of a population of less than five million 330,000 Australians served overseas during the war and 64% (210,320) of these became casualties: 58,150 died and 152,170 were wounded. For New Zealand it was a similar story. Out of a population of 1.1 million 103,000 New Zealanders served overseas during the war and 55% (56,880) of these became casualties: 16,130 died and 40,750 were wounded. The reputation of the British Dominion troops stood high at the end of the war and the forces of Australia and New Zealand were regarded as among the best fighting troops in the world.