20 March 1916 – Australians In France

Yesterday, troopships arrived in the French Mediterranean port of Marseille. Today, they disembark the Australian 1st and 2nd Divisions, who queue up on shore to board trains and begin the journey north. It is the last leg of a 10,000-mile journey that has led across the Indian Ocean and through Egypt, with a bloody detour at Gallipoli. Though perhaps less exotic and oriental in flavor, their arrival mirrors the experience of other colonial armies, such as the Indian Corps, which have been brought to fight on the Western Front since 1914. Standing out in their distinctive bush hats, the Australians are warmly welcomed, billeted behind the lines in the part of French Flanders known as ‘the Nursery,’ and given a few days to acclimatize before the first reconnaissance parties are taken to the front line.

By the end of the first week of April, the two divisions are deploying side by side at Fleurbaix, south of Armentières, to relieve the British II Corps. The men of I Anzac Corps will discover that their experiences at Gallipoli have prepared them surprisingly well for the conditions of trench warfare on the Western Front and the grinding attrition which now characterizes their daily existence.

Second Division, AIF

Second Division, Australian Imperial Force on the march during June 1916. Upon entering the line, men took off their soft hats and put on the new Brodie helmets, which were still stored in the trenches and not individually assigned yet

Having overrun the Kaiser’s Pacific colonies in the opening throes of the conflict, Australian mobilization soon focused on other theaters. The Australian nation will put more than 418,000 men under arms during the Great War, sending 330,000 overseas to fight in the Middle East and Europe. Right now the 4th and 5th Divisions — II Anzac Corps — are being assembled in Egypt to join their countrymen, arriving just in time for the upcoming battles of June. This surge of manpower is all the more remarkable considering that Australian recruiting standards began as the highest of any army during World War I, rejecting nearly one-third of applicants and requiring a minimum height of 5’6″. Although these standards will be relaxed somewhat as the war drags on, Australia holds popular votes against conscription during 1916 and 1917, thereafter sending only volunteers to the fight. As a result, the Australian contribution diminishes as attrition takes its toll on the AIF.

Australian sailors also serve in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the North Sea, and the Baltic. The Royal Australian Navy expands from 3,800 to 5,000 men on active duty and from 16 to 37 ships, carrying out a variety of duties: keeping tabs on interned German merchant ships, patrolling and maintaining the Otranto Barrage against the Austria-Hungarian Navy, and minesweeping. The battlecruisers HMAS Australia and New Zealand have even joined the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow, but a collision in April keeps them out of the line until June, causing them to miss the Battle of Jutland.


The War Memorial on the butte at Polygon Wood, erected on the site of a successful 1917 assault by the 5th Division

The AIF also brings some variety with it: there are formations of New Zealanders among the Australians, later including the Maori Pioneer Battalion with their famous hakas (war dances). Two thousand Australian women volunteer as nurses, mostly serving in France. But the weakness of the AIF is its comparatively small amount of support activity. Expected to be as self-supporting as possible, the Anzac divisions nevertheless need British artillery backup due to a lack of heavy guns; logistical and administrative units must be augmented to sustain the force. As tanks and aircraft begin to shape a new combined arms doctrine, their contributions decline; some Australians do learn to fly and fight, but the bulk of their air cover must come from allies, for the Anzac corps are largely an infantry force.