Australia’s famous infantry [re. World War One, 13 July 1918]

[Editor: This article was published in The Capricornian, 13 July 1918.]

Australia’s famous infantry.

South Australia.

The Australian war correspondent, Mr. C. E. W. Bean, writing from London on the 19th of March, says:—

The first infantry battalion which was raised by South Australia in the now famous army which will be known in history as the Australian Imperial Force was the Tenth Battalion, which like the battalions representing all the other states of the Commonwealth, formed part of the famous Third Brigade. The Tenth Battalion was one of the first ashore in the dim hours of the 25th of April on Gallipoli. Of all battalions which engaged in the heavy fighting of that day the Tenth Battalion perhaps retained its cohesion more than any other. Whereas the companies of most other battalions were found scattered along all parts of the front from the Nek to Bolton’s Ridge, the Tenth Battalion was pretty well concentrated with its own officers and colonel in command of it on what at that time began to be known as the Four-Hundred Plateau. There after the first wild rush of the early morning it hung on under the growing intensity of the Turkish shrapnel lashing down upon its back. What the Tenth Battalion went through that day is better described in the opening chapter of the “Anzac Book” than in any other account that I know of. On the second day the Tenth was put in together with the Ninth Battalion to fill up the gap which had been left by the wiping out of part of the troops on these heights. After the fourth day it was withdrawn with the rest of its famous Brigade and from that time onwards held a part of the right of the Anzac position.

There were South Australians also in the Sixteenth Battalion which landed that first evening and was pushed up into the valley head where the positions afterwards known as Quinn’s Post and Pope’s Hill were just getting settled. The Sixteenth Battalion, however, is now almost entirely a Western Australian battalion and will be dealt with under the troops coming from that state. The Tenth Battalion played a part in the two costly little sorties which were made in June in order to help the British troops at Helles by preventing the Turks from sending some help from Anzac.

In August there arrived on the peninsula the second of the infantry battalions formed in South Australia — the Twenty- seventh. The Twenty-seventh was almost immediately put into the advanced position on the Sari Bair Ridge known as the Apex where the New Zealanders so nearly obtained a foothold on the actual summit of the mountain. The Tenth Battalion, with the rest of its brigade, was in the trenches or in immediate support and unrelieved from the landing until October, when it was withdrawn to rest at Lemnos; while the Twenty-seventh remained on the peninsula until the earlier stages of the evacuation.

When the Anzac Corps returned to Egypt there were built up out of the existing South Australian battalions two new units; the Tenth Battalion sent half of its men to form the Fiftieth, which therefore bears the same colours and shares the earlier history of its parent battalion. Out of the Sixteenth Battalion was formed the Forty-eighth. This battalion which was at the first stage more closely connected with Western Australia than with South Australia has gradually, by the inflow of South Australian reinforcements, become a South Australian unit, while the Sixteenth has remained West Australian. But when the force crossed to France it was none of these which first entered up on heavy fighting. The South Australians who were first thrown into battle on the western front be- longed to a new unit altogether — the Thirty-second Battalion — which at that time also was a mixed battalion from Western and South Australia. On July 19, 1916, the Thirty-second Battalion joined in on the left of the attack at Fromelles. The battalion was nominally in support, digging trenches across no man’s land and carrying supplies for the first two battalions which first charged the German trenches. Within the first few hours, however, the Thirty-second was as much involved in that battle as any other Australian unit. The extraordinary courage and tenacity with which the working parties dug through the wide stretch between the enemy’s front line and our own line with a heavy barrage of 5.9 in. high explosive shells crashing on either side of them and all too often fairly into the half dug trench, is one of the finest stories of the fight.

A few days later, on another battlefield far to the South, the old Tenth Battalion went over the top with the rest of its brigade in the tremendous assault upon Pozieres. It was on the right near the “O.G.” trenches that the Tenth Battalion was involved, and the hardest fighting that it met with was the first tremendous bomb fight up those far famed lines. A week later the Twenty-seventh, another South Australian battalion, was involved in the great attack in which the outer German trenches were finally taken, the Twenty-seventh Battalion seizing them opposite the windmill. Three days later, still, when the Germans threw in their heaviest counter-attack yet another South Australian battalion was garrisoning the front line. This was the Forty-eighth. The Germans preceded this attack by one of the longest and heaviest bombardments which has ever been laid down upon the troops. All through that bombardment the Forty-eighth Battalion endured most terrible punishment, half of the strength of the battalion being either killed or wounded without having the opportunity of hitting back. At the end of this terrible period, under the last intense bombardment, there swept in the main German counter-attack. The Forty-eighth was dazed and half shattered, but there was sufficient grit left in these tired men, nerve shattered and worn out as they were by one of the most terrific experiences in the war, to enable them to hang on to the greater part of the front line while a swift counter-attack by the Fourteenth and others on their left beat off the enemy and captured a fair number of the attacking troops.

The fight now turned towards Moquet Farm and in the first stages of this both the Sixteenth and the Fiftieth battalions were engaged. As the battle day after day approached nearer to the farm ruins themselves, and the pace of it became more and more slow and difficult, the Tenth Battalion was again involved, and in the last attempt which the Australians made to capture it before they left the Somme the Fiftieth, although not engaged in the actual attack, were moved in to the line as a reinforcement. In the most difficult fighting perhaps that Australians ever undertook, in the winter mud of Le Barque and Flers in November the Twenty-seventh Battalion played its part ; and all five battalions — the Tenth, Twenty-seventh, Thirty-second, Forty- eighth, and Fiftieth — went through the Somme winter. When the German suddenly evacuated in February, 1917, the Tenth Battalion was one of those which helped to hurry him from his winter line to Le Barque, and the Twenty-seventh was responsible for the reconnaissance before Malt Trench and took part in the sharp fight by which that trench was taken.

The excitement of the advance to the Hindenburg line, an interval of more or less open warfare, now began. The Thirty-second Battalion belonged to the brigade which occupied Bapaume and broke into open order on the other side of it. The Tenth Battalion was involved to some extent in the difficult fighting beyond Loaverval where the Hindenburg line near Queant began to be approached. The Twenty-seventh made the left flank of the attack in the sharp village fight by which Lagnicourt was taken ; but it was the attack by the Fiftieth Battalion upon Noreuil in which the hard fighting in this open campaign was encountered. At the end of a splendid fight, in which the success swayed backwards and forwards more than once in certain parts of the line, the Fiftieth finally established itself be yond the village and the Germans with drew on the following night to their Hinderburg line, leaving only a few posts in front of it.

It was now that the Forty-eighth Battalion entered what is probably the greatest fight in the history of their unit. It has been the luck of the Forty-eighth Battalion that the fights in which it has been engaged have always been heavy ones. Other battalions have a history of a few great battles with many smaller engagements sprinkled in between. The history of the Forty-eighth is summed up almost entirely in four great struggles — the shattering bombardment of Pozieres, the breaking of the Hindenburg line at Bullecourt, the three days’ fight, for the second line at Messines, and the difficult struggle before Passchendaele. The Forty- eighth was one of the six battalions chosen to break through the Hindenburg wire in the wake of the “tanks” near Bullecourt. The “tanks” did not get through, but the Australian infantry did. And it was the Forty-eighth battalion, South Australians and Western Australians, on the left, which, after fighting the whole morning, and after the rest of the troops had actually been driven out of the German lines, retook the portion of trench into which the Germans had broken behind it, and held on for nearly an hour after the rest had gone, and finally, with its officers and some picked non- commissioned officers watching the barricades in the trenches behind it, retired under orders from the position, because it could no longer hold on to trenches which were then being barraged by our own artillery. The artillery had been asked by the infantry to shell these trenches under the impression that the whole of our men were out of them, but a remnant was still fighting there to the last. It was a great feat, and South and Western Australia may be well proud of the troops that performed it.

In the fighting which followed next month in the Bullecourt area, in which these trenches were retaken and finally held by the Australians, the Tenth Battalion was involved and also the Twenty-seventh and Thirty-second battalions. Shortly after this a great part of the force went to rest.

A new South Australian battalion, and a very fine one, was amongst those which next carried the South Australian colour, into a great battlefield. This was the Forty-third Battalion at Messines. It was this battalion’s first big fight, and with the rest of its division it had enough of fighting within the following six months to satisfy the most eager soldier. After Messines came the cleaning out of the enemy’s posts beyond. Then came the critical “nineteen days” during which the new line was dug beyond Messines in face of constant shelling from the enemy — one of the most trying periods that Australian troops have undergone. On top of this came the battle of the Windmill, in the later stages of which the Forty-third was involved when this brigade alone amongst Australians took part in the opening of the great battle of Ypres. In the meantime the Forty-eighth and Fiftieth battalions had met with very heavy fighting in the second stage of the battle of Messines. The Forty-eighth on the right had to reinforce after the first difficulties had been met with, and for three days it was fighting beside the other battalions and its brigade until the trench was finally made good in the same sharp fight in which the Fiftieth battalion carried that portion of the same trench which still remained in the enemy’s hands further north.

When the Australian infantry as a whole entered the third battle of Ypres it was the Tenth and the Twenty-seventh that represented Australia in the first great fight of the 20th of September on the Menin-road and north of it. After one sharp fight the part played by the Tenth Battalion for the moment ended; but the Twenty-seventh was involved in the third heavy attack, that upon Broodseinde, and from then on wards until the first attack towards Passchendaele, in which it was also engaged, holding trenches which came under a whirlwind of shell fire, this battalion was called on to undertake a task as heavy as that which ever fell upon troops in this war. In the Broodseinde attack the Forty-third Battalion also was engaged, after having to wait beneath the fringe of the bombardment which the Germans laid down whilst our troops were lying out for the attack. In the long drawn out fighting which followed the first at tacks upon Passchendaele, when the mud more than anything else slowed down the rate of progress, the Forty-eighth Battalion attacked along the right of the Ypres-Roulers Railway ; and later, after the entry of the Canadians, the Tenth Battalion undertook that most awkward of tasks, the making of a feint attack in order to divert attention from the next point of the attack further north. A hundred men were sent forward under a light barrage, and the German artillery, believing that the main attack extended thus far south, spread its barrage over a wide front instead of concentrating it at once upon the Canadians. It was by a great sacrifice of themselves, however, that the South Australians gave this help to the Canadians. Of the hundred men who went out scarcely any returned.

The Fiftieth Battalion and the Thirty-second Battalion came into the Ypres battle at different stages, the whole South Australian force thus being engaged in it.

The Capricornian (Rockhampton, Qld.), 13 July 1918, p. 38

Previously published in:
The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), 18 June, p. 6

[Editor: Corrected “geing settled” to “getting settled”; “The excitemnet” to “The excitement”]

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