[Editor: This article by Keith Murdoch, regarding the Western Front in Europe during the First World War, was published in The Daily Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 24 September 1918. Different versions of this report were published in various other newspapers.]
With the Anzacs.
First touch of winter
Superiority over Boche
London, Sunday. — The special representative of the United Cable Service, Mr. Keith Murdoch, telegraphing from the Australian headquarters to-day, states:
Cold winds begin to drive over the battle front, and heavy rainstorms bring the old familiar muddiness. The detested duckboards reappear, and the men shiver a little at nights. The cosiest people of all along the Australian and neighbouring British and French sectors are the infantry front support lines. They are snug in deep old trenches, or new narrow lines, in which they are safe from shells. A man must be earmarked for heaven if he gets hit in such places. The wreckage of the battlefield provides ideal material for shelter from the weather. There are ample supplies of German corrugated iron and timber, but the “Aussies” have a soft heart for the Comfort Fund’s rain-proof cloaks, which may now be seen stretched over many hundreds of comfy “possies.”
For two days there has been little fighting, because the Boche won’t fight. He has given up the attempt to regain ground, and simply refuses to face our machine guns. This, despite strongly-worded orders from his leading generals, asserting that these lines are vital to the whole system of defences. The extent of the German armies’ decline is a debatable question, where upon innumerable discussions are vying as a topic with the popular theme, “When will we be relieved and get a rest?” which is asked around every tin of bully beef and in every officers’ mess. The brilliant successes of the last six weeks have not been won without fatigue, casualties, optical, and physical strain. It is only their magnificent spirit that keeps the men going on.
Strange German orders.
The men feel that the Boche is approaching a state of demoralisation. They have always been confident of their superiority, but now they daily see it written large in events before their own eyes. This gives them the strength of 10, and each Australian soldier goes into battle superbly convinced that the objectives will be achieved. The First Australian Division captured documents adding to a mass of evidence tending to show that the German is on the decline. One enemy order, signed by von Waldersee, a divisional commander, referring to the territory from which the Boche was evicted on September 18, said: “It is again pointed out that the whole of this system must be held for winter quarters. You must fight to the last cartridge and last man.” An order issued by an army commander said: “All positions must be held. If driven back, the men must at all costs retake the positions, surrounding it with outflanking lines of machine gun nests.”
Those exhortations savor of dugout and office stool heroism, and the Germans are not heeding them. Our observations show many signs of the decreasing German respect for officers. At the Fourth Division’s prisoners’ cage, hundreds of German privates crowded near the entrance as each battalion commander was brought in, sarcastically cheering and waving their hands. Sometimes a battalion commander and his staff cheered back. Such things were impossible a few months ago. Nearly all the German officers, however, express manly regret over their capture, senior officers invariably feeling it a deep disgrace, some adding that they have found the war most interesting, and are sorry to have to leave it. It is dangerous to dogmatise on the German morale. The whole army seems to have sunk, but it is still capable of making a strong fight, where an attack is poorly organised or a barrage is not dashingly followed up.
Fine weather wanted.
The Australians captured some striking testimonials to the “Tommies,” including a harassed German commander’s order that gas discipline must be made more rigid on the British front. His order said: “Only yesterday 215 men were gassed in a single battalion. It is suspected that men are purposely getting this gas in order to avoid fighting the English.” No Australian farmer has longed for the rain with the intensity the Boche commanders now pray for bad weather. If the next few weeks be fine the Allied blows may have an extremely widespread effect. On the other hand, nothing is calculated to hamper the attacks more than mud and rain, which will enable any rallying elements in the German lines to hold out in isolated posts, possibly gaining enough time to reorganise and stabilise the positions.
Another captured order states: “The First Australian division is undoubtedly one of the best assaulting divisions in the British army. Although at present it is no doubt greatly weakened by losses and by no drafts being received during the last time it was out of the line, it remains of a high value. Its company strength varies from 90 to 100.” The German commanders’ nerviness is shown by a document ordering “any personnel captured in the tanks using German colours must be killed.” Needless to say in a few tanks used latterly we have never descended to employ German colors.
Of the 60 guns captured on the British front in the last effort, the Fourth Australian Division took 32, including two naval guns. The Australian Corps’ total prisoners now number 21,000, of which at least 20,000 were captured by Australian units. We spent a busy day yesterday, seeking and destroying enemy mines. Prisoners told us that roads and trenches had been prepared for destruction in the event of retreat, but flight had been so hasty that these mines remained unexploded. Our engineers took the prisoners round to point out the positions, and then removed the explosives.
Effect of our artillery.
The whole weight of the British heavy gun-power is now turned upon the wire entrenchments, concrete machine-gun posts and the tunnels of the inner Hindenburg system. Much is hoped, and the atmosphere is charged with expectation of a further advance. Confidence is all the greater because the German artillery is proving much less formidable than expected. Artillerymen prisoners explain that so many guns were captured that the Germans are finding it impossible to keep up effective firing. There is evidence in our hospitals of the considerable amount of effective fire upon the Germans themselves. Many bear unmistakable signs of having been shot from behind, and show no disposition to discuss the circumstances. There has undoubtedly been a fair amount of German fire turned upon their own men in anger at their retreat.
The Daily Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 24 September 1918, p. 6
Also published (with various differences) in:
The Daily Standard (Brisbane, Qld.), 23 September 1918, p. 5 (Second Edition) (article entitled “Winter biting: Anzacs getting snug”)
The Maitland Daily Mercury (West Maitland, NSW), 23 September 1918, p. 5 (article entitled “Advent of winter conditions: Decline of enemy morale”)
The Newcastle Sun (Newcastle, NSW), 23 September 1918, p. 5 (article entitled “Enemy morale: Signs of weakening”)
The Sun (Sydney, NSW), 23 September 1918, p. 5 (article entitled “Guns busy: Pounding enemy lines: All now depends on weather: A.I.F. as Storm Troops”)
The Ballarat Courier (Ballarat Vic.), 24 September 1918, p. 3 (article entitled “Lull on Australian front: Another attack expected: Men superbly confident”)
The Ballarat Star (Ballarat, Vic.), 24 September 1918, p. 1 (article entitled “With the Anzacs: Winter approaching: Boche keeping quiet”)
The Bendigo Advertiser (Bendigo, Vic.), 24 September 1918, p. 5 (article entitled “With the Australians: Cold winds begin to blow”)
Bendigo Independent (Bendigo, Vic.), 24 September 1918, p. 5 (article entitled “Australian sector: Wind, rain and mud: Wreckage provides shelter”)
Darling Downs Gazette (Toowoomba, Qld.), 24 September 1918, p. 5 (article entitled “Western front: Cold and rain: Australians in snug trenches”)
Geelong Advertiser (Geelong, Vic.), 24 September 1918, p. 3 (article entitled “It is cold in France now: Every day our diggers ask ‘When shall we be relieved.’: Our big guns pound the Siegfried line”)
The Herald (Melbourne, Vic.), 24 September 1918, p. 9 (article entitled “Australians hold ground against foe: Fighting slackens: Australians are ready but enemy is quiescent: Declining moral observed”)
The Border Morning Mail and Riverina Times (Albury, NSW), 25 September 1918, p. 2 (article entitled “The Boches are sulking: Declining morale observed”)
The Queensland Times (Ipswich, Qld.), 25 September 1918, p. 5 (article entitled “West Front: Winter on battle front: Australians snug in front trenches”)
Riverine Herald (Echuca, Vic.), 25 September 1918, p. 3 (article entitled “The Australians: Cold winds begin to blow: Men snug in deep trenches”)
The Echuca & Moama Advertiser and Farmers Gazette (Echuca, Vic.), 26 September 1918, p. 4 (article entitled “The Australians: Cold winds begin to blow: Men snug in deep trenches”)
In other copies of this article (in other newspapers), after the sentence “Its company strength varies from 90 to 100”, there appeared a notation in brackets: “(The nominal strength of a company is about 250.)”
The site of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (Australia) states that the strength of a company during World War One was “100 to 225 people”.
See: “Structure of Australia’s forces in World War I”, Anzac Portal (Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Australia)
Australian Corps = an Australian military corps formed in November 1917 as a successor formation to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (December 1914 to February 1916), and the I ANZAC Corps and II ANZAC Corps (February 1916 to November 1917)
Boche = Germans; especially used to refer to German soldiers in World War One and World War Two (“Boche” could be used in a singular sense to refer to an individual German, as well as in a collective sense to refer to the German military or to Germans in general) (similar to the usage of “Fritz” or “Huns”)
bully beef = (also called “corned beef”) processed meat which has been preserved (“cured”) with large grains (or “corns”) of rock salt (a treatment known as “corning”, hence the name “corned beef”); the meat used is “brisket”, usually tough and fatty meat from the lower breast area of a cow, which is then braised (making the meat less tough), salted, minced, and soaked in gelatin; bully beef has long been used for field rations for military units; the term “bully beef” derives from the French term “boeuf bouilli” (boiled beef)
See: 1) “Bully and biscuits: British rations”, Colour Sergeant Tombstone, 25 November 2017
2) “[photo of an old tin of Fray Bentos Brand corned beef]”, Colour Sergeant Tombstone, 25 November 2017.
3) “The Great War: Food in the trenches (second part)”, WebFoodCulture
See also: “Corned beef”, Wikipedia
“Salt-cured meat”, Wikipedia
Comfort Fund = the Australian Comforts Fund, an organisation formed in 1916 (from several local and state organisations) to provide assistance and comfort to military personnel, by providing supplies (e.g. cigarettes, food, newspapers, pyjamas, singlets, soap, socks, toiletries, writing materials, and Christmas hampers), canteens, recreational facilities, and rest rooms
comfy = a diminutive form of “comfortable”
dugout = a trench or hole dug out of the ground, with a roof placed over it, to create a place for the use of military personnel, whether for shelter (including protection against artillery fire or mortars), sleeping quarters, or storage (a dugout could be a stand-alone construction, or dug out of the side of an existing trench, or dug into the side of a hill)
duckboard = duckboards were wooden planks used as walkways, placed in the bottom of trenches and on muddy ground to help stop soldiers from sinking into the mud
possie = a diminutive form of “position”
Tommies = plural of “Tommy”: (a shortened version of “Tommy Atkins”) a British soldier, British infantryman, British fighting man; the term was popularised by the poem “Tommy”, by British poet Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
[Editor: Added comma after “little fighting”. Changed “first Australian Division” to “First Australian Division” (in two instances), “fourth division’s” to “Fourth Division’s”, “fourth Australian Division” to “Fourth Australian Division”, (capitalisation changes made per standard practice and regarding usage in other copies of this article, e.g. Geelong Advertiser, 24 September 1918); “Australian corps” to “Australian Corps”.]