The current commemoration of the highly successful charge of Australia’s Light Horse Brigade at Beersheba on October 31, 2017 serves as a reminder that Australia played an important role in the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. At the time Turkey was an ally of the German Empire and Australia was at war with Germany.
For a century, Australia has commemorated the defeat of the First Australian Imperial Force at Gallipoli in April 1915. In more recent times, there has also been a welcome focus in the AIF’s role in the victory over the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East in 1917.
Generally, however, 1917 was a grim year for Australia. Next Tuesday is the centenary of the death of my uncle, Alan Dargavel. He was shot by a German sniper while attending to a field gun and lies buried at the Dickebusch Military Cemetery, west of Belgian town of Ypres (currently called Leper).
Naturally, Australians prefer to focus on the AIF’s major victories in the Middle East in late 1917 and on the Western Front in the second half of 1918. Yet, on occasions, the failure of the AIF to achieve its immediate aim played a role in the eventual victory achieved on November 11, 1918.
Take the Third Battle of Ypres, for example. It ran from late July to mid-November 1917. The Allied military commander, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, intended to break through the German line. After some initial successes, the weather changed and allied forces became effectively bogged down. There were some small victories but, in the end, little territory was gained.
The Third Battle of Ypres had an appalling cost on Australia with some 38,000 casualties including around 12,000 dead. It is estimated that total casualties among British and Dominion forces were over 300,000 men.
Even so, Alan Dargavel and his comrades played their role in the eventual victory which occurred a year later. For the German Army suffered similar casualties at a time when it had problems reinforcing troops while the Allies looked forward to the build-up of American forces, following the decision of the US in April 1917 to join the conflict in support of the Allies.
As Ross McMullin points out in Pompey Elliott at War: In his own words (Scribe, 2017), in 1917 Brigadier General Elliott was not confident that the war could be won on the Western Front. Elliott is regarded as the Australian military leader who was closest to his troops and had a first-hand understanding of the realities of this conflict.
By early 1918, there was a feeling among some Allied leaders that Germany could win. And then came the great military victories in the Western Front in which the AIF, along with other Dominion forces and the British, played a key role.
Yet Armistice Day 1918 was a culmination of all the military actions in Europe and elsewhere since the guns commenced firing on the Western Front in August 1914. In this sense, victory was born of defeat as well as of success. Consequently, no one died in vain.
The Light Horse Charge at Beersheba is the first occasion in the commemoration of the First World War that Australians have celebrated an important victory. More such occasions with occur next year as the centenary of Armistice Day approaches.
These days commentators like Peter FitzSimons and Jonathan King are frequently found in and on the media celebrating the feats of the First AIF a hundred years ago. But the evidence suggests that they have followed, not set, the public mood.
In his 2014 book Gallipoli, FitzSimons wrote that “at Gallipoli they [the Australians] fought for England”. He had a similar view of Australia’s involvement in the broader conflict. FitzSimons contrasted 1914-18 with Australia’s involvement in the war against Japan in Papua New Guinea where Australians “fought for Australia”.
In his 1978 book Waltzing Materialism, King was even more dismissive of Australia’s contribution in 1914-18. He described Gallipoli was an act of “murderous folly” and wrote that Australia’s role in World War I was both “unnecessary” and “fought not for ourselves but for a greater power”.
Neither FitzSimons nor King now run the line that 1914-18 was an example of Australians fighting what the left likes to call “other people’s wars”. Indeed, both writers literally enthuse-up when they talk about the first AIF.
In the 1960s, many on the left mocked and sneered at the returned soldiers of World War I. In an article in The Australian in April 1985, I wrote that this attitude had been replaced by the view that the men should be honoured even though the cause for which they fought could still be derided.
In the 1980s, World War I was variously described as “senseless” (David Williamson) which was fought “for no cause at all” (Patsy Adam-Smith) and a waste (Bill Gammage). Three decades later, such views are less frequently heard.
This reflects the growing interest in genealogy and the pride many Australians expressed when they learnt of what their ancestors had done in 1914-18. There was also growing awareness that Germany was a world power in the early 20th Century with possessions in the Pacific — and that a victory for the Kaiser circa 1918 would have had a deleterious effect on Australia.
Moreover, a new generation of historians emerged in the 1980s and after, led by the Brit John Terraine, who drew attention to the fact that militarist and authoritarian Germany was the aggressor in 1914 and it was in the interests of Western democracies that it be defeated.
The achievements of Australia’s political and military leaders in World War I, and the men and women who supported them, were outstanding. Especially for a nation which was not yet two decades old.
In his 2017 Lowy Lecture last July, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson commented “it is 100 years since British and Australian soldiers stood side-by-side in the Third Battle of Ypres, in what I still believe it is right to think of as a fight against tyranny”. Hear, hear. Alan Dargavel, requiescat in pace.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found here