“Ninety years on,” writes Patrick Walters in the second issue of The Australian Literary Review of 1 November, 2006 “we still barely comprehend the immense tragedy that left 46,000 Australian dead scattered across a battlefield that stretched across northern France into Belgium. We have tended to overlook the lifelong trauma suffered by another 130,000 men left maimed, wounded or gassed. There were so many of them, as Les Carlyon observes wistfully in his monumental new work on the Australians on the Western Front, and we never really saw them.” His piece, ‘Heroes forged in hell’ is a review of Les Carlyon’s latest book, ‘The Great War’, Macmillan, 880pp, $55 . H e points out that the First AIF’s biggest battles were all fought in France and Belgium. Their casualty rate was nearly six times that suffered at Gallipoli. He asks how many of today’s Australians would know anything about “ the triumph of Mont St Quentin, arguably the finest feat of arms by Australians in the war, or John Monash’s extraordinary cameo battle, the 93-minute taking of Hamel in July 1918? “
Pointing out that Australian soldiers knew they had achieved great things against the German army, particularly in stemming the great German offensive in March 1918 and pushing them right back beyond the Hindenburg line, Walters says that those who viewed them from close quarters, such as official war correspondents Charles Bean and Fred Cutlack, also had no doubt.
"To say that the sturdy unceasing aggression of the Australian brigades led the British army back to the offensive may be an exaggeration," Cutlack wrote in November 1918. "One can only say that, at the time, and acknowledging the favourable circumstances, it looked like it. The real epic of the five divisions is not to be written yet. At present we can only admire with an emotion often too tense for adequate expression."
Sir John Monash, the Australian corps commander in 1918 and surely one of the most outstanding generals of the Allied side, had similar views. (His appointment was apparently “nearly hijacked” by two journalists, Hughes’s London-based political fixer, Keith Murdoch, and Bean. It seems that journalists wanting to be players and not reporters is nothing new.) Sir John wrote in a letter dated 5 November, 1918: "In the course of time it will dawn upon the Australian nation that the activities of the Australian Corps were by far the biggest factor in the reversal of the fortunes of the Allies in this war, from 27 March, when the 3rd and 4th divisions first entered the fight east of Amiens, until 6 October when the breaching of the Hindenburg line had been completed."
While conceding that Monash may have exaggerated the role played by the Australian divisions in halting the German advance on Amiens, Walters says there is a consensus among military historians that the Australians and Canadians were the most outstanding fighters on the Western Front in 1918. In contrast to Gallipoli, Walters thinks the story of the AIF on the Western Front has been “largely overlooked by Australian historians and writers. There were exceptions, and Walters lists thoughtfully list them.
“Now we have Les Carlyon’s The Great War,” he declares.” In nearly 800 pages Carlyon takes us on an emotional journey back to the Western Front that at times is almost unbearably poignant.” In his superb review, Walters put his finger on the understandable preference of writers for Gallipoli over the Western front. He writes: “ The story of the First AIF on the Western Front is difficult to tell, a constantly shifting narrative of advance and retreat across a tightly contested front stretching from the soft, chalky valleys of the Somme, north into the sullen wetland of the Flanders Plain. While the Gallipoli story remains ever captured by the romance of its classical Aegean setting, close to Homer’s Troy, the Western front, by contrast, is a slough of despond. Here massive armies grind away at each other across a battlefield torn and ripped by millions of highexplosive shells.”
“Unlike the relatively independent Australian battleground on the heights above Anzac Cove, the AIF in France formed a small part of a giant Allied mincing machine composed of more than 150 divisions, more than two million men…Not until May 31, 1918, did an Australian general, Monash, command the whole of the AIF in France.” Carlyon goes into what Walters calls “the wider realm of high politics and the machinations of high command on the Allied and German sides”. There is a sharp focus on Hughes’ two great losing battles to introduce conscription – unlike the other armies, the AIF remained an all-volunteer force until the end. The effect of this can be seen in the fact that by 1918, Australian battalions normally made up of 900 men had dwindled to about 300 men each.
Walters says that one of the many strengths of Carlyon’s book is that he resists the urge to pile blame on British generalship for the enormous casualty lists run up by the Australians in 1916-17.
"Haig did what no British soldier had ever done before: commanded an army of one million men on a front of more than 100 miles [160km] in a new form of war for which no rule books had been written," Carlyon writes. "The mistakes Haig made are easy to identify 90 years later, but Haig had no precedents to guide him." In the end, Carlyon notes, Haig did what generals are supposed to do. He won. In August 1918, Haig called on the Australian divisional commanders at Villers-Bretonneux. Haig thanked the Australians, then said: "You do not know what the Australians and Canadians have done for the British Empire in these days." Then he broke down and could not go on. Tears were rolling down his cheeks.
Walters’ assessment is that Carlyon “has succeeded triumphantly in bringing back to life the essential character of the men of the First AIF in France. The Australians who fought long ago at Mouquet Farm, Messines, Polygon Wood and Passchendaele have gone but, thanks to Carlyon, they are still with us. To paraphrase Bean, The Great War will stand as a lasting monument to that body of great-hearted men.”