View Full Version : They gave more than their bravery and dash

21 Oct 05,, 06:58
Ross McMullin: They gave more than their bravery and dash

Our links with a great generation from World War I will endure

THE reaction to the death of Australia's last surviving combatant from World War I, Evan Allan, confirms that it is firmly embedded in the national psyche that his generation contained special men who did special things. Numerous Australians have cherished a sense of connection with them, especially in recent years when the number of surviving veterans was dwindling.

It is understandable that we made, and still make, a fuss about Gallipoli. After all, it came as many Australians yearned for their newly federated nation to distinguish itself in an international setting. This longing was evident in the Australian Imperial Force as well as among Australians back home.

As the ships sailed towards Gallipoli on the eve of the landing, Alan Henderson, a 20-year-old lieutenant from Victoria, wrote to his parents: "At last we make our final move and very soon we will have started to do what we came away for and have waited so long to do. While you are in church tomorrow thinking of us, we may be needing all your prayers . . . It is going to be Australia's chance and she makes a tradition out of this that she must always look back on."

But the emphasis on Gallipoli can sometimes distract from proper awareness of the significance of 1918. By then the AIF had become a different force.

At the Gallipoli landing the Australians established a reputation for reckless bravery and dash. It was reinforced a fortnight later at the ill-conceived, British-directed charge at Krithia, and at similarly wasteful enterprises such as the charge at the Nek (dramatised in the film Gallipoli).

At the Western Front, through the catastrophe of Fromelles (5533 AIF casualties in an appalling folly, the most tragic 24 hours in Australian history), the bloody battles of Pozieres, and the costly attacks at Bullecourt and Ypres, the AIF became more and more experienced and efficient in operational tactics.

By 1918 the reckless dash of 1915 was still evident but leavened with professional skill. The Australians had become hardened, proficient fighters. When the Germans launched an immense offensive in an attempt to win the war before the newly involved Americans could make their presence felt, the British were driven back about 64km and AIF formations were rushed to the rescue.

Among them was the 15th AIF Brigade, led by its renowned commander Brigadier-General Harold "Pompey" Elliott. Proud of his brigade's success in plugging gaps in the vulnerable British defence, Elliott wrote, after three grim years of big battles and terrible casualties, that the "AIF have hitherto accomplished nothing to be compared in importance with the work they have in hand just now" and "I was never so proud of being an Australian as I am today".

A week later Elliott's 15th Brigade, in association with the 13th AIF Brigade, accomplished a stunning night counterattack at Villers-Bretonneux, which halted the ominous German drive to Amiens and was hailed as the most brilliant exploit of the war.

Later in 1918, when the tide turned, the AIF was prominent in the drive to victory with a series of triumphs in France. Not only did the AIF punch above its weight in the defensive and offensive phases of 1918; Australia's soldiers also were influencing the destiny of the world more than Australians had done before and more than Australians have done since. In highlighting 1915, we should not neglect 1918.

But Australia paid a ghastly price for this contribution. Bill Gammage has summed it up: "What did Australia lose from the war? Sixty-three thousand dead, perhaps one in 10 of all men between 18 and 45 ... Over 150,000 wounded, roughly a quarter of those eligible, 22,000 of them in hospital in 1926, 49,000 in 1939, over 70,000, one in nine of those eligible, on pensions in 1940. Dreams abandoned, lives without purpose, women without husbands, families without family life, one long national funeral for a generation and more after 1918."

Alan Henderson, who wrote that prophetic letter on April 24, 1915, died of wounds at the landing. His brother Rupert was killed a fortnight later at Krithia. A renowned Australian educator described Rupert as the finest individual he had had in his charge. The mother of Alan and Rupert, an indefatigable volunteer in a host of social service activities, had a nervous breakdown in 1915.

Australia's losses, in quality as well as quantity, were irreplaceable. Men of exceptional capacity and potential were lost. Harold Wanliss, an outstanding leader killed at 25 at Polygon Wood, was seen by many as a future prime minister. Ted Larkin, MP, renowned rugby international and administrator, enlisted in the first rush in August 1914 and died in the first rush on the first Anzac Day. G.C.M. Mathison, a brilliant medical scientist with an international reputation, was killed at Krithia.

Duntroon graduate Tom Elliott's death at Fromelles prompted his brigadier to lament the loss of an officer so impressive that he could have become "Australia's Kitchener". Also killed at Fromelles was George Challis, who had been best afield in Carlton's 1915 grand final victory 10 months earlier.

Talented 25-year-old barrister Murdoch Mackay was on the verge of glittering careers in the law and politics, and had top-scored against a dominant English Test cricket team, but died at Pozieres. There were, of course, many, many more whose special potential was never fulfilled because they did not survive the war.

Our attitude to the survivors has fluctuated. At times, during the Vietnam War era especially, little tolerance seemed evident from Australians holding radical views. During the past two decades, though, the perception seems to have spread that you can maintain a fervent anti-war militancy yet at the same time treat veterans caught up in past conflicts with empathy and sympathy.

What caused this shift is an interesting question. A contributing factor was the 1980s films and television series on the subject, notably Gallipoli, 1915 and The Anzacs. The recent repeat screening of The Anzacs confirmed that it depicted the AIF's 1918 significance particularly well.

Australians feeling sad about Evan Allan's death because it marks a poignant severance from the AIF generation may find solace in the stirring conclusion to Charles Bean's official history.

Having spent 23 years writing the history, Bean ended his epic in 1942 with these words: "But the Australian Imperial Force is not dead. That famous army of generous men marches still down the long lane of its country's history, with bands playing and rifles slung, with packs on shoulders, white dust on boots, and bayonet scabbards and entrenching tools flapping on countless thighs, as the French country folk and the fellaheen of Egypt knew it. What these men did nothing can alter now. The good and the bad, the greatness and smallness of their story will stand. Whatever of glory it contains, nothing now can lessen. It rises, as it will always rise, above the mists of ages, a monument to great-hearted men; and, for their nation, a possession forever."

Ross McMullin, whose award-winning biography Pompey Elliott is published by Scribe Publications, is writing a book on Australia's lost generation of World War I.


It is extraordinary that the current brood of Australians are no longer that plucky or possessing the derring do of the rough and tough Aussies of WW II.

What are the reasons for this decline? Too much of wealth and too comfortable a life?

Have the Oz boys lost the dash and drive?

21 Oct 05,, 08:02
Have the Oz boys lost the dash and drive?
Unfortunatly no. These days it is in



21 Oct 05,, 08:38
I hardly think so.

Even if they were pitched against a galaxy of stars, the stars were so overwhelmed by their own importance that they forgot that they were there to win and not return to the pavillion for some free drinks, snacks and rest.

The whole thing was a delightful farce!

21 Oct 05,, 08:41
Isn't interesting the even in an Australian thread, sponsored by an Indian, it still requires an Indian and a Pakistani to force it to move into some respectability? ;)

Therefore, the complaints against the Asia Pacific being flooded by Indians and Pakistani threads is a non starter! ;) :)

Come on you Australians, show dome dash here at least!

Surface and take this thread on.

We don't bite! :)

21 Oct 05,, 10:05
Well sir worst comes to worst you an I can turn it into a cricket thread.

Isn't interesting the even in an Australian thread, sponsored by an Indian, it still requires an Indian and a Pakistani to force it to move into some respectability?
Well yeah, something is rotten.... down under. :biggrin:

21 Oct 05,, 11:00
Guys...give it a break :biggrin: