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The Great War – 30 November – 6 December, 2017

Friday 1 December, 2017

‘That is the stuff the young Australian Flying Corps is made of. It is creating for itself a great name. But what one notices especially is the pride of every pilot there at being associated with the splendid parent corps which has won such imperishable fame in the great war which has practically brought that into being – the Royal Flying Corps.’

C.W. Bean

In his introduction to Volume VIII of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 (Eighth Edition – 1939), F. M. Cutlack wrote:

The world is now familiar with methods of war vastly more scientific
than it ever knew before 1914…The conflict of 1914-1918, however,
was remarkable not only for a tremendous increase of gun power in
battle on land and sea but also the use of three entirely novel
agents – poison-gas, submarine fighting ships, and war in the air.[1]

The Australian Flying Corps had been involved in the Great War since 1915 in Mesopotamia, but its role on the Western Front came to the fore during the Battle of Cambrai that began on 20 November 1917 and raged until early December when a German counter attack took back Allied gains.

68th (Australian) Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, later redesignated No. 2 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps was ‘…in the thick of it.’[2]  Their training for the operation was described by Cutlack.

No. 2 Australian Squadron, being in the Third Army, was closely
concerned in this battle, and for ten days or so before the attack its
pilots practised assiduously at low-flying in couples, machine-gunning
ground targets, and bomb dropping. Despite foggy weather and the
dangerous nature of the work even at practice, there was only one
accident; through engine-failure one pilot flew into a haystack and
broke his machine to pieces, though he escaped personal injury.[3]

Extraordinary stories of courage and heroism of Australian pilots involved at Cambrai abound. Lieutenant H. Taylor’s aircraft was shot down, behind enemy lines. Extracting himself from the wreckage, as officially described, he:

‘…attacked parties of the enemy with a German rifle, joined an
advanced British infantry patrol, led it forward, and brought in a
wounded man. He found Captain Bell’s machine and tried to fly it,
but without success. He then rejoined the squadron at the advanced
landing ground.’[4]

In a letter to the Commander of Australian Forces on the Western Front, General Birdwood, Marshal of the Royal Air Force, MAJGEN Viscount Trenchard, said:

I have just been to see the Australian fighting Squadron No. 68
(i.e.No. 2) for the second time in the last week, and I have talked
to some of the pilots who carried out the great work… Their work
was really magnificent…They are splendid.”[5]

On 30 November, the Germans had reinforced their lines by a staggering 20 divisions and initiated their counter offensive to regain lost ground. It began at 7.00am on 30 November initially driving the Alies back across the ground they had previously gained. With the aid of the extra 20 divisions the Germans managed to retake the ground lost in the initial British tank assault – on the 7 December The Battle of Cambrai was over. German forces had regained virtually all territory it had initially lost. The Allied tanks were unable to manoeuvre in the mud to push home their initial advantage and it fell to ‘the cavalry of the air’, including Australia’s No. 2 Squadron, to provide the necessary firepower to enable the force to withdraw.

The Battle of Cambrai claimed approximately 100,000 casualties, proving to be some of the most vicious fighting in the latter part of 1917.  Six Military Crosses were awarded to the squadron for their actions over the Cambrai battlefield.

(Top right) Informal portrait of Captain G C Wilson MC DCM, near Baizieux, seated in an D.H.5 A9449, ‘1’ aircraft with which he did effective bombing and harassing work during the Battle Cambrai in November 1917. (Bottom right) A map of the Battle of El Burj.

Informal portrait of Captain G C Wilson MC DCM, near Baizieux, seated in an D.H.5 A9449, ‘1’ aircraft with which he did effective bombing and harassing work during the Battle Cambrai in November 1917.

4 December 1917 saw U.S. President Woodrow Wilson deliver his State of the Union Address which focussed on the United States entry into the war earlier that year in April. The statement was in response to the sinking of an Italian liner by Germany, killing 272 people, which included 27 Americans. With this attack, public opinion in the United States began to turn against Germany.

Fighting on the Western Front continued with the South Australian raised, 32nd Battalion engaged on the front line at Messines. Excerpts from the battalion diaries provide a sense of the fighting faced by the men of the 32nd Battalion:

December 1st – The Battalion holding front lines of Messines Sector. Artillery quiet.

December 2nd – Enemy attitude quiet.

December 3rd – Enemy quiet. Very little patrolling is possible due to bright moon. Minenwerfer fire heavy at times.

December 4th – Minenwerfer fire very heavy on front lines during the morning. 2/L T. Towers killed in action.

Tom Towers, originally from Millicent in South Australia was the only Australian to be killed on that day on the Messines battle front – his name is on the Messines Ridge British Cemetery in Belgium.

On 6 December, one of the largest accidental maritime explosions in history occurred. As The Great War raged in Europe, and fighting continued on the Western Front, the port city of Halifax in Nova Scotia, Canada, bustled with ships carrying troops, relief supplies, and munitions across the Atlantic Ocean.

On the morning of December 6, the Norwegian vessel Imo left its mooring in Halifax harbor, bound for New York City. At the same time, the French freighter Mont Blanc, with a cargo hold packed with highly explosive munitions – 2,300 tons of picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, 35 tons of high-octane gasoline, and 10 tons of gun cotton –was forging through the harbor’s narrows to join a military convoy that would escort it across the Atlantic.

At approximately 8:45 a.m. the two ships collided, setting the picric acid ablaze. The Mont Blanc was propelled toward the shore by its collision with the Imo, and the crew rapidly abandoned the ship, attempting without success to alert the harbor of the peril of the burning ship. Spectators gathered along the waterfront to witness the spectacle of the blazing ship, and minutes later it brushed by a harbor pier, setting it ablaze. The Halifax Fire Department responded quickly and was positioning its engine next to the nearest hydrant when the Mont Blanc exploded at 9:05 a.m. in a blinding white flash.

The massive explosion killed more than 1,800 people, injured another 9,000–including blinding 200–and destroyed almost the entire north end of the city of Halifax, including more than 1,600 homes. The resulting shock wave shattered windows 50 miles away, and the sound of the explosion could be heard hundreds of miles away.

The blast was the largest man made explosion prior to the development of nuclear weapons, releasing the energy to the equivalent of approximately 2.9 kilotons of TNT.

In the Middle East all horses except those needed by gallopers were sent back to Ramleh, and the Australian light horsemen were engaged purely as infantry. Rain was frequent, and the mountain cold intense. Some of the men had secured an issue of winter clothing, but most were in summer dress and, like the infantry, suffered acutely. As the Australians advanced towards the village of El Burj, they had their first taste of the bitter Judean winter. When some of them relieved a battalion of the 5th Royal Scots Fusiliers, they realised that they were more fortunate than the infantry. They found the Scots clad in short twill khaki pants, without tunics, with one blanket to four men, very short of rations and without tobacco.

“Our boys,” wrote a light horse officer, ” supplied the Jocks with matches and cigarettes and the ‘Dinkums’ as they always called us, were very popular.”

December 1st, 1917, Palestine:  The Battle of El Burj

The 3rd Brigade went into the line on the evening of the 29th. Reinforced by the 4th Brigade. The infantry built stone sangars for protection against both the enemy and the driving rain. The light horsemen, crouching behind these and ignorant of the country ahead, prayed for a quiet night. All round them the hills were extremely rocky with occasional large caves in the limestone.

Soon after midnight the sentries reported a movement only a few yards away, but could see nothing in the intense darkness. An attack in strength by the Turks, who were within bombing distance of the Australians before they were discovered, was launched. For a few minutes the light horsemen stood and fought with rifles, bayonets, and hand-grenades before withdrawing. The local Commander fired flares as a call to the artillery. The guns of the 268th Royal Field Artillery Brigade and the Hong Kong and Singapore Battery promptly responded, and put down a barrage over the enemy approaches. After an interval of complete silence, which was a greater strain on the nerves of the defenders than the fighting itself, about 500 Turks rushed up the sangars.

The Australians held their fire until the leading Turkish forces were within 20 yards. Retaliating with bombs, the Turks pressed bravely forward in a desperate effort to bring their greatly superior numbers into a hand-to-hand struggle with the Australians who held firm.

Had the enemy seized El Burj, the British would have been deprived of the use of the road leading up from Berfilya, and the Beit Nuba-Beit Sira valley would have become untenable. This would have weakened all the pressure towards the Nablus road, and exposed the left flank of the infantry which was making the main advance towards Jerusalem.

On the homefront, Friday November 30 1917 was a busy day for the Hon RP Blundell, the South Australian Minister for Industry and Repatriation and Chairman of the State War Council.  He announced plans for a permanent premises for the Returned Soldiers Association (in 1918 the association secured Sir Henry Ayers former residence as their club rooms) and also an Employment Scheme for Returned Soldiers.

[1] F.M. Cutlack, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18, Vol VIII, Australian Flying Corps, Sydney, Angus and Robertson LTtd, 1939, p. XV.
[2] C.E.W. Bean, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18, Vol IV, The AIF in France 1917, Sydney, Angus and Robertson Ltd, 1935, p. 936.
[3] F.M. Cutlack, Op Cit, p. 184.
[4] Ibid, p. 185
[5] Ibid, p. 188.

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