A New Force for a New Environment
As the centenary of the First World War approaches we will be looking in detail at major actions of the conflict on the Western Front. As a starting point, it might be of interest to first consider the restructured AIF of 1916 and the impact of the new theatre of operations.
Before arriving in Western Europe, the AIF had already undergone major change. The three depleted ANZAC divisions withdrawn from Gallipoli had to be brought up to their establishment strength. Even then AIF Headquarters estimated there would still be 40,000 Australian and New Zealand reinforcements to be absorbed. In addition Australia had offered to raise three more divisions and there were the monthly reinforcement drafts for the new and existing units.
A solution was desperately needed!
In the case of the New Zealand force a separate division would be formed, building on the existing New Zealand Infantry Brigade.
For the AIF it was decided that the two existing separate Australian brigades, the 4th and 8th, would form the basis of two new divisions, numbered the 4th and 5th, to be raised in Egypt. The sixteen additional battalions needed for these divisions would be found by splitting the original battalions of the 1st Division and 4th Brigade in half, then bringing all units up to full strength with the reinforcements. The 3rd Division would be raised in Australia. After problems with the allocation of supporting arms and services, such as artillery, engineers and field ambulance were addressed, this was the five-division force that would serve on the Western Front over the next three years.
Western Europe was a revelation to men of the AIF as they began arriving in the south of France in March 1916. Their only experience to date had been of the Egyptian desert and the dry, broken terrain of Gallipoli. Here were farmhouses and barns, and fat cattle in green fields. The devastation of war only appeared as they moved north.
The veterans of Gallipoli immediately noted the differences between their old theatre and trench warfare on the Western Front. Most noticeable was the absence of constant rifle fire and bombing. There was a no-man’s land with the front lines nowhere within throwing distance. Unless a major attack was mounted, exchanges of fire were mostly by machine gun or the various new mortars and artillery. Sniping, a constant and widespread activity amongst infantry soldiers at Gallipoli, was conducted here by trained specialists.
Artillery now had a high proportion of high explosive ammunition and so was much more effective in support of the infantry. There were now howitzers in the artillery brigades, providing the type of destructive fire that was missing at Gallipoli. The situation in the air was completely different. Planes frequently engaged each other in air combat, and the aerial observation and adjustment of artillery fire was the normal practice. The much more open nature of the battle zone meant that patrolling skills had to be honed for gathering intelligence and so that no-man’s land could be denied to the enemy by night.
A major change was the situation in the rear area. Now, when troops were rotated out of the front line for rest, they were billeted amongst the local population. Although still within reach of German artillery, fresh food and wine could be brought from the locals and there were organised canteens and other comforts.
Most importantly, the AIF did not have to first capture their new positions. They were able to settle in to an established and relatively quiet sector of the front. This provided time for the newly-created units to acclimatise, train on new weapons and to develop the efficient battle procedure which contributed to their future success.
Image Top Right:
France, December 1916. Unidentified members of the Australian 5th Division, enjoying a "smoko" near Mametz, on the Somme. Source: www.anglogenealogy.com
Image Bottom Left:
Lieutenants Jack Henry Weingarth (left), Roy George Smallwood (centre), and Vincent George Sheppard, of No. 4 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, standing in front of one of the Squadron's Sopwith Camel aircraft.
Article written by
: Rod Margetts
- who is a battlefield tour guide for Boronia Travel Centre.