Today is a public holiday (ANZAC Day) where we remember the efforts of our past generations who fought in wars. I am not very enamoured by the hype that surrounds these days – commercialisation reigns and the black/white nature of the narrative (we were good they were evil) obscures the reality of war and the political machinations that typically accompany it. In Australia’s case our involvement in several wars has been the product of unnecessary colonial master-servant type arrangements (us being the servant) and/or ridiculous alliances with the war mongering US. But the soldiers certainly did it tough and I have sympathy with that – and personal association with my grandparents and parents. Some history to follow as a reflection and some music that I was listening to on the plane as I winged North today.
Centenary of Villers-Bretonneux
Villers-Bretonneux – which is a small village in Northern France, where a most decisive battle in World War One was fought on April 24, 1918 and ended 100 years ago today.
It was fought during the German Spring Offensive of that year when the Germans were intent on capturing the village as a result of its elevation and strategic value in the ultimate pursuit of control of Amiens (16 kms away).
A week earlier, the Germans used mustard gas, killing 1,000 Australian troops. And resumed the assault on April 23 and 24, taking control of the village. Thereafter, the first recorded battle in history between tanks ensued.
On the morning of April 24, our colonial masters at the time (Britain) ordered a huge component of Australian troops to recapture the village. A brutal battle followed with the Australian, French and British troops repelling the Germans.
It was a decisive battle because it secured the village and nearby Amiens and the supply lines that were crucial to the ultimate success in defending the ‘Western Front’.
There is a magnificent digitised history available from the Australian War Memorial – Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918.
In – Volume V – The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Main German Offensive, 1918 (8th edition, 1941) – written by the famous Australian war correspondent Charles Bean, documents these critical events in European history that occurred on this day, 100 years ago.
Bean was at Gallipoli and then the Western Front during that War.
Overall the casualties were massive:
1. Australian brigades lost 2,473 (many “were due to men’s being gassed in the German bombardment”).
2. British divisions lost 9,529.
3. The French (Moroccan) division lost 3,500 (“wasted in their magnificent but entirely useless daylight advance against the German machine-guns”).
4. German divisions lost around 10,400.
Per capita, the Australians lost the most (they entered the battle of Villers-Bretonneux with 3,900 troops) and according to historians “had ‘by far’ the most important role in the battle” (Source).
Bean retired to bed the night before the major assault by the Australian troops writing in his diary:
I don’t believe they have a chance … Went to bed thoroughly depressed … feeling certain that this hurried attack would fail hopelessly …
In his account of the second (and final) Battle of Villers-Bretonneux, Bean recounts that:
With one circumstance the Australian reader may be satisfied, that the Australian casualties, if fairly severe, brought a result out of all proportion to their severity …
The counter-attack on Villers-Bretonneux brought great fame to the Australian infantry.
People often are curious as to why I have spent a lot of my academic career studying European issues and have accumulated a massive literature documenting European issues, in particular the move towards integration after World War 2.
Apart from the obvious personal connections – my grandfather lost his legs in World War One, for example – Australia is really a European country notwithstanding the fact that we stole it from the indigenous occupants and tried to wipe out their presence and culture in varied ways.
Our early White history is dominated by our subservience to the Colonial masters. The Australian troops on the Western Front were definitely brave beyond belief – but they were also the Colonial fodder for Britain and that still resonates to this very day in the way we consider ourselves in the World.
A more modern expression of that subservience is how we are always willing to join “coalitions of the willing” and cause chaos through our partnerships with the US and other ‘allies’ through military invasions, allegedly in the name of maintaining freedom, but clearly, also in the pursuit of other more vicarious aims.
To finish, my home town, Melbourne played an important part in the reconstruction of the French village after the War through sponsorship.
School children in Victoria (where I grew up) raised money (the so-called ‘Penny Drive’ to build a new school in the French village, which is still named ‘Victoria College’.
You can read about that in the Victorian government archive – Rebuilding the school at Villers-Bretonneux, Victoria College and retains the original plaque erected in the new School Hall:
N’oublions jamais l’Australie.
Part of the Rite of passage for young Australians is to tour around Northern France and visit these historic sites where our previous generations are buried in the ground. I have visited the College and experienced the ‘love’ that the population in that little village still has for Australians.
Finally, the archive notes that:
Almost 180,000 Australian troops served on the Western Front, from Belgium through northern France, during World War 1. Around 52,000 of them died, and around 11,000 were never accounted for; their names are recorded at the memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.
So mixed feelings.
On the one hand, the Colonial oppression was not just damaging to indigenous Australians, but also the second-wave (white) population.
But on the other hand, these men and women were brave to a tee and incurred massive losses, which resonated down through the generations (through my grandparents, parents and beyond).
Music to fly with …
This song – Bird On The Wing – is from the 1987 album (Track 6) – Tomorrow – by Hugh Masekela.
I first bought this album when it came out and played it a lot. It was recorded while Masekela was in exile from the apartheid regime.
The album has songs about the imprisoned Nelson Mandela and lots of rhythms from the townships (Soweto) interlaced with straight jazz patterns.
This song is my favourite on the album from a number of close favourites. The use of the volume control pedal at the intro captures you from the start.
Masakela is a pretty solid player and a pretty solid guy if you trace his background.
As as the Album name suggests – my regular blog will return tomorrow.
That is enough for today!
(c) Copyright 2018 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.