After the evacuation of Gallipoli, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) regrouped and retrained in Egypt before most were sent to the Western Front, which stretched from the North Sea on the Belgian coast to the French-German-Swiss border near the Swiss town of Basel.
Australia suffered great losses along the Western Front. Of the more than 295,000 who served, some 46,000 were killed in action or died from other causes. More than 100,000 were wounded.
The first major battle involving Australians was on 19 July 1916 at Fromelles. The aim was to prevent the Germans from sending reinforcements to the Somme but the attack was a complete failure. Within twenty-four hours, the Australians were forced to retreat to their own lines and the AIF’s 5th Division had suffered more than 5,000 casualties.
On the Somme at the end of July and in early August, troops of the 1st, 2nd and 4th Australian Divisions attacked at Pozieres and Mouquet farm, capturing vital ground but incurring severe casualties. The Australian monument at Pozieres records that “Australian troops fell more thickly on this ridge than any other.”
Western Front 1917-1918
1917 saw more bitter fighting. A further 76,000 Australians became casualties in battles at Bullecourt, Messines and the four-month campaign of the 3rd battle of Ypres, commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaele. At year’s end the five Australian divisions were organised into the Australian Corps and spent the winter of 1917-1918 in Belgium.
Bullecourt is the site of two of the bloodiest battles involving Australians on the Western Front. More than 10,000 Australians were killed or wounded in the Bullecourt battles and more than 1,100 were taken prisoner at the First Battle of Bullecourt – the largest number of Australians captured during a single engagement in the First World War.
The first battle at Villers-Bretonneux was fought on 4 April 1918 when the AIF held the front line astride the Somme River.
Villers-Bretonneux again entered Australian history when the 13th and 15th Australian Brigades counter attacked against a German advance on 24-25 April 1918 to liberate the town. This second battle was a significant military achievement for the Australians as it marked the effective end of the German drive towards Amiens.
Lead up to Armistice
In August 1918 the Allied forces began 100 days of operations that would lead to the Armistice, beginning with an attack known as the Battle of Amiens. The Australian Corps played a leading role in the offensive until it was withdrawn after the Hindenburg Line had been broken. By then, it had cemented its reputation as one of the foremost fighting formations in the Allied armies. Its feats, and those of the AIF as a whole, were characterised by the historian Charles Bean as ‘a possession forever’ for the Australian nation.