AIF - Western Front Introduction

In March 1916 the Australian Imperial Force moved to France from Egypt and by July and August, Australians where heavily involved on the Western Front. The Divisions were initially organised into 1 ANZAC (1st and 2nd Australian Divisions) and 11 ANZAC (4th and 5th Australian Divisions). The 3rd Division did not arrive in France until November 1916.

The 5th Division was first to encounter the Germans on 19 July 1916 in a small but bloody engagement at Fromelles in Northern France. Shortly after the 1st 2nd and 4th Divisions became embroiled in the Somme offensive at Pozieres and Mouquet farm. In six weeks of operations the Australian divisions suffered approximately 28,000 casualties.

In November 1916 the 3rd Division arrived in France from England where it had been training since its arrival from Australia in July. The division was sent to the "Nursery" sector around Armentieres as part of 11 ANZAC, were in the trenches in the final phase of the Somme campaign and spent the terrible winter of 1916-1917 consolidating the forward positions near Bapaume.

In 1917 Australians were again heavily engaged: In March at Bapaume, in May and June at Bullecourt and Messines and from September to November in the great battle of the Ypres offensive – Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Poelcapelle and Passchendaele. The casualties sustained made it difficult to keep the strength of the Australian divisions and a partially formed 6th Division was disbanded to provide reinforcements. In November 1917 the five Divisions were formed into the Australian Corps, in May 1918 an Australian – Lieutenant General Sir John Monash, previously General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the 3rd Division – was appointed to command it.

In March and April 1918, the Australian Corps played a prominent part in the defence of Amiens, Hazebrouck, and Villers Bretonneux, during a massive German multipronged attack in France and Belgium known as Kaiserschacht or Spring Offensive. The German offensive was halted and the Allies mounted their own offensive from July, known as The 100 Days. The Australians were engaged in a number of battles as the Allies drove the Germans back – Mont St Quentin, St Quentin Canal and Montbrehain.

The Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918

While the Australian Imperial Force strength in France varied in response to battle casualties and problems with recruiting, it never fell below 117,000 men. Its battle casualties for three years of trench warfare between 1916 and 1918 amounted to 181 000 men of whom 46,000 died. Another 114,000 were wounded, 16,000 were gassed and 4000 taken prisoner. In terms of total deaths per 1000 men mobilized, the Australian Imperial Force figure was 145 – the highest of all the British Commonwealth armies.