Anzac Battlefields: The Western Front Episodes
Where is the Western Front? Why did two vast armies dig in, extending lines of trenches from the Channel ports almost to the Alps? All of this happened in the first weeks of the war so that by mid-September the German attack had faltered on the Marne and the situation became stalemated. This is the battlefield that the ANZACS, withdrawn from Gallipoli, entered at the beginning of 1916.
Industrial warfare at its most terrifying – gas, tanks, machine guns, barbed wire – the ANZACS find themselves fully acquainted with the texture of war on the Western Front in a series of murderous battles at Pozières where the Australians lose 12,000 men.
At Flers in the Battle of the Somme the New Zealanders experience great success advancing 2.5 kilometres but the price was high with the loss of 2,000 casualties.
It is 1917 and the ANZACS are involved in the seminal battles of Bullecourt, Ypres, Messines and Menin Road. The year starts for the Australians with success but when the Germans counter-attack the Australians are overwhelmed at a place called Bullecourt, a significant German breakthrough seems imminent.
But, as we will see as we walk the battlefield, 4,000 Australians rally and hold the line against 16,000 Germans, VCs are awarded (Captain Percy Cherry’s story is particularly inspiring). And then disaster – a renewed offensive at Bullecourt is a textbook example of things that can go wrong, including the failure of the early tanks. The Australians withstand counter-attacks and hold the line but the cost is 7,000
One of the most notorious killing fields of WWI – Passchendaele. We walk where the battalions fought and where the artillery sank in liquid mud. In the midst of the battle one of Australia’s greatest soldiers, then Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Morshead, wrote “things are bloody, very bloody”. The losses were enormous – on October 12th the New Zealand Division lost 2,800 men, the bloodiest day in that country’s military history.
Spirit launched the massive Operation Michael on an 80 kilometre front on March 21st 1918, the greatest offensive of the war. We hear stories of desperate defence and the crumbling of the Allied line, we meet great characters like New Zealand’s most famous soldier Richard Travis, the unorthodox “king of no-man’s land”. And we reach what is, for many, the defining moment in Australia’s war: Villers-Bretonneux. Here, where Australia has built its memorial, the Australians stood their ground and turned back the relentless German advance.
As the Germans retreated towards the fortified Hindenburg Line they attempted a “scorched earth” policy, cratering roads and destroying bridges. Vigorous pursuit was necessary to prevent this. We follow the exploits of the Australians as Monash takes up the challenge and, as part of the rolling offensive, follow the New Zealand 3rd Army. Launched at the town of Bapaume, the fighting is intense, the enemy cannot be dislodged. Then the firing stops and the New Zealanders find that the Germans have abandoned the town. They press on – in one day advancing 10 kilometres and taking two and a half thousand prisoners. One week to the day later the guns fall silent. The war is over.