Inside Story

All quiet about the Western Front

Why did Australians forget the battles of 1917?

Margaret Hutchison Books 17 May 2021 981 words

Frank Hurley’s photograph of soldiers of an Australian 4th Division field artillery brigade passing through Chateau Wood, near Hooge in the Ypres salient, on 29 October 1917. Australian War Memorial

The Battlefield of Imperishable Memory: Passchendaele and the Anzac Legend
By Matthew Haultain-Gall | Monash University Publishing | $34.95 | 336 pages

On a drive through northern France, Matthew Haultain-Gall was politely quizzed by his Belgian in-laws about the Australian Imperial Force’s role on the Western Front. Like many Australians who “grew up on a steady diet of Anzac proselytising,” he could recite the Australian Imperial Force’s exploits at Gallipoli in 1915, at Pozières in 1916, and at Amiens and Villers-Bretonneux in 1918. But he realised he had only a vague understanding of what the Australians had done in Belgium in 1917.

So he set out to investigate why the battles in Belgium have been marginalised in the Anzac narrative — despite the fact that the AIF spent more time on the front line in 1917, the worst year of the war for the Australians, than in any other year of the conflict.

The battles of 1917 were downplayed almost immediately within the Anzac tradition. The fighting at Gallipoli in 1915 was seen as the AIF’s first test, and the battles at Fromelles and Pozières the following year as confirmation that the Australians were formidable soldiers. But the limited scope and outcomes at Messines and the increasing criticism of Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig’s planning and execution of the Battle of Passchendaele, as the Third Battle of Ypres is often known, meant the war in Flanders in 1917 was a bitter memory. Moreover, it was overshadowed by the historic formation of the Australian Corps in 1918 and the AIF’s achievements in the final battles of the war, which fit much more easily into the Anzac legend.

Weaving together military and cultural history, Haultain-Gall explains how the very character of the fighting in 1917 influenced how it was remembered. Charles Bean, Australia’s official correspondent and war historian, had been promulgating a narrative of Australian martial masculinity that focused on the skill of the infantry, but “the dominance of the artillery, the pillbox fighting, the sense that victory was near before hopes stuck fast in the quagmire of the salient” sat uneasily within this story.

Bean devoted only one volume of his Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 to the battles of 1917, whereas the Gallipoli campaign and 1918 both earned two volumes. This marginalisation was largely mirrored in unofficial writings about the war, that saw the battles of 1917 become a coda to those of 1915 and 1916, where the Anzacs proved their mettle, or a prequel to their triumphs in 1918.

This is somewhat surprising given that images from 1917 — Frank Hurley’s photograph of Australians walking across duckboards in an otherworldly landscape of the devastated Chateau Wood, for example, and Will Longstaff’s canvas, Menin Gate at Midnight (1927) — are among the most iconic and frequently reproduced depictions of the war. But rather than consolidating a narrative of the AIF’s 1917 battles, such images were used to establish a broader narrative of a futile year for the British and their Allies. The trend continued in the interwar and post–second world war eras, and Australians failed to make a distinctive mark in a landscape where commemorative rituals and practices were imperial rather than national.

The Battlefield of Imperishable Memory is particularly strong in its examination of the role of individuals in shaping memory. Haultain-Gall observes, for instance, that Bean’s writing about 1917 was lacklustre because he was simply too busy — collecting for a future national museum — to cover the fighting of Messines and Ypres as deeply as he had the battles at Gallipoli and Pozières.

Significantly, the book also explores how the memory of the fighting in Flanders was shaped as much by official agents, like Bean, as it was by public demand for meaning and purpose to be wrested from the futility. A chapter on interwar histories, memoirs and novels details how Australian publishers and editors were initially attracted to the disillusionment literature of this period, such as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). As the war book boom grew, however, publications like Reveille and Smith’s Weekly began criticising works that cast the conflict as pointless. Haultain-Gall points out that the interwar public welcomed Australian soldier-writers’ ability to “salvage purpose from the wreckage of 1914–18” and to create “middlebrow” stories that found meaning in Australia’s war experience. Yet writers found detailing the experience of the Third Battle of Ypres challenging, falling back on grim descriptions that made the success of 1918 all the more dramatic.

Haultain-Gall also notes how opportunities to create a distinctive memorial for Passchendaele were lost. From Bean’s cursory attention in his Official History to prime minister Billy Hughes’s rejection of a national memorial at Broodseinde, he explores how Australia’s presence in Belgium was sidelined. This neglect in the interwar years meant there was little in Flanders to provide an anchor for the reinvented Anzac legend that, having shrugged off its imperial ties, emerged in the 1990s as part of the new nationalism. Instead, Villers-Bretonneux became an important site of national remembrance, and Messines and the Third Battle of Ypres remained on the periphery. The lasting effect on the campaign’s place in the Anzac legend was seen in the modest Polygon Wood centenary commemoration in 2017, which was outstripped tenfold the following year at the Villers-Bretonneux ceremony.

Memory-making is a process of contest, struggle and, sometimes, annihilation. Drawing on an impressive range of material, including the Official History, unit histories, magazines, art, photographs, literature, film, television, rituals and monuments, Haultain-Gall traces how this process played out during the evolution of the Anzac legend over a century.

This book is as much about how and why Australians forgot the war of 1917 as it is about remembering it. The battlefields of Messines, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde were, it turns out, perishable and held a precarious place in the emergence and reinvention of the Anzac legend. The Battlefield of Imperishable Memory reminds us of the fallibility and fragility of memory and provides a fresh and important addition to Australia’s military history. •