The Great War by Les Carlyon – Extract

9781743534236

Here dead lie we because we did not choose

To live and shame the land from which we sprung.

Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;

But young men think it is, and we were young.

– A. E. Housman

There were so many of them, more than three hundred thousand, and we never really saw them. Not when it mattered to see them anyway, not when they were doing the things that marked them as different, then and now, from the rest of us.

Here they are resting during a lull in one of the Somme battles, their boots sprinkled with white dust. Some drag on cigarettes, lumpy and hand-rolled. One daydreams and another, eyes big, face like a slab of marble, just stares, not at the landscape, not at the shell holes that sit lip to lip like sores, but at some panorama that exists only in his mind and now holds him prisoner. One re-reads a cutting that his mother has sent him from the Ballarat Courier.

Another scribbles with an indelible pencil worn so short that it needs to be gripped with the thumb and forefinger in a taut circle. He adds three or four lines to what he wrote the night before. It seems important to write things down. It makes the absurd seem real. You could see the German shells in the sky at the top of their arc. Others saw them too. And writing makes events seem less terrible. If you can write about them, they are at least imaginable.

One man, propped on his elbow, tries to doze, his helmet tilted over his eyes, a sprig of hair fluffing out one side. Another peers at the tear in his trousers as though it is a personal insult. The barbed wire has brought up a blood-stippled welt on his thigh. In this war it is nothing much. Some of the men’s faces carry the soft contours of youth but sometimes the eyes look older than the faces.

They are stretched out on the downs, these men, on those red-brown earths shot through with lumps of chalk, rich dirt, soft country, nothing like home. Back there the soils were thin and hun-gry, as if some earlier civilisation had worn them out and left, so that all the ground could push up now was scraggy gums. But at least Australian soils smelled sweet. They didn’t reek of explosives and wet sandbags and decomposing bodies that would swell up, then turn black and, if left, become huddles of khaki or grey that hid a jumble of bones, joined here and there by scraps of gristle and blown by the winter winds.

Anyone coming upon this group resting on the Somme would know at once that they were Australians. They had a look to them.

There was a lankiness, a looseness in the way they moved that was occasionally close to elegance but not quite soldierly. War and the old world of Europe had failed to impose all of its formalities on them. They were good at war but in a way that offended the keep-ers of the orthodoxies: lots of dash, not much discipline away from the battlefield. They were good at war but they didn’t want to stay in the army once the fighting ended. They were all volunteers. This was an interlude, not a career. When it was over they would go back to being commercial travellers and science teachers, farmers and bank clerks. In 1918 two architects, an orchardist and a gra-zier commanded four of the five Australian divisions. The corps commander, an engineer from a family of Jewish immigrants that had settled in Melbourne, also had degrees in law and arts, played the piano, sketched and wrote.

We, their kin and countrymen, didn’t see the Australians when they were roistering in the cafés of Poperinghe, behind the Belgian front, where vin blanc was rhymed into plonk and used to wash down eggs and chips. We didn’t see them when they sauntered around Horse Guards in London, eyes wide, because these were men from a land where the most ancient public buildings were little more than 100 years old and weren’t well loved anyway, since they belonged to a convict society that was best not talked about.

We didn’t see them queuing outside the theatres or riding in taxis, carelessly spending their pay, which was much higher than that of their British cousins. We didn’t see them watching the morning horsemanship in Hyde Park and smiling at the primness of it all.

These tourists wore slouch hats and woollen tunics that ballooned over their hips, partly because the pockets always seemed to be full of tins and pouches. They tended to be taller than Englishmen and used slang words that had no currency outside their homeland.

They seemed to be alive with the hopes of the New World and careless when it came to the protocols of the old. They didn’t expect too much from life: that was the way of people then. They wore shoulder badges that said ‘Australia’, and these really weren’t necessary.

Their look, those languid poses, gave them away. They didn’t call themselves ‘Diggers’: that came later.

They didn’t much like saluting: it didn’t seem democratic. A British officer once rebuked an Australian for failing to salute him.

‘I’m a colonel!’ he said.

‘Best job in the army,’ said the Australian. ‘You keep it.’

We didn’t hear these men the way the British and French did. In the night behind the Ypres front an Englishman heard a voice say:

‘Get over, ya bastard.’ It was said casually – there might even have been a hint of affection – and the Englishman knew at once that it was an Australian driver whose horse had shied at some obscenity in a shell hole.

On the Somme front in 1918 an English major observed a ‘curi-ous procession of two – an Australian private soldier, cigarette in mouth, and before him a miserable-looking German shambling along carrying the Aussie’s kit and rifle’. The Australian hadstumbled, drunk, into the British line the previous night. Upon being told where he was he muttered: ‘Hell, I can’t go back to my mob like this. What’ll they say to me?’ He ventured into no-man’s land and half-an-hour later returned with a German. He had crept up to a German post and offered to toss a grenade in unless one man gave himself up. Now the Australian was heading back to his division. He would tender the prisoner in mitigation of being absent without leave. He had a hangover and it was good that the German was there to carry his rifle. Still, he would take it off him as they approached the Australian line. Might look bad.

On that same front in the same year Australians had asked a staff captain of a British formation for more hand grenades, or ‘bombs’ as they were called then. The bombs didn’t come. The Australian commander found the staff captain playing bridge. The Australian threatened to take his men out of the line if the bombs didn’t arrive in half-an-hour. The staff captain got up and ordered the bombs delivered at once. The Australian left. The staff captain returned to the bridge game. ‘By jove,’ he said, ‘stout fellers, these Australians, but socially – impossible.’

The French watched these Australians as they stood, heads uptilted, puzzling over the cathedral in Amiens, a Gothic stab at the heavens, so fussy in all its tracery, so intimidating with its gargoyles and grotesques, and like nothing at Ballarat or Wagga Wagga, where the divine rights of clerics and kings had hardly played at all. The French saw them coming out of the battle for Pozières, white-faced and looking as if they had been drugged. They saw them squatting under the willows that line the Somme canals while four of their mates played cricket nearby, using a stick as a bat. The French saw them offering a farmer’s wife a few coins if she would make them coffee laced with brandy. They would stand in front of her kitchen fire and stare at the crucifixes on the wall, then leave to doss down on straw in one of the barns. They had an easy-going way about them and spoke French badly and in between giggles. They seemed to like farms, although it puzzled them that holdings so small could produce so much, and even more that cows should spend the nights in brick barns, filling them with the ammonia fumes of urine on straw.

The French saw Australians slapping horses with the reins to drive them through a bog, saw them stamping their feet against the frost and snow that seemed so foreign, saw them rolling up their sleeves on a summer’s day before tossing a grenade into a canal in the hope of stunning a few fish. They are still there, so many of these men. Those who were found are in the archipelago of cemeteries that stretches from Villers-Bretonneux to Passchendaele; and those who weren’t lie under fields of corn and sugar beet.

The men spoke of this place in terms of villages, roads and rivers.

To them, the names of these created their own imagery. It was enough to say that a man had been at Bullecourt. It was enough to speak of the Menin Road at Ypres and the Stations of the Cross above it, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde. The men knew the rivers well, because they kept crossing them. The Somme dawdled and the Ancre tinkled. Both might have been thought beautiful in other circumstances.

For three years these Australians, youths of seventeen and bald-ing men of forty-five, tramped up and down the Somme downland and the Flanders plain, past wayside shrines and clusters of brick barns, sometimes marching twenty miles in a day, haversacks and scabbards slapping against their thighs, going up to the war and coming out again, taking in reinforcements and going back again.

We didn’t see them when they won their great battle in front of Amiens in 1918 or when they later broke through the Hindenburg Line, where their leader, Lieutenant-General John Monash, also had two American divisions under his command. In 1918 the world seemed so weary of war and so suspicious of official dispatches that even victories sounded like more of the same and needed to be questioned. By 1918 people knew that the newspapers had not been telling them the truth about the war. We still don’t know much about those successes and the skill with which they were arranged.

Lieutenant Cyril Lawrence wrote to his mother: ‘You will never know, you people in Australia, what the boys have done – even the people of England do not know because they call us British troops in the paper.’ We didn’t know until years later how badly the Australians had suffered in 1916 and 1917, at Fromelles and Pozières, Bullecourt and Passchendaele. As the Australian historian Robin Prior has written, those men engaged the main army of the main enemy in the main theatre of war. This has not happened with Australian troops since.

We saw these men leave, full of derring-do, for a war that would turn out nothing like they expected, and indeed nothing like anyone expected. And we saw some of them come back, many haunted and secretive, and for the next twenty years the country went through a long grieving, and now it was the turn of women and children to suffer and to wonder what demons had come unbidden into their world. They knew these men before and after they went across the sea. They never saw them when, for three years, they did things Australians have never done since.

WHEN YOU TRY to write about these men it is better if you can see the ground, better if you can walk around alone for a while. You mostly end up doing the same things. You work out which way is east and which is west because these are the directions that matter most. The British and the French usually attacked from the west and the Germans for most of the war usually shot them down from trenches and blockhouses in the east. Between east and west is no-man’s land and that’s where you invariably find the shrapnel ball, grey and heavy in the hand, and proof that this field of corn, now sappy with life, was once a place where men from a faraway land cried out for water and their mothers. You hear the barking of unseen dogs and this leads you to identify the village on the river-bank. You can’t see the houses and barns because of the plane trees, but you can see the church spire and one navigates by spires here.

God is everywhere in the lands of the Somme and Flanders, and in the Great War that passeth understanding both sides drew comfort from the certainty that He was with them.

Eventually you are tempted to try something that almost always ends in bathos. You try to redraw the landscape. You blot out the round hay bales and the tractor with a cloud of grey-brown dust boiling behind it. You try to draw in trench lines and observation balloons and khaki bundles hung up on barbed wire. You take that field of sugar beet and try to turn it into thousands of shell holes, each with a slimy puddle at the bottom. You take that copse, soft and leafy, and try to transform it into stumps, outraged and black-ened. It hardly ever works; yet you always try.

It is better to see the ground. It doesn’t necessarily lead you to the truth. Often there is no truth about these battles, just a clamour of voices. But it can be the start of understanding, this walking around. There are other roads to the same end. All have potholes and some are cul-de-sacs.

There are official documents, operational and intelligence reports and the diaries and memoirs of generals. These mostly sound like disembodied voices. They are discreet and careful; they do not admit to chaos or fear; ineptitude is often dressed up as bad luck. The general staff is seldom taken by surprise and the passive voice is almost strident. Failure is often explained by saying that the frontline troops, ‘though they attacked in a most gallant manner ’were ‘inexperienced’. Generals are never said to be inexperienced, and of course they were. But we must also try to be fair to the generals. We should not blame them for not knowing things that we know now.

The diaries of Douglas Haig for 1917 leave the reader convinced that the commander-in-chief of the British and dominion forces didn’t understand that his troops, far away to the east, were stalled in front of Passchendaele village mainly because they were waist-deep in mud and the wounded were drowning. Haig is here, disembodied at GHQ, with sheafs of maps and other pieces of paper that say the war is orderly, almost as orderly as the field-marshal’s daily routine; and the soldiers are there, in an ocean of mud. They no longer know quite where they are or what they are supposed to be doing. They are in the same war as Haig, but their war is a shambles. The generals William Birdwood and Alexander Godley commanded the two Anzac corps for most of the Great War and both afterwards wrote autobiographies. Neither book men-tioned a battle in France in 1916 near a village called Fromelles.

Omission is also part of the game.

As a counterpoint there are the letters and diaries of ordinary soldiers. The diary may be a Collins Paragon Diary No. 181, black-bound and dimpled, or scraps of paper that have been cut into small squares and bound with string. These chronicles are usually written with an indelible pencil and sometimes with fountain pens that leave blots when the hand pauses at the end of a sentence.

Nothing matches them for verisimilitude. An Australian lieutenant writes in 1916: ‘I have one puttee, a dead man’s helmet, another dead man’s gas protector, a dead man’s bayonet. My tunic is rotten with other men’s blood and partly splattered with a comrade’s brains.’ Read that and you know what it was like to be on the gentle rise above Pozières village in 1916.

The vigour and directness of soldiers’ prose also tells us much about the Australian idiom of the day, which was almost free of Americanisms and home-grown in a way that today’s language is not. Men occasionally talked about their mates or pals, but more often they wrote of their cobbers. Seldom does one come upon a soldier saying he went over the top; he hopped the bags. He doesn’t take part in an attack but a stunt. When some of his cobbers are killed he says they are knocked. The place where they are knocked is a very warm corner. Leave in Paris or London is said to be bonzer. High-ranking officers are heads and some of them are thought to be duds. One feels queer when a hot piece of shrapnel tears into one’s arm. After that one looks for a cushy job. A man who is carefree is gay. Things are not stolen but half-inched. Coves, beggars and coots make up the passing parade. Yet there are sometimes problems with soldiers’ letters too.

Troops on a battlefield can see only so far, maybe as little as twenty yards, but they are quick to blame the soldiers on their flanks for any reverses. A soldier writes his account of the battle of Polygon Wood; the date that he gives tells you that he is fighting the battle that preceded it, on Menin Road ridge. We need to remember that there was still a Victorian sensibility, even in private letters. There were things one did not talk about. Fear and despair and doubt were three of them. Pat Barker wrote of English soldiers of the Great War in her novel Regeneration. She has one of her characters say in an interior monologue: ‘They’d been trained to identify emo-tional repression as the essence of manliness.’ So too it was with the Australians.

There is another trouble with soldiers’ letters. They touch you in a way that official documents do not. They drag you in when you are trying to stand back. You follow a man to Egypt and Gallipoli and on to Pozières and Passchendaele. You gain a sense of him, of where he came from and of the people to whom he is writing. You come to like him, his rough sense of humour and his acceptance of outrageous events. And then his letters end and you look him up on a file and it says ‘Killed in action’, followed by a date, and you feel a loss.

And there are maps. A map is sometimes as much an abstraction as a graph about poverty: all the numbers are there, but you can’t smell the boiled cabbage. Detractors pursued General Monash in life and in death. He wasn’t the true article, they whispered: too cerebral, not swashbuckling enough. Some of these critics point to Monash’s failure at Gallipoli in August, 1915, when the brigade he led failed to take the heights above the Anzac beachhead. The battle plan looks reasonable when drawn on a map, and at least one critic has suggested that the poor leadership Monash is supposed to have shown there might be explained by the fact that he was over-weight, which he then was. When you try to follow his steps, in daylight and with no-one shooting at you from the heights, you realise that the swell of Monash’s girth had nothing to do with any-thing. The country there is mad. There is no grain to it. It rears and plunges in a jumble of ravines and razorbacks. And, as you blunder on, you realise that the scheme, that flourish of arrows stabbing into the Turkish hills, could never have worked. It looked right only on a map owned by an officer on the general staff.

It is always better if you can see the ground.

SO WE ARE here on a plain in French Flanders, near the village of Fromelles. That’s its church spire you can see to the east and further along the same rise is the village of Aubers, which gives its name to the ridge, little more than a frown on the horizon, but high enough for observation. The ground on the plain is heavy clay, nothing like as sweet as the chalky loams of the Somme to the south, and as flat as a tabletop. All that breaks it is a ditch, not much more than six-feet across, sullen and splotched with algae, the nettles along its banks proclaiming its sourness. On the trench maps of the Great War this drain rejoiced in the name of the Laies River. Dusk is almost upon us. The sky is pastel blue and streaked with contrails and the east wind blows clouds of butterflies this way and that over a patch of pumpkins. Children sit straight-backed on ponies at the riding school next to the Australian cemetery and the voice of the instructress, bubbly and cheery, echoes across the empty plain and argues with what once went on here.

This is where the Australians in 1916 fought their first battle in France. Several thousand of them died within a few minutes’ walk either side of where you are standing. They died in a single night, many of them before the sun had properly set. Some were Gallipoli men and others had never been in battle before. Some were still wearing felt hats rather than metal helmets. None of them knew much about how the war was being fought on the western front.

They quite likely thought, as they had been taught to think, that winning was about ‘character’ and ‘the spirit of the bayonet’, when in truth the world had changed. Winning was about firepower, which meant artillery, but another year would pass before this notion began to take on. It was, after all, a form of heresy. It went against just about everything a fifty-year-old British general had been taught at his public school, at the staff college and on the job in India, Egypt and South Africa. It reeked of intellectualism – all those calculations about the weight of shells required to take so many yards of trench – and the British armies of the Victorian and Edwardian eras had been uncomfortable with intellectuals. They understood and admired officers who fearlessly put their horses at stone walls on the hunting fields. Field-Marshal Wolseley wrote in 1897: ‘I hope the officers of Her Majesty’s Army may never degen-erate into bookworms.’ There was no sign of this happening, he conceded, before going on to hint that too much reading could be unmanly.

Fromelles may be the most tragic battlefield in Australia’s his-tory. Yet it had no place in Australian folklore during the Great War and none now. The register at the cemetery shows thirty-five visi-tors for the previous month. Fromelles refuses to lodge in the Australian consciousness. One reason for this may be that Pozières, a much bigger battle in which three Australian divisions fought, began four days later down on the Somme. Another may be that Australians at home weren’t told much about Fromelles. And another is almost certainly that the British and Australian commanders didn’t much want to talk about it, because what they ordered done there was afterwards hard to explain.

The Australians and a British division left their breastworks (the ground was too wet to dig conventional trenches) and attacked from the north across the open plain at about 6 pm in bright daylight. The Germans waited for them on the flat ground to the south, where they had built concrete bunkers and blockhouses, notably at a place known as the Sugarloaf, which bulged out as a salient and bristled with machine guns. Other German divisions were behind, up on that ridge where Fromelles nestles, up where you can see everything that moves on the plain. That was the way of the western front for most of the war: the Germans were on the high ground and the British and French were trying to get up there.

SOMEWHERE IN FRONT of the Australians at Fromelles in 1916, somewhere behind the Sugarloaf, probably a mile or so from the front, there was a German corporal who fussed over a white terrier he called Foxl. The dog had strayed over from the British lines and the corporal had taught it tricks. We don’t know whether this soldier was in the fighting against the Australians around the Sugarloaf, although one account – not to be relied upon – has him running through trenches clogged with dead and mutilated men. He was a dispatch runner in the Bavarian division that held the front and had been awarded the Iron Cross, second class, in 1914.

This man stares at us from a photograph taken at Fromelles in April, 1916. He is lank and pale and looks older than his twenty-seven years. He has a thick moustache, droopy and lop-sided, and his neck rears out of a baggy jacket. His eyes are hooded and dull, as though the mind behind them is so run down it can put out no light. There is much of the bumpkin about him: he is not so much a soldier as the man who collects the tickets at an alpine rail-way station. His comrades thought him odd. He would throw a tantrum if the barrack-room talk about the war turned glum. He was too literal-minded to enjoy jokes. He didn’t smoke. He spurned alcohol and the French girls in the back-area villages. He had decided long ago that life was a fearful struggle. Why try to make it pleasanter? The little terrier gave him affection and, unlike the French girls, made no demands on his honour. He was annoyed when, during the Christmas of 1914, German and British troops met in no-man’s land to sing carols and swap cigarettes. He thought such things gave war a bad name.

It would have been better for the world if a stray shell had landed on him at Fromelles during that British-Australian attack of July 19, 1916. He was a nobody then. Later, as Adolf Hitler, the world would come to know him better.

WE NEED TO find the Sugarloaf so that we have a reference point from which we can pencil in the rest of the battlefield. Martial Delebarre, from Fromelles, knows the ground as well as anyone. In 1992 he found a bone-handled table knife here. The blade was broken and rusted. Scratched on the handle was ‘G. Blake’. Private George Francis Blake, a carpenter from Footscray, Victoria, died near the Sugarloaf, aged twenty-six. A year after his death his wife inserted an ‘In Memoriam’ notice in the Age that ended: ‘Each day I miss his footsteps/As I walk through life alone.’

Now Delebarre has to find the Sugarloaf again, and the navigation has to be precise because there isn’t much of the strong point left. You follow him across the wheat stubble, keeping the fetid ditch on the right. You plunge into a field of ripened corn to be swiped by the hairy tassels on the cobs. On the ground you see shrapnel balls and cartridge cases spotted with green mould. Then into a field of potatoes, where you follow the furrows to avoid stepping on the wilting plants. Then into another field of corn, then into wheat stubble that reeks from a dressing of cattle manure.

You turn right across a small bridge over the ditch and into a bigger field of stubble. Now Delebarre’s eyes are searching for the Sugarloaf. Eventually it identifies itself. Weeds spout from a strip of unploughed land, the only untouched soil in the field, just a few feet wide and fifteen-feet long. Iron stakes rise out of the weeds. That’s all that remains. Nearby a rusty cylinder, a shrapnel shell from a British field gun, sits up on the stubble and German rifle rounds are everywhere, most spent, a few not. A farmer ploughs the field as we stand talking. The tines of his plough will bury those German cartridges and bring up other war debris, maybe something exotic, a toffee-apple mortar shell perhaps, or a tin of Three Nuns pipe tobacco.

So you stand there, at the centrepiece of this battlefield, and look back towards the allied line that you can now start to sketch in.

Somewhere near that patch of thistles there died a wool buyer from Geelong, a medical student from Colac, a Duntroon graduate, a detective from Sydney, an architecture student from Melbourne.

Just north of where we are standing the Australian wounded lay in the open, among knee-high weeds that had sprung up in the unplanted fields. Some remained there for five days and nights, sev-eral for three weeks. They scrounged food and water from the dead and watched maggots squirming in their wounds. One man cried out ‘Bill, Bill’ all night and at dawn was heard no more. Some raised their arms and legs or rolled from one side to the other in the hope of shifting the pain. An Australian bringing in broken men from no-man’s land heard a voice about thirty yards away. ‘Don’t forget me, cobber,’ it said. So many friendships ended within a couple of hundred yards of here: over in that stubble, behind the riding school, in and around that ditch, near the patches of pumpkins and cabbages and where the hay bales lie bleaching in the sun.

It is too much for the imagination to take in on this pretty summer’s night with the horizon now blushing with soft pinks.

This place was an open-air abattoir for most of the Great War.

About 20,000 Germans, Britons, Frenchmen, Indians, Australians, Canadians and Portuguese died in these few acres. Most have no known grave. Now this ground is a food bowl again, bleak and sticky in winter, but kind: no droughts, no bushfires.

Fromelles is a typical village in French Flanders, smart and clean the way the Somme villages to the south are dowdy and charming.

Red geraniums explode out of window boxes and elderly couples potter in their vegetable gardens before locking up the ducks for the night. Many of Fromelles’ residents now work in the nearby city of Lille but the village is still about the land and its rhythms.

Australians moving up for the attack here in 1916 recalled passing labourers, men and women with old and inscrutable faces, hoeing mangolds as shells shrieked across the sky. Eighty-seven years on, in the gloaming, you hear the diesel knock of a tractor making a last pass before night closes in.

The land healed itself and life went on as before. Yet the world changed here, and along the line that led north for twenty miles to Passchendaele in Belgium and fifty miles south to the still waters of the Somme, and on from there to the madness of Verdun, where the land has not healed and probably never will. The nature of war changed in these soft fields. War lost its romantic glow here, and let’s not worry that this imagery was false because war has always been about the grubby business of killing people. War here was no longer pretty: no red-and-blue uniforms, no pipeclay, no rushes of cavalry, none of the panoply of the fox hunt, no generals issuing orders from the saddle and needing nothing other than their voice to pass them on. The new colours were khaki and field grey, the right hues for the industrial age and its armies of conscripts. The war here was about machines: howitzers and mortars, machine guns and trains, wafer-like aircraft and tanks so ponderous that one could outpace them on foot, poisonous gas and flamethrowers.

Wars had always been romantic to those who didn’t go, which meant most of the people. Henry V had 7000 men at Agincourt and those who returned made play of a victory against the odds and only whispered about the dysentery and the murder of French prisoners. Shakespeare did the rest.

This was different. It touched more people. One way or another everyone in the British Isles was caught up in the Great War. After the opening of the British attack on the Somme in 1916, with its 57,000 casualties on the first day, whole streets and suburbs fell into mourning. Just about every family, high and low, was touched by death. There seemed more death than glory. The French lost 330,000 men killed or taken prisoner in less than a month early in the war. This was about mass armies and, by mid-1916, there seemed no end to it. Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik firebrand living in exile in Switzerland, wrote at the outbreak of war in 1914: ‘The epoch of the bayonet has begun.’ He was wrong. Bayonets caused less than one per cent of deaths on the western front. This was the epoch of the howitzer.

The year before the Australian attack at Fromelles the British had tried to take Aubers Ridge by attacking through the village of Neuve Chapelle. The opening artillery barrage lasted thirty-five minutes and more than eighty aircraft helped direct the fire. More shells were fired in that opening barrage than for all of the Boer War, yet one reason the attack failed was that the barrage was too light. At Verdun in 1916 the Germans brought up 1000 heavy guns and two million shells – for a front of only eight miles. By 1918 Britain’s armies included half-a-million gunners, twice as many men as the whole expeditionary force it had sent to France in 1914.

Australian life was changed by that same line of trenches, but with a difference. Just about alone among the warring powers, Australia did not introduce conscription. A young nation with a population of just under five million at the outbreak of war sent 324,000 volunteers overseas to fight. Most of the 61,000 who died and the 155,000 who were wounded fell along the line that stretched northwards from the Somme to Passchendaele. Those casualties work out at around two-thirds of all who went overseas, the highest rate among the British empire forces. Why did a country so far away from the conflict give up so much? Why did it bury so much of its future under the chalk of the Somme and the clay of Flanders? How many young men who might have been prime ministers or professors, novelists or scientists, lie in the ground here?

FRANCE AND BELGIUM still give up their dead from the Great War.

The headstone of Sergeant John James White, a blacksmith from the high country of East Gippsland, is paler and cleaner than the others in a cemetery near Bullecourt. A tractor driver turned up White’s remains in 1995. A metal detector turned up his effects.

These included a wallet that contained a photograph of the ten-month-old daughter he had left behind. Myrtle went to her father’s funeral in France as an eighty-year-old.

In 1998, near the Windmill above Pozières village, a farmer felt his plough strike something and stopped his tractor. He climbed down to make sure it wasn’t a shell. He had uncovered the body of Private Russell Bosisto, a baker from South Australia, lying in heavy clay. He was on his back and clutching a rifle in his right hand. He had died there in August, 1916, most likely killed by a machine gun. All his effects were with him, including a pipe, a penknife and an identity disc that was still legible. They buried him in a military cemetery down the hill. Mourners gathered blood-red poppies from the nearby fields and dropped them into his grave.

There are few fences on the Somme. When you do see one it is usually around a cemetery from the Great War. And the cemeteries are everywhere, laid out like formal English gardens, the hardness of the headstones offset by the gentleness of roses and daisies and willows.

The grave of Fred Tubb, a farmer from Longwood in Victoria’s north-east, lies near Poperinghe, west of Ypres, in Belgium. There was a hospital here, so it was inevitable that the hop field nearby became a graveyard. Tubb had won the Victoria Cross in the grot-toes of Lone Pine on Gallipoli after being wounded in the head and arm. His time came two years later in the battle of Menin Road, just east of Ypres. A pink rose blooms near his grave. Beyond the cemetery Friesian cattle crop the short grass around a shed, the walls of which are marked with soldiers’ graffiti. The war is gone and it is still here. The past is gone but it isn’t dead. Only the men are dead.

Phillip Schuler lies south of here, just across the border in France, on a rich plain broken by red-brick farmhouses. He was a journalist at the Age. His father edited the paper and suffered throughout the war because of his German name and birthplace.

Phillip Schuler was handsome and outgoing. He loved books and plays and everyone seemed to like him. He went to Gallipoli as a war correspondent, saw Lone Pine and the August offensive and wrote a book, Australia in Arms. Schuler had a sensitive ear and a light touch; it was an astonishingly good book from someone in his mid-twenties. One might have thought that, after Gallipoli, Schuler would have realised that it is always better to be a reporter than a soldier. But in 1916 he enlisted, not as an officer, as he could have been, but as a driver. And, not long after the battle of Messines in Belgium, he died of wounds to the left arm, the right leg, the face and the throat. He was just short of twenty-eight years old and he had literally been shot to pieces.

And here he is now, lying in the ground at Trois Arbres cemetery at Steenwerck with a crab apple tree next to his grave. Each spring the blossom comes out pink for the shining youth who is no more. Schuler lies with 469 Australians, 997 Britons, 214 New Zealanders, twenty-two Canadians, one South African and one Indian. Here, under a grey sky, is a lost generation. There were so many, and they were ours, and we never really saw them.

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