How good is the AIF – Interview with Meleah Hampton
Mat: Hello everyone. Welcome to this week’s Living History and a topic that I think is going to be pretty fascinating. I know that everyone out there is intrigued with what the Australians did on the Western Front during the First World War. It’s one of the most popular topics in every facet of my work, whether I’m walking the ground or speaking to you out there or doing a podcast. Everyone wants to talk about the AIF and our achievements on the Western Front during the First World War. And I really wanted to break that down and look at it in some detail. And so I’ve got today as my guest, someone who knows this topic inside and out. It’s Meleah Hampton from the Australian War Memorial and Meleah has done some extraordinary research into this topic of the success of the AIF on the Western Front, particularly in 1918 so I’m really looking forward to digging into this topic and just finding out more about it. So Meleah thank you so much for joining us on Living History.
Meleah: Thank you very much for having me.
Mat: Now we have this perception as Australians that the AIF, the Australian Imperial Force during the First World War, contributed a huge amount to the outcomes of the First World War and Aussies are pretty good at chest beating and stating our case. So I’m just going to start with the most basic of these questions. Did the AIF win the First World War?
Meleah: Yes. Yes, entirely. No, they didn’t. Unfortunately it is a complicated issue to talk about because the AIF had really strong defenders from the earliest years after the war. One of the first people to write a book about Australia’s contribution to the war was a Lieutenant General, Sir John Monash, who obviously was quite invested in making sure that his corp looked pretty good by the end of the earth, and he’s one of the first to promulgate this idea that the Aussies are the best on the Western Front and they captured the most and they moved the most and did the most and it’s exaggerated and not correct. And it blurs a little bit of what the AIF was actually able to achieve and what they are an example of.
Mat: Well, that makes sense. And when we discuss this topic I always say to people that the big picture is the important thing. This was a very big war with a lot of moving parts. From your position we’re going to dig into the detail in a minute but just broadly speaking from your position, from the work that you’ve done, what did the AIF achieve, particularly in 1918 on the Western Front? How should we remember what the AIF achieved?
Meleah: Well, I think the most important thing for our remembrance of the AIF and as a historian of the British effort on the Western Front, more overall, not just the Australians. The Australian corp in 1918 is one of the best examples of competence as infantry on the Western Front. So those men were able to walk into a very complicated, technologically heavy very detailed battleground and fit into their position so they could work within artillery. They could take their own weapons with them, they’d have like bombs and trench mortars and have their machine guns deployed correctly. And all of this complicated activity was something that the Australian infantry were as good an example of competence on the Western Front as anybody else. There are other very competent corp we can use the Canadians as the same example or maybe the 10th corp of the British, the BEF but to have the Australians rank among the very best is very significant I think.
Mat: I agree. And it’s something that I say to people it’s this weird balance. We always have this see-saw of opinion that sometimes Australians overdo it and say we won the war and all you palm would be speaking German if it wasn’t for us. But then they seem sometimes there’s a redressing of that, which perhaps goes too far the other way to suggest no, there were lots of good corps in the British army. Australia was just one of them. Is it fair to say that Australia was certainly one of the best and one of the most efficient fighting forces, particularly in 1918?
Meleah: Yes absolutely. They are very competent and evidenced like that’s recognized at the time as evidenced by the fact that they were used as the central part of the attack at Amien, which is the beginning of the great British Battle of the 1918 offensive and the Australians and the Canadians are next to each other right in the middle of that. So they’re not going to risk using infantry that they don’t consider to be competent in the middle of that battle. So from that point onwards, Australians are recognized as competent and are good to go.
Mat: Was that something? Sorry, carry on.
Meleah: It’s true that they were like any sort of retrospective assessment of what they were doing it comes up trumps and demonstrates the same thing.
Mat: Was this something that was pre-planned by the British High Command? Would they honing the Australians and the Canadians as an attack force, as they spearheaded their operations? Or was it simply something innate in those forces that we rose to the top of the pile?
Meleah: It’s not something innate. I would back a long way away from Australian or Canadian superhero status. The British army functions in ways where Australians and Canadians can do very well because they like to have their own opinions and put them forward to people that perhaps in the societal class above them and so a private soldier can make a suggestion that is taken seriously by a Captain if it’s deemed appropriate. And there’s an argument to say that perhaps other working class battalions in the British wouldn’t work that way. I don’t know. There’s also research to say that the Australians and the Canadians and those units get an unfair positive press because particularly in Britain, there’s a lot of censorship in the newspapers for operational secrecy purposes. And so you can’t say the first battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment was any way doing anything because that’s identifying the regiment too closely. But you can say the Australians were doing awesome stuff here. Or the Canadians were, and if you think about the troops that we think were the best on the Western Front.
The Australians, the Canadians, the Irish, the Scots, that they also fall under that blanket banner of we can talk about the Scots or the Canadians. And so they have an unfair press at the time and that starts to infiltrate the way that they’re used because they’re promoted as being really good. And the people who are deploying them have an argument to say that they have this subconscious agreement with that and it’s all sort of mixed in together. It’s very complicated and so there are so many factors involved in this reputation that it becomes quite difficult to like tease it apart and there’s lots of work to be done on that.
Mat: Well, hopefully we’re going to do that during this conversation. This idea of Australians at the top of the pile and some of the best troops on the ground, was that something the Australians believed at the time during the war or is that something that’s developed in more recent decades?
Meleah: Oh yes, they totally believe that. And one of the things that happens among infantry that is really interesting to watch when you get down to low levels is that they are always better than their neighbors. So if they’re in an attack or even holding the line, it’s always the neighboring battalions fault or the neighboring corp fault or someone else’s fault that something’s happened. So they’re quite assured that the Australians are good, but if you drill into the Australian corp, you’ll find that the13th battalion has quite assure that they are way better than the 50th Australian infantry battalion. It goes all the way down to the bottom of the pile. So yes, they are very convinced that they are better, but they are also convinced that their battalion is the best anyway. And yes, there’s a sense of superiority because they are in control of what they’re doing and they don’t believe anyone else is.
Mat: I certainly understand that the forces in the front line need as much confidence as they can have. So that’s perhaps where that’s coming from.
Meleah: Yes, it’s interesting to watch.
Mat: Let’s go back a little bit. Tell us where the AIF came from because I don’t mean in terms of what they did. I mean in terms of how they developed as a force from the time that they first arrived on the Western Front in 1916 to what we saw, those huge achievements in 1918. What was some of the challenges that they had to overcome? What development had to take place in the Australians as a fighting force?
Meleah: Well the AIF is very famously a volunteer force. And one of the things that happens after the Gallipoli campaign or during the Gallipoli campaign is there is a massive influx of volunteers, so big that they can actually double the AIF in size. So the force that comes out of Gallipoli’s split in half and they leave half of men who’ve had peninsular experience and add in half, like 500 or so new recruits and they’re hoping to share experience out among the troops that way while having a much bigger force. One of the things that happens there they feel like they’re ready and they’re sharing out their experiences and they are good to go. They go to the Western Front and it is immediately another level of warfare and it is shocking to even the most battle-hardened Gallipoli veterans of the landing and the August offensives and everything.
This is another level of warfare and it’s not being perched on a hill and dealing with snipers and enemy that you can see and maneuver that you’re trying to make. This is being stuck in a hole in the ground whilst tons of metal are flying over you and people disappear and you don’t know where you’re going to go because there’s no landscape to work out. There’s nothing sitting there to let you know exactly where you are. It’s anonymous and lonely and technological and the AIF that goes in, one of their first major campaigns is to capture the French village of Pozieres which is famously very successful and certainly is advertised as being a great Australian achievement on the Western Front. But during that campaign, battalions get lost. Communications breakdown. There are a lot of rookie errors, men walking too close to their artillery barrage and suffering their own casualties. And there is a constant stream of messages back from the earliest hours of the attack saying, we need reinforcement. We need them now. We need more men because it’s a panicky, scared sort of tying to that battle because it’s beyond any experience anyone’s had before.
Mat: So the force of 1916, they’ve come out of Gallipoli. What were the tactics they were using, how were they fighting this war on the Western Front? And how did that change in the coming years.
Meleah: What they’re doing is they’re walking into a battlefield that is in a state of desperate learning. We often talk about the British generals. You hear people talk about these British generals as being fools and morons who are out to kill as many of their own men as possible. And that means to really, that should very much stop that just not the case. There’s no point in killing as many men as possible because then your next battle is going to be worse. Before the war began expectations were so far from what became reality that everyone is just completely unprepared for what warfare would look like once the battlefield blocked out. So e.g. pre-war expectations were that you would take your artillery and wheel it up into the front lines with your men and fire at stuff you could see just over there. And the fact that artillery quickly took each other out and it became necessary to remove your guns behind the hill and fire at things you then couldn’t see.
That’s a really fundamental use of fire power that has completely changed to its very corp and they don’t know how to do it. Like nobody’s ever had to do that. And so they have to learn all of these techniques to reuse their weapons after 20 years, 50 years of theology like not theology doctrine, like army doctrine and going to colleges and learning all of this stuff. All of that stuff has suddenly proving not useful and they’re learning on the ground and when they don’t get it right, hundreds, if not thousands of men are wounded and killed in hours.
So the Australians are stepping into the middle of this because this has happened since 1914. It stagnates into 1915 and there are attempts to attack frontally, which is not something they ever wanted to do. They always wanted to outflank and maneuver around the enemy on the battlefield and they can’t. And the Australians into this in 1916. So for me, I’ll keep talking, but like the AIF and Pozieres has taken some benefits from those experiences. So they’re using things like a rudimentary lifting barrage. So they attack the village of Pozieres in three bounds that follows an artillery wall of artillery that lifts off of each objective and moves them through. That is very similar but much more rudimentary to what they are doing in 1918. So though there are structures in the battle that are similar structures to what will be used in 1918. They really don’t have an expert idea of what’s going on and the Australians sometimes they do very well at Pozieres but more often than not they fail very spectacularly. And so there’s a huge learning they launch that they’re about to undertake.
Mat: It’s interesting you mentioned that, Mel because I’ve heard other historians talking about this. So we tend to focus on World War 2 as the great technological advancement. Jet aircraft and a lot of the things that we would see in future wars were developed during the Second World War. But to me, the First World War is often overlooked in terms of the huge technological advances. If you think of some of the things that people didn’t even dream about in 1914. The industrial scale of artillery tanks, the use of aircraft in battle there’s just machine guns broadly use flame throwers. There are so many technological advancements that took place in a very tiny period of time. How important was that technological advancement in the way the war was fought?
Meleah: Oh, it can’t be overstated it’s astonishing. When you really drill down and look at what they went into battle with in 1914 like not Australians, the French, the British, even the German, they don’t have maps of any sort of caliber just really basic things. They don’t have maps of Northern France. They’ve got a few; they were used for tourists to drive between Amien and Rouen. They’re not actually any details. I forget if it’s low or high the scale is all wrong, so there’s not enough detail on them. And they sort of fishing out their Michelin tourist maps in order to go to war its crazy. Over the course of the war in 1916 when the Australians first arrived, they’re pretty good, but everyone’s hidden all their things. So all the artilleries are well behind the lines, hidden behind the hills.
They’re into sending up planes to try and work out where it is. So there’s lots of observation going on, but the mapping issues still they don’t have grids on their maps. Or they’ve just recently put grids on their maps and they’re still saying things like, I think there’s a German battery under the A for Amien in missile and Matt 46 but it’s that rudimentary. They’ve got like the technology to fly over the lines, but they don’t have the basic idea of how to explain what they’re seeing and where to put it. So they invent grid references for maps and clock codes for communication with planes. There’s wireless to try and get information back down to the ground quickly and often. The very basic corps they don’t even know where they are.
By the end of the war they’re pumping out millions of maps and they’re giving them to all. Like it goes down to NCO’s might hold a map, they’re going to battle, everyone knows what’s going on and everybody can read it. They’ve identified where all the German batteries are, their artillery so sneak that they can actually hit them without having to… They’ve got to glue their maps flat to board because the wrinkle in the map will affect the way those shells flies over. So it is the most astonishing development technologically and practically that goes on during that period of time, which is why I study it because it fascinates me.
Mat: Well, there’s so many elements to this as well because all those things that we listed at the top of this question in terms of artillery, which you’ve covered very well and is obviously essential to any discussion of the first World War, but tanks, machine guns, mortars all the accompaniments that troops had by 1918 that they could use to great effect. Perhaps a good way to look at this is why don’t you paint a picture for us. If I was an Australian soldier at Pozieres in 1916. Explain how I would have gone into that battle and how I would’ve fought that battle compared to what I would have seen had I been lucky enough to survive and still been fighting in 1918.
Meleah: Okay. So the common infantry men of 1916 probably hadn’t seen any maps before he went in. He would have a basic idea of what was going on but would be very much dependent on, particularly his company commander. But also battalion commanders are very hands on at Pozieres and the ones that are successful are more hands on than most. So during the first attack on the village, there’s a Commanding Officer of the third battalion, Owen Glendower Howell-Price. He actually pauses his thousand men strong battalion as they’re advancing, gets them under fire, gets them reorganized in no man’s land and pushes forward for the third advance.
So these men are looking towards their upper level officers in ways that they don’t later on. You still have men who are able to excel but they are company commanders usually at the level of Captain as some of them are really quite effective in maintaining cohesion on the battlefield. In 1918 what we’re seeing is it’s a bit different that the much more junior officers NCO’s and even ordinary men they know what they got to do and they know how the battlefield works. We have this huge flurry of Victoria crosses that are awarded to the Australians in 1918 and they are often ordinary guys attacking like toolboxes or Germans strong points and taking them out and winning the Victoria Cross for it. That’s because they know that their artillery has now been completely disconnected from the battle. So they can’t call in emergency fire and they know that as the barrage lifts away, if they don’t deal with this German strong point, everything will falter.
So individuals who are private soldiers, sergeants and very low level just blokes in the field take it upon themselves to clear that threat to the rest of the men around them. And that shows a real awareness right down to the private soldier of how this battle is going to work, where the artillery is falling, what’s going to happen if it moves beyond your reach and what you need to do with an individual in the field to make sure that the operation as a whole succeeds. And that’s I think the difference between the two. One is I’ve got no idea what’s going on. What’s my battalion commander saying? And the other one is right here. Here’s what I can do to fix this.
Mat: A key component of that as well must be from what I’ve read that the big change that occurred in 1918 was that units that were going into attack went in almost as self-sufficient units that in 1916, they were tied to their artillery. If there was a machine gun post up ahead and the artillery had missed it, there was no opportunity to change the artillery plan. There was no opportunity to get support to take that machine gun post out. You were just on your own. Whereas by 1918 a combination of training and technology had led the forces to operate much more independently on the battlefield. Tell us about that in a little bit more detail.
Meleah: It’s actually kind of in reverse because in 1916 there was a real sense that the problem we’re talking around with this is if you take your man and he’s got his rifle and his bayonet in his thin hand and you put him in the field, he’s going to die because something will hit him. So you need to protect him. And artillery is the way to do that. Overarching firepower is really important and the way you deploy is really important. Everyone knows that. Everyone recognizes it from the beginning. In 1916 they try to communicate on the battlefield. So they have SOS fire with flares and they have various messages coming backwards and forwards trying to call in what’s called emergency fire to take out something. And that might be a machine gun post.
It might be a massing German counter attacked over that hill, something like that. That communication is really haphazard. If when flares go up for example, it’s really hard to actually hit that area accurately because it’s hard to see quite how far away it is and it pulls it often calls fire onto yourself. So they actually disconnect from the artillery where the artillery as it gets more and more able to fire exactly where they want. They produce these beautiful, really slick plans, but they are disconnected from the infantry so that the infantry don’t try to communicate back with the main artillery barrage. Just a little bit, but not very effectively. What the infantry do though is they taking things like rifle grenades, which are produced in great numbers by the end of the war. They have trench mortars occasionally.
They have a lot of bombs available to them and they have bombing sections in their platoons, and so they have their lethality as a little pot of flesh in the battlefield is greatly enhanced and they can take care of it for themselves. So when the Australians e.g. attack Mont Saint-Quentin in August, 1918 they’ve got to go up this little hill and they don’t have artillery in place and the few guns that are in place can’t fire very effectively up this steep little hill in any sort of lifting barrage for the infantry to follow behind. So they take care of it themselves by using rifle grenades to fire their own barrage as they walk along. And that’s just as effective. So they have their own heavier fire power available to themselves to make that instant decision in the field, which they don’t have in 1916. They’re still sending some guy 40 minutes back to ask the artillery to fire over here. Which is just not effective.
Mat: I should explain that a rifle grenade is a grenade that’s fired from a rifle and can be propelled much further than someone can throw it, but obviously it gives them great mobility on the battlefield because there’s also other technological factors when it comes to weaponry, like the stokes mortar and the Lewis gun in particular just gave those men in the front line firepower that they could only have dreamed of back in the Gallipoli or Pozieres days.
Meleah: Yes. And those guns were available from war years. But when they go into attack at Pozieres. The first attack at Pozieres they have two Lewis guns per battalion. And there’s a very famous photograph of a platoon in 1918 and they’ve got two Lewis guns sitting on a bunch of 17 men. The numbers of those become really effective. And all of these aspects we talk about you bring up tanks and rifle blades and mortars, all of those are used in all of the battles and it gets really hard to work out which bit made it work. So some of these battles that look like massive disasters are in fact people relying on drawing the wrong lesson from previous battles and getting it right takes a really long time.
Mat: How much of this Mel, this technological advancement, this development of tactics, this improvement in training, how much of that was taking place in the British army as a whole? And how much of it was just applying to the Australians?
Meleah: It’s applying to the British as a whole. The Australian corp is for all intents and purposes of British corp, there’s a system of taking lessons learned by anybody and feeding it into the high command and then redistributing it to everybody so that they could SS pamphlets. So if the Australians think there’s something works particularly well, they pass that information back to British High Command who then assesses it and then passes it onto all of its corps. And then the Australians equally are benefiting from lessons learned by other British units or their Canadians and applying it themselves. So it’s a learning mechanism that is expeditionary force wide among the five armies of the British army. And not to mention lessons coming backwards and forwards from the French as well. Everybody is trying to work out how to get the Germans out of France because as it stood, the Germans had won at that point. And so it’s in their best interest to work as collaboratively as possible to get them out.
Mat: Were there particular things that the Australians were doing that we did better than the British in terms of adopting these new tactics and this new technology?
Meleah: I think one of the things that we do is we’re trying to find the best and I don’t think you can because it’s such a complicated melange of technology and people and tactics and stuff. It’s actually more interesting to look at what the line was at the bottom and what causes people to fail. Because once you’re over the line, it’s hard to make a case that someone’s better than somebody else if everyone’s working very efficiently in a space but in different ways. So the Australians are one of our greatest examples of what it means to be well over the line of competence. And one of the reasons with the Australians are such a good example of that is because we have a historian who’s very, very invested in saving all of our papers. So we’ve got excellent records. And we know in great detail what happened where other British corps don’t and that’s part of the problem with us over selling our competence in relation to anybody else. Like the Australians are incredibly competent. There are other incredibly competent corps. Let’s look at what makes them not competent instead because that’s where it gets really interesting.
Mat: So what specifics do you have about that? What have you found in your research, which indicates where things were going wrong and perhaps lessons weren’t being learnt?
Meleah: Well, e.g. at Pozieres In 1916 and there are huge issues with the deployment of artillery and how they fire their barrages. There’s also a huge problem with ascribing objectives to an attack. I think all of this is born out of the tentative nature of what’s going on. When things go horribly wrong e.g. when the second division attacks the OG line to strong German lines to the north east of Pozieres Village, they lose something like 6 1/2 thousand casualties in an attack that really has any impact on the confidence of Birdwood as corps commander and his divisional commanders. And they start just looking at taking just that next trench over there or take out this one little thing here and it becomes tentative. Their artillery is not useful because in 1916, you need to use your artillery to make big jumps, not little ones. It’s not accurate enough. That’s one thing. There are still problems in 1917.
I’ve been learning in 1916, 1917 they’ve got tanks so sweet. We’re just totally going to waltz in there and win with their tanks. And they take the artillery out of the equation and put the tanks in instead. Well, hindsight says that that’s the worst idea anybody’s ever had. And in 1918 we put out tanks right up with the infantry under the artillery to try and coordinate these three things. So yes, those are the sorts of things that are starting to fall into place. How does this work and where do we put this. And at the same time, the artillery is becoming much more accurate. The tanks are becoming much more reliable. The infantry is becoming much more educated. So it all comes together
Mat: In this huge development of tactics and ideas and technology. Talk to me about John Monash. We mentioned him a little while ago and he’s a figure that is a little bit controversial in Australia. He’s revered and disdained in equal amounts in some quarters. He’s also remembered as someone who had a great mind and was the right man for his time. Is that a fair assessment? Talk to me about Monash and his role in this process.
Meleah: Oh, absolutely. I would love to be one of those people who just like, oh, John Monash I just don’t like him because in some respects he’s quite an abrasive person. He is a massive self-promoter. He has girlfriends on the side. In some respects he’s not someone I would warm to as a historical figure, but at the same time he’s so competent and I just admire him so much for what he’s able to do. In the pre-war years, he’s an engineer and he’s a really organized man, like he’s really organized. My favorite story about him was in the archive and I found a little note that he’d saved and it was things to pack and he picked off his undies and his socks and all the things. And at the bottom of the list, it said this list and he ticked it off put it in his bag.
Mat: That’s brilliant.
Meleah: Yes, that’s exactly what he’s like. And that’s what he does in battles. So he’s like, right, what have we got and how are we going to use it? And he has these huge conferences and he finds out he doesn’t profess to be the expert on everything until after the war, when he’s writing it all down. So he’s asking artillerymen what do we do? He’s asking tank men, what can we do? And then he’s educating himself and making that final decision, drawing the line under the decision making and then going to battle. That’s exactly what is needed at corp command. That ability to hold a thousand threads of different activity all in his hands, make the decision, pull the plug, send them in and trust that it’s going to work.
Obviously these calls to say he’s a forgotten soldier and he needs to be a field marshal posthumously and all that sort of thing. I don’t know that he would have done very well as a field marshal because that’s a really different job. He is a corp commander, which is one of the fundamental formations working as a unit in the confusion and mess of the Western Front. And he is absolutely the man to do that. He’s a very educated soldier and he has been for a very long time. He is able to look at what’s going on and come up with strong opinions based on expert opinion and apply it to the battlefield with great success as we’ve seen.
Mat: Well, he’s the greatest what’s called his masterpiece was the Battle of Hamel. How effectively did Hamel demonstrate or otherwise this new way of fighting in 1918?
Meleah: In many ways Hamel is part of a continuum, but it’s not really treated like that at the time. E.g. the previous great battle before that was the Battle of Cambrai in November, 1917; lots of those elements are there. The tanks are use very effectively at Cambrai and there’s a huge amount of success. They actually push the line back quite a distance until they outrun their artillery lines and push back and lose it all again. So there’s still problems in that late 1917 operation moving into this 1918 operation, which is one of the first British operations of that year. Monash is fixing a few of those things and it in some respects it’s possible to say he over plans it. He’s got 132,000 shells to be fired in the barrows during the 90 minutes of the operation.
So he’s leaving absolutely nothing to chance, but he demonstrates what you don’t leave to chance and is showing how that sort of real detailed attack plan is actually what’s needed. And very importantly, he demonstrates that don’t outrun your artillery and just have a limited piece, a limited objective set piece attack and do with it in its entirety. Have it completely planned out and then move on to the next one later. And that’s really important. I think Hamel should be seen as the point where suddenly there’s a great deal of confidence that this can get done. Let’s get on and do it.
Mat: So we’ve seen this evolution of the First World War We’ve seen tactics and technology and ideas evolving from 1916 onwards. Well, from 1914 onwards we’ve seen the evolution of fighting on the Western Front and culminated in 1918 where the allies finally came up with a plan to a successful way of breaking the deadlock on the western front. How much do you think, Mel that what we learnt in 1918 and the sort of way we were fighting in 1918 influenced the Second World War and even wars beyond that.
Meleah: I’m not by any means an expert on inter-war years and the passing on of doctrine. One thing I find really interesting about that is the parallel between the German approach in the early years of the Second World War and that of the German approach in the late years of the First World War and what I mean by that is in 1919, there are two great offenses. Firstly there was the German spring offensive and then the allied offensive beginning with Amien or [inaudible 35:54] as well. The Dayak who very different things. The Germans attack with men and storm troops and they want speed and pushing through and advance. And the British and the French are very wedded to their artillery.
They just going to push the line back and stomp their way forward just in this long slow grind that never actually breakthrough and never achieved this great sweeping victory that’s sort of hoped for. But it is an approach to which the Germans have no military answer. Whereas the Germans are still using their manpower to push through and reinstate movement and try and sweep into Paris and win. Well that is the same as a pan gesture war battle these sort of storming battle of pushing through and yes, they use more armor in the Second World War and it’s successful in the short term. But once again, it’s short term success at an enormous cost in men and material. So, yes, they seem to take up where they left off in terms of tactics, but how closely that is, that’s certainly a very macro picture and I’m not really sure of the exact detail.
Mat: Just with all this that we’ve discussed, Mel. In your quick summation, how should we remember the AIF contribution, particularly in 1918? What are the pieces of this puzzle that we should take away to have a fair and an appropriate assessment of Australia’s performance in 1918?
Meleah: I think it’s helpful to think of the Australians as representative of the British capability on the Western Front. And representative of the best of the British capability. Britain’s been fighting wars for millennia longer than Australia has. And Australian stepped into a battlefield where nobody really knew what was going on and how to fix it. And we’re an integral part of the process of working out what was going on and fixing it. That’s achievement, those massive achievements. And it just reflects very well on the Australian. If you put the Australian gains of 1918 into a map of overall gains on the western front, it looks like a drop in the ocean as it gets to about halfway. The advanced between August, 1918 and November, 1918 but that’s the hardest half. That’s getting the battle rolling. It’s getting up to the Hindenburg line and it’s breaking through this most formidable defenses on the western front, which is by its very nature formidable and it’s broken through the worst that the Western Front can throw at them. Really what they’ve done is important and it is an important part of the overall end of the war. But it doesn’t mean that they are the only ones. There are millions of men endeavoring to do this. There are thousands of men losing their lives in the process of it. And there are tens if not hundreds of corps who are getting out with tens of corps who are succeeding in this. So they are at the forefront of a successful enterprise.
Mat: Well Mel, thank you so much for your assessments on this. As you say, it’s a huge and complicated discussion, but you’ve done brilliantly in breaking it down into some manageable chunks for us. What are you working on next? Where are we going to see next from Meleah Hampton?
Meleah: Well, obviously I’ve done quite a lot of work on Pozieres that was my honors thesis. Not my honors thesis my PhD thesis and my first publication. What I really want to look at is the Bullecourt battles of 1917 and draws some really close parallels between what’s going at Pozieres and how they approach the battles then. Some of the really interesting parts of my studies on Pozieres because you can’t do this for other corps. Charles Bean saved all the messages from Pozieres so I was able to go through thousands of pink slips written in the battlefield and work out what was going on. And I can tell you individuals who were the only link in the battlefield, like holding this really tenuously held portion of the line together. And the difference those individuals could make. And I’m really hoping to be able to reinforce those sorts of lessons from Bullecourt and look at the infantry as a weapon in a mechanized battlefield. And how they’re learning and how it’s developing in really ridiculously and palatable close detail for specialists.
Mat: It sounds fascinating for nerds like me that sounds quite amazing. I think we’ll definitely get you back on the podcast at a later date to talk more about Pozieres because that’s one of the most intriguing battles of the war from my point of view and I’d love to love to dig into that a little bit deeper. If people want to know more about the work you’ve done on particularly what we discuss today, the development of the AIF in 1918 where is the best place for them to go to find more of your work?
Meleah: Well as far as 1918 goes, one of the best books that I’ve read so far is one that I’ve contributed to, which is the, Conference Proceedings of the 1918. Conference we held up the Australian War Memorial, which was 10 years ago now but that is one of those ones that looks at the contribution of the French and the Americans and the Australians in great detail and helps to put some of that technological learning and application in better perspective. Now let me see what it’s called, 1918 Year of Victory and published by the Australian War Memorial, edited by Ashley Ekins.
Mat: Meleah well, thank you so much. It’s been really wonderful to have you on and you’re doing great work there. As are all the younger historians at the Australian war memorial. It’s a really wonderful time for Australian military history and I’m looking forward to seeing what you produce next. We’ll definitely get you back on the podcast, so thank you very much for joining us.
Meleah: Thank you very much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.