1918: The final showdown on the Western Front

While these joyful celebrations were taking place in Pakenham, the Allies and the Germans were engaged in the final struggle on the Western Front. By early 1918, more than three years of brutal trench warfare in France and Belgium had been largely inconclusive, with both sides firmly entrenched behind literally thousands of kilometres of trenches, barbed wire and other defences, often only metres apart. When Russia pulled out of the War in early 1918, the Germans saw an opportunity to deliver what they hoped would be the decisive “knockout blow” against Britain and France before significant numbers of American troops arrived in Europe (the United States having entered the War on the Allied side in late 1917). More than half a million German soldiers were transferred from the former Eastern Front to France and Belgium for the Germans’ “Spring Offensive”. Initially, the Germans made stunning gains, recapturing  territory they had not held since the early days of the War. Australian forces were in the thick of trying to halt the German advance towards the strategic city of Amiens. Famously, on the evening of 24-25 April 1918, the Australians were able to recapture the village of Villers-Bretonneux, near Amiens at the cost of 1,200 Australian lives. This was a major turning point in the struggle against Germany. Indeed, Pakenham’s member in the Federal Parliament, Captain Stanley Bruce went so far as to say that at Villers-Bretonneux, the Australians “turned the whole tide of the War, which was going against the Allies, and saved Paris. They were known as the saviours of Amiens” (PG 17/10/1919, p.2). Over the coming months, the Allies gradually gained the upper hand. In July, the Australians, under the command of General Sir John Monash and fighting alongside fresh American troops, captured the town of Hamel. From August, Australian forces participated in what became the final Allied offensive against the Germans. On August 8 1918, Allied forces (including the Australians) broke through German lines so comprehensively that the German military supremo General Erich von Ludendorff described it as the German Army’s “blackest day”. The Germans were pushed back to their infamous “Hindenburg Line” of defences, which the Allies eventually broke through. The Australians distinguishing themselves in the fighting at Bray, Mont St Quentin, Peronne, Bellicourt and Montbrehain. These victories came at a terrible cost and Pakenham lost a number of men including Robert Black, Albert Kempster, John Hehir, Thomas Wilson and Arthur Carter Williams, with others wounded or gassed.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, British for together with their Arab allies had been delivering a series of major blows to the Ottoman Empire. Units of the legendary Australian Light Horse commanded by General Sir Harry Chauvel helped to capture Beersheba, Jerusalem and much of Palestine in 1917, before advancing into what is now Lebanon and Syria. Other British forces had also pushed up from the Persian Gulf through Mesopotamia (now Iraq) to take Baghdad and beyond. On October 1 1918, the Australians entered Damascus. Bulgaria, another of Germany’s allies, was also beginning to waiver on the Macedonian (Salonika) Front in northern Greece. By the end of October 1918 both Bulgaria and Turkey had signed armistices with the Allies. They were soon joined by Austria-Hungary, which was rapidly descending into chaos as its defences on the Italian front collapsed and internal ethnic divisions tore the multicultural empire apart. Deserted by its allies and with its own military resolve crumbling, social and economic pressures in Germany exploded. A mutiny by sailors of the Imperial German Navy in early November 1918 precipitated socialist inspired uprisings in Berlin, Munich and other major cities and a German republic was declared. Unable to quell these revolts by force and with the Allies refusing to deal with his regime, Kaiser Wilhelm II fled into exile. The Germans signed an armistice at 11am on 11 November 1918, silencing the guns on the Western Front after four bloody years of fighting which had cost the lives of an estimated 10 million military

The last Pakenham casualties

Tragically, news of Pakenham’s last casualties was only received after the Armistice. Ted Appleton’s gassing was reported in the same edition of the Pakenham Gazette as the Armistice itself (PG 15/11/1918 p. 2), News of Albert Nye’s latest wounding only arrived in December (SBMJ 19/12/1918 p.2), as did the notification that Private Douglas (“Bruce”) Black had fallen seriously ill (WT 28/12/1918 p. 33). Bruce died in Egypt on 12 December 1918, making him the last casualty from Pakenham.