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NEWS MEDIA: Window on a war

  • September 12th, 2014
  • Posted by EU Australia

Broonseinde cover RESIZEA document bought for one pound this year at an English market tells of an aspect of the war on the Western front 80 years ago.

From Lee Duffield, somewhere in France

LOOKING BACK

Diggers FromellesWorld War I in France and Belgium has come to be much reviled as among the worst, more degrading and horrifying military campaigns of history; unspeakable conditions for troops, with time and again, massive casualties for almost no gain; all under a baffled and obstinate High Command far too slow to adjust to the newly industrialised technology of war. Some mitigating factors were steadily improving modern medicine and disease prevention, and advanced logistics sustaining the great effort.

That is close to a consensus understanding of our time.

MEDIA REPORTS FOR THE PEOPLE AT HOME

Media and communication with the home public was likewise notoriously poor, although again a bad situation might have been giving way to inevitable progress, not least because of the proliferation of photographs.

By 1918 detailed accounts of war in the field were circulating among the public, like this sold close to a century later as a curio, no. 182 in a serialised, illustrated contemporary history of the war, available while the fighting was still in progress at seven-pence a copy.

Published I February 1918 it was edited by an historian, HW Wilson.

Issue 182 belies, or at least challenges some popular understandings about the way the war was reported to the public.

The daily news was so patriotic in tone, so jingoistic, and correspondents so hamstrung in their movements, censored and co-opted, it was seen by later generations as actively hiding the reality of the conflict from the civilian population, charged with keeping the home fires burning.

HEROIC, INSPIRATIONAL, DEHUMANISING

Action in the field was being portrayed even towards the end of the war as heroic and inspirational, but not the blood and mud, the actual agonising, dehumanising, exhausting, mind-breaking toil of battle.

Yet, as now, despite the inanities of daily news reportage, it might well have been possible to put together an actual picture of what was happening if you read widely enough and gave it a keen appraisal.

PASSCHENDAELE

Historian Wilson’s Part 182 deals with an action  unfortunately well known to Australians, the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgian Flanders, part of the doomed effort to push out of the Ypres salient and drive to the coast, for a strategic break-through.

Judged against latter-day accounts, including the understanding of the battle given by historians and senior military officers, it is informational. The heroic style is there still disguising the full reality of the conflict, but facts are there in good detail, and on that base, with a little further knowledge, (not least some informal eyewitness material readily available on the High Street by 1918), it would be possible to work out what happened.

This report of the battle refers to the successful revised use of artillery as a rolling screen for advancing troops. Casualties were high, but by the standards of the time limited, for example by comparison with the decimations of the Somme.

“SMASHING VICTORY”

War GravesThe Australians knew the event as the Battle of Broodseinde, “the smashing victory of Broodseinde” in the Wilson account, in which they took the high ground near the hamlet of Broodseinde, later to be bogged in the mud, and unable to get to Passchendaele, easily in sight two or three kilometres further on. Canadian troops later got there, with desultory results.

The movements are well set out with an accompanying map, clear and simple, and a selection of photographs from other parts of the front, but relevant in their realism. The Australians are honoured with a colour plate in this edition, a print of HS Power’s painting of the Light Horse, an expensive pride-of-place offering. Photography as much as any writing played a large art in telling the truth of the First World War, these early cameras, expertly and creatively operated, (like cameras today) not seeing or telling everything, but unable to lie about what was in front of them.

(Whereas, the front page picture of the publication is the portrait of a senior British officer, Lt. Gen. Travers E Clarke. Importantly enough in the war of logistics, he had been appointed Quartermaster General for the Western Front, 23.12.17).

OFFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

Wilson was plainly drawing on official sources but that book was open on the step by step manoeuvres. The detail includes the identity of German units opposite and their commanders. “Australians break the Prussian Guard”, says the account of the “central thrust of Anzac”.

“The Australians and New Zealanders formed a single solid phalanx … Together they were the greatest overseas force which had ever simultaneously attacked he enemy. The clash with the reunited Anzacs displayed on this historic occasion was largely based on … a fierce national pride surging in the soldiers of the Pacific … They went forward side by side …

“’You are fine troops! Your attack was terribly keen!’ So spoke a German battalion commander, streaming with blood and walking to an advanced aid post …”

It was an “Australian triumph completely achieved”, “dashing work of the New Zealanders”, and “German attempted treachery prevented”.

Ripping yarns material.

The diggers and kiwis might have laughed if they paid seven-pence and read this, but with the rhetoric stripped away, the information and the tribute are there to be known.

CASUALTIES

Anzac graves-at-tyne-cotAll five Australian Divisions, just brought together after a long period of separation along the Western front, along with the New Zealanders, were deployed in the ruinous fight for Passchendaele. During the 113 days they were fighting on the front, the Australian units alone suffered 49,390 casualties. More than 12,500 were killed or missing in action, of whom half have ‘no known grave’.

See EU Australia Online: Remembering Passchendaele, 7.7.07; Anzac sets scene for Passchendaele events, 22.4.07; Anzac revival brings some crowding on the Western front, 24.4.12.

Reference

WH Wilson (1918) (ed.),  The Great War: The standard history of the worldwide conflict, edited by HW Wilson, author of “With the Flag to Pretoria”, “Japan’s Fight for Freedom”, etc. Part 182 “The Smashing Victory of Broodseinde”, week ending 9.2.18. 7d Net.

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