1915 — Allied forces land at ANZAC Cove in Gallipoli

The idea was simple enough: to reinforce their Russian allies, the British forces needed a sea port, and those on the Black Sea were much less well defended than those on the Baltic Sea. So it was decided by the British high command, prominent among them the First Lord of the Admiralty, one Winston Churchill, that it would be necessary to invade and hold the Dardanelles – the narrow straits between the Black Sea and the greater Mediterranean. Unfortunately, this mean invading Turkey, the seat of the Ottoman Empire, whose capital of Istanbul sat at the far end of the straits.

The invasion was seen primarily as a naval engagement, with British naval forces blockading the straits and its ports. A few land invasions were planned to capture key strategic points – forts and watchtowers – after initial resistance to the British navy proved stronger than intended.

The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) was at this point largely encamped in Egypt, making them conveniently close at hand to serve as an invasion force. On the morning of April 25, 1915, the ANZAC forces landed at what is now called Anzac Cove. Ottoman resistance again proved stronger than anticipated (it’s almost like the British high command was composed entirely of arrogant racists incapable of learning from experience or something), and although some land was held, it was eventually evacuated in January the following year, and the idea of capturing the Dardanelles was abandoned. Of course, before that point was reached, approximately 250,000 men on each side lost their lives in what was ultimately one of the most pointless military campaigns of the entire Twentieth Century.

As the first major engagement to be fought in by Australian forces, it is still commemorated today as Australia’s national day of remembrance, Anzac Day.

Referenced in:
And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda — Eric Bogle

1963 — The Beeching Report into British Rail is released

Dr Richard Beeching’s reports into the state of British Rail – 1963’s The Reshaping of British Railways and 1965’s The Development of the Major Railway Trunk Routes – are two of the most controversial documents of their era in the United Kingdom. The first Beeching Report recommended the closure of a total of 2,363 stations and 9,700 km of track be closed. (Not all the station closures were on lines that closed – some of the surviving lines were converted to use for freight only.)

The public outcry was immense, and in the event, not all closures went ahead – but the majority of them did. Thousands of people lost their jobs, and even more lost access to the rail network. All in pursuit of savings that largely failed to materialise.

Referenced in:
No Use For Him — Eric Bogle

1916 – the Battle of the Somme begins

The Somme river derives its name from a Celtic word meaning ‘tranquil’. Which just goes to show that the Celts were crap at predicting the future. It was at the mouth of the Somme that William the Conqueror’s forces assembled to invade England in 1066; the battles of Agincourt in 1415 and Crécy in 1346 were both connected to crossings of the river; and the valley was the site of some of the most important battles that halted the German Spring Offensive in 1918.

But the largest battle ever fought there was the Battle of the Somme, which began on July 1, 1916 and November 18 the same year. It was an offensive mounted by British Empire and French combined forces against German emplacements in France. The Somme would be a landmark in many ways: it was the first battle to demonstrate the importance of air power in modern warfare; it saw the first battlefield deployment of a tank; and finally, it was the single bloodiest battle of the entire First World War, claiming upwards of a million lives in total. While it ended in victory for the Allied forces, the heavy cost in lives has made it a contentious issue in history ever since.

Referenced in:
Broken Heroes — Saxon
For King and Country — Eric Bogle

1981 – Bobby Sands dies in the Maze prison

Bobby Sands was 27 years old and a member of the British Parliament when he died in the Maze prison in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. He had spent the last 66 days of his life in a hunger strike, protesting to be declared a political prisoner rather than a regular criminal – his sentence in the Maze was as a result of his actions with the IRA.

In death, Sands became a martyr to the cause of Irish liberation, and attracted sympathetic messages from allies of the IRA all over the world, as well as neutrally aligned governments and media outlets. Perhaps the best summation came from the Hong Kong Standard, which stated that it was ‘sad that successive British governments have failed to end the last of Europe’s religious wars.’ Thirty years and more gone, and that war grinds on.

Referenced in:
The Sign — Eric Bogle

1941 – The siege of Tobruk begins

In early 1941, the Allied forces in North Africa, comprised mostly of British and Commonwealth units (the Australians being the largest of the Commonwealth contingents), were making very good progress in driving the Italian forces out of Libya (which the Italians had conquered in 1911). The port of Tobruk was captured by Australian forces from the 6th Division on January 22 along with 27,000 Italian troops.

But in March, Rommel and his Afrika Korps arrived in North Africa to bolster the Italian forces. On March 24, Operation Sonnenblume commenced, an opportunistic effort to push back the Allies. Rommel’s advance was very successful, as the British had sent many of the forces previously stationed in North Africa to fight in Greece, and much of what remained, especially the armour, had fallen back for maintenance and recovery. On April 4, the Axis forces recaptured Benghazi, and by April 10, had encircled Tobruk. An assault on April 11 proved inconclusive for both sides, and the siege commenced in earnest.

The 14,000 men who remained in Tobruk were primarily Australians, with some British and Polish soldiers among them. Collectively, they became known as ‘the Rats of Tobruk’, when the Australians adopted the name they had been given in German propaganda as a badge of honour. (They even made their own service medal in the likeness of a rat, using metal from a German Bomber that they had shot down.) Nearly 4000 of them would give their lives while the siege lasted. The first attempt to break the siege, Operation Battleaxe, was launched by the Allies on June 15, but failed in its goals. The siege was lifted on November 27, and Tobruk would eventually be relieved on December 7, 1941, the same day that the Pearl Harbor attacks brought the US into the war. The siege had lasted a total of 283 days.

Referenced in:
All the Fine Young Men — Eric Bogle

1943 – The Burma Railway is completed

The Burma Railway is a railroad connecting Rangoon (Yangon), Burma (Myanmar) to Bangkok, Thailand. It runs for some 415 kilometres over very rough terrain, including numerous hills and several rivers. It was built by thousands of forced labourers compelled by the Japanese Army during World War Two to construct it – approximately 180,000 Asians and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war.

The death toll among the workers was terrible: half the Asians and more than 12,000 of the prisoners of war – including British, Dutch, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, Indians and Americans. The railway saw some use during the war, but due to its hasty construction, it was largely abandoned after the war, with parts of it salvaged for use in other railway projects.

The film “The Bridge on the River Kwai” was inspired by the experiences of POWs building the railway.

Referenced in:

Nearly Over Now — Eric Bogle

1942 – the defence of the Kokoda Trail begins

It is one of Australia’s greatest military triumphs: a simple holding action across a narrow dirt trail that spanned the inhospitable mountains of the central spine of New Guinea. A much smaller Australian force aided by allied natives struck, fell back, harassed and repeated these steps against the might of the Japanese Army.

Although at almost every step the Australians gave ground, they slowed down the Japanese advance to a crawl, while nibbling away at their forces until the invaders’ supply lines were hopelessly over-extended – and until the Australians could be reinforced. The tide of battle swiftly reversed, but the retreat of the Japanese was much less a fighting retreat than that of the Australians had been.

Referenced in:

All the Fine Young Men — Eric Bogle

1914 – The first Battle of Ypres begins

The First Battle of Ypres began with the first major assault by German forces in the vicinity. Until then, although there had been fighting in the area, it had mostly been limited to skirmishing, as each side attempted to capture ground in what became known as the Race to the Sea. But on October 19, 1914, the German Chief of General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, ordered an assault. The dying began in earnest the next day.

The battle marks one of the first instances of truly modern warfare – and shows how ill-prepared for it both sides were. Poor communications and a failure to understand just how mobile armies could now be occurred in each command. More than two hundred thousand men were killed, wounded or declared missing in action in the course of this battle, which lasted until November 22, 1914, and ended with both sides entrenching across the front. Indeed, the First Battle of Ypres marksed the last major mobile operations on the Western Front until 1918, and began the stalemate that would last another four years, and encompass four more battles at Ypres, including the bloodiest day of the entire war.

Referenced in:

All the Fine Young Men — Eric Bogle

1915 – The Battle of Lone Pine begins

The Battle of Lone Pine – or, if you’re Turkish, the Battle of Kanli Sirt – was a five day long engagement betwen the ANZAC forces and the Turkish defenders during the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. Part of a larger Allied Assault called the August Offensive, it was about the only successful one, where Australian forces captured their objectives, reinforced them and held them against the Turkish counter-attack. Unfortunately, after August 10, 1915, conditions returned to the stalemate that had previously obtained on the Dardanelles front, and the assault would be abandoned entirely in December of that year.

But in August, 2200 Australians and 5000-6000 Turks were killed or wounded in action, and all for a few square miles of mud that had little impact on the wider conduct of the war. Seven Australians were awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions in the battle, for what it’s worth. Today, Lone Pine military cemetary is the site of commemorative services every ANZAC Day.

Referenced in:

All the Fine Young Men — Eric Bogle

1917 – Turkish lines are broken at Beersheba

By 1917, British and Commonwealth forces under General Allenby were slowly progressing northward through Turkish-occupied Palestine, but stalled when they came to Gaza. In October 1917, the third battle of Gaza – the third attempt to wrest it from the Ottoman Empire – began.

The battle at Beersheba (or Birüssebi, as it was then known) was only one facet of this larger battle, but it was here that the critical breakthrough of the battle took place. The decisive moment came with the charge of the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade, who covered six miles to smash through the Turkish lines and capture the town and its strategically important wells more or less intact (15 of the 17 wells remained usable). This victory also marked the last successful horse cavalry charge in modern warfare.

Referenced in:

All the Fine Young Men — Eric Bogle

1942 – the first Battle of El Alamein begins

The first battle of El Alamein lasted for 27 days, and was one of the key battles of World War Two. It took place in Egypt, only 66 miles short of Alexandria, where British and Commonwealth forces (Indians, New Zealanders, Australians and South Africans) had retreated and dug in to strong defensive positions with the intent of stopping the German advance across the North African coast.

The British gamble paid off. The battle (and its sequel, three months later) was one of the war’s turning points. At the first battle of El Alamein, the German advance was eventually halted. At the second battle of El Alamein, the German lines were broken and pushed back – and after this, and the near simultaneous battle of Stalingrad – the Axis forces in Europe and Africa fought a defensive war that ended the only way it could, with their defeat.

Referenced in:

All the Fine Young Men — Eric Bogle

“And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” by Eric Bogle

Actually written by a naturalised Australian rather than a native born one, Eric Bogle’s “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” grapples with the conflicting nobility and futility of war, with the ANZAC landings at Gallipolli and their annual commemoration as its particular focus. The incredible power of its simplicity and sentiments can be seen in how widely it has been covered – and the fact that not a few of those who cover it have no idea who wrote it, believing it to be a traditional folk song.

Scottish-born Bogle moved to Australia when he was 25, and fell in love with the country – although his song-writing reflects the conflicting impulses that love arouses in him: pride in our achievements and frustration with our national failings. His fierce idealism is tempered by an active sense of humour and a love of silliness, all three of which are features of many of his songs (albeit the first rarely found with the latter two). More than forty years after leaving Scotland, Bogle still has a strong accent, and like most Celts, a profound distrust for Saxons and Normans.

Questioning the point of war is a common theme in Bogle’s work, with “No Man’s Land” a similar questioning of World War One in general, and “My Youngest Son Came Home Today” doing the same for the Troubles in Northern Island. He also has a great sympathy for the plight of the Australian farmer, as seen in “Now I’m Easy”. Bogle has also taken potshots at Australian racism in “I Hate Wogs” (it’s not what you think from the title). For a man not born here, he gets Australia in a way that many who were do not.

“And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is one man’s tale of naively volunteering for the Great War, getting both his legs blown off, and wondering why in Hell we celebrate as the birth of our nation a defeat created by our supposed superiors in the Mother Country. It was written long before the Howard years – in 1971, leading some to see it as a Vietnam allegory – and the glorification of the legend of ANZAC, but listening to it, it’s hard not to hear the song as a reaction to little Johnny’s aping of the 1915 British High Command.

1914 — World War One begins

World War One was, according to the commonly held wisdom, unavoidable. The complex web of alliance and counter-alliance that bound the European powers to each other did make declarations of war on the part of each nation more or less inevitable once an inciting incident occurred.

That incident turned out to be the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. Over the next thirty days, declarations of war started one after another, in two opposed chains of political allies. On one side: Austria-Hungary, Germany and the Ottoman Empire. On the other side, the United Kingdom and its Commonwealth, France, Russia, Italy, Japan, and eventually, the USA as well.

It was the first truly worldwide war, fought in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Atlantic Ocean. World War One lasted for four years and a little under four months. It killed 16.5 million people, the greatest single toll of any conflict to that date, and despite the propaganda of the following years, it did not end wars.

Referenced in:

Children’s Crusade — Sting
No Man’s Land – Eric Bogle