About this record
This military plan outlines orders developed for the 8th Australian Infantry Brigade, just one of many Australian units serving on the Western Front during World War I. The document is dated 21 February 1917, and the word ‘Secret’ is typed at the top left of the page—quite normal for such documents. The heading contains the words ‘Order No. 79’, which refer to the number assigned to this particular document in the sequence of orders dating from the formation of the brigade. Two map references are also listed, one of which is for a ‘special map’ (attached as page 4 of the document). The words ‘Copy 22’ appear at the top right of the page and on page 3 there is a list of those who received copies.
- Battles on the Western Front did not just happen—they were carefully planned. Often a great deal of preparation went into working out every phase of even relatively minor attacks. This document outlines a plan for an attack on Sunray Trench near Bapaume, in northern France, in early 1917.
- According to the unit’s war diary, it was to be ‘a minor operation to keep enemy under strain’. The attack coincided with the Allies having received military intelligence that revealed the enemy was withdrawing towards the Hindenburg Line, a newly prepared strong defensive system. Sunray Trench was later occupied without much resistance.
- In the first paragraph, the words ‘At an hour and date to be notified later’ indicate that final arrangements of the attack had yet to be made.
- The orders were issued as part of a small tactical plan and provide the sorts of details the troops need to know. For example, it details where and how quickly the machine-guns should be moved; the amount of ammunition that will be required; and the location of trenches and barbed wire. Effective communication on the battlefields depended on cable laid on the ground for telephones; the back-up plan of ‘BLUE rocket signals’ outlined in the orders acknowledges that these cables could be damaged.
- In April and May 1917, the Australian forces suffered heavy losses during intense fighting on the Hindenburg Line—particularly at Bullecourt. Following this, they moved to the Flanders region near Ypres in Belgium. From September 1917 they supported British troops in a costly series of battles culminating in the battle of Passchendaele. During 1917, more than 75,000 Australians were killed or wounded on the Western Front.
- At this time, major attacks on the Western Front typically began with heavy and prolonged artillery bombardments, intended to destroy the German defences and cut the barbed wire that had been laid to protect their trenches. The infantrymen, whose main weapons were rifles and bayonets, would then get out of the trenches and advance across what was called ‘no man’s land’ (the shell-blasted area between the two sets of trenches).
- However, these orders specifically state that ‘there will be no artillery preparation’, which suggests that this planned attack was a relatively minor affair—but also reflects the desire to maintain (as much as possible) the element of surprise.
- Soldiers on the Western Front experienced extremely difficult conditions, especially during the harsh winter months (as was the case when these orders were issued). In winter the trenches would be filled with water and heavy mud, making it impossible to keep warm and dry. As a result, many soldiers developed ‘trench foot’, which could lead to gangrene. Poison gas was used widely, despite being prohibited by the Hague Convention. Gas masks were worn to minimise its effect, but gas could still cause severe bronchial damage.
- In the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) during World War I, between three and four battalions combined to form one brigade, and each battalion had several hundred troops. The 8th Australian Infantry Brigade was part of the 5th Australian Division, which was transferred to the Western Front in June 1916, and remained there until the end of the war in November 1918.