Australians on the Western Front story

After the campaign on Gallipoli ended in December 1915, most of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was sent to the war's main theatre, the Western Front in France and Belgium. Already millions of men had been killed here and ahead of the Australians lay more than two and a half years of fighting. By the time the war ended the AIF had taken part in every major British offensive, from the Somme in mid 1916 to Passchendaele in 1917 and Amiens in 1918. More than 46,000 Australians lost their lives on the Western Front.

In this documentary we hear from five Australians who lived through the war years. Eric Abraham and Ted Smout, both from the Brisbane area, were just 17 years old when they enlisted. Abraham joined the 'Dungarees' recruitment march at Ipswich, one of hundreds of Australians to be persuaded into the army by the excitement of the 'snowball' marches that took on recruits as they went through rural districts in 1915 and 1916. Frank MacDonald, a Tasmanian farm boy, made two attempts to get into the AIF before he was accepted in 1916. Phillip Rubie was a 21 year flour mill worker from Manildra when he enlisted in February 1915. He served on Gallipoli and then the Western Front. Anita Ryall was a school girl living in Sydney whose father was a Boer War veteran and who had two brothers in the army.

Ted Smout served in the Sanitation Section of the Army Medical Corps, which meant working as a stretcher bearer during times of battle. Each of the other men served in the infantry. Looking back over almost a century they describe their experiences of the Western Front, summed up by Eric Abraham with the words 'we were living with death all the time'.

Today no survivors of the First World War remain alive. It is no longer possible to speak with those who lived through what people then called the Great War, but by sharing their memories with us in the final years of their lives, the men and woman in this documentary offer a glimpse into a world that is now long gone.

Australians on the Western Front

YouTube has rated this content as suitable for people aged over 18 years. If you are over 18, please sign in to your YouTube account to watch the video.

This film contains personal recounts of soldiers' experiences in wartime. The material is sometimes confronting and disturbing. Sometimes words or images make people feel distressed or sad. Please be sensitive when sharing this content with others. It might trigger traumatic memories for anyone with personal experience of conflict or military service.


Frank McDonald

It wasn't for king and country. Australia's too big to be carted away by anybody, and I wasn't concerned about that. What I really was worried about was the women and the children. If a place was invaded. You know, when the war had been going along enough for us to hear what was happening to some of the women and children in villages in France being bombed out and so forth. That was my main concern, really, to see if I could do a little bit to protect them. And it was the same reason I volunteered for the Second War. I was five and a half years in that, too.

Ted Smout

It was about 5 miles from the Front. Steenwerck, the Houplines sector, which was a kind of a training ground for both sides of trench warfare. The trenches were dry and well established on both sides. There was never any serious fighting there, but it was a training ground. I well remember there was one spot there, the Germans were very methodical, and there was one place there, they used to go right on the dot of half hour. Used to fire about fifty rounds of machine gun. You'd just wait in the post until you'd hear these fifty. You could walk across, quite safe. But one, that was the first casualty I saw there was a chap by the name of Purdy, who was a champion chess player for New South Wales. Six foot one tall. He was a fatalist. You know, if I'm going to be killed I'll be killed. He was. He wouldn't duck in the trenches. He got a snipers bullet right through the head. That was the first casualty I saw. He was killed outright. But except for snipers there was no activity. Occasionally they'd shell, land over a shell or two but there wasn't any serious fighting.

Frank McDonald

When I went in the trenches, and when I went to bed I went to sleep. You could have a shell burst ten yards from me. I wouldn't hear it. If you just said "Mac", soft like that, I was awake instantly. You got used to the shells bursting, it was just part of the night noises. But you just had to mention my name, soft voice, I was awake instantly. Of course, if there was a raid coming over or anything like that, the Germans well, you had to get out a stand to. Be ready.

Phillip Rubie

And you'd know exactly what second you had to leap out of the trench and go forward. The closer you could keep to your barrage, the safer you were. Because it didn't give the Germans time to realise that you was coming, and you was on top of them before they knew where they were.

Frank McDonald

There's one thing getting killed with a machine gun bullet and another thing getting a shell burst down blasting you to bits and pieces, you were going in all directions. I had three mates lived just up, about half a mile from where my farm up in Caster Road, three young boys they went away to war and they were in our battalion and we were in Armentieres to, and they, they came out of the trench and got in a shell hole to have a bit of dinner, and one of these Minnenwerfers [German mortar] landed in the hole with them. Two sandbags about that long and about that wide had bagged up the three of them. Those were the kinds of thing you don't want to remember or dream about because they, it's another thing where the authorities I think made a mistake. They shouldn't have allowed brothers to be together, they should have had one in one battalion and one in another one and so on so they don't all get killed at once.

Phillip Rubie

Going back out and another fella with me, and we got back to where the barrage was pretty thick, the Germans barrage. And we stopped. And a big shell came over, landed just outside the trench and blew the whole damn lot over the top of us. Buried us. And fellas just close to us, they knew we were there, and they come to see how we fared when this big one burst. And they found we were buried, they dug us out.

Frank McDonald

Just stepped outside and these two officers, Captain Tyrell was standing like where you are there, and a Lieutenant beside him there. A nice sunny morning about 10 o'clock and a shell came over, a 4.2 German howitzer shell, and it landed about that far behind Captain Tyrell. Fortunately for me, he was dead in line between the bursting shell and myself. He got his back all torn out from the metal from the shell burst. I didn't get a scratch, he protected me. He fell over into my arms as a matter of fact. Colonel Lord, he was our colonel at the time, he was only about 20 yards away, walking over to talk to me He got a bit of shell through his sleeve, his jacket. That, I thought to myself well, I'm not going to get hurt in this war. You know, if that Captain had been standing a foot that way or a foot that way, I would have got in my chest what he got in his back. So he saved my life. Captain Tyrell that was. I'll never forget the man for that. I never had any fear about getting hurt after that.

Eric Abraham

Well, I can't say I was emotional at all because we're living with death all the time, don't forget. That question was asked of me about, one of my cobbers got killed, [(UNCLEAR)] just outside my dugout with a bloody big shell that fell on him, got him and killed him, and the sergeant didn't get a scrape of the same shell. The girls [researchers] asked me the question, what emotion? I didn't have any. And I said, "Oh," I said to myself, "Why is that? Why didn't I have any bloody emotion? The poor bastard's dead." I did not have any emotion. He was the bloke I just relieved in the tic-tac business. I didn't have any emotion. And I said to myself, "Bugger this, it might have been me a couple of hours later." Could have been me, the sergeant too. But I didn't have any emotion whatsoever. When I heard about my brother getting killed, no emotion either. I might be different, I don't know.

Phillip Rubie

I think one of the worst gases they ever used, because it cut the lungs out of them. If you got a belly full of chlorine gas you spat your lungs out. [UNCLEAR] it took them days and days to die but die they would from chlorine. The only thing was in favour of phosgene against chlorine was chlorine you could see it. The chlorine gas came as a vapour cloud you could see like a fog.

Frank McDonald

But actually I spoke to a few of German prisoners which we took at various times, and I met some quite, some nice fellows among them. They'd been waiters and whatnot in London, and spoke English very well. I found them quite decent fellows. Except when there was a back of a gun and it was pointing my way, then they were not my friends then.

I just take it as a something I had to do, I mean, you couldn't walk out. You had to do your job, and you did it for 6 or 8 hours a shift, and then you'd go to bed and have a sleep. I never heard a squeak from any of the boys. I used to go around them, practically every day I went through the Company's to check the telephone lines and that. See if everything was alright. No, I reckon we had about the best battalion in the whole war on either side of no-man's land. [UNCLEAR] you couldn't beat them. Nothing would stop them. Once they had a go at something, they took it. We never lost a battle, we never had retreat.

We were coming down a slope like that and we met the French people coming out of this Mericourt, they had their little hand wagon things, something like a cart you know and they had their bit of furniture and their bedding and whatnot on it. Poor old people they were and tears running down their cheeks, the old ladies and they said, "The Germans are coming, they're just over the hill there!" and that's why they were getting out of course before the Germans came in. Well, we let them pass us and then we went down and we met the Germans in the middle of Mericourt and I tell you we didn't give them any quarter either, about an hour and they were out of there, what was still left of them.

Eric Abraham

March started and they, the Germans broke through the Somme. We had just been issued the Comfort Fund. The bloody panic buttons, bells that rang. Full dress, six o'clock or whatever time it was there, [UNCLEAR] full marching order. Marching order means the whole bloody box and dice. All these tins of chocolates and…we had to leave it there [UNCLEAR]. We took what we could of course. The other lot we couldn't take. Socks and all that type of thing, the bars of chocolate and tins of coffee and milk mixed up together. A lot of it had to be left behind. That broke my heart and all the other blokes' hearts too. Marching order means you got to follow quick and lively.

Anita Ryall

We were not afraid that they wouldn't come back. I can remember my mother made a big batch of plum jam and she put it into a big stone jar and sealed it up and she said that it was not to be opened until the boys came home and it wasn't opened until the boys came home and it was beautiful jam, lovely, but that's the faith that she had.

Last updated:

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Australians on the Western Front story, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 16 July 2024,
Was this page helpful?
We can't respond to comments or queries via this form. Please contact us with your query instead.