Australians who continued to serve in 1918 and 1919
The Allies signed an armistice with Germany on 11 November 1918. This did not mean that the war was over. Peace treaties with the belligerent nations still had to be signed. Before that happened, Australians continued to serve overseas while they waited for transport home. A small number of Australians, including an Australian Flying Corps squadron, took part in occupation duties in Germany.
In service until repatriation
Prime Minister Billy Hughes insisted that Australian troops be repatriated after the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918.
This partly explains why, apart from the few units mentioned here, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) didn't serve as part of the occupation force in Germany.
While the process to get people home was underway, Australian soldiers continued to serve overseas in 1918 and 1919. The Australian Corps remained in Europe. Other units stayed in the United Kingdom (UK) and the Middle East.
Similarly, crews on the ships of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) continued to serve until they returned home.
Australian Graves Detachment
More than 1100 Australians served with the Australian Graves Detachment, which was formed in March 1919. Men in the unit worked in northern France where the AIF fought many of its battles. Their role was to:
- exhume the war dead
- identify bodies where possible
- re-bury bodies in central cemeteries
Kit for the men included rubber gloves, oil-skin overalls, hundreds of bars of soap, and creosol (an antibacterial disinfectant).
The work was distressing. Many of the exhumed bodies had been dead between 9 and 12 months and were in varying stages of decomposition. One member of the detachment, typical of many, recalled having felt sick 'dozens of times'.
Some members of the detachment were veterans of the fighting on the Western Front who volunteered for the job. Most were men who had enlisted too late in the war to see fighting and had reached France after the Armistice.
Between April and August 1919, the Australian Graves Detachment exhumed and re-buried almost 5500 men.
The challenging nature of the work, and the difficulty in maintaining and enforcing military discipline with the war over, led to poor behaviour. Incidents included:
- throwing live bombs that were frequently found on the former battlefields
- entering French houses in search of alcohol
- taking food and other items that belonged to French civilians
After the Armistice, life in war-ravaged northern France was difficult. The men's circumstances, which had been relatively basic at first, improved over time with:
- better food
- regular periods of leave or rest
- better hygiene and health, including weekly baths
- sporting competitions
- entertainment, including theatre and dances
- a library, including writing materials and games
The Australian Graves Detachment was disbanded on 20 August 1919. It was succeeded by a smaller unit, the Australian Graves Services, whose role was to:
- oversee the erection of memorials
- exhume bodies
- re-inter newly found war dead
- photograph Australian graves for grieving families at home
No 4 Squadron in Germany
Only one Australian combat unit served with the occupation forces in Germany. This was No 4 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps.
When the Armistice was signed, No 4 Squadron had:
- 31 officers with 20 pilots available
- 208 other ranks
- 22 Sopwith Snipe aircraft on its strength
On 3 December 1918, No 4 Squadron received orders to prepare to move to Germany.
Members of the squadron had arrived at Bickendorf airfield, outside Cologne, by 14 December, and its 13 aircraft started to arrive on 17 December.
Bickendorf had been one of Germany's home defence aerodromes in the war. Accommodation at Bickendorf was described in No 4 Squadron's war diary as 'excellent'.
Life for the airmen in Germany was very different from what they had experienced on the Western Front. Given peacetime conditions, aircraft were not flown as regularly. On 11 January 1919, No 4 Squadron flew 14 hours compared to 87 hours on 10 November 1918 – the day before the Armistice.
The airmen practised flying and formations when the weather was good. Routine Orders stated:
Machines may fly over the town of Cologne at a height of not less than 2,000 feet. Low flying and stunting over towns and villages is NOT permitted.
The Australians took over 150 surrendered German aircraft of all types. Airmen were fascinated by the aircraft used by the other side. The units' war diary mentions:
- flying a German 'Rumpler' aircraft on 10 January
- being assigned as the daily 'alert' squadron in case of an attack on 16 January
For No 4 Squadron, duties included running an aerial postal service between Fourth Army Headquarters at Namur and the Australian Flying Corps Headquarters at Ham-sur-Heure, and from the Australian Corps to the divisions in the Hallencourt area near Abbeville.
Although mostly the men in the occupation force found their period of service very uneventful.
Daily life was broken up with sports, education, church services and other activities.
The unit's diary recorded Christmas at Bickendorf:
The men had Christmas Dinner provided in their quarters on the aerodrome. The Mess Room was tastefully decorated with Christmas trees, etc. and pictures painted on the walls of Australian views by Sqdn. artists. Music during the meal was supplied by German Orchestra.
On the same day, the squadron played football matches against two Royal Air Force units, No 43 and 48 Squadrons. While No 4 Squadron drew with No 48 Squadron, it lost 6-0 to No 43 Squadron.
Sport was a regular pastime, including football (soccer), rugby and Australian rules football. A game of Aussie rules was played on 21 January. A team of the squadron's officers and non-commissioned officers was beaten by a team of other ranks.
By the middle of February, it became clear that No 4 Squadron would be sent back to the UK to embark for Australia, alongside other units of the Australian Flying Corps.
On 18 February, the squadron was ordered to cease flying, and by 23 February, all its aircraft had been redistributed to British units.
On 26 February, Brigadier-General Rudolph Hogg of the Royal Air Force inspected the unit. The next day, No 4 Squadron began its move to Le Havre for transport to the UK. The squadron arrived at Le Havre on 8 March and embarked to the UK on 11 March.
On 17 March, the unit was given 14 days leave, and on 25 April, two sergeants and 25 other ranks took part in the Anzac Day parade in London.
The squadron left for Australia on 7 May 1919 alongside officers and other ranks of the other Australian Flying Corps units stationed in the UK.
No 3 Australian Casualty Clearing Station
No 3 Australian Casualty Clearing Station (3ACCS) advanced into Germany one day after the Armistice to provide medical support to the British Army of the Rhine.
On 22 December, 3ACCS arrived at Euskirchen, some 20km south-east of Cologne, to replace No 1 Canadian Casualty Clearing Station.
The hospital was located in the Deaf and Dumb Institution, a fine building with central heating.
The unit's workload was fairly light in January, but increased in February. The critical illness treated at this time was influenza, in particular Spanish flu.
Of 693 medical cases admitted to 3ACCS in February 1919, 'about 400' were influenza. This kept the nurses very busy.
The medical officer report for February noted:
Influenza arrives here under a variety of guises – viz – P.U.O., Influenza, Pneumonia (rarely), Bronchitis, Tonsillitis, Diarrhoea, Pleurisy, Appendicitis, Gastritis and Rheumatism. For instance 2 cases received as tonsillitis were severe pneumonias, one markedly cyanosed which died about 36 hours after admission.
For recreation during their stay, unit staff in Germany did several activities, including educational classes, day trips and winter sports.
The unit’s war diary recorded that in February 1919, the nurses learnt to skate, which was described as being 'most popular'.
As the Head Sister's report for the month noted:
We at first used the Swimming Pond belonging to this institution, but later on parties to the Old Moat at Satsey were arranged […] None of us became experts but we enjoyed our skating lessons immensely, and were sorry when the thaw set in.
Other activities included trips to the opera in Cologne and, on 20 April, a tour on the river Rhine.
Unfortunately, Christmas was postponed until 26 December 1918 because of supply problems. On Boxing Day, the staff enjoyed a 'special dinner followed by a concert in the evening'.
By April 1919, the unit was preparing to leave Germany.
On 26 April, 3ACCS was closed down and its duties handed over to the British No 47 Casualty Clearing Station. On 8 May, the unit began its journey to Le Havre for eventual repatriation to Australia.
On 7 May, the Director of Medical Services for the British Army of the Rhine, Major-General Henry Neville Thompson, issued the following Special Order to the unit:
On the occasion of the departure of No 3 Australian Casualty Clearing Station, the D.M.S., British Army of the Rhine, on behalf of the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief and Staff as well as all ranks of the Medical Services, wish to express his high appreciation of the valuable and gallant service rendered by this Unit to the British Expeditionary Force and to the Allied cause.
It has served with devotion on the battlefield on the Somme and Ypres and has taken part in the recent general advance and military occupation.
We of the Imperial Army now wish our brothers and sisters farewell and God-speed, and we assure them that, although widely separated by the broad seas they remain very near to our hearts.
The Middle East
As in Europe, military activities did not simply stop when the Armistice was signed with the Ottoman Empire. Australian units became involved in occupation duties.
The occupation of the Gallipoli peninsula was the most important duty. Official historian of the war in the Sinai and Palestine, Henry Gullet, recalled:
all regiments bid for the honour of visiting sacred Anzac
That honour went to the 7th Light Horse Regiment and New Zealand's Canterbury Mounted Rifles.
Two tasks for Australian occupation soldiers on Gallipoli were:
- looking for graves of 'fallen Anzacs'
- identifying and recovering objects for what would become the Australian War Memorial
In Palestine, Australian troops were allegedly involved in the tragic and illegal Surafend Incident.
On 10 December 1918, a New Zealand soldier, Trooper Leslie Lowry of the Anzac Mounted Division, was killed by a Bedouin tribesman at an encampment near the village of Sarafend al-Amar. It remains unclear who killed Lowry or why, but retribution against the Bedouin camp was severe.
After an initial investigation failed to find the person who killed Lowry, troops of the Anzac Mounted Division threw up a cordon around the village and a local Bedouin camp. They let the women and children leave the village, then several New Zealand, British and Australian troops moved in and massacred around 40 local people.
The massacre involved mainly New Zealanders, but the official historian, Gullet, recalled that Australians 'gave them hearty support'. There's some suggestion that Australian troops participated, but the question of who took part in the killing was never solved.
The action tarnished the reputation of the Anzac Mounted Division.
Disappointed in the men's closed rank during a British investigation, General Sir Edmund Allenby addressed them as 'a lot of murderers and cowards'. A year later, Allenby's view had softened. He wrote a glowing farewell order to the Australian Light Horse regiments:
[t]he Australian light horseman […] has earned the gratitude of the Empire and the admiration of the world.
Listen to Edward O'Brien oral history about the Surafend Incident when he was a private with 3rd Light Horse Regiment.
During 1919, the Australian Light Horse regiments helped to suppress the Egyptian Revolution of 1919.
The background to the rebellion was Egypt's desire for independence. As tension grew, outbreaks of violence occurred. There were few British forces in Egypt.
Both the Anzac Mounted Division and the Australian Mounted Division were in Egypt. They were, however, in the process of repatriation – both the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Regiments had already left. This process stopped, and Australian units were deployed from the Upper Nile region to Cairo. They played an essential role in stopping the rebellion.
Royal Australian Navy
The AIF's operational service ended largely with the Armistice. For the RAN, patrols and other voyages continued.
As one historian has reflected, it was very much 'business as usual' for the RAN. Australian ships were refitted in British dockyards. By the middle of 1919, the fleet was back in Australian waters.
On 1 August, the Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, signed the order that transferred operational control of the RAN from the British Admiralty back to Australia.
Before returning to Australia, RAN ships were involved in 'Der Tag'. This was the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet, or Operation ZZ, as the Royal Navy called it.
German submarines were the first to surrender on 20 November 1918 at Harwich. Then, on 21 November, the major combat vessels of the High Seas Fleet surrendered in the presence of 370 Allied ships at Rosyth. HMA Ships Australia, Melbourne and Sydney were present for this occasion. The German ships then moved to Scapa Flow, where they were interned.
Captain Thomas James of HMAS Australia described the surrender:
We have just anchored, after accepting the surrender of the main German Fleet, and so adding a fresh page to the Naval History of the world. It was a sight never to be forgotten by those of us who from their earliest naval days were brought up with the idea that some day we should meet the Bosche challenge for our sea supremacy, and who for the past years have been working and waiting for the opportunity for this victory which has proved to be bloodless.
On 21 June 1919, the Germans scuttled their remaining fleet under the terms of the peace treaty. They sank 52 of their 74 ships at Scapa Flow.
Australians and the Russian Civil War
While major combat operations had ended in Europe and the Middle East in late-1918, there was one theatre where Australians continued to serve. This was Russia.
Russia had been a major ally of Britain and France during World War I. In 1917, a series of revolutions had rocked the Russian Empire. This eventually led to a Bolshevik revolution, led by Lenin.
Under Lenin, Russia agreed to an Armistice with Germany in March 1918. In the chaotic post-revolutionary environment, civil war broke out. Anti-Bolshevik forces began a campaign against the Bolsheviks that would last until the early 1920s. For many reasons, Britain, France, and America sent forces to support the anti-Bolshevik movements, who were known as 'White' forces.
Even before World War I ended, six Australian sergeants and three officers deployed as part of a British military mission to northern Russia. The mission consisted of 560 personnel and reached Russia in mid 1918. These personnel served as advisors to 'White' forces and did not serve together as a distinct unit. They formed one part of the British North Russia Expeditionary Force.
One officer, Captain Allan Brown, was murdered on 20 July 1919 when the unit he was advising mutinied.
Australians also served in Southern Russia and Siberia, but it was in the north where the highest concentration of Australians could be found.
North Russia Relief Force
Over 100 Australians served in the British forces who were sent to northern Russia as part of the North Russia Relief Force in mid 1919. The British Army's North Russia Relief Force had been deployed to help the North Russia Expeditionary Force withdraw from actions against the Bolsheviks.
The Australian soldiers mainly served with two British units, the 45th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers and the 201st Special Battalion of the Machine Gun Corps.
The Australians were all volunteers and not members of the AIF. To volunteer, these personnel were discharged from the AIF and then enlisted in the British Army for a year. This was because the prime ministers of the dominions, including Australia, had made it clear that they had no interest in Britain's campaigns in Russia.
The motivation of those who volunteered for additional duty varied. Some had arrived in the UK too late to see active duty, others wanted to see Russia. During service in Russia, two Australians were awarded the Victoria Cross. One, Sergeant Samuel Pearse, received his award posthumously.
The citation for Pearse's award reads:
For most conspicuous bravery, devotion to duty and self-sacrifice during the operation against the enemy battery position north of Emtsa, North Russia on the 29th August 1919. Sergeant Pearse cut his way through enemy barbed-wire under very heavy machine-gun and rifle fire and cleared a way for the troops to enter an enemy battery position. Seeing that a blockhouse was harassing our advance and causing us casualties, he charged the blockhouse single-handed, killing the occupants with bombs. This gallant non-commissioned officer met his death a minute later and it was due to him that the position was carried with so few casualties. His magnificent bravery and utter disregard for personal danger won for him the admiration of all troops.
The other Victoria Cross was awarded to Corporal Arthur Sullivan.
Sailors in Russian waters
Soldiers didn't provide the only Australian presence during the Russian Civil War. At the end of World War I, the destroyers of the RAN were patrolling waters in and around the Ottoman Empire.
In December 1918, HMAS Swan and the French destroyer Bisson conducted a visit to the so-called Don Republic. This was an anti-Bolshevik state set-up in Southern Russia around the territory of the Don Cossacks. The purpose of this mission was to try to understand the complicated political and military state in the region due to the Russian Civil War.
The mission was to show British and French support to those who fought against the Bolsheviks. An attack by Bolsheviks led to the abandonment of the visit.
As the commander of HMAS Swan, Commander Arthur Bond recalled:
As we got out of the province of the Don into that of Voronish [Voronezh], over which the line of the fighting swayed backwards and forwards, a great difference in the attitude of the Civil population was most noticeable. The crow[d]s we passed through maintained an atmosphere of apathy or positive antagonism. Great precautions were taken to see that we did not linger among them longer than necessary, and at intervals shots rang out close at hand. General Krasnoff explained to me that shooting birds was a pastime of his soldiery, but on one occasion the whistle of a bullet and a spurt of snow a few yards to the side of our conveyance, followed by the sudden departure of a section of the escort and some more shots, gave an indication of the precarious hold the Cossack forces had on the district which had just fallen into their hands.