On 7 August, 1915, the generals sent four waves of men from the 8th and 10th Light Horse in the futile, sacrificial feint at The Nek. The Turks knew they were coming, were waiting with machine guns and, said Major Alan Love of the 10th, “there was no living against them”.
In the first two lines, 154 men of the 8th were killed and 80 wounded, nearly every one of them within metres of the trench parapet. Yet twice more the West Australians of the 10th filed in and jumped off at the signal. Of the 138 more who were lost, 80 were killed. Yet they went, running like hares into the bullets.
“Our poor chaps went down like flies,” trooper George Horace James wrote in a letter to his mother from hospital. “They talk about VCs, but I reckon no man needs more courage than he who knows as soon as he hops the parapet of his own trench he is going to his death.”
In 1916 the Anzacs were hopping the parapets in the industrialised slaughter of the Western Front. Initially, some claimed to be itching for it: “When the order is issued we shall be into it like a pig into porridge,” wrote Sydney boxer Bill Rudd in a letter to the sporting paper The Referee. “There will be skin and hair flying, and it will be a case of the first in first served …”
But reality bit. Fromelles on 19 July was “the worst 24 hours in Australian history” with 5533 casualties. At Pozieres 6800 died, a toll comparable to the entire Gallipoli campaign. And so it went, at Bullecourt, Villers-Bretonneux, Passchendaele and more for the next two-and-a-half mass-murderous years.
The letters kept coming too, unflinchingly describing what it was like in the midst of it. George Warnecke, a 19th Battalion corporal and later founding editor of the Women’s Weekly, wrote of “the silent, stealthy death – a sniper’s bullet through the brain”.
More often it was a cacophony. “Bullets thick round us like wasps, while all along the front of us machine guns crackle like little spitting devils,” wrote Private A.W. Brain of the 60th Battalion. Or this from Signaller Harley Matthews: “Some go past making a noise like a mewing kitten. Others have quite a musical note. You would think someone was hitting a telephone wire rapidly with a stick when a machine gun plays on your trenches.”
A private of the 17th used a striking simile to describe the dread of artillery bombardments: “Iron foundries are coming at you.”
And they came with a cost. “War is a thousand times worse than I thought it would be,” wrote Private T. J. Graham in November 1916. “It’s not war at all, men just simply get blown up, without seeing one another.”
But too often it wasn’t anonymous. George Warnecke’s letter described a corpse-littered German trench at Flers: “There were very many of them, you couldn’t walk a yard without walking on them – all dead, fair-faced, blue-eyed men, eyes that never winked.”