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The Australian Imperial Force in France
By C. E. W. Bean


PREFACE from the 1916 volume

Colonial historians have been taxed with a tendency to garnish their works with more detail than writers in older countries. If that observation is true—and probably it is— of this volume and its predecessors, the reasons are definite and easily furnished.

First, the limited nature of the field—enabling these books to be written mainly by eyewitnesses of the events and within the lifetimes and recent memories of most of the actors—has made it possible to reconstruct the fighting from the point of view of the front line, and to record with more than usual certainty the play of strains and stresses at the actual point where battles are won or lost. The chief value of national war histories such as these is to'show how a people responds to the heaviest of all tests : what strain it will resist; when it will bend or break; how it compares in these respects with others; and what are the elements and signs of its strength and weakness. It also seems desirable to provide the evidence which may perhaps some day help other students to probe for “ the causes. In war men will exhibit in the sight of all, often a dozen times in a day, feelings and tendencies which might not be visible to their fellows once in an ordinary lifetime. Their allies beside them, and the enemy whom they face, are subjected to similar stress, and from the millions of resulting incidents there may be gleaned data for a comparative test of extraordinary interest and value. The sources from which war histories have sometimes been written—despatches of generals (which often afford only second-hand, or even third-hand, evidence of what actually happened to their troops), second-hand reports composed long after the events, and stories already half-crystallised as legend—may indicate what the leaders thought and intended, but have little authority for the occurrences on the actual battle-front. For the present history the essential data were obtained from those actually engaged, and within a few weeks of most of the events. Thus authentic materials for detailed reconstruction of the actual fighting do in a large measure exist. In the present volume the writer has endeavoured truthfully to exhibit the Australian character as evinced under a strain which, at first gentle, suddenly increased at Pozieres to terrible intensity, then eased, and in the early winter again suddenly racked the men almost to breaking point. So cruel, indeed, was the test that the human material was suspected by those who best knew it—though not by other onlookers— of having suffered permanent damage. When the volume ends, the stress shows signs of abating; and—though the fears of breakdown are not yet wholly dispelled—there are tokens that nerves and spirits may regain all their former resiliency.

Second, a comparison of the higher reports and despatches on the one hand with the mass of first-hand data concerning the front on the other confirms what the writer’s personal observation had already suggested—that despatches written after a fight are rarely accurate in detail; that movements which a leader believes—and states—to have been the result of his orders have very often been made before those orders arrived, their true cause having been accident, the pressure of the enemy, the initiative of some junior officer, or even the tactical sense of the troops themselves. Probably the colonial writer regards more sceptically than those of older countries the despatches both of statesmen and of generals. He is also, perhaps, less likely to be influenced by the assumption—necessary in military operations, but in no degree binding on their historian—that for a commander’s decisions the commander alone is responsible. The colonial historian, convinced that the true credit for famous achievements in war, as in politics, lies often with unknown subordinates, endeavours to sift the details until he can lay a just share of praise at the feet of those to whom it is due. In the compilation of the present volume this purpose has been deliberately kept in view. Only by this method have there, for example, been brought to light the desperate fighting on the beleaguered right flank of Fromelles and the critical situation (solved by the boldness of one young leader) in the final attack on Pozieres Ridge—events about which the official operation reports were silent, simply because the higher leaders had never heard of them. No blame whatever is to be imputed for this omission ; the higher authorities had duties far more pressing than that of delving into history. But a history of those battles based merely—or mainly—on the official reports would have been a travesty of the truth.

To this twofold desire—to give a true picture of the test of battle, and to distribute the credit as widely as possible among those who deserve it—the particularity of these narratives has been due. The author has, however, endeavoured to prevent mere multiplicity of detail from obscuring its own bearing either on the development of the A.I.F. or on the course of the greater struggle. If the achievement of this aim has been possible, it has only been so because the field was comparatively small. If the writer had had to deal with fifty divisions instead of five, a different method must have been adopted. Indeed, in the next volume of this series—describing the retreat of the enemy to the Hindenburg Line, and the Battles of Bullecourt, Messines, and Ypres (1917)—the method of the present one will be impossible. The story of each of these events, if written on the same scale as that of Pozieres, would itself fill more than half the book. The narrative must therefore necessarily be much more general, and a vast amount of incident exhibiting the reaction of Australians to those famous tests must go unrecorded—at least in these pages.

The author’s gratitude for constant assistance is especially due to the Director, Acting-Directors, and staff of the Australian War Memorial; to Brigadier-General Sir James Edmonds and the staff of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence in London; and to Mr. T. H. E. Ileyes, who, as the representative of the Australian War Memorial for three years, carried out his researches among the British war records. Suggestions made by Sir Tames Edmonds have in many places added much to the value of the text. The writer is also deeply indebted to the officials of the Historical Section, French Ministry of War, and to Mr. C. H. Voss, the Australian Trade Representative in Paris, as well as to the Director of the Imperial German Archives at Potsdam, to Captain J. J. W. Herbertson, and to Herr A. Stenger for their unfailing courtesy and constant personal effort towards furnishing material for the French and German sides of the narrative; to the High Commissioner for Australia in London and his staff; to the officers of the Mitchell Library in Sydney; to Brigadier-General T. H. Dodds, Messrs. W. A. Newman, J. E. Murphy, A. J. Withers, and many others in the Department of Defence. The marginal sketches and maps are by Mr. W. S. Perry.

The author also acknowledges his debt to a great number of eyewitnesses of the events recorded, and to those others who have made available, either directly or through the Australian War Memorial, letters and diaries containing many frank and invaluable narratives.

C. E. W. B.
Sydney,
8th August, 1928.

Download The Australian Imperial Force in France 1916 here (pdf)
Download The Australian Imperial Force in France 1917 here (pdf)
Download The Australian Imperial Force in France 1918a here (pdf)
Download The Australian Imperial Force in France 1918b here (pdf)
Download Letters from France here (pdf)


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