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5th Division in France

21 OCT 1916: World War I and the 5th Australian Division is on the Western Front. The 5th Australian Division entered the front line near Flers on the Somme. By October the Somme battlefield was a waste of mud-bound craters. From March 1916 Australian divisions began arriving in France. Initially the troops found a pleasant land and a welcome change from sea voyages, the cliffs of Gallipoli, and the training camps of Egypt.

There were four divisions, each about 20,000 men, and they were sent to French Flanders close to the Belgian border. Now, for the first time, the AIF was at the main theatre of the war.

The Australians were given a gradual introduction to the Western Front fighting conditions. It was a new experience for them. They trained with some of the latest weapons of modern warfare including poisonous gas.

Things became more serious when they moved into the front line trenches in a section around Armentières which had been dubbed “the nursery”.

Meanwhile the British army, under Sir Douglas Haig, was about to conduct a mighty offensive in the Somme region, 100 km away to the south. The battle was set for 1 July, and it would continue for five months.

It began disastrously; there were 58,000 casualties on the first day and little ground was taken. As the fighting went on three Australian divisions, the 1st, 2nd and 4th Divisions, were eventually drawn in, leaving the 5th Division under Major General James McCay, behind. This newly arrived 5th Division would be the first to see heavy action.

The troops’ misery is depicted in the Somme Winter diorama in the Australian War Memorial’s galleries. Photo: 1916. Unidentified members of the 5th Division, on “smoko” by the side of the Montauban road, near Mametz, on the Somme. Some are wearing slouch hats, steel helmets, sheepskin jackets and woollen gloves, demonstrating both the variety of official battledress, and how it was modified and augmented, for local conditions. More;

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