…that will be forever Australian.
Just when you think nothing more can be said, there is, indeed, much more that can be, and said very well. Australia and the First World War? That was Gallipoli, wasn’t it, the basis for ANZAC Day? And the Somme? That was those very unfortunate 20,000 British soldiers that died on the first day, July 01, 1916, wasn’t it? Poziers is “the more,” and although I had once camped nearby, at Albertville, I had never heard of this small French village in northern France, nor realized its significance to “the Land Down Under.” Wain Fimeri directed this most informative documentary which was released in 1999.
I find the interview technique with historical reenactors particularly effective for providing the viewer a real “feel” for how it was, to be there. The reenactor looks right into the camera and explains one aspect of his experience in the battle; then the narrator explains the man’s origins and prior work, and invariably concludes with some phrase like: “he survived the war,” “he survived the war, but lost his leg,” “he would be killed in four days,” or, even worse, “he would be killed in two years,” the latter applied to an Aborigine, fighting for a country he could not be a citizen of. And a couple Germans are also shown, one of whom was Adolph Hitler. The narrator deadpans: “he survived the war.” I was particularly impressed with the tone of the narrator, Nadine Garner, who is apparently a well-known Australian actress. I had to double-check to see if she was a descendant of two of the prominent characters in this documentary: Tom and Mabel Gardner. Apparently not, with the spelling difference in the last name.
The Australians would take 23,000 casualties in the Battle of the Somme. “Casualties,” that slippery term that combines the dead and wounded, with the latter usually undefined. Wounded, as in, and could never return to battle? Or, wounded, and back in the front-line the next day? Five Australian divisions took part in the battle; virtually all seemed to take casualties in the 5,000 range. Another frustration is the fact that the size of the division is never given. Was it 7,000, 10,000 or 15,000 men? The documentary demonstrates a strong degree of contempt for the British commander, General Haig, who was “undaunted” by casualty figures of “only” 40,000, given the large scale of the operation.
The Aussies did manage to take the village of Poziers, which had been reduced to utter rubble. There was no patriotic gloss over the scenes depicting the looting of village and the killing of unarmed German POW’s. By taking the village, they formed a salient into the German lines and were relentlessly pounded by German artillery from three sides.
Equal portions of the documentary show the home front, and featured the battles over conscription. Prime Minister Hughes, after lowering the height requirement for service, and increasing the age limit to 45, still could not get enough volunteers. He fought hard for a law permitting conscription. The documentary shows labor leader Curtin vigorously opposed. The law was not approved in the election. Curtin would go on to become Prime Minister in WW II, and fought successfully for a conscription law for that war, an easier sell since Japan had bombed Darwin. Strong anti-German sentiment against German Australians is shown, with internment and in some cases, deportation after the war.
Tom and Mabel Gardner, brother and sister, represented the divisions within Australian society. Tom volunteer for the good fight and to see the world. He is mentally shattered at Poziers, what we now call PTSD, would survive the war, but 13 days after November 11, 1918, would walk into a lake in Australia and drown. Mabel fought hard against the conscription vote, had a son who volunteered to fight in WW II, and she would die in 1968, when, as the documentary notes, Aussie conscripts are fighting and dying in Vietnam.
A very well-done documentary, telling me much that I did not know. 5-stars.