‘The dead and wounded of the 47th lay everywhere underfoot’ ... With these words Charles Bean, Australia’s Official War Historian, described the battlefield of Dernancourt on the morning of the 5th of April, 1918, strewn with the bodies of the Australian dead. It was the final tragic chapter in the story of the 47th Australian Infantry Battalion in the First World War.
The 47th Battalion fought in some of the First World War’s bloodiest battles. From their first calamitous experience of war under the terrible shell fire of Pozieres, to the costly and futile attacks on Mouquet Farm and the frigid winters on the Somme they suffered through the fighting on the Western Front in 1916. In April of 1917 they were trapped and almost surrounded at 1st Bullecourt. A mere eight weeks later, they ‘hopped the bags’ at Messines where they lost over half their number. In October they fought and died by the score in the mud of Passchendaele.
One of the shortest lived and most battle hardened of the 1st Australian Imperial Force’s battalions, the 47th was formed in Egypt in 1916 and disbanded two years later having suffered one of the highest casualty rates of any Australian unit. Their story is remarkable for many reasons. Dogged by command and discipline troubles and bled white by the desperate attrition battles of 1916 and 1917, they fought on against a determined and skilful enemy in battles where the fortunes of war seemed stacked against them at every turn. Not only did they have the misfortune to be called into some of the A.I.F.’s most costly campaigns, chance often found them in the worst places within those battles.
Finally, at the Battle of Dernancourt they fought in the 4th Division’s titanic struggle to save Amiens from the great German offensive of 1918. It was at Dernancourt that the 47th Battalion found itself squarely in the path of the heaviest attack ever faced by Australians in this or any war. Fatally weakened by their losses, and under a cloud after the formal inquiry into the battle, the 47th Battalion was broken up. For the Queenslanders and Tasmanians of the 47th Battalion,disbandment meant not only the loss of their battalion, but disgrace and heartbreak as well. Worse still, it meant the ties of comradeship and the bond to their fallen mates were severed at one stroke. In their own bitter words, they were ‘thrown away’’.
Though their story is one of almost unrelieved tragedy, it is also story of remarkable courage, endurance and heroism. It is the story of the 1st A.I.F. itself – punished, beaten, sometimes reviled for their indiscipline, they fought on - fewer,leaner and harder - until final victory was won. And at its end,in an extraordinary gesture of mateship, the remnants of the 47th Battalion reunited. Having been scattered to other units after their disbandment, the survivors gathered in Belgium for one last photo together. Only 73 remained.
List of Maps
1. 'Imperishable memories': The Men of the 47th Battalion
2. 'Toffs and wasters and street loafers': The Formation of the 47th Battalion
3. 'You can't imagine what was is like': Pozieres and Mouquet Farm
4. 'Conditions arduous and extreely trying': The Winter of 1916-1917
5. 'It became evident that something had gone wrong with the plan': Bullecourt
6. 'A wonderful dau for battle': Messines
7. 'The valley of sorrows': Passchendaele
8. 'It looked as if the whole British Army ... was in a state of rout;: The Defence of Amiens
9. 'The dead and wounded of the 47th Battalion lay everywhere underfoot': The 5th of April
10. 'The story of the 47th Battalion ... is unlikely to ever be completely known': The Inquiry
11. The final days: Villers-Bretonneux
12. 'I feel sometimes as if my reason will go': Missing
13. 'Again and again I take out my old uniform': Epilogue
Appendix 1. Farewell Dinner for the 477th Battalion
Appendix 2. 47th Battalion Nominal Roll
Appendix 3. 47th Battalion Roll of Honour
Appendix 4. 47th Battalion Honours and Awards