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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

ANZAC and the History Wars by John/Togs Tognolini

The soldiers in this picture are top row; Sergeant Norton Niblet Mentioned in Dispatches, Wounded in Action three times, Lance Sergeant Stephen Tognolini Military Medal and Bar, Wounded in Action twice, Lance Sergeant Victor Edwards Military Medal and Bar.

Middle row; Sergeant J.S.Sheringham Wounded in Action, Company Sergeant Major George Hunt, Distinguished Conduct Medal, Wounded in Action twice, Killed in Action July 4 1918, Company Sergeant Major William Trevascus Distinguished Conduct Medal and Bar, Mentioned in Dispatches, Wounded in Action and Boer War Veteran.

Bottom row; Lance Corporal J.H. Cotterell Military Medal, Died of Wounds September 18 1918, and Lance Corporal J.J. Craigie Military Medal.


My first exposure to the ANZAC legend and ethos was at my father Victor/Vic's funeral, when I was twelve years old. My father died from what I believed was exposure to asbestos, on October 19 1971. He was buried with my Uncle Stephen, pictured above at Querrieu, France, 27 June 1918, with his brother non-commissioned officers of the 21st Battalion. Stephen died in 1963. They were buried together in the custom of Working Class Roman Catholic brothers.

At the funeral an old World War One Veteran played The Last Post, after he finished, he fell off his stand, with cries of," Catch him!" which we did. One of my relatives made the remark, "I can see the next service coming up."

This was not a sign of disrespect for the old Digger. We did laugh quietly and we knew in our hearts that Vic and Stephen were laughing too. I remember vividly the red poppies being dropped onto Vic's coffin in his grave with friends and relatives saying," Lest We Forget".

As a Socialist and Marxist I tend to be on my own with my research into Australia's Military History and my family’s part in it. The more I’ve delved into it and studied its blood-spattered and gory carnage in tenacious detail. The more I feel convinced of the need of Socialism as an alternative political system to the one that produced the horrors of World War One and Two and Imperialist and Colonial adventures such as Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

And of World War One, what was it for Working People but a bloody slaughter that would later produce another World War, one more slaughterhouse of a global conflict on an even bigger scale than the first one.

Of World War One, it is apt to say that it was one of those wars, like so many others, where a bayonet was a weapon that had a worker on both ends of it. If that was the case for workers, what was it for an Indigenous Australians such as George Hunt? Pictured above with my Uncle Stephen, a Company Sergeant Major, winner of the Distinguished Conduct Medal, Wounded in Action twice, who was Killed in Action on July 4 1918.

He had no rights as an Aboriginal under the White Australia Policy. He could not vote, own land, no liberties at all. Surprisingly his job before the War was a barman and for many years before after his death, Aboriginal people could be denied entry into a pub. He would have known Aborigines who had their children taken away and this would happen to his own descendants as well. He also would have known other Aborigines who lived under the petty dictatorship of the Aboriginal Protection Boards and Mission Managers. Indigenous Australians, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were not even counted in the census, unlike sheep, cattle and horses until after a national referendum in 1967. And still then, ten percent of Australians voted against it.

George Hunt’s citation for the Distinguished Conduct Medal reads,

”For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He led his platoon forward in attack with great coolness and courage, and although twice wounded assisted to evacuate the wounded, resuming his command after his own wounds had been dressed.”

There are those words from Shakespeare’s Henry V

We few, we happy few,

We band of brothers

For he today that sheds his blood with me,

Shall be my brother.

With George Hunt what was his Country? What was his ancient tribal land? What was the story of my Uncle’s Brother? Was he an Awabakai man, because he was born in Newcastle, New South Wales? Or was he Worimi, Kamilaroi or even Wiradjuri? What was my Uncle’s Brother’s Country?

My Uncle Stephen won the Military Medal not once, but twice, his citations read,

“Pte. Stephen Tognolini, Action for which commended La Basse Ville.

At LA BASSE VILLE on the morning of 22nd March 1918 the enemy, following an intense bombardment raided our front line. This man was one of a party that went forward from the support line to make a reconnaissance of the Front Line Posts. He found that No.6 Post had been raided. He immediately on his initiative went to each of the other posts on the left and finding Nos' 7 and 8 unoccupied informed the Commanding Officer of LA BASSE VILLE and guided the new garrison out to No.8 Post. He also scouted No Man's Land in the hope of finding any of our men and to report on enemy casualties. Again on the night of the 22nd/23rd he acted as a guide to No.9 Post and went forward as a scout to ensure that the party would not be surprised. His work is full of merit and he showed great daring and initiative and has always by his example and loyalty been of the greatest assistance to his platoon.

Corporal Stephen Tognolini

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during the attack on VILLE-SUR-ANCRE on the 19th of May 1918. This Non Commissioned Officer was everywhere the enemy happened to be. He did excellent work in mopping up cellars and recesses, where he accounted for numbers of the enemy. Where he encountered a number of the enemy at a post on the left of the village with a few bombs he cleared this post which had been giving his comrades much trouble. His party killed many of the enemy. This N.C.O. capabilities as a leader have again proved themselves. His coolness, courage and daring have built up in him, among his comrades. A reputation which would be hard to excel. In action his many soldierly qualities act as an incentive to his comrades to perform acts of daring.”

Awarded Bar to Military Medal.

When Stephen returned from the War to his job on the Melbourne waterfront as a Wharfie/Docker, he found his union outlawed, his wages cut in half and a nonunion workforce doing his work. During World War Two the Italian origins of our family name, would lead to him suffering racist abuse, despite his own military service, his brothers Andrew, and John/Jack who was Killed in Action and having his two younger brothers, Bill and Vic both serving overseas in the Army.

I often wonder what went through my Uncle Stephen and Andrew’s minds when Billy Hughes, Australian Prime Minister from 1915-23, said “Are we to be subservient to the dago.....We believe in the White Australia policy and a British White Australia Policy at that.”

In 1988 I met John Pilger for the first time and he impressed on me that the Left should not leave military history to the Right. As a Marxist I investigate history from the bottom part of the social pyramid based on the class division of Capitalism. It also reflects my father family’s social origins, Working Class Battlers of Italian and Irish decent. And World War One was about the highest stage of Capitalism, Imperialism. Germany wanted a World Empire just like the British and French and despite the British King being a cousin to the German Kaiser and them sharing the same grandmother Queen Victoria, they were both willing to sacrifice their subjects for territory and colonies.

Another influence on my research over the past 18 years, was Aboriginal/Murri singer and activist Kev Carmody, (Kev's country through his mother is Lama Lama/Grandfather and Bundjalung/Grandmother, his father was Irish) who encouraged me to read Charles Bean’s Official Australian History of World War One. Kev pointed out how leaders of the Returned Services League were disturbed by the vivid and detailed history that Bean wrote. Bean wrote crystal-clear pictures of what the soldiers endured and was not scared to make remarks like this about the generals.

Bean said of the British General Sir Douglas Haig, the commanding general at Passchendaele, "A general who wears down 180,000 of the enemy by expending 400,000 men...has something to answer for."

And Bean went further attacking those historians, who defended Haig, "Haig failed to break through, and, because he failed, his literary supporters have argued that it was never his main purpose; if that were true - which it is not - the most comprehensible reason for his conduct of the battle would disappear".

Most Australians don’t know where their country fought in World War One or Two. Gallipoli stands out, as does New Guinea. With World War One, the major theatre of war was the Western Front. It was here that over 45,000 Australians were killed, 10,000 slaughtered with no known grave, blown to pieces by artillery, or drowned and buried in the mud. The recent discovery of the bodies of four World War One Australian soldiers in Belgium two months ago is a reflection of this history that won’t go away.

These four men were slain on one of the three great killing fields for Australians and New Zealanders during WW1, the other two, the Somme in France (1916) and of course Gallipoli (1915) in Turkey. And the battle in Belgium that took their lives was Passchendaele (1917).

“Gentlemen history will be kind to us because I intend to write it.”

Winston Churchill

Those words say a lot about the way is history is written and by whom. It also says a lot about the political power involved in the writing of history. To most Australians and New Zealanders, Churchill’s name is closely associated with the disastrous military campaign of Gallipoli in World War One. And calling the Irish ancestry of a lot of Australians as “..bad stock.”

As the son of a Veteran of Churchill’s World War Two Gallipolis, the 1940 duo of Greece and Crete, that involved all the elements of his first great military debacle, Australian, New Zealand and British military deployed to do achieve crazy objective, stopping the German Invasion of Greece; fighting Hitler’s Nazi war machine at its peak, with 3 Commonwealth Divisions (a division is 20,000 soldiers) and what was left of the Greek army against the 30 Nazi Divisions, before it came to grief in Russia, all to impress the neutral United States ambassador in London.

But it did not share in the ANZAC legend and ethos, even though it was also a defeat. This is also the case in many of the other battles and places where Australians fought and died in World War One and Two.

Vic older brothers, John/Jack, Andrew and Stephen, the latter two were at Gallipoli. All three of them were at Passchendaele. John/Jack won the Military Medal there. His citation reads

“At Broodseinde during the period 26/27th October 1917, No3648 Pte John Tognolini did excellent work on the morning of the 26th October. He was one of a party of eight carrying two stretcher cases to the Regimental Aid Post when a shell burst and severely wounded three of the party. Although wounded himself he continued with his work and made two trips back to get the wounded they had left on the way. He then returned to line and on the morning of the 27th October when several men were wounded by shell fire and all the stretchers in use. He dressed one man and carried him on his back to the R.A.P. [regimental aid post/casualty clearing post] All this work was under very heavy shell fire. He set a fine example of coolness and courage to the men of his company. Pte Tognolini has on many occasions shown great courage and devotion to duty.”

John/Jack Tognolini was killed six months later on the 25-4-1918 at Villers Bretonneux, France. He was only 24 years old.

His epic feat is remarkable in that every step he took was in the wet and muddy conditions that Passchendaele is infamous for. This battleground had been turned into a filthy, quagmire of mud, blood and death.

Before the British attacked the German positions, British Military Intelligence had warned that it was the worst ground to launch a battle on, along the total length of the Western Front, some 765 kilometers/475 miles. Even the preparatory artillery attack by the British favoured the German defenders because it destroyed the drainage system. It turned the land cultivated by Belgium’s farmers for centuries back into a medieval bog.

In fact the German defenders just vacated the battlefield, tactically retreating to strong defensive positions, letting their British, Australian, Canadian, French, Indian, and New Zealand attackers wallow and flounder in the mud.

The German High Command actually welcomed Haig’s plan of attack. After wasting so many of their own troops against the French defenders of Verdun, the German General Falkenhayn could not believe that the British military leadership to be just as foolish and reckless to sacrifice their troops the way they had against the French.

One thing that is striking is how few officers are listed amongst the dead and the higher up you go, the further they are from the front line and the casualty lists. Haig was always a safe distance from the front in a commandeered château and had sand put over his roads, so his horse would not slip on his morning canter. Compared this to the dog’s life, the troops under his command suffered, who huddle up in the trenches, full of water, the dead, rats and lice.

General Douglas Haig wrote his own history in the way Churchill stated. But he went even further and falsified his part in the history of the War, because of his pivotal position of command; he intervened in the writing of Official British History of the War by James Edmonds. Edmonds even passed it to Haig for analysis as it was composed. Edmonds promised Haig’s widow in 1928 that he was writing for Haig ‘the history of his command as he would have wished’.

So what about the history of the soldiers, his troops who he died at Passchendaele who died in their thousands?

The same could be asked for all those thousands of soldiers who died in their thousands at the Somme the year before, where the leading British General was again Haig.

Haig made fallacious history and accounts of every battle he directed. In Denis Winter’s book Haig’s Command – A Reassessment (Viking 1991) Winter exposes a prime historical scam. Starting with the Somme to the Armistice (1918). Stating that the documents from which earlier histories had been written were interfered with. There were a completely rewritten adaptation of the facts. An example, the daily combat diary, all units had one, these were often changed by the Cabinet Office and vital appendices were completely removed.

War Cabinet minutes were rewritten, references to entire meetings removed, again and again. Daily accounts, Haig's own diary for example, were tampered with, and Winter declares to have discovered documents which Edmonds thought he destroyed in the 1940s, existing in the Australian and Canadian military archives.

I shall write further on this and The Australian experience of World War One including the Home Front in future postings.

The Appendix below is to the three battalions my Uncles Andrew, John/Jack and Stephen served in. This information is from the Australia War Memorial Website, by clicking on the blue you go straight into the AWM’s website.

Stephen Tognolini and George Hunt’s Battalion

21st Battalion

The 21st Battalion was raised, as part of the 6th Brigade, at Broadmeadows in Victoria in February 1915. Its recruits hailed from all over the state. The later enlistment of these men, and their average age of 29, would seem to indicate a more considered decision to enlist that set them apart from those who did so amidst the heady enthusiasm of late 1914.

The 21st Battalion arrived in Egypt in June 1915. As part of the newly raised 2nd Australian Division, it proceeded to Gallipoli in late August. It was an eventful trip - the battalion's transport was torpedoed near the island of Lemnos and had to be abandoned. The battalion finally landed at ANZAC Cove on 7 September. It had a relatively quiet time at Gallipoli, as the last major Allied offensives had been defeated in August.

After evacuation from Gallipoli in December 1915, the 21st Battalion arrived in France in March 1916. In April, it was the first Australian battalion to commence active operations on the Western Front. During the battle of Pozières it was engaged mainly on carrying duties, but suffered its heaviest casualties of the war during the fighting around Mouquet Farm.

In early May 1917, the battalion fought at Bullecourt, and then in October participated in the 3-kilometre advance that captured Broodseinde Ridge, east of Ypres. Like the rest of the AIF the battalion saw out the year recuperating from the trials of the Ypres sector.

After helping to blunt the German spring offensive of April 1918, the 21st battalion participated in the battles that would mark the beginning of Germany's defeat - Hamel, Amiens and Mont St. Quentin. The fighting for Mont St Quentin resulted in the battalion's only Victoria Cross, awarded to Sergeant Albert Lowerson.

Like many Australian battalions, the 21st could barely muster a company after the 1918 offensive. It was ordered to disband and reinforce its sister battalions. In response, the men of the 21st mutinied on 25 September 1918. By the end of that day, the order was withdrawn, and the battalion fought its last battle at Montbrehain on 5 October. The following day it became the last Australian battalion to withdraw from active operations on the Western Front. The 21st Battalion was disbanded on 13 October 1918.

Glossary

Battle of Amiens; Battle of Broodseinde Ridge; Battle of Hamel; Battle of Mont Brehain; Broadmeadows; Capture of Pozieres; German Spring Offensive; Lemnos; Mont St Quentin; Mouquet Farm; Mutinies; Ypres

Battle honours

Casualties

  • 872 killed, 2434 wounded (including gassed)

Andrew Tognolini’s battalion.

24th Battalion

The 24th Battalion was raised in a hurry. The original intent was to raise the fourth battalion of the 6th Brigade from the "outer states", but a surplus of recruits at Broadmeadows Camp in Victoria lead to a decision being made to raise it there. The battalion was formed during the first week of May 1915, and sailed from Melbourne at the end of that week.

Training shortfalls were made up in Egypt in July and August, and on 4 September 1915 the Battalion went ashore at Gallipoli. It spent the next 16 weeks sharing duty in the Lone Pine trenches with the 23rd Battalion. The fighting at Lone Pine was so dangerous and exhausting that battalions rotated every day. While the bulk of the battalion was at Gallipoli, a small party of 52, trained as packhorse handlers, served with the British force in Salonika.

The Battalion was reunited in Egypt in early 1916 and proceeded to France in March. It took part in its first major offensive around Pozières and Mouquet Farm in July and August 1917. The Battalion got little rest during the bleak winter of 1916-17 alternating between the front and labouring tasks. When patrolling no-man's land the men of the 24th adopted a unique form of snow camouflage - large white nighties bought in Amiens.

In May 1917 the battalion participated in the successful, but costly, second battle of Bullecourt. It was involved for only a single day - 3 May - but suffered almost 80 per cent casualties. The AIF's focus for the rest of the year was the Ypres sector in Belgium, and the 24th's major engagement there was the seizure of Broodseinde Ridge.

Like many AIF battalions, the 24th was very weak at the beginning of 1918, but still played its part in turning back the German offensive in April. When the Allies took to the offensive, the 24th fulfilled supporting roles during the battles of Hamel and Amiens. At Mont St Quentin, however, it played a major role by recapturing the main German strong point atop the summit on 1 September. A diorama at the Australian War Memorial depicts this attack.

The battalion's last battles of the war were at Beaurevoir on 3 October and Montbrehain on 5 October. It left the front line for the last time on 6 October 1918 and disbanded in May 1919.

Glossary

1st Australian Imperial Force; Battle of Amiens; Battle of Broodseinde Ridge; Battle of Hamel; Battle of Lone Pine; Battle of Mont Brehain; Beaurevoir Line; Broadmeadows; Capture of Pozieres; German Spring Offensive; Mont St Quentin; Mouquet Farm; Outer States; Salonika Front; Ypres

Battle honours

Casualties

  • 909 killed, 2494 wounded (including gassed)

John/Jack Tognolini’s battalion.

57th Battalion

The 57th Battalion was raised in Egypt on 18 February 1916 as part of the "doubling" of the AIF. Half of its recruits were Gallipoli veterans from the 5th Battalion, and the other half, fresh reinforcements from Australia. Reflecting the composition of the 5th, the 57th was predominantly composed of men from the suburbs of Melbourne. The battalion became part of the 15th Brigade of the 5th Australian Division.

Having only arrived in France in late June, the 57th became embroiled in its first major battle on the Western Front on 19 July, without the benefit of an introduction to the trenches in a "quiet" sector. The battle of Fromelles was a disaster. Fortunately for the 57th it was allocated a supporting role and suffered relatively light casualties compared to its sister battalions. This, however, meant that 57th carried the burden of holding the line in ensuing days for the battalion. Despite its grievous losses, the 5th Division continued to man the front in the Fromelles sector for a further two months.

Early in 1917 the battalion participated in the advance that followed the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line, but it was spared having to assault it. It did, however, defend gains made during the second battle of Bullecourt. Later in the year, the AIF's focus of operations switched to the Ypres sector in Belgium. The 57th's major battle here was at Polygon Wood on 26 September.

With the collapse of Russia in October 1917, a major German offensive on the Western Front was expected in early 1918. This came in late March and the 5th Division moved to defend the sector around Corbie. During this defence, the 57th Battalion participated in the now legendary counter-attack at Villers-Bretonneux on 25 April. When the Allies launched their own offensive around Amiens on 8 August, the 57th Battalion was amongst the units in action, although its role in the subsequent advance was limited. The battalion entered its last major battle of the war on 29 September 1918. This operation was mounted by the 5th and 3rd Australian Divisions, in co-operation with American forces, to break through the formidable German defences along the St Quentin Canal. The battalion withdrew to rest on 2 October and was still doing so when the war ended. The battalion disbanded in March 1919.

Glossary

15th Brigade; 1st Australian Imperial Force; 5th Division; Battle of Amiens; Battle of Fromelles; Battle of Villers-Bretonneux; Expansion and reorganisation of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in Egypt; German Spring Offensive; Hindenburg Line; Polygon Wood; Second Battle of Bullecourt; St Quentin Canal; Third Battle of Ypres

Battle honours

Casualties

  • 505 killed, 1253 wounded

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