Diggers' Requiem Program Notes
Overture: Dedicated to all military and civilian victims of war
Elena Kats-Chernin (b. 1957) arr. Latham: The Silent Field
Movement 1: REQUIEM AETERNAM, for Fromelles
G.F. Handel, arr. Latham: Dead March from Saul (the archetypal funeral work played at Commonwealth WWI Military Funerals)
The Battle of Fleurbaix, now more commonly known as the Battle of Fromelles, was Australia’s first major battle on the Western Front. Intended as a feint to draw German troops away from the main fighting in the Somme, it was notable for poor planning and deeply flawed tactics, and ended in disastrous failure. Troops from the 5th Australian and 61st British Divisions attacked at 6pm on 19 July 1916 over open ground under direct observation with no element of surprise, suffering terrible casualties from German machine guns in reinforced bunkers.
Small sections of the German trenches were captured by the 8th and 14th Australian Brigades, but running short of ammunition and under intense fire and counterattacks from three sides, they were forced to withdraw. Over 5,500 Australians became casualties (around 90% of those involved), with almost 2,000 killed, and around 400 captured. It is understood to be the greatest loss by a single division in 24 hours during the entire First World War. The British suffered over 1,500 casualties, while German casualties were little more than 1,000.
Australian official war correspondent Charles Bean walked the battlefield after the Armistice and “found No-Man’s-Land simply full of our dead … skulls and bones and torn uniforms were lying about everywhere”.
It remains the worst 24 hours in Australian history, the single day losses greater than the combined losses of the Boer, Korean and Vietnam Wars, plus Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2007, the remains of over 200 Australian and 50 British soldiers buried in a mass grave by German troops at Pheasant Wood were uncovered and in 2010, their remains were transferred to the Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery in Fromelles with full military honours.
Movement 2: KYRIE, for Pozières
F.S. Kelly (1881 - 1916), arr. Latham: The Somme Lament (The Australian composer’s final work, written near Thiepval two weeks before his death)
In late July 1916, the Australian troops fought their first battle in the Somme. The goal was to seize the ridge east of Pozières to enable an attack on the German strongholds on the Thiepval Ridge, which had resisted the British since the opening day of the battle. While British divisions were heavily involved, Pozières is primarily remembered today as an Australian battle.
Pozières was initially taken by the 1st Division on 23 July 1916, but their success brought unwanted attention from German command, which deemed it a crucial element of their defensive system, and ordered it retaken at any cost. The subsequent German bombardment of Pozières was the equal of anything yet experienced on the Western Front, and far surpassed what the Australians had previously experienced at Gallipoli. By the time they were relieved on July 27, they had suffered 5,285 casualties. One observer said “They looked like men who had been in Hell ... drawn and haggard, and so dazed that they appeared to be walking in a dream, their eyes glassy and starey.”
The 2nd Division took over and mounted two further attacks, on July 29, a costly failure; and on August 2, when they took German lines beyond the village, but again suffered heavily from the resulting artillery barrage. By the time they were relieved on August 6, they had suffered 6,848 casualties. The 4th Division was next into the line at Pozières. They too endured a massive artillery bombardment, and on 7 August defeated the Germans’ last attempt to retake Pozières, at a cost of almost 7,100 casualties.
In six weeks of fighting at Pozières and Mouquet Farm, the three Australian divisions suffered around 23,000 casualties, including 6,800 dead, losses comparable with those sustained at Gallipoli over eight months. Charles Bean described the Pozières ridge as “more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth.”
Movement 3: TUBA MIRUM, for Bapaume
Nigel Westlake (b. 1958) / AF Lithgow (1870 – 1929): Entering Bapaume
The first liberation of Bapaume on March 19, 1917, was achieved by Australian troops who, having sensed that the German troops stationed opposite them had withdrawn, literally ran through the abandoned German trenches to claim the last remaining prize from the initial goals of the Battle of the Somme.
The soldiers’ spirits were further lifted by the Band of the 5th Australian Infantry Brigade, led by Bandmaster Sergeant A. Peagam of the 19th Battalion, which played Alex Lithgow’s Victoria March as they marched through the burning ruins into the old town square. This march is heard half-way through this movement.
The photograph of the Band playing as it entered the town square was published widely in Australian newspapers, and featured prominently in a major exhibition mounted at the Royal Academy of the Arts in London in 1918. The “Imperial War Exhibition” featured a gallery of Australian official photographs and war relics, including an enlarged print of the Bapaume photograph, which was displayed grandly as the visual centrepiece of the Australian gallery. It would become the most famous Australian photo of the war.
The victory was soured by the delayed-action detonation of explosives which destroyed the Town Hall, the last surviving building, which was filled with thirty sleeping Australian soldiers, who were buried in the collapsing rubble. All but six were killed, together with two French deputies. Bapaume would be lost again to the German advance in the Spring offensive of 1918, before being finally liberated for good by New Zealand forces in 1918.
Movement 4: LACRIMOSA, for Bullecourt
Elena Kats-Chernin (b. 1957): The Fields of Bullecourt
The British attack at Arras which started on 9-10 April in 1917 had some resounding successes initially, such as the stunning attack by the Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge. Soon, however, the battle slipped into the slogging match that was so typical of the Western Front. Meanwhile Australian forces suffered terrible losses in two mismanaged battles aimed at capturing the fortified village of Bullecourt. For a short time they did succeed in breaking the Hindenburg line, but it was a short-lived tactical victory. In the first Battle of Bullecourt over 1,100 Australians were taken prisoner, the highest number in any single action during the war.
The first battle of Bullecourt was a terrible freezing disaster fought in snow and slush. The Australian troops had succeeded in penetrating the German trenches but were quickly surrounded on all sides and soon ran out of ammunition. The lucky survivors were instructed by their captors to bury their dead, which they did in a large pit which is probably located just next to the town. With luck it will be uncovered one day, and the missing identified from their identity discs and reburied under their own headstones. Over the two battles for Bullecourt, Australia suffered over 10,000 casualties for minimal results, with the result that Australian troops lost all confidence in their British leadership and how they were being used.
Elena Kats-Chernin’s Lacrimosa is dedicated to Lance Corporal John Riseley and his friends, who managed to survive the first battle of Bullecourt and get back to their lines. They were trying to warm themselves around a fire they had built when a dud shell buried in the earth beneath it exploded and killed them.
Movement 5: VIRTUS ET CONSTANTIA, for the WWI Palestine Campaign
Richard Mills (b. 1949): The Charge of Beersheba
The Battle of Beersheba (part of the third Battle of Gaza) occurred on October 31, 1917, between defending Turkish troops led by German commanders and the attacking Commonwealth troops. Beersheba was strategically important for its permanent wells, one of that desert’s only sources of water, which the attacking forces desperately needed.
The Commonwealth infantry had started the day attacking Beersheba from the south west but were unable to break through. With the need for water increasingly desperate and the dusk light fading, the Australian Light Horsemen were ordered to attack from the east. They were instructed to use their bayonets as swords as if in an archaic cavalry charge, keeping their rifles slung across their backs. The daring charge over six kilometres of open ground against heavily fortified defences should have resulted in a massacre.
When the Ottoman troops saw the on-coming Australians, they opened fire with shrapnel, machine guns and rifles. However, in the dust and fading light, they mistook the distance with most shells falling behind the charging horsemen, and their defensive machine gun positions were weakened by accurate British artillery fire.
The success of the charge was due to its rapidity and unexpectedness. With the cavalry approaching, the Turkish fire discipline broke and panic set in. When the Australians reached the trenches, many of the horses, having smelt the water, refused to stop, leaping over the trenches and galloping into the town towards the wells. Of the 800 Light Horsemen who charged only 31 were killed, with a further 36 wounded. In contrast, the Turkish defenders suffered heavy casualties and 1,148 prisoners were taken. A German officer described the bold headlong charge thus: “Those are not soldiers at all – they are madmen!”
The capture of Beersheba altered the course of the War in the Holy Land, opening the way for the whole Turkish defensive line to be outflanked. Gaza fell a week later and on December 9, 1917, Commonwealth troops entered Jerusalem.
Movement 6: DIES IRAE, the Third Battle of Ypres
Nigel Westlake: The Age of Destruction
The Third Battle of Ypres started well with a summer offensive that began with the great mine detonations under Messines Ridge – so massive that the explosions were reportedly heard in London, and possibly even Dublin. The campaign promised even greater success after a series of effective bite-and-hold operations – the battles of Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde, in which the Australians did well; but ultimately the battle ended up mired in the mud and rain of Passchendaele.
General Haig had grand ambitions of being able to sweep past Ypres to the Channel coast, but the last push to Passchendaele in October/November became a desperate struggle, fought for little strategic gain in a desolate landscape of mud, water-filled craters and shattered trees. In the Third Battle of Ypres, Commonwealth losses were at least 250,000 men (some estimates are as high as 310,000), of whom 70,000 were dead. The Germans incurred around 200,000 casualties.
The Third Ypres was the ultimate stalemate that would come to epitomise the futility of the war of attrition: a vast bog, that drowned horses, where artillery shells could not detonate, and through which the heavy guns could not be moved. It took up to eight men to carry a single wounded man on a stretcher. It became an exercise in futility. There were no trenches left, just shell holes in the sludge, with waves of men dragging themselves through the morass to throw themselves at the other side with no rhyme or reason. If ever there was a lowest point, a place where the military strategy became impossible to defend or justify, and the Great War devolved into meaningless slaughter on a vast industrial scale, it was there in Flanders.
Movement 7: SANCTUS FOR ICARUS, The Fall of Aces
Nigel Westlake: Wooden Birds Fly Over the Valley of the Somme
On 25 July 1909, the French pilot Louis Blériot became the first person to cross the English Channel, in an airplane which he crash-landed in a field overlooking the white cliffs of Dover. He had beaten Hubert Latham who had crashed twice into the channel during his attempts. Only five years later the first English squadrons crossed the other way as they entered the Great War; the first arming of the skies had begun.
Early aircraft were primitive and highly flawed, and overwhelmingly the highest number of WW1 aviation deaths were due to accidents, both human and mechanical. But by 1918 the great hunters of the sky, the Aces, had become famous figures, none more so than Baron Manfred von Richthofen, a brilliant pilot who was finally killed by an Australian machine gunner. Firing from the ground, Sgt. Cedric Popkin hit him in the heart, causing him to bleed to death. Richthofen crashed near Bertangles, where his body was buried with full honours by the Australian troops and pilots who found him. He was twenty-five years old.
Almost all the great flying aces of the war were dead by 1918, falling to the swarms of new improved planes, pilots and anti-aircraft gunners. Georges Guynemer, the great French ace, was killed in the Third Battle of Ypres on September 11, 1917, at the age of 23. Australia’s greatest aces, Robert Little (killed 27 May 1918 aged 22) and Roderic Dallas (killed 1 June 1918 aged 26), were both shot down in France within four days of each other, on May 27 and June 1, 1918, respectively. Maurice Boyau, the famous Algerian-born French Rugby captain, was killed on September 16, 1918; had he lived, he might have played in Paris in 1928, in the very first test between Australia and France.
Movement 8: BENEDICTUS, Protecting Amiens
Nigel Westlake: Symphonies of Glass and Stone
Amiens Cathedral (built 1220–1270) is both the tallest and the largest cathedral in France, able to fit Notre Dame de Paris within it twice. Its soaring outline dominates the city and the surrounding landscape, and was a revelation to the vast number of troops who arrived there by rail during World War I. A strategic rail hub for both supplies and troop transport, Amiens was always a key strategic goal for the German army, and extensive measures were taken to protect Amiens Cathedral: the stained glass windows were carefully removed, and sandbags were stacked high in the nave. The cathedral was hit nine times by shells. Tragically, a fire in the artist’s studio used to store the stained glass destroyed the majority of the medieval windows.
On 21 March 1918, Ludendorff’s great Spring offensive (Operation Michael) tried to take the city again. Ludendorff planned to punch through the Commonwealth lines and push them back to the Channel, forcing France to surrender. The ‘Emperor’s Battle’ started on March 21, 1918, with a bombardment by the largest concentration of artillery of WWI to that point. By April 5 the Germans had advanced 28 miles, as far as the town of Villers-Bretonneux, where they were finally stopped by Australian and British troops.
The massive allied counter-attack by Commonwealth, French and American troops on August 8, 1918 (known as the Battle of Amiens) caused the German army to lose more ground than on any other day on the Western Front, and with it 16,000 prisoners. It caused German morale to collapse, leading Ludendorff to report to Kaiser Wilhelm II that the war was now irretrievably lost. The Australian forces captured a large 15-inch railway gun which had been brought up to shell the city, and which now, named the Amiens Gun, adorns the grounds of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. To this day Australians have a special relationship with Amiens and its magnificent cathedral, which they and many others fought bravely to save.
Movement 9: LIBERA ME, for Villers-Bretonneux
Nigel Westlake: I Was Blind – But Now I See
Germany’s Operation Michael was a spectacularly successful spring offensive that took back in a matter of days all the hard won gains of the Somme campaign. The offensive finally stalled at Villers-Bretonneux, where Australian and British troops managed to halt the German advance on Amiens, whose rail network was vitally important for the transport of Allied troops and supplies. However, a second attempt by German infantry and tanks to retake the ridge from exhausted British defenders on 24 April 1918 succeeded. The Australian 13th and 15th Brigades were immediately brought forward and along with the 2nd Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment and the 22nd Durham Light Infantry were immediately thrown into a daring night attack to retake the town.
At 10:00 pm the operation began, with German machine gun crews causing many Australian casualties, until a number of charges neutralised those threats. The two Australian brigades then swept around Villers-Bretonneux surrounding the German troops in the town. The British units then attacked frontally, suffering heavy casualties (including the conductor’s great uncle Lt. Col. Stephen Latham). By 25 April, the town had been recaptured and the village remained thereafter in Allied hands: the German army would advance no further during the war. The cost to the Australian brigades was 2,473 casualties, British losses were 9,529, French losses were around 3,500; German losses were 8,000-10,400 men.
After the Anzac Day counter-attack, British and French commanders lavished praise upon the attacking troops. Brigadier-General George Grogan, a witness, later wrote that it was “perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war” for troops to attack at night, across unfamiliar ground, at short notice and with no artillery preparation. Maréchal Foch spoke of their “astonishing valiance”, and General Sir Henry Rawlinson attributed the safety of Amiens to the “determination, tenacity and valour of the Australian Corps”. By denying the German artillery the strategically valuable high ground where they could have situated their heavy guns and observers in order to destroy Amiens’ railyards, the Australian troops very likely saved Amiens Cathedral and much of the city from a catastrophically destructive bombardment.
Movement 10: PIE JESU, the Liberation of Péronne
Graeme Koehne (b. 1956): Pie Jesu: Prayer of Saint Joan of Arc
For most of WWI, the town of Péronne was occupied by German troops. Civilian life was deeply affected and the town suffered heavily from waves of artillery bombardments from all sides; almost a third of the town’s inhabitants became civilian casualties of the shelling. The war was particularly cruel to Péronne’s Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church. In October 1914, the Germans occupied the church, and the bell tower became an important observation post overseeing the front lines. A heavy machine gun was even mounted there for anti-aircraft defence. At the end of January 1916, the Péronne Church was temporarily transformed into a prison, housing around 500 French prisoners. On 7 July 1916, the city was heavily shelled by French artillery and the church lost its windows and several sculptures. The following day, the civilians were evacuated, and Father Dubois deposited the relics of Saint Fursy in the vault of the sacristy before he left. They were never seen again.
Péronne was abandoned by the Germans in March 1917 when they withdrew eastwards to the Hindenburg line; the town was then occupied by the British, until they in turn were driven out by the German offensive in March 1918. On the night of August 31, the Australian troops under Monash crossed the Somme River and attacked the dominating stronghold of Mont St Quentin at 5 am, from the unexpected northwest side. It was a heroic endeavour, involving an uphill fight across very exposed and open ground totally dominated by well-defended German firing positions embedded in the summit.
After Mont St Quentin had been taken, there followed a day of intense fighting in Péronne itself before it was finally liberated on September 2 – an achievement General Rawlinson described the as one of the great feats of the war. After the Armistice of 1918, the inhabitants of Péronne returned to find their church a shell, with only the walls still standing, and the centre of the town reduced to ruin by Allied and German bombardment. The Church was chosen to be one of the first buildings rebuilt, and by April 1920 this powerful symbol of Péronne’s resilience and rebirth had been restored to its previous glory.
Movements 11 & 12: LUX AETERNA & IN PARADISUM, for Bellenglise and Montbrehain – the piercing of the Hindenburg Line
Ross Edwards (b. 1943): Eternal Light
The piercing of the Hindenburg line was the Australian infantry’s final action in the Great War. Over 17 days, after six months of fighting with no break, it cost the Australians 5,500 dead and wounded, bringing the total since 8 August and the battle of Amiens to 35,000 casualties and over 7,000 killed. 11 out of 60 battalions had been disbanded because so few men were left.
The Hindenburg Line was the last and strongest German defence system, with seven separate lines of fortifications 11 kilometres deep. On September 18 the Australians under General Sir John Monash attacked, taking 4,300 prisoners, but suffering around 1,000 dead and wounded. On September 29 Australian and US troops attacked at Bellicourt. After four days of fighting and heavy losses, they broke through at Bellenglise, capturing the entrance to the St Quentin canal tunnel and forcing German troops to retreat eight kilometres to their last defensive line. Consisting of thick barbed wire entanglements (up to 40 metres deep in places) and well-sited machine gun and anti-tank gun bunkers, the Beaurevoir Line was successfully breached on 3 October. Finally on 5 October, the 6th Australian Brigade took Montbrehain, suffering 430 casualties, a cost now regarded as too high for the strategic gain. With a seventeen kilometre gap in their main defences and the collapse of domestic support for the war, Germany had no choice but to request an armistice, which was declared on 11 November.
When peace was finally declared, many Australian soldiers spoke of a sense of numbness and being too tired to celebrate. They had given everything they had, and many had survived only to live shortened, stunted lives. The trauma and horror left the dead, the survivors and their loved ones all casualties of war.
Graeme Koehne (b. 1956)
Pie Jesu (Text by Christopher Latham after Joan of Arc)
untouched by a lover,
will be burnt by fire,
‘til nothing remains,
the air and wind for a grave,
the air and wind for a grave.
I am not afraid.
I ask only forgiveness
from those I have harmed.
I heard a great voice,
I saw a great light,
The angels came -
as thousands of stars.
Grant us eternal peace.
Ross Edwards (b. 1943)
Requiem aeternam dona eis
We the dead speak to you the living:
make peace, a lasting peace.
GF Handel (1685-1759) (arr. Latham)
Dead March from Saul
Elena Kats-Chernin (b. 1957)
Lacrimosa: The Fields of Bullecourt (text by Christopher Latham after the Anglican Funeral Sentences)
Man has only a short time to live,
Man has only a short life of misery,
Death surrounds him
With no chance of return,
He rises up, and is cut down,
You who knew his secret light;
Shut not your eyes to my precious son
Shut not your eyes to his gruesome plight;
Far from home, all alone
Freezing cold, losing hold
Closing in, surrounded
No escape, tearing flesh, final breath
Blessed be he, he who is gone
Without a trace not even a mound
Entombed alone and forlorn.
Blessed be he who has vanished,
Blessed be he who has perished,
Let him be loved and be cherished,
Blessed be my son.
Bless’d be my son, my elation
Grant him his final salvation
Blessed be my son.