Before the battle

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Today we use the expression 'over the top' to mean something that is extreme or outrageous. To soldiers in the First World War this phrase held a far more ominous meaning, as they received the order to leave the relative safety of the trenches to go ‘over the top’ into the danger and uncertainty of no-man’s land.

The term ‘over the top’ has its origins in the First World War. The Western Front in particular was characterised by hundreds of kilometres of opposing trenches from which attacks often began with an artillery barrage followed by men scaling the parapet and advancing towards the enemy line. 

For new soldiers, the moments before their first experience of combat aroused complex emotions. As his boat approached Gallipoli in August 1915 Joe Maxwell was consumed with regret:

What did I think? What did I say to myself? God what a damn fool I was to get into this … It kept hammering away at the brain. Streets, girls, colour, friends, life, civilization, seemed dwindling memories, things lost for ever. There was a feeling of finality about it all.  I would never see anything again but those crags ahead … What a damn fool! What a damn fool!’

Maxwell survived the war and proved both lucky and resolute in battle earning the Victoria Cross and becoming the Australian Imperial Force’s second most highly decorated soldier.

In the hours before going into battle soldiers’ thoughts often turned to home and loved ones. At Fromelles, Geoff McCrae took a moment to write to his family:

Today I lead my battalion in an assault on the German lines and I pray God I may come through alright and bring honour to our name.  If not, I will at least have laid down my life for you and my country, which is the greatest privilege one can ask for. Farewell dear people, the hour approacheth. 

McCrae survived just a few minutes in no-man’s-land before a German bullet struck his neck, killing him instantly.

The nerves men felt before going into battle manifested in various ways. Private Bert Bishop recalled that before going into the momentous attack outside Amiens on 8 August 1918, his company was:

Lounging about, loafing in the warm sunshine, getting our gear in order. Men talked, argued and discussed the morrow’s battle. Twilight deepened into darkness. We assembled in battle order to hear our final detailed orders … We were silent and thoughtful … A chill breath of air whispered across the fields. Dawn was at hand. Men rose, stretched themselves. “Prepare to move”, the words came, were passed along. No-one spoke, we were too busy thinking. In a few moments we would be in a battle which would sway history. We knew it could mean the winning or losing of the war. From in front, from all around us, countless guns suddenly fired. Sheets and flashes of flame tore the dawn to shreds. Everything leapt into roaring, screaming, throbbing life.

A black and white photo of AIF eating a meal in the trenches.

Members of the 22nd Battalion, AIF, eating a meal in the trenches on Westhoek Ridge on the night before the opening Australian attack on the Third Battle of Ypres on 20 September 1917 (AWM E00739).

Officers bore a different burden to the men they commanded, often occupied with planning and organisation some recall that there was little time to feel fear. Leaders who served in or visited the front line could inspire confidence in their men by their presence before and during battle. Lieutenant Colonel Oswald Croshaw’s 53rd Battalion was the lead unit in the assault on the Butte at Polygon Wood. Described by Official Historian Charles Bean as ‘one of the noblest British officers in the AIF’, Croshaw addressed his brother officers before the battle, ‘Gentlemen, your men before yourselves. Look to your flanks. God bless you lads till we meet again.’ He was killed by a shell shortly afterwards. 

For more senior officers, with the element of personal danger removed, but the burden of responsibility for the lives of thousands of others weighing heavily, the hours or moments before battle carried a different kind of tension. As Zero Hour at Hamel drew near on 4 July 1918, an observer watched General Sir John Monash, whose plan for a swift combined-arms action was about to be put to the test:

Glancing out the window I could just discern … the figure of a person slowly pacing up and down the gravel drive in front of the Chateau. The figure was that of Sir John. Every now and then he would pause and look at his watch, awaiting zero hour. Then came the anxious moments, five minutes, four, three, two, one to go and then the sound of guns in the opening barrage came over the air. Sir John stopped and looking for a moment in the direction of the battle front, his anxiety relieved, he turned and slowly … went to his office. 

The image of staff officers living well and safely in chateaus behind the front line does not accurately reflect the experience of every officer. At least two Australian generals, Bridges and Holmes, lost their lives at the front, while in the British Army, some 200 generals were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Generals were often within artillery and sometimes machine gun range of the enemy.  

Going over the top was a comparatively rare experience for soldiers and it was possible to do numerous tours in the front line without participating in any major attacks. Yet, by its nature, battle was a profound moment in any soldier’s experience of war, anticipated for months or sometimes years, and an object of deep curiosity, fear and anxiety.