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Prime Minister Rt Hon. WM Hughes visits Western Front (1918)

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General disquiet on the Western Front

Original classification rating: not rated. This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

The Australian prime minister, Mr WM Hughes, arrives at one of the châteaux used as headquarters by the Australian Imperial Force during 1918, accompanied by the newly appointed commander of the Australian Corps, Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash. Later, the deputy prime minister, Sir Joseph Cook, addresses men of the 2nd Division, AIF, as Hughes, Monash and General Sir William Birdwood listen.

Curator’s notes

There is some confusion about the first shot in this film. The third shot of Hughes leaving is at 5th Division headquarters at St Gratien, near Amiens, according to the Australian War Memorial, but the arrival shot is a different set of stairs. It may be a different entrance to the same building, or a different location. This fragment of film has no front title, so it is possible that it is an excerpt from one of the other films of this era – possibly the The Australians’ Final Campaign in 1918. It does have an end title, which might mean that it once had a front title that is now lost. The photographer is most likely Hubert Wilkins, or one of his assistants. There are still photographs taken at the same moment of Hughes’s departure, shaking hands on the stairs, which strongly suggests more than one photographer.

In the first shot, Hughes gets out of the car first, followed by Lieutenant-General Monash, who wears a distinctive armband on his right upper arm. Monash stands to the right of Hughes in the next shot, as the prime minister speaks to the military chaplain, and two other officers. The third shot, the departure, includes some of the senior commanders that Hughes had come to consult about Monash’s appointment (see main notes). These include Lieutenant-General Sir Talbot Hobbs, Commander of the 5th Division, who supported Monash’s appointment and told Hughes so over lunch that day – according to Charles Bean’s diary (AWM 38, 3DRL606/116/1, 2 July, p 12):

It was of course a very anxious day for Murdoch and me … We knew that there would be a great offensive conducted against suggestions for the command of the AIF – and there was. Gen. Birdwood was down here … Hughes and Cook were taken round first to the 11th Brigade, then to the 4th, then to the 6th. Lastly to the Flying Corps – No. 3 Squadron at Flesselles. At each of the divisions the divisional commander was there, and was closeted with Hughes or took him aside at the close of the parade, while he had lunch with Hobbs and a long private discussion afterwards. Gellibrand [CO of 2nd Division, AIF] is the only one of them who thinks as we do – and I did not see him with Hughes … The result was that Hughes was seriously shaken – He said to Murdoch just before he left – 'Well – I haven’t met a single one of them that thinks as you do. They all say the same thing. – You tell me there are men who think the other way – where are they?’ Murdoch told him that of course the men he had seen all thought the other way, because it had been arranged that they should be the ones to meet him. However when Hughes drove off to Paris with Cook and Box … we all felt pretty blue. I did at any rate.

This makes clear that Bean, at least, already knew that most of the senior Australian staff did not support his view that White, rather than Monash, should be Corps commander. At the beginning of his campaign against Monash six weeks earlier, he was convinced that the opposite was true. Everyone, he told himself, believed that White was the better man. He had had time in those six weeks to hear the views of the various commanders, some of whom attacked him directly for his meddling. It’s also clear in his diary entry that he still had hope – mainly that the persuasive Murdoch would hold Hughes to their line. They failed, and Monash became one of the most influential and lauded commanders on the British side in the final months of the war.

One of the curious aspects of this footage is the speech to the troops. Hughes spoke before Cook but we get only Cook’s address. Hughes lay on the ground behind him during this speech, looking at the men. Bean noticed this and wrote in his diary that ‘He seemed wrapped up in the men, and was gazing into their faces all the time. I suppose that he was thinking to himself: within thirty-six hours these men will be out there advancing under the bursting shells, going straight into the thresh of the machine guns … and here they are laughing at Joe’s old jokes, wrapped up in his speech exactly as if they were on a picnic.’

At the right of the frame in the first shot of Cook’s speech, Monash is visible talking to General Birdwood (in the slouch hat). Hughes is lying prone at their feet on his stomach. One possible explanation of why he chose to lie down is that he was dog-tired. Hughes had trouble sleeping, and he had particular trouble when he got close to the battlefront. Bean recounts a visit to Hughes in London on 16 June. Hughes and his wife were staying at a house in Regents Park provided by the British Government. Murdoch and Bean had a long conversation with him at this house, where Hughes used his ‘telephone apparatus’, which Bean describes as a microphone, to help him hear (AWM 38, 3DRL606/115/1, p 31).

He is increasingly deaf. I thought he was looking very pale and blue about the lips – but he brightened up as soon as he got on to controversy … He is very nervous, I believe, of air raids and I daresay that is why he is not at the Savoy with Joe Cook and the other Prime Ministers. Box [EA Box, secretary to the Australian High Commissioner in London] says Hughes will not sleep a wink at Corps headquarters [in France] and therefore cannot stay two nights.

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