Between the Crosses: Gunnedah’s Great War

David Riordan. Photo courtesy of Joan Flood.

David Riordan. Photo courtesy of Joan Flood.

Dave Riordan had been a farmer at Kelvin ‘via Gunnedah’ when he was seized by a patriotic urge to enlist for God King and Country aged just 21 on February 17, 1916.

His time of planting wheat and sheep husbandry was abruptly ended as he signed himself into the service of the Australian Army.

After initial training and a bout of influenza he departed, reaching the killing fields of France in September, just after the Battle of Polygon Wood. Dave kept his shop in order until the following year when, on March 30, 1917, he was struck by gunfire – and that was his war, over. Except it wasn’t, as he spent the next year revolving through military hospitals in England before being repatriated home. 

Dave disembarked from Sydney on July 5, 1918 and travelled home almost immediately afterwards. Obviously, his family had been notified and had thus had time to arrange for a large welcome back party to be held. The Tamworth Daily Observer of July 17, 1918 wrote of the day: ‘A welcome home was tendered to Corp Dave Riordan, at Kelvin, on Friday night … in Mr Herb Jones’ hall, there was a very large attendance, over 300 being present. Mr Frank Porter filled the position as chairman. The band was also in attendance from Gunnedah’.

Dave was home and would rejoice in spending the remainder of his life farming with the Kelvin Hills in sight.

While the date of July 4, 1918, was significant to Dave’s family, as the day the ship carrying him sailed into the Sydney heads towards his family, in Australian military history it was also significant as the day an Australian Commander nailed an almost perfect victory.

John Monash’s Victory

General John Monash excelled at planning and planning in detail. He was, in all things, meticulous. As Commander of the Australian 4th Division he was determined to show that things could be done better. He wanted to show that the role of the infantry wasn’t to be mown down by machine guns, but was to work in conjunction with other areas of military force – these being tanks, artillery and air support.

Air support notably in the form of planes from the Royal Flying Corps and the Australian Flying Corps was particularly useful for bombing craters in the open ground ahead of the assaulting infantry to give them some cover as they advanced. Monash made sure the planes flew constantly during the night of July 3 over the German trenches to disguise the noise from the tanks as they moved up to the front to form up for their attack. In the words of the Sydney Morning Herald of July 8, 1918 the Germans ‘suspected nothing’.

The assault was well thought out, well detailed and well executed, and as a result, the attack, on a spur of high ground, between Villers-Bretonneux village in the south to Le Hamel in the north, was a great success. The Australian troops reached objectives by 04.35am, exactly 93 minutes from the start of the artillery smoke screen at 3.02am.

The entire exercise took just three minutes longer than Monash had calculated. Its aims were achieved with, (using that old catchphrase perhaps correctly for the first time in this war) military precision. Finally, lessons had been learned, as the Germans ran out of puff and the end of the conflict became a real-time possibility.