When and how did they die

The records of those Victorian public sector workers who died reveal a grim snapshot of life on the Western Front (and it is overwhelmingly on the Western Front that they died - a number also died at Gallipoli but only one in Palestine). Around half of those for whom the cause of death is recorded died of shellfire and most of the rest of gunshot wounds. This is actually a larger proportion of gunshot wounds than is normal for the war (it is generally understood that more than 80% of deaths in World War One were caused by artillery). The greater prevalence of gunshot wounds, however, is not so unusual amongst Australian troops as they were used so often as assault troops - they tended to die while attacking rather than defending.

The following graph records the numbers who died in each month of the war (including the handful who died of disease or of their wounds as late as March 1919). You can see clearly the impact of a handful of major conflicts. The two biggest peaks are in July/August 1916 and from September to November 1917.

Graph, when they died

The 1916 peak records the disastrous introduction of the AIF to the Western Front in the battles of Fromelles and Pozieres. Fromelles is recorded simply and bleakly in the records of the 18 Victorian public sector workers who fell there. The battle took place mostly on 19 July 1916 (one death is recorded on the 20th). All the records initially state that the soldiers, such as John Douglas of the Public Works Department or Clemons Phillips of the Chief Secretary's Department, were missing. A subsequent record amends this to "killed in action". This is because the attack failed and the bodies were buried in a mass grave by the Germans – recently discovered by archaeologists. Pozieres involved a "successful" attack in which seizure of a piece of ground of doubtful strategic value was followed by weeks of shelling (the Germans retained higher ground covering it). Albert Jacka won his second medal here almost single-handedly defeating a German counter attack, but for the most part the battle was experienced as a prolonged, nerve-shattering exposure to shell fire such as that which briefly buried John Foster of the Chief Secretary's Department (Lunacy Section) alive.

The 1917 peak records the Third Battle of Ypres (more commonly referred to as "Passchendaele" though this is more correctly is used to refer to the final phase of the campaign from October till December). This contained a number of discreet phases, from the initial attack on the Pilcken Ridge (3/7-2/8/1917), through Langemarck(16-18/8/1917), Menin Road (20-25/9/1917), Polygon Wood (26/9-3/10/1917) and Broodseinde(4-11/10/1917) to the First and Second battles of Passchendaele(12/10-10/12/1917). It was fought to capture two ridges that overlooked Ypres, in the vain hope of a major breakthrough, but also to distract German attention away from a mutiny in the French Army. A breathtaking 10,000 Australians died fighting in a lunar landscape where the mud was so deep horses could drown in it. 53 of the state employees died in this campaign – 39 of them in attacks that military historians record as being "successful". Indeed the costliest phase of the battle was Broodseinde which is generally regarded as the most successful Allied attack of the Third Ypres.

You can see in the last year of the war how "success" in this war often led to deaths in equal measure as did failure. The famous defence and recapture of Villers Bretonneaux, in which the AIF played a decisive role in ending the great German offensive of 1918, sees another spike in deaths, as does the "100 Days" in which the AIF was continuously in action, from the famous Schwarze Tag, the "Black Day of the German Army" of 8 August 1918, through to the final Anzac battle of Montbrehain on 5 October. This was the campaign that finally broke the back of the German Army (though it was a revolution in Germany that actually ended the war) yet it took nearly as many Anzac deaths as the failed campaign in Gallipoli. Fittingly, five of our public sector workers died at Montbrehain before the Anzacs were withdrawn for a rest that took them to 11 November. They form a sombre bookend to the 20 who died in the Gallipoli landing.