Honour Monash - A great Australian
Promote him Posthumously to Field Marshal by 11 November 2018
-69 Days to go
As the centenary year 2018 of the time when Monash proving to be the most advanced thinker of all senior officers on the Western Front worked for a democratic future.
Month by month as the year unfolds the current month will display, you can also click on the other month buttons below to read what happened. Click again on the same button to hide the detail for that month.
Monash’s third Australian Division was taken out of the line at Passchendaele just east of Ieper on 22 October 1917 when the Canadians took over.
In December 1917, Monash was ordered to take leave. He was in London relaxing with his friend Lizzy when he received the customary communication asking if he would accept an honour for his work, and that of his soldiers. Also in that month, all five Australian divisions were administratively martialled together as a single corps, the popular foreigner Lieutenant General Birdwood was given command. It would be some months yet before all the Australians would work together as a Corps with a native-born commander.
Back at Armentières where third division was in defence and resting, on 1 January 1918, Major General Monash received a telephone call of congratulation from Birdwood. The new year’s honours list announced he was now Sir John, a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. His division had taken over a sector recently evacuated by the Portuguese; it was quiet. Many of his soldiers were taking leave at Poperinge, a rest centre in rear of the line. Australians had no reason to fear Poperinge, for British soldiers it was also a place of sham trial and judicial murder of those with post-traumatic stress disorder, our soldiers did owe a lot to those who were executed at Polokwane (Pietersburg - 1902) and imprisoned after Wilmansrust (1901).
On 10 January 1918 Monash was acting commander of the Australian Corps, Birdwood was on leave in the UK. Monash chaired a conference where discussion took place on the merits of the machine gun as an offensive weapon. The machine gun was universally accepted the keystone of every defence. Firing across the front of a trench line, along a string of barbed wire, or covering other obstacles natural and artificial, a burst of fire was lethal. Defence, being static meant large quantities of ammunition could be stockpiled. The new man-portable machine-guns, Hotchkiss and Lewis were able to be carried in the attack, however, firing on the move was inaccurate and ammunition limited. Major General White, chief of staff of the Australian Corps and architect of the successful Gallipoli withdrawal argued these factors negated the machine gun’s offensive capability. Monash argued that the close fire and manoeuvre tactics now used by Australian troops gave readily portable machine-guns a real role in the offence. Machine gun fire being very effective at keeping the enemy below the parapet during an assault. Monash reputedly won the verbal stoush, use of the machine-gun in attacks became Australian military doctrine.
By the end of January, Monash had 3 DIV assume an offensive posture with raids toward Messines that extended into February.
Rumours were swirling. Monash was aware of the October/November revolution in Russia, and Lenin’s "Decree of Peace" the treaty of Brest-Litovsk and release of 70 German divisions to strike westward was still two months off (3 March 1918), however, Monash knew the Russians and Germans were meeting. The result would be a foregone conclusion. There was speculation that the competent Birdwood would be snatched to command a British Army; an Australian would most probably get to command the Australian Corps; but who?
John Howells 2018
Monash started February as he had finished January, with aggression. 3 Div was raiding, dominating no-man’s land and retaining the initiative. At Warneton eight kilometres east of Messines 200 men from the 37 and 38 Battalions attacked on 10 February 1918. The German soldiers thought it was a full-scale attack to take their position. There were 10 Australian casualties, 40 Germans dead or wounded, 33 Germans taken as prisoners. The Germans hit back, but their raiding parties were smaller and did not penetrate our lines.
All prisoners were interrogated by Australian German speakers; if there was a prisoner of interest, Monash personally took over the interrogation. Monash was keen to know when and where the attack would take place once German troops were released from the eastern front. The only information he could glean was that the attack would not fall where Australians were known to be holding the line. The attack would fall where the allies were weak.
Birdwood continued to command the Australian Corps, a Corps in name only with most of its divisions detached. It would be April before at least four would be co-located and able to be welded as a single force.
The storm clouds were gathering. Monash wanted to know when and where the lightening would strike.
John Howells 2018
On 3 March 1918, 9 Brigade sent 235 men against the German defences near Warneton, they had six casualties, killed 30 of the enemy and took eleven prisoners.
The third division moved out of the line on 9 March. The soldiers were sent to Poperinge for rest. Monash took leave. A week in Paris followed by time on the French Riviera.
Things were moving, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed on 3 March 1918 between the new Bolshevik government of Soviet Russia and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire), this ended Russia's participation in World War I. Some 70 German Divisions were able to be released from the East and sent West. German and Central Power avarice, however, could be said to have facilitated the loss of WW1, just as Allied avarice facilitated WW2. Germany, Austria and Turkey were given substantial swathes of land by the Russians paying the demanded price for peace. These lands (see map), needed to be occupied, 1,000,000 soldiers were required. 100 or so Divisions that could have bolstered the armies on the western front.
Monash was back in Belgium, on 22 March; he was ordered to take his division south, back to the Somme.
The Germans had attacked along the line of the border between the British and French armies. Forty-seven divisions hit the British Third and Fifth Armies on an eighty kilometre front from Cambrai to La Feré. The attack fell on 21 March, by 23 March, the Fifth Army was forced back to the Somme, and that is where Monash was now ordered to send his division. Leaving orders for 3 Div to en-train he hurried south heading for 10 Corps HQ. On 25 March he found it at Doullens, and undefended. Minutes later the GOC with the first battalions of 9 Bde arrived by train; a hasty defence was put in place. On to Mondicourt, there Monash found McNicholl and a battalion of 10 Bde. Defence of the railway station was organised, straggling soldiers from the Fifth British Army being ordered to assist.
At 1600 on 26 March, Monash made contact with Sinclair-MacLagan and 4 Div. They organised a string of outposts toward the south east and the advancing Germans.
The Germans had achieved their stunning success by the use of Storm Troopers chosen from the fittest and best soldiers available and special storm trooper tactics.
Following their successful trial at Cambrai in November 1917, by March 1918, German storm trooper tactics had evolved. General Oskar von Hutier promulgated the following:
A short artillery bombardment, employing heavy shells mixed with numerous poison gas projectiles, to neutralise the enemy front lines, and not try to destroy them.
Under a creeping barrage, storm troops would then move forward, in dispersed order. They would avoid combat whenever possible, infiltrate the Allied defences at previously identified weak points, and destroy or capture enemy headquarters and artillery strong points.
Next, infantry battalions with extra light machine guns, mortars and flamethrowers, would attack on narrow fronts against any Allied strong points the shock troops missed. Mortars and field guns would be in place to fire as needed to accelerate the breakthrough.
In the last stage of the assault, regular infantry would mop up any remaining Allied resistance.
The new assault method had men rushing forward in small groups using whatever cover was available and laying down suppressive fire for other groups in the same unit as they moved forward. The new tactics, which were intended to achieve tactical surprise, were to attack the weakest parts of an enemy's line, bypass his strong points and to abandon the futile attempt to have a grand and detailed plan of operations controlled from afar. Instead, junior leaders could exercise initiative on the spot. Any enemy strong points which had not been overrun by storm troopers could be attacked by the second echelon troops following the storm troopers.
On return to his HQ at Courtourelle on the evening of 26 March, Monash found 3 Div were now attached to 7 Corps. At 2400, Monash found himself with his new corps commander General Congreve at his Montingy HQ. Monash was told that the 7 Corps line Albert to Bray had broken within the last 8 hours. He was ordered to occupy a line from Méricourt to l’Abbé to Sailly-le-Sec, making use of an old trench line, and blocking the German approach to Albert. The British Fifth Army had melted away, and the French were retreating south west, leaving a broadening gap in the lines.
Monash was in his element, everything rested on quick decision and faultless efficiency. His staff gathered a large convoy (three actually) of former London busses and started the 30 kilometre move from Dollens to Sailly-le-Sec. Monash was himself at Franvilles the dismount point a little after dawn on 27 March. Things did not look good, the populace were evacuating, there were no troops and German skirmish lines could be seen crossing ridges in the distance. The first busses arrived within an hour, and they kept coming. By evening the division with the exception of the artillery was in the appointed line. The guns arrived overnight and were quickly deployed.
3 Div deployed in the nick of time, British Third Army Cavalry and a mixed force of infantry had maintained contact with the enemy and withdrew as they approached.
All afternoon on the 27th as the Division assembled, lines of German skirmishers and small patrols probed our defences, endeavouring to work forward in gullies. All attempts were hit with intense rifle and machine gun fire. By nightfall, the enemy’s advance had halted.
On the night of 29/30 March the 3 Div line was advanced, pivoting until the northern end of the line rested on the Ancre river, east of Buire; 2,000 metres in the extreme. Some opposition was met, and prisoners taken.
On 30 March, 9 Bde was sent south under command the British 61 Div, the sector around Villers Bretonneux was under pressure and needed reinforcement. On the same day, 15 Bde (5 Div) arrived in the sector, and was placed under command 3 Div.
The replacement brigade was needed, on the afternoon of 31 May, there was a determined attack by two German Divisions, well supported by artillery on the 3 Div position. The attack was completely repulsed, 3,000 of the enemy were killed, Australian Casualties were few.
John Howells 2018
On 4 April the enemy attacked in force south of the Somme and the village of Le Hamel was lost by the rout of the remnants of a very exhausted British Division, sent in only the night before. This gave the German Army an important salient. The commanding heights just west of the village and surrounding ground enabled observation of and fire to be brought to bear on our positions north (Sailly-Le-Sec, etc) and south (Villers-Bretonneux, etc) of the river.
5 April saw the enemy’s final effort to break through Australian lines north of the Somme. The attack fell on the Fourth Australian Division at Dernancourt.
Soon after daylight, German artillery and mortar fire began falling on the 12th Brigade's forward posts along the railway line north of the river as well as supporting positions on a bare hill further back. Under cover of morning mist enemy infantry then succeeded in penetrating the Australian line, using a railway bridge just west of Dernancourt (where the fronts of the two brigades joined) to get behind the outposts lining the railway embankment. The breakthrough on the 12th Brigade's right flank extended as far as the support line and enabled the Germans, by bringing forward a field-gun, to threaten the brigade's left flank to the north. Faced with being enveloped otherwise, the 48th Battalion holding the northern part of the line pulled back shortly after noon. Although half surrounded, the unit ably and calmly extricated itself in a fighting withdrawal.
At 1715 the reserves of both brigades launched a spirited counter-attack from behind the hill. Although the troops met intense fire as they advanced over the crest, they drove the Germans part of the way back down the hillside before being forced to halt. At this point, the action effectively ended. The under-strength 4th Division had just faced the strongest attack mounted against Australians in the war-an assault by two and a half German divisions. It had suffered 1,230 casualties, but inflicted between 1,300 to 1,600 upon the enemy.
Had the enemy been successful at Dernancourt, his holding the high ground north east of where the railway line passes around the village, would with 4 Div Broken have also forced the withdrawal of 3 Div. The path to Amiens would lay open.
The Australians had parried the great German blow against the railway centre of Amiens.
Activity in the 3 Div sector north of the Somme died down.
5 April also saw the arrival of 5 Div. It relieved a depleted British Cavalry Division taking over a five kilometre front on the 3 Div’s southern flank.
Arriving from Flanders on 7-8 April, the 2nd Australian Division took over the Dernancourt positions and relieved the 4th Division. Command was mixed a tad, 3 Div was under 7 British Corps, 5 Div under 3 British Corps. 9 Bde (3 Div) under at times 18 then 61 British Divisions. 9 Bde having blocked a series of attacks and counter-attacks near Villers Brettoneux. 1 Div did make its way south, it was rushed to the Messines-Warrenton sector to replace the Portuguese, who demoralised by a lack of political backing were fleeing before the German advance.
Rumours were about that the Australian Corps Headquarters would soon be transferred to the Amiens area and given charge of the four Australian Divisions (2, 3, 4 and 5) operating there currently under the orders of three different Corps HQs. This corps to be part of a reconstituted Fourth British Army with Three British Corps.
Around 10 April Australian Corps Headquarters occupied the Château at Bertangles on the Villers-Bockage road, about 8 km north of Amiens. One by one the attached brigades rejoined their divisions, and the Divisions came under the command of the Australian Corps.
On the morning of 24 April, comparative calm was shattered. Enemy guns bombarded the line from Albert to Hanguard. 1200 saw the enemy attack in force. The southern flank of 5 Div held fast. The town of Villers-Bretonneux, lying beyond the Australian sector, however, fell and was occupied by the German Army. Two Australian reserve brigades, the 13 (Brigadier General Glasgow) from 4 Div and the 15 (Brigadier General Elliot) from 5 Div and a troop of the 13 Light Horse (Lieutenant LV Reid) were detached and placed under the British Third Corps and ordered to re-take the town. The Brigadiers General collaborated on a brilliant plan. By the time the troops were in position soon after nightfall, the Light Horse combed and probed the battlefield for information and reported back to General Elliot’s forward headquarters.
The brigades attacked using a pincer movement, 15 Bde around the northern flank, 13 the southern. The fighting was fierce.
In a wood south east of Villers-Bretonneux not far from the village of Cachy. shells exploded around Lieutenant Cliff Sadlier and his platoon, flares pierced the night sky, pinned down by murderous machinegun fire of tracer bullets. The 13 Bde was held up. Lieutenant Sadlier and Sergeant Charlie Stokes, collected the grenade section and advanced. In all, six machinegun nests were taken out and the brigade was able to proceed.
Sadlier, a travelling salesman, and Stokes, a former Cobb and Co coach driver, both from Subiaco, Western Australia, were recommended for the Victoria Cross, but only Sadlier won it. Stokes had to make do with a distinguished conduct medal.
By morning the Germans were either dead, driven from Villers-Bretonneux or with the Light Horse patrolling the gap where the pincers had not quite closed were in the process of surrender. 1,000 prisoners were in the bag.
Monash made a note of a report he heard of an action near Cachy on 24 April 1918. There had been a duel between Second Lieutenant Frank Mitchell armed with a MKIV and Leutnant Wilhelm Biltz armed with an A7V. The inconclusive nature of the engagement along with the success of the new British light (Whippet) tanks in overwhelming attacking infantry was information Monash would retain for later application.
The rumours earlier in the month proved correct, the Australian Corps under Lieutenant General Birdwood was made part of the Fourth Army under General Rawlinson. The Australian Corps covering the south of the British line with the French on their right. The corps was deployed on a three divisional front, and one in Reserve.
Monash’s 3 Div was able to stay on the position it first occupied on 29 March. Concerned that raiding made no gains, he resolved to embark on a series of battles, designed not merely to capture prisoners and weapons, but also to hold on to the ground gained. This would invite counter-attacks we would beat off, disorganising the whole of the enemy’s defence.
The first such battle was undertaken on 30 April by 9 Bde. The result was satisfactory, the gain was up to a kilometre in the north then generally 500 metres toward Mourlancourt.
John Howells 2018
Further miniature battles like the one conducted on 30 April 1918 were also fought in rapid succession on the 3, 6, and 7 May by 9 and 10 Brigades who were in line. Not only did the Division capture hundreds of prisoners and numerous machine guns, but also advanced the whole line by a distance of 1.5 kilometres (see map). This deprived the enemy of valuable observation and forced back his artillery.
The constant stream of prisoners gathered by the mini battles and aggressive nightly patrolling were proving to be sufficiently demoralised so as to talk freely. A mass of information about conditions behind the German lines was being assembled.
South of the river Somme, our line had not moved, this exaggerated the advantage afforded by the enemy through his possession of the Hamel salient. In particular his artillery concealed in Vaire and Hamel Woods.
11 May saw 3 Div relieved in the line by 2 Div. A well earned rest for Monash’s troops after six weeks of trench duty.
On 12 May, Monash was summoned to Bertangles. Birdwood was to be promoted General, commanding the new Fifth British Army. Monash was to be promoted to Lieutenant General commanding the Australian corps. There were to be other changes, Glasgow to command 1 Div, still in Flanders, Rosenthal 2 Div and Gellibrand to succeed Monash as GOC 3 Div. Brigadier General Blamey was to be Monash’s chief of staff.
The change took place on 30 May 1918, giving time for command to switch while Monash’s division was out of the line. Faced with a scope of operations six times that of his former command would have swamped and demoralised a lesser intellect, Monash was thrilled and well up to the task.
A farewell order was passed to the Third Division:
"As I am about to take up other duties the time has come when I must relinquish the command of the Division.
Closely associated with you as I have been, since the days of your first assembly and War Training in England, and, later, throughout all your magnificent work during the past nineteen months in the war zone, it is naturally a severe wrench for me to part from you.
I find it quite impossible to give adequate expression to my feelings of gratitude towards all ranks for the splendid and loyal support which you have, at all times, accorded to me. I am deeply indebted to my Staff, to all Commanders and to the officers and troops of all Arms and Services for a whole-hearted co-operation upon which, more than upon any other factor, the success of the Division has depended.
It is my earnest hope, and also my sincere conviction, that the fine spirit and the high efficiency of the Division will be maintained under the leadership of my successor, Brigadier-General Gellibrand; and if the men of the Division feel, as I trust they do, an obligation to perpetuate for my sake the traditions built up by them during the period of my command, they can do so in no better way than by rendering to him a service as thorough and a support as loyal as I have been privileged to enjoy at their hands.
In formally wishing the Division goodbye and good luck, I wish simply, but none the less sincerely, to thank each and all of you, for all that you have done.
(Signed) JOHN MONASH,
Australian Corps Staff May 1918
Lieutenant General Sir John Monash KCMG KCB VD, General Officer Commanding, Australian Corps (seated), with senior Staff Officers of the Australian Corps at Bertangles Chateau. Back row, left to right: Brigadier General C. H. Foott, Chief Engineer, Brigadier General R. A. Carruthers, Deputy Adjutant and Quartermaster General, Brigadier General T. A. Blamey, Brigadier General, General Staff, Brigadier General L. D. Fraser, Brigadier General, Heavy Artillery, and Brigadier General W. A. Coxen, Brigadier General, Royal Artillery.
John Howells 2018
June saw four divisions of the Australian Corps in defence on a line running from Dernancourt in the north to a point on the railway line 2 km south east of Villers-Brettoneux. The line was by no means straight. The Germans held a salient that included most of Hill 104 and the village of Le Hamel. The deployment was a front of three Divisions and one in Reserve. Divisions being rotated out of the front line into the reserve position in order to give rest from front line tension and the constant patrolling of no-man’s-land. The First Division was not yet under the command of the corps. It was in the Hazebrouck and Merris Area under command British Fifteenth Corps with its presence there considered indispensable
10 June saw Rosenthal’s 2 Div carry out a well conceived and planned minor enterprise. The attack gained a slice of the important ridge between Sailly-Laurette and Morlancourt. It bagged 330 prisoners, 33 machine guns and valuable information. The enemy seeking a softer target was turning its attention from the Australian sector, moving resources south to attack the French.
With the Australian front secure, Monash was concerned that the war could not be won by defence alone and that idleness did not suit what was by 1918, after four years of war, the character of the Australian soldier. The Hamel salient struck like a thorn into the Australian front line. Monash hatched a plot to push it out.
Gathering information he organised to visit Major General Hugh Ellis, commander of the Tank Corps. He was introduced to the new Mark 5 and Mark 5 star tanks. The Mk5 finally had the steering problem solved. No longer did the driver have to hand-signal gearsmen in order to steer. He had levers working through epicyclic gearing that allowed him to control direction as well as speed, a vast improvement in manoeuvrability. The Mk 5 star was longer, giving it enhanced trench crossing capability, and an armoured compartment for infantry.
Monash recognised that following problems experienced by Australian soldiers with early model Tanks at Bullecourt in April 1917, trust had to be built. Battalion after battalion of the 4, 6 and 11 Brigades were bussed to the village of Vaux, tucked away in a quiet valley north west of Amiens. There each spent a day with two tank companies General Ellis made available. The diggers were not only instructed on what the armoured vehicles could do, they were given demonstrations of firepower, rides over obstacles, even a chance to drive. To date the new Mk 5s had not seen combat. To have an innovator and successful commander, now in charge of a corps of soldiers noted for their combat effectiveness, interested in using the new weapons excited the Tank Corps.
Monash had a plan. Australian soldiers could not be left idle, and the enemy needed a show of strength that would demoralise them and take pressure off the beleaguered French. Straightening the Australian line by taking the Hamel salient would also provide tactical advantage. Monash also planned to try the innovations he had been contemplating, thereby creating a template for future conflict.
Monash mentioned the possibility of an attack to take Le Hamel and Hill 104 to General Rawlinson, his Army Commander. Rawlinson asked for a concrete proposal in writing (a standard way to kill an initiative). Undaunted on 21 June a detailed proposal was presented to the general. Struck with the detail of the proposal and scope of the planned outcome, Rawlinson agreed without delay. The French were in trouble, no other commander had a plan to take the initiative from the enemy, and who knows what antics the Australians would get up to if not given something worthy to do.
As to the date of the operation, Monash noted that preparations would occupy seven days. A rotation of divisions in the line was scheduled for 28 – 30 June, so the attack would need to be no earlier than the first week in July.
John Howells 2018
With Rawlinson’s approval planning the operation to take the Le Hamel salient went into full swing.
Monash knew that detailed planning and coordination could yield success. He advocated that a perfected modern battle plan is like a score for an orchestral composition, where the various arms and units are the instruments, and the tasks they perform are their respective musical phrases. Every individual unit must make its entry precisely at the proper moment, and play its phrase in the general harmony.
Monash faced manpower problems for the coming assault. Battle casualties and a drop in volunteer levels in Australia had depleted the infantry section of his orchestra. The Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes tried and failed in 1916 and 1917 to have the Australian people in a referendum agree to introduce conscription for the AIF (Australia already conscripted for the AMF, but these soldiers only served in Australia and could not be used to reinforce the AIF). Monash therefore needed a strategy that would use manpower sparingly. He had assets to work with - the new generation of better-engineered tanks never yet used in combat, innovative tactics and the possibility of some reinforcements from the United States of America.
Monash planned the operation in precise detail; the tactics were new. It was to be a dawn attack by 4 Div commanded by Major General Ewan Sinclair-McLaglan. Monash asked for some newly arrived American troops. General Rawlinson agreed that the Americans, though not experienced, could boost Monash’s numbers and, in carrying out his battle plan, they could gain valuable experience alongside the more seasoned Australian infantry. Monash asked for about 2,000 men.
On 27 June, Major General George Read’s 2 Corps of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) advised the 33rd Division’s Major General George Bell, that ‘participation … in a raid of some kind … is approved … [and] is considered valuable training.’ Early on June 30, one month after arriving in France, C Company of the 131st Infantry joined the 42nd Battalion from Queensland, while E Company reinforced the South Australian 43rd Battalion. A and G Companies of the 132nd Infantry reported to the 13th Battalion from New South Wales and the Queensland 15th Battalion, respectively.
The American companies, each numbering about 250 troops, were welcome. The Australian 42nd Battalion, 1,027 strong when it landed in France in November 1916, had only 433 men in June 1918. The 43rd, with 41 officers and 575 troops, incorporated a platoon from the 131st Infantry’s E Company in each of its four companies.
The Americans were most appreciative of the warm reception the Australians gave them. Captain Masoner of G Company reported that the 15th Battalion’s Colonel McSharry ‘guided us to a Reserve Trench … and remained … until all men found sleeping places and dugouts.’ ‘The men were fed very well,’ added Captain Luke of E Company.
Later that day, the rest of the 131st’s 1st and 2nd battalions, with stretcher-bearers, intelligence personnel and other specialists, joined the Australian 4th and 11th brigades. American battalion and company commanders eagerly shadowed their veteran Australian counterparts. Following standard Australian practice, about 50 troops from each company were sent to the rear as a reserve in case of heavy attrition. The rest settled in along the front line and got acquainted with their Australian comrades in arms. Armorer Sergeant Bob Melloy of Kangaroo Point, Brisbane admired Chicago-born Sergeant Lee Lawless’ safety razor, the first he had ever seen, and was duly presented with one. During another war more than 20 years later, Major Melloy returned the favour when he acquired more than 4,000 Queensland properties for American forces in Australia, including headquarters for General Douglas MacArthur.
Mutual respect quickly grew. The Americans’ commander had exhorted his troops, saying, ‘you’re going into action with some mighty celebrated troops guaranteed to win and you’ve got to get up to their level and stay with them.’ The Yanks, in turn, soon impressed the Australians with their modesty and keenness to learn as they practiced with Lewis light machine guns and grenades and began working with the Mark V tanks. Australian soldiers noted their counterparts swear a little less, they drink coffee rather than tea, but otherwise might as well be our own fellows. Their presence almost had a most stimulating effect. Instead of the grim, set faces usually noticeable prior to battle, our men were all smiles and laughter, and determined to show the newcomers what Australians were capable of on the battlefield.
On 2 July, two days before the offensive was scheduled, the Australian prime minister, Billy Hughes, visited the front. Monash, initially reluctant to let the cat out of the bag, decided to brief Hughes in detail and swore him to secrecy. Hughes who had been sceptical about Monash’s appointment to command the Australian Corps was impressed. He gave a rousing speech to those about to take part in the mission.
Then there was a problem; during a visit to the US 2 Corps headquarters, the AEF commander, General John Pershing, learned of the plan to commit American troops to the assault on Hamel and advised General Read that they should not participate. The next day, he telephoned with ‘further and positive instructions … that all US troops should be withdrawn.’ Pershing believed it was better if American troops fought together rather than as scattered units among the Allied armies. He also wanted assurance that they were fully trained before committing them in offensive actions.
Early on 3 July, Pershing’s order to withdraw reached six of the 10 US Army companies attached to the Australian Corps. The troops reacted with disappointment. Two Americans in the 42nd Battalion donned Queenslanders’ tunics and stayed. The rest dutifully obeyed the order. The Americans’ departure at that late juncture hurt Monash’s meticulous plan badly because it required reorganising Australian units — the 16th Battalion’s strength was halved, and the 11th Brigade’s manpower dropped from 3,000 to 2,200 soldiers.
Then, at 1600 on the day before the battle, Monash received an order from Rawlinson’s headquarters calling for the withdrawal of all Americans. By 1700, Monash had confronted his commander and insisted that the remaining four companies were essential. Pershing’s order came too late, he said, and unless Rawlinson absolutely insisted that Pershing’s order to withdraw all Americans by 1830 be carried out, he intended to proceed as planned, using the Americans. Monash’s demand threatened to put Rawlinson at loggerheads with the American command. There could be serious consequences.
‘You don’t realise what it means,’ Monash reported Rawlinson as saying. ‘Do you want me to run the risk of being sent back to England? Do you mean it is worth that?’
‘Yes, I do,’ replied Monash. ‘It is more important to keep the confidence of the Americans and Australians in each other than to preserve even an Army commander.’
Rawlinson, knowing that Monash was a talented officer, decided to back his corps commander if Field Marshal Douglas Haig did not countermand the decision by 1900. As it happened, Haig called just before 1900, and he turned out to be very helpful. Citing the importance of the assault, he resolved the matter, saying, ‘The attack must be launched as prepared, even if a few American detachments cannot be got out before zero hour.’
Monash, who had planned the opening action to occur before daylight, went to bed early. In the early morning hours of 4 July, his artillery commander, Brigadier Coxen, saw him pacing the drive. When the opening barrage thundered out, Monash looked toward the front, then turned to his office.
Monash’s plan called for capturing the town of Hamel, the woods near Hamel and Vaire, and the spur beyond, entailing an advance on a six-kilometre front to a depth of about three kilometres in the centre, tapering to one kilometre in the south.
The essence of Monash’s combined operations strategy was to infiltrate his men and equipment close enough under cover of darkness to use heavy weaponry against the targeted areas, then employ tanks as a cover for the advancing infantry. If the artillery did its job, the infantry’s task would devolve into a mop-up operation. Monash’s plan also called for extensive use of reconnaissance aircraft so that he could direct troop movements quickly and effectively. Monash’s top intelligence officer had rightly estimated Hamel’s defenders at about 3,000 troops. He assessed them as being for the most part of indifferent quality and located in poor defensive positions. There were some exceptions, however, including strongpoints at an installation called Pear Trench, in the northern sector of the targeted area around Hamel, and scattered areas where he expected serious resistance in parts of the woods and in the village. Those observations were incorporated into intense planning sessions that Monash had organised involving all levels of his command, from corps to battalion. The final session, conducted in secrecy on 30 June, included 250 officers and resolved 133 items on a detailed planning agenda. The action, involving aircraft, tanks, artillery and infantry, each with an assigned role, was to be tightly controlled from the very beginning.
In the trenches, the 42nd Battalion enjoyed a hot meal at about 2300 as they listened to 144 Allied aircraft dropping more than 1,100 bombs on Hamel — an initial softening-up operation. Meanwhile, cloaked by darkness and the noisy uproar of the aircraft, the tanks began their five kilometre move from sheltered positions in woods and orchards to their attack positions. Between midnight and 0145, the infantry followed the tread marks of the tanks that had broken through the wire barriers — an easier task for Americans in their canvas leggings than for Australians in their cloth puttees. By 0300, the troops — who hailed from Illinois and every state in Australia — had been issued rum and were in position, ready to attack.
Harrassing artillery fire kicked in at 0302. For several weeks previously, Monash had ordered that high explosives, smoke bombs and poison gas shells be fired toward the target at about that time, a tactic intended to condition the defenders to regularly expect a barrage — and make them think that the smoke masked the presence of gas. This time, however, Monash purposely omitted the gas, making it possible for his troops to move forward under cover of smoke and noise without masks. The Germans having donned their cumbersome gas masks were at a disadvantage.
At 0310, 313 heavy guns and 326 field artillery pieces, joined by mortars and more than 100 Vickers machine guns, produced a barrage worthy of the Fourth of July, while the tanks gunned their engines for the 800 metre dash. A mix of 10 percent smoke, 40 percent high-explosive and 50 percent shrapnel shells fell 200 metres ahead of the infantry, while larger shells landed 400 metres farther ahead.
The infantrymen rose and moved forward. In four minutes, the artillery adjusted its range 100 metres farther ahead, and the infantry advanced in the wake of the covering fire.
Captain Carroll Gale’s C Company, accompanying the Australian 42nd Battalion, followed the barrage, advancing 100 metres every three minutes. His troops came within 75 metres of the exploding shells without sustaining any casualties. Other units were not so fortunate. One section from E Company and an American squad attached to the 15th Battalion lost 12 men killed and 30 wounded because shells fell short of their target. The 15th then hung back while 43 Battalion survivors moved between the barrage and those shells that were falling short.
Advancing into the barrage proved costly to some other Americans as well. After their officers became casualties, three platoons attached to the 13th Battalion were guided to safer ground by Australian NCOs. When Australian Sergeant Darke saw an American officer was wounded by the shelling, he took over his platoon and turned it back from the barrage, and Australian Corporal Roach was mortally wounded while extricating another US platoon from danger.
The mist, smoke and dust cut pre-dawn visibility down to 20 metres and slowed the tanks. The barrage had overshot Pear Trench, located near the start tapes leaving its wire intact. Consequently, German machine guns raked oncoming infantry, but their return fire was formidable. A typical Australian rifleman carried 200 rounds and two grenades; signalers and runners had 100 rounds each. Bomber section members added 100 rounds to the eight grenades they carried. A platoon’s main punch, however, came from Lewis light machine-gun teams who could fire 500 rounds per minute and who carried 18 magazines of 97 rounds each.
One such team, from the 15th Battalion, silenced an enemy machine-gun post. Then the team’s second member, Private Harry Dalziel from Irvinebank, Queensland, spotted another German machine-gun nest as it opened fire. Dashing toward it, revolver in hand, he killed or captured the gun’s crew, allowing the Australians in front of it to proceed with their advance. Although the tip of Dalziel’s trigger finger had been shot off, he ignored an order to retire and continued to serve his gunner until Pear Trench was secured. When again ordered to report to the aid post, Dalziel instead elected to bring up ammunition. While he was doing so, a bullet smashed his skull. Miraculously, he did not die. He was transferred to Britain for treatment and later received the Victoria Cross from King George V.
During another fire fight, this time in the woods, German machine guns in Kidney Trench killed a 16 Battalion company commander, his sergeant major and one of its Lewis gunners, stalling the battalion’s advance. From the flank, Lance Corporal Thomas Leslie ‘Jack’ Axford, a former brewery worker from Kalgoorlie who already had won the Military Medal, grenaded and bayoneted 10 Germans, captured six of them, tossed their machine guns out of their positions, called the stalled platoon to come up and then rejoined his own unit.
Dugouts connected to Kidney Trench yielded 47 more prisoners. Axford was later awarded the Victoria Cross for his ‘great initiative and magnificent courage.’
Six minutes after the operation was launched, the tanks arrived, in accordance with the careful plan of Monash and his tank commander, Major General Hugh Elles. Monash had generated enough of a rapport between infantry and tank crews that many of the British tanks sported Australian battalion colours and names. To allay the infantry’s fears that wounded men, hidden by metre high field crops, would be crushed by the tanks, Monash issued white tape which could be tied to vegetation or an upturned rifle to mark the wounded soldier’s position.
The single most important innovation in tank strategy at Hamel lay in placing the tanks under the control of infantry commanders who could order them to follow closely on the heels of their troops and eliminate enemy strongpoints. Tank commanders also had worries. They protested that advancing so close behind the artillery barrage could expose their 2.64 metre high vehicles to overhead hits from friendly fire, but they accepted Monash’s order, which overruled their objections. As it happened during the course of the battle, some of those objections proved well taken. A third of the attack’s armour casualties occurred when an 18-pounder shell fell short and struck a tank attached to 13th Battalion’s D Company, killing its guide, Private Parrish. In Vaire Wood, Captain Marper was wounded by machine-gun fire as he directed a tank carrying his 13th Battalion’s colours toward enemy positions. The tank crushed one of the German machine guns under its treads, and the other’s crew surrendered.
With combined air, artillery and tank attacks, the 42nd Battalion’s assault in the northern flank had met little resistance. Meanwhile, to its south, 6 Brigade’s 21 and 23 battalions smoothly followed the barrage and the tanks. The southernmost sector was more difficult — the 25 Battalion suffered 93 casualties. Two platoons were cut down to only eight troops, but Sergeant Ham led them to take and hold the final objective, for which he was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM).
The new strategy yielded many prisoners, starting with the Germans’ communication trench in Vaire Wood. When one Digger took a prisoner using the fractured French comment, ‘Finis la guerre,’ the German stunned him by laughingly replying, ‘Yes, my bloody oath’ a phrase that demonstrated how well he had learned Australian English while working in the West Australian gold fields before the war.
After passing through the woods, the Australians reached a prearranged halt line and paused 10 minutes to regroup. Thirty tanks were assigned to support the assault on Hamel itself, the third anticipated strongpoint. When stiff resistance was encountered at Notamel Wood, a 43 Battalion sergeant pulled a tank’s rear bell handle. The door opened and he pointed out a troublesome machine-gun position to the tank’s crew. The tank crushed it.
No tanks had arrived at the outskirts of Hamel, however, when a brisk fight broke out in front of the village, during which a platoon of 43 Battalion under South Australian Lieutenant Symons and its attached American platoon killed 15 Germans and captured another 40. When Symons fell wounded, his 21 year old runner, Private Anderson from Broken Hill, took charge of his platoon for the rest of the battle, for which he was subsequently awarded the Military Medal.
By the time another 10-minute halt was called, Hamel lay open, save for some scattered resistance. North of the Pear Trench, a well-placed machine-gun position held up 43 Battalion until Australian Corporal Shaw and US Corporal Zyburt of the 131st rushed it. Firing his Lewis gun from the hip, Shaw advanced 200 metres and enabled Zyburt to get into the position, where he bayoneted three of the gunners. Shaw shot an officer who rushed him. Then, finding his Lewis magazine empty, he hit another German on the head with his revolver. When that failed to stop his assailant, Shaw shot him. A total of eight Germans were killed, the rest surrendered and two previously captured Australians were freed.
When the advance resumed, the tanks came fully into their own. Following their commander’s dictum, ‘It is the primary duty of the tanks to save casualties to the Australian infantry,’ they hugged the barrage, destroying strong points with machine guns, canister fire or their treads.
Engaging three machine guns in a quarry near Hamel, Shaw called in a tank. Its machine gun silenced two of the nests, while the 23 year old farmer from the Yorke peninsula helped take the third, capturing one German officer and 20 soldiers. Why that tall, slow-speaking son of an Adelaide minister didn’t become Hamel’s third VC recipient was a mystery to his mates. Shaw, who was awarded the DCM, was mortally wounded near Proyart a month later. His American partner, Zyburt, was awarded the Military Medal.
While the 43 Battalion cleared Hamel, 13, 15, 42 and 44 battalions and their accompanying tanks pushed on to their objectives farther east. The remaining battalions had already reached theirs.
Success signals flowed to the rear by pigeon, lights, rockets, telephone and radio. Signallers maintained communications throughout the battle, while special squads confused the enemy by contradicting any German flare with the opposite colour.
Monash, who had calmed his nerves by sketching the prime minister’s chauffeur, learned that he had won his victory 93 minutes after the push began, three minutes past the planned timetable. Their objectives won, the Allies promptly began consolidating their gains, improving German trenches and digging new ones
During the battle three RE-8s of 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, flew over the new front lines, taking 108 photographs. Supplies, previously brought forward by men or mules over dangerous, exposed ground, now reached Hamel via carrier tanks or were dropped from aircraft. Every soldier had carried water bottles, two days’ food and a ground sheet, with riflemen also carrying three empty sandbags and a pick or shovel. Now, under Monash’s orders, four carrier tanks, each with an infantry NCO and four unloaders, did resupply work that would otherwise have required 1,200 men. The results were astonishing for the time. When the 13th Battalion’s colonel reached his dump site, he found 34 coils of barbed wire and pickets, 50 tins of water, 150 mortar rounds, 10,000 small-arms rounds, 20 boxes of grenades and 45 sheets of corrugated iron — a 4,000-ton load, neatly stacked, with the carrier tank already back in the rear.
In hindsight, some thought the carrier tanks were the greatest innovation at Hamel. Each of the fighting tanks also carried a load of supplies — a 1,200-round box of ammunition, 24 Lewis gun magazines and water for the infantry.
Monash’s plan also added some new roles to the AFC’s repertory. At 0440. on 5 July, RE-8s of No. 3 Squadron flew low, tooting horns that signalled the soldiers to light flares in their trenches so the planes’ observers could mark the new front line on maps — maps that were dropped at Division and Corps headquarters 10 minutes later.
The two-seaters of No. 9 Squadron, Royal Air Force (RAF), delivered nearly 120,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition, dropping them by parachute from boxes fitted under the wings to marked sites along the line. That innovation, inspired by a captured German document, had been developed by Captain Lawrence Wackett and Sergeant Nicholson and his mechanics at No. 3 Squadron, AFC. Townsville born Wackett, who would later found the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation, received a British grant of 300 pounds sterling for inventing the release gear and cases for the ammunition and parachutes.
Other aircraft strafed and bombed German positions, and except for a half hour in the late morning, the Allies maintained air superiority with the loss of only two planes. Lieutenants Grigson and James of No. 3 Squadron AFC shot down one enemy fighter that tried to interfere with their work, and drove another down out of control. Lieutenants Dimsey and Mart shot down a Pfalz DIIIa that was attacking another RE-8.
All but three British tanks reached their objectives, and their crews suffered only 13 casualties. Most of the tanks joined Australian and American infantrymen in scouting and neutralising remaining pockets of resistance before departing for the rear at 5:30 p.m., some carrying cheering infantrymen who had been wounded.
The Germans sniped at the new Allied positions, and groups of Australians and Americans moved up 400 metres in an effort to deal with them. By 0700 5 July 1918, 700 more prisoners had been flushed out of the village and the woods. Lance Corporal Schulz of 43 Battalion’s Intelligence Section and two German-speaking Americans followed a cable trace that Schulz had noticed in an aerial photograph. Their search was rewarded when they unearthed a dugout and captured a German battalion commander and his staff of 26.
Except for a brief air attack and some shelling, the German response on 5 July was slight. Then, at about 2200, the Germans bombarded with high-explosive and gas shells, after which storm troopers and 200 infantrymen drove a 200 metre wedge between 44 Battalion’s A and B companies east of the village. Four hours later the 44 Bn, augmented by Australians and Americans of the 43 Battalion, counterattacked. Not only did they regain the lost ground, they recovered 11 out of 15 Australians captured in the German assault. National Guardsman Corporal Thomas Pope of E Company, 131st Infantry, rushed an enemy machine-gun position alone, bayoneted its crew and held off the enemy until help arrived.
The night’s action cost the Germans 30 troops killed and 50 men and 10 machine guns captured. 43 Battalion later presented the gun Pope had captured to his regiment.
Taking and securing Hamel cost the Allies a total of 1,400 casualties, including 39 Americans killed and 196 wounded. The Germans lost more than 2,000 men, including 43 officers and 1,562 enlisted men captured, together with two anti-tank machine guns, a new 130 mm anti-tank rifle, 32 trench mortars and 177 machine guns. In addition, the Allies recovered 73,000 rounds of British ammunition and boxes of grenades lost when the Germans had first taken Hamel in April. On top of that, the members of 21 Battalion enjoyed coffee that was mistakenly dropped into their lines by a German airplane.
On 5 July, a grateful Monash publicly thanked General Bell and praised the ‘dash, gallantry and efficiency’ of the four American companies, concluding that ’soldiers of the United States and Australia should have been associated for the first time in such close cooperation on the battlefield is an historic [event] of such significance that it will live forever in the annals of our respective nations.’
When Company A was withdrawn to rejoin the AEF on the night of 5 July, the 13 Battalion historian noted that the Australians ‘really felt like [they were] losing old comrades.’ At 0500 the next morning, following a breakfast of stew and a series of speeches and cheers, the doughboys of Company E, some wearing the 43 Battalion colours, also departed, leaving the South Australians feeling, as one of them put it, ‘very proud of our victory and our American friends.’
Later, at Moulliens-au-Bois on 12 August, General Pershing watched King George V award the DCM to Corporal Tom Pope and two other American soldiers for their valour at Hamel while four others got the Military Cross and 11 received the Military Medal. Later still, in Luxembourg on April 22, 1919, Pershing himself would present Pope with the Congressional Medal of Honour.
A stream of congratulatory messages arrived at Monash’s headquarters. The one from The Prime Minister Billy Hughes was particularly gratifying. His scepticism had vanished. Yes jealousy was to form a wedge between the two men at war’s end, but that was some time in the future.
7 July saw a visit by the Premier of France Georges Clemenceau who took the opportunity to address members of 4 Div in English, expressing the gratitude of the French people for their valiant efforts.
The effect on the enemy was startling, the whole front before the Australian lines showed signs of crumbling. This, the first Allied offensive operation on a substantial scale since 1917 had an electrifying effect. It showed that in spite of the resources transferred from Russia, he could still be overwhelmed. It marked the end of a purely defensive attitude on the British front.
The Australian Corps, however, defending a 16 kilometre front with only one division in reserve was restricted when it came to further major offense. That did not stop immediate measures to capitalise on the enemy’s demoralised state. On the afternoon of 5 July, orders were issued to all line divisions to commence vigorous offensive patrolling. This was to prevent the enemy from re-establishment an organised defence and penetrate the enemy perimeter establishing posts therein.
On 5 and 6 July 5 Div in the sector Ancre and the Somme possessed themselves of some 120 hectares of enemy territory, bringing our front line so near to Mourlaincourt as to make enemy occupation of that village untenable.
On 8 and 9 July 2 and 4 Div advanced their lines by an average of 200 to 300 metres. In the case of 2 Div, this carried the line over hill 104, giving the Australians possession of all the district’s high ground.
This period was replete with instances of individual enterprise. Corporal Brown VC of 20 Bn detected a German officer and eleven men in a trench not far from his OP. He stalked them, terrorising them into submission by the threat of throwing a grenade into their position.
Perhaps the best way to judge the enemy’s situation is to consider his own signals. On 13 July, the following message was intercepted on its way to forward German commanders:
Während der letzten Tage gelang es den Australiern, einzelne Posten oder Pikette zu durchdringen oder gefangenzunehmen. Sie haben nach und nach selbst bei Tageslicht den größten Teil der vorderen Zone einer ganzen Division in Besitz genommen.
Truppen müssen kämpfen. Sie dürfen nicht bei jeder Gelegenheit nachgeben und kämpfen vermeiden, sonst bekommen sie das Gefühl, der Feind sei ihnen überlegen.
During the last few days the Australians have succeeded in penetrating, or taking prisoner single posts or picquets. They have gradually, even in daylight, succeeded in getting possession of the majority of the forward zone of a whole Division.
Troops must fight. They must not give way at every opportunity and seek to avoid fighting, otherwise they will get the feeling the enemy are superior to them.
As the month closed minor aggressive endeavours were still yielding results. Monument Wood, to the east of Villers Bretonneux was still held by the enemy mid August. 1,000 Metres from the town from there he could peer into the streets and rake the international boundary posts between the Australian and French armies with fire. Monash went through the process of planning a major operation to take it, only to find that 2 Div by aggressive patrolling and minor endeavours had already cleared it.
The era of minor aggression by the Australian Corps was, however about to draw to a close, the situation was rapidly beginning to shape itself for greater events.
CLICK HERE for Monash’s own description of the battle of Le Hamel.
John Howells 2018
The course of events in June and July pointed to conclusions that the enemy did not contemplate any further offensive operations in the Somme Valley and that the condition of the German second Army astride the Somme invited every temptation to seize the initiative against it.
The success of the battle of Le Hamel, stamped it as a model for future operations. However, with only four divisions available and the Australian Corps holding an eighteen kilometre front due to the success of "peaceful penetration" the Australians needed assistance if there was to be a major offensive. The offensive to win the war would require all five of the Australian divisions, to drive a salient into the enemy’s defence line, and be on an army front with a corps either side to cover the flanks to make the base wider as the salient advanced.
Monash put this concept to his army commander at every available opportunity.
The staff of the Australian Corps was fervent in its activity. Every piece of information gleaned from the enemy was collated, and a detailed intelligence profile prepared. Every source of needed combat resources, equipment and specialist personnel was scoured and lists prepared. The battle plan was being formulated.
The Fourth Army had but two corps, the British 3 Corps (Lieutenant-General Richard Butler) and the Australian Corps. 3 Corps was deployed on the left (northern) flank of the Australian Corps, the right (southern) was an international boundary. There were good relations with the troops of 31 French corps. At the border posts there had even been the development of a fran-strine language to facilitate communication. Comradeship, however, did not lessen the difficulties incidental to the joint conduct of a major operation of war by two corps of different nationalities, with substantially different organisations and tactical conceptions. The main difficulty was the approach by the French high command that as Paris was under threat, defence should be favoured over attack. This had been emphasised when during July, the Australian Corps had pushed its front forward kilometre by kilometre, but no amount of cajoling could induce the French to engage in similar "peaceful penetration", a dangerous salient had thus developed along the international boundary.
Monash lobbied. The Canadian Corps was for the most part resting in a rear area. Lieutenant General Arthur Currie had opposed further deployment under British command after the mis-use of his troops after their success at Passchendaele in late 1917. Currie was approached informally, a Dominion rather than a British initiative where strategic and tactical direction would be undertaken by a Dominion officer, now accepted as "the best" was attractive.
It had been on 21 July that General Rawlinson called together the corps commanders. Cars arrived sporting the defaced ensigns of Australia and Canada and union flags for the Cavalry and 3 corps commanders. The details of the offensive were hammered out. The 1st Australian division was to join the Corps bringing it to 5 Divisions, larger than some armies. This corps was to spearhead the advance. The Canadians were to hold the southern and 3 Corps the northern flank. Secrecy was paramount, the plans were not known beyond the corps other than Field Marshal Haig, and his army commanders.
In early August 1918, the Canadian Corps moved 110 kilometres south to Amiens, the Canadians took pains to camouflage their move. This included sending a radio unit and two battalions to Ypres as a diversion. Taking over from the French involved great subterfuge. The line of about six kilometres from Villers-Bretonneux to Thennes was initially occupied by 4 Div, the 5th Division relieved north of the Somme by the British 58 Division, replaced 4 Div in reserve. If the change had been detected, French moving out and replaced by Australians, already in the area, would not be seen as too unusual by the enemy. The Australians would remain in place as the Canadians occupied the front. By 6 August there would only be one Australian brigade (the 13th left in place to screen the presence of Canadians. The Germans had the highest regard for Australian and Canadian soldiers. Knowing the two corps were assembling side-by-side would have sounded alarm bells. What the Germans did not know did not hurt our troops.
During this move, five Australian soldiers were captured by a German raid. Monash held his breath, hoping the men would be steadfast. The German intelligence report of their interrogation later captured revealed they had been, revealing only their names and ranks. The report went on to praise their conduct.
The troops were in place. 3 Corps was positioned north of the Somme, the corps boundary, the Canadian Corps south of the Villers- Villers-Bretonneux to Marcelcave Railway. In the gap stood the Australian Corps two divisions forward, two in reserve readying for the offensive. Monash was not happy with his northern boundary, with the many meanderings of the river, cross border domination by ground was not uncommon. He was particularly concerned with the spur at Chipilly, at that point he would have liked to command the troops on both sides of the river. He was convinced Currie and the Canadians would "deliver the goods", but not so certain about Butler and his recently conscripted boy soldiers.
During this build-up, the major concern was use by the enemy of mustard gas. He appeared to have an inexhaustible supply of shells, and when confronted by any form of aggression treated the Australians to a liberal drenching of the gas delivered by artillery. During the bombardments, mostly at night, the troops wore their gas masks as a matter of course, doffing them when the characteristic smell had disappeared. In the morning, however, the sun on the warm days of high summer volatised liquid that had spattered and puddled, catching the troops unaware. Deaths were rare, but many men had to spend weeks convalescing to reach battle readiness again. Battle readiness as a young person was one thing, a lifetime of respiratory problems for those who survived was quite another.
The battle plan was delivered by Monash at Bertangles on 30 July, 3 and 4 of August.
The battle was to be fought in four phases:
On the night of 6 August, 1 Brigade (Brigadier General Mackay) the first of 1 Div’s brigades arrived by four special trains. It was allocated to 4 Div. 4 Div’s role in the forthcoming attack could not be achieved a brigade short.
The brigades lined-up:
As 7 August closed, the commanders made final inspections. Brigadier General Coxen corps artillery commander was there to witness a stray enemy shell landing amongst eighteen load carrying tanks about 800 metres north of Villers-Bretonneux. All but three were destroyed along with their loads of food ammunition and fuel in a great conflagration. The enemy then targeted the area with more shells. The plan, however, had built in flexibility, by midnight replacement stores were available.
The map below shows what was achieved on 8 August:
The plan was known to all. There had been orders groups at all levels. Not a dictation from above, but a conference down to section level (10 or so men commanded by a corporal) where each man questioned the instructions to the point where he understood exactly what was required of him, his subordinates, peers and colleagues.
In the black early hours of 8 August 1918 100,000 soldiers waited in the trenches, company and platoon commanders with whistles in hand, checking their luminous watches.
At 0400 planes roared overhead and troops moved into position, tanks rolled forward, 4 and 2 Divs moved through the trench lines of 3 and 5 Divs to stand at the start line tapes. Some had already silently crawled to within 80 metres of the artillery’s first objective. 0420 sharp saw our artillery strike the German positions along their first line of trenches. Our infantry following the available tanks or running to be within 150 metres of where the barrage was landing. The tanks rolled toward the trenches, using their 6 pounders to destroy machine gun emplacements and their machine guns to kill any enemy not taking cover. The infantry then stormed the trenches silencing remailing pill box machine gun positions and killing or taking prisoner those who had survived the barrage and were manning the trench lines. Follow-up infantry then cleared the enemy emplacements. The German tactic was to heavily man strong points but lightly man connecting trench lines, the bulk of his force being concealed in underground bunkers. When the attacking line passed through the trench, the concealed Germans would rise and attack their attackers from behind. Experienced Australian soldiers knew what to expect. Follow-up troops to killed or take prisoner (usually the case by this stage of the war) the concealed men as they emerged.
In 1918 Australian infantry platoons consisted of four sections, two sections of riflemen, a section of machine gunners with two lewis guns and a section of rifle grenadiers or bombers. When an enemy position was approached and engaged, the bombers would drop to the ground, under cover if possible. They would then engage the entrenched enemy. The rifle projected grenades landing like artillery, to keep the enemy’s heads down while the riflemen and machine gunners stormed ahead. As the trench lines loomed, these rushes got down to 50 metres with the riflemen and machine gunners going to ground and firing to enable the bombers to move. The platoon commander could control his resources by hand signal or runner (usually the best private soldier in the platoon, seen by all as capable of commanding until the platoon sergeant, whose resupply duties usually placed him out of battle, could come forward; runners or "batmen": who lived quickly climbed the promotion ladder).
The second and third divisions had completed phase A by 0700.
The fourth and fifth divisions moved through and commenced phase B at 0820. The stream of information that reached corps headquarters by telegraph, telephone, pigeon, aircraft and galloper and was fed into Blamey’s collation system was so ample that Monash did not feel for a moment that he was not in touch with the situation. The last two of the outward messages drafted by Monash himself tell the story:
1640 – Captured 51 German Corps Headquarters near Framerville shortly after noon today.
2000 – Australian Corps captures will greatly exceed 6,000 prisoners, 100 guns, including heavy railway guns, thousands of machine guns, a railway train, hundreds of vehicles and horse teams. Total casualties for the corps will not exceed 1200.
There was a problem. Not unexpectedly 3 Corps did not succeed in the capture of Chipilly spur leaving the 4 Div flank seriously exposed. A battery of artillery at Chipilly village taking out six of the nine tanks allocated to 4 Div. Monash put the failure down to poor staff work and leadership, praising the bravery and determination of the soldiers; not so their commanders.
8 August also saw the raid that some say won the war. Lieutenant Colonel Carter had his sixteen armoured cars dragged through no-mans land by tanks. On paved roads beyond the craters, the cars rushed headlong into enemy territory moving up to 16 kilometres from the front line. Shooting up headquarters, capturing prisoners (more than they could cope with) and documents. More particular they were able to gather a clear picture of the enemy behind the front line. The picture of unoccupied and unwired defences, stragglers heading to the rear and no reinforcements marching to the front did not bode well for the enemy. At around 2300 on 8 August Carter and a staff officer gave a detailed report to Monash.
To the south the Canadians had held the flank and conducted offensive action equal to the Australians.
Ludendorff, the German commander was ti describe 8 August 1918 as a black day for the German Army. The tactics used by Monash were studied in detail by Heinz Guderian when he developed lightning war so successful in 1940.
It took the next two days, clearing the area of booty. And what booty it was.
There was no need for further delay, the Australian corps had suffered little in the battle, and was ready to push on.
The Australian front was as always fluid, moving inexorably forward using aggressive patrols and "peaceful penetration".
At the end of 9 August, Monash was not happy. General Rawlinson indicated that the advance once recommenced next day would be in the south, made by the Canadian Corps with the Australians reduced to a flank defence role. This would leave the whole bend of the Somme including Bray Péronne and Brie in the undisputed possession of the enemy. Given the condition of the enemy in the area, as verified by the armoured car raid, Péronne and Brie could be taken without a fight. The only fighting would be to take Chipilli Spur. If the enemy was allowed time to catch his breath, fugitives would be rallied, and reserves assembled to face the Australian front.
Rawlinson could not be influenced to change his plan. Instructions were issued for 1 Div to pass through 5 Div and support the Canadian advance at 1100 on 9 August. 2 and 3 brigades of 1 Div, however, had arrived late, and were exhausted after the long route march from Amiens to our new front line at Framerville, they were in no condition to take on the fight. 5 Div advanced, 1 Div moving in behind. 15 Bde advanced in line, capturing Vauvillers by 1200. In the afternoon 1 and 2 Div took over the advance. Resistance found on 9 August varied. For the most part the ground was clear, or dotted with small enemy posts that withdrew quickly when threatened. Lihons Ridge was strongly held by machine and field guns. Several of the tanks were disabled by fire from Lihons. Nonetheless Australian Corps objectives for 9 August were achieved, and contact was made with 2 Canadian Division near Rosiéres.
The situation at Chipilli was resolved by taking advantage of Lieutenant General Butler going on sick leave, and his replacement by Lieutenant General Godley (Monash’s superior at Gallipoli). Finally General Rawlinson agreed the Australian Corps should sit astride the Somme. Australians moved to solve the problem, however, they were beaten to the punch by 131 US Regt still nominally under command 3 British Corps aided by a patrol from 1 Bn.
This patrol was the initiative of two Australian Soldiers – 23 year old Jack Hayes, a railwayman from the Sydney suburb of Newtown and 21 year old Harold Andrews, a farmer from Wauchope who made a spur of the moment decision to look for souvenirs.
They didn’t know they were about to make history.
It was early on 9 August when the enterprising sergeants embarked on their souvenir hunt. They made for a bridge over the Somme River. As they walked across this bridge into the British sector, the enemy’s defensive presence seemed minimal. With Chipilly itself the best bet for souvenirs in the vicinity, they felt emboldened to head towards the village. German resistance, from what they could discern, still seemed surprisingly unformidable. They collected a rifle each and an enemy machine gun, before returning to their battalion with a recommendation that formal reconnaissance in that direction was warranted.
Later that day, they were authorised to lead a patrol themselves towards Chipilly.
They set off about 1800, accompanied by four Privates. All belonged to the 1 Bn (NSW).
They called initially at the most advanced British Coy in front of Chipilly. Its OC advised them not to go any further forward. Ignoring this advice, they spread themselves out and rushed the village. Enemy fire was heavy, but they managed to reach it safely. They split up and cleared it methodically. Leaving two privates to guard the village entrance, the other four proceeded farther into German occupied territory.
Ahead of them were a number of German positions. With dash and dexterity, the small AIF patrol overwhelmed each one in turn, even though outnumbered. In one encounter, Hayes had a lucky escape. Maneuvering round to rush a strong point from the flank while Andrews and another provided covering fire from the front, Hayes came across another enemy post; in a sharp exchange with the occupants, he shot one and the others fled – only to be immediately captured by Andrews and his offsider as they raced forward to rescue him.
This brought them within sight of a more substantial stronghold. The four charged it, and the Germans dived into their dugouts. When the attackers threatened to bomb the dugouts, an officer and 31 men surrendered. The privates handed these prisoners to the British coming up behind, and pressed on. Another batch of prisoners was soon captured, together with machine guns.
When the Australians saw Germans farther ahead retiring in response to their activities, Sgt Andrews set up an enemy machine gun and blazed away to good effect. His resourcefulness enabled the privates to capture 30 more Germans. At one stage, the intrepid half dozen had penetrated so far ahead in their remarkable exploit that Americans sent forward to consolidate in their wake assumed they were Germans and fired at them.
The astonishing upshot was that these six Australians managed to do what British 3 Corps could not. They drove the Germans out of Chipilly heights, capturing weaponry and hundreds of prisoners in the process and enabled the AIF advance to proceed without harassment from that quarter.
For their distinguished gallantry, Sergeants Andrews and Hayes were each awarded the DCM. The privates all received an MM. All six managed to survive until the Armistice.
Sergeant (later Lieutenant) Harold Andrews citation for his DCM states:
“Work at Chipilly, on the Somme, on 9 August 1918.
Recommendation date: 28 August 1918
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. A Unit on the left flank was held up while attacking a village, and he was one of a patrol of six who crossed the river to render assistance. He carried out daring patrol work and located enemy posts, and took a prominent part in the capture of a strong enemy post which yielded one officer and 31 other ranks and seven machine guns. He later did valuable work in using the captured guns against the enemy. Altogether his party accounted for one officer, 71 other ranks and nine machine guns. He did splendidly, and showed great courage and initiative.”
Source: 'Commonwealth Gazette' N. 36
Date: 14 March 1919
The Americans on their own initiative followed up the work of what started out as an unauthorised souvenir hunt, their gallantly, in broad daylight, cleared the whole spur by nightfall on 10 August. For this effort the US Regt was transferred to be under command 4 Div.
On 10 August, as 4 Div had experienced the worst of the fighting; it was removed from the line and replaced by 3 Div. With his command straddling the Somme, Monash devised a new strategy to take the peninsulas created by the river’s meanders. Instead of attacking along the river, where each bit of high ground required a costly assault, investing peninsula after peninsula gave the enemy a choice, cross the river, an action their force was not prepared for, or decide for them the war was over. Many chose the latter. Crossing the river would have involved swimming leaving their heavy weapons, to a shore held by their Australian nemesis.
This plan was used to take the Etinehem Spur on the night of 10/11 August. It worked, including the first use of tanks at night. The only hiccup was an attack by a flight of German bombers. This killed the commander 10 Bde and caused confusion. Nonetheless the situation was resolved by 1200 on 11 August. There were 300 prisoners. The northern flank was secured.
In the south, 1 Div eventually took Lihons after hard fighting that yielded 20 field guns and hundreds of machine guns, then successfully held it against a determined counter attack.
There were some distractions for Monash. A string of congratulatory visits. 11 August saw Field Marshal Haig drop-in along with Premier Clemenceau. On 12 August King George V knighted Monash at Bertangles; a high ranking honour, second only to the Order of the Garter. The guard of honour at the ceremony consisted of 500 men who had taken part in the battle of Amiens. There was also a booty display, the King expressing concern that the captured German horses may take some time to learn Strine.
As the advance progressed in the south, it became apparent the enemy had recovered from the shock of 8 August. Pushing forward using open warfare tactics was becoming costly. Lieutenants General Monash and Currie recommended to the Army Commander General Rawlinson that there be a temporary halt. This would enable resources to be assembled and troops rested for another set-piece blow on 15 August. The blow, however, did not happen. The Canadians pleaded without Monash’s knowledge to be withdrawn from the line and sent to Arras. They had found the ground to their front when they assumed the offensive on 9 August not suited to their method of operation. Rawlinson’s decision to switch the offensive posture of his corps proved to be disastrous. The weakness confronting the Australians was not exploited, the ground on the Canadian front delayed their advance, giving time for the enemy to reinforce the Amiens front and regain his defensive resolve.
This emphasised the importance of Australia and Monash as a leader in the 100 days offensive that won the war. The French did not want to advance so had to be replaced, the British lacked resolve at Chipilli Spur, and lacked command effectiveness in not allowing the Australians to exploit on 9 August. And the Canadians wilted when the going got rough.
12 August saw the Canadians withdrawn and the Australians assuming a front of 16 kilometres. Monash was commanding an international Army. 13 Bde and 131 US Regt [a US Regiment consists of three battalions, equivalent to an Australian brigade] north of the Somme was split from 4 Div and given its own artillery, supply and signals "Liaison Force" became another Division equivalent under the command of Brigadier General Sydney Herring, GOC 13 Bde reporting to Monash. To in part compensate for the departure of the Canadians, the British 17 Division was placed under Australian command. 7 Divisions in total, from three nations.
In the period 13 to 20 August the front line did not advance. Monash describes it as a period of interdivisional reliefs when soldiers could be given periods out of the front line, to rest and recuperate. 17 UK Div having been replaced by 32 UK Div. On 20th the 3 British Army had attacked north of Albert, and the French in the south yielding 10,000 prisoners. 21 August thus saw the Germans preoccupied, the Australian Corps front was again open for exploitation.
The major concern was the Great Bend of the Somme and Canal du Nord. These two water features afforded the enemy a defensible obstacle. A defended obstacle combined with the onset of winter that could drag the war well into 1919.
Monash held a conference on the afternoon of the 21 August. 7 kilometres of front in the south was to be handed over to the French. Two divisions were to attack on 23 August. 1 Div [Major General William Glasgow] in the north was to put in the greatest effort, 32 UK Div [Major General Thomas Lambert] in the south charged with taking Herleville. An introduction to such conferences for both divisional commanders and their staffs. 3 and 5 Divs were warned to be in readiness to follow-up the withdrawing enemy. The blow and exploitation was to make best use of available tank, artillery and air resources.
The blow was successful, an overall advance of 2.5 kilometres on 21 August, 21 guns and 3,100 prisoners from 10 different Regiments [German WW1 Regiment consisted of 3 Battalions, equivalent to an Australian Brigade]. 3 Div north of the Somme, captured Bray, the same day. This battle "Chuignes", called after the valley, caused the enemy to abandon all hope of a concerted defence line in front of the Australian corps before the great Somme bend.
Ludendorff ordered a "force field": be established to cover the move of his forces back to the new defensive line. Small posts, no more than 10 men with or without a machine gun designed to make the Australians deploy and attack, then withdraw before the blow came. Our soldiers in open war formation, brushed past these leaving follow-up troops to destroy the posts or take their surrender. In three days the line of the Somme river and Canal du Nord had been reached.
During this time of dealing with the force field the Australian Corps Cavalry, the 13 Light Horse were of great use. Unlike the British Cavalry Corps that Rawlinson held in reserve polishing their "shock weapons" (useless in 1918, German machine gunners did not scare easily), the Light Horse were deployed across the Australian Corps front, one Squadron per Division. Patrolling forward on horseback making use of ground cover, they would detect the enemy posts, then three of the four men in a section would dismount and fix the enemy in place by fire until the infantry arrived to deal with that post. They were employed in traffic control, prisoner escort, and galloped urgent messages in particular when visibility hampered air messaging. The Light Horse in France earned their battle honours.
On 29 August 1918, Monash called a conference at 5 Div HQ, a few tin sheds recently evacuated by the Enemy at Proyart. He delivered his plan for the crossing of the Somme. 3, 2 and 5 Divs were to be the assault formations:
3 Div to seize the high ground north east of Cléry, then take Bouchavesnes Spur.
2 Div to establish a bridgehead at Halle, then take Mt St Quentin.
5 Div to force a crossing at the Péronne bridges, then take the wooded spur east of Péronne.
Each assault Division was to employ one brigade only until a foothold was established on the objective. There were to be no tanks, time was needed to repair the vehicles. Only light calibre field artillery would be available. Heavy counter-battery pieces needed time to move-up.
H Hour was to be pre-dawn on 31 August, the battle was to run ‘till 3 September. You will find the description under the "September" button.
John Howells 2018
As a prelude to the attacks across the Somme, the Light Horse were patrolling. The open flank to the north of 3 Div had to be covered. Prior to the assault Lieutenant Reid and his troop from 13 LH took on the task. At 0500 on 30 August, he reached Fargny Wood. A patrol base was set up in a quarry and two patrols sent forward. Sergeant Drane was sent to set up an observation post on hill 150 just to the west of and overlooking the Canal du Nord. Fired on during the approach, his patrol dismounted and found the hill unoccupied. The post was established and a steady stream of information passed back to 3 Div by heliograph and galloper.
In an attempt to stem the Australian Corps tide, the Germans threw every available resource into the fray. Divisional reserves were deployed along with Pioneer Battalions, Labour Corps Units, Mine Warfare Companies and Headquarters defence units, all thrown together in the trench lines. Ludendorff, now faced with a breach of the Somme Bend defence called forward his nation’s finest. The Second Prussian Guards Division consisting of the Kaiserin Augusta and Kaiser Alexander Regiments, rich in tradition, was posted to defend Mt St Quentin. Volunteers were called to defend Péronne. Once our troops crossed the river, the terrain was bare of foliage, gently sloping up to the ridge surmounted by Mt St Quentin, more a knoll than a mountain, the ground had been fought over since 1916; there were old trench lines and barbed wire entanglements. There were industrial ruins, brickfields and a sugar-beet refinery. Every slope and fold in the ground was able to be swept by machine gun fire. Weapons in the hands of elite German troops.
To recap, the plan was for:
3 Div to seize the high ground north east of Cléry, then take Bouchavesnes Spur.
2 Div to establish a bridgehead at Halle, then take Mt St Quentin.
5 Div to force a crossing at the Péronne bridges, then take the wooded spur east of Péronne.
Each assault Division was to employ one brigade only until a foothold was established on the objective.
On 29 and 30 August 2 Div engineers made the Feuilléres Bridge trafficable for, guns and vehicles, bridges at Buscourt and Ommiéecourt for foot.
St Quentin 2 Div crossed the river on the night of 30/31 August and opened the attack at 0500 on 31. 5 Bde lined up to get a foothold on the knoll. On that day Brigadier General Martin’s command consisted of 1,320 including 70 officers 1⁄3 the nominal strength of an Australian brigade. He had been allocated a company of machine gunners (16 guns) and had call on the five brigades of field and one of heavy artillery allocated to the Division. The Brigade faced a German Guards Division at full strength. The advance began in the dark; there had been no preliminary bombardment, the guns had been silently registered*, our troops made as much noise as possible; this worked, a number of enemy posts just surrendered.
By 0700 the village of Mt St Quentin had been taken by 5 Bde’s centre battalion. The first German counter-attack drove the battalion back to a line of old trenches just to the west of the town.
2 Div was quick to back-up 5 Bde with 6 Bde and ensure the position was held.
5 Div could not cross at Péronne, so was directed to the 2 Div Crossing. 7 Bde giving way so that 14 Bde could make a wide diversion to threaten the Péronne defences from the flank and rear.
At Mt St Quentin 7 Bde came into position behind 6 Bde, and the latter brigade attacked at 0600 on 1 September, clearing the knoll and taking the line 600 metres beyond the summit that had been held by a German Guards Division. The Guards were seen to be retreating in disorder.
What 14 Bde then accomplished was astounding, at the same time as the 6 Bde attack, it rushed the Péronne defence before it could be properly organised and turned to face them. By nightfall, the brigade was in undisputed possession of the south east of the town. On the next day, 2 September 15 Bde had a battalion across the river south of the town, and was able to help with the mop-up.
The struggle to clear the enemy from brickfields between Mt St Quentin and breaching the front many lines of barbed wire was intense.
By late on 3 September the whole of Péronne and most of the high ground in the vicinity was in Australian hands. The enemy in the suburb of Flamicourt held out ‘till the 4th, then resistance of the German forces faded.
From 30 August to 4 September 3 Div had carried the Australian line inexorably up the Bouchavesnes spur in a north easterly direction, strongly confirming the seizure of Mt St Quentin.
North of Péronne along the Canal du Nord, facing 32 (UK) Div (under command the Australian Corps) found many enemy posts held the line. They were unaware of their compatriots’ defeat and retreat. They were taken from the rear by units of 3 Div.
Rawlinson more than once referred to the action at the great bend of the Somme as the " finest single feat of the war". After the war, 2 Div chose to build the monument commemorating the loss of their comrades and emphasising the magnificence of their effort at Mt St Quentin. The monument was not to be the single stele of the other divisions, it was a sculpture depicting an Australian soldier bayonetting a German Eagle. A statue that was a bit much for the NAZIs, it was the only memorial in France destroyed by the Germans in WW2. The replacement, constructed in the 1980s is a magnificent and unique memorial that is not quite as offensive to Germany as the original.
With victory at the Somme Bend, Corps support units became a hive of activity, it was essential that a railhead to support the exploitation be moved forward of the Somme. Engineers, pioneers, transport worked 24 hours a day.
The Australian spearhead was being supported. The Canadians, now part of the third British Army delivered a blow in the flat country near Arras.
From 4 September, evidence of the enemy’s intention to withdraw to the Hindenburg Line, a line of defence defined by the Riqueval Canal to the Australian front was indisputable.
A vigorous policy of pursuit was essential. Ahead the Germans were again establishing a "force field", there were columns of smoke and explosions near every hamlet, the enemy was destroying what he could not move. As the Australians consolidated east of the Somme. the 3 (UK) Corps to the north and the 9 (FR) corps to the south were able to resume flank protection, shortening the Australian front, facilitating further action by the spearhead.
On 5 September Australians reached the line Athies - Le Mensil – Donigt – Bussy. Severe fighting took place at a number of points, the opposition mainly coming from machine gunners, and the odd field gun. The advance had three divisions up, north to south, 3, 32 (UK), then 5, each led by a brigade. 1 and 4 Divs were out of battle and in reserve. The Light Horse was allocated one squadron each per lead brigade together with detachments if the Australian cyclist battalion.
On 12 September the corps was within 9 kilometres of the Hindenburg Line. 32 (UK) Div passed back to the command of 3 Corps, 1 and 4 Divs relieved 3 and 5 divs on the front line. The process was new and organised by Monash, relief troops were brought forward and those relieved taken to the rear by motor transport. In the past those relieved after hard fighting were required to march out of the line.
By now the German retirement to their final line of defence was across all fronts, and being followed-up by all allied nationalities.
Corps headquarters had moved forward and were now in less palatial accommodation. A situation accepted by current and former soldier visitors; not always understood by others (journalists, artists, politicians) who were used to HQs at corps level occupying palatial châteaus.
The corps prisoner of war cage was full from July to October. Much was gleaned from the prisoners and their personal correspondence, notebooks and diaries.
On 12 September the Australian Corps reached the Hindenburg line. This line of defence was built between November 1916 and May 1917. It was specifically designed to permit the smallest number of men to defend it. The Germans had once before relied successfully on the impregnability of this great work. The enemy had every justification in believing they could hold the line ‘till winter set in and forced the war into 1919. By then, a further rationalisation of resources on the eastern front could buy even more time for Germany.
The Riqueval Canal, running from St Quentin (the town not the knoll) in the south to Cambrai in the north was a major obstacle. It linked the Somme and Scheldt rivers, crossing the watershed. The water was too deep to wade, and the steep sided ravine 20 - 30 metres deep. The canal tunnelled though the watershed peak, a distance of six kilometres under Bellicourt and Bony. The canal, where possible ran through low ground. In their defensive design, the enemy took advantage of high ground running parallel to the canal some 1.5 to 2 kilometres to the west. The line (the "Hindenburg Outpost Line") was well prepared, well designed trench lines, comfortable dugouts, cunningly hidden machine gun posts and trenches running back to the canal to afford covered exit should the position be overwhelmed.
Back at the canal, (the "Hindenburg Main Line") the focus was on defending the tunnel. This shortened the attacker’s line affording clear killing areas for well placed wire and machine guns. The tunnel also afforded secure barge facilitated living accommodation for a substantial garrison. Shafts cut into the tunnel roof enabling swift deployment of reserves. East of the canal there were two further lines of defence (the "Le Cartlet" and "Burevoir" lines), lightly manned, and by no means as substantial as the first two, nonetheless making for a good fight if the line were to be taken. One advantage Monash had was that on a different part of the front, the British had captured an inconspicuous valise containing detailed plans of the German Defence. The Australians knew where every machine gun post, mortar emplacement, searchlight, observation post, and telephone exchange was. They had the plans of action for every part of the garrison.
In conference with corps and army commanders, it was decided that the Hindenburg Outpost Line would be attacked in a coordinated assault along the entire front. This would take a few days to organise. A delay also essential for the Australian Corps to recover after months of continuous fighting. Another major problem was a lack of tanks to sufficiently support the offensive. The skilled Chinese mechanics who staffed the repair facilities were working all hours to get damaged tanks back on the line. Factories in the UK were working just as hard to deliver new vehicles. There were just not enough of these invaluable break through weapons available. Infantry would have to bear the load, all hopes rested on the morale of the enemy being sufficiently shattered to minimise our casualties.
In the meantime 1 and 4 Divs were ordered to carry the Australian line as far forward as possible without committing the Corps to an organised attack. As the Hindenburg Outpost Line was approached, enemy resistance grew. Daring exploits by the 13 and 2 Bdes brought our line within 5 km of the first main designated Corps objective.
In a YMCA tent near 1 Div HQ, Monash briefed his commanders. The attack was to take place on 13 September. To in part compensate for a lack of tanks, the number of machine guns in the two assault divisions was to be doubled. The machine gun battalions of the reserve 3 and 5 divisions were brought forward and placed under the command of the assault formations. 256 Vickers guns on a 7 km front, in addition of the Lewis guns, two per platoon. The Vickers delivering a closely controlled barrage of fire 300 metres ahead of the lead troops. The artillery plan was as simple as possible, a barrage to move 200 metres ahead of the ground troops, jumping in 100 metre intervals. The start lines of infantry and artillery being clearly marked on all commander’s maps from Division to Section level.
0627 (dawn) 18 September the attack on the Hindenburg Outpost line commenced. By an hour before resources had been drawn back and moved forward to a series of to taped lines, sign posts directing every unit to their exact step-off position. It was raining heavily. Field artillery opened up along a line 500 metres ahead of the troops as they stepped off; 3 to 4 shells per 20 metres of front per minute. They ran, as they reached a line 200 metres from the falling shells, the barrage lifted 100 metres; ahead of the falling shells was the fall of .303 bullets from the Vickers. Enemy gun positions were engaged by our heavy artillery, keeping their artillery silent. The first lines of infantry took and held the ground, defending forward of the enemy position in preparation for the inevitable series of counter attacks where the enemy attempted to take back their lost position. The next lines of infantry moped-up dealing with enemy who showeed fight or were hiding underground waiting to rise up and take their attackers in rear. The final lines brought up defence stores and resupply of ammunition, water etc. All the time our aircraft prowled overhead, gathering and passing back details of troop movements, dropping ammunition to our troops, strafing and bombing. The field artillery paused for 15 to 30 minutes on the final objective then ended with three rounds of smoke fired in close succession as a signal to commanders that the barrage was ending. Every aspect of the set piece operation was planned by the highly experienced staff, then executed by troops, most of whom had, as there was no conscription for overseas service in Australia, been in the field for four continuous years.
The serious fighting took place at La Verguier not far from the start line.
When the line was taken, around 1000, 1 Div suffered 490 casualties (killed and wounded) out of 2,854 and captured 1,700 prisoners, 4 Div suffered 532 casualties out of 3,048 and took 2,543 prisoners. When monuments were built to mark the actions of our troops, 1 Div built theirs at Pozzierés; 4 Div built theirs, a single stele, on a ridge that formed part of the Hindenburg Outpost Line near Bellenglise.
1 and 4 Divs were withdrawn from the line, a line of busses taking them to the rear for a rest, reinforcement, and return to the fray at a later date. This left only 3 Australian Divisions for the final assault to push the enemy out of the war in 1918. To this point the Australian Corps (nominally two or more divisions) had been Army strength (nominally two or more corps) and had assumed Army responsibility. Reinforcements were required if the corps was to push across the top of the Riqueval Tunnel and take the Hindenburg Main Line in a set piece attack, then roll-over the Le Cartlet and Burevoir lines in open warfare formation.
General Rawlinson recognising this situation, was able to offer Monash the Second US Corps, of two divisions, each of two brigades containing two regiments with three battalions each. Concerned that these US troops had no previous combat experience, Monash accepted the challenge. The US troops at Le Hamel and Chipilly spur had proved competent and aggressive; he felt that with special arrangements, these new troops could be of great help in winning the war in 1919.
Major General Maclagan and select members, 83 officers and 127 non-commissioned officers of 1 and 4 Divs were attached to the Americans to ensure standardised Australian staff procedures developed now over several years in combat could be understood and acted upon.
It was not until the morning of 25 September that the US corps was in position. There had been some flank as well as forward relief movement. Monash intended to attack across the six kilometres of the tunnel. The attack to be led by the two divisions, 27 and 30 of the 2 (US) corps and followed up by the 3, 5 and 2 (AU) Divs. The step off line would be straight, as would be the objective. The movement pace quick with substantial tank support. Monash’s first conference with his US commanders on 23 September, however, did degenerate into a 3 hour chalk board lesson on the basic principles of battle practice. This did not bode well.
As it happened, one vital part of this lesson did not get through to the US troops. In 1916 when Australians first assaulted German positions, they found the task complicated by a tactic where the enemy would hide a major part of his force in comfortable underground bunkers. These troops emerging after our troops thought they had cleared the enemy’s trench system to attack us from behind. The way to deal with this is to have follow-up troops specifically tasked to mop-up these stay behind elements and neutralise their devastating effect.
There was also the difficulty that on the northern edge of what was now the Australian Corps line, the position handed over from 3 (UK) Corps was 1,000 metres short of the Hindenburg Outpost Line. At 0530 on 27 September, 27 (US) Div attacked to push back this part of the line.
There was confusion, the US troops were unfamiliar with the process of firing specifically coloured flares when aircraft sounded horns overhead to signal their position. Where flares were fired, the plots made by aircraft observers did not match what those on the ground reported by other means. The Americans did not mop-up, gallantly taking enemy positions only to find themselves surrounded, they were be relieved by Australian troops two days later.
The main attack on the Hindenburg Line was scheduled for 29 September. Monash, concerned at the failure of the US troops and a need to fix this. The delay was not possible, other coordinated offensives would be in jeopardy. General Rawlinson was, however able to offer tank reserves to work with the 27 (US) Div and secure the northern flank.
The attack on 29 and 30 September succeeded in breaking through the line and taking the tunnel. This battle crossed into October 1918, full detail under the October button.
The stage was now set for a break through the two remaining less heavily contested lines.
John Howells 2018
*Silent registration involves testing each gun for fall of shot, then calculating where the rounds would fall. There is no need for ranging shots, so no warning, the rounds just fall.
When, under the September tab I stated that "the attack on 29 and 30 September succeeded in breaking through the line and taking the tunnel", I was not being inaccurate, I simply did not emphasise the struggle and the number of mainly American lives lost needlessly.
The artillery barrage used a new type of shell, one able to be set-off by the slightest obstacle, even a strand of wire. It enabled wire and other obstacle clearance in a way previously impossible in shells delivered by heavy guns. An almost continuous preparatory bombardment using our heavy artillery and these shells ran for 48 hours before step-off.
The units were lined up, from north to south, assault: 27 (US) Div then 30 (US) Div; reserve: 3 Div then 5 Div. Each division had a 3,500 metre front. The Americans were to penetrate using a set piece attack to a green line, some 3.5 kilometres beyond the canal tunnel. The Australians were then to advance another 4 kilometres to the east, using open warfare tactics overrunning Johncourt, Estrées and Beaurevoir. At this point the last known wired position should have been passed, and the 5 (UK) Cavalry Brigade under Monash’s command would be able to carry the exploitation further east to Montbrehain and Brancourt. Support was to be provided by Tanks and Armoured Cars as well.
The taped start line was crossed at 0550 on 29 September. As the day broke there was a mist on the ground.
The green line beyond the canal was supposed to be taken by US troops by 0900, with the Australians to pass through by 1100. There was a problem, the American troops were not responding to horn blasts from overflying aircraft with the flares they had been supplied with. In the mist, there was no way the exact location of forward troops could be established. At 1100, wireless telegraph messages came in with disturbing news; 30 (US) Div reported they were fighting in Bellicourt with Germans attacking from behind; 3 Div reported they were dug in on the western side of the tunnel with Americans held-up in front of them.
One thing Monash had not been advised of was that in addition to the two US Divisions lacking combat experience, many of their junior officers and non-commissioned officers were absent on course. This contributed to the situation that now prevailed.
The Corps Commander’s protection party got to move as Monash hurried forward. He found US troops in some cases had no flares, in others they had not been briefed on the significance of the overhead horn blasts. The lack of mopping-up problem encountered with the 27 (US) Div on 27 September happened again across the US front. The US troops were, Monash notes, exceptionally aggressive and brave, being late to the fray, they were anxious for their allied colleagues to accept them. As ordered, they attacked, passing over the German positions, however, as follow-up troops had not been tasked to deal with enemy concealed in entrenchments, they found themselves in the open, counter attacked by the enemy to their front, and attacked by the enemy from behind. Isolated, they were fighting hard; a situation exacerbated by leaders absent on course; many found themselves in isolated groups without leaders.
The 27 (US) Div had a bad start, many of the tanks they had been allocated were knocked out by land mines planted when the 5 (UK) Army had occupied the area prior to the German Operation Michael and were concerned attacks would be led by German Tanks. Regardless they stayed with the barrage, only to be isolated; 1,200 surrendered. The 30 (US) Div initially stayed with the barrage, however, before their objective was reached, they faltered, turning to stand before the enemy now attacking their rear.
Monash was forward, with his presence, he emphasised the initiative of commanders in place. The Australians surged forward across the front, mopping- up the Germans in rear of the Americans, then integrating US stragglers into their ranks. By nightfall the two Australian Divisions, with the remnants of the American Corps in their ranks held a 9 kilometre front east of Bellicourt. That night it rained heavily.
The Battle continued on 30 September, 3 Div toward Bony village, 5 Div toward Joncourt. It was now a private soldier’s battle. There was no ability to orchestrate the mechanical aids that would minimise casualties. Breaking of the enemy morale was the only saving grace.
On 1 October things moved quickly, by 1000 5 Div reported the capture of Joncourt. By 1200 Bony was in Australian hands. Units were mixed-up, but continued to fight under the direction of local commanders all of whom were trusted. At the height of the fighting the final 3 Div reserve was committed, yet still General Gellibrand was able to reconstitute one from whatever was available. By nightfall the mission was complete with all isolated pockets of US troops and wounded gathered in.
In early 1918, the British Army faced with reduced recruiting (or a modern version of press-ganging as conscription was in full swing in the UK) decided to reduce the number of battalions in a brigade from four to three. Birdwood had in May 1918 ordered the reduction of 9, 12 and 13 Bdes by a battalion each. This had not been well received by commanders and their troops. Monash, recognising the negative effect on morale continuing the process would have on the Army during the War’s last battles managed to prevaricate almost to the point of insubordination. In early October the axe fell. And; if that was not enough Monash received instructions to send 6,000 men who had served continuously since 1914 on furlough to Australia. On 19 September; just before the battle Monash received an ultimatum to disband eight battalions. General Rawlinson accepted a fourteen day deferral recommended by Monash, the Australian Army was able to fight on; the bureaucrats smarted.
By nightfall on 2 October, the front line had been taken over by a rested 2 Div with the US divs in reserve. 3 and 5 Div seriously depleted by the hard fighting to take the Main Hindenburg Line, were relieved.
The attack on the final Beaurevior Line commenced at 0650 on 3 October. 5 was the right forward brigade, 7 on the left (north), 6 Bde in reserve; 5 (UK) Tank Bde, battalion strength of MKVs, and a company strength of Whippets were also under command 2 Div. A field Artillery barrage started the battle. There was much heavy fighting, many centres of resistance only surrendering once enveloped. Most of the heavy tanks were knocked out by enemy artillery, and the Whippets had difficulty negotiating trenches. By 1200 the Beaurevior Line had been taken. 2 Div had taken 1,000 prisoners and many guns, a great job by three grossly understrength brigades.
As was customary, 2 Div held the line in an aggressive fashion. Raids and a bit of "peaceful penetration" on 4 October yielded a further 800 prisoners.
The front was to be handed over to the US 2 Corps whose 27 and 30 Divisions had been refreshed and reinforced over the past few days. In order for 30 (US) Div to move into position and take over from 2 Div, General Rawlinson asked for an operation to destabilise the enemy on the Australian Corps front, now 4 kilometres wide. Monash chose the high ground to the east of the village of Montbrehain. For this final effort a company of Tanks was allocated to 2 Div. H hour was 0605 on 5 October. Montbrehain village was found to be full of machine guns. 6 Bde leading dashed through the town, destroying post after post. As the heights beyond were reached, a counter-attack developed, 400 metres of ground was ceded until the enemy was driven back by a battalion from 5 Bde. By nightfall our line was secure, and 600 prisoners had been taken from nine different German Regiments. The Australian Corps by advancing fully 10 kilometres beyond the Main Hindenburg line had ostensibly defeated the enemy.
On 5 October Prince Max of Baden, representing the German Government took the first steps to request an Armistice.
Late on 5 October, 2 Div was relieved and headed out of the line on a fleet of busses. General Monash handed over the front to General Read of the 2 (US) Corps.
The Australian Corps was to rest pending employment early in November.
In a field on the hill just east of Montbrehain, there is a small cemetery. The grave of Private Joseph Henry Taylor, a Pioneer is the closest WW1 Australian grave to Germany.
Lieutenant George Mawby Ingram was awarded the last Victoria Cross won by an Australian in Wordl War 1. In the advance on Montbrehain his battalion suffered heavy casualties. Without hesitation Ingram, at the head of his platoon, rushed a post, captured nine machine-guns and killed forty-two Germans who had shown stubborn resistance. Later, after his company had suffered severe casualties and many officers had fallen, he took control of the situation once again, rallied his men under intense fire, and led them forward. He rushed another fortification and overcame serious resistance. Twice more that day he displayed great courage and leadership in the capture of enemy posts and the taking of sixty-two prisoners.
John Howells 2018
1 November saw the enemy in full retreat. The tactics were those of delay, destruction of bridges, tearing up railways and blowing craters in every important intersection. Rear guards invariably yielded to the smallest demonstration of force. Nonetheless, this work was very taxing on the allied troops involved with the follow-up and infrastructure reconstruction.
Armistice talks were dragging on, soldiers’ lives were being needlessly lost.
The Australian Corps was rested in spite of the pain the reorganisation directed by mindless bureaucrats had inflicted. On 5 November, the Corps was ordered back into the front line. 1 and 4 Divisions headed for the combat zone with the other three divisions to follow. Corps Headquarters commenced its move from Amiens to Le Cateau on 10 November. Monash was in his Rolls-Royce staff car sporting the Australian Red Ensign on the road to Le Cateau on 11 November when at a check point, he was advised of the Armistice.
The Australian Corps did not see action again in World War 1.
John Howells 2018
December saw Monash appointed to direct the repatriation of all Australian troops from Europe and the Middle East. The task was approached with gusto. Monash was particularly concerned that the soldiers should be able to contribute to society when they returned home. He oversaw the establishment of schools to impart skills for the future. Many of the young soldiers had seen their education truncated in order to volunteer, others were educators. Monash knew there would be a long delay before the necessary shipping would be available to send the men home; he was determined to see that the time was not wasted.
Christmas was celebrated. Sadly if the will of the combatants in Christmas 1914 had prevailed 60,000 Australian lives would have been saved.
John Howells 2018
Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles
Douglas Hunter, My Corps Cavalry
Lucas Jordan, Stealth Raiders a few Daring Men in 1918
Frank Mitchell, Tanks and Men
John Monash, The Australian Victories in France 1918
Peter Nunan World War 1 – Battle of Hamel US Military History Magazine August 2000
Roland Perry, Monash the Outsider Who won a War
Ian Westwell, World War I Day by Day
Australian Dictionary of Biography
Current maps adapted from Google
Non historic photos were taken by the author 2008-2017