Honour Monash - A great Australian
|The 1918 Monash Diary||
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.
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.