Honour Monash - A great Australian
Promote him Posthumously to Field Marshal by 11 November 2018
294 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 will be able to click on the other month buttons below to read what happened. Click again 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 east, back to Flanders.
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 had horsemen 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.’
INSPIC Thomas Pope
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
Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles
Douglas Hunter, My Corps Cavalry
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
Current maps adapted from Google
Non historic photos were taken by the author 2008-2017