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.









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.

Australian defaced ensign as used in 1918 Canadian defaced ensign as used in 1918

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:

Phase Action Distance to achieve (metres)
A Set piece attack with barrage 3,000
B Open warfare advance 4,500
C Exploitation 1,500
Total distance to final obj 5,000

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:

Brigade layout 7 August

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:

Battle of Amiens 8 August 1918

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.

Battle of Amiens a break in the advance Artillery at the Battle of Amiens

a rifle granadier 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.

German Prisoners Artillery

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.

booty

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 un-formidable. 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.

Knighted in the field The combat veteran guard

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.

Great Bend in the Somme

Advance to the SommeMonash 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.

RE8s of the AFC

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.

So glad to be out of the war

John Howells 2018







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