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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.





AO April 1918

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.

The approach to Hill 104 Le Hamel

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.

Dernancourt 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.

Australian Soldiers near Villers Brettoneux Australian Soldiers near Villers Brettoneux

Arriving from Flanders on 7-8 April, the 2nd Australian Division took over the Dernancourt positions and relieved the 4th Division. Command was mixed a tad, 3 Div was under 7 British Corps, 5 Div under 3 British Corps. 9 Bde (3 Div) under at times 18 then 61 British Divisions. 9 Bde having blocked a series of attacks and counter-attacks near Villers Brettoneux. 1 Div did make its way south, it was rushed to the Messines-Warrenton sector to replace the Portuguese, who demoralised by a lack of political backing were fleeing before the German advance.

Rumours were about that the Australian Corps Headquarters would soon be transferred to the Amiens area and given charge of the four Australian Divisions (2, 3, 4 and 5) operating there currently under the orders of three different Corps HQs. This corps to be part of a reconstituted Fourth British Army with Three British Corps.

Around 10 April Australian Corps Headquarters occupied the Château at Bertangles on the Villers-Bockage road, about 8 km north of Amiens. One by one the attached brigades rejoined their divisions, and the Divisions came under the command of the Australian Corps.

On the morning of 24 April, comparative calm was shattered. Enemy guns bombarded the line from Albert to Hanguard. 1200 saw the enemy attack in force. The southern flank of 5 Div held fast. The town of Villers-Bretonneux, lying beyond the Australian sector, however, fell and was occupied by the German Army. Two Australian reserve brigades, the 13 (Brigadier General Glasgow) from 4 Div and the 15 (Brigadier General Elliot) from 5 Div and a troop of the 13 Light Horse (Lieutenant LV Reid) were detached and placed under the British Third Corps and ordered to re-take the town. The Brigadiers General collaborated on a brilliant plan. By the time the troops were in position soon after nightfall, the Light Horse combed and probed the battlefield for information and reported back to General Elliot’s forward headquarters.

The brigades attacked using a pincer movement, 15 Bde around the northern flank, 13 the southern. The fighting was fierce.

In a wood south east of Villers-Bretonneux not far from the village of Cachy. shells exploded around Lieutenant Cliff Sadlier and his platoon, flares pierced the night sky, pinned down by murderous machinegun fire of tracer bullets. The 13 Bde was held up. Lieutenant Sadlier and Sergeant Charlie Stokes, collected the grenade section and advanced. In all, six machinegun nests were taken out and the brigade was able to proceed.

Sadlier, a travelling salesman, and Stokes, a former Cobb and Co coach driver, both from Subiaco, Western Australia, were recommended for the Victoria Cross, but only Sadlier won it. Stokes had to make do with a distinguished conduct medal.

By morning the Germans were either dead, driven from Villers-Bretonneux or with the Light Horse patrolling the gap where the pincers had not quite closed were in the process of surrender. 1,000 prisoners were in the bag.

Australian National Memorial Villers Brettoneux Australian National Memorial Villers Brettoneux
Australian National Memorial Villers Brettoneux Villers Brettoneux from the north

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











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