Australia on the western front: 1918 – The nightmare ends

The ruins of Villers-Bretonneux photographed in April 1918 (Australian War Memorial).
The ruins of Villers-Bretonneux photographed in April 1918 (Australian War Memorial).

As 1918 began, Germany was deeply worried by the US entering the war. The Americans were mobilising in large numbers so the Germans needed to win the war before they arrived. The Russian Revolution ended the war on the Eastern Front, and Germany rushed its troops to France for a major offensive in March.

Using massed artillery and “stormtrooper” tactics which foreshadowed Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, they forced the British Army back 50km to the Somme over the graves of previous battles. General Gough’s Fifth Army took refuge in Amiens, a vital communications hub, and Gough diverted the Australian divisions from Flanders to defend gaps in the line. By the time they arrived, German momentum was weakening. They attacked heavily at Villers-Bretonneux, 25km east of Amiens, but the Australians drove them off. The following day they repulsed the Germans further north at Hébuterne and Dernancourt.

The Germans launched another major assault on Villers-Bretonneux on April 24. Two Australian brigades with British units counter-attacked that night in a pincer movement, yelling as they charged under machine-gun fire. The following morning, Anzac Day, the Germans were in full retreat. Amiens was safe. A hill overlooking Villers-Bretonneux was selected as the site of the Australian National Memorial in 1938. It was repaired again after being damaged in the Second World War.

As 1918 progressed, the Americans arrived on the battlefields in large numbers shifting the balance to the Allies. Birdwood handed over command of the Australian army to Sir John Monash. Monash was a civil engineer from Melbourne who understood the need for organisation, initiative and good morale. The division in Flanders defending Hazebrouck was moved to the Somme bringing the five divisions under Australian command. Monash attacked at Le Hamel using Australian and American troops on a battle set appropriately for July 4.

Supported by new Mark V tanks, aircraft and artillery, Monash’s infanty achieved their objective in a brilliantly planned attack. Le Hamel was possibly Australia’s finest hour in the war. On August 8, two Australian divisions joined a massive attack on weakening German positions on the Somme. Over 2000 Australians died in one day, but the Germans were routed. General Ludendorff called it “Der Schwarze Tag” – Germany’s black day.

Monash drove the troops to Mont St Quentin and Péronne, a strongly defended riverside town. In bloody hand-to-hand combat, Australians won eight Victoria Crosses in three days, the largest of any engagement in the war. The Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line while Monash urged the exhausted Australians on, despite crippling losses.

It was a race against time with winter approaching. In his final attack of September 29 at St Quentin Canal, Monash commanded more “doughboys” (as the Americans were called) than Australians. The Allies finally breached the Hindenburg Line and Germany’s war was lost. Amid a total retreat, most of the Australians saw their last action capturing Montbrehain on October 5. They handed over to the doughboys and sat out the last month of the war.

The year 1918 claimed 12,000 Australian lives on the Western Front. The last to die were three pilots and three tunnellers in a British attack at Sambre-Oise on November 4. The war ended on Armistice Day a week later though a defeated Germany never admitted the word “surrender”.

Around 60,000 Australians died in the war out of a total of 17 million worldwide, seven million of those civilians. The war changed borders, with ramifications the world is dealing with 100 years later. European power was fatally weakened and three empires collapsed. Yet nations did not heed the lesson of the “Great War”. The unsatisfactory nature of the peace led to an even bloodier conflict 20 years later. Australia would again serve in Britain’s interest, but would also be forced to defend its own borders as Japan emerged as a global military power.

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