Wartime snapshot #23—1918-2018: Centenary of the Final Campaigns

Wartime Snapshot #23—1918-2018: Centenary of the Final Campaigns
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In 1918 first the Germans and then the Allies launched major offensives on the Western Front, ending years of stalemate and initiating a war of movement that favoured the Allies’ superior numbers, vast industrial capacity and hard-earned tactical knowledge. On 4 July Australian and United States troops seized the town of Hamel in a battle lasting just ninety-three minutes, one in a series of local actions preceding a massive offensive in August that led three months later to Germany’s defeat.

Background

At the beginning of 1918, few on the Allied side imagined that the war would be over before the year’s end. On 21 March the Germans launched the first in a series of major offensives that they hoped would bring them victory before United States troops could reach the front in sufficient numbers to affect the outcome.

For a time it seemed that they would succeed. The German advance through the Somme valley, across ground won by the Allies at great cost in 1916 and 1917, threatened to carry them to the vital transport hub at Amiens and split the French and British armies. Over the next month Allied troops fought a series of defensive actions, including the little known but vitally important encounters at Hébuterne, Dernancourt, Morlancourt and Hazebrouck in which the Australian Corps played an important role. On 25 April British and Australian soldiers drove the Germans from the town of Villers-Bretonneux. It proved to be the limit of the enemy’s advance.

A series of limited scale actions over the following months, including at Hamel on 4 July, consolidated the Allied line. Then on 8 August outside Amiens the Allies launched their own mighty offensive, spearheaded by Australian and Canadian divisions advancing behind a wall of artillery fire and supported by tanks and aircraft. For the Germans it was a devastating blow, famously described by General Erich Ludendorff as ‘the black day of the German army in this war’. From then on, the Germans were under unrelenting attack, always falling back and unable to regroup, facing threats first in one sector and then another.

In September Australian troops seized Mont St Quentin and the nearby town of Peronne, in fighting that has been described as the ‘crowning achievement’ of the Australian Imperial Force. Over the following weeks Australian and British troops advanced on and then broke through the formidable Hindenburg Line. The Australian Corps fought its final infantry battles of the war during this phase, alongside United States troops at Bellicourt on the St Quentin Canal in late September and early October, and at Montbrehain on 5 October, after which the much depleted Australian divisions were withdrawn from the line. They were returning to the fighting when the war ended on 11 November 1918.

Sources

C.E.W. Bean, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–18, vols. V&VI, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1937 & 1942.

J. Beaumont, Broken Nation: Australia in the Great War, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2013.

B. Gammage, The Broken Years: Australian soldiers in the Great War, Melbourne University Publishing, 2010 illustrated edition.

E.F.P. Lynch & W. Davis (ed.), Somme Mud: the war experiences of an Australian infantryman in France 1916–1919, Random House Australia, Sydney, 2006.

G. Mitchell and R. Macklin, Backs to the Wall: a larrikin on the Western Front, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2007.

Teaching activities

Use the poster, background information and websites listed below to answer the following questions:

  1. Look at the Anzac Day poster.
    1. What can you see? Describe the landscape, people and buildings.
    2. How might the Australian soldiers in the image have been feeling?
    3. What does the image and poster text tell you about the experience of Australians on the Western Front in 1918?
  2. Using the link under Websites:
    1. Locate the following towns mentioned in the background information, which were significant in the final campaigns of 1918:
      • Villers-Bretonneux
      • Peronne
      • Hamel
      • Montbrehain
      • Mont St Quentin
    2. What do you notice about the location of the towns listed above?
  3. Read the background information.
    1. What was the aim of the German offensive in March 1918?
    2. What was the significance of the events at Villers-Bretonneux on 25 April 2018?
  4. The Battle of Hamel was regarded as ‘a model of innovative tactics’. How were infantry, artillery, aircraft and tanks used during this battle?
     
  5. Using the link under Websites:
    1. Why was the timing of the Battle of Hamel meaningful for the United States troops?
    2. Why was this battle significant for the United States and British forces?
    3. What was created between American and Australian troops as a result of them jointly taking part in the Battle of Hamel?
  6. Private Henry Dalziel was awarded a Victoria Cross for his actions during the battle of Hamel.
    1. What actions earned Henry a Victoria Cross?
    2. Henry survived, but how do you think his experiences affected his life after the war?
  7. The Australian Corps Memorial overlooks the village of Hamel. The memorial features a large bronze rising sun and part of a speech by the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau.
    1. When was the speech made?
    2. What did the French Prime Minister think of Australian soldiers?
    3. When was it donated to the Museums Victoria collections?
  8. Why was 8 August 1918 described by General Erich Ludendorff as the ‘black day of the German army in this war’?
     
  9. Many public works, including the Sir John Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux, have been named after Sir John Monash.
    1. What did Monash say about the importance of planning?
    2. When did he receive his knighthood?
    3. Why is he remembered as one of the great figures in Australian history?

Websites

Department of Veterans’ Affairs

  1. anzacportal.dva.gov.au/battle-hamel
  1. sjmc.gov.au/sir-john-monash-the-man-behind-the-centre

Australian War Memorial

  1. awm.gov.au – Search for image E02666
  1. awm.gov.au/visit/exhibitions/1918/battles
  1. awm.gov.au – Search for image E02690
  1. awm.gov.au/visit/exhibitions/1918/battles/amiens
    awm.gov.au – Search for image P05380.005

Other

  1. adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dalziel-henry-5876
  1. www.somme-battlefields.com/memory-place/australian-corps-memorial-hamel
    collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/390841