Peronne / Mont St Quentin, France
"perhaps the greatest military achievement of the war....." General Sir Henry Rawlinson Commander British 4th Army
This battle was in effect the culminating point of the evolution of the Australian Corps from the rag tag militia which had stormed ashore at Gallipoli four years earlier, to a seasoned, well-trained professionally led force that had carried all before it since August 8th at the Battle of Amiens.
Described as "…the greatest military achievement of the war", by General Sir Henry Rawlinson, the British Commander of the Fourth Army to which General Sir John Monash's Australian Corps belonged, this battle more than any other exemplifies the level of capability the Australians had achieved by this late stage of the war.
Capture of Mont St Quentin, by Fred Leist. The 2nd Australian Division crossed the Somme River on the night of 31 August, and attacked Mont St Quentin at 5 am, from the unexpected position of northwest. It was a difficult position as it was an uphill fight for the troops, across very open ground where they were vulnerable to attack from the German-held heights above.
In complete contrast to the static and attritional nature of trench warfare, this battle was an exemplary application of manoeuvre and battle craft at platoon and company level, executed against a well sited enemy position complemented by several major terrain obstacles; namely the Somme River and the line of the Canal du Nord, which at that stage had been largely constructed but critically, not filled with water.
The Australian Corps had advanced from the vicinity of Villers-Bretonneaux and Le Hamel on the 8th-13th August. They had advanced on the southern side of the Somme and approached the great elbow in the river at the apex of which was the town of Peronne, dominated by the heights of Mont St Quentin to the north west. Monash had gained approval to put the 3rd Division on the northern side of the river to protect his open flank as the British III Corps advance had diverged toward Bapaume.
The senior Commander's (Rawlinson) intent had been to hold short of the formidable defences of the Mont, and to allow the British III Corps and adjacent formations to catch up and carry on the approach to the Hindenburg Line. Monash was chafing at this approach. He believed the AIF needed to make an indelible mark so that it played a key role in any post war negotiations, but he was running out of time and the troops in numbers needed to do it.
Monash was also under political pressure from Prime Minister Hughes. Hughes was trying to play a populist line with the Australian public, by pulling troops out of the line and sending home all the surviving 1914/15 veterans. With reinforcements having slowed to a trickle, and no prospect of conscription to boost the flow of reinforcements, Monash's Corps was under strength by as much as 50%, and close to exhaustion, with no let-up since August the 8th. The Australian Corps was looking at the need to disband one Battalion in each Brigade in order to consolidate available troops into viable units and sub-units. Additional troop withdrawals would only make this equation worse.
At the same time he (Hughes) wanted Australian battlefield achievements to stake his place at the post-war negotiating table.
Monash could not do both. His capacity to make the mark he sought and his Prime Minister so desperately wanted, was being eroded with every casualty and every new demand made by Hughes to appease electors at home. He was between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
Monash was about to play a very high risk game.
To break the dilemma he planned to attack and capture Mont St Quentin essentially off the line of march and do so before any troops were withdrawn.
Without the benefit of tanks and with much of the artillery support having been re-allocated further north, he framed his plan.
The 3rd Division was already on the north bank of the Somme. It was tasked to protect the open left flank of the impending attack by moving to clear the Bouchavesnes spur, thus securing the Corps' open (northern) flank.
The 5th Division was to hold the southern bank and then push a force across the Somme canal and river in order to mount an attack to clear Peronne. The holding force on the south bank, the 15th Brigade, (/explore/units/584) led by the redoubtable Brigadier Pompey Elliot, (/explore/people/242100) was to then to undertake an assault crossing of the river directly into Peronne.
The 4th Division was to be the Corps Reserve behind the 2nd Division. The 1st Division was held in depth.
Monash briefed his plan to a sceptical Rawlinson who, under considerable pressure from Monash, and very aware that his subordinate had thus far achieved everything he set out to do, relented and let Monash proceed to execution. The die was cast.
This map illustrates the general scheme of manoeuvre planned by Monash's staff. The northernmost red arrow is the 3rd Division, securing the left flank to the east of the line of the Canal du Nord (which, importantly, had not been completed and filled with water at that time). The 2nd Division is the red arrow through the centreline, having crossed the Somme further to the east. They went on to capture the Mont after the 5th Brigade had initially been driven off the summit. The 8th and 14th Brigades of the 5th Division crossed the Somme near Clery before attacking across the flats to the north of the river into Peronne. They were joined by the 15th Brigade which conducted an assault river crossing into Peronne from the south bank. Image courtesy of L'Historial de la Grand Guerre museum in Peronne. (www.somme-battlefields.com)
Dominant feature - Mont St Quentin, 3 km north of Peronne.
- 9 km from Feuillaucourt Bridge to the west where the main body of troops crossed the river.
- The town of Peronne itself.
- The Somme river and the parallel Somme Canal were significant obstacles.
- The line of the Canal du Nord, excavated but not filled with water was also a key feature.
Location of Enemy Troops (at the start of the battle): The enemy occupied a series of trench systems including Gottlieb trench on the shoulder of the hill, and ‘Brasso’ redoubt on the slopes to the west. Trenchlines contoured the slopes and ran down across the flats to the Somme. Elsa trench lay along the line of the Feuillacourt / Bapaume road. Mont St Quentin was the dominating feature on the whole German line forward of the Hindenburg Line and Ludendorf had sent the 2nd Prussian Guards Division to hold the Mont “to the death”.
Location or direction of approach of Australian troops (at the start of the battle):
- The Australian Corps had advanced on the south bank of the Somme until the 'big bend' was in view.
- A critical factor was that the Australians were well under established strength; some Companies were less than half their normal strength due to losses that had not been replaced
- Monash had earlier sought permission for the 3rd Division to cross the river (the Corps Boundary) to the north side to cover the Corps flank. It was tasked to progressively secure the Bouchavesnes spur and village north west of the line of the Canal du Nord from 31 August.
- The 5th Division was to hold fast while the 2nd Division doubled back and crossed the Somme at Feuillieres 9km downstream.
- 2nd Division was to attack from the west / north west.
- On the night of 31 August 1918, 2 Div troops crossed the Somme using improvised bridging at Feuilleres and, following an artillery barrage that commenced at 05:00am, attacked Mont St Quentin from the north west.
- 5 Div were tasked with the capture of Peronne to the south. With the 15th Brigade remaining on the southern bank the remainder of the Division backtracked to Clery sur Somme and crossed the river again using improvised bridging. The 4th and 1st Divisions were in Reserve.
- The Mont (with quarry / crater at its summit)
- The Bouchavesnes Ridge-line and spur
- The Feuillacourt bridge on the Peronne / Bapaume road
- The Somme river and canal, and the line of the Canal du Nord (empty of water at the time)
- The towns of Clery and Halle
The 3rd Division had largely secured the open northern flank over the period 30/31 August. Although the 33rd Battalion only held part of their objective, a concerted effort was made, the spur was secured, and the left flank of the troops attacking Mont St Quentin was secured.
On the night of 31 August 1918, the Australian troops crossed the Somme and following an artillery barrage that commenced at 05:00, attacked Mont St Quentin from the north west. The 5th Bde formed up along the line of the Canal du Nord.
During the infantry assault, Australian soldiers had to fight uphill across open ground where they were vulnerable to attack from the German-held heights above.
The 17th Battalion headed up the Brasso Redoubt, and climbed towards Gottlieb Trench. They encountered the enemy almost immediately and charged their posts, yelling at the top of their voices. The demoralised Germans, fearing they were being attacked by a superior force, surrendered in large numbers.
The 20th Battalion moved up to make a bayonet charge and captured the Gottlieb trench. As the Australians reached the summit, large numbers of German soldiers were sent fleeing down the slopes.
By 07:00 the troops had occupied the village of Mont St Quentin and the slope and summit of the hill. However, the small size of their forces meant that their hold on the position was tenuous. The reserve element of the 2nd German Guards Division, counterattacked and drove the Australians from the summit to positions just below it including the Elsa trench along the approximate line of the Feuillacourt Road.
In the rear, the 19th Battalion crossed the Somme at the Clery bridge, which Australian engineers had saved and repaired despite enemy barrages.
On 1 September, the 6th Brigade (/explore/units/54) (21st, (/explore/units/49) 22nd, (/explore/units/299) 23rd (/explore/units/315) and 24th Battalions (/explore/units/75)) took the summit on their second attempt, with fighting particularly heavy around the quarry where Towner (/explore/people/270263) and Lowerson (/explore/people/116427) were to win their VCs.
Captain James Sullivan MC and Bar MM, (/explore/people/76714) Officer Commanding A Company, 21st Battalion, in Elsa Trench with some of his men, immediately before going out to participate in the attack on Mont St Quentin, at 1.30 pm, on 1 September 1918. It was with this renewed assault that the enemy resistance was broken and the whole position of Mont St Quentin won. Capt Sullivan was killed in the final AIF attack of the war at Montbehain four weeks later.
Soldiers from a machine-gun position established in the fighting in the ruins of Péronne, photographed on 2 September 1918." AWME03183 An Australian Lewis gun detachment cover a street in Peronne after the 5th Division captured it on 2/3 September 1918. Two of the men appear to be holding Mills bomb grenades.
Summary and Conclusion
This battle represented the culminating point of the Australian Corps on the Western Front. A deliberate Corps attack off the line of march, it was executed with amazing speed. The Battle procedure involved - adjusting the initial plan and then manouevring the three key Divisions into position across a major terrain obstacle and in the final stages under observation and fire from the enemy - is an undertaking of a scale that the Australian Army has not done before or since.
Some commentators, who appear determined to be-little the achievement or undermine Monash, have made various observations that are trite and fail to grasp the complexity of the operation. Some have declared that the German Army was in effect collapsing at this point, overlook the fact that it was still operating effectively along the line of the Front and inflicting grievous casualties on the advancing Allies. The Americans for example sustained 53,000 killed in little more than six months in this last phase of the war.
The AIF itself was nearing the point of exhaustion. Grossly under strengh and well under the 3:1 ratio of attackers to defenders that normally predicate success in attack, they still managed to wrest control of the objective from the enemy with no tanks or the level of artillery support they had enjoyed in early August.
Some criticise Monash for not 'directing the attacks' of the Brigades and Battalions. He was the Corps Commander and once battle had been joined his capacity to influence the outcome other than by positioning resources to afford the best chance of success, his role at 'the sharp end' was necessarily limited by the fact that he had three Divisions all in close contact with the enemy. The fighting was conducted at Platoon and Company level and the gains were hard won. As always, audacious and determined action by a few individuals often inspired their comrades at critical times.
The fact that the 5th Brigade was forced off the Mont on the first day by German counter-attacks, or the fact that the 6th Brigade needed two attempts to wrest the objective from the enemy do not signify failure or demean the level of accomplishment as is inferrred by some. Rather it exemplfies the depth in attack they were able to generate, and dogged adherence to their aim, despite low numbers and further casualties. Further, the determination with which it was carried was emblematic of what experienced, well trained, well led and highly motivated troops can achieve. Resilience was, as was so often the case, exemplified by the capacity of Privates and Corporals to step up and assume tactical command when more senior leaders became casualties. This in an Army that had been rank amateurs just three and a half years previously when landed on Gallipoli's fatal shore.
Experienced soldiers and leaders, when familiarised with the detail of this battle are generally in awe of the men at all levels who delivered this result. And so they should be.
It came at a cost though, and the AIF's capacity to continue was being run down. Just one month later it would fight its last battle, having breached the Hindenburg Line, at Montbrehain, so closing a tract of history that made an enduring indelible mark on Australian society and its national identity.
In recent years it has been established that many of the remarkable images by originally unatributed photographers, were in fact captured by the redoubtable Captain George Hubert Wilkins MC*. (/explore/people/48560)
This battle formed the basis of the very popular dioramas that became a feature of the Australian War Memorial. Executed by Charles Webb-Gilbert, he was also responsible for a number of public sculptures including the somewhat controversial original 2 Division Memorial, depicting a hatless Australian soldier bayonetting the German eagle (removed and destroyed by the invading Germans in 1940), "the bomber" in Broken Hill (monumentaustralia.org.au), and the Rose Park Memorial in Adelaide (/explore/memorials/795). The twice life size figure of the latter is derived from one that features in the Mont St Quentin diorama at the AWM.
A total of eight Victoria Crosses were awarded in this battle and its immediate aftermath
Based on original work by an esteemed colleague, the late Lieutenant Colonel Peter Morrissey
Edited expanded and updated Aug 2018