Le Hamel 4th July 1918
Le Hamel was a small battle by the standard of the time. But it ranks as one of the most important battles in which the AIF was engaged in World War 1. Not because of the strategic impact of the capture of the 'Wolfsburg' feature overlooking the town, but rather because of how it was done.
Lieutenant General John Monash's first battle in command of the Australian Corps, it was a demonstration in 'miniature' albeit involving large numbers of troops, guns tanks and aircraft, of how the War would be won. The 'Method' would be breaking the supremacy of 'the Defence' that had defined trench warfare, through the application of 'Combined Arms' tactics developed by General Monash and the AIF, to return manoeuvre to the battlefield.
Monash's philosophy is best framed in his own words:
"........the true role of infantry was not to expend itself upon heroic physical effort, not to wither away under merciless machine-gun fire, not to impale itself on hostile bayonets, but on the contrary, to advance under the maximum possible protection of the maximum possible array of mechanical resources, in the form of guns, machine-guns, tanks, mortars and aeroplanes; to advance with as little impediment as possible; to be relieved as far as possible of the obligation to fight their way forward."
- The AIF, the New Zealand Division and some Canadian formations had been used as a fragmented “Fire Brigade” to plug gaps in the British line in order to stem the German Spring Offensive. This culminated at Villers Bretonneux where on 24/5 April, two AIF Brigades (13th and 15th) from different Divisions had combined to mount a stunning night counter attack to re-capture the town.
- With the Germans weakened and needing to consolidate, the Allies knew they should counter attack but none had the appetite for another ‘butchers bill’ like 1917.
- In May 1918, the five Divisions of the AIF had, like the Canadians before them, been aggregated under unified command and identified as ‘The Australian Corps’, with Lieutenant General John Monash at its head, himself reporting to the British 4th Army commanded by General Rawlinson.
- Monash was driven and ambitious; he was looking for a means of demonstrating the techniques he thought could deliver victory; applying what has come to be known as ‘combined arms’ tactics.
- He settled on Le Hamel – a bulge in the German line north east of Villers Bretonneux south of the River Somme. East of the town were heights that afforced commanding fields of observation and fire into the Allied line.
All Monash had to do now was get approval from his Commander, General Rawlinson, for the resources he needed and the go-ahead to proceed. Monash got his way.
Monash had been appointed Corps Commander by the British, and with the support of the senior Australian Command group.
Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes, not unreasonably, thought the appointment should have been made by the Australian Government.
Politics at the top. L-R clockwise Field Marshal Haig, Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes, Australian correspondent Charles Bean, Journalist Keith Murdoch, Lieutenant General Brudnell White, Monash's heir apparent but a supporter, Monash, and General Pershing the US Commander
Two high profile journalists, Keith Murdoch and Charles Bean, actively lobbied Hughes against Monash. Lieutenant General Brudnell White was their nominee but he was having none of it.
Prime Minister Hughes arrived two days prior to the scheduled battle at Monash’s Headquarters at the chateau of Bertangles, north east of Amiens He quickly gleaned that Monash had a lot more support than he had been led to believe. He decided to wait until the battle was over before making his call.
Part of the plan involved embedding American troops to gain experience. It was a key reason behind the selection of the date – 4th July. Originally, ten companies (some 2,000 men) from the US 131st and 132nd Regiments were to have been involved, having been training under British command. However, the US supremo General Pershing was determined to retain all of his troops under US command and demanded withdrawal of six of the ten companies. Ten companies became four and almost zero, when Pershing, demanded at 4pm on the 3rd July, the extraction of the remainder with only hours to go. Monash point-blank refused, it being too disruptive so late in preparation with soldiers already moving to their assembly areas. Haig backed him. The four US companies stayed.
The Australians were facing the 13th Division comprising three Regiments (13th, 15th and 55th) each of two Battalions, together with the 202nd Regiment of the 43rd Reserve Division
Monash called on all Divisions (less the 1st which was relocating from Flanders) to contribute elements to the attack. The ratio was well below the 3:1 normally considered essential for success in attack, but the added combat power of the artillery tanks and aircraft was deemed sufficient. Organisation and tasking thus:
A total of 628 artillery pieces were to be made available, 326 field artillery equipments comprising 18pdr and 4.5inch howitzers and 302 'heavies' made up of 60pdr, 6 inch howitzers, 6 inch guns, 8 inch howitzers and probably 9.2in howitzers.(2) On the 6½km front, there were 628 mixed equipments of which 200 were to be superimposed in the main barrage but at priority call for counter-battery fire to suppress the enemy’s artillery and mortars.
The artillery was key to a deception plan involving two weeks of ‘conditioning’ fire missions, using gas and High Explosive and smoke at 4am daily, forcing the Germans to ‘mask up’.
Two Battalions (more than 65) of the new Mk V tanks from the 5th Armoured Division would accompany the troops in the assault. Some were configured as load carrying vehicles and would do the work of 1,200 men in bringing forward ammunition and defence stores to enable the objective to be secured quickly.
Monash had his air support providing aerial photography of the battle area to help infantry understand the ground. They masked the sound of tank movement over the front and bombers attacked German guns out of Allied artillery range and road/rail junctions to stop reinforcements. Reconnaissance aircraft dropped freshly marked maps of the front at Bertangles during the battle while others conducted supply drops to forward troops.
The 93 Minute Battle
A blanket of fog had settled on the battle area. When the barrage began smoke was mixed with HE shell, to maintain the ruse of gas, but none was fired. The Germans had ‘masked up’ as they had done for two weeks. This allowed the attackers to assault without the need to wear protective equipment, thus conferring a local advantage. Combined with the shock effect of tanks emerging from the fog and being directed by the accompanying infantry as mobile pillboxes that could accompany the assaulting troops onto the objective, the result set a new standard.
This account from the 44th Battalion, which was in the centreline of the attack, illustrates the 'flow' of the battle and the "Combined Arms" effects of coordinated artillery, tanks and determined infantry attacking in echelon to maintain momentum.
At ten minutes past three our barrage came down with ferocious suddenness upon the enemy’s front line area, and pounded, battered, and chopped it to pieces with shells of every caliber – light, medium, heavy, gas, shrapnel, high explosive, and phosphorous shells. The Boche [German] here suffered four minutes’ hell before the barrage began to lift in hundred yards’ stages every minute, allowing our first wave (43rd Battalion) to advance to the attack with the cooperation of the ‘tanks’ which smelt out the vicious machine guns in the enemy strong-points, and summarily dealt with them in their own quaint manner.
Exhausted Australians, their role in the assault complete, asleep in the captured 'Pear Trench' at Le Hamel with a German heavy 'minenwurfer' (trench mortar) they have captured, soon to be on display at Monash's HQ at Bertangles
Not many minutes passed before the first waves (43rd Battalion) had taken the first objective, and the on-coming tide of the 44th Battalion swept over it and on up the coveted ridge, ‘A’ and ‘B’ companies working round the left and ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies round the right of the village of Hamel, leaving the village to the mercies of Hotchkiss (Ed - strip fed machine guns) and the Pounder (Ed - 6 pounder Quick Firing Guns in sponsons either side of the tank hull) aboard six ‘tanks’. Three ‘tanks’ accompanied each half of the battalion around the village.
Whilst our advance was in progress the enemy followed his usual procedure by filling the air with Verey lights and rockets – white, red, green, golden and showers – but whatever their significance, this barrage remained particularly feeble, and our boys advanced with practically no resistance from artillery, the machine guns giving the most trouble. A kind spurt from the uncanny ‘tank’, however, soon disposed of the defending ‘gallants’.
A feature of the offensive was the effectiveness of the smoke barrages which were used on either flank to cover our advance. These consisted of thick white clouds of smoke which were worked across the front by the action of the wind.
The first ‘tank’ flying the Tricolour [French flag] denoting its return, was seen moving back at ten minutes past four apparently delighted with its success and leaving the village behind blazing furiously.
Tank H52, 8 Battalion, C Company, Royal Tank Corps, shown here, suffered a direct hit at the Battle of Hamel on 4 July 1918 and was put out of action. During the battle, Tanks H41, 42 and 44 from the same unit fought with the 44th Australian Infantry Battalion during the battalion’s attack onto the German positions on the 'Wolfsburg' feature (the Vital Ground) east of Le Hamel village. AWM E03843
As darkness gave place to day, our men could be seen working their way steadily but surely to the crest of the ridge, whilst eight tanks wobbled here and there over the slopes and summit of the ridge clearing the Boche out of his strong defences commanding our old forward area.
By twenty-five minutes to five the ridge was ours, and, with ‘C’ Company in support, the remainder of the battalion commenced to consolidate their new front line, an old Boche trench just below the summit on the eastern slope. No.1 Platoon moved out on the left and dug an outpost about a hundred yards in front of the front line. ‘B’ Company in the centre also pushed out an outpost whilst ‘D’ company secured the right flank.
[From ‘Narrative of Hamel Offensive, July 4th-6th 1918’, War Diary, 44th Australian Infantry Battalion, 23/61/22 Part 1, July Appendices, AWM4.]
Key contested pieces of terrain included "Kidney Trench" near Vaire wood, and "Pear Trench" on the reverse slope from which the centreline of the assault attacked, the village itself and the all important "Wolfsburg" feature. Some casualties occurred with a few artillery rounds dropping short and some over-zealous Americans getting too close to the creeping barrage.
Fighting was fierce and the defenders tenacious, but the Australians and their American colleagues had momentum and shock action on their side.
Notwithstanding all of that the battle was over in 93 minutes, an absolutely remarkable result.
Two Australians were awarded the VIctoria Cross: PTE Henry ‘Harry’ Dalziel, VC. 15th Bn in the capture of Pear Trench, and LCPL Thomas Axford, VC, MM. 16th Bn, for action near Vaire and Hamel Wood.
The first US Congressional Medal of Honour of WW1 was awarded to CPL Thomas Pope, MoH, DCM. E Coy, 131st Regt, 33rd US Div (attached to 44th Bn) – for action in repelling anttempted German counter attack later in the day. He was also awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for this action. Thomas Pope was also the last US Medal of Honour winner from WW1 to die, in 1989 aged 94 years.
- Australian – 1400; US – 176
- German – 2000+; 1600 prisoners; 2 Field Guns; 179 MG; 32 Trench Mortars; a previously unknown 13mm Anti Tank (T-Gewehr) rifle now on display at the AWM
Monash's job as Corps Commander was assured. Hughes was delighted with the attention generated by success at Le Hamel.
On the 7th July, the French President Clemenceau personally visited Monash and the Australians at 4th Division Headquarters.
M. Georges Benjamin Clemenceau, the French Premier, visiting the 4th Division, a once only visit to the Australian front. Left to right: unidentified; Brigadier General T. A. Blamey CMG DSO; two unidentified; General Sir H. S. Rawlinson GCB GCVO KCMG; Lieutenant General Sir John Monash GCMG KCB VD; unidentified; M. Clemenceau; unidentified; Lieutenant G. R. Baillie (behind); Major General E. G. Sinclair MacLagan CB DSO; Captain L. Craig MC (behind); Lieutenant Colonel J. D. Lavarack CMG DSO; three unidentified. This image is a colour Paget Plate. The same image is available in black and white and is held at E02531
Addressing the troops he said 'I have come here just for the very purpose of seeing the Australians. I am going back to-morrow to see my countrymen and tell them: “When the Australians came to France, the French people expected a great deal of you... We knew that you would fight a real fight, but we did not know that from the very beginning you would astonish the whole continent... I shall go back tomorrow and say to my countrymen, I have seen the Australians, I have looked in their faces, I know that these men will fight alongside of us again until the cause for which we are all fighting is safe for us and for our children.”
A leaflet printed at the time concludes: 'The Australians who had been listening to this fine speech from the Grand Old Man of France, gave three tremendous cheers for France, which affected him greatly. He then called for three cheers for Australia, and left to go back to Paris.'
Monash had captured the attention of most of the British High Command and King George V who had been following his progress since they first met in the Salisbury Plain in 1916. He now had the credibility and influence to push his plan for a counter offensive that he believed would end the war in 1918.
Le Hamel had become in effect, the template for how the war would be won. Just one month later it would be put into effect at the Battle of Amiens.
It is important to note that many of the techniques employed at Le Hamel had evolved and been developed across the Allied Armies, particularly command and control of artillery. Monash is notable for being the first Commander with the capacity and imagination to put the various elements together, analyse and remediate potential failure modes, take calculated risks and execute with such telling effect.
In 1998, the Australian Government opened the Australian Corps Memorial at Le Hamel, in recognition of the critical role it played in the achievements of the AIF in France during the Great War.
Steve Larkins July 2018.
1. Bean, C.E.W (1942). ”The Australian Imperial Force in France , 1918". Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918. Vol VI. Canberra, ACT, Australian War Memorial.
2. Pat Beale (2017) "Legends of War - The AIF in France 1918", Australian Scholarly Publications 2017 ISBN 978-1-925588-64-4
3. Perry, Roland (2017) Monash & Chauvel, Allen & Unwin Crows Nest NSW ISBN 978 1 76029 143 32017
Thanks to Colonel David Brook for the provision of an excellent Barrage Map of the battle and detail on the employment of artillery at Le Hamel
Steve Larkins commanded the Guard of Honour from the 10th/27th Battalion Royal South Australia Regiment on 4th July 1998, that supported the opening of the original Australian Corps Memorial on the 'Wolfsburg' ridge overlooking Le Hamel. Other ceremonial activities included the re-interment of Private Russell Bosisto of the 27th Battalion, the opening of the 'Cobbers' Memorial at Fromelles and the award of the Legion d'Honneur to four surviving WW1 veterans at that time. In six short days ensuring the soldiers in the Guard understood the significance of the events they were commemorating, Steve's personal interest in the AIF and the Great War was awakened.