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Before the Battle
The Russians had surrendered on the Eastern Front in November 1917, following the Bolshevik revolution. The Germans were thus able to transfer 35 divisions to the Western Front. Having built up a great army, on 21 March 1918 the Germans launched the strongest offensive of the war, named Kaiserschlacht (Emperor’s Strike). This was a fully fledged attempt to win the war on the battlefield, and consisted of a series of attacks against the vital communications centres of Amiens on the Somme and Hazebrouck in Flanders.
The Somme phase of the operation was called "Operation Michael" and in its early stages it swept all before it. Storm troopers armed with flamethrowers, the new Bergman sub-machine guns and hand grenades attacked on a narrow front to punch holes in the Allied defences and then flood through to rear areas.
On the Somme the Germans broke through the British front and forced the British into retreat. The Australian Corps was rushed in to plug the gap, and the Australians reassured French civilians in one town, “Fini retreat, Madame, beaucoup Australiens ici” (The retreat is over, Madam, there are many Australians here). The 4th and 3rd Divisions were fed into the line by brigade rather than by division, in order to quickly plug gaps opening in the collapsing British line. The 4th Brigade held the line at Hebuterne, and the 10th and 11th Brigades at Morlancourt. The 9th Bde stopped the Germans before Villers Bretonneux, but the hardest fighting fell on the 12th and 13th Brigades on the railway embankment at Dernancourt. This was the strongest attack made against Australian troops in the War. The brigades held firm and counter-attacked effectively, and the Germans’ greatest offensive was stopped.
The 4th Division’s battles just before 2nd Dernancourt on 5 April 1918 were:
Hebuterne, 27 March-5 April 1918, 4th Brigade; and
1st Dernancourt, 28 March 1918, 12th and 13th Brigades.
The battlefield is in the shape of an amphitheatre facing the 'stage' of the railway embankment with the town behind, where the Gerrmans assembled. It is described looking towards the railway embankment with the town beyond, from the centre of the amphitheatre. The Dernancourt communal cemetery is on the right, forward of the embankment.
The attacking enemy was XXIII Reserve Corps. On the half left, the 79th Reserve Division. To the front, 50th Reserve Division, with 230th Reserve Infantry Regiment in the assault. To the half-right, 13th Division.
The Australians were outnumbered by about five to one. The 47th Battalion (/explore/units/168) of the 12th Brigade was dug in to repel the 50th Reserve Division assault on the centre front. To the left, the 48th Battalion (/explore/units/5) was dug in to repel the 79th Reserve Division assault. To the right rear, the 52nd Battalion (/explore/units/7) of the 13th Brigade was dug in to repel the 13th Division assault. To the rear, HQ 12th Brigade (/explore/units/802) and the other two Battalions of the Brigade; the 45th (/explore/units/250) and 46th (/explore/units/128). To their right rear, HQ 13th Brigade (/explore/units/474) and the other three Battalions of the Brigade; the 49th (/explore/units/204), 50th (/explore/units/6) and 51st (/explore/units/152).
On the morning of 5 April 1918, a dense mist restricted visibility to 180 metres. The German bombardment descended at 7:00 am. Three German divisions attacked in line, with a division pitched at each of the 47th (Qld, Tas) and 48th (WA, SA) Battalions. In the mist, the Australian signal flares could not be seen, and therefore the artillery bombardment that could have shattered the assault was not fired.
The German 261st and 262nd Reserve Infantry Regiments had little success against the 48th Battalion. This was a mighty feat of arms; for one battalion to stop two whole regiments, with another regiment in reserve. The most vulnerable sector of the defensive line however was that held by the 47th Battalion opposite Dernancourt. Of necessity, it was only thinly held by widely spaced platoons. The first two attacks by the 230th Reserve Infantry Regiment against the 47th Battalion’s positions on the railway embankment were repulsed, but the third swarmed over the embankment on both sides. Due to folds in the ground, the mist, and smoke from the German bombardment, the penetration was not observed, and the Germans were able to pour through the gap in their hundreds. The first news of this was when men of the 47th Battalion reported that their right company had been wiped out.
When the Germans gained the 47th Battalion’s forward positions, they were able to enfilade the 52nd (Tas, SA, WA) Battalion, and make their vulnerable positions untenable. They also got behind the 48th Battalion in strength, and the Australian front line had to withdraw to avoid capture. Some Australians were holding out, and others had been sent forward to reinforce the front line. The situation was confusing.
The 47th, 48th and 52nd Battalions were then told that the 49th (Qld) Battalion would counter-attack, and that they should support it by fire and conform to its movements. The counter-attack commenced at 5:15 pm, with the 45th (NSW) Battalion on the 49th Battalion’s left. The soldiers knew that the 4th Division was fighting with its back to the wall, and Charles Bean described this counter-attack as “one of the finest ever carried out by Australian troops”.
Many of the counter-attackers were killed on leaving their trenches, and those who crossed the crest of the hill were met by machine gun fire, which one officer described as the heaviest he had ever known. They kept steadily on however until they were about 90 metres from their objective, when they charged with fixed bayonets. After hand-to-hand fighting, the enemy retreated in disorder, leaving behind prisoners and machine guns. Superior fighting qualities had told, and by 6:30 pm the Germans were in full flight. The counter-attack did not recapture the original positions down on the railway, but did recover the support lines. A German regimental history said “The enemy’s defence was so strong that a further advance was not to be thought of”.
The assault against the two brigades of the 4th Division at Dernancourt had been the strongest ever met by Australian troops, and given the necessarily dispersed defensive positions, was one of the most difficult to resist. Yet the Australians held, and the Germans were left with the bitter frustration that their strike against Amiens had failed. On 7 April the 12th Brigade was relieved and marched out. The Commanding Officer of the 48th Battalion noted, “It rained during the march, but the men marched well and sang most of the journey”.
The Australians suffered 1,259 casualties at Dernancourt, and were awarded the Battle Honour ‘Ancre 1918’.
Original Narrative by the late LtCol Peter Morrissey - used with his personal permission
An electrifying account of the battle is given in "Backs to the Wall" by Captain George Mitchell, MC, DCM a colourful South Australian who had transferred from the 10th Battlion to the 48th after Gallipoli. He was commisioned after distinguishing himself at Bullecourt. Some excerpts are quoted in the stories section of this campaign page.
Also noteworthy is the story of the 'Hero of Dernancourt' Sergeant McDougal of the 47th and later the 48th Battalions who singlehandedly, on two occasions wrought such fearful toll on the attackers that their assault was broken. "The prompt action of this non-commissioned officer saved the line and enabled the enemy's advance to be stopped".
Compiled by Steve Larkins July 2015