Sergeant Stan McDougall of the 47th Battalion single–handedly broke up a German attack near Dernancourt in northern France before dawn on 28 March 1918. The exhausted battalions of the Australian 12th Brigade were stretched out along a railway embankment outside Dernancourt village where they and elements from the British 35th Division formed a thin defensive screen that sought to blunt German forces advancing on the northern city of Amiens.
McDougall had allowed his men to stand down when he heard German troops moving around in the dark, forming up to attack. Running along the top of the embankment, he saw a party of enemy in the misty half–light, advancing towards his portion of the line. McDougall roused a nearby Lewis gun team, but they were killed in the opening volley of fire before they had a chance to get their gun into action. Snatching up their gun, McDougall began firing from the hip as German troops spilled over the embankment. After a dozen or so sustained bursts, the gun’s cooling jacket began to sear itself into McDougall’s hand, but he managed to keep it in action until its ammunition eventually ran out – he then collected a rifle and put a bayonet through a German officer levelling his automatic pistol at two Australian soldiers. In the end, concerted and vigorous fire from the 47th Battalion’s positions caused the assaulting German infantry to waver in confusion and their attack to fail. For his actions that morning, Stan McDougall was awarded the Victoria Cross.
The fighting at Dernancourt saw some of the most intense infantry combat involving the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) during the German spring offensive of 1918. One hundred years on, it is worth considering the actions fought by the Australians during this critical phase in the First World War that culminated in an Allied victory just several months later.
Gas attack: German storm troops with a messenger dog during a gas attack on British positions near St Quentin, France, March 1918.
Following Russia’s withdrawal from the war in the spring of 1918, the German Army transferred more than a million troops to the fighting on the Western Front, and on 21 March, launched a major offensive in the St Quentin sector, south of Arras, that succeeded in ending over three years of trench warfare. Known to the Germans as Operation Michael, this offensive was one of four that materialised in the west in 1918. Michael took place on the old Somme battlefields; Georgette on the Lys and at Ypres; Blücher– Yorck against the French in the Champagne region, with Gneisenau an extension of the latter offensive, seeking to draw in allied reserves and link up with the German troops on the outskirts of Amiens. Michael was considered the main thrust of the overall offensive, and sought to capture the vital supply and logistical hub of Amiens which would effectively sever all links between the British and French armies along the Somme River and allow the Germans to advance to and capture the channel ports.
Following a five–hour hurricane bombardment firing over a million shells across a 100km front, elite Stormtrooper units trained to infiltrate and bypass the allied defences, succeeded in penetrating the allied front line, ending over three years of trench warfare on the Western Front. The British Third Army in the Arras sector and Fifth Army on the old Somme battlefields were caught by surprise; they became divided and were forced to withdraw, allowing German troops to advance on Amiens. In five days Germans succeeded in recapturing all the ground lost during the battle of the Somme in 1916. Towns and villages where Australians had fought and died throughout the bitter campaigns of 1916 and 1917 were now well behind German lines, including Bullecourt, Bapaume and Pozières.
The British suffered exceptionally heavy casualties in the opening onslaught and the withdrawal that followed, but the AIF was fortunate in that it was spared much of the fighting during this period. The only AIF units then engaged were the airmen of the Australian Flying Corps whose SE5as and Sopwith Camels bombed and strafed the advancing German columns from sunrise to sunset. Captain Arthur Cobby of No. 4 Squadron AFC described the skies around St Quentin being ‘full of aircraft, and continuously while shooting up the troops on the ground we would be attacked by enemy scouts … The smoke of battle mixed with the clouds and mist above rendered flying particularly dangerous’. The infantry were still in Belgium where they had spent the previous winter months recovering from the 77,000 casualties incurred the previous year in bitter fighting at Bullecourt, Messines and in the Third Battle of Ypres. Although this had been a time of relative quiet, the AIF was still badly understrength and reeling from its shocking losses in the fighting at Ypres. The situation was exacerbated by voluntary recruiting being at an all–time low, conscription being twice rejected in bitterly–contested referendums, and the usual winter wastage through illness. All told, the AIF began the final year of the war short by about 18,000 men.
Command of the five Australian divisions had been centralised when the Australian Corps was formed in November 1917 (under British commander, Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood). But such was the seriousness of the situation developing in France that the Australians were sent south to defend Amiens as separate divisions, brigades and battalions attached to a variety of British formations.
What the AIF lacked in numbers it made up in confidence, with the men of the 3rd and 4th Australian Divisions said to have been beginning to ‘strain on the leash’ upon hearing the news of the fighting in the south. The 4th Australian Division was rushed by bus to Hermaville, northwest of Arras, with its 4th Brigade sent to relieve the shattered remnants of the British 19th Division defending the village of Hébuterne, where a gap had opened on the Third Army front. The 4th Brigade was attached to the British 62nd Division, and on 27 March, repelled multiple attacks in the form of German field guns blazing away in the open and infantry advancing in waves in short rushes through long grass where they fell prey to a few British guns. For the men of the 13th Battalion, holding the line at Hébuterne was ‘purely bayonet work’. ‘The holding of it for the first few strenuous days was as purely rifle work, for not only had we no artillery, but our ammunition supplies were so short that we could not afford to use machine–guns freely; and our bomb supply was soon exhausted’. Fortunately, no further German attempts were made at Hébuterne, nor were they successful in exploiting the gap. Such was their success that the British commander of IV Corps was unwilling to entrust the defence of Hébuterne to anyone other than the 4th Brigade.
About the Author: Dr Aaron Pegram is a historian in the Military History Section at the Australian War Memorial.
Featured image; Gas attack.jpg: c. March 1918. Image courtesy of Brett Butterworth.
inset; Studio portrait of Sergeant (Sgt) Stanley Robert McDougall VC MM, 47th Battalion. Sgt McDougall https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C60130, viewed 2140, 05/03/18 copyright public domain.