The Australian capture of Mont St Quentin was a remarkable feat of arms in the final months of fighting on the Western Front. But it was a near run thing. By Dr Aaron Pegram
Just before dawn on 31 August 1918, three battle-depleted battalions from the 2nd Australian Division formed up in open ground and waited anxiously for their attack to begin. At 5 am, just as the sky began to grey behind the summit of Mont St Quentin, British and Australian field guns belched in unison and began plastering the German positions with shrapnel and high explosive. The Australian infantrymen then charged with rifle and bayonet, ‘yelling like a lot of Bushrangers’. One man described ‘shouting and yelling all kinds of war cries’ as they went into battle. Another said they were like ‘yelling hounds … one would have thought it was a stock yard broke loose’.
The storming of Mont St Quentin on the morning of 31 August 1918 represented the high-water mark of the Australian victories in the final months of fighting on the Western Front. Having been assigned a portion of the front astride the Somme River east of Amiens, the Australian Corps under Lieutenant General Sir John Monash fought a series of successful actions that included Hamel on 4 July and the battle of Amiens on 8 August 1918. The latter heralded the start a confounding series of British and French attacks that forced the battle-weary and demoralised Germans from its positions east of Amiens to its last defensive positions on the Western Front.
After the battle of Amiens, the Australian divisions advanced along either side of the Somme River in pursuit of the withdrawing Germans. Towards the end of August, they approached the town of Péronne where a right-angle bend in the Somme River cut south along the corps front. To advance any further, Monash would have to get his troops across the Somme – many of the bridges has been blown by withdrawing German forces, or the bridge heads heavily defended. Péronne had been captured by German forces during the spring offensive in March 1918 and was a veritable bastion held by five divisions of German 51 Corps (2nd Army); among them was the 2nd Guards Infantry Division, which allied intelligence rated as a first-class assault division. Moreover, the town was partially surrounded by marshes and walled bastions that formed part of Vauban’s formidable defences. Since attacking Péronne directly head-on would likely result in disaster for the Australian Corps, Monash realised the key to the German defences was Mont St Quentin, a prominent hill two miles north that overlooked the bend in the river. A flanking attack via Mont St Quentin risked exposing his assaulting units to a series of carefully arranged defences across a bare grassy portion of the old 1916 Somme battlefield, but it was his best chance of success. According to Monash:
The terrain, which was in greater part open, and exposed in every direction to full view from the heights, sloped gently upwards towards the commanding knoll. Cover was scarce, and the few ruins of brickfields and sugar refineries which dotted the landscape had also been garrisoned by the enemy as centres of resistance, designed to break up and dislocate any general attack.
Monash and the Australian Corps
What made attacks at Hamel and Amiens such resounding successes was the full arsenal of weaponry that was then supporting infantry assaults throughout the British Expeditionary Force. Monash was a very fine and capable commander who tapped the rich vein of learning and development that had occurred within the broader BEF over the previous years of fighting; he benefited from the latest attack doctrine, ideas and technologies based on the successes and failures of previous British and dominion engagements. Like all other corps commanders at the time, Monash had infantry, tanks, aircraft and enormous amounts of artillery at his disposal, and had the good fortune of commanding a recognisably integrated weapons system that characterised much of the fighting in the final months of the war. He believed the infantry ‘was not to expend itself upon heroic physical effort … but to advance under the maximum possible protection of the maximum possible array of mechanical resources’.
In spite of its recent successes, the Australian Corps had suffered heavily in the weeks before Mont St Quentin. The Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was still reeling from its losses during the Third Battle of Ypres and began 1918 short by about 11,000 men. It incurred a further 12,000 casualties in defending Amiens and Hazebrouck during the German Spring Offensive and 20,000 casualties during the successful actions throughout July and August 1918. Many of the British tanks that supported the Australian Corps during the battle of Amiens on 8 August 1918 were now out of action either by enemy fire or mechanical problems, and the advance that followed was so rapid that the infantry had moved beyond the protective umbrella of heavy artillery.
Monash had set the benchmark for preparation at Messines in 1917 and was revered for his lengthy conferences preceding the combined arms attack at Hamel just a few weeks earlier. But there was no time to prepare creeping barrages and devastatingly accurate counter-battery bombardments ahead of the fighting at Mont St Quentin. Without tanks and the enormous weight of artillery that made previous engagements such resounding successes, the 2nd Australian Division’s attack on Mont St Quentin was an infantryman’s battle where speed and manoeuvrability played an important role in its success.
Crossing the Somme
German resistance began to stiffen as British Fourth Army advanced towards Péronne. To throw the Germans off balance, the focus of British operations suddenly shifted north to Albert, across Morlancourt Ridge, were the BEF dealt another devastating blow to German forces. On 21 August, Third Army launched a new offensive seeking to reclaim the old-1916 battlefields. First Army joined in several days later and carried the British drive over the Scarpe River towards Arras. Having advanced as far as it could under the protective screen of tanks and heavy artillery, Fourth Army was instructed to guard the fight flank of Third Army as it pressed on towards to Bapaume. Rawlinson told Monash to ‘keep touch with the enemy’, but lacking the necessary reinforcements to proceed, said the following day that Fourth Army would ‘mark time and await events elsewhere’.
Monash was adamant German forces in the area ‘should be accorded no breathing time to establish upon it a firm defence from which he could hold us at bay’. Rather than ‘mark time’ as ordered, the Australian Corps would continue aggressive patrols along the Somme River and drive the front line forward wherever possible. By 28 August 1918, the 3rd Australian Division had advanced along the northern banks of the Somme River capturing Suzanne, Vaux and Curlu. The next village along was Cléry, where it was hoped the 2nd and 5th Australian Divisions would secure a river crossing instead of making a head-on assault on Péronne. At 5 pm on 29 August, Monash ordered the divisions south of the Somme River to sidestep to the left, which brough the 2nd Australian Division to Omniéecourt. There, the 2nd was to cross the river while the 3rd Australian Division cleared Cléry and the Bouchavesnes Ridge. The plan was for three battalions of the 5th Brigade (2nd Division) to wheel around and assault the German positions atop of Mont St Quentin at 5 am the following morning while the 5th Australian Division moved up and attacked Péronne as soon as the summit was secured.
The 5th Brigade marched all night to reach Omniéecourt, but discovered an hour before their attack was supposed to start that it could not cross the Somme. The 3rd Division had not yet cleared Cléry which was still full of Germans, so Monash postponed the attack until the following day. This gave the 9th and 10th Brigades respite to take Cléry and the nearby high ground of the Bouchavesnes Spur, but the troops were left exhausted, some of them having been in action for nearly ninety hours. When Cléry fell to the 40th Battalion later that morning, the fifty-nine Germans rounded up as prisoners outnumbered the battle-depleted rile company that had captured them. That night, platoons from the 40th Battalion ‘fell forward asleep half out of their trenches and shell-holes, with their rifles still in their hands’; others looked out into the night ‘with eyes red and sore from lack of sleep’. Monash then told Rawlinson about the attack the next morning. ‘So you think you’re going to take Mont St Quentin with three battalions!’ Rawlinson exclaimed. ‘What presumption! I don’t think I ought to stop you! So, go ahead and try – and I wish you good luck’.
Dr Aaron Pegram is a senior historian in the Military History Section at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
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