David Cameron has produced a monumentally detailed and documented account of the battles fought by Australian troops between the 21st March and 25th April 1918.
The German armies, reinforced by troops no longer needed on the Eastern Front, launched Operation Michael to separate the French and British armies by capturing the vital rail hub at Amiens. The Australian 1st and 2nd Divisions were in the front line close to Ypres, while the 3rd, 4th and 5th Divisions were in reserve. By 25th March both the 3rd and 4th Div were on their way to Doullens (30km north of Amiens) to secure the front between the 3rd and 5th (Brit) Armies at the junction of the Somme and Ancre Rivers. The Australians became responsible for the approximately 20km front from Villers-Bretonneux to Albert.
Following the table of contents, Cameron has provided an excellent listing of commanders of Australia’s 5 divisions, 15 brigades and 60 infantry battalions. Each individual mentioned in the narrative is accorded his or her age, civilian occupation and hometown, as well as any bravery awards and their survival or otherwise of the conflict. They are not restricted to Australian infantrymen, but include commanders on both sides, members of other corps and even a German tank commander. In keeping with his earlier works, the chapter headings are part of an individual or unit history account of the moment.
Virtually all telephone communication was out during battles due to intense artillery fire prior to German attacks, and runners had to be used. Despite this, timely maneuvering of rifle battalions, individual companies and even platoons, enabled reinforcement so that lines could be held.
On 28th March two Tasmanian battalions of 12th Brigade and the 35th Division (Brit) were attacked nine times in the First Battle of Dernancourt. The Germans were unable to seize the railway embankment, despite breaking the Australian line at the railway underpass The Germans occupied Dernancourt and a counterattack failed to dislodge them. The four battalions of 9 Brigade held Villers-Bretonneux against four German divisions on 4th April, while the British lost Hamel (just to the north-east). On the 5th, three depleted battalions of 12th and 13th Brigade were assaulted by three German divisions during the Second Battle of Dernancourt, but were able to hold the line and conceded ground of no tactical importance. This was the largest German attack (25,000) against (3,000) Australian troops for the entire War. Two of the three battalions were so decimated in the action that they were removed from the order of battle almost immediately afterwards.
On 9th April the Germans launched operations Georgette I and Georgette II against the Armentières and Ypres sectors. A German breakthrough outflanked Armentières and pushed the British back towards the Channel Ports. From 12th April, trains brought the Australian 1st and 2nd Divisions to the critical hub of Hazebrouck. In the early stages, three companies of the 7th Battalion were responsible for 6000m of the line. [A brigade of four battalions would normally be responsible for a frontage of about 4500m.] Again the Australians, at Strazeele station, had three German divisions assaulting their line, but as before, prudent use of Stokes trench mortars, Vickers and Lewis machine guns enabled the infantry to withstand the onslaught. To complicate matters, exhausted British troops were withdrawing through the Australian lines, leaving them solely responsible for the line. The troop withdrawal enabled the Germans to occupy Méteren on 16th April.
A counterattack was organised using a supporting French battalion, but it ‘did not show’! A two-pronged, two-phase attack by 3rd Brigade (over the nights of 22nd and 23rd April) with around 200 casualties was unsuccessful, in the attempt to retake Méteren.
With Hazebrouck secure in the hands of the Allies, Germany’s efforts turned to the final roll of the dice in the Somme and Amiens sectors. German bombardments on the mornings of 17th and 18th April did not launch the expected attack on Villers-Bretonneux. Aerial superiority for both sides was critical for the strafing/bombing of supply lines and gathering intelligence to assist in battle planning. On 21st April, the ‘Red Baron’ was shot down by a 13th Brigade Vickers machine gun. Cameron has devoted a number of pages to first-hand accounts of the Baron’s demise and the honour paid to him by the Allies. Early on 24th April four German divisions would attack Villers-Bretonneux after a massive artillery barrage that included gas shells. Australia’s 59th and 60th Battalions (15th Brigade) were located northwest of the town ready to counterattack should the town fall, but the British in the town and covering the southern approaches withdrew under German troop and A7V tank pressure. The British commanders ordered their tanks to do battle with the German tanks [the first tank-on-tank battle]. The 13th and 15th Brigades were tasked to retake Villers-Bretonneux. This they did by doing it ‘our own way’ in the early hours of the third anniversary of the Gallipoli landing by using a pincer movement and British troops to ‘mop up’. By 4pm Villers-Bretonneux had been retaken and the Great German Offensive was at an end.
In his prologue, Cameron discusses the 1916 and 1917 failed conscription referenda in Australia, thereby underlining the fact that there were not going to be reinforcements to replace Australian losses during ongoing campaigns. His first two photographs are related to the conscription/anti-conscription campaigns. Other photographs are of key personnel and locations (some being aerial shots). Included are 26 pages of Notes, eleven pages of References, a twelve-page Index and an Index of Military Units (Australian, British, Canadian, German, New Zealand and Canada). Most impressive are the excellent battle maps for each of the actions listed above. Some maps have the Allied dispositions both before and after the action took place. [I would recommend to readers to photocopy each map to facilitate following the battles’ details with greater ease.]
This most readable and well-researched account is an essential complement to Australian military history collections. It lacks for nothing, and this reviewer is most eager for Volume II to roll off the presses.
Reviewed for RUSIV by Neville Taylor, February 2018
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