The Battle of Hamel
Although small in scale, the battle of Hamel fought on July 4, 1918, was one of the most important undertaken by the Australians on the Western Front. It also offered the opportunity to test offensive techniques which eventually led to the Allied defeat of the Germans.
Following the collapse of Russia in 1917, a great German offensive on the Western Front began on March 21, 1918. The AIF was prominent in holding the furious German advance at some critical parts of the front, particularly at Villers Bretonneux.
In May 1918, Major General Sir John Monash was appointed to command the Australian Corps which had been formed in November 1917 by combining all five of the Australian Divisions fighting in France.
Monash planned an attack to take Hamel, a strongly fortified, key German defence position which protected the area between the Villers Bretonneux heights and the Somme River.
There were three objectives the fortified village of Hamel, the trenches between Hamel and Vaire Woods, and a pear shaped strong point, called Pear Trench, which allowed the Germans to fire along the line of any attacker.
Monash believed that "the true role of the 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 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".
Some senior staff officers felt the capture of Hamel posed too great a risk but opinions changed with the arrival of a succession of supply trains carrying the brand new 13th Tank Battalion fresh from the factories of England.
There were fast Whippet scout tanks but, best of all, there were 60 monsters of the latest type Mark V tanks, faster, better armed and more manoeuvrable than any that had gone before. They would give the Australians a truly modern force and reduce casualties by cutting through the barbed wire and preceding the infantry across no-man’s land.
The 7,500 men Monash could spare for the battle were from the 4th Division commanded by Major General Alexander Sinclair MacLagan. In April 1917, against its leaders’ wishes, the 4th Division had been forced to rely on tanks instead of a barrage for crashing through the wire at Bullecourt and for subsequent protection.
However the tanks proved unreliable and although the division captured its objective, it was left without artillery protection and was isolated and cut to pieces.
This time MacLagan asked that the tanks accompany the troops rather than precede them.
Monash also arranged massive artillery support and the guns were secretly moved into position and camouflaged.
Because his infantry units were under strength, Monash welcomed the attachment of ten companies of Americans. General Pershing, the American Commander in Chief, had agreed that the best way to bring his troops up to battle standard was to farm them out to the more experienced French and British troops, but insisted they were not to be used to plug gaps. They would fight when they were trained and ready and then, under American command.
The ten companies of the 33rd American National Guard Division had been training with the Australian Corps for several weeks and their commander gave permission to use his men in a raid without really knowing the extent of the exercise.
On the eve of the battle, Pershing found out about the scale of the attack and demanded that US companies be withdrawn at once.
Four companies went into battle on the morning of July 4. It was the first time that Australians and Americans were to fight together.
The attack on Hamel was Monash’s first operational task as a corps commander and the plans were prepared with extreme thoroughness and detailed care that characterised his command.
The advance was made under the cover of a creeping barrage of high explosives, shrapnel and smoke from French and British artillery units. In addition, 302 heavy and very heavy guns concentrated on the German artillery.
The attack began at 3.10 a.m. and was a brilliant success. Artillery crashed into the German positions while the infantry and tanks moved rapidly over no man’s land.
The Germans were taken by surprise for two weeks before they had been subjected daily to a dawn bombardment by the Australian artillery mixed with gas and smoke and they believed that the dawn attack on July 4 was more of the same.
The air force mounted an air raid with large, noisy Handley Page bombers which helped drown out the noise of the approaching tanks.
After capturing the enemy front line, the troops moved into the Vaire and Hamel woods supported by another innovative tactic ammunition dropped to them by parachute.
The third objective was Hamel itself. It was heavily fortified and the Australians had to fight for the town street by street, house by house.
Behind the protective barrage, the Australians and Americans dug in. Monash had ordered that once the objectives were taken, the troops were to dig in. He was determined to hold the ground he had captured.
In 93 minutes the battle was over. Monash had planned it would take 90 minutes. The Germans lost about 2,000 killed or wounded and over 1,600 were captured. Australian casualties were fewer than 1,300.
The victory of Hamel caused jubilation in Paris. Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France, cancelled his weekly trip to his own battered troops in the front line and went instead to embrace Monash and the Australians.
"When the Australians came to France," he said, "the French people expected a great deal of you. We knew you would fight a real fight but we did not know that from the beginning you would astonish the whole continent."
The testing of new offensive techniques, including the co operation of infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft during the battle was of major significance in the future conduct of the war. Hamel provided the Allied army with a blue print for attacking any enemy position. A month later the same tactics were employed on a much larger scale.
On August 8, the Australians and the Canadians, starting at Hamel, punched a gigantic hole in the German front line.
The German Commander in Chief, Ludendorff called this day "der schwarzer tag" the black day of the German army and the beginning of its ultimate defeat.
Text courtesy of the Department of Veteran's Affairs.