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The aggressive German spring 1918 offensive created a bulge in the British line that encompassed the French village of Hamel, near Amiens, on April 4. As a result, Allied troops were exposed to German observers and enfilading fire. In June the Allies made plans to retake Hamel, a move that would strengthen their position and improve the artillery situation. That attack would also showcase the Australian Corps and the innovative tactics of its commander, Lieutenant General John Monash.
Appalled at the horrific casualties and 'ghastly inefficiency' of World War I combat, Monash, a 53-year-old former engineer from Melbourne, adopted the view that the infantry's role was 'not to expend itself upon heroic physical effort,' but 'to advance under the maximum possible array of mechanical resources, in the form of guns, machine guns, tanks, mortars, and aeroplanes…to the appointed goal.' Monash became an advocate of the use of combined arms operations, including those that employed tanks. Tanks were still in the early stages of development, however. Their crews were unskilled, and their employment had thus far been clumsy. Although the British had first introduced the tank in combat in September 1916, early models had been disappointing.
In the summer of 1918, however, the introduction of the new Mark V tanks — faster, more agile, better armed and crewed than the Mark IVs — promised Monash the possibility of a less costly victory. Monash believed that detailed planning and coordination could yield success. 'A perfected modern battle plan is like a score for an orchestral composition,' he wrote, 'where the various arms and units are the instruments, and the tasks they perform are their respective musical phrases. Every individual unit must make its entry precisely at the proper moment, and play its phrase in the general harmony.'
Monash faced manpower problems for the coming assault. Battle casualties, the deadly influenza epidemic of 1918 and a drop in recruiting levels in Australia had depleted the infantry section of his 'orchestra.' Monash therefore needed a strategy that would use manpower sparingly. But he had two important assets to work with — the new generation of better-engineered tanks and an infusion of troops from the United States.
Monash had a reputation for devising unusual tactics and planning operations in precise detail. The Hamel action was to be no exception. On June 21, he submitted his meticulously worked out proposal for a dawn attack by elements of the Australian Corps' 4th, 6th, 7th and 11th brigades under the 4th Division's Maj. Gen. Ewan Sinclair-McLaglan, to his superior, General Sir Henry Rawlinson, commander of the British Fourth Army. The operation also called for the use of some newly arrived American troops. Rawlinson approved it forthwith. He agreed that the Americans — though not experienced — could boost Monash's numbers and, in carrying out his battle plan, they could gain valuable experience alongside the more seasoned Australian infantry, or 'Diggers.' Monash immediately requested about 2,000 men.
On June 27, Maj. Gen. George W. Read's II Corps of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) advised the 33rd Division's Maj. Gen. George Bell, Jr., that 'participation…in a raid of some kind…is approved…[and] is considered valuable training.' Early on June 30, one month after arriving in France, C Company of the 131st Infantry joined the 42nd Battalion from Queensland, while E Company reinforced the South Australian 43rd Battalion. Companies A and G of the 132nd Infantry reported to the 13th Battalion from New South Wales and the Queensland 15th Battalion, respectively.
The American companies, each numbering about 250 troops, were welcome. The Australian 42nd Battalion, 1,027 strong when it landed in France in November 1916, had only 433 men in June 1918. The 43rd, with 41 officers and 575 troops, incorporated a platoon from the 131st Infantry's E Company in each of its four companies.
The Americans were most appreciative of the warm reception the Diggers gave them. Captain W. Masoner of G Company reported that the 15th Battalion's Colonel T. McSharry 'guided us to a Reserve Trench…and remained…until all men found sleeping places and dugouts.' 'The men were fed very well,' added Captain J. Luke of E Company.
Later that day, the rest of the 131st's 1st and 2nd battalions, with stretcher-bearers, intelligence personnel and other specialists, joined the Australian 4th and 11th brigades. American battalion and company commanders eagerly shadowed their veteran Australian counterparts. Following standard Australian practice, about 50 troops from each company were sent to the rear as a reserve in case of heavy attrition. The rest settled in along the front line and got acquainted with their Aussie comrades in arms. Armorer Sergeant Bob Melloy of Kangaroo Point admired Chicago-born Sergeant Lee Lawless' safety razor, the first he had ever seen, and was duly presented with one. During another war more than 20 years later, Major Melloy returned the favor when he acquired more than 4,000 Queensland properties for American forces in Australia, including headquarters for General Douglas MacArthur.
Mutual respect quickly grew. The Americans' commander had exhorted his troops, saying, 'you're going into action with some mighty celebrated troops guaranteed to win and you've got to get up to their level and stay with them.' The Yanks, in turn, soon impressed the Diggers with their modesty and keenness to learn as they practiced with Lewis light machine guns and grenades and began operating the Mark V tanks. Australian correspondents observing the Americans remarked that it felt as if 'we had been walking among ghosts…of the old 1st [Australian] Division,' and that 'they swear a little less, they drink coffee rather than tea,' but otherwise 'might as well be our own fellows.' The 14th Battalion's historian added that 'their presence also had a most stimulating effect. Instead of the grim, set faces usually noticeable prior to battle, our men were all smiles and laughter, and determined to show the newcomers what Australians were capable of on the battlefield.'
On July 2, two days before the counteroffensive was scheduled to begin, Monash arranged for the popular Australian prime minister, Billy Hughes, to address some troops from each brigade, taking care that Hughes' visit would not disrupt preparations for the coming'show.' Then Monash's planning hit a serious snag. During a visit to the U.S. II Corps headquarters, the AEF commander, General John J. Pershing, learned of the plan to commit American troops to the assault on Hamel and advised General Read that they should not participate. The next day, he telephoned with 'further and positive instructions…that our troops should be withdrawn.' Pershing believed it was better if American troops fought together rather than as scattered units among the Allied armies. He also wanted assurance that they were fully trained before committing them in offensive actions.
Early on July 3, Pershing's order to withdraw reached six of the 10 U.S. Army companies attached to the Australian Corps. The troops reacted with disappointment. Two Americans in the 42nd Battalion donned Queenslanders' tunics and stayed. The rest dutifully obeyed the order. The Americans' departure at that late juncture hurt Monash's meticulous plan badly because it required reorganizing Australian units — the 16th Battalion's strength was halved, and the 11th Brigade's manpower dropped from 3,000 to 2,200 soldiers.
Then, at 4 p.m. on the day before the battle, Monash received an order from Rawlinson's headquarters calling for the withdrawal of all Americans. By 5 p.m., Monash had confronted his commander and insisted that the remaining four companies were essential. Pershing's order came too late, he said, and unless Rawlinson absolutely insisted that Pershing's order to withdraw all Americans by 6:30 p.m. be carried out, he intended to proceed as planned — using the Americans. Monash's demand threatened to put Rawlinson at loggerheads with the American command. There could be serious consequences.
'You don't realize what it means,' Rawlinson said. 'Do you want me to run the risk of being sent back to England? Do you mean it is worth that?'
'Yes, I do,' replied Monash. 'It is more important to keep the confidence of the Americans and Australians in each other than to preserve even an Army commander.'
Rawlinson, knowing that Monash was a talented officer, decided to back his corps commander if Marshal Sir Douglas Haig did not countermand the decision by 7 p.m. As it happened, Haig called just before 7, and he turned out to be very helpful. Citing the importance of the assault, he resolved the matter, saying, 'The attack must be launched as prepared, even if a few American detachments cannot be got out before zero hour.'
Monash, who had planned the opening action to occur before daylight, went to bed early. In the early morning hours of July 4, his artillery commander, Brigadier W.A. Coxen, saw him pacing the drive. When the opening barrage thundered out, Monash looked toward the front, then turned to his office.
Monash's plan called for capturing the town of Hamel, the woods near Hamel and Vaire, and the spur beyond, entailing an advance on a six-kilometer front to a depth of about three kilometers in the center, tapering to one kilometer in the south.
The essence of Monash's combined operations strategy was to infiltrate his men and equipment close enough under cover of darkness to use heavy weaponry against the targeted areas, then employ tanks as a cover for the advancing infantry. If the artillery did its job, the infantry's task would devolve into a mop-up operation. Monash's plan also called for extensive use of reconnaissance aircraft so that he could direct troop movements quickly and effectively.
Monash's top intelligence officer had rightly estimated Hamel's defenders at about 3,000 troops. He assessed them as being for the most part of indifferent quality and located in poor defensive positions. There were some exceptions, however, including strongpoints at an installation called Pear Trench, in the northern sector of the targeted area around Hamel, and scattered areas where he expected serious resistance in parts of the woods and in the village. Those observations were incorporated into intense planning sessions that Monash had organized involving all levels of his command, from corps to battalion. The final session, conducted in secrecy on June 30, included 250 officers and resolved 133 items on a detailed planning agenda. The action, involving aircraft, tank corps, artillery and infantry, each with an assigned role, was to be tightly controlled from the very beginning.
In the trenches, the 42nd Battalion enjoyed a hot meal at about 11 p.m. as they listened to 144 Allied aircraft dropping more than 1,100 bombs on Hamel — an initial softening-up operation. Meanwhile, cloaked by darkness and the noisy uproar of the aircraft, the tanks began their three-mile move from sheltered positions in woods and orchards to their attack positions. Between midnight and 1:45 a.m., the infantry followed the treadmarks of the tanks that had broken through the wire barriers — an easier task for Americans in their canvas leggings than for Australians in their cloth puttees. By 3 a.m., the troops — who hailed from Illinois and every province of Australia — had been issued rum and were in position, ready to attack.
Harrassing artillery fire kicked in at 3:02 a.m. For several weeks previously, Monash had ordered that high explosives, smoke bombs and poison gas shells be fired toward the target at about that time, a tactic intended to condition the defenders to regularly expect a barrage — and make them think that the smoke masked the presence of gas. This time, however, Monash purposely omitted the gas, making it possible for his troops to move forward safely under cover of smoke and noise.
At 3:10 a.m., 313 heavy guns and 326 field artillery pieces, joined by mortars and more than 100 Vickers machine guns, produced a barrage worthy of the Fourth of July, while the tanks gunned their engines for the half-mile dash. A mix of 10 percent smoke, 40 percent high-explosive and 50 percent shrapnel shells fell 200 yards ahead of the infantry, while larger shells landed 400 yards farther ahead.
The infantrymen rose and moved forward. In four minutes, the artillery adjusted its range 100 yards farther ahead, and the infantry advanced in the wake of the covering fire.
Captain Carroll M. Gale's C Company, accompanying the Australian 42nd Battalion, followed the barrage, advancing 100 yards every three minutes. His troops came within 75 yards of the exploding shells without sustaining any casualties, but other units were not so fortunate. One squad from E Company and an American section attached to the 15th Battalion lost 12 men killed and 30 wounded because shells fell short of their target. The 15th then hung back while survivors of Lieutenant R. Canaway's 43rd Battalion moved between the barrage and those shells that were falling short.
Advancing into the barrage proved costly to some other Americans as well. After their officers became casualties, three platoons attached to the 13th Battalion were guided to safer ground by Australian NCOs. When Sergeant F.J. Darke saw an American officer wounded by the shelling, he took over his platoon and turned it back from the barrage, and Corporal M.J. Roach was mortally wounded while extricating another U.S. platoon from danger.
The mist, smoke and dust cut pre-dawn visibility down to 20 yards and slowed the tanks. The barrage had overshot Pear Trench, located near the start tapes — white tapes that had been placed to mark the starting positions — leaving its wire intact. Consequently, German machine guns raked oncoming infantry, but their return fire was formidable. A typical Australian rifleman carried 200 rounds and two grenades; signalers and runners had 100 rounds each. Specialized troops called bombers added 100 rounds to the eight grenades they carried. A platoon's main punch, however, came from Lewis light machine-gun teams who could fire 500 rounds per minute and who carried 18 magazines of 97 rounds each.
One such team, from the 15th Battalion, silenced an enemy machine-gun post. Then the team's'second member,' Private Harry Dalziel from Irvinebank, Queensland, spotted another German machine-gun nest as it opened fire. Dashing toward it, revolver in hand, he killed or captured the gun's crew, allowing the Australians in front of it to proceed with their advance. Although the tip of Dalziel's trigger finger had been shot off, he ignored an order to retire and continued to serve his gunner until Pear Trench was secured. When again ordered to report to the aid post, Dalziel instead elected to bring up ammunition. While he was doing so, a bullet smashed his skull. Miraculously, he did not die. He was transferred to Britain for treatment and later received the Victoria Cross from King George V.
During another firefight, this time in the woods, German machine guns in the so-called Kidney Trench killed the 16th Battalion's company commander, his sergeant major and one of its Lewis gunners, stalling the battalion's advance. From the flank, Lance Cpl. Thomas Leslie 'Jack' Axford, a former brewery worker from Kalgoorlie who already had won the Military Medal, grenaded and bayoneted 10 Germans, captured six of them, tossed their machine guns out of their positions, called the stalled platoon to come up and then rejoined his own unit.
Dugouts connected to Kidney Trench yielded 47 more prisoners. Axford was later awarded the Victoria Cross for his 'great initiative and magnificent courage.'
Six minutes after the operation was launched, the tanks arrived, in accordance with the careful plan of Monash and his tank commander, Maj. Gen. H.J. Elles. Unsupported by heavy artillery and bogged down in mud and barbed wire, the tanks — intended to provide cover for the infantry — had failed the Aussies on April 11, 1917, at the Battle of Bullecourt. There, at a village in the center of the Hindenberg line, 10,000 Australians had been killed. With that failure in mind, Monash revised the scenario for Hamel and added some public relations. Using prebattle demonstrations of tank operations, intense rehearsals, joy rides and long persuasive discussions, Monash generated enough of a rapport between infantry and tank crews that many of the British tanks sported Australian battalion colors and names. To allay the infantry's fears that wounded men, hidden by 3-foot-tall field crops, would be crushed by the tanks, Monash issued white tape which could be tied to vegetation or an upturned rifle to mark the wounded soldier's position.
The single most important innovation in tank strategy at Hamel lay in placing the tanks under the control of infantry commanders who could order them to follow closely on the heels of their troops and eliminate enemy strongpoints. Tank commanders also had worries. They protested that advancing so close behind the artillery barrage could expose their 8-foot-8-inch-high vehicles to overhead hits from friendly fire, but they accepted Monash's order, which overruled their objections. As it happened during the course of the battle, some of those objections proved well taken. A third of the attack's armor casualties occurred when an 18-pounder shell fell short and struck a tank attached to 13th Battalion's D Company, killing its guide, Private T. Parrish. In Vaire Wood, Captain G. Marper was wounded by machine-gun fire as he directed a tank carrying his 13th Battalion's colors toward enemy positions. The tank crushed one of the German machine guns under its treads, and the other's crew surrendered.
With combined air, artillery and tank attacks, the 42nd Battalion's assault in the northern flank had met little resistance. Meanwhile, to its south, the 6th Brigade's 21st and 23rd battalions smoothly followed the barrage and the tanks. The southernmost sector was more difficult — the 25th Battalion suffered 93 casualties. Two platoons were cut down to only eight troops, but Sergeant C.G. Ham led them to take and hold the final objective, for which he was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM).
The new strategy yielded many prisoners, starting with the Germans' communication trench in Vaire Wood. When one Digger took a prisoner using the fractured French comment, 'Finis la guerre,' the German stunned him by laughingly replying, 'Yes, my — — oath' — a phrase that demonstrated how well he had learned Australian English while working in the West Australian gold fields before the war.
After passing through the woods, the Australians reached a prearranged halt line and paused 10 minutes to regroup. Thirty tanks were assigned to support the assault on Hamel itself, the third anticipated strongpoint. When stiff resistance was encountered at Notamel Wood, a 43rd Battalion sergeant pulled a tank's rear bell handle. The door opened and he pointed out a troublesome machine-gun position to the tank's crew. The tank crushed it.
No tanks had arrived at the outskirts of Hamel, however, when a brisk fight broke out in front of the village, during which a platoon of the 43rd Battalion under South Australian Lieutenant I. Symons and its attached American platoon killed 15 Germans and captured another 40. When Symons fell wounded, his 21-year-old runner, Private D. Anderson from Broken Hill, took charge of his platoon for the rest of the battle, for which he was subsequently awarded the Military Medal.
By the time another 10-minute halt was called, Hamel lay open, save for some scattered resistance. North of the Pear Trench, a well-placed machine-gun position held up the 43rd Battalion until Australian Corporal F.M. Shaw and Corporal H.G. Zyburt of the 131st rushed it. Firing his Lewis gun from the hip, Shaw advanced 200 yards and enabled Zyburt to get into the position, where he bayoneted three of the gunners. Shaw shot an officer who rushed him. Then, finding his Lewis magazine empty, he hit another German on the head with his revolver. When that failed to stop his assailant, Shaw shot him. A total of eight Germans were killed, the rest surrendered and two previously captured Australians were freed.
When the advance resumed, the tanks came fully into their own. Following their commander's dictum, 'It is the primary duty of the tanks to save casualties to the Australian infantry,' they hugged the barrage, destroying strongpoints with machine guns, canister fire or their treads.
Engaging three machine guns in a quarry near Hamel, Shaw called in a tank. Its machine gun silenced two of the nests, while the 23-year-old farmer from the Yorke peninsula helped take the third, capturing one German officer and 20 soldiers. Why that tall, slow-speaking son of an Adelaide minister didn't become Hamel's third VC recipient was a mystery to his mates. Shaw, who was awarded the DCM, was mortally wounded near Proyart a month later. His American partner, Zyburt, was awarded the Military Medal.
While the 43rd Battalion cleared Hamel, the 13th, 15th, 42nd and 44th battalions and their accompanying tanks pushed on to their objectives farther east. The remaining battalions had already reached theirs.
Success signals flowed to the rear by pigeon, lights, rockets, telephone and radio. Signalers maintained communications throughout the battle, while special squads confused the enemy by contradicting any German flare with the opposite color.
Monash, who had calmed his nerves by sketching the prime minister's chauffeur, learned that he had won his victory 93 minutes after the push began — three minutes past the planned timetable. Their objectives won, the Allies promptly began consolidating their gains, improving German trenches and digging new ones. At the now exposed Vaire Wood, Diggers found and occupied some of the craters that had been specially made for Allied defensive positions by 9.2-inch howitzer shells during June. Their positions were plotted and issued on maps to the troops. Three RE-8s of No. 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps (AFC), flew over the new front lines, taking 108 photographs. Supplies, previously brought forward by men or mules over dangerous, exposed ground, now reached Hamel via carrier tanks or were dropped from aircraft. Every soldier had carried water bottles, two days' food and a ground sheet, with riflemen also carrying three empty sandbags and a pick or shovel. Now, under Monash's orders, four carrier tanks — each with an infantry NCO and four unloaders — did resupply work that would otherwise have required 1,200 men. The results were astonishing for the time. When the 13th Battalion's colonel reached his dump site, he found 34 coils of barbed wire and pickets, 50 tins of water, 150 mortar rounds, 10,000 small-arms rounds, 20 boxes of grenades and 45 sheets of corrugated iron — a 41ž2-ton load — neatly stacked, with the carrier tank already back in the rear.
In hindsight, some thought the carrier tanks were the greatest innovation at Hamel. Each of the fighting tanks also carried a load of supplies — a 1,200-round box of ammunition, 24 Lewis gun magazines and water for the infantry.
Monash's plan also added some new roles to the AFC's repertory. At 4:40 a.m. on July 5, RE-8s of No. 3 Squadron flew low, tooting horns that signaled the Diggers to light flares in their trenches so the planes' observers could mark the new front line on maps — maps that were dropped at 4th Division headquarters 10 minutes later.
The two-seaters of No. 9 Squadron, Royal Air Force (RAF), delivered nearly 120,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition, dropping them by parachute from boxes fitted under the wings to marked sites along the line. That innovation — inspired by a captured German document — had been developed by Captain Lawrence J. Wackett and Sergeant W. Nicholson and his mechanics at No. 3 Squadron, AFC. Townsville-born Wackett, who would later found the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation, received a British grant of 300 pounds sterling for inventing the release gear and cases for the ammunition and parachutes.
Other aircraft strafed and bombed German positions, and except for a half hour in the late morning, the Allies maintained air superiority with the loss of only two planes. Lieutenants A.E. Grigson and H.B. James of No. 3 Squadron AFC shot down one enemy fighter that tried to interfere with their work, and drove another down out of control. Lieutenants D.F. Dimsey and F.J. Mart shot down a Pfalz D.IIIa that was attacking another RE-8.
All but three British tanks reached their objectives, and their crews suffered only 13 casualties. Most of the tanks joined Australian and American infantrymen in scouting and neutralizing remaining pockets of resistance before departing for the rear at 5:30 p.m., some carrying cheering infantrymen who had been wounded.
The Germans sniped at the new Allied positions, and groups of Diggers and doughboys moved up 400 yards in an effort to deal with them. By 7 a.m. next morning, 700 more prisoners had been flushed out of the village and the woods. Lance Corporal Schulz of the 43rd Battalion's Intelligence Section and two German-speaking Americans followed a cable trace that Schulz had noticed in an aerial photograph. Their search was rewarded when they unearthed a dugout and captured a German battalion commander and his staff of 26.
Except for a brief air attack and some shelling, the German response on July 5 was slight. Then, at about 10 p.m., the Germans bombarded with high-explosive and gas shells, after which storm troopers and 200 infantrymen drove a 200-yard wedge between the 44th Battalion's A and B companies east of the village. Four hours later the 44th, augmented by Australians and Americans of the 43rd Battalion, counterattacked. Not only did they regain the lost ground, they recovered 11 out of 15 Australians captured in the German assault. National Guardsman Corporal A. Thomas Pope of E Company, 131st Infantry, rushed an enemy machine-gun position alone, bayoneted its crew and held off the enemy until help arrived.
The night's action cost the Germans 30 troops killed and 50 men and 10 machine guns captured. The 43rd Battalion later presented the gun Pope had captured to his regiment.
Taking and securing Hamel cost the Allies a total of 1,400 casualties, including 39 Americans killed and 196 wounded. The Germans lost more than 2,000 men, including 43 officers and 1,562 enlisted men captured, together with two anti-tank machine guns, a new .53-caliber anti-tank rifle, 32 trench mortars and 177 machine guns. In addition, the Allies recovered 73,000 rounds of British ammunition and boxes of grenades lost when the Germans had first taken Hamel in April. On top of that, the Aussies of the 21st Battalion enjoyed coffee that was mistakenly dropped into their lines by a German airplane.
On July 5, a highly gratified Monash publicly thanked General Bell and praised the 'dash, gallantry and efficiency' of the four American companies, concluding that'soldiers of the United States and Australia should have been associated for the first time in such close cooperation on the battlefield is an historic [event] of such significance that it will live forever in the annals of our respective nations.'
When Company A was withdrawn to rejoin the AEF on the night of July 5, the 13th Battalion's historian noted that the Aussies 'really felt like [they were] losing old comrades.' At 5 a.m. the next morning, following a breakfast of Aussie stew and a series of speeches and cheers, the doughboys of Company E, some wearing the 43rd Battalion's colors, also departed, leaving the South Australians feeling, as one of them put it, 'very proud of our victory and our Yankee pals.'
The Americans were grateful for the experience. Captain Gale spoke for many of them when he said that 'more real good was done…by this small operation with the Australians than could have been accomplished in months of training behind the lines.' As for Pershing, in his memoir My Experiences in the World War, he described the American participation at Hamel as'somewhat of a surprise,' and though the 'behavior of our troops was splendid….Its [the battle's] immediate effect was to cause me to make the instructions so positive that nothing of the kind could occur again.'
Later, at Moulliens-au-Bois on August 12, Pershing watched King George V award the DCM to Corporal Tom Pope and two other doughboys for their valor at Hamel while four others got the Military Cross and 11 received the Military Medal. Later still, in Luxembourg on April 22, 1919, Pershing himself would present Pope with the Medal of Honor.
This article was written by Peter Nunan and originally appeared in the August 2000 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!
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