On a foggy 21st March, General Ludendorff launched Operation Michael against General Sir Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army in the area around St Quentin. Newly arrived in the area the British had been required to hold a line that was too long with too few soldiers and few prepared positions.
Brushing aside the British the Germans made enormous gains, capturing much of the old 1916 Somme battlefield within days. By the end of the operation the Germans had almost reached the town of Villers-Bretonneux along the main road from St Quentin.
Although Ludendorff now turned his attention towards Flanders, Amiens remained an alluring prize as it was an important logistics base for the British and French.
On 4th April 1918 the Germans launched an attack against Villers-Bretonneux, held for the most part by British regiments. Though they did not succeed in taking the town the Germans forced the British from the village of Le Hamel towards the hill on which, today, you will see the Australian Memorial.
Three weeks later on 24th April the Germans struck again and this time with the aid of a number of tanks took the town. During this action there was the first ever confrontation of tank forces.
That night Australian and British forces launched a counter-attack and by the morning of Anzac Day (25th April) had cleared the Germans from the town. The Germans had been stopped on the Somme and would never progress any further towards Amiens.
In fact, unbeknown to them at the time, the war was entering its final stages.
On the 1st November 1917, I Anzac Corps had become the Australian Corps by bringing together together the five Australian Divisions under the command of Lt General Sir William Birdwood.
It was composed of
II Anzac Corps was renamed XXII Corps and retained the New Zealand Division.
The Australian (like the Canadian Corps) managed to maintain four battalions to the Brigade unlike the British who were by 1918 down to three. Unlike the Canadians, who had conscription, the Australians found it hard to replace casualties as the war entered its final stages. Thus, the 4th Division found itself involved in much of the fighting despite in theory being the depot unit.
Just after the battle for Villers-Bretonneux General Birdwood was promoted and given command of a new Fifth Army and command of the Australian Corps passed to Lt General John Monash on 31st May 1918.
Monash was an Australian and like his counterpart, Sir Arthur Currie of the Canadian Corps, not, a professional soldier. Monash was a highly qualified engineer by trade and brought much of that trade’s meticulousness to his soldiering. He was a details man and open to new ideas.
The destruction of Sir Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army in early spring had badly damaged morale amongst its troops and its reorganisation into the newly formed Fourth Army under General Sir Henry Rawlinson had not improved matters to any great extent.
Both Field Marshal Haig and General Rawlinson realised that the men needed a victory — it didn’t need to be the victory just a victory.
To this end the Australian Corps were charged with the mission and Monash chose the ridge at Le Hamel for a well prepared attack. The objective was to take the entire area between the Somme on the left and Vaire Wood and the St Quentin road five kilometres to the right.
Monash gave the task to the Australian 4th Division (so much for it being the reserve unit) and placed Major General Sinclair-MacLagan in command of the operation.
Preparation was to be a key to success. Artillery requirements were satisfied with 326 field guns and howitzers plus a further 313 heavy guns. This would allow a ratio of one gun for every ten metres of front.
Just over a year before the Australians had had a disastrous introduction to working with tanks at Bullecourt. Now they were to have sixty of the brand new Mk Vs with them.
In the space of that year tank tactics had changed. The Battle of Cambrai had taught a lot about how infantry and tanks needed to work together and not separately. For Le Hamel the tanks would accompany the infantry rather than preceding them. They would not only crush the barbed wire but be used to carry supplies forward.
Four Squadrons of the newly formed Royal Air Force (1st April 1918) would provide aircraft for a number of purposes.
At this stage in the war the Allies had regained control of the skies and the RAF would conduct strafing and bombing missions against the enemy positions as well as being used to drop ammunition to the men as they advanced (a first) and messages to forward commanders.
The plan was ambitious and because the Australians were under strength, American soldiers from their 33rd Division were to take part. The Americans had been serving alongside the Australians who were conducting their training. In part, to honour their involvement, Monash chose the 4th July as the date for the attack.
When he heard about the plan the Americans’ Commander, General Jack Pershing, was not happy and withdrew a thousand of the men detailed for participation in the attack (effectively half of them). When Pershing tried to remove the remainder Monash complained to Rawlinson and threatened to pull the plug on the operation. Haig ordered that the attack proceed and on the day a thousand American soldiers took part in the battle.