Having discussed verbally with General Rawlinson, commanding officer of the British Fourth Army, the possibility and indeed importance of going on the offensive, Lieut-General Monash submitted his proposal for an attack at Hamel on the Somme and approval was given straight away. Monash’s operation was to be primarily a tank operation utilising the new Mark V Tank (photograph right) with its enhanced mobility, backed up by the infantry and integrated closely with the artillery and air force. A challenge for Monash was that the infantry that would be leading the attack – the AIF 4th Division – were the ones that were so badly let down by the tanks at the First Battle of Bullecourt in April 1917. Over the coming weeks infantry battalion after infantry battalion was brought by bus to Vaux to spend a day to play with the tanks and meet, chat and even picnic with the tank crews. More serious set-piece manoeuvre exercises on the scale of a battalion were rehearsed over and over again. Within a short time the ‘digger’ had taken the tank to his heart. Two new principles were to be employed: firstly that on the battlefield and until the objective had been taken the tank would come under the command of the infantry commander; and secondly that the tanks would advance in line with the infantry, much closer to the line of the barrage than had been done before. The attack was also going to involve the Americans for the first time – note the symbolic selection of the date – but just 24 hours before the attack General Pershing withdrew six companies, much to their disappointment and the consternation of the Australians.
By 3am of the 4th July 1918 the whole force was lying out in the grass and crops behind its tapes, and two minutes later the normal early morning harassing fire of smoke and high explosive, but no gas this morning, from the Australian artillery began (map courtesy of Australians on the Western Front 1914-1918). At that same moment the sixty tanks moved to full speed towards the front, with support from bombers that had been flying over Hamel all night to help mask the sound of the tanks. The morning of the attack was accompanied by a heavy ground mist, and although impeded observation for assembly greatly enhanced the element of surprise, thus reducing the need to fire a significant percentage of smoke shells particularly on the flanks. The main barrage when it came was one of the most accurate during the war, enabling the infantry in places to advance within 75 yards free from casualties, and supported by spare machine guns of all four divisions who sprayed the land ahead. However a few guns were falling short and casualties were incurred amongst the 15th and 43rd Battalions as well as a section of Americans heading for Pear Trench. The smoke plus the dust thrown up by the shells formed a dense haze through which the soldiers advanced, but created a difficulty for the tanks who in the early stages were behind their expected positions with the infantry. The 16th Battalion attacking with only half of the force initially allotted as 500 of the Americans had been withdrawn the previous day attacked Vaire Wood and faced with a troublesome machine gun L-Cpl Axford (photograph below right) threw his bombs and rushed the trench killing ten and capturing six Germans, an action which earned him the Victoria Cross. Many of the captured Germans that morning were hampered by wearing gas masks on account of gas being used in the previous day’s shelling. On the southern flank the barrage behind which the 21st and 23rd Battalions of the 6th Brigade advanced was perfect and the leading tanks caught up with the infantry at the first German trench and fired down it both ways crushing the spirit of the defenders. For the second stage and after the ten minute halt the tanks had caught up over the whole front and in the daylight were able to play their full part, including the drop-off of supplies by the carrier tanks. All except three out of sixty tanks had reached their objectives and all but five were back out their rallying points by the end of the battle, the missing five recovered over the next two days. The Australian confidence in the tank, particularly in the way they annihilated machine gun posts, had been truly restored.
Hamel and the ridge beyond it had been taken with slight loss. The capture of prisoners had been large and thus far showed no sign of counter-attack, but as night was just settling a party of enemy bombers supported by 200 infantry under a heavy artillery bombardment counter-attacked the front-line manned by the 44th Battalion. That night feint attacks were also carried out by the 14th and 15th Brigades between the Ancre and the Somme to help divert the attention of the Germans from the main event at Hamel.
The battle passed off smoothly, exactly to timetable, and was free of hitches. It was all over in ninety-three minutes, attained all objectives and yielded great results. At the heart of the success was the excellent co-operation between the infantry, machine gunners, artillery, tanks and the Royal Air Force, plus catching the enemy completely by surprise. The operation gave the British possession of the Hamel Valley plus drove the enemy from the adjacent ridge from which the enemy could observe the Australian forces. In excess of 1,500 prisoners were taken, a similar number killed or made casualty, plus two field guns, 26 mortars and 171 machine guns at a cost of 1,400 casualties. The Americans that took part acquitted themselves well and were for ever after received by the Australians as blood brothers. Another success was the use of aeroplanes for the supply of small-arms ammunition to the forward troops, particularly the infantry. During the harassing periods between offensives the practice had been to employ both gas and smoke shells making the enemy think that the smoke would be accompanied by gas therefore donning gas masks and hence hampering his vision, but on the morning of the attack only the smoke shells were fired but it would take time for the enemy to realise and thus significantly impact his ability to resist. Hamel, the first offensive anywhere on the Western Front since Cambrai, became the blueprint for further operations carried out by the Corps, and notably for the great offensive of the 8th August. Many messages of congratulations were received following the Australian success at Hamel (photograph below left of the Hamel Memorial) but none more so than Monsieur Clemenceau, the veteran statesman of France, who arrived and addressed many of the men that had participated in the attack. “When the Australians came to France, the French people expected a great deal of you… We knew that you would fight a real fight, but we did not know that from the very beginning you would astonish the whole continent… I shall go back tomorrow and say to my countrymen, I have seen the Australians, I have looked in their faces, I know that these men will fight alongside of us again until the cause for which we are all fighting is safe for us and for our children.”
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FIRST WORLD WAR TIMELINE