Following the success of the Australian Corps at the Battle of Mont St. Quentin General Rawlinson called a conference on the 13th September 1918 to discuss with his British Fourth Army Corps Commanders – Lieut-Gen. Butler (III Corps), Lieut-Gen. Monash (Australian Corps) and Lieut-Gen. Braithwaite (IX Corps) – the next series of operations to breach the formidable German defensive Hindenburg Line System comprising of the Hindenburg Outpost Line (or Hagricourt Line), the main Hindenburg Line on the St. Quentin canal, the Support or Le Catelet Line and finally the Reserve or Beaurevoir Line (maps courtesy of the DVA Anzac Portal).
After the manoeuvre battle at Mont St. Quentin the attack on the Hindenburg Outpost Line would revert to being a set-piece battle but with just eight tanks supporting the Australians. In order to compensate for the lack of tanks Lieut.-Gen. Monash arranged to double the machine gun resources by bringing up complete machine-gun battalions from the 3rd and 5th Divisions, giving a total of 256 Vickers Machine Guns on a frontage of 7,000 yards. The Australian 1st and 4th Divisions attacked at 5.20am under the devastating creeping artillery and machine-gun barrage, and the first ‘Red Line’ objective across the Corps front was taken by 10am, putting the Australians in possession of the old British front line of March 1918, but still some 1,500 to 2,000 yards from the Hindenburg Outpost Line. Major General Glasgow’s 1st Division pushed on without pause and by nightfall had overwhelmed the garrison of the Hindenburg Outpost Line along his front. Major General Maclagan’s 4th Division (photograph left of the 4th Division monument, Bellenglise) also fought its way forward to within 500 yards of that line, but the troops exhausted from crossing difficult terrain and in full view of the enemy, were ordered to rest. Advantage was taken to advance the artillery, and at 11pm the 4th Division again attacked, and after severe fighting also captured the whole of the objective trench system. A great victory had been achieved with relatively little loss. The 1st Division, attacking with 2,854 men suffered 490 casualties in total whereas the 4th Division had 532 casualties from a strength of 3,048. Over 4,200 prisoners were taken plus the Corps captured more than 80 guns that had been abandoned by the German Army. By the evening of the 23rd September the last of the Australian 1st & 4th Divisions had been relieved by the only two American Divisions remaining in the British zone, the 27th and 30th Divisions by comparison numbering 50,000 men in total.
The battle lines for the attack on the main Hindenburg Line by the Australian Corps would take them across the St. Quentin canal at the ‘land bridge’ offered by the 5km Bellicourt Tunnel. In the lead were the two American divisions, the 30th Division on the right and the 27th Division on the left followed by the Australian 5th Division and 3rd Divisions respectively for the exploitation or open warfare phase to the Beaurevoir Line. At 5.50am on the 29th September 1918 the attack was launched and quite early in the day excellent news came in that the 46th (North Midland) Division within IX Corps had skillfully crossed the canal at Bellenglise / Riqueval, thereby relieving pressure on Monash’s right flank. The initial reports coming in from the Americans were also encouraging, but at the time that the Australians were due to cross the first objective messages started to arrive that the both the 5th and 3rd Divisions had been held up. Having reached the villages of Le Catelet and Gouy, it appeared that the Americans had failed to properly mop-up, though another factor was that many of their officers had become casualties. In spite of hard fighting in the face of vigorous defence the Australian 5th Division cleared away the opposition taking Bellicourt. By 2pm the 5th Division had advanced through Nauroy and had passed the Le Catelet Line. However the 3rd Division was only part across the canal with the 10th & 11th Brigades now intermixed with the Americans. The south entrance to the tunnel (photograph left) was now in Allied hands, but the north still in German. As a result Monash had to amend his plans abandoning the objective of taking the whole Hindenburg Line System in one day. By 10am on the 1st October 1918 the 5th Division reported the capture of Joncourt and by midday the whole of the village of Bony was in Australian hands. With patrols rapidly approaching Le Catelet village the Germans were seen withdrawing their troops, transport and guns up the hills beyond the Beaurevoir Line. Here they settled and began to shell the Australian outposts heavily such they had to be withdrawn beyond the crest. Meanwhile the northern end of the tunnel had been taken and by nightfall the whole operation had been successfully completed. The three day operation had resulted in the capture of 3,057 prisoners and 35 guns. The Australian 3rd & 5th Divisions were by now exhausted from their efforts and were relieved by the 50th Division from the British XIII Corps and the Australian 2nd Division respectively to continue the fight to the final objective, the Beaurevoir Reserve Line.
At 6.05am on the 3rd October 1918 the barrage fell and the 5th Brigade made progress through the thick wire, led bravely by Lieut. Maxwell of the 18th Battalion who was awarded the Victoria Cross. On the left the 7th Brigade encountered pill-boxes and over fifty machine-guns in their sector. With a foothold on the heights Major-General Rosenthal brought forward his reserve 6th Brigade. A barrage was placed at 4.30pm but it would not be until two hours later that the 22nd Battalion and the 24th Battalion would be in position to make their attack. A sparse 18-pounder barrage of six minutes duration accompanied the waves as they advanced. Despite strenuous resistance by enemy machine-gunners particularly at the Roman road where the 22nd Battalion was attacking all objectives were quickly secured along with 100 prisoners, thirty machine-guns, four 77mm guns and one 5.9 howitzer. This very decisive victory cost the 22nd Battalion only twenty casualties, however amongst the eleven killed were two very popular officers, Capt. Braithwaite, MC, (photograph above right) and Lieut. Paterson, MC, (photograph below right) commanding officers of ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies respectively. Capt. Braithwaite was killed in the act of charging the troublesome machine-gun on the left flank. As Capt. Braithwaite fell those nearby heard his last orders ‘Go on C Company’, and as Lieut.-Col. Wiltshire later wrote, ‘on they charged, mopping up the position and fully avenging their Captain’s death’. The fight of the 4th October was much more severe than that of the previous day. The objectives for the 22nd Battalion lay about Geneve, just beyond the road leading from the village to Montbrehain and to the right of Ponchaux. It was not without more costly fighting that the final objective was carried, the task made more difficult by heavy enemy fire from a factory just south of Geneve and machine gun and rifle fire coming from Ponchaux as well as heavy shelling. By 10am the Battalion had completely consolidated all its objectives but at a severe cost having lost twenty-two men killed in action, including 2nd Lieut. Dawsett who had just re-joined from Officer Training Class with his commission, and sixty-five wounded in this the 22nd Battalion’s final fight. A large number of prisoners were taken along with twenty machine-guns. Thirty-two men from the 22nd Battalion were awarded for their bravery and gallantry along with fourteen men from the previous days fighting of 3rd October.
Lieut-Gen Monash received orders from General Rawlinson to retain control of the battle front for one more day until relieved by the American II Corps. The 22nd and 23rd Battalions remained in their positions on the 5th October 1918 guarding the flank while the 21st, 24th and the 2nd Pioneers, assisted by twelve tanks would attack and seize Montbrehain. For the Pioneers this would be the first time that they would attack as infantry. On the left the 24th Battalion met strong opposition from posts in the hedges, houses and trenches on the western side of the village plus from the enemy barrage being directed into their positions. Lieut Ingram (photograph left) with the assistance of a tank captured 63 prisoners from one dugout before bursting into the back of a house where he rushed the cellar stairs capturing another thirty prisoners for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. As the two centre companies attacked through the village their progress was often impeded by French civilians emerging from houses and cellars gratefully greeting their liberators. By noon the northern edge of Montbrehain had been taken and to the north the British 25th Division had captured Beaurevoir. At night two battalions of the 30th American Division came up and took over the salient formed by the capture of Montbrehain, in what had been the last and one of the most gallant actions fought by the Australians in the First World War. Although taking its objectives including 400 prisoners, victory came at a high price with 30 officers and 400 men becoming casualties. Ten officers and 110 other ranks had been killed, including some of the best leaders in the 6th Brigade, and many of the best NCO’s that had served with the AIF.
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