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Mont St Quentin, 2nd Australian Division Memorial

Finest feat of arms

The 2nd Australian Division Memorial

On the morning of 30 August 1925, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who had been the supreme commander of all Allied forces in France in 1918, stood and faced a large crowd gathered before a newly completed monument. It stood on the high point of the road, the N17, leading north-westwards out of Péronne towards Bapaume. Foch spoke of what would rank as one of the ‘finest feats of arms in a time rich in innumerable deeds of heroism’, the seizure of Mont St Quentin and Péronne by the AIF between 31 August and 3 September 1918. After saluting, Foch pulled away a large Australian flag from the top of the monument to reveal an infantryman of the AIF in full battle dress powerfully thrusting down with his bayonet into the belly of an eagle which lay on its back on the ground.

Seven years after the end of World War I the meaning of this memorial was clear – here were the men of the AIF defeating the German Imperial Army symbolised by the dying bird of prey. The memorial was blessed by Canon Stacy Waddy, an ex-chaplain with the AIF, the Last Post was sounded, there was a two-minute silence, and the ceremony was brought to a close by the playing, by a French military band, of the ‘Marseillaise’ and ‘God Save the King’.

Foch had just unveiled the 2nd Australian Division Memorial in France. Around its base were four brass plaques. The one facing west and down the hill back across the Somme River flats declared this monument to be:

To the officers, non-commissioned officers, and men of the 2nd Australian Division, who fought in France and Belgium in the Great War, 1916, 1917, and 1918.

Plaques facing north and south were constructed in Melbourne by Australian artist Miss May Butler-George. Arranged by the 2nd Division, she had personally visited the site in February 1919 ‘in connection with the work of preparing panels for the Divisional Memorial’. It was clear, even then, that the 2nd Division were planning a much more elaborate testimony to their wartime exploits in Europe than any other division of the AIF. The other four had been satisfied with simple obelisks! Miss Butler-George’s bas-relief plaques depict Australian artillery going into action and infantry bombing their way down a trench. She made her designs in a studio in St Kilda Road, Melbourne, using photographs of male models carrying out the actions she wished to depict. One model, shown straining on a rope pulling an 18-pounder field gun, she declared had ‘too much flesh on’! The bronzes themselves were cast in Paris.

The digger bayoneting the eagle figure was the work of Australian sculptor Web Gilbert. In 1917, he had joined the AIF as a sculpture in the newly created War Records Section, a unit dedicated to the collecting of archives, photographs, art and other battlefield objects for what Charles Bean hoped would be a great ‘memorial-museum’ in Australia after the war. Gilbert’s model for the 2nd Division Memorial was put on display at a major exhibition in April 1922 in what was then called the ‘Australian War Museum’ housed in the Exhibition Buildings in Melbourne. Charles Bean never liked the piece declaring it ‘a cheap conception’ that bore ‘no shadow of the spirit of the AIF’. However, the men of the division had, with assistance from the Commonwealth Government, collected the money themselves to pay for their memorial and they commissioned Gilbert to carry it out. Gilbert died in Australia two days before photographs arrived showing Marshal Foch unveiling Gilbert’s digger triumphant over the German eagle.

But the digger slaying the eagle has vanished! The Germans pulled it down and destroyed it in World War II when they once again occupied Mont St Quentin and Péronne. Eventually, in 1971, it was replaced by a much less aggressive looking figure of a digger in slouch hat with his head cast slightly down as if reflecting on the endless days of battle which he and his mates had endured since 8 August 1918. It was the fighting advance across the uplands of the Somme from Villers-Bretonneux to Péronne, with the dramatic seizure of the heights of Mont St Quentin on 1 September 1918, that led the 2nd Division to choose this as the site for their memorial in France. The land was given to the Australians by the Mayor and Council of St Quentin:

… for a memorial to the troops that took part in the operations of the Division from 8th August at Villers-Bretonneux to 4th September at Mont St Quentin. Mont St Quentin itself was the key to the whole enemy position east of the Somme.

Papers re: 2nd Division Memorial, 623/5, AWM 27

The key to the whole enemy position

Mont St Quentin 1918

From the back of the 2nd Division Memorial, look back west down the slope over the fields. Here, at dawn on 31 September 1918, were strong German positions around the summit of Mont St Quentin, positions which were the key to the town of Péronne off to the south. At 5 am shells from British and Australian guns began pounding German trenches on the lower slopes as two under-strength AIF battalions – the 17th and 20th – dashed forward towards Mont St Quentin. Behind them came the men of the 18th and 19th Battalions. To make up for their lack of numbers the soldiers had been urged by their officers to ‘yell like a lot of bushrangers’!

The attack came as a complete surprise to the Germans. Many quickly surrendered and pushed to the rear, in many cases leaving their machine guns on the ground. One German officer reported that it ‘had all happened like lightening and before we had fired a shot we were taken unawares’. As the Australians reached the bottom of the hill they could see many of the enemy running back over the shoulders of the hill:

The Australians, who had expected heavy fighting, hurried with minds now carefree, half running, trying to catch them and taking occasional shots. As each new group of Germans broke from the trenches ahead the Lewis gunners would throw themselves down for a minute to fire.

Charles Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1918, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume VI, p.813

The attackers soon pushed right to the top of Mont St Quentin while others went froward on the flat fields below securing the flanks. It was all a swift and sudden success. Back at 4th Army Headquarters General Sir Henry Rawlinson was rising for the day:

As I was dressing … Archie [Chief of Staff, Sir Archibald Montgomery] rang me to say the Australians had captured Mont St Quentin. It is indeed a magnificent performance.

Charles Bean later wrote that those in high command would have been even more amazed had they known the full extent of the Australian force that had won the hill – ‘eight very tired companies comprising some 550 rifles, with a handful of machine gunners and four companies of 22 in close support’. Given this small force the situation on Mont St Quentin was actually grim. During the morning of 31 September the Germans began to infiltrate around the thinly held Australian positions and by the afternoon the Australians had pulled back to the bottom of Mont St Quentin.

The next day, 1 September 1918, the AIF resumed its attack and eventually overran Mont St Quentin. One young soldier in the 23rd Battalion who faced the German machine guns that day was Private Robert Comb, a 20-year-old boundary rider from Sea Lake, Victoria. Years later, Robert recalled how his section was being pinned down by a particular machine gun and that in his words, ‘I did my block’. Rather than crawl forward under the enemy bullets, Robert stood up and charged firing his Lewis gun from the hip so allowing his mates to advance safely. In Mont St Quentin village, Private Comb single-handedly took out another German machine gun. For his courage that day Private Robert Comb was awarded the Military Medal.

In 1993, Robert Comb returned to the memorial on Mt St Quentin as part of an official Australian Government veterans’ mission commemorating the 75th anniversaries of those battles fought by the AIF in France and Belgium between 1916 and 1918. Behind the silent statue of the Australian soldier, Robert took himself away from the party and sat down quietly with a beer. Was he perhaps hearing again down the years the rat-tat of the machine guns and the crash of the artillery on Mont St Quentin on 1 September 1918?

On those occasions it is the often the infantry soldier, with rifle or machine gun, who gets the credit for success in battle. But in modern war all sorts of skills are essential to the workings of complex operations and manoeuvres. Fighting in the 23rd Battalion on Mont St Quentin was 21-year-old butcher, Private Thomas Delahunty, of Footscray, Victoria. In the AIF Thomas had learnt the skills of a ‘signaller linesman’ and, despite the heavy machine gun fire all around him, he continually went out and ensured that the essential phone lines between the front commanders and the rear were kept in working order. As the recommendation for his Military Cross said:

… his personal disregard of danger enabled the companies and Headquarters to be kept in close communication during critical periods of the operation. His cheerful spirit and gallant conduct was of a very high order.

Recommendation for Military Medal, Private Thomas Delahunty, 23rd Battalion AIF, internet version at http://www.awm.gov.au/cms_images/awm28/2/324/0046.pdf

A man, every inch of him

Péronne Communal Cemetery Extension

On 30 August 1925, after unveiling the 2nd Division Memorial at Mont St Quentin, Marshal Foch and his entourage proceeded a short distance down the road to the Péronne Communal Cemetery Extension. Here lie the remains of 512 Australian soldiers many of whom died in the capture of Péronne by the 5th Australian Division between 1 and 3 September 1918. Foch placed a wreath on one of the wooden crosses where an Australian soldier lay buried, for the cemetery had not yet received its permanent headstones. Among the crosses, in Plot IV, Row C, Grave 18, was one for 27-year-old Lance Sergeant George Potter, 53rd Battalion, a road contractor from Canberra, Federal Capital Territory.

On the morning of 1 September 1918, the 53rd Battalion, with the 54th Battalion on its right, formed up just east of the village of Halles on the flats between the village and Mont St Quentin. The task was to proceed to clear the Germans out of the area between the Somme and the old ramparts of the town of Péronne. In front of Anvil Wood, close to where the cemetery now stands, were enemy positions fronted by unbroken belts of barbed wire. A party of the 53rd made for a gap in the wire while, to cover them, the Lewis gunners, Lance Sergeant George Potter among them, stood up and sprayed bullets over the wire. The wire was penetrated and the Germans cleared from the trench line where the Australians found the water in the cooling cover of the enemy machine guns still boiling. In exposing himself, however, George Potter had been killed.

George’s mates never forgot him. Whenever they gathered in future years to remember their wartime service and swap yarns they drank a ‘silent toast’ to George:

Perhaps in civilian days he would not have known greatness, but now when we gather on Anzac Days we feel like pooling the decorations issued to us and casting them aside for this truly great man received but a wooden cross for the part he played in laying down his life for his country and the saving of his friends.

AWB, ‘Galant Lewis Gunner’, Stand-To, July-August 1954, p.26

On his Honour Roll Circular, now in the Australian War Memorial, George’s mother wrote:

What more can I say than the words of his Lieutenant, George was a man, every inch of him.

After two days of heavy fighting, some of it in the streets of the town, Péronne fell to the Australians. The Germans, having lost their stronghold on the Somme, now withdrew back eastwards towards the Hindenburg Line.

The capture of Mont St Quentin and Péronne by the AIF came after long, hard weeks of battle. The more open actions and advances of the last months of the war were not like the terrible battles of 1916 and 1917, but the fire from enemy machine guns and artillery was every bit as devastating. In 1918, the Australian Corps suffered 60 355 battle casualties of which 12 187 were killed in action or died of wounds. Moreover, voluntary enlistment in Australia was not providing the recruits necessary to keep the 60 Battalions of the AIF and other support units up to strength. As one observer, quoted by Charles Bean, dramatically wrote:

Battalions are going into some of these fights 150 strong; 300 or 350 seems to be a big number in the fighting line these days. They are not as done as they were after Pozières, but they certainly are feeling that they have done more than their fair share of fighting … there is a feeling that ‘there wont be any Dominion Army left soon’, ‘There’ll be no AIF before long’.

Charles Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1918, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume VI, p.875

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© 2007 Department of Veteran's Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - 24 April 2007