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- Mont St Quentin – Péronne 31 August – 2 September 1918
Mont St Quentin – Péronne
31 August – 2 September 1918
The great German offensives of the spring and early summer of 1918 had come to a halt by early August. The Allies – the British forces, the French and the Americans – now prepared to go on the attack themselves and the British did so east of Amiens on 8 August 1918. At the Battle of Amiens, British forces, with the Australian Corps and Canadian Corps in the vanguard south of the Somme River, pushed the Germans back nearly two kilometres in one day, a distance unheard of in the old trench warfare days of 1915–17. There now began a period, sometimes called the ‘Hundred Days’, from early August until the Armistice of 11 November, which brought the fighting to an end. During this time the German Army gradually withdrew across France and Belgium towards the German border. By the end of this period, however, German resistance was actually stiffening in the line as the nation’s leaders sought to make peace.
The five divisions of the Australian Corps were under the command of Lieutenant General Sir John Monash who had been knighted by King George V after the great success of the Battle of Amiens. For the men of the AIF the ‘Hundred Days’ was a time of almost constant advance. A series of operations, beginning with Amiens on 8 August, took them from Villers-Bretonneux, across the uplands of the Somme (a region known as the Santerre), to a little village east of Péronne called Montbrehain, a distance of about 35 kilometres. While it was a time of triumph against the Germans it came at a great cost in casualties, dead and wounded, and by late August most Australian fighting units were way under strength going into battle. Charles Bean, Australia’s official historian, wrote: ‘… most of the Australian divisions were recognised as having, since March 1918, been worked to the limit.’
Between 9 August and 31 August, as the Australians advanced they fought a number of actions whose names have been virtually forgotten – Lihons, Etinehem, Chuignes, Herleville, Bray. By 29 August the AIF had reached the great bend in the River Somme opposite the old town of Péronne. The soldiers were exhausted after days of marching and hard fighting against an enemy as yet by no means beaten. Monash now decided to push them even harder and to take Mont St Quentin and Péronne. Charles Bean, the Australian official historian, wrote:
[Monash] conceived that he might surprise the enemy by transferring his main strength to the northern side of the Somme and then rushing the height of Mont St Quentin which, rising two miles (three kilometres) behind the river bend, and looking down on the old turreted, ramparted and moated city of Peronne at its southern foot, was the recognised key of that position.
Charles Bean, Anzac to Amiens, Canberra, 1948, pp.479–480
On the evening of 30 August, Australians of the Second Division, who next morning were to attempt the capture of Mont St Quentin, crossed to the north bank of the Somme to move into position. It was well into the night when the start line was reached. After two days of movement and twelve hours of fighting, the troops were given an issue of rum contrary to the usual Australian practice of issuing it after battle. ‘Never’, wrote Charles Bean, ‘was an issue more welcome’.
At 5 am on 31 August 1918, supported by artillery, two grossly under strength Australian battalions, charged up Mont St Quentin yelling wildly like a ‘lot of bushrangers’ to disguise their numbers. The cheering platoons at once ran into crowds of Germans, who seemed bewildered and quickly surrendered – indeed in many cases they were simply pushed to the rear with their hands up, leaving their machine-guns lying on the ground. They were from one of the best divisions of the German Army which had just been sent up to relieve the overstrained garrison. ‘It all happened like lightning’, wrote the historian of one of the German units, ‘and before we had fired a shot we were taken unawares.’
The Australians charged on and, by the time they reached the main German trench-line, the face of the mount ahead of them was covered with enemy soldiers fleeing over both shoulders of the hill. The Australians swept on, up, and over the summit, routing the German supports and reserves there. In the rear, other Australians crossed the Somme by a bridge which Australian engineers had saved and repaired.
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On Mont St Quentin, however, the Australians, few in number, were unable to hold their gains and German reserves drove back the scattered troops from the crest. To one German writer this was proof ‘that even good Australian troops were by no means invincible if strongly attacked’. But the Australians held on just below the summit and next day it was recaptured and firmly held. On that day also, 1 September 1918, Australian forces broke into Péronne and took most of the town. The next day it completely fell into Australian hands. On those three days, without tanks or protective barrage, the Australians – at a cost of 3000 casualties – dealt a stunning blow to five German divisions and caused a general German withdrawal eastwards back to the Hindenburg Line. The taking of Mont St Quentin and Péronne have always been regarded as among the finest feats of the AIF on the Western Front and the intensity of the action is evident from the fact that seven Victoria Crosses were awarded to Australians 1 and 2 September 1918.
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© 2007 Department of Veteran's Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - 12 February 2008