Having arrived on the Western Front in late 1916, the troops of the 3rd Division under Major General John Monash had never been to the Somme. They were bitterly disappointed to receive orders on 25 March to move to Ypres where it was initially planned for them to be held in reserve, but at the last hour the division was ordered to move south by rail to Doullens. They arrived to secure the town while a particularly tense conference between British and French High Command took place over plans to stem the German breakthrough. No sooner had the conference ended, a crisis developed on the VII Corps front immediately south of Albert. Unexpected troop movements attributed to the misinterpretation of orders left a 16km stretch of ground in the bare, high triangle defined by the rivers Somme and Ancre undefended beyond a scratch force holding the old Amiens defence Line. Monash’s troops were immediately sent to plug the gap, finding themselves the only traffic moving forward towards the Germans. French civilians and British soldiers streamed past in the opposite direction. Time and again they were told by passers–by that they had no chance of stopping the advancing German Army. By mid–morning on 27 March, the 3rd Division’s 11th Brigade relieved the few exhausted British troops on the northern banks of the Somme, while the 12th and 13th Brigades from the 4th Australian Division took over from the exhausted Scots of the British 9th Division at Dernancourt on the River Ancre.
The two Australian divisions clashed with German troops in the following days with mixed success. At noon on 28 March, Monash’s troops, in the triangle between the two rivers, carried out an assault towards Morlancourt village that sought to add depth to the existing British defences and shore up positions from which a further attack could be launched. Drawing on battalions from two brigades, the plan ultimately lacked cohesion and adequate artillery support. 40th Battalion on the left conducted a formal assault while 42nd and 43rd Battalions on the right sought to bite off ground through aggressive patrolling. The latter attack started late, leaving the 40th in the drizzling rain without flanking support when it bumped into two advancing German regiments. On the right, 44thBattalion received instructions to slip off the heights to capture Sailly–Laurette on the northern banks of the Somme, where it was hit by German troops about 270m short of its objective. Within hours, the 3rd Australian Division had lost around 300 men for a relatively modest gain.
The two brigades of the 4th Division near Dernancourt had more success, albeit under a very different set of circumstances. Set up along the railway embankment, 47th and 48th Battalions poured devastating fire on German troops who succeeded in infiltrating parts of the Australian positions and threatened to roll up their flanks in the early hours of 28 March. Stan McDougall single–handedly broke up an enemy probe that advanced over a railway crossing, but the main German attack hit the 47th Battalion further north along the line.
Captain George Mitchell of 48th Battalion formed part of the Australian defences immediately south of Albert, and described ‘lines of grey–clad men doubled out of the sunken roads towards us. Waist–high over the bank we met them with rapid fire’:
‘Our Lewis gunners, disdaining the frontal attack, hammered with staccato bursts to the right, where black masses moved to the 47th. Weaker and weaker became the advancing lines before our flailing fire, till at eighty yards all movements ceased. Our Lewis guns still chopped away at the right, where the main attack was. I was blazing away with a rifle, having a lovely time, sending a swear word with each bullet.’
Advancing German troops had penetrated 60km into British territory and were almost within striking distance of Amiens. Even though the outer suburbs of the city were on fire from long–range shelling by German rail guns, by 28 March, it was clear the German drive towards Amiens was beginning to lose momentum. Germany’s rapid advance across the devastated Somme battlefields strained logistical infrastructure, with bottlenecks caused by a shortage of horses and lack of motorised transport making it difficult to bring up stores and supplies. Casualties among German units were exceptionally heavy, especially among the skilled and experienced junior officers and NCOs who led the offensive from the front. The long–term effects of the war were also playing on the advancing German infantry who plundered British and French supply depots after years of material shortages, wartime rationing and ersatz foodstuffs. German attacks were beginning to wane, being nowhere near as formidable or successful as they had been over the previous days. On 30 March, for example, men of the 11th Brigade on Morlancourt Ridge broke up a concerted German attempt to penetrate the British line near Sailly–Laurette.
Exhausted, German troops were able to muster one final drive towards Amiens, with fifteen divisions assaulting the British north of Albert and towards the Avre River on 4 April. Senior German commanders made the decision to strike at the outermost defences of Amiens that centred on the town of Villers–Bretonneux. From Hill 104, just north of Villers–Bretonneux, German artillery had a direct line of sight on Amiens and could shell it with long–range guns, hampering the vital railway hub that played such a prominent role in British and French operations in northern France. Days earlier, Australian troops of the 9 Brigade (3rd Division) had been sent to bolster the British 61st Division positions east of Villers–Bretonneux, falling in between the 14th Division to the north and the 18th to the south.
On 30 March, the 9th Brigade carried out a successful but costly bayonet assault against German troops who had gained ground near Hangard Wood, and on 4 April, were in the thick of the fighting when two divisions of German infantry hit the 35th Battalion’s positions after deluging Villers–Bretonneux with gas and high–explosive:
‘From the thick mist masses of German infantry appeared. We were ready for them and every rifle, Lewis gun and machine gun came into action instantly. We had no wire or defences but the German troops sagged and withered under our fire… All was going well when the troops on our left started to retreat and went back at the run, abandoning everything.’
Faced with overwhelming odds, British troops of the 41st Brigade melted under the German fire, creating a gap in the line that stretched to the village of le Hamel and the River Somme. With their left flank fully exposed, the men of 35th Battalion were forced to withdraw to a support line occupied by 33rd Battalion on the outskirts of Villers–Bretonneux; there they held ground against repeated German attacks until the gap was filled with British cavalry. Australian field guns on Morlancourt ridge on the northern banks of the Somme then poured devastating enfilading fire on all remaining German attempts to spill through and advance towards Villers–Bretonneux.
Dr Aaron Pegram is a historian in the Military History Section at the Australian War Memorial.
General Sir John monash, image, seen 2208 12/03/18 http://www.nationalanzaccentre.com.au/story/john-monash
Gas attack.jpg: German storm troops with a messenger dog during a gas attack on British positions near St Quentin, France, c. March 1918. Image courtesy of Brett Butterworth.
Australian lewis gunner, seen 2225, 12/03/18. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Australian_Lewis_gunner_Magdhaba.jpg