Australians on the Western Front: Hamel victory was a Monash masterpiece

UNITED FRONT: Australian and American troops in a trench after the Battle of Hamel with the village, then freed of Germans, behind them. The entire coordinated offensive took just 93 minutes. Picture: AWM E02844
UNITED FRONT: Australian and American troops in a trench after the Battle of Hamel with the village, then freed of Germans, behind them. The entire coordinated offensive took just 93 minutes. Picture: AWM E02844

The Battle of Hamel on July 4, 1918, is famous for a series of firsts, but it almost didn’t go ahead.

It was the first significant operation of the Australian Corps since Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash became commander in May 1918.

It was the first British offensive since the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 and one that successfully integrated infantry, armoured tanks, aircraft and artillery in a limited-objective battle plan.

It was also the first time that Australians fought with inexperienced American troops recently arrived in France.

The plan nearly unravelled when Monash was informed on the eve of the battle that no Americans could participate.

Monash defiantly said the attack would proceed, with about 1000 Americans, unless he received contrary orders from British Field Marshal Douglas Haig. Approval came within minutes of Monash’s ultimatum deadline.

The battle to wrest the French village near the Somme River from German control began at 3.10am in smoke and fog with an attacking force of 7500 infantry, 60 tanks, 628 heavy and field guns and aircraft that photographed and bombed enemy positions and parachuted ammunition to Australian gunners.

Monash’s meticulous planning for the battle is legendary. His final pre-Hamel conference on June 30 was attended by 250 officers, had an agenda of 133 items and lasted 4.5 hours.   

The objectives – to advance two kilometres across a six-kilometre front, take Hamel, nearby woods and high ground beyond the village – were achieved in 93 minutes and a German counterattack late that night crumbled.

New Mark V tanks advanced inexorably, with infantry alongside and behind an artillery barrage, flattening German trenches, weapon pits and shelters.

VANTAGE POINT: Captain George Wilkins (right) uses a disabled Mark V tank to gain elevation near the Hindenburg Line late in 1918. Picture: AWM E03915

VANTAGE POINT: Captain George Wilkins (right) uses a disabled Mark V tank to gain elevation near the Hindenburg Line late in 1918. Picture: AWM E03915

Monash’s integrated arms battle plan benefited from combining a number of tactics used in previous battles with co-ordination, secrecy and deception of the enemy.

Coming on the heels of Germany’s Spring Offensive, Hamel was not only an Allied attack but also a significant tactical and morale-boosting victory – and an “all arms” lesson shared with all British commanders.

Official records say the Australians suffered 1200 casualties and the Americans 176 while Monash wrote that German losses, including prisoners, exceeded 3000.  

Monash said no battle in his experience had gone so smoothly and so exactly to timetable.

British historian John Terraine best described Hamel as “a little masterpiece casting a long shadow before it.”