Europe was in the depths of total war. A war that would kill some 20 million in unimaginable slaughter as the generals fought using the tactics they had always used down through history: charging the enemy.
Except it wasn’t working. Machine guns, field artillery, gas and rifle were enough to see humans slaughtered on a scale never seen before. Britain sustained 57,000 casualties in a single day. That was July 1st 1916, the day the Battle of the Somme was launched and the worst in British military history. It would eventually cost a million lives for little gain. I was actually at the Thiepval Memorial six days ago from writing this blog, dismayed at the senseless waste of life in that battle.
The day before I visited the Australian Memorial and interactive museum at Villers Bretonneux and then drove to the Le Hamel monument three miles away. They told a vastly different story, one of innovation and the successful birth of mechanical warfare.
John Monash was the hero of this other little known story. He was a brilliant Australian General who shone more and more as he rose through the ranks. A man of self-earned high social standing, great intelligence, self-generated economic wealth, enormous mental precision, an engineer, mathematician,musician, innovator, and a man of meticulous detail. He was perfect for turning history on its head.
After the Russian capitulation on the eastern front on the 3rd of March 1918, Germany launched a massive spring offensive on its western front in order to break the allied lines before the arrival of the Americans. After advancing some 70 kilometers in places in an attempt to cut of Amiens, it was finally checked at Villers Bretonneux by the Australian imperial Force (AIF) in mid April with the loss of 1,200 men in that one village alone. From there the Australians used the lack of entrenched German defenses to constantly get behind the German front line soldiers and take them from behind. This continued for several months and whittled away German ground almost peacefully compared to the traditional set-piece trench charges of the war. The German generals were furious.
During this quieter period Monash was planning the battle that would change history. He had decided to use tanks and aircraft where, up until then, men had gone first. There was to be no traditional artillery barrage to warn the enemy of the attack. Every soldier knew before hand what was to be done, but was sworn to secrecy. Unlike the Somme, this attack was to be a complete surprise. Sixty tanks were brought to the front line under the cover of a now fortnight long diversionary 3.00 am artillery barrage. They would not be head arriving for battle. Supplies were to be attached to still further tanks so that soldiers didn’t have to manually drag them to the advancing front line. Each tank replaced 1,200 men in this regard. The battle was to be conducted in complete darkness starting exactly 3.10 am, and take exactly 90 minutes to reach its objective at Le Hamel. Planes would also drop ammunition to the advancing troops so they could push their advantage where tanks were not present.
The regular artillery barrage had conditioned the Germans to put on their gas masks around 3.00 each day, restricting their visibility and communication. All was ready for the Fourth of July.
Why this date? It was because, for the first time in history, the newly arrived American troops were going into battle under a foreign commander and he wanted to honour their special day. A contingent of around 2,500 inexperienced American troops were broken up and embedded with each Australian company to fast track their combat experience with battle hardened veterans.
The Australian Prime Minister, Billy Hughes was also on hand and addressed the troops on July 2nd.
On July the 4th at exactly 3.00 the usual barrage opened up allowing the tanks to get into position. The barbed wires were cut at 3.10 am and the artillery range was shortened to provide a nearby curtain of destruction for the advancing tanks that were shielding the troops. Smoke bombs were also released. The battle was engaged and the enemy trenches were completely over-run. On and on the tanks went with the same withering effect. Each time a company of troops reached their objective they dug in and mopped up while others took their place behind the advancing tanks. The Germans were completely surprised and routed, but not without stiff resistance. In places, like Pear Trench, the plan of attack went wrong and the advancing troops took heavy casualties. But after exactly 93 minutes, the six kilometer battle front reached its objective, a strategic hill overlooking the village of Le Hamel. Monash was just 3 minutes out. It was a masterpiece in strategic planning that did not go unnoticed.
The Australians had lost 800 men, the Americans just 26. Several tanks were hit and 13 British tank commanders were injured or killed. Two thousand Germans were killed and 1,600 taken prisoner. The battle was a huge success, with more ground being gained in a far shorter time with far less casualties than ever before. It was a turning point in the war and in world history.
Within days the allies, under the masterful guidance of Monash, were drawing up plans to repeat the battle plan on a vastly larger scale. The “100 Day Offensive” was launched on August 8th, 1918. It was the beginning of the end of the war, “the black day of the German army” when they realised they were about to lose the war. Incredibly, the 100th anniversary of the launch of this offensive will be celebrated at the Amiens Cathedral in 2 weeks from the time I am publishing this blog. The appreciative citizens of Amiens still fly the Australian flag in its streets.
Monash was knighted by King George on August 11th at a chateau near Villers Bretonneux. For the August 8th offensive he was in charge of 200,000 men from several nationalities, including many Americans. It was his genius for detailed battle planning, a product of his incredibly wide ranging and successful career as an innovative engineer, that saw the war won in a mere three more months. Much of the grunt work for this last offensive was spearheaded by the largest single force on the western front, the 160,000 strong Australian Imperial Force, with the loss of a “mere” 6,000 men. The Le Hamel battle and the 100 day offensive are brilliantly described by private Lynch in his amazing book, “Somme Mud”,a product of his personal eyewitness accounts as a runner for the generals.
Monash returned to Australia a national hero. A university was named after him, his face now appears on Australia’s highest value bank note and 300,000 people paid their respects at his funeral. More importantly though, he is the only Australian citizen to have single handedly changed European history…on the 4th of July, 1918!