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The Rock-itt : August 2011
Battle of Mont St Quentin and the taking of Péronne – August 1918 Last month we observed the Turkish attack at ANZAC in May 1915. Now we move back to the W estern Front in 1918. Following the counter attack at Villers-Bretonneux and the subsequent set piece battle that ended in triumph for General John Monash’s Australian Corps at Le Hamel, the Germans were on the back foot. Overstretched across the broad front of the Upper and Lower Somme they fought a rearguard action as far as the higher ground around Peronne. The W ar had entered a mobile stage once again following years of stalemate punctuated by Trench Warfare. Since the start of the ‘Kaiser’s Battle’ in March 1918 where the Germans armies advanced as far as Villers-Brettoneux, fluid attack and counter attack was possible over less shell damaged ground. This was a time of almost constant advance and engagements over 35 miles in what was to become known as the ‘Hundred Days Offensive’ period of 1918. This period also was notable for the introduction of boy soldiers by the Germans, who were stretched for supplies and discipline on the W estern Front and at home. However, by late August most Australian fighting units were way under strength going into battle having fought continuously from 9 th August at the Battle of Amiens and subsequent engagem ents at villages which are rarely mentioned or recalled. While it was a time of triumph against the Germans it came at a great cost in casualties, dead and wounded. At 5 am on 31 August 1918 under a creeping barrage provided by artillery, two under strength Australian battalions of the AIF 2 nd Division, charged up Mont St Quentin yelling wildly like a ‘lot of bushrangers’ in an attempt to disguise their numbers. These screaming soldiers found a mob of Germans, who despite being a crack regiment of Guards seemed bewildered and quickly surrendered – in many cases they were simply sent to the Australian 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 uphill and, by the tim e they reached the main German trench-line at the summit (which is only 100 metres high) the face of the mount ahead of them was covered with enemy soldiers fleeing over both shoulders of the hill. The Australians surged on, up, and over the summit, routing the German support trenches and reserves there. In the rear, other Australians crossed the Somme by a bridge which Australian engineers had saved and repaired. On Mont St Quentin, however, the Australians, who were by now f ew in number, were unable to hold their gains and as usual German reserves in strong counter attacks pushed 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 they recaptured it and held on despite further counter attacks. By Simon Lyon Aussie soldiers moving up to attack at Mont St Quentin The memorial to the fallen Diggers at the top of the Mont