Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Montbrehain: Final Action of the Australian Corps

Men of the Australian Corps, 1918

After the failed Gallipoli campaign, the larger part of the Australian Imperial Force moved to the Western Front in 1916. Along with a single New Zealand formation, its four divisions in France were initially organized into I ANZAC Corps (1st Division and 2nd Australian Divisions and the New Zealand Division) and II ANZAC Corps (4th and 5th Australian Divisions). A fifth Australian division, the 3rd, would be added to the mix when it arrived from Australia in November 1916. For two years the ANZACs found themselves in the middle of every major campaign on the Western Front. In November 1917, however, an all-Australian Corps was designated (the New Zealand Division had been reassigned to the British Third Army) and it would be destined  as part of the British Fourth Army to play a leading role in the final victory offensive of the Allies. 

The Corps' actions at  Le Hamel, Amiens, PĂ©ronne, Mont St Quentin and the Breeching of the Hindenburg Line are well documented.  However, the Australian Corps is not mentioned in accounts of the Armistice fighting because by 11 November it was out of the line. The nonstop fighting from July to October had exhausted the force—it needed a rest.  For some reason it's difficult to find details about their final battle on the Western Front, a smaller, but very tough and important struggle around the fortified village of Montbrehain.  With a little help from the Corps Commander, Geneal John Monash and some Australian sources, though, we can remedy that here.

Note: Montbrehain on Right

After passing through the American Divisions (27th and 30th) charged with capturing the highly fortified St. Quentin Canal and completing its capture, the Australians also took the Le Catelet line just east of the canal tunnel. Now only one German trench system remained. The 3rd and 5th divisions were replaced by 2nd Australian Division, which, in the last Australian infantry attack of the First World War, took the town of Montbrehain on 5 October.  the attack on Montbrehain was both strategic and a coordinated part of attacks by other British forces.  This attack breached the final elaborate system of German defences in the Somme sector. Advancing on the early morning of 5 October,  Australian forces succeeded in occupying the village and in the process took 400 German prisoners. The action claimed 430 Australian casualties. 

General Monash later summarized the accomplishments of the Australian Corps subsequent to his appointment as commander.  There had been some criticism that the casualties were excessive for the gains made, but he felt that this was not the case.  

Montbrehain was the last Australian battle in the Great War, and the fighting career of the Australian Army Corps had, as events turned out, come to an end. On that same day my Second Division was relieved by the 30th American Division, and I handed over command of the battlefront to [American Corps Commander] General Read. I had borne continuous responsibility, as a Corps Commander, for a section of the battlefront in France varying from four to eleven miles for 128 consecutive days without a break.

Montbrehain Captured: 1918 and Today

On these grounds, I believe that the real and immediate reason for the precipitate surrender of Germany on October 5th, 1918, was the defeat of her Army in the field. It followed so closely upon the breaching of the Hindenburg defenses on September 29th to October 4th, that it cannot be dissociated from that event as a final determining cause. 

Sources: Over the Top, August 2018;  Digger 64, "Montbrehain: the AIF’s last battle of the war."

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