The Contribution: The AIF’s Employment of British Technology and Tactics
With an arsenal of weaponry increasing both in quality and quantity, and emerging scientific methods for applying firepower on the battlefield, the British Army had next to integrate the different arms into a system. The AIF was deeply involved in this process. While developments both in the systematisation of weaponry and the technological capability of each component occurred throughout the war, the process of learning to put all of the factors together effectively has been evaluated as “astonishingly uneven.”25 As a part of the British Army, the Australian Corps, like any other corps, was given leeway to interpret orders as it saw fit. This enabled the Australians to establish a unique approach based on the British weapons system.
There is one battle more than any other that has come to symbolise the arrival of success for both the Australians, and the British Army as a whole, on the Western Front—the Battle of Hamel on 4 July 1918. Hamel was a small set-piece offensive devised by the commander of the Australian Corps, Lieutenant Colonel Sir John Monash, with the objective ofstraigh- tening the line in his sector. It was an ideal opportunity to test the lessons of the previous year in a limited set-piece attack. In accordance with Monash’s working practice, every aspect of the battle was closely planned and the preparations for Hamel were extended and detailed.
At all times preparations were designed to minimise the possibility of problems arising during battle, and as many potential difficulties were addressed as early as possible. Secrecy was ofparamount importance: battle instructions were passed down to lower-ranking officers at the last possible moment, and “the utmost care and secrecy was observed in issue, custody and discussion of all orders, instructions and maps etc. relating to the operation.”26 The arrival of tanks and infantry on the battlefield in the days before the assault was masked by the noise of aircraft. Monash used his artillery to try to influence the actions of the German defenders through pre-battle conditioning. In the days before the battle, the guns fired regular bouts of harassing fire at the same time the attack would take place, so that when the guns began on the morning of 4 July they drew no reaction from the German artillery. Moreover, for two weeks before the attack, the Fourth Australian Divisional Artillery had been firing gas shells accompanied by smoke at the German lines. This was intended to make the Germans put on their respirators to combat the gas at any sign of smoke, which would then limit their vision. This tactic was proven effective as evidenced in the number of German prisoners taken that morning who were wearing their respirators when captured.
Along with such intensive preparations before the battle, Hamel is notable for the detailed integration of all arms, in particular for the successful use of tanks. Tanks were under the direct command of the infantry, and Monash’s plans meant that each tank was treated as an infantry weapon under the exclusive orders of its own infantry officer. The tanks at Hamel followed the infantry behind the creeping barrage more closely than had previously been thought possible.27 Monash insisted on this to ensure they were instantly available to the infantry, as too often in the past the infantry had suffered heavy casualties dealing with enemy strong points while waiting for tanks to arrive. The tanks trained closely with the infantry before the battle. Several tank displays were held over demonstration wire emplacements and trenches, infantry and tank officers were encouraged to discuss all aspects of coordination with each other, and mock attacks were held to practise communication and manoeuvres. Moreover, Monash engaged artillery batteries to fire directly on German anti-tank guns should the need arise.28 Hamel’s assimilation of tanks into the infantry plans working in conjunction with an artillery barrage exploited all the benefits of the tanks while protecting their weaknesses.
The detailed plan for Hamel did not abandon the Australian infantry to their own devices within the network of firepower built around them. Some trench mortars accompanied some infantry companies into battle, with the remainder of the battery providing static protection from prearranged forward positions. A machine gun company was also detailed to join the attack; it sent twelve machine guns forward with the infantry and used the rest to add to the artillery barrage. Keeping the infantry and machine guns supplied with ammunition was partially effected by the tanks, most of which carried an amount of small arms ammunition on board. Aircraft were also used to drop supplies of ammunition to advanced infantry and machine gunners. Boxes of ammunition were dropped at specified points for the infantry, but Vickers machine gunners could signal to have the ammunition dropped near to wherever they had set up their gun. This was a completely experimental procedure and worked well, although it was fraught with danger for the aircraft. One plane was lost through a box of ammunition catching in its under fabric after being dropped.
By the time of Hamel, the Australian infantry were extremely experienced. Their commanders prioritised maintenance of communication with officers from the artillery, machine guns and tank corps, which was most often achieved by sending a runner. Preparation before battle could achieve a great deal, and Monash was always a believer in unalterable, fixed battle plans.29 Even so, once a battle began, a corps commander was reliant on his subordinate officers in the field to understand the plan and to lead their men to their objective. The competence of Australian noncommissioned and lower-level officers meant Monash could have confidence in the execution of his plans. In the event, the Battle of Hamel began at 3.10 a.m. on 4 July, and achieved all objectives within ninety- three minutes—just three minutes longer than planned.
While Hamel was a success, it was small. To have an impact on the outcome of the war, success would need to occur on a much bigger scale. Just over a month later it did, and again the Australians played a key role. On 8 August 1918 the British Army launched an attack of four corps across a front of ten miles to the east of the important rail junction at Amiens. The main thrust of the Battle of Amiens was made by two corps— the Australian, supported by a British corps on their left, and the Canadian Corps, supported by the French First Army on their right. The battle began at 4.20 a.m. on 8 August 1918 under cover of fog so heavy that in places the infantry resorted to holding hands to make contact.30 Entire divisions of infantry leapfrogged through each other to take a series of objectives. They were protected by a network of firepower that took advantage of the most recent technological advances in the artillery, flying corps and other auxiliary arms. By the end of the first day these two corps had achieved “the largest single day advance made by the Allies [sic] during the whole of the First World War.”31 It so demoralised General Erich Ludendorff, the German chief of staff, that he famously said Amiens was “the black day of the German Army in the history of the war. This was the worst experience I had to go through.”32
The most significant element of the Battle of Amiens was its scale. Instead of infantry companies taking a series of objectives, Amiens saw divisions leapfrog through each other to make enormous gains. Their advance was so great that it could be measured in miles—eight for the Canadians and seven for the Australians. Hamel had shown how each of the arms could be drawn together for a small-scale attack, but Amiens demonstrated that almost anything was possible. The allied successes at Amiens began the period known as the ‘Hundred Days’ of victory that preceded the end of the war. The success of the Hundred Days is due in no small part to fast, consecutive attacks in different parts of the line, which allowed the German Army no reprieve.33 This tactic prevented the Germans from using their reserves effectively as they were kept guessing where the next attack would take place.
By the end of September 1918, the British had advanced so far that once more they were opposing the Hindenburg Line, the position from which the Germans had launched their Spring Offensive earlier that year. For the third time in a year the Australian Corps became involved in a significant operation on the Western Front. This fortified line confronted the British with an entirely different problem from that of Amiens. Here the defences were truly formidable—the ‘Line’ was in fact a series of deep, interconnected trenches, dugouts and concrete machine gun emplacements ten miles deep and forty miles wide. There were as many as eight or nine belts of barbed wire yards deep in front of the trenches, angled to facilitate defensive machine-gun fire.34 In the sector where the attack to break the line was to take place, the St Quentin Canal had been incorporated into the defences. It was thirty-five feet wide, six to eight feet deep and had near-perpendicular sides up to fifty feet high.35 The northern part of the canal ran through a three-mile-long tunnel at Bellicourt, which was used to garrison as many as two divisions of German troops on barges inside, and had numerous exits to the surface along its length.36 The Germans had protected the line in this sector with extended outpost defences to the west, the Hargicourt or Outpost Line, and another two support lines to the east, the Le Catelet line one mile from the canal and the Beaurevoir Line a further two miles away. In addition, the intelligence section of the British Fourth Army concluded that the morale of the Germans manning the system was good and that they had “no intention of giving up a yard of ground unless forced to do so.”37 The Hindenburg Line was the very best form of defence to be found on the Western Front.
Breaking this line was a task offered to—and readily accepted by— Monash and the Australian Corps. Given the choice to operate where he pleased, Monash concentrated on the tunnel sector, where he would attempt to breach the defences as far as the Beaurevoir Line. The battle commenced at 6:20 a.m. on 29 September and, despite the formidable defences, after no more than six days fighting the British Fourth Army had broken through the Hindenburg Line and was facing open territory. In any given six-day period at the Somme, in stark contrast, they had not been able to advance at all.
Unlike the previous major operations, however, events did not go to plan on the Australian front. In fact, in the Australians’ sector—the primary thrust of the attack—the assault stalled, largely as a result of the partial failure of the first phase. The plan called for American forces to capture the positions from which the main battle would be launched before participating in the capture of the first objectives in the main Hindenburg Line battle. Monash had been pleased to receive control of the two American divisions for the battle but the Australian operation was seriously compromised by the inexperience of the Americans, and by the fact that the artillery had been unable to deal with German machine gunners concealed in the depths of the tunnel.38 In the end, the 46th (North Midland) Division of the British Army, aided by artillery fire so heavy that it pounded the canal flat, reached their objective first and were of material assistance to the Australian effort on their left flank. The fact that this attack broke the strongest defences held by the Germans on the Western Front demonstrated that the British weapons system was, at last, stronger than the defending force in trench warfare; although the ability to break through never came, the Germans could, if necessary, be pushed back to Berlin. In fact, it could be argued that the failure of the Australians to spearhead that attack, and instead for a British division with a rather average history to be the first to get through, emphasised the efficacy of the British technology and tactics even more strongly.