Hindenburg Line and Montbrehain
27 September – 5 October 1918
By late September 1918 the alliance of the so-called Central Powers – the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria – was in trouble. On the Western Front the German Army had been withdrawing since early August after the failure of its mighty spring and summer offensive to break through the British and French lines. An Allied offensive in Bulgaria had brought that nation to the negotiating table. The Austro-Hungarians had also put out feelers for a separate peace and Ottoman (Turkish) forces were in trouble in the Middle East.
On 29 September 1918 the German supreme commanders also decided to seek an armistice. They were suffering military reversals and they were under pressure on the home front. The Allied naval blockade had caused severe food shortages for the civilian population and the members of the previously ignored Reichstag (German Parliament) were demanding greater democratic control of the country after twelve months of virtually military rule. After a new Chancellor, Prince Max von Baden, was appointed on 1 October 1918, the democratic leaders in the Reichstag were briefed by a military spokesman:
[The] army was strong to stand against its opponents for months to come … each day brings our opponent nearer his goal, and will make him less inclined to make a peace with us which is tolerable. Therefore no time must be lost [in seeking an armistice].
Major Bussche, in J H Johnson, 1918, The Unexpected Victory, London, 2000, p.147
As these dramatic political events were unfolding at home, German positions all along the Western Front were under attack from Allied troops. On 26 September, the Americans began a strike towards Sedan in the south. On 27 September, the British and the Belgians started driving towards Ghent in Belgium. On 28 September, other British and French armies attacked in northern France.
The Australians were scheduled to attack the strongly defended Hindenburg Line on a six-kilometre wide land bridge between Bellicourt and Vendhuille where the St Quentin Canal ran underground through a tunnel. A two-day artillery bombardment preceded the attack. After nearly two months of continuous action Australian units were numerically weak with the average battalion having only 300 men available for action. The Australians were reinforced by keen but inexperienced American troops whose unit strength was three times that of the exhausted Australians. The Americans took over the left and right sectors, with the Australian Corps in the centre. Two hundred and ten Australian officers and men assisted the Americans, who were to attack the main Hindenburg Line on the ground above the tunnel and the second (Le Catelet) line one and half kilometres beyond. Australian soldiers would then pass through the Americans and carry the attack another three to four kilometres through the third (Beaurevoir) line.
Two days before the main attack the Americans were unsuccessful in a preliminary assault. Reports that American troops were still in front resulted in the cancellation of the creeping barrage for 29 September. Extra tanks were allotted to the Americans who tried to reach the starting line in order to commence the main attack on time. The two American divisions attacked at dawn on 29 September in thick mist increased by smoke but the soldiers could not find their way through the fog and were hampered also by the absence of many of their officers. Those in the attack soon became casualties and the troops, after penetrating parts of the front enemy line, were driven back or isolated and pinned down by German counter-attacks.
The Australian divisions, coming up at 9 am for the second stage, came under machine-gun fire from the left before the Hindenburg Outpost Line was reached and on the right just beyond Bellicourt. Artillery support was at first refused because the Americans were erroneously believed to be in front. In three days of hard fighting, with Lewis guns and grenades, the Australians captured the first two German lines which had been the American objectives. On 3 October 1918, Australian troops broke through the last defensive system of the Hindenburg Line, the third (Beaurevoir) line. Two days later, Australians, in a costly action, captured Montbrehain village.
These were the last infantry actions fought by Australian soldiers on the Western Front. The five Australian divisions were now withdrawn for a rest and were heading up the line into battle again on 11 November 1918, the day the Armistice was declared. The last Australians in action on the Western Front were the men of the Australian Flying Corps and some artillery units.
As the fighting came to an end Australia was left to come to terms with a war which had cost it more than 61,000 dead. Of these 46,000, 75 percent, lay in the soil of France and Belgium and 18,000, 39 percent, were never recovered for burial or, if recovered, were unidentifiable. These are poignant statistics particularly when it is realised that World War II, terrible though it was, cost Australia 39,000 dead spread across the three armed services. Militarily, Australia’s reputation stood high at the end of the war and, along with the forces of the other British Empire Dominions such as Canada and New Zealand, Australians were regarded as among the best fighting troops in the British Expeditionary Force. Charles Bean, Australia’s official historian, certainly felt this to be the case and summed up Australia’s contribution to the Allied cause in these words:
There is no question – although their own home folk in Australia at first found this difficult to believe – that the spirit and skill of the Australian Imperial Force, and particularly the infantry, in this final year’s fighting in France materially affected the outcome of the campaign there, as did that of the other Dominion forces.
Charles Bean, Anzac to Amiens, Canberra, 1948, p.494
In France and Belgium, the war for Australians, despite the contribution of the artillery and other support units, was an infantryman’s war. Perhaps, therefore, the last word should be given to one who had plenty of opportunity to observe the death and suffering of those front-line soldiers at first hand. Corporal Roger Morgan, First Australian Field Ambulance, who served with the AIF right through its war on the Western Front from 1916 to 1918. He was wounded twice. On 11 November 1918, as Australians danced in the streets from Sydney to Perth, he committed the following reflections to his diary:
… one sits and ponders sadly of those many pals who are ‘gone to that great home from which no wanderer returns’. It seems so strange that it should be, that one’s dearest pals should fall and that I even I should still be here. The very flower of our manhood have paid the greatest price, not willingly for not one of them but longed to live, return home and forget, yes just forget the horrors of the past. Most of us enlisted for … Patriotism or Love of Adventure but not one … had the slightest conception of the price required … Please God … the sacrifices have not been in vain.
Corporal R Morgan, quoted in Bill Gammage, The Broken Years, Melbourne, 1990, p.294
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010