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France 1918: Battle of Mont St Quentin
Mont St Quentin, Second Australian Division Memorial
Finest feat of arms
On the morning of 30 August 1925, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who had been the supreme commander of all Allied forces in France in 1918, stood and faced a large crowd gathered before a newly completed monument. It stood on the high point of the road, the N17, leading north–westwards out of Péronne towards Bapaume. Foch spoke of what would rank as one of the ‘finest feats of arms in a time rich in innumerable deeds of heroism’, the seizure of Mont St Quentin and Péronne by the AIF between 31 August and 3 September 1918. After saluting, Foch pulled away a large Australian flag from the top of the monument to reveal an infantryman of the AIF in full battle dress powerfully thrusting down with his bayonet into the belly of an eagle which lay on its back on the ground.
Seven years after the end of World War I the meaning of this memorial was clear – here were the men of the AIF defeating the Imperial German Army symbolised by the dying bird of prey. The memorial was blessed by Canon Stacy Waddy, an ex–chaplain with the AIF, the Last Post was sounded, there was a two–minute silence, and the ceremony was brought to a close by the playing, by a French military band, of the ‘Marseillaise’ and ‘God Save the King’.
What Foch had just unveiled was the 2nd Australian Division Memorial in France. Around its base were four brass plaques. The one facing east and down the hill back across the Somme River flats declares this monument to be:
To the officers, non–commissioned officers, and men of the 2nd Australian Division, who fought in France and Belgium in the Great War, 1916, 1917, and 1918.
Plaques facing north and south were constructed in Melbourne by Australian artist Miss May Butler–George. Arranged by the 2nd Division, she had personally visited the site in February 1919 ‘in connection with the work of preparing panels for the Divisional Memorial’. It was clear, even then, that the 2nd Division were planning a much more elaborate testimony to their wartime exploits in Europe than any other division of the AIF. The other four had been satisfied with simple obelisks. Miss Butler–George’s bas relief plaques depict Australian artillery going into action and infantry bombing their way down a trench. She made her designs in a studio in St Kilda Road, Melbourne, using photographs of male models carrying out the actions she wished to depict. One model, shown straining on a rope pulling an 18–pounder field gun, she declared had ‘too much flesh on’! The bronzes themselves were cast in Paris.
The digger bayoneting the eagle figure was the work of Australian sculptor Web Gilbert. In 1917, he had joined the AIF as a sculpture in the newly created War Records Section, a unit dedicated to the collecting of archives, photographs, art and other battlefield objects for what Charles Bean hoped would be a great ‘memorial–museum’ in Australia after the war. Gilbert’s model for the Second Division Memorial was put on display at a major exhibition in April 1922 in what was then called the ‘Australian War Museum’ housed in the Exhibition Buildings in Melbourne. Charles Bean never liked the piece declaring it ‘a cheap conception’ that bore ‘no shadow of the spirit of the AIF’. However, the men of the division had, with assistance from the Commonwealth Government, collected the money themselves to pay for their memorial and they commissioned Gilbert to carry it out. Gilbert died in Australia two days before photographs arrived showing Marshal Foch unveiling Gilbert’s digger triumphant over the German eagle.
But the digger slaying the eagle has vanished! The Germans pulled it down and destroyed it in World War II when they once again occupied Mont St Quentin and Péronne. Eventually, in 1971, it was replaced by a much less aggressive looking figure of a digger in slouch hat with his head cast slightly down as if reflecting on the endless days of battle which he and his mates had endured since 8 August 1918. It was the fighting advance across the uplands of the Somme from Villers–Bretonneux to Péronne, with the dramatic seizure of the heights of Mont St Quentin on 1 September 1918 that led the 2nd Division to choose this as the site for their memorial in France. The land was given to the Australians by the Mayor and Council of Mont St Quentin:
… for a memorial to the troops that took part in the operations of the Division from 8th August at Villers–Bretonneux to 4th September at Mont St Quentin. Mont St Quentin itself was the key to the whole enemy position east of the Somme.
Papers re Second Division Memorial, 623/5, AWM 27
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010