The Battle of Hamel: the 'textbook victory'

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“The officers are very proud of the wonderful success… under our Australian born leader, General John Monash, and the co-ordination of infantry, tanks, artillery and aeroplanes in an irresistible attack”

E.P.F Lynch

Lieutenant General Sir John Monash’s renowned reputation as a strategist was equalled by his reputation for the care and welfare of the soldiers of the Australian Corps under his command. In describing his philosophy on how modern warfare should be conducted he stated,

“…the role of the infantry was not to expend itself upon heroic physical effort, not to wither away under merciless machine gun fire, not to impale itself on hostile bayonets, but on the contrary, to advance under the maximum possible array of mechanical resources in the form of guns, machine guns, tanks, mortars and aeroplanes.”

A large group of American troops sitting and standing together in a wooded area beside a road

American troops, resting on the roadside, on their way to the Australian lines to participate in the battle of Hamel the following day (AWM E02694).

On the eve of his meticulously planned assault on Le Hamel on 4 July 1918 he took special care to provide hot meals and a warming tot of rum to the Australian and American troops about to go into battle. The coming assault was to epitomize Monash’s efforts to break the deadly stalemate in trench warfare through the innovative use of technology and careful preparation of the troops in the coming battle. Monash’s approach constituted a thoroughly new approach to tactics that became a  ‘textbook’ approach in how to not only win decisively, but also to save lives in unimaginative frontal assaults against entrenched German positions bristling with machine guns and anti-personnel obstacles.

There were important strategic considerations for the assault on Le Hamel which included eliminating a salient in the German line, and in doing so, reducing the German front north of Villers-Bretonneux. The Allies hoped to gain a foothold to ensure the protection of Amiens, a vital rail hub for the Allied forces and a key objective of the German Spring offensive of 1918.

Famously, Monash’s 90-minute-plan took three minutes longer than he had envisaged. An equally important objective in Monash’s mind was the idea of restoring public confidence in the Army and also demonstrating to the enemy that the Allied forces were still potent enough to launch an attack.

Seven men standing next to a broken tank and the shell of a house after the Battle of Hamel

One of the three tanks which were put out of action in the fight for Hamel in France, photographed on July 5th, 1918, the day after the operation. Note the French Tricolour on the roof of the house. It was put there by an officer of the 28th Battalion on the morning of the battle to mark the capture of the position (AWM E03843).

The attack which commenced in the early hours of 4 July was a complete success with the use of aircraft to cloak the noise of approaching tanks and the use of smoke screens to reduce visibility of the attacking tanks and infantry. Allied artillery directed significant attention to the German counter-batteries and by destroying and disrupting these batteries were able to save the attacking Australians and Americans from much of the destructive impact of high explosive and shrapnel fire they would have otherwise received.

An equally clever tactic had been the bombardment of the Germans over the previous days with a mixture of high explosive and gas shells. The Germans had donned gas masks on the morning of the assault in the belief that these barrages would continue with the approach of the Australian and American troops. The gas masks denied the defending Germans the necessary manoeuvrability which assisted in the success of the assault.

Unlike the Battle of Bullecourt where tanks had proved unreliable, the use of tanks at Le Hamel proved decisive when carefully introduced into the battle together with infantry, artillery and aircraft in Monash’s combined arms attack.

A group of stretcher bearers carrying a wounded man away from a crashed aeroplane on the edge of a shell crater.

Stretcher bearers of the 11th Australian Infantry Brigade bringing back a wounded man, past R.E.8 Serial B5073, which was shot down near Hamel, during the battle on 4 July (AWM E04888).

In this battle the tanks were used to level out entire lines of German shelters and rifle pits in support of the attacking infantry, and then used to maintain the momentum of the attack by ferrying in ammunition and other supplies. Aircraft similarly delivered ammunition and supplies by parachute enabling the attacking Australian and American troops to retain their tactical initiative.

While Le Hamel was primarily an Australian operation, it was also a brilliant example of Allied cooperation with the Australians supported by American infantry, French Artillery, British Tanks and British Aircraft. Numerous bravery awards were issued for the gallantry of the Allied troops during the battle. Among the Americans Corporal T.A Pope from Chicago was decorated personally by King George V for his actions at Le Hamel while amongst the Australians Lance Corporal Thomas Axford and Private Henry Dalziel each received the Victoria Cross.

An Australian sergeant in uniform on a child bicycle and an American private in uniform on sitting in a perambulator.

An unidentified sergeant of the 16th Battalion on a child’s bicycle and an American private sitting in a perambulator just prior to the Battle of Hamel (AWM A00815).

The 1,400 casualties incurred by the attacking force was comparably light for the standards of warfare on the Western Front, though there were particular tragedies for Australian families. Private Thomas Parrish of New South Wales was killed acting as a scout for a tank at Le Hamel barely a week after his brother Joseph Parrish had died. On the German side there were 2,000 casualties with many being taken prisoner.

Visitors to the Australian Remembrance trail can visit the historic Le Hamel battlefield in which an Australian General led Allied troops to an important victory over the enemy and established a template for attack used until the end of the war.