First World War Centenary: A Time Line
by Dr John Weste, Director, South Australian Parliament Research Library
Australia’s armed forces were actively engaged in military operations throughout 1918 until the final Entente military victory. On 21 March, German forces launched the first of a series offensives on the Western Front (in the region of the 1916 Somme battlefields) and, by nightfall, had broken through British lines. By early April, the British had drawn back and were nearing Villers-Bretonneux, a mere 20 kilometres from the crucial Allied rail and road communications centre of Amiens. Australian troops were rushed to reinforce the weaker points of the British line and blocked the initial German attempt on Amiens. For the remainder of the month, the Germans made several attempts to capture Villers-Bretonneux and finally met with success on 24 April. A counter-attack was launched later that evening involving Australia’s 13th and 15th brigades and the British 54th Brigade. The night attack was complex and considered unconventional but proved to be a great success. By early morning of 26 April, Australian forces had completed the encirclement of Villers-Bretonneux while the British cleared it of trapped Germans. The 15th Brigade lost 455 men and the 13th, 1,009; the British III Corps 9,500 (2,400 taken prisoner) and German losses totalled 7,500.3
By July 1918, despite impressive tactical success, the Germans had not won the required strategic victory. Instead, while German troop losses mounted, Allied numbers grew, despite their own significant losses, with over 1 million Americans now stationed in France.
The Australians focussed their attention on Hamel, which, if taken, would ensure the defence of Amiens and provide a crucial launching point future offensives. Lieutenant-general John Monash commanded the operation and combined infantry with tanks, artillery and air power. The attack was launched early on 4 July to great success with key objectives reached within a matter of hours. In the days immediately following, the Australians maintained the offensive and dominated the plateaux around Villers-Bretonneux. Hamel was followed by a further mass Allied offensive on 8 August at Amiens. While only part of a multi-national force, Australian and Canadian forces played a central role; indeed, such was the scale of German defeat that General Erich Ludendorff, Chief of Staff of the German armies, described it as “the black day of the German Army”. Over the remainder of the month, Australian forces remained in action, with prominent success being achieved at Mont St Quentin.
By this point, however, the high toll on Australian troops, whether in terms of casualties or physical and mental exhaustion, was telling. Between April and October 1918, Australian Corp casualties were approximately 10,500 men killed or died of wounds with more than 40,000 wounded or captured. 4
Late September 1918 marked the final Allied offensives on the Hindenburg Line which broke the German Army in Western Europe. The Australian Corps was placed in the centre and, in conjunction with US troops, spearheaded the battle which saw the Line broken over four days of battle commencing on 29 September.
1918 also proved a significant year for Australia’s John Monash who was promoted to lieutenant-general and appointed commander of the Australian Corps (the largest corps fielded by the British Empire army in France). Monash’s appointment in May 1918 was initially undermined by Charles Bean (the official Australian war historian) at least in part due to the former’s Jewish heritage. Bean connived with Keith Murdoch to persuade Prime Minister Hughes that senior officers did not support the promotion. It was not until Hughes visited the front in mid-1918 that, finally persuaded of the falseness of these charges, he abandoned plans to replace Monash.
In South Australia, the War provided an unexpected opportunity to promote electoral reform riding on the War Services Franchise Act. The government’s intention was simply to confer the franchise for the Legislative Council upon every sailor, soldier and nurse who had been abroad on active service during the course of the War. The question of full adult suffrage for the State’s citizens was not part of government plans, but proponents of an expanded franchise saw an opportunity for mischief and to embarrass the government. Surely, they argued, if active service indicated a patriotic heart worthy of the right to vote in Council elections, then the same must hold true for a man who volunteered but was rejected due to poor health or some other legitimate reason. Others attacked from the perspective of female suffrage. True, the soldier risked his life and endured many privations in serving King and Empire. However, while not of the same magnitude, the soldiers’ mothers and wives suffered in their own unique way: the serviceman at least knew he was alive but not so his female relatives who sat in wretched ignorance for years wondering if the latest letter was to be the last or if their son or husband would ever return. Extended emotional turmoil and the unconditional support female relatives provided their men on the battlefield were equally evidently fair and full payment for the right to vote in the Legislative Council.
There’s nothing here about what the AIF actually did – defence of Amiens, fighting at Villers-Bretonneux, Hamel, and the ‘Black Day’ of the German Army on 8 August. The Australian Corps spearheaded the Allied advance that ultimately broke through the Hindenburg Line, after which Germany sought an armistice with Britain and France.
3 Joan Beaumont Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2014, pp. 422-26
4 Ibid., p. 487