Centenary of the Battle of Dernancourt
The First Battle of Dernancourt was fought on 28 March 1918 in northern France.
In the lead up to the Battle the allied forces on the Western Front had made extensive winter defensive preparations for an anticipated German offensive being planned by Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff. This came to be known as Ludendorff’s Spring Offensive. The German forces were bolstered by the withdrawal of troops from the Eastern Front following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the subsequent signing of the Russo-German ceasefire in December 1917. The Germans moved 35 Divisions to the Western Front and on 21 March 1918 launched the Kaiserchlacht (Emperors Strike) offensive.
The offensive was initially successful with the Germans breaking through on the Somme. Australian troops, which included a significant number of South Australians from the 48th, 50th and the 52nd Battalions, were called in to strengthen areas of vulnerability including the railway embankment at Dernancourt. As the Australians approached French civilians were loading their possessions into carts, preparing to evacuate. It has been reported that the civilians were greatly reassured by the arrival of the Australians. One French lady was informed: “Fini retreat, Madame, beaucoup Australiens ici” meaning ‘The retreat is over, Madam, there are many Australians here’.
At dawn, under the cover of thick fog, the Germans attacked the Allied positions strongly on the railway embankment at Dernancourt. The defensive positions held, other than one German breakthrough that was heroically repelled by a Tasmanian, Sergeant Stanley McDougall of the Australian 47th Battalion. When a Lewis-gun team was knocked out by an enemy bomb McDougall picked up the gun, attacked two machine-gun teams and killed their crews. He then attacked a second wave of Germans, killing many and burning his hands on the hot barrel casing of his gun. When his ammunition ran out he seized a bayonet and charged at the enemy, killing four men, including a German officer that was aiming his pistol at some Australians. Many Germans were killed as a result of McDougall’s actions and 33 Germans were captured.
The German attack was stopped and rain set in, bringing an end to any further attacks. There were approximately 550 German casualties in the battle and 137 Australian casualties. The British 35th Division suffered 1,540 casualties from 25 to 30 March. In the week following the battle, the Germans renewed attempts to advance in the sector, culminating in the Second Battle of Dernancourt.
Sergeant McDougall was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions at Dernancourt on 28 March 1918. The uniform he wore and the Lewis-gun he used at Dernancourt are displayed in the Australian War Memorial Hall of Valour with his Victoria Cross and the Military Medal he was awarded for actions in April 1918.
Valour & Violets South Australia in the Great War, Wakefield Press