Centenary of the Battle of Hamel
The capture of the town of Hamel and its surrounding areas was a significant and strategic objective for the Allied cause in mid-1918. Capture of these areas would provide an important foothold around the Somme area, as well as adding depth to defences on Hill 104 – the Villers-Bretonneux plateau, a key area to the defence of nearby Amiens.
The Hamel operation was under the command of Lieutenant General John Monash, his first as commander of the Australian Corps, who stated:
It was high time that the anxiety and nervousness of the public, at the sinister encroachments of the enemy upon regions which he had never previously trodden, should be allayed by a demonstration that there was still some kick left in the British Army. I was ambitious that any such kick should be administered, first, at any rate, by the Australians.
Monash was a former civil engineer and used to creating and studying drawings. He had huge models of the battlefield created and pioneered two approaches in his many days of planning for the battle. The first being detailed and democratic planning where he discussed his ideas for the battle using maps with his troops of all ranks until he was satisfied with his preparations and confident that his troops understood what was expected of them. The second was the concept of a fast strike on the enemy utilising a combination of modern planes, tanks, heavy artillery and Lewis guns to allow his infantry troops to advance as unfettered by enemy resistance as possible. The stunning success of this strategy in the Battle of Hamel is cited by some as the inspiration behind the Blitzkrieg lightning strike strategy used by Germany in World War Two based on the principle of a combined arms battle.
The Battle of Hamel is also significant for Monash’s use of four companies from the newly arrived American troops of the US 33rd Division. Monash decided to fight the battle on 4 July, US Independence Day, in the knowledge this would inspire the 800 Americans attached to his Australian Battalions.
The attack was primarily an infantry assault with significant tank and artillery support. Monash attacked at 3.00am to avoid light, decreasing enemy visibility and protecting the troops from fire for as long as possible. This followed a diversion attack on a nearby village and an aerial bombardment to mask the sound of his tanks moving into position.
The Battle of Hamel was a spectacular success. The Australian and American troops advanced quickly with the element of surprise and tanks clearing their path by crushing enemy defences and wire while allied aircraft dropped ammunition and tanks brought up necessary supplies. The capture of the village took just 93 minutes, three minutes more than what Monash had anticipated in his planning. The Germans suffered approximately 2,000 casualties and the loss of many machine guns, trench mortars and anti-tank weapons. There were 1,062 Australian and 176 American casualties. Over 1,500 Germans were taken prisoner.
Infantry, artillery, tanks and planes worked together to move the front line forward by two-and-a-half kilometres across an eight kilometre front, with relatively few losses. Monash wrote:
A perfect modern battle plan is like nothing so much as a score for an orchestral composition, where the various arms and units are the instruments, and the tasks they perform are their respective musical phrases.
French President Georges Clemenceau visited Australian troops who had fought at Hamel and said in a speech:
I shall go back tomorrow and say to my countrymen: “I have seen the Australians, I have looked into their eyes. I know that they, men who have fought great battles in the cause of freedom, will fight on alongside us, till the freedom for which we are all fighting is guaranteed for us and our children.”
Valour &Violets – South Australia in the Great War, Wakefield Press, pages 326-327
The Western Front Diaries – The Anzacs’ Own Story Battle by Battle, Scribe Publications, pages 369-373