Centenary of the Battle of Hébuterne
The Battle of Hébuterne was fought between 27 March and 5 April 2018. The Battle was a consequence of Germany’s long anticipated Spring Offensive (or Kaiserschlacht – Kaiser’s Battle). The offensive was not a single attack, but a series of minor and major attacks. The major operations were codenamed: Operations Michael, Georgette, Mars, Gneisenau and Blucher-Yorck. The lynchpin of the German Spring Offensive was Operation Michael, which aimed at blocking the Allied transport and supply lines through the capture of Amiens, Arras and then advancing to the Channel ports by the deployment of fast-moving Stormtroopers to bypass and render redundant strong Allied defensive positions while protected by intensive artillery bombardment.
Hébuterne, approximately halfway between Arran and Amiens in northern France, was the first of many battles involving Australians during the Spring German offensive against the thinly spread British Fifth and Third armies in this region. Since November 1917 the five Australian divisions had been based in the relatively quiet Messines sector in Flanders, and at this time they were formed into an Australian Corps under the command of General Sir William Birdwood. In reaction to the enemy breakthroughs the 3rd and 4th Australian divisions, which included South Australians in the 16th, 48th, 50th and 52nd Battalions were dispatched south towards Amiens. Here they were tasked with plugging gaps in the disintegrating British line at Lys in southern Belgium, Ancre at Dernancourt and Hébuterne to the north of Amiens in a desperate bid to stop Operation Michael from achieving its objectives.
On 26 March 1918 notification came through that the Germans had broken through the lines with armoured cars at Hébuterne, on the near edge of the old Somme battlefield. The 4th Division was ordered to do its “upmost to block the roads” and intercept the cars.
The retreating British Army and the civilians were warning the Australians that the Germans had taken the town of Souastre with Tanks. Charles Bean described the scenes of panic in the following way on page 123 of Volume V of his First World War Official Histories:
The forces of British Troops retreating were completely intermingled with one another, the men dead-tired, disheartened, and imbued with one intent – to get to some place where they could sleep. All said that “Jerry” was close behind them with tanks. Of all within sight, the Australians were the only troops moving to the front. At one stage nine staff officers, crowded in a motor car, sped past to the rear. Doubtless they were merely hastening to establish a headquarters farther back, and carrying out the reorganisation of the troops, but in those circumstances speed gave the appearance of panic, and they had to run the gauntlet of an obviously stinging commentary from the “diggers.”
When the Australians arrived in Hébuterne they were met by the villagers in various stages of evacuation, many piling their worldly possessions on to carts. The villagers could be heard calling from one house to the other, “Les Australians.” Some even began unloading their carts in the belief that the Australians would save the day. It is reported an old man said to one of the 13th Battalion, “Pas necessaire maintenant-vous les tiendrez.” (“Not necessary now-you will hold them”).
The Australians secured the village of Hébuterne and established a defensive position close to a German post at the Southern end of the village at its cemetery. On 27 March an order came through that emphasized the seriousness of the situation:
It is to be distinctly understood that no retirement from our present position is permissible. All officers and ranks are to be made to understand this. Most stringent orders must be issued by all commanders to this effect, and officers who fail to observe the spirit of this order are to be relieved of their command.
On 28 March the Australians captured the cemetery and the strategic crest on which it was sited and now in partnership with New Zealand troops they held a strong defensive position. Despite German efforts to attack and out-flank the defensive positions at Hébuterne over the next week, they were not allowed to pass. The Australian and New Zealand forces played a key role in stopping the German advance.
Operation Michael started well and was successful from the point of view of territory gained, with 1,200 square miles (3,108 square km) captured by 4 April, but was ultimately a failure as none of its strategically important objectives were captured.
For his courage and devotion to duty at Hébuterne, South Australian born Lance Corporal Thomas Axford of the 16th Battalion was awarded the Military Medal. Lance Corporal Axford was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross for actions on 4 July 1918 during the Battle of Hamel.
Valour & Violets South Australia in the Great War, Wakefield Press
First World War Official Histories, Volume V – The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Main German Offensive, 1918 (8th edition, 1941)