The Great War – April 1918
The past, it has been said, is a foreign country and one of the challenges of imagination that we face as we commemorate the centenary of the war is to remember the world of 1914 to 1918 as it was then, not as we choose to recall it now. Many of us will attend a Dawn service on Anzac Day and reflect on the service and sacrifice of those who fought to preserve our way of life in all wars. But it’s not easy to imagine what it was like 100 years ago as the war dragged inexorably towards its fifth year. As much as Australian service personnel wanted to pause on April 25th 1918 to commemorate the third anniversary of the landings at Gallipoli, they found themselves embroiled in fighting against a determined enemy rolling the dice for one last time.
The Western Front
April 1918 proved to be a pivotal month in deciding the outcome of World War One. Following the commencement of the German Spring Offensive in late March, known as Kaiserchlacht (Emperors Strike), the Germans continued to press for a decisive breakthrough take back the initiative and end the war quickly. Time was an important factor for the Germans as they knew that the continued build-up of American troops, supplies and equipment would likely tip the balance of the war in the Allies favour.
After resisting the initial Spring Offensive attacks known as Operation Michael in late March and early April at Villers-Bretonneux, Dernancourt and Hébuterne the Allied forces had frustrated the German plan to capture the strategically important rail junction of Amiens, which would split the French and British forces. This was achieved with the support of Australian forces who were dispatched south towards Amiens from the Messines sector in Flanders 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 tasked with plugging gaps in the disintegrating British line at Lys in southern Belgium, Ancre at Dernancourt and Hébuterne to the north of Amiens.
Operation Michael had begun with initial successes securing 1,200 square miles (3,108 square km) of territory captured by 4 April, but was ultimately a failure as none of its strategically important objectives were captured.
On 9 April 1918 the Germans launched Operation Georgette, which was originally planned by General Ludendorff as Operation George, in northern France. German troops advanced west towards the channel ports linking France and Britain. The Germans advanced through Armentires to Hazebrouck, just 50 kilometres from Dunkirk. The Australian 1st Division was rushed north from Amiens to Hazebrouck to halt the German advance. On 11 April 1918 Field Marshal Haig issued his famous ‘backs to the wall’ order of the day that concluded with:
“There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man; there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight to the end. The safety of our Homes and the Freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each of us at this critical moment.” (Source: http://www.anzacsinfrance.com/1918/)
On 13 April the German advance was halted by the Australian 1st Division, who in partnership with the British 5th Division completely stabilised the front between Hazebrouck and St Venant. The German troops, now exhausted after three days of attacking could not achieve their objectives. Disaster for the Allies in northern France was averted. To the south, on 24 April 1918 the Germans again attacked and this time captured the village of Villers-Bretonneux. The Germans were now close to capturing Hill 104, which would give their artillery observers a clear view over Amiens and enable them to direct accurate fire at the town.
Two Australians were tasked with immediately re-taking Villers-Bretonneux, Brigadier-General Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliot, Commander of the 15th Brigade and Brigadier-General William Glasgow, Commander of the 13th Brigade. After convincing the British Commander General Henry Rawlinson that a counter-attack during daylight hours without artillery support would be unlikely to succeed, the Australian forces commenced their attack at 10.00pm on 24 April without any artillery bombardment prior to the attack. This element of surprise was telling and the 14th and 15th Brigades, from 5th Australian Division, advanced via the north side of the town, while the 13th Brigade from the 4th Australian Division attacked near Cachy to the South of Villers-Bretonneux. In all, nearly 4,000 Australians.
The counter-attack was successful and by dawn the Australians had almost surrounded the town and the Germans were in retreat. The town was secured by 26 April and thereafter no Germans troops set foot in Villers-Bretonneux, except as prisoners of war. The battle is also believed to be the first tank versus tank engagement, when three British tanks took on three German tanks in the fields south of Villers-Bretonneux. On 26 April the Allied and German front lines were extremely close to where they started prior to the German Attack on 24 April.
The success came at a cost of approximately 2,400 Australian casualties, the British lost 9,500 troops, many were captured during the 24 April German advance and French losses were 3,500. The German loss, including prisoners taken when Villers-Bretonneux was surrounded, was over 10,000 soldiers.
Hill 104 is now the site of the Australian National Memorial and the soon to be officially opened Sir John Monash Centre, which is the hub of the Australian Remembrance Trail along the Western Front and our nation’s international legacy for Australia’s Centenary of Anzac 2014-2018.
This was the beginning of the end of the First World War. The Germans had thrown everything they had into the Spring Offensive, but the Allies, in no small part due to the efforts of the Australian Divisions, had fought a series of defensive actions and halted the advance. Despite early successes both Operations Michael and Georgette fell short of their objectives.
April 25 has come to hold extra significance for the small South Australian town of Tarlee. Arthur Clifford Stribling, a soldier from Tarlee was killed on 25 April 1918 at Villers Bretonneux and is buried in the small French village of Blangy Tronville a few miles from where he died. In a gesture spanning the globe and several generations, the local school at Blangy Tronville has been re-named the Arthur Clifford Stribling School in recognition of all Australians who fought and saved the French Republic 100 years ago. The re-naming ceremony occurred on 22 April 2018 in the presence of local dignitaries, descendants of Cliff Stribling and students from both Blangy Tronville and Tarlee.
Shooting Down of the Red Baron
Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen was shot down, most likely by an Australian soldier, on 21 April 1918, over Morlancourt Ridge, France.
Born on 2 May 1892 into an aristocratic Prussian family, he became known as the ‘Red Baron’, the most famous fighter pilot of World War One. He is officially credited with 80 air combat victories within a 19 month period between 1916 and 1918.
Richthofen entered training as a pilot in October 1915 following a chance meeting with German ace fighter pilot, Oswald Boelcke. He joined Boelcke’s squadron in August 1916 and scored his first victory over Cambrai, France on 17 September 1916. To celebrate his victory he ordered a silver cup engraved with the date and type of enemy aircraft shot down. He had 60 cups made, until the shortage of available silver in Germany meant no more silver cups could be supplied.
Richthofen received the Pour le Mérite, ‘The Blue Max’, in early 1917, the highest military honour in Prussia. Shortly after receiving this award he was promoted to squadron commander of Jasta 11, an elite fighter pilot squadron known as ‘The Flying Circus’. Richthofen’s brother, Lothar, was also a member of the squadron and went on to become a fighter ace with 40 victories. After being appointed squadron commander Richthofen decided to have his plane painted bright red, and the name Red Baron was born.
There is no certainty over who can lay claim to who fired the bullet that brought down the Red Baron, but it is most likely to be one of the Australian troops firing at his plane from the ground.
After Richthofen’s body was recovered from the plane a full military funeral was conducted by No. 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps and his body was buried in the cemetery at the village of Bertangles, near Amiens on 22 April 1918.
The control column of the Red Baron’s plane is on exhibition at the Australian War Memorial.
The Middle East
While our troops on the Western Front were busy fighting off the German Spring Offensive, in the Middle East, General Edmund Allenby, commander of the British Egyptian Expeditionary Force sought to capture the village of Es Salt, situated on a plateau above Amman. The objective was to secure the railway junction at Deraa. Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel commanded the Australian Mounted, ANZAC Mounted, and British 60th Infantry Divisions, and the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade. The operation began well, and after a night of heavy fighting Es Salt was captured. Strong Turkish counter attacks forced the Australians to withdraw back to the Jordan River.
On 30 April 1918 Lieutenant Charles Clifford, a station master from Penola was awarded the Military Cross for action during the En Salt raid. His citation reads:
On the 30th April 1918, astride the DAMIEH-ES SALT road, [Clifford] was in command of the forward posts. He held on with great determination thereby breaking up the attack to a large extent, which gave the Regiment time to make dispositions in their rear to meet it. In the first stand of the Brigade on the UMM ESH SHERT Road his work was splendid. His untiring energy was a fine example to all. This officer has always carried out his work with cool determination and with an absolute disregard of danger to himself.
Although the attack ultimately failed, it did lead the Turkish commanders to believe that future Allied attacks would again be directed across the Jordon River, when in due course it was launched to the north along the coastal plain.
The Home Front
A State Election was held on 6 April 1918. The Liberal Union Government led by Archibald Peake, who had been Premier since July 1917, was re-elected.
Australia’s recruitment levels remained a concern. The Governor General hosted a Recruiting Conference from 12-19 April 1918 attended by the leaders of State and Federal political leaders, employer associations and trade union organisations. The conference was unable to deliver a consensus as the nation remained divided on the question of conscription.
Robert Kearney and Sharon Cleary, Valour & Violets, South Australia in the Great War, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2018, p. 313