The Great War – May 1918

CHANGE OF COMMAND

Three days after Australian troops took Villers-Bretonneux, on the 28th of April, a young man died of tuberculosis in a prison hospital in what was then Austria-Hungary. Gavrilo Princip was the Bosnian Serb who four years earlier, as a 19 year old, had shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand continuing a succession of events that would lead to the outbreak of the war. In his book The Great War, Les Carlyon describes a haunting coincidence: the doctor attending Princip in his final days was Dr Jan Levit who, 24 years later in 1942 would find himself back in the same prison: as a prisoner. The prison had been turned into a concentration camp for Jews. Levit was sent to Auschwitz and killed – the author of the laws that led to Levit’s death was in 1918 a corporal on the western front.

The end of April had seen the Australian forces seize Villers-Bretonneux in a counter attack at night by 13th and 15th Brigades. In a letter to his wife on 2 May Major General Monash, then Commander, 3rd Division, wrote:

In my opinion this counter-attack at night, without artillery support, is the finest thing yet done in the war by Australians or any other troops.

For Australian forces on the western front, the early days of May 1918 were marked by consolidation following the seizure of Villers-Bretonneux – except for Monash’s 3rd Division. He wrote:

… the Third Division had had enough of stationary warfare, and the troops were athirst for adventure. They were tired of raids, which meant a mere incursion into enemy territory, and a subsequent withdrawal, after doing as much damage as possible.

Accordingly, I resolved to embark upon a series of minor battles, designed not merely to capture prisoners and machine guns, but also to hold on to the ground gained.

Monash’s Division conducted a series of these miniature battles on 30 April, and on 3, 6, and 7 May with successful results that yielded several hundred prisoners and advanced the allied front line by about one mile, depriving the Germans of valuable observation of the allied lines and forcing the redeployment of its artillery assets.

Charles Bean was not an admirer.

As early as the Sari Bair offensive on the Gallipoli Peninsula in August 1915 that involved the Allies failed attempt to take Chunuk Bair (NZ objective), Lone Pine (Australian 4th Brigade objective), and the Nek, (Australian 3rd Light Horse Brigade objective), Bean was sceptical of then Brigadier John Monash’s abilities. In his own diaries as recounted in Bean’s Gallipoli – The Diaries of Australia’s Official war Correspondent edited by Kevin Fewster, Bean wrote of Monash’s 4th Brigade:

Shrapnel was pouring on them going up valley – men were deadly tired, and so Monash did not push on but dug in on the ridge nearer this way than [Hill] 971…

It seems to me a decision which many weak commanders would make but utterly unjustifiable. That is to say – instead of pushing on in spite of fatigue till he was actually stopped by the enemy, he stopped short of his objective without being stopped.

Yet in May 1918, less than three years later, Monash was about to be promoted to Lieutenant General and appointed as Commander, Australian Army Corps. Monash’s recommendation for the appointment was made by General Birdwood and Prime Minister Hughes approved it on 18 May 1918.

Bean was so concerned by these developments that he left France for London the same day to meet Keith Murdoch in an attempt to prevent the appointment. Following a series of meetings with Hughes and even British Prime Minister Lloyd George, and suffering rebukes from Birdwood and Major General Brudenell White (Bean’s preferred candidate for the appointment), who both refused to support the anti-Monash campaign, Bean and Murdoch relented and Monash’s appointment was announced effective 1 June.

Monash penned a farewell order to his 3rd Division on 30 May 1918 on his departure for the Australian Corps Headquarters:

As I am about to take up other duties the time has come when I must relinquish the command of the Division.

Closely associated with you as I have been, since the days of your first assembly and War Training in England, and, later, throughout all your magnificent work during the past nineteen months in the war zone, it is naturally a severe wrench for me to part from you.

I find it quite impossible to give adequate expression to my feelings of gratitude towards all ranks for the splendid and loyal support which you have, at all times, accorded to me.

In formally wishing the Division goodbye and good luck, I wish simply, but none the less sincerely, to thank each and all of you, for all that you have done.

In Bean’s Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, written some years after war’s end, his view of Monash had clearly changed. He wrote:

From the time of Monash’s advent the corps had at its head a very great mind – certainly one of the greatest that has ever controlled a British military force.

For his part Monash wrote a friend:

…it did not take me long to learn that the only ways to carry out the responsibilities of command were, firstly, to erect optimism into a creed for myself and for all my brigades, arms, and depots, and secondly, to try and deal with every task and every situation on the basis of simple business propositions, differing in no way from the problems of civil life except that they are governed by a special technique. The main thing is always to have a plan…

While the political wrangling surrounding Monash’s appointment monopolised the upper echelons of Australian authorities in Europe in May of 1918 the crisis on the western front in March, resulting from the German offensive to take Amiens, had a significant impact on the Middle East campaign.

The British government withdrew more than 60,000 troops from Palestine to reinforce its western front forces. The Australian and New Zealand divisions remained untouched in the Middle East, but the remainder of the allied forces were decimated.

May 1918 brought oppressive conditions of heat and dust described by official historian Henry Gullett as ‘…this threshold of hell’. Lance Corporal Robert Fell wrote:

Eating, living and sleeping in dust and dirt, eaten alive with mosquitoes every night. Men going away with Malaria every day…Jordan Valley an absolute nightmare’.

Despite the conditions and the troop reductions the Commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, General Allenby, was keen to launch an offensive to cross the Jordan River to open the way to Amman. On 30 April the Australian Mounted Division, reinforced by 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades pushed north along the eastern bank of the Jordan River while 3rd Light Horse Brigade, with a train of 360 camels dragging six artillery pieces, moved to seize Es Salt.

The result? A near disaster.

4th Light Horse Brigade had been positioned to hold any enemy west of the River but was unaware that the Ottomans had constructed a crossing of the river to their north and had reinforced the area with extra divisions, including German forces. On the morning of 1 May, 4,000 Ottoman troops attacked 4th Light Horse forcing the Australians to withdraw and to abandon nine of their 12 guns. The Australian Commander, Chauvel, rushed reinforcements to the area to establish a defensive line north of the only track connecting Es Salt to Jordan – had this been cut, 1st, 2nd, 3rd Light Horse Brigades, the Australian Mounted Division headquarters and British troops would have had to conduct a fighting withdrawal or face annihilation or capture. 

Allenby claimed the assault was a great success writing to a friend:

Nothing much doing here, for the moment, but my big raids beyond the Jordan have drawn Turks against me, and have eased pressure on the Arabs further south.

While it did result in 2,000 Ottoman casualties and nearly 1,000 Ottoman prisoners for the loss of 1649 allied troops, it was described by Lieutenant General Chetwode, the commander of the Desert Column under whose command the Australian Mounted Division fell, called it and the earlier Amman offensive ‘…the stupidest things [Allenby] ever did’.