March 1918 began as a quiet time on the Western Front as both sides consolidated their gains and entered a period of rest and recovery with only limited sorties towards each other’s font lines. As Sydney lad William Fincham noted after deploying into the front lines following ‘a very pleasant ride’, ‘…most fortunately, both sides were quiet. There was no obvious reason why we should not continue our walk right across “No-Man’s-Land”. There were no notice-boards to say that it was “No-Man’s-Land”’.[i]
The Australian Corps, now comprised of all five Australian Divisions (although the 4th Division was at that time deployed well south around Cambrai), was holding a sector of the line in Flanders, north of the Somme, with two divisions ‘in the line’, one in support, and one resting in a rear area. Between January and early March Australian forces had essentially limited their operations to raids to provide the opportunity for rest, refit and the development of defensive positions in preparation for the long awaited German offensive, while still maintaining an active presence by those units forward deployed to relieve the boredom.
The raids produced vital intelligence for the Australians through prisoner interrogation. It was clear that, such was the reputation of the Australian forces, any German offensive was unlikely on the portion of the front occupied by them.
Some of Australia’s senior commanders took the opportunity for a break from the pressures of the front including Monash who, on 9 March, left by car for Paris. In what today is difficult to fathom Monash recorded an incident in Paris on 11 March.
On 11 March we participated in the great air-raid on Paris. We were in the theatre at the time, and after the management had announced that an air-raid was on the performance went on calmly. Several bombs dropped in the theatre, and over a hundred people were killed. It was weird trying to find our way home in the pitch-dark streets, while anti-aircraft guns were still barking and bits of shells were whistling through the air.[ii]
With the defeat of the conscription referenda in October 1916 and December 1917, Australia’s senior commanders were gravely concerned that the flow of recruits would diminish to the extent that Brigades would be reduced from four battalions to three. But the failure of the conscription referenda was not met with disappointment by all. Ernest Lacey gave both his parents a ‘dressing down’ because he ‘…could hardly believe my eyes when I read you voted Yes in the conscription referendum’.[iii] Lacey, who had suffered severe shell shock, was of the view that reinforcements would be useful but did not want to expose anyone to the traumas of war unless they volunteered.
The rest and refit period was short-lived however, and in the last week of March orders were issued for all the Australian divisions to move back towards the front following the beginning of the German offensive, Operation Michael.
A German Offensive had long been anticipated by the allies although when and where had remained something of a mystery. The fall of the Russian Tsar a year earlier, followed by the collapse of the Russian Army in November and the Russian/German armistice in February 1918, enabled the Germans to reorient all their forces to the west. Operation Michael was designed to deliver a decisive blow to the Allies before the million strong United States Army could be deployed.
Just before dawn on 21 March, nearly 6,000 artillery pieces opened fire in what was one of the largest artillery barrages of the war. Across a 65 kilometre front from Arras to St Quentin the barrage continued for over four hours followed by an attack from 71 German divisions that forced the Allies to withdraw. Over four days the Germans gained 22 kilometres of territory.
The British Fifth Army, around Amiens, was the focus of Operation Michael. It’s aim was to exploit the line joining British and French forces, seen as a vulnerability for the Allies. 43 German divisions charged General Gough’s Fifth Army forcing a mass withdrawal and threatening Amiens. As one Australian digger described it ‘…the wilting flower of England’s Fifth Army was doing a marathon for home and mother, pursued by the beastly Bosche…’[iv]
On 23 March, Field Marshal Haig called on the Australian Corps to ‘plug the gap’ left by the withdrawing British Fifth Army and General Birdwood, still commander of the Australian Corps, ordered his divisions to deploy south, ‘…Boys, I know that I can confidently appeal to every single individual in the AIF to “take the strain” for the sake of his country and all he holds dear’.[v]
When Monash returned to the front line he dictated a short letter home:
You will see that I have been in the thick of it. A half-dozen of the best divisions in France are rapidly assembling, and there is every reason that we shall succeed in stopping the Boche attempt to get to Amiens.[vi]
While this was likely as much for domestic consumption back in Australia to forestall panic that the war had taken a turn for the worst, the reality was that it had. Everywhere the Germans were retaking ground the Allies had fought so hard to win the previous two years. Monash’s own words reflect the disarray prevalent throughout the Allied High Command:
I sought the Tenth Corps at Hautcloque, where they were to be. They were not there. I proceeded to Frévent, where they were said to have been the night before. They had already left. In despair, I proceeded to Doullens, resolved at least to ensure the orderly detrainment of my Division and their quartering for the following night, and there to await further orders. A dispatch rider was sent off to G.H.Q. to report my whereabouts, and the fact that I was without orders.[vii]
The Australian divisions were ordered to halt the German offensive in a series of seven blocking battles commencing with Hébuterne on 25 March, then Dernancourt on the 28th. Morlancourt followed between 28 and 30 March. Monash was able to write home on 31 March, ‘We have stood firm, the road to Amiens is closed, and we, and the 4th Australians, and the New Zealanders further north, steadied up the whole British line.
Were it not for the battle hardened Australian divisions, by then regarded by both sides as the best troops in the war, Amiens would almost certainly have fallen to the German advance, denying the Allies their most significant logistics base.
While the German offensive had been halted by the Australians, they had gained 80 extra kilometres of front line, 1,000 guns and captured 90,000 prisoners.
For the Allies, it was a close call. But Villers-Bretonneux, a second battle at Dernancourt, Hangard Wood, Hazebrouck, and Villers-Bretonneux again would challenge the Australians through the month of April.
In the Middle East General Allenby ordered an operation against Amman to destroy its rail infrastructure and draw Turkish forces away from the coast. The British 60th Division was given the task and, after a delay due to poor weather, crossed the Jordan River by a bridge constructed by Australian engineers on 21 March. The Anzac Mounted Division crossed the Jordan River but had to proceed on foot thereafter as the track they were tasked to follow was unsuitable for their horses. By the afternoon of 25 March 3rd Light Horse had reached Es Salt, an old mountain town of 15,000 inhabitants west of Amman. On securing the town the locals, who were pleased to see the allies after the withdrawal of Turkish forces ‘ran amok’ firing their rifles in the air.
Brigadier Granville Ryrie’s 2nd Light Horse Brigade attacked Amman dismounted but the Turks were in well defended positions and the Allies’ lack of artillery compromised their ability to dislodge them. Ryrie’s cousin, Harold, commanded a squadron of the 6th Light Horse initially comprising 58 men. The assault on Amman cost 40 of Ryrie’s squadron either killed, wounded or missing.
By 27 March it was clear the attack had failed and General Shea, the 60th Division’s Commander, ordered a withdrawal. To evacuate the wounded a number of ‘inventions’ were tried. ‘…eleven wounded men were strapped face down on the backs of horses on a bed of great coats…’[viii] Arthur Mills described it this way:
We put them on a horse back to front, put the man’s feet in a water bucket hung from the horse’s neck, laid the man’s belly on the saddle and tied the man’s hands together under the horse’s flank.[ix]
The withdrawal was torturous causing Brigadier Ryrie to remark ‘That night was the worst I had ever put in. The cold was simply awful, we rode all night & got to Es Salt.’[x]
The attack on Amman continued the tragic impact of war on one South Australian family.
On 31 March, 23-year-old Trooper Alfred Weaver of 4th Anzac Camel Battalion was wounded during the raid on Amman and later died from his wounds. Weaver was one of five brothers from Rosewater in Adelaide who joined the AIF. One of his brothers, Private William Weaver, landed at Gallipoli with the 10th Battalion and died of wounds on 23 May 1915. Alfred’s older brother, Trooper Frederick Weaver, 9th Light Horse Regiment, was killed in action on 28 August 1915 at Hill 60, Gallipoli. Their youngest brother, Private Charles Weaver, 16th Battalion, was captured by the Germans, later dying of illness at Bautigny, near Cambrai in France on 16 May 1917. The second youngest and only surviving of the five brothers was Private George Weaver, 40th Battalion, who returned to Australia in January 1919.[xi]
[i] Jonathan King, The Western Front Diaries, Simon & Schuster, Australia, 2015, p.306
[ii] John Monash, War Letters of General Monash, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1934, p. 211
[iii] Jonathan King, op.cit. p. 307
[iv] Graham Seal, Great Anzac Stories, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2013, p. 184
[v] John Monash, op. cit. p. 217
[vi] Ibid, p. 218
[vii] John Monash, The Australian Victories in France 1918, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2015, p. 23
[viii] Phillip Bradley, Australian Light Horse, The Campaign in the Middle East, 1916-1918, Allen & Unwin, 2016, p.138
[ix] Ibid, p. 138
[x] Ibid, p. 138
[xi] Robert Kearney and Sharon Cleary, Valour & Violets, South Australia in the Great War, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2018, p. 305