Australians on the Western Front: New peak of heroism

FORTRESS: A 54th Battalion machine gun position established during the attack on Péronne. The photograph was taken after the capture of the town. Picture: AWM E03183
FORTRESS: A 54th Battalion machine gun position established during the attack on Péronne. The photograph was taken after the capture of the town. Picture: AWM E03183

One hundred years ago, Australian soldiers, exhausted and under strength in number, were about to enter one of their toughest and most pivotal battles on the Western Front.

In a month of continuous fighting, the Australian Corps, with the British and Canadians, had routed German troops out of a succession of French villages and defences straddling the Somme Valley east of Amiens.

Now before them, protecting the retreating Germans, lay a north-south section of the Somme River and the imposing stronghold of Mont Saint-Quentin overlooking the fortress town of Péronne.

With three Australian Divisions supported by two British Divisions, Australian commander Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash had no intention of letting the enemy dig in around Péronne. But a front-on attack on August 29, 1918, failed.

The 2nd Australian Division’s 5th Brigade, at one-third strength, about 1300 men, switched the attack to the north by crossing hastily-repaired bridges near Cléry. From 5am on August 31, they bravely charged up Mont Saint-Quentin, surprised surrendering Germans and reached the summit by 7am.

But the battle was far from over and five successive counter-attacks, from reinforcements that included crack Prussian regiments, pushed the Australians back off the crest.

Australia’s 6th Brigade took over. Corporal Phillip Starr wrote that Australians advancing on September 1 were continually harassed by shelling and deadly machine-gun fire.

“We passed several men coming in wounded from the earlier attacks. ‘Don’t spare any machine gunners,’ they said. We were not in the mood to be stopped that day, and exacted a full penalty from the beaten Hun. With bomb and bayonet we forced them back.”

The effort of Australia’s 3rd Division was critical, in taking the Bouchavesnes spur to the north of Mont Saint-Quentin, while repeated assaults by the 5th Division, facing heavy machine-gun fire from the ramparts of Péronne, eventually overcame German defences to seize the town.  

By September 3, the Australians had defeated five German Divisions and were in control of these commanding positions east of the Somme line.

Coming at the same time as the Allied Third Army broke through the Drocourt-Quéant line, east of Arras, the German Armies began withdrawing towards their final defensive point, the Hindenburg Line.

For the Australians, Mont Saint-Quentin and Péronne came at the heavy cost of almost 3000 casualties. The depleted 21st Battalion’s 9th Platoon began with 12 men, from its authorised strength of about 50, and had three killed and four wounded.

Charles Bean wrote in his official war history that many Australian soldiers regarded the capture of Mont Saint-Quentin and Péronne to be “the most brilliant achievement” of the Australian Imperial Force – one in which quick manoeuvre was decisive.

“The 2nd and 3rd Divisions at least … weary with, in some cases, incredibly protracted effort, and without normal artillery support, constantly attacked more than their number of Germans in strong, well wired positions and captured more prisoners than they could safely hold.”

While Monash’s objective was to give the Germans no breathing time when they reached the north-south line of the Somme, he was warned by his divisional commanders that the Australians troops were approaching the limits of endurance.

DREAMS UNFULFILLED: Private Alexander Buckley with his fiancé before he left for the Western Front. He was killed in action near Péronne on September 1, 1918, and awarded the Victoria Cross. Picture: AWM P01421.001

DREAMS UNFULFILLED: Private Alexander Buckley with his fiancé before he left for the Western Front. He was killed in action near Péronne on September 1, 1918, and awarded the Victoria Cross. Picture: AWM P01421.001

“It was essential that they be called upon to yield up the last particle of effort of which they are capable … I was compelled to disregard the evident signs of overstrain that were brought to my notice,” he wrote.

Like all battles on the Western Front, Mont Saint-Quentin and Péronne are remembered for incredible bravery by soldiers in the face of German machine-guns firing hundreds of rounds a minute.

Eight Australian soldiers were awarded Victoria Crosses in this one battle, six on September 1 alone – a remarkable number of the 53 VCs awarded to AIF members on the Western Front from 1916 to 1918.

All eight had links to country towns - Inverell labourer George Cartwright, Myrtleford gold prospector Alby Lowerson, Tatura farmer Robert Mactier, Blackall pastoralist Edgar Towner, Gulargambone farmer Alex Buckley, Nyngan property overseer Arthur Hall, New Zealand-born Lawrie Weathers, who grew up near Snowtown, and lineman William Currey, born in the mining town of Wallsend.

Corporal Buckley and Private Mactier were unaware of their VCs as they were killed during the battle.

Buckley charged a nest of machine-guns outside Péronne, shooting four Germans and taking 22 prisoners, before he was shot crossing a footbridge into the town. Mactier, acting alone, attacked three machine-gun posts in succession, and was killed running at a fourth.

Within days of the battle, Australian soldiers decorated the rubble of Péronne with new street signs including Roo De Kanga, Wallaby Lane, Wombat Road and Ding Bat Alley.

Today, travellers on the Australian Remembrance Trail can visit the Museum of the Great War within the Chateau de Péronne.

  • The Road to Remembrance is published by Fairfax Media in partnership with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.