Articles

An Australian victory: 10 June 1918

The action of 4 July 1918 known as the Battle of Hamel is often regarded as a turning point of the war on the Western Front. It was a relatively small, brilliantly executed attack carried out by the Australian Corps with attached American units and supported by British tanks, artillery and aircraft. Hamel tends to overshadow a smaller but equally impressive operation carried out on 10 June 1918. It has no official name but is called the “Third Battle of Morlancourt” by the Australian War Memorial.

Background

The headquarters of the Australian Corps issued its Order 111 on 6 June 1918. The enemy’s position on the ridge between Sailly-Laurette and Morlancourt would be attacked on a date and time to be notified. The main portion of the attack would be delivered by 2nd Australian Division; on its right, 4th Australian Division would co-operate and swing its left flank forward as the 2nd Australian Division advanced. Two of its field artillery brigades would also be assigned to 2nd Australian Division to support the operation. The mobile field artillery brigade of 3rd Australian Division would also be assigned, and that division would carry out a local diversionary operation at the same time as the main attack.

At the time this order was issued, the German offensive thrust towards Amiens, culminating in the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux, had been held, but the front being held by the Australian Corps remained very hostile and active. There was much shellfire including poison gas bombardments, and frequent attempts by the Germans to carry out trench raids. The 2nd Australian Division had recently taken over a 5,500 yard portion of the front from the 3rd Australian Division, which had successfully carried out a series of small operations to advance its line.

Map courtesy of GĂ©oportail. The operation took place in the French department of Somme, east of Amiens (not shown on this map) and south west of the town of Albert (highlighted), between the villages of Sailly-Laurette and Morlancourt.

The forward zone held by 2nd Australian Division included the following topographical features:

  • On the right, a high ridge between the Rivers Somme and Ancre, running east/west.
  • Marrett Wood, which stands on the northern slopes of the ridge.
  • The valley of the Ancre: low, marshy and wooded river flats.
  • The ridge north east of Buire which overlooks the Ancre valley.

On 7 June 1918, 2nd Australian Division’s headquarters issued its orders: the attack would be carried out by its 7th Australian Infantry Brigade.

The objective of the attack was to seize a position that would deny the enemy observation over the ground to the west and at the same time provide better observation for the Australians across to the east and south east.

The enemy forces holding the area had been identified as 54th Division, with 84th Infantry Regiment ,27th and 90th Reserve Infantry Regiments north to south.

Preparations and tactics

The 7th Australian Infantry Brigade had relieved the 5th in the front line during the night 5-6 June 1918. In order to carry out the attack it positioned three of its four battalions in the front line. Right to left they were the 27th, 25th and 28th Battalions, supported by the brigade’s light trench mortar battery, machine gun company and the 7th Australian Field Company of Royal Engineers. Its 26th Battalion would remain in reserve near Vaux-sur-Somme. About 20% of the personnel of each unit was “left out of battle” and temporarily formed into number 7A Nucleus Battalion, which remained deep in the rear at Berteaucourt-les-Dames. The 2nd Australian Pioneer Battalion was detailed to assist once the objective was achieved.

Corps headquarters was located in the chateau at Bertangles; 2nd Australian Division headquarters were in the chateau at Saint-Gratien; 7th Australian Infantry Brigade at Heilly.

The red line overlaid onto this map is the objective to be reached by the attacking units, as given in brigade orders. The map dates to 24 May 1918 and the dark blue lines shown were trenches in the area in which 2nd Australian Division was now holding. The objective line was approximatay 2000 yards long. A useful landmark (as it appears on sketch maps shown below) is the “Clermont Line” reserve trench. The ground over which the Australian battalions would have to advance slopes gently upwards to the German-held position. The enemy’s position was protected by a barbed concertina wire defensive system, said to be high but not thick. It also had a good and open field of fire, ideal for machine gun defence.
Reaching this objective on high ground would give improved observation to the Somme valley (the rivers bends at Chipilly, Etinehem and Bray-sur-Somme) and towards Morlancourt and the River Ancre valley to the north of it.
Australian War Memorial photograph E08163, taken 28 March 1918. “A view of the Somme Valley from the high ground near Vaux-sur-Somme, looking [eastwards] directly towards Mallard Wood, with Sailly Laurette behind it and the village of Sailly-le-Sec on the left. At this time the distant ridges were held by the enemy (Germans).”
Australian War Memorial photograph E04702, taken 7 April 1918 when this ground was lost to the German offensive. “The 37th Battalion occupying a sunken road in front of Marrett Wood, near Morlancourt Ridge, when the enemy occupied the ridge in the distance. This road marked the approximate Australian front line and was taken up by the 10th Australian Infantry Brigade, on coming into the area on 27 March, to resist the German advance on Amiens. The town of Morlancourt was just beyond the ridge in the centre of the picture”. Although it does not relate to the period described on this page, the photograph is useful in providing a depiction of the nature of the ground over which it was fought.

Timing

The infantry attack would begin at “zero”, which was set to be at 9.45pm. The assault units would be in place by the preceding 3am. Movement during the day was to be an absolute minimum and all to be quiet.

Artillery

The 18-pounder field guns would fire a creeping barrage, with each gun firing at three rounds per minute. It would begin with a standing bombardment on a start line just ahead of the Australian-held front, lasting four minutes, and then lift fifty yards where it would stay for two minutes. It would then creep forward a a rate of 100 yards per two minutes, remain on the objective for three minutes, and then continue at the same rate until it reached a “protective barrage” position. ten minutes after zero, some would be smoke rounds fired to mark the objective (and help to mask the advancing infantry). 25 minutes after zero, every other gun would fire on a target 500 yards beyind the “protective barrage” line, hold on it for two minutes, and then begin to “search” the area between that line and the objective.

Plan of the creeping artillery barrage. Source: brigade war diary. The map also shows which artillery units were to cover each sector of the assault front.

The 4.5-inch howitzers would fire continuously on the objective for six minutes after zero, with each howitzer firing at two rounds per minute. After that they would join the creeping barrage.

The 6-inch Newton mortars would fire on the German barbed wire defences for three minutes after zero. After that they would engage defined targets.

The Corps Heavy Artillery would bombard approaches and strongpoints and would engage any enemy batteries that came into action.

Infantry

The three battalions would advance in two waves. Three companies of each would form the first wave and the fourth company would be the second wave. Each battalion would detail one of its companies as a carrying party. Six guns of the machine gun company would also go into the attack. All forward posts would be withdrawn into the trench system no later than 30 minutes before zero. At zero, the first wave would begin to advance and would closely follow behind the creeping barrage. Once the objective had been captured, covering parties would advance 100 yards beyond it, to protect the work of consolidation. A series of mutually-supporting strong points would be constructed, in which work the Field Company would assist, including anti-aircraft machine gun posts. Carrying parties would take scythes into the attack, which would be used to cut grass and other growth to improve the field of fire from the strong points. The Pioneer Battalion would work on communication trenches to connect the old trench network with the strongpoints. The reserve battalion would occupy the original front line and sent two of its platoons to carry ammunition for the trench mortars. It would also send one platoon to brigade headquarters to act as POW escort (captured men were to be taken to the crossroads near the church at Heilly).

Each infantryman going into the attack would carry 220 rounds of rifle or machine gun ammunition, 2 rifle grenades and 4 empty sandbags. They would also have 24 hours of rations and the “iron ration”, and were to have filled their water bottles. The carrying parties would take more water forward in tins.

Air support

A contact patrol by 3rd Squadron AFC was to fly over the objective at 4.15am. On the ground, red flares would be lit and groups of three rifles laid at intervals long the parapet of captured trenches, enabling the observer to accurately spot the position held. Between 4am and 6am, the same squadron would mount a counter-attack patrol over the area to deny enemy moves in that regard. If any enemy massing for an attack were spotted, the aircraft would sound a klaxon horn and fire a white Very flare.

Sketch plan of disposition of troops before the attack. Source: brigade war diary.

It was anticipated that the enemy would carry out a counter-attack, having the hours of darkness to prepare, and the most likely time would be dawn on 11 June and either from the direction of Morlancourt or the south east.

The attack

Australian War Memorial. Brigade Orders.

The original orders had been given verbally to the commanding officers of units before the division took over the front line. Special steps were taken to avoid information leaking out, but an after-action brigade report suggests that it had become widely known even before the units moved into their attack position. Other than that, the preparations were carried out flawlessly and the attack began exactly on time; the infantry advanced just 70 yards behind the creeping artillery barrage. From events it appears that the enemy had been caught completely unaware.

Right or “A” Battalion: 27th Battalion AIF. This battalion sustained 35 casualties from what appeared to be two 18-pounder field guns firing about 100 shelle short in the bombardment, but encountered no enemy opposition until it reached the area of its barbed wire and front trenches, at which point it came under some machine gun fire from the right. It reached the final objective at 10.10pm.

Centre or “B” Battalion: 25th Battalion AIF. This battalion also lost men to the barrange being fired short – about 20 in all. It came under machine gun fire as soon as it began to advance, causing casualties and slowing the rate of advance, but like the others was not affected by enemy enemy shellfire. It reached the final objective at 10.05pm, reporting that the German machine gunners had put up a good fight, some to the last in five posts, but that its infantry mainly ran or surrendered.

Left or “C” Battalion: 28th Battalion AIF. This battaion reached the objectoive first, at 10.02pm, but had sustained casualties from serious machine gun fire coming from the direction of the Corbie-Bray road.

Sketch plan of disposition of troops after the attack. Source: brigade war diary.

No enemy counterattack took place. At daylight, one of the Australian machine guns opened on a party of about 50 enemy that had been spotted in the valley running down towards Sailly-Laurette and is believed to have hit 25 of them.

On the days succeeding the attack, much hard work was carried out in consolidating the newly-captured positions, constructing communication trenches to lead to them, as well as new strong points and machine gun positions from which it could be defended against counter-attack. None came before the brigade was relieved by the 8th Australian Infantry Brigade during the night of 14-15 June.

The brigade reported that its attack had captured large numbers of Germans( five officers and 305 men), 30 machine guns and six minenwerfer trench mortars. It believed that 250 enemy had been killed. All objectives were achieved.

Casualties

The brigade reported its own losses as six officers and 33 men killed, 14 officers and 267 had been wounded, and 21 men were missing.

The records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission show the following totals of officers and men of the three assault battalions whose death is stated to have taken place on 10 June 1918:

  • 43 are commemorated at the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial, having no known graves.
  • 37 are buried in Beacon Cemetery (located on the battlefield but all burials being post-war concentrations)
  • 6 buried in Dive Copse British Cemetery (location suggests died of wounds)
  • 5 buried in Franvillers Communal Cemetery Extension (location in rear of battlefield)
  • 2 buried in Crouy British Cemetery (location suggests died of wounds)
  • 2 buried in Heath Cemetery (post-war concentration)
  • 1 buried in Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery (post-war concentration)
AWM photograph of one of the officers who lost their lives in the attack, Second Lieutenant Alfred Edwin Winterford, 25th Battalion, of Atherton, Qld. Winterford, a land commissioner, had served 15 months in the 2nd Queensland Mounted Infantry during the Second Boer War. He re-enlisted in the AIF in January 1916 and was promoted to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant in August 1916. 2nd Lt Winterford embarked from Sydney with the 19th Reinforcements, aboard HMAT Wiltshire (A18) on 7 February 1917. He arrived in France for service on the Western Front on 9 July 1917 and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant on 1 September 1917. On 4 October 1917 he was wounded in action by a gunshot wound to the thigh. He returned to the front on 7 April 1918 and was killed in action in France on 10 June 1918. Lt Winterford was 44 years of age. He is one of the 37 buried in Beacon Cemetery.
The locations of Beacon Cemetery (marked with red X) and Dive Copse British Cemetery (blue X both within the area of this action. The red flag on the left marks the site of the memorial to 3rd Australian Division, relating to the defensive actions of April 1918.
Imperial war Museum photograph HU109438. Private 1906 Francis James Cormack, 25th Battalion AIF. Another veteran of the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, he was fatally wounded on 10 June and died next day at 61st Casualty Clearing Station at Vignacourt. His death, and that of others who died as a result of the action on 10 June but at later dates, is not included in my statistics above. Cormack is buried in Vignacourt British Cemetery. He was 21 years of age and had been born in London, England.

Congratulations and rewards

Australian War Memorial. From the diary of 25th Battalion AIF. The units, brigade and division received many messages of congratulations on a job well done.
Australian War Memorial. From the diary of 25th Battalion AIF. One Distinguished Service Order, two Military Crosses and ten Military Medals to this battalion alone.
A few weeks later. Australian War Memorial photograph E03133. Headquarters personnel of the 25th Battalion lunching in the trenches near La Maisonette, on the hill south of Peronne, the day the Australian advance reached the outskirts of Peronne. The following day the operations against Peronne and Mont St Quentin commenced. Identified, front to back: Major (Maj) Culpin DSO (drinking out of water bottle); Maj H. H. Page DSO MC (behind Culpin); Lieutenant (Lt) R. C. Eather MC MM (opposite Page); Lt R. T. Caulfield (beside Eather); Private (Pte) W. Stone (in front of Caulfield); Captain G. J. Carroll (behind Page); Pte W. Marriott (on Stone’s left); Pte H. Young (directly behind Marriott); Corporal W. Ramsden MM (to Young’s right, sitting lower). The other men are unidentified. Lieutenant Richmond Cornwallis Eather had earned his MC in the attack on 10 June. A former ranker and a Gallipoli veteran, he had earned his MM on the Somme in 1916. This was the calibre and experience of the junior officers now leading many units. Eather survived the war.

Sources

Australian War Memorial: formation and unit war diaries. All online and free of charge. Link

National Archives of Australia: personnel service records.

Links

Australian Corps

2nd Australian Division