Mont St.Quentin

Battle of Mont St Quentin

Photo: Men of the 24th Battalion, Mont St.Quentin
Source: Australian War Memorial [AWM E03138]

The Battle of Mont St.Quentin was fought in the closing stages of the Great War. The Battle was the focus of FFFAIF member Ross St.Claire’s talk at the 2008 John Laffin Memorial Lecture.
The following summary of Ross’ talk gives a glimpse into the significance of the Battle to the outcome of the War and its significance to the AIF.

Mont St.Quentin offers some startling contrasts to Fromelles. One was one of our greatest national tragedies, the other the greatest victory of the AIF. At Fromelles the battalions involved were at full strength, mostly composed of young, inexperienced, naive but eager soldiers. At Mont St.Quentin the battalions were at half strength or less. The men were still young. There were still a few new recruits, but most were battle-hardened and sick of war. They still realised they had a job to do – and did it bloody well, but they just wanted to get back home.
Battle experience and a more autonomous AIF, and improvements in, and evolution of tactics, weapons systems, training, leadership and communication are some of the elements that differentiate Fromelles in July 1916 to Mont St.Quentin in September 1918. Another main difference though is that at Fromelles the Corps leader was Haking, while at Mont St.Quentin it was Monash.
Both battles have in common the enormous casualties, bravery, sacrifice and determination of the young Australian men involved.
In August 1926 former Australian Corps Chief of Staff, General Sir Cyril Brudenell White, wrote to another famous Australian general, Sir Harry Chauvel. In his letter White rated his top four achievements of the AIF during the Allied offensives of August to October 1918. He listed the capture of Mont St.Quentin and Peronne in late August and early September as one and two respectively. [1] The Australian Corps at the time was part of the British Expeditionary Force’s (BEF) Fourth Army. It’s commander was General Lord Henry Rawlinson. He went so far as to state that the Australian victories were “the finest single feat of the war” [2] The Australian Official Historian, Charles Bean, wrote “The capture of Mont St.Quentin and Peronne is held by many Australian soldiers to be the most brilliant achievement of the A.I.F.” [3]
Such high praise puts Mont St.Quentin and Peronne before Lone Pine, Pozieres, Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Messines, Villers-Bretonneux, Hamel and Amiens.
The Australian Corps was commanded by the famous General Sir John Monash. Bean wrote that:within the Australian experience on the Western Front it was the only important fight in which quick, free manoeuvre played a decisive part. It furnishes a complete answer to the comment that Monash was merely a composer of set pieces. But Monash himself realised that it was also largely a soldier’s battle.[4] 

BRIEF OVERVIEW OF BATTLE
If Peronne and Mont St.Quentin was our most successful battle, then it is also one the least known. 
As I previously mentioned I will only give a brief overview of the battle, but concentrate more on some factors that resulted in such an enormous victory.
The success of the Australians, Canadians and British beginning on 8 August 1918 was stunning. Sound tactics, utilising the latest technology, thorough planning and a large build up of artillery and tank fire power contributed to the “Black Day” of the German Army. But the Germans were a very hard and resilient enemy.
They were gradually driven back throughout August. Haig decided that the 4th Army need not pressure the German retreat as hard as his other northern armies.
Monash was not happy with the concept and decided to keep pushing the enemy back to the Somme River by constant and aggressive patrolling. On 26 August the 2nd and 1st Divisions relieved the 1st Division south of the Somme and Monash ordered them to keep up continual pressure without incurring heavy loss. Meanwhile north of the Somme the unrelieved 3rd Division received the same instruction.
The weather at this time was warm and cloudy with daily showers.
By 29 August the 2nd Division had seized the west bank of the Somme opposite the fortified town of Peronne. On the same day the 3rd Division seized the town of Clery.
These successes gave Monash the chance to formulate his plan where he would surprise the Germans by moving his forces to the north side of the Somme, take the dominant natural feature of Mt St.Quentin and then the moated and ramparted town of Peronne. Obviously his plan was dependant on gaining a crossing of the river. At the same time the 15th Brigade under Pompey Elliot would try and cross the Somme south of Peronne.
With the tireless 3rd Division acting as a covering force the 5th Brigade crossed the river in the evening of 30 August on bridges repaired and built by Australian engineers under heavy fire. At dawn the next day the 5th Brigade attacked Mont St.Quentin. The speed and ferocity of the attack by the depleted 17th and 20th Battalions caught the Germans completely by surprise. Only Bean could describe the events before the battle from a soldiers’ eye: The task ahead was in some ways the most formidable ever faced by Australian infantry. Mont St. Quentin was already a familiar sight … All knew the Mount to be a famous fortress of the Western Front, and … few officers or men in the tired companies of the 20th, averaging only 60 rifles, and those of the 17th, averaging 70, believed they had any chance of success. They had no hot meal that night but … at 3 am an issue of rum arrived. On this occasion the old AIF practice, to keep rum till after the action, was broken in view of the weariness of the men. Never was an issue more welcome.
Charging and yelling at the top of their voices to give the impression of larger numbers the Australians rather easily reached the top of Mont St.Quentin.
To exploit the success Monash decided to bring the 6th and 7th Brigades across the Somme. The 14th Brigade of the 5th Division was also to cross the river and move through Clery to protect the right flank of the 2nd Division. Bean wrote that “The flanks must help the centre all costs … Casualties no longer matter”.
The hold of the 5th Brigade on Mont St.Quentin was soon lost to German counter attacks. Monash now decided that the 6th Brigade would retake it on the morning of 1 September while the 14th Brigade would thrust south east and capture Peronne.
The 6th Brigade retook Mont St.Quentin after more hand to hand fighting. The 14th Brigade took and held most of Peronne, advancing over 1000 yards through two barbed wire entrenched trench lines, with no tank and little artillery support against a determined enemy.
Both attacks were successful but later advances during the day were fractured by tiredness and breakdowns in communication, something Bean rather unfairly attributed to lack of drive in leadership. Definitely the heavy casualties inflicted upon the 14th Brigade late on 1 September were due in a large part to the free-flowing and ever changing nature of the battle – a new and unique experience for all leaders from generals down to platoon commanders.

VICTORIA CROSS
If awards are any indication of success then the fact that nine Australians won VCs at Peronne and Mont St.Quentin speaks for itself – Eight in three days, six in one day – 1st September 1918. My inclusion of GORDON 41st Battalion  may raise eyebrows, but the 3rd Divisions relentless advances north of the Somme laid the platform for Monash’s masterpiece. 

            L/Cpl Bernard GORDON 41st Bn 26-27/8/18

            Pte George CARTWRIGHT 33rd Bn 31/8/18

            Pte William CURREY 53rd Bn 1/9/18

            Sgt Albert LOWERSON 21st Bn 1/9/18

            Pte Robert MACTIER 23rd Bn 1/9/18

            Lt Edgar TOWNER 2nd MG Bn 1/9/18

            Cpl Alexander BUCKLEY 54th Bn 1/9/18

            Cpl Arthur HALL 54th Bn 1-2/9/18

            Cpl Lawrence WEATHERS 43rd Bn 2/9/18 

This is two more than Lone Pine although Lone Pine involved four brigades at full strength. The infantry at Mont St.Quentin was from nine brigades although their battalions were well below full strength – probably half.

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN AUGUST AND SEPTEMBER 1918
Three weeks had a remarkable influence on the AIF and its battles. Compared to 8th August those battalions attacking late in August and early September were at a distinct disadvantage.
No Tanks
Only field artillery could keep up with advance
Except for field artillery no covering barrages
Battalions even more below strength – August battles had cost AIF 6000 casualties between 7 and 14 August, which included 339 officers. Of this total the divisions later to be involved at Mont St.Quentin [2nd, 3rd, 5th] had lost 3276. At Mont St.Quentin these three divisions lost a further 3097. Between 24 and 30 August, in the advance to the Somme the 3rd Division had lost another 1200 casualties. 

REASONS FOR SUCCESS
The remarkable successes of Mont St.Quentin are attributable to a number of reasons. Paramount is the fact that the Australian Corps was at its efficiency peak. Compared to other armies and corps at the time it was without doubt one of the best on the Western front. The formation of a single self-contained and almost self-governing Australian corps had many advantages – increased confidence, uniting all Australian Divisions under a single command.
All volunteers.
Drastic shortage of recruits had an unusual effect in that most men were experienced, battle hardened and well trained – all had agreed to there.
Their endurance was astounding:
38th Bn had been without sleep for 89 hours before Clery fell;
On 30 August 2 battalions of 3rd Div were ordered to take a spur north of Clery. They were only 200 rifles strong each and were to attack by night objectives a mile away over uneven country seamed by old trenches and completely unreconnoitred;
On 31 August the 33rd Bn attacked Bouchavesnes Spur only 140 strong.    

CONCLUSION
Monash, by necessity, pushed his already exhausted troops relentlessly. The Australian infantry battalions were much depleted, some attacking Mont St.Quentin and Peronne at less than half strength. The victories of early August 1918 had come at a cost and recruitment in Australia for a long time not been able to keep up with the horrendous Western Front ‘wastage’. The tanks and artillery which supported the 8th August advances were not available three weeks later. Most of the tanks had been destroyed or damaged, and only the field artillery could, with difficulty, keep up with the unprecedented battle of spontaneous movement and speed. 
Later Monash pondered over the reasons behind such a monumental victory. He concluded: it was due firstly and chiefly to the wonderful gallantry of the men who participated, secondly to the rapidity with which our plans were put into action, and thirdly the sheer daring of the attempt. [5]
Monash appreciated the force he commanded. He knew the limitations, the potential and the expectations of the Australian Corps. He knew when to drive them hard, but also when to give them rest. He was also lucky enough to have some exceptional divisional and brigade commanders under him – Hobbs, Rosenthal, Elliot, etc
By 1918 the Australian Corps, despite depleting numbers, was ripe with many battle hardened men and NCO’s. More importantly, after over three years of war, most of its field and staff officers were as experienced and professional as any on the Western Front, despite being civilians in 1914.

 



[1] Pederson, PA. Monash as Military Commander. Melbourne University Press. [pb] 1992. P. 270

[2] Monash, Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash. The Australian Victories in France in 1918. Lothian Book Publishing Co., Melbourne [pb] 2nd ed. 1923 p. 207

[3] Bean, CEW. The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. Volume VI. The Australian Imperial Force in France. During the Allied Offensive, 1918. University of Queensland Press/AWM, St.Lucia, 1983 [copy of 1943 ed]. P. 873. Further references to Bean’s volumes are abbreviated to Bean III, Bean VI, etc

[4] Bean VI p. 873

[5] Monash. Australian Victories. P. 191

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