The Battle for Mont St Quentin

31 August 1918 – 3 September 1918

In March 1918, the German people were close to starvation and growing tired of the war. With the collapse of the Russian Front, and the imminent arrival of American troops to assist the Allies on the Western Front, German Commander, Erich von Ludendorff, decided to attack the weakest part of the British lines near the Somme River. On 21 March 1918, “Operation Michael” was launched and by 5 April 1918, the Germans had gained 60 kilometres of territory before their progress was halted. On 9 April 1918, another offensive “Operation Georgette” was launched against the British lines near Armentieres with the intention to push the British troops to the English Channel. By 29 April strong resistance by the British had blocked the German advance. On 27 May 1918, the Germans launched a third offensive near Reims and by July had reached the Marne River, 70 kilometres from Paris. Although the German army had made great advances, after three months of fighting their soldiers were fatigued and were weakened by an outbreak of influenza in June. The great advances had strained supply lines and the morale of the troops was lowered. By mid July the German army was in retreat.

On 8 August the Battle for Amiens (also known as the Third Battle of the Somme) commenced when a combined Australian, British and Canadian forced attacked the Germans eastwards from Villers-Bretonneux. The offensive broke the German line so thoroughly that most of their field artillery was overrun and captured. The Allied troops advanced 10 kilometres on the first day of fighting which prompted Erich von Ludendorff to label it ‘the black day of the German army’. By 11 August over 30,000 German prisoners had been captured. At the conclusion of the Battle for Amiens on 28 August 1918, the Australian casualty toll exceeded 6,500.

By the end of August 1918, the last German stronghold was located at Mont St Quentin, which overlooked the Somme River approximately 1.5 kilometres north of Peronne. Its location made it an ideal observation point and strategically, the hill’s defences guarded the north and western approaches to the town. Although Mont St Quentin, only 100 metres high, was a key to the German defence of the Somme line, Field Marshall Haig felt that there was no immediate need to push the Germans from this location.

Major General John Monash, the Australian Corps Commander, was keen to capture the stronghold with Australian troops. Monash believed that by taking control of Mont St Quentin, the line of the Somme River would be useless to the Germans as a defensive position and they would be forced to retreat to the Hindenburg Line. To achieve this, it was necessary to capture Mont St Quentin. Monash proposed that the 2nd, 3rd and 5th Australian Divisions were to take part in the attack despite their numbers being heavily depleted during earlier fighting. The 5th Division was to take the Peronne bridges, and a wooded spur east of Peronne, the 2nd Division was to aim for the bridgehead at Halle and then move on to Mont St Quentin and the 3rd Division was to take high ground northeast of Clery and the Bouchavesnes spur. Audaciously, Monash planned that Mont St Quentin would be taken by three battalions in the direct part of the assault.

On 29-30 August the 5th Brigade (comprising the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th Battalions) of the 2nd Division, seized hills that dominated the river crossings and proposed approach route. Their numbers had been depleted during earlier fighting and the troops were exhausted. Each battalion’s strength was down to around 300 men. The 17th Battalion (on the right flank) was to seize the village of Mont St Quentin and the small wood on the summit beyond the road; the 20th Battalion (on the left flank) was ordered to seize the line of the road down the northern slope to the Feuillaucourt Bridge and the 19th Battalion was to guard the right flank by occupying two parallel trenches which ran down the south western slope of Mont St Quentin and overlooked Peronne. The 18th Battalion was assigned the job of close support to the assault battalions.

On the night of 31 August 1918, the Australian troops crossed the Somme and following an artillery barrage which commenced at 5 am, attacked Mont St Quentin from the north west. During the infantry charge, Australian soldiers had to fight uphill across open ground where they were vulnerable to attack from the German held heights above. The 17th Battalion headed up the Brasso Redoubt, and climbed towards Gottleib Trench. They encountered the enemy almost immediately and charged the enemy posts, yelling at the top of their voices. The demoralised Germans, fearing they were being attacked by a superior force, surrendered in large numbers. The 20th Battalion moved up to make a bayonet charge and captured the Gottleib trench. As the Australians reached the summit, large numbers of German soldiers were sent fleeing down the slopes. By 7 am the troops had occupied the village of Mont St Quentin and the slope and summit of the hill. However, the small size of their forces meant that their hold on the position was tenuous. The reserve element of the 2nd German Guards Division, an elite German unit, counterattacked and drove the troops from the summit to positions just below the summit.

In the rear, the 19th Battalion crossed the Somme at the Clery bridge, which Australian engineers had saved and repaired despite enemy barrages.On the same morning the 33th Battalion (9th Brigade) of the 3rd Division attacked the Bouchavesnes spur, a position which allowed the Germans to dominate Mont St Quentin, and were held up by enfilade fire from a machine gun. Private George Cartwright, stood up and moved forward, stopping every few steps to shoot. He killed three of the machine gun team and then rushed ahead and threw a grenade at the post. As it exploded, he charged, captured the gun and eight prisoners. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions. Although the 33rd Battalion only held part of their objective, a concerted effort was made, the spur was secured and the left flank of the troops attacking Mont St Quentin was secured.

On 1 September, the 6th Brigade (21st, 22nd, 23rd and 24 Battalions) seized the summit on their second attempt. The 14th Brigade of the 5th Division (53rd, 54th, 55th and 56th Battalions) captured the woods north of Peronne and after pressing on during a short-lived German attack, took the main part of Peronne. An attempt to pass the northern side of the town was stopped by heavy fire from the ramparts. On 2 September the 7th Brigade (25th, 26th, 27th and 28th battalions) drove beyond the mount, the 15th Brigade (57th, 58th, 59th and 60th Battalions)seized the remainder of Peronne and the 3rd Division advanced on the northern flank. By the evening of the 3 September, the Australian held Peronne, captured Flamicourt the next day and then advanced two miles to the east.

The 3rd Army and the Canadians thrust towards Cambrai during the same period, and this gave General Ludendorff additional cause to retire from the Somme below Peronne. His only option was to retreat to the Hindenburg Line, which had been breached by the British near Bullecourt. The British had built three lines facing the Hindenburg line which had been captured by the Germans in the March offensive. By 11 September, the Australians had won the first of these lines by peaceful penetration, but the second and third lines were too strong and on 18 September an attack launched by the British 4th Army who despite heavy rain and fog, achieved success. In the second stage of the advance, the Australian 1st Division on the left achieved the second and third objectives. On the right the Australian 4th Division infantry, worked its way up open valleys to the dense wired protecting the Hindenburg “Outpost” Line. By dawn on September 19, a great part of the Australian line looked down on the St Quentin Canal and the Hindenburg Line beyond. The two Australian divisions captured 4,300 prisoners and 76 guns in this offensive and it was reported that captured German soldiers had said that their men would not now face the Australians. This latter battle highlighted the low morale of the German forces and paved the way for the attack on the Hindenburg line itself.

The Battle of Mont St Quentin resulted in a strategic, tactical and psychological victory for the Australian Forces and dealt a stunning blow to five German divisions, including the elite 2nd German Guard Division, drove the enemy from one of the key positions in France, and took 2,600 prisoners at a cost of slightly over 3,000 casualties. It was fought without tanks and creeping barrages and demonstrated that rapid and flexible manoeuvring could play a decisive part in capturing enemy positions on the Western Front. Australians attacked more than their number of Germans in strong positions and captured more of them than they could safely hold. Twenty percent of the attacking force were listed as casualties proving it had not been a walkover.

Bibliography/Further reading:

  • Bean, C E W (1983). Anzac to Amiens. Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
  • Coulthard-Clark, C (1998). Where Australians Fought: The Encyclopedia of Australia’s Battles. Allen & Unwin: St Leonards, NSW.
  • Johnson, J. H. (1997). 1918 The Unexpected Victory. Arms & Armour: London.
  • Laffin, J (1992). Guide to Australian Battlefields of the Western Front 1916-1918. Kangaroo and Australian War Memorial: Kenthurst, NSW.
  • Laffin, J (1988). Western Front 1917-1918, The Cost of Victory. Time-Life: North Sydney
  • Taylor, D (2001). Key Battles of World War 1. Reed Educational: Oxford.