The 95th anniversary of the battle of Hamel, 4 July 1918
This Thursday, 4 July, marks the 95th anniversary of a pivotal battle of the First World War by Australian soldiers on the Western Front.
The battle of Hamel, on 4 July 1918, was largely an Australian-planned battle which achieved a stunning victory over the Germans at the cost of minimal casualties. Hamel has been called a turning point of the First World War on the Western Front and the first ”modern” battle; certainly it marks the culmination of a learning process involving the coordinated use of multiple arms: tanks, artillery, infantry, and aircraft. It provided a model for the full-scale offensives of August and September which overwhelmed the formerly impregnable German front-line defences and ultimately led to the allied victory of November 1918.
In the early morning of 4 July, three Australian infantry brigades (the 4th, 6th and 11th) attacked the village of Le Hamel near Amiens. The date, American Independence Day, was chosen specifically to mark the first time Americans joined Australians in battle. Together with attached platoons of American troops and a British tank brigade of 60 tanks, and supported by artillery fire from over 600 guns, the Australians captured the village. The attack was a limited action, aimed at merely straightening a section of the front line in preparation for future operations. But its true value was found in the cutting-edge combination of newly evolved techniques of silently registering artillery and the coordinated deployment of massed tanks, aircraft and infantry within a protective artillery barrage.
The commander of the Australian Corps, Lieutenant General Sir John Monash, planned the assault meticulously, estimating it would take 90 minutes to capture the key objectives. In fact the victory took just 93 minutes and resulted in over 2,000 German casualties (including 1,600 taken prisoner) at the cost of some 1,400 allied casualties, making this one of the rare occasions in the First World War when an attack proved cheaper than defence. Two Australian soldiers, Lance Corporal Thomas Axford and Private Henry Dalziel, were awarded Victoria Crosses for conspicuous bravery in the battle.
On 4 July 1998, the 80th anniversary of the battle of Hamel, an Australian Corps Memorial and Memorial Park was officially dedicated on the site of the Australians’ final objective of 4 July 1918. This 1-hectare park, on land given by the French government, includes a walking trail which leads visitors past a series of interpretative panels and through the remains of the German trenches which were captured in the attack. The memorial displays the words of the French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, who said after the battle:
When the Australians came to France, the French people expected a great deal of you … We knew that you would fight a real fight, but we did not know that from the very beginning you would astonish the whole continent.
Over 60,000 Australians died in the Great War from 1914 to 1918, 53,000 of them in France and Belgium: approximately one-third of them have no known graves.