Monday, 2 April 2007

Chapter 35: Mont St Quentin and Peronne

Australian Second Division Memorial, Rue des Australiens, Mont St Quentin. It replaces the original monument which was removed by German troops in 1940. It depicted a Digger bayonetting a German eagle. It has bronze bas relief plaques of Australians in action on each side of the base. May 2003





From the Australian War memorial website
http://www.awm.gov.au/1918/battles/mtstquentin.htm

The Aim

The end of August found German troops at their last stronghold at Mont St Quentin - overlooking the Somme River and the town of Péronne. Mont St Quentin stood out in the surrounding country, making it a perfect observation point and a vital strategic area to control. This area was key to the German defence of the Somme line. As it was such an important area, Lieutenant General Sir John Monash was keen to capture it and thus possess a valuable position.

The Attack

Painting by Fred Leist, Capture of Mont St Quentin [AWM ART02929]
Painting by Louis McCubbin, Péronne, heavy artillery advancing through the town 1918. [AWM ART03043]

This Australian operation is sometimes regarded as the finest achievement of the AIF. The 2nd Australian Division crossed the Somme River on the night of 31 August, and attacked Mont St Quentin at 5 am, from the unexpected position of northwest. It was a difficult position as it was an uphill fight for the troops, across very open ground where they were vulnerable to attack from the German-held heights above.
Rifle grenades and trench mortars were employed to outflank outpost positions. The battalions positioned to the right made a lot of noise to distract the Germans, while the centre and left battalions got a foothold on the hill and in Feuillaucourt.

By 7 am, the troops had gained the village of Mont St Quentin and the slope and summit of the hill, by working in small groups. The five German divisions were confused and dispersed, and many had fled. By midnight on 31 August, Monash's troops had captured 14,500 prisoners and 170 guns since 8 August. Allied troops also broke through lines to Péronne by 8.20 am on 1 September.

However, the Germans quickly regrouped and launched a counter-attack, and the first day of September saw fierce fighting and heavy losses. Germans attacked and heavily shelled Péronne. Much of the fighting was hand-to-hand combat.

The outnumbered Australians were pushed back off the summit of Mont St Quentin, and lost Feuillaucourt. Relief battalions were sent, and with their reinforcement, all the areas were retaken by the Australians, but at the cost of 3,000 casualties. Private Alex Barclay of the 17th Battalion was shot in the head by a sniper's bullet during the attack. Miraculously the bullet passed right through his skull, and he survived to re-enlist in the Second World War!

After heavy and exhausting fighting, the Australians established a stronghold on the area and forced the complete withdrawal of the Germans from Péronne. By the night of 3 September, the Australians held Péronne. They captured Flamicourt the next day, and advanced 2 miles to the east.

Monash said of the Mont St Quentin and Péronne campaign that it

furnished the finest example in the war of spirited and successful infantry action conducted by three divisions operating simultaneously side by side.

The fight had also included battalions from every Australian state. British Commander General Lord Rawlinson remarked that this feat by the Australian troops under Monash's command was the greatest of the war.

Forced out of Péronne, the Germans had to retreat to their last line of defence- the Hindenburg Line.

Photo of Soldiers from a machine-gun position established in the fighting in the ruins of Péronne, 2 September 1918. [AWM E03183]

Peronne

This has been a fortified town since the Roman invasion. The massive ramparts were built in the ninth century. It was heavily damaged in 1870 in the Franco Prussian war, and taken over by Germany in 1914. Peronne was to the Germans what Amiens was to the Allies – a centre of activity and leisure.

The Allies took the town on 18 March 1917, then re-occupied by the Germans during the March offensive of 1918, before being retaken by the Australian Second Division on 2 September 1918.

Photo of Peronne, 4 October 1918. [AWM E03501]


"The Wireless Section of the 3rd Australian Divisional Signal Company, marching through the main street passing an American Division making its way to a sector of the fighting area from which the Australians had just been withdrawn. Two days later, on the relief of the 2nd Division, who had succeeded in penetrating to the entire limits of the Hindenburg Defences, the whole of the Australian front passed to the 2nd American Corps, and the Australian Corps, with the exception of Artillery units, which continued operations until the Armistice, returned to a rest area behind Amiens. "



Photo of Peronne 7 September 1919 [AWM E05601]


"A panorama looking northwest along Bapaume Road towards Mont St Quentin, showing the extensive shell damage to the village buildings and surrounds. In the background (left) is a ruined factory, probably the St Denis Sugar Factory. Note a sign on the right, with an arrow directing to the right, the towns of Aizecourt-le-Haut, Nurlu, and Fins."


Above: Peronne, May 2003

Housed behind the façade of a medieval castle is the Historial de la Grande Guerre a marvellous museum which opened in 1992. Web site: http://www.historial.org/us/home_b.htm

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