“The slaughter of the enemy in the tangled valleys was considerable, for our Infantry are always vigorous bayonet fighters. They received much assistance from the tanks in disposing of the numerous machine gun detachments which held their ground to the last.”
Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash, Commander of the Australian Corps at the battle at Chuignes
The 1st Division of the Australian Imperial Force marched to the front on 21 August and early on the morning of the 23rd, the 1st and 2nd Brigades joined with the British 32nd Division and advanced forward to Chuignes—the main German position forward of the Somme.
The coming battle was well planned by the Australians. Brigadier William Glasgow, the Queensland Cattle Station owner, Boer War veteran and now Commander of the 1st Division worked closely with the other Australian officers and Lieutenant-General Monash to ensure that the operation was finely tuned. The battle was to be a combined arms operation that would replicate the success at Le Hamel and the recent Messines battles. These earlier battles had featured the orchestration of infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft in a manner that maximised their assault capabilities, while minimising allied casualties.
Monash’s planning of the Le Hamel attack was a prime example of the combined arms concept. In comparison to what has been argued as the piecemeal and unimaginative planning of battles before Le Hamel, the combined arms approach sought to inject a new mobility to a battlefront that had been mostly stagnant for the previous four years due to the superiority of the defensive over the offensive.
Part of the Chuignes battle plan included a sophisticated ‘creeping barrage’ that provided a mix of high explosive, shrapnel and smoke shells to maximise protection for the Australians while delivering death upon the Germans. In order to screen the attacking tanks and infantry from the Germans, the smoke shells constituted ten per cent of the barrage.
The seasoned diggers of the 1st Division and the newer Mark V tanks each with its own infantry scout were protected by this barrage. Carrier tanks were also employed to ensure timely supply of the advancing troops. Tanks had been much improved since their failure at Bullecourt where they had lost the confidence of the infantry.
The tanks, which had so terrified the Germans a few weeks before at Amiens, moved forward to extinguish the German machine gun positions and clear the way as best they could for the infantry. A new recognition of the value of these tanks was evident in orders that the tanks, ‘must not roam the plateau’ and were to be immediately sent back half an hour after the advance finished.
The history of the 1st Division notes that by the close of fighting the next day the Allied force had driven three German divisions back over two kilometres from their defensive line. By 27 August, prior to the 2nd Australian Division relieving the 1st Division, they had captured a heavy calibre German railway gun (the ‘Amiens Gun’), twenty one field guns, over a hundred machine guns and other weapons, as well as 2,500 prisoners. Practically all primary objectives of the battle had been achieved with even the German records noting how their Army had suffered a grievous blow.
Outstanding acts of bravery were undertaken during the course of the battle by the Australian and British troops, with two Australians being awarded the Victoria Cross. Lieutenant Lawrence McCarthy an orphan from Perth, Western Australia displayed outstanding leadership and personal bravery which resulted in the killing of 20 German soldiers, the capture of over 40 prisoners and the seizure of 500 yards of German frontline.
Charles Bean, the official Australian war correspondent believed McCarthy’s actions in winning his Victoria Cross to be one of the most outstanding feats of individual fighting in the history of the A.I.F.. Bean also believed McCarthy’s effort to be equal to that of Gallipoli V.C. winner Lieutenant Jacka who went on to win Military Cross at Pozieres.
Lieutenant William Joynt also won a Victoria Cross for his outstanding bravery during the battle for Chuignes. Other notable Australians in the battle were Major Geoffrey Street, the winner of a military cross in 1917, and future Defence Minister of Australia who tragically died in the Canberra Air Crash of 1940; and Maurice Wilder-Neligan the decorated and talented tactician who had risen through the ranks to end the war a Lieutenant-Colonel.
The Australians also noted the bravery of their foes, with Lieutenant Ribchester of the 13th Tank Battalion acknowledging the great bravery of the German machine-gunners who were only overcome after a desperate fight. The compassion and professionalism of two German doctors despite being captured at their aid post continuing to care for grievously wounded Australians and Germans alike was also respected.