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Dernancourt: ‘A desperate defensive battle’

Reinforcements for the 52nd Battalion at La Neuville, near Corbie, 12 April 1918. They would replace some of the men lost in the fighting at Dernancourt a week earlier. (AWM E02396)

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Posted on March 28 2018

“The dead are lying thick out in front of the embankment and they’ll be thicker soon poor wretches. The Grim Reaper has gathered a bumper harvest today. Human lives snuffed out by the crook of a finger on rifle trigger” – Private Edward Lynch

The battle of Dernancourt in March and April 1918 was centred on the railway embankment at the small French town of Dernancourt.

Dernancourt was a desperate battle in which the fate of the strategic rail junction city of Amiens was at stake. The Germans had earlier that month taken advantage of the release of thousands of their troops from the Eastern Front to reinforce their Armies on the Western Front.

This occurred as a result of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk that had ended Russia’s role in the First World War. With these extra troops the Germans launched Operation Michael, and other smaller operations, in an almighty effort to end the war on their terms prior to the Allies receiving fresh American reinforcements.

The Germans had rolled westward since the commencement of Operation Michael recapturing territory previously lost to the Allied armies. If the Germans had continued in their successful march westwards, and rolled up the Australian defences near Dernancourt and broken through to capture Amiens, they would have been in a position to strike a decisive blow.

In the ensuing battle about 4,000 members of the under-strength 12th and 13th Brigades of the 4th AIF attempted to stop an almost irresistible force of four near complete German Divisions totalling 25,000 men. Though eventually outflanked by the massive German force, the two brigades succeeded in stemming the German tide, with a loss of 1,100 casualties

Perhaps the culmination of the battle at Dernancourt was the 2½ hour barrage of high explosive and gas shells that fell on the Australian troops early on 5 April causing destruction and death. Those who were not killed outright or wounded suffered from the unrelenting nature of the barrage.

“…over two hours since the barrage began, and no sign of slackening yet. Our brains can’t house this awful swelling sound much longer. Surely our heads will explode! Heads weren’t made to hold this noise.”

The barrage was followed by successive waves of German infantry attacking their positions. The Australians held on in the face of this, the single largest assault during the war.

“….wave after wave of Germans was shattered by Lewis gun and rifle fire.”

The fighting that followed was visceral and unrelenting with men recounting that the roar of the battle was so loud they could not hear the discharge of their own weapons. Bravery and tactical acumen was displayed by Australians and Germans alike. Both sides achieved stunning tactical feats with the Germans managing to engineer surprise manoeuvres to capture Australian machine gun batteries before they could return fire. The Germans, interested in maintaining their momentum, did not even escort their Australian prisoners to the rear, simply telling them to go directly to Dernancourt.

The Australians performed resolutely against this tide of German infantry and despite setbacks were able to conduct a successful fighting withdrawal. They were then able to regroup and stage a counter-attack. Though costly in terms of lives lost, the Australians denied the Germans any further advance toward Amiens.

While the official record of the battle primarily notes the good treatment exhibited on both sides towards each other—with particular examples of German medical care to wounded diggers, there were also examples of callous behaviour. These, however, are the exception with the majority of combatants treating each other with honour.

Perhaps the most poignant reminder of this honour is in the story of the Dernancourt Cross now held at the Australian War Memorial. Sometime after the battle ended the graves of two Australian soldiers were discovered near positions occupied and defended by the 48th Battalion—positions German soldiers had attacked. The graves were marked with crosses where the Germans had written, ‘Hier Liegt Ein Tapferer Englischer Krieger’ (Here lies a brave English warrior).

In death these Australians had been honoured by their foe.

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