Peronne, much like nearby Mont St. Quentin, which was captured at the end of August and beginning of September 1918, was a fortified town. Peronne was surrounded by low grassy ramparts in front of which lay a watery moat crossed by two bridges.
The Germans blew up the larger of these two bridges upon the advance of the Australians towards the town. Gaining a foothold in Peronne proved difficult. The Australians advanced on the remaining bridge into the town on the small wooden footbridge which remained intact. On advancing across this bridge four Australians were killed by a German machine gun situated on the battlements of the old town castle. Those killed included Corporal Alexander Buckley whose actions earlier that day earned him a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Earlier in the attack on Peronne Corporal Alexander Buckley, the son of a Grazing family from Gulargambone New South Wales, and others, had been held up by a German machine gun nest. In an extraordinary act of bravery Buckley and another digger rushed the machine gun nest killing four of the occupants and taking 22 other Germans prisoner.
Many other Australians lost their lives during the battle including Lieutenant Isaac Hallenstein. Hallenstein, like General Monash, was a promising young Jewish officer and the son of German Jewish immigrants to Australia. Lieutenant Hallenstein was killed in Peronne a little over 530 kilometres from where he had been born in Heidelberg Germany.
One incident amongst the horrors of this battle caused amusement for the diggers. Brigadier Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott, the renowned leader of the 15th Brigade, rushed down to the destroyed main bridge into Peronne during the battle, to encourage the men of the 58th and 59th Battalions to cross the canal. Pompey stood on a girder of the destroyed bridge and held forth to the men in full view of the enemy. Pompey promptly fell into the canal when a machine gun had opened fire and had some difficulty debouching himself from its steep sided banks. Eventually getting out of the water and, “coming up the hill dripping the Brigadier met the two Battalion commanders hurrying after him. He told Major Ferres of the 58th to take his battalion through Peronne and attack Flamicourt” just to the east of Peronne. Australian signallers subsequently sent out the message that ‘Pompey’s fallen in the Somme’.
The Australians tried a number of tactics during their movement into Peronne to engage the German defenders. Some Australians crossed the Moat on pieces of loose timber, though German machine guns on the ramparts of the town and riflemen in windows kept up a steady fire. The Australians with more support eventually took the town after a number of smaller fights in and amongst the battlements of the old city, as well as against German street barricades and Germans shooting from the windows of houses in the town.
The town was eventually captured and the battle for the town won on 3rd September 1918.
The Australian victories at Mont St. Quentin and Peronne were held by many diggers to be amongst the finest victories achieved by the AIF. British Commander General Sir Henry Rawlinson referred to the operation as the “…finest single feat of the war.”
The victories were significant and they had been hard fought. The stress of these battles certainly had an effect on the troops, whose units were now understrength and filled with tired men reaching the limits of their endurance.
It was at Peronne nearly two weeks later that the first recorded mutiny of Australian troops supported by their officers occurred when three platoons of the 59th Battalion after continuous strain refused orders to move. The problem was overcome with frank discussions between the men and higher command of the AIF. The action by the three platoons though was a telling moment for these exhausted troops in the last few months of the war.
Visitors to Peronne can visit the graves of the brave Australian diggers who fought at Peronne and Mont St. Quentin including Corporal Buckley and Lieutenant Hallenstein’s graves at the Commonwealth War Graves in the Peronne Communal cemetery.
Read more about what to see and do in Peronne.