“The Germans were already shelling the village, and it was pitiful to see the old French men and women, who had evidently been left behind… while German shells fell within fifty yards of them,”
Major W. D. Joynt V.C. 8th Battalion
The battle of Hazebrouck, also described as the Battle of the Lys, occurred near Hazebrouck in the Lys river area of northern France. Hazebrouck, a small town of 13 000 inhabitants, was critical to the Allies as the town’s railway was responsible for delivering half their daily food and munitions supplies.
On 10 April 1918 the Imperial German Army’s Operations ‘George 1’ and ‘George II’ had begun to open up cracks in the British line allowing the Germans to be within a day’s march of Hazebrouck.
General Sir Douglas Haig ordered all British and Commonwealth forces to hold their ground, and directed the 1st Australian Division to move by rail and cover Hazebrouck as a matter of urgency.
The situation was critical as the British were near the end of their reserves, while the French reserves were being conserved by General Ferdinand Foch who was soon to be the overall Supreme Allied Commander. The German offensive, however was cleverly conceived. The Germans had identified that the Allied line was most weakly held by two Portuguese Divisions. Once they attacked, the line crumbled and the Portuguese fled with minimal resistance.
It was at this point that Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig issued what Australia’s official war correspondent, C.E.W Bean, described as his famous ‘Backs to the Wall’ appeal to British and Commonwealth troops on 11 April 1918.
“… Three weeks ago to-day the enemy began his terrific attacks against us on a 50 mile front. His objects are to separate us from the French, to take the Channel ports and destroy the British Army. …There is no other course open to us but to fight it out! Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight to the end.”
This famous appeal though criticised as being overly alarming, acted precisely as desired on the Australian 1st Division, and armed them with what Bean noted as the highest pitch of determination as they proceeded to Hazebrouck on 12 April.
The first attack on the Australian positions at Hazebrouck occurred shortly after midnight on 13 April. Lieutenant Ivon Murdoch’s platoon of the 8th Battalion decisively repulsed a company of German troops of the 141st Infantry Regiment. The platoon killed one officer, twenty of the attacking German troops and captured five machine guns. Murdoch, uncle of media magnate Rupert Murdoch, won the military cross with bar for his actions during the war.
The attack resumed in force with an artillery barrage being directed onto the Australian positions early on 14 April, with the shelling becoming particularly focused from 6.30am onwards. Not long after this barrage, heavy concentrations of German infantry started towards the Australian lines. Corporal Turvey of Wagga Wagga noted the incredible sight before him,
“We had scarcely got into position and were gazing out…. When we saw miles of infantry slowly but surely goose-stepping towards us. Officers on grey horses were riding up and down the column”.
The Royal Field Artillery, who were supporting the Australian defence of Hazebrouck, soon directed fire on this area and scattered the German troops—though did not prevent other lines of German skirmishers advancing towards different points of the Australian line. The Germans advanced in six waves and were so thickly concentrated that the diggers noted it was like firing into a ‘haystack’ and that you could not miss hitting the advancing infantry.
This first German effort ended at 10.30am and the Australians then set about the expulsion of parties of German troops that had managed to hold onto positions near the Australian line. At 2.00pm the Germans resumed their assault on the Australian positions with four waves of troops. Many of the Australian positions had purposely allowed the German attackers to get within 30 yards of their positions before meeting these attacks with intense concentrations of rifle and machine gun fire.
One digger noted the bravery of many of the German officers leading these charges. One German officer was shot, fell down and got up again on three separate occasions to lead his men, before succumbing to a final volley of fire from the Australians. The German attack did not breach the Australian lines, though had some success in attacking some of the outlying Australian positions.
By 14 April the 133rd Division of the French Army began to arrive in the sector as the first of the reinforcing units, while the 1st Australian Divisions artillery also arrived and went into positions between Hazebrouck and the Nieppe Forest. Furious work was now taken on preparing defensive works with the 3rd Australian Tunnelling Company and a mix of other units including the 78th Chinese labour battalion.
On 17 April the apparent quiet of the 15th and 16th was replaced with a tremendous though largely inaccurate German barrage. The Germans attacked in force at 10.00am and again at 5.30pm but failed, with estimates of over 700 Germans killed in front of the Australian positions during the day. The British and French had also shattered German attacks in nearby Meteren.
This was the end of the major German effort to dislodge the Hazebrouck defenders—the Australian 1st Division and their British allies had proved unshakable and too costly to the Germans.