The Battle of Mont St Quentin

If you’re wondering what this year’s WWI battle on the Riverfront Arena each day will be about, keep reading!

From the Battle of Amiens on the 8th of August 1918 until the Armistice on 11th of November 1918 is the period known as the ‘Hundred Days’. This was a time of almost constant advance for the Allied armies.

As the Allies were pursuing the Germans the greatest obstacle to crossing the Somme River to reach them was a natural feature – Mont St Quentin. Situated at a river bend dominating the countryside for kilometres in every direction,  the Mont was only 100 metres high but was key to the German defence of the Somme line, and the last German stronghold. It overlooked the Somme River approximately 1.5 kilometres north of Péronne. Its location made it an ideal observation point and strategically the hill’s defenses guarded the north and western approaches to the town and key to the German defense of the Somme line and as such Lt. General Sir John Monash was keen to capture it and thus possess a valuable position.

This Australian operation is sometimes regarded as the finest achievement of the 1st AIF during the Great War.  On night of 31 August, the 2nd Australian Division crossed the Somme River from the north-west and attacked Mont St Quentin at 5:00 am. The uphill terrain was difficult for the Australians and attacking across open ground made them vulnerable to attack from the German positions on the slopes above.

On 29-30 August the 5th Brigade comprising the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th Battalions of the 2nd Australian Division seized hills that dominated the river crossings and proposed approach route. Their numbers had been depleted during earlier fighting and the troops were exhausted. Each battalion’s strength was down to around 300 men.

The 17th Battalion on the right flank was to seize the village of Mont St Quentin and the small forest on the summit beyond the road. The 20th Battalion on the left flank was ordered to seize the line of the road down the northern slope to the Feuillaucourt Bridge and the 19th Battalion was to guard the right flank by occupying two parallel trenches which ran down the south western slope of Mont St Quentin and overlooked Peronne. The 18th Battalion was assigned the job of close support to the assault battalions.

Rifle grenades and trench mortars were used to outflank outpost positions. The battalions positioned to the right of the line of attack made a lot of noise to distract the Germans, while the centre and left battalions gained footholds on the hill and in the village of Feuillaucourt on the left of the line.

The demoralised Germans, fearing they were being attacked by a superior force, surrendered in large numbers. The 20th Battalion moved up to make a bayonet charge and captured the Gottleib trench. As the Australians reached the summit, large numbers of German soldiers were sent fleeing down the slopes. By 7am the troops had occupied the village of Mont St Quentin and the slope and summit of the hill. However, the small size of their forces meant that their hold on the position was tenuous.

The five German divisions defending Mont St Quentin were confused and dispersed by the ferocity of the Australian attack and many had fled.

By midnight on 31 August, the Australians had captured 14,500 prisoners and 170 guns since 8th of August. The next day on 1 September, Allied troops also broke through lines to Péronne by 8:20am.

However, the Germans quickly regrouped and launched a counter-attack and that first day of September saw fierce fighting and heavy losses. Germans attacked and heavily shelled Péronne with much of the fighting being 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 duly reinforced, all areas lost were retaken by the Australians, but at the cost of 3,000 casualties. One casualty, 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.

On 1 September, the 6th Brigade consisting of the 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 24th Australian Battalions seized the summit on their second attempt. The 14th Brigade of the 5th Australian Division, which included the 53rd, 54th, 55th and 56th Battalions, captured the woods north of Péronne and after defeating a short-lived German attack took the main part of Péronne. An attempt to pass the northern side of the town was stopped by heavy fire from the ramparts. On 2 September, the 7th Brigade, which included the 25th, 26th, 27th and 28th Australian battalions, drove beyond Mont St Quentin and the 15th Brigade made up of the 57th, 58th, 59th and 60th Battalions seized the remainder of Péronne and the 3rd Division advanced on the northern flank. By the evening of 3 September, the Australians held Péronne, captured Flamicourt the next day and then advanced three kilometres 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.

Eight Victoria Crosses were awarded to Australians between 31 August and 2 September 1918.

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 Hindenberg Line.