4 JULY, 1918: Little Big Stuff

This exercise in vanity publishing has been largely inspired by a desire to shout about the First World War in all the ways popular sources don’t, but today I’m sticking to the populist script.   US Independence Day marks the anniversary of the Battle of Le Hamel, a small Allied victory on the Western Front that has long been celebrated as a highly significant indicator of the final victory to come.  It was that and more, so here’s what happened and then I’ll talk about its extra dimensions.

The Allied attack around Le Hamel was originally conceived as an attempt to straighten a small westerly bulge (or salient) in the front line east of Amiens, opposite the British Fourth Army, and was never more than a minor operation in the context of major offensives being prepared on the Western Front.  A succession of German spring offensives had taken the front back to where it had stood in the late summer of 1914 – threatening Paris at the River Marne – and both sides were planning attacks there for later in July. Erasing the Le Hamel salient would prevent German forces from launching flank attacks on the massed artillery support being gathered for the proposed Allied offensive.

I like this map. It includes Hamel and gives a nice, easy picture of the flux on the Western Front in 1918.

The Le Hamel operation was planned by the new commander of the Australian Corps, General Monash, and executed by its 4th Division, with support from sixty heavy tanks and every machine gun unit that could be mobilised, along with four companies of US troops that had been attached to the Corps for training.  Launched on 4 July, the attack was a complete success, sweeping the surprised and lightly entrenched defenders of the German Second Army out of the salient.  Its limited objectives, the village of Le Hamel and the woods on either side, were achieved within an hour and some 1,500 prisoners were taken for the loss of about 1,000 Allied troops.

Australians and Americans sharing a trench for the first time in history…

Leaving aside the coincidence of its date with one of the first major actions fought by US troops, the reasons this little success has been so well remembered across the decades are primarily tactical.  The victory provided the most strategically significant demonstration of a new approach to the problems faced by attackers in the context of contemporary trench warfare.   Refined and perfected during three years of trench fighting, and able to flourish once the Allies enjoyed significant numerical superiority in most forms of infantry support weaponry, it was given the oddly insouciant title of ‘peaceful penetration’.  The man generally regarded as its leading pioneer was the aforementioned General Monash.

General John Monash – tip your hat to this guy, because he was as good as it got.

John Monash ended the War as Australia’s most famous soldier, and is still well known there, but these days he’s nobody’s idea of a big star anywhere else.  That’s a shame, because he stands out as an example of excellence in a War dismissed by posterity as a command black hole.  A reservist, called up to lead a brigade of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in September 1914, he led his troops at Gallipoli, where they suffered horribly and he learned some hard lessons.  Given command of the Australian Third Division, which he trained and took to France, he soon gained a reputation for meticulous and efficient organisation, reflected in the division’s much-praised work at Messines and Passchendaele as part of General Plumer’s Second Army in 1917 (7 June, 1917: Listen and Learn).  By the time he was promoted to lead the Australian Corps in France, in May 1918, Monash was ready to put his ideas into concerted action – and they made a difference at once.

The basis of peaceful penetration was the concept that infantry should be used to simply occupy territory, rather than expended attempting to reach it.  In practical terms, that meant making maximum possible use of mechanised weapons – machine guns, tanks, artillery and aircraft – to devastate a limited quadrant of enemy territory.  Ground troops, usually supplied from the air, would then move in to occupy and secure the ground taken, while other mechanised forces were concentrated to prevent counterattacks. Carefully planned coordination between the various battle arms, a speciality of Monash, was obviously vital to any success, but the key word here was ‘limited’, because the difference between peaceful penetration and everything the British and French had done before on the Western Front was that it sought no ‘breakthrough’ into undefended territory beyond enemy lines.

Strictly limited aims, tight secrecy, overwhelming mechanised force and pinpoint coordination had demonstrated their effectiveness during the early summer in a series of highly successful Australian raids across no man’s land, which quickly began to make a noticeable difference to the position of the frontline, albeit metre by metre. Mopping up forward German trenches and taking prisoners with only minor losses, the peaceful penetration raids exposed defenders’ vulnerability to the tactics and prompted the experiment in larger-scale action around Le Hamel.

The success on 4 July did the trick as far as the Allied high command was concerned, and Allied generals would go on to imitate peaceful penetration tactics with varying degrees of success during the offensives of the autumn.  The other message received loud and clear by Allied leaders analysing Le Hamel was that the German Army was not the force it had been four years earlier.

The German Third Supreme Command had, characteristically enough, gambled everything on the success of its spring offensives on the Western Front, betting that it could achieve, if not total victory, at least a strong bargaining position from which to negotiate a compromise peace agreement.  By the summer, with the front line moved but unbroken, the gamble was failing, and the loss of around a million troops since March could not be made up.  If the British and French were already reduced to conscripting men in their fifties, German manpower shortages were far more acute, so that old men and boys now populated large swathes of the German trench system in France, while German economic atrophy was sharpening supply shortages that were already critical.  These were recognised by contemporaries as the prime reasons for an evident decline in German Army morale and operational discipline by mid-1918, and that’s still the heritage industry’s line – but the most cursory use of hindsight reveals another important factor:  the ‘flu.

It’s in Europe, and it’s coming here – Washington DC gets ready for the ‘flu epidemic.

The global influenza epidemic of 1918–19 (of which much more another day) is generally regarded as a post-War phenomenon.  It certainly killed a lot of people in 1919, but its first wave had arrived in Western Europe by the summer of 1918 and in France it hit the German side of the trenches first.  In other words, the victory at Le Hamel was in part the product of intelligent tactics, carefully planned, and partly an accident of nature.  This basic, unplanned change in the military situation during the Western Front’s last months has tended to get left out of standard popular narratives written by the winners, and is still being ignored by most of today’s heritage peddlers.  If you’re wondering why, I’m afraid you’re being naive about the enduring influence of nationalist triumphalism in a world that imagines itself more socially mature than the one that tore itself apart a century ago.  World Cup, anyone…?

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