Image for Lest we Forget ... Battle of Hamel, 4 July 1918

*Pic: Australian National Memorial - Villers-Bretonneaux, France

John Maynard Keynes, prominent mid-century economist, is often cited as having answered a challenging question with ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’^ Happily for us, and even more so for our future generations, there has been a lot of mind-changing, reinterpretation and revision (not to be confused with any ideologically biased ‘revisionism’) our ‘Great War and modern memory’.

It began with the 1970s-1980s rescue of Anzac Day from its shameful descent into the sort of beer-sodden shambles portrayed in Alan Seymour‘s 1952 drama ‘The One Day of the Year’, a revision mainly led bigger crowds at Anzac Day marches, and young Australians in the 16-25 age cohort’s pilgrimages to Gallipoli (as a much older I saw, and shared, there in 1988).

Next came the rediscovery of the significance of the second battle of Villers-Bretonneux 24/25 April (!) 1918, a story not of bumbling and bloody defeat (only a little lightened by an ingenious fatality-free withdrawal), nor of nightmarish months of enduring as best they could in the diseased and dangerous trenches of the Western Front, but of a decisive win over two enemy divisions commanded by Imperial Germany’s foremost military officer Erich von Ludendorff. (We two were mightily impressed by 1998’s Dawn Service, the hospitality of the people of V-B and of the Amiens Franco-Australian Association, and by the numbers of young London-based working Aussies who cameover for the Service and then went back to work.) 

Now comes the newly-found commemoration (and dare it be said, celebration?) of strategic and tactical successes in mid and late 1918 by the First AIF, with the (relatively minor) Battle of Hamel in early July.

And, note also, a ‘Fourth of July’* which could be seen as our most important.

Our Great War stories are so much more than cliched young true-blue lions being led by snobbish Pommy upper-class donkey-twits, and of long winter months in damp, disease-ridden and dangerous trenches**. Many (perhaps, most) of the heritage-hating sneerers among us should desist on the cautionary keeping-gobs-shut-lest-confirming-stupidity principle.

“Lessons for us in Hamel rediscovered” [in print] / “Hamel was a mini-model for how World War I could be won”  [on screen]  -  The Australian, 4 / 07 / 2018

“This morning on the high ground of the Australian Memorial Park near the tiny French village of Le Hamel [Le Hamel 49°53′00″N 2°34′00″E] and within sight of the Villers-Bretonneux memorial, the Battle of Hamel, once the preserve of military buffs, will be honoured in an act of revived memory.

“It is the centenary to the day. The timing of July 4, 1918, American Independence Day, was the decision of the Australian commander, Lieutenant-General John Monash, the architect of victory. Hamel was a small battle that gained fame because of its stunning success, its military conception that integrated tanks, aircraft, artillery and infantry, the near-perfect execution of a plan, and its electrifying elevation of Monash to a new status.

“It didn’t change the course of the war, but it captured the turning point that occurred over the next few months. In its purest form, Hamel was a mini-model for how the war could be won. Monash was the right man at the right time, able to synthesise the correct military prescriptions.

Aware by mid-1918 that the war must shift to the allied offensive, Monash selected a demonstration target — eliminating the bulge in the German line near Hamel, located between Villers-Bretonneux and the Somme. Monash did not invent the new spirit of allied offensive. That was the stance being embraced by his ¬superiors: Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch, British commander Douglas Haig and commander of the British Fourth Army Henry Rawlinson.

But Monash came to exemplify that spirit and, critically, he showed the entire allied command that it could work and how it could work. At this time, every allied commander assumed the war would extend into 1919 but such assumptions were dissolved by the events of July-August 1918.

“Official [Australian] historian Charles Bean, no great admirer of Monash, said the value of Hamel ‘was that Monash’s careful arrangements furnished the model for almost every attack afterwards made by British infantry with tanks during the remainder of the war’. Monash biographer Geoffrey Serle wrote: ‘Monash’s greatest claim to military fame may lie in the model example he gave at Hamel of the concerted use of infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft and its subsequent application by the British army’***. Hamel was the first major offensive conducted by the British Expeditionary Force for eight months and Monash had been commander of the Australian Corps only a few weeks. Hamel vested him with an authority rare for a new commander.

“Monash won many admirers at Hamel but his skill at self-promotion was exceptional. His description of Hamel has become famous: ‘No battle within my previous experience passed off so smoothly, so exactly to timetable, or was so free from any kind of hitch’. He predicted the battle would take 90 minutes. Historian Les Carlyon, ironically, said Monash got that wrong; it lasted 93 minutes.

“In a passage about Hamel that revealed his strategic outlook and precise mind, Monash wrote: ‘A perfected modern battle plan is like nothing so much as a score for an orchestrated composition, where the various arms and units are the instruments and the task they perform are their respective musical phrases’.

“Yet Hamel has never entered the Australian emotional or commemorative consciousness. For much of the past century it was not part of the battles that constituted Australia’s Great War tragedy recalled in blood memory on each Anzac Day as part of unfathomable sacrifice, witness Gallipoli, Fromelles, Pozieres, Ypres, Bullecourt and Passchendaele.

“It was the revival of the Anzac ethos from the 1990s, followed by the revival in the Western Front narrative focused initially on Villers-Bretonneux, that opened the contemporary door on the Hamel story. The Howard government helped with its decision to establish a memorial at the site though that suffered from the elements and had to be redesigned.

“Hamel gained lustre because the battle is tied forever to the enduring reputation of Monash but there was another factor —  from the 1990s, as the Australian-US relationship deepened under John Howard, the battle of Hamel became a compulsory reference in every speech on the alliance: it was the first time Australians and Americans fought together, and it was under an Australian. It also makes today an event in alliance history — the precise centenary of [its debut] joint military participation.

“Tanks were at the heart of Hamel. The new ‘Mark V’ [‘version 5.0’ for younger readers] models had arrived in France but the Australians since Bullecourt had been sceptical about them. Monash saw them demonstrated and the infantry found the new tanks were a massive advance. Monash and Rawlinson were convinced that tanks integrated with infantry would vastly lighten the losses.

“The prelude to the battle revealed the extent of Monash’s self-belief and management of his superiors. With the approval of Haig and Rawlinson, about 2000 Americans had joined the Australians. When Bean saw the Americans he felt a pang of nostalgia: here were the ghosts of those big young Australians in the days before Gallipoli. But the US commander, John Pershing, decided his men were unready and wanted them pulled out. [US officers and troops suffered (literally) from the same disadvantage at Kasserine Pass, Tunisia, in their first battle in WWII.]

“Monash told Rawlinson it was too late. He issued an ultimatum — either the battle would proceed with the Americans or not at all. Rawlinson asked: ‘Do you want me to run the risk of being sent back to England?’ Monash replied: ‘Yes, I do. It is more ¬important to keep the confidence of the Americans and Australians in each other than to preserve even an army commander’. Haig said to proceed. Australian military historian Peter Pedersen summarised the outcome: ‘The battle cost the Australians 1200 casualties and the Americans 176. German losses amounted to over 2000 men, 177 machineguns, two field guns, 32 trench mortars, and three antitank rifles. Over 1600 prisoners were taken’.

“It was to Monash’s advantage that the Supreme War Council had been meeting at Versailles when news of the victory arrived. French PM Georges [‘Tiger’] Clemenceau decided he would visit the Australians. Carlyon captured the scene of the French leader arriving in bow tie and floppy hat: ‘His moustache is white and droopy, his girth ample and he leans on a walking stick. He looks all of his 77 years — and also indomitable, in much the same way as Churchill would a quarter of a century later’.

Clemenceau, speaking in English, knew how to inspire: ‘We knew that you would fight a real fight but we did not know that from the very beginning you would astonish the whole continent … I shall go back tomorrow and say to my countrymen: I have seen the Australians. I have looked in their faces. I know that these men … will fight alongside of us again until the cause for which we are all fighting is safe for us and for our children’. British GHQ published Monash’s orders for the battle in instructional documents; British commanders flooded his headquarters to absorb his methods.

“But the post-battle claim by Monash that Hamel had changed the entire allied war plan to offensive was unjust and unfair to other commanders, particularly the French. Monash was lucky. He had taken command of a superb Australian fighting machine, but he exploited to the hilt his opportunity. He believed in the psychology ‘feed your troops on victory’ and had the strategic command to make it happen. He infused the AIF with what he called a unity of thought, purpose and tactical method beyond the capability of any other Australian commander.

“PM Billy Hughes had visited the Australians on the eve of battle. On returning, he wrote to the governor-general: ‘I talked to the boys who were going into the Hamel stunt just before they started … words are poor things to describe them. I thought that with a million of such men one could conquer the world. Monash conceived the whole thing and carried it out in a masterly fashion, and America and Australia now swear by one another’.”

[Some minor reformatting and a few omissions of detail]

Paul Kelly is Editor-at-Large on The Australian. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of the paper and he writes on Australian politics, public policy and international affairs. He is the author of eight books including ‘The End of Certainty’ on the politics and economics of the 1980’s. His most recent book ‘Triumph and Demise’ covered the Rudd-Gillard era and his earlier book, ‘The March of Patriots’ offered a re-interpretation of Paul Keating and John Howard in office.

^ link -
* Interesting, a bit intriguing, that Americans almost always -  and in contrast to their usual order -  call their One Day of their Year the ‘Fourth of July’. An answer to the question ‘Why?’ in Quora offers “two reasons: one, the Fourth of July is used as a stand-in for the name of the holiday, Independence Day, and as such is treated like a full-on proper name and set phrase, with a lineage of having said it that way almost from the beginning, which likely indeed has strong roots in British English style and predates Noah Webster”.

** In his recent ‘The English and Their History’ (Allen Lane / Penguin 2014), Robert Tombs claims “Men were not constantly in the trenches. They typically spent about fifteen months on the Western Front, with about one third of that time in the line; they might be in action four or five times.” (Which was quite bad enough, without untrue rotten-egging of a foul enough pudding.)

*** And (cruelly and ironically) which army, under which supreme commander, used those same battlefield tactics two decades later?

*Leonard Colquhoun’s employment mainly comprised working as a middle and senior secondary teacher of English and histories; he appreciates how history has an enduring impact on life today, acknowledges that there’s both shame and tragedy, with joy and wonder in all histories (including ours) but refuses to accept that people’s lives now are determined by other people’s decisions then. And asserts that we are much, much more than our double helixes.