Battle of Hamel 4 July 1918

 

The Battle of Hamel in World War I was a small-scale, brilliantly successful attack made by elements of the Australian Corps and United States (US) troops with British tanks and air support. It was the first set-piece operation planned by Lieutenant General John Monash since taking command of the Australian Corps the previous month. Under Monash's strategy, infantry, tanks, artillery and air support worked together on the battlefield for the first time under Australian command. In just 93 minutes, the Allies captured 1,600 enemy soldiers. Around 1,380 Australian and US personnel were killed or wounded in the battle. It was the first time that Australians and Americans fought together on a battlefield. The planned attack became a model for innovative tactics, which the Allies repeated on larger-scale advances from 8 August and helped to end the war in November 1918.

Role of the Australians

The Allies aimed to take the high ground east of the village of Le Hamel, south of the River Somme. They knew the Germans needed to occupy the ridge at Le Hamel if they planned to capture Amiens, about 20 km west. Moreover, to the Allies, taking the ridge would help their advance further east, along both banks of the Somme.

The operation was planned and executed under the leadership of Lieutenant General John Monash. He wanted to show the effectiveness of combined arms tactics and coordination between infantry, artillery, tanks and air support. As a result, the Australian armed forces played a crucial role in the battle, contributing to the attack's success and achieving the objectives set by the Allies.

The Allied attack involved:

Each US platoon was attached to an Australian company. It was the first time US soldiers had served in combat under a foreign commander.

Elements of the 7th Australian Infantry Brigade – the 25th Battalion and a company from the 27th Battalion – also supported the 6th Brigade's sector.

In terms of firepower, there were 8,000 Allied personnel with 550 guns, 60 tanks and 85 aircraft in support. They were facing around 5,000 German troops. In just 93 minutes, the Australians had taken all their objectives, advancing the Allies 2 km along a 6 km front.

At the same time as the attack on Le Hamel, the 15th Australian Infantry Brigade launched a 'feint' or diversionary attack. The men successfully captured the new German front line east of Ville-sur-Ancre.

Planning and preparation

Monash meticulously planned the battle using innovative tactics and techniques. He integrated intelligence, reconnaissance and thorough briefings to ensure all units understood their roles.

In addition, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) provided Allied officers and soldiers with extensive training, including rehearsal exercises on a full-scale replica of the battlefield.

Landscape view across a small damaged old village towards pastures and forested areas in the distance.
The village of Le Hamel, France, in July 1918, around the time of the battle of Hamel. Looking towards Corbie, as it would have been seen from the German-held trenches until the battle on 4 July 1918. The enemy front line on the morning of the 4 July was on the crest of the hill in the middle distance. After the successful attack, the Allied supports occupied the trench in the foreground some 200 yards (182 m) behind the new front line. AWM E02844B

Surprise and speed

The Allies aimed to achieve complete surprise and rapid penetration of enemy lines.

Allied aircraft bombed the village of Hamel to mask the sound of the British tanks moving into position.

The AIF used a short but intense 7-minute artillery barrage to target specific German strongholds and disrupt their defences. The Artillery units precisely coordinated their fire with the infantry assault. This tactic ensured the troops advanced immediately behind the creeping barrage.

Groups of men in army uniform are resting and tending to injured soldiers with a battle-scarred and smoking rural scene behind them.
Dawn at Hamel, 4 July 1918. A 1921 oil painting by Australian official war artist George Bell shows the approaches to Hamel and Wood on the right. AWM ART03590

Combined arms tactics

The Allied forces effectively employed combined arms tactics, integrating infantry, artillery, tanks and air support.

The artillery created a protective 'rolling barrage' ahead of the attacking infantry. This minimised casualties of infantrymen and allowed them to maintain their momentum.

Tanks provided crucial support by neutralising machine-gun nests and fortified positions. This enabled the infantry to advance.

Finally, the Australian Flying Corps provided aerial reconnaissance, bombing support and protection from enemy aircraft.

View across a rural landscape where a small aircraft in the sky is facing down towards land on the horizon.
A British RE8 aircraft shot down at Bois de Vaire (Vaire Wood) during the Battle of Hamel on 4 July 1918. AWM E03912

Well-coordinated assault

The Australian troops, supported by US soldiers, launched a precisely timed attack on the German lines.

The soldiers moved swiftly and efficiently. They cleared trenches, captured key objectives and neutralised enemy strongholds.

The Australians demonstrated their tactical skill and disciplined coordination by advancing synchronously and avoiding unnecessary casualties.

A group of about 8 men in army uniform wearing tin helmets standing in a dug-out trench in an open field, with large guns resting behind them.
Two members of the 42nd Australian Infantry Battalion, part of the 11th Australian Infantry Brigade, with 5 unidentified Australian and United States soldiers. They are in a trench in the Hamel area just after the Battle of Hamel, 4 July 1918. AWM E02690

Objective capture and consolidation

The main objectives of the battle were to capture the town of Le Hamel, secure the high ground and create a defensive flank for future offensives. The Australian forces successfully achieved these objectives within a remarkably short time.

In addition, they captured around 1,600 German prisoners, gained control of strategically important positions and consolidated their gains to withstand subsequent counterattacks.

A large group of men in army uniform walking along a dirt road through an old village, led by 2 men riding horses.

Members of the 3rd Australian Pioneer Battalion escorting German prisoners of war from the Battle of Hamel to their compound at Bertangles, France, 4 July 1918. AWM E02634

Casualties of the battle

The Allies had lost around 1,380 men, including some 1,062 Australians and 176 US soldiers at Hamel and another 142 Australians at Ville-sur-Ancre. The Germans may have lost over 2,000 personnel.

The Official Histories gives a breakdown of Australian casualties by brigade and battalion.

Four men in army uniform in a rock-filled crater looking up at the silhouettes of 11 soldiers and 3 medical stretchers at the top edge of the crater.

Australian soldiers bringing wounded soldiers from the Battle of Hamel to the 4th Brigade Headquarters near Hamelet, France, 4 July 1918. AWM E02534

One veteran's reflection

2879 Lance Corporal John Stalley Tillbrook of the 43rd Infantry Battalion sent a letter from France to his father at Yacka, South Australia. An extract from Tillbrook's letter was published in The Register newspaper:

It was the pleasure of our battalion (43rd) to pass through the village of Hamel and take it. This was the first time we had jumped over the top since October 4, 1917. Our casualties were light. We had a magnificent barrage, and the tanks went through with us, doing excellent work. While we were digging in a piece of shrapnel hit me on the shoulder and just cut my skin; nothing to even have to dress. My section of Lewis gunners got through with only one wounded; the section on my right had two killed and three wounded. Two days before we took Hamel we walked 18 miles is one day. Gen. Monash visited us and said that these of us who took part on March 27 had won an honour for Australia that would live in history for generations. Our brigade was in the real piercing point in that action. I got a nice pair of field glasses of Fritz's, which I am going to send home. I am writing this letter on the bank of the River Somme. I wish you could see some of the crops here; they are in the right condition for hay cutting, and I would like to have a go at them. The other day one platoon was given short notice to move off. It has turned out a plessant surprise. I am on the best job I've had here - great work, four hours on and 12 hours off. We are beginning to stir things up a bit now. The Yankees liked our boys when they were mixed up with us to go over the top on July 4, and after we came out and they had to go back to their own lot they were quite disappointed. They are good fellows. Their general told them when they were coming to the Australians that they were going over the top with the best soldiers in the world. The night after I went to hospital with influenza our battalion was badly gassed. Our fellows are paying Fritz back in his own coin and I think he is sorry he started it. I shall never forget when we came down here seeing the poor people traversing the roads, some in carts, same walking and carrying their babies, some with a few things on wheelbarrows, other leading their cows. Shells were dropping in the town. We dumped our packs, went out to meet the enemy, and have knocked him back and taken quite a lot of villages. I have seen towns with not a wall standing above the windows. I hope to be home by Easter.

John was a farmer who enlisted in the AIF on 23 September 1916 when he was 26. He served on the Western Front and was wounded in action twice - on 4 October 1917 and 8 August 1918. The war ended while he was recovering in England. John sailed home on HMAT Kanowna, disembarking in Adelaide on 26 February 1919.

18 men in 3 rows posing for a photograph in a field of grass with wintery trees in the background, one man is wearing amry uniform and the others are dressed for sport with long football socks.

Group portrait of the football team of the 14th Training Battalion, 3rd Brigade, Hurdcott, about November 1918. These soldiers had been recovering from wounds and sickness at the AIF Group Hospital, Hurdcott, England. Pictured: Private (Pte) Oscher (?5046A Anthony Julian Oschar, 32nd Battalion (1); 653 Sergeant (Sgt) Frederick William Woosnam MM, 29th Battalion (Bn) (2); Pte Hall (3); Captain (Capt) Trounson MC, 31st Bn (4); Lance Corporal W. Robertson, 59th Bn (5); Pte Tillbrook (6); Pte Mayo (7); Sgt A. V. Atkins, 57th Bn (8); 1219 Sgt Robert Alfred Rahilly, 29th Bn (9); Pte Monkhouse (10); Pte Read, 29th Bn (11); Chief Sergeant Major J. Brady, 29th Bn (12); Lieutenant (Lt) C. H. Davis MC, 57th Bn (13); Lt Norman William S. Hamilton, 30th Bn (14); Capt J. B. Laing MC, 57th Bn (15); Pte Glover (16); Corporal Beck (17); Lt E. M. Burns, 60th Bn (18). AWM D00209

Legacy of the battle

Historians regard the Battle of Hamel as a turning point in the war. It showed the effectiveness of combined arms tactics and the successful coordination between infantry, artillery, tanks and air support. Under Lieutenant General Monash's leadership, the Australian armed forces demonstrated their strategic and tactical prowess, achieving their objectives and contributing to the overall success of the Allies. The battle's innovative approaches and lessons learned also had a lasting impact on future military operations.

Commemoration

The Australian Corps Memorial at Le Hamel sits on a small hill near the remains of German bunkers, overlooking the small French town of Albert. The name 'Hamel' is also inscribed on the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.

Sources

1918 'Australians at Hamel.', The Register (Adelaide, SA: 1901 - 1929), 28 September, p. 9. , viewed 01 Jun 2023, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article57549455

Bean, Charles Edwin Woodrow (1942), First World War Official Histories - Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume VI – The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Allied Offensive, 1918 (1st edition, 1942), Chapter VIII – The Hamel Plan – Tanks, and the Americans (pages 242 - 279), https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1416793

Bean, Charles Edwin Woodrow (1942), First World War Official Histories - Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume VI – The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Allied Offensive, 1918 (1st edition, 1942), Chapter IX – The Battle of Hamel (pages 280 - 335), https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1416794

Coulthard-Clark, CD & Coulthard-Clark, CD (2001), The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW.

Department of Veterans Affairs (2014), Visiting the Australian Corps Memorial – Battle of Hamel, Australian on the Western Front 1914-1918 website, 24 March 2014, accessed 1 June 2023, https://webarchive.nla.gov.au/awa/20140324040952/http://www.ww1westernfront.gov.au/le-hamel/visiting-le-hamel/battle-of-hamel.php

National Archives of Australia: TILBROOK John Stalley: Service Number - 2879: Place of Birth - Yacka SA: Place of Enlistment - Adelaide SA: Next of Kin - (Mother) TILBROOK Annie; B2455, TILBROOK JOHN STALLEY; 1914 - 1920, https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=8390962


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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Battle of Hamel 4 July 1918, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 17 July 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/where-australians-served/western-front/battle-of-hamel
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