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ANZUS at 70: ‘Blood brothers’—American and Australian soldiers in 1918

Posted By on August 21, 2021 @ 11:00

In early 1918, a boatload of fresh-faced American doughboys disembarked on a wharf in Southampton in England. Their snappy clean uniforms and the sparkling rifles slung across their shoulders didn’t go unnoticed by the men of 30th Australian Field Artillery Battery. Gunner James Ramsay Armitage wrote in his diary [1]:

We amused ourselves watching a lot of very brand-new looking Yanks arriving with their extraordinary-looking equipment … Some of the officers carried leather suitcases and umbrellas and looked more like commercial travelers than soldiers.

From that point until the armistice, Armitage saw plenty more Yanks, who sailed overseas in the months after America declared war in April 1917. Slowed by a lack of troop transports, General John J Pershing, the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) commander, improved the situation by allowing British Expeditionary Force (BEF) commander Field Marshal Douglas Haig to ship doughboys to Europe for training, and, if necessary, to fight alongside his British and Dominion units. In 1918, elements of 10 US Army divisions served with Haig’s troops [2].

Hamel

Four American divisions served with Lieutenant General John Monash’s Australian Corps. Among them was the 33rd American Division, composed of Illinois National Guardsmen. Before the doughboys arrived, Monash knew little about the US Army. While he commanded the 3rd Australian Division, he hosted several AEF officers who educated him about the American way of war.

Monash wrote to his brother:

With but very few exceptions, I have formed a very high opinion of the excellent qualities, both mental and technical, of these officers. My impression is that some of the divisional commanders are rather old, and not as receptive of new ideas as may be desirable, but their attitude toward these problems is in every way satisfactory, and they show themselves open minded and receptive to an admirable degree.

American soldiers were less impressed with their Australian counterparts. Their lack of discipline puzzled the doughboys, especially when Australian soldiers failed to salute superior officers.

While training with Monash’s corps, four companies of Illinois infantrymen were plucked to join an Australian offensive against German forces holding the Hamel salient. The operation was strategically essential because the German Somme offensive of 1918 had pushed a bulge into the British lines where the Germans had occupied Hamel, located just south of the Somme River a dozen miles east of Amiens. The ridge on which the village was situated provided the Germans with clear observation of Australian-held positions and made those positions easy prey for enfilading fire.

On 4 July 1918, American Independence Day, tanks led the attack with support from an artillery barrage that surprised the Germans. Facing only pockets of resistance, the Australians and Americans gained all their objectives in 93 minutes. The German forces were driven from Hamel and the surrounding woods and ridges.

The Americans’ battle performance garnered mixed reviews. The Illinois soldiers fought bravely but were also impetuous. After entering Hamel, they advanced beyond the objective line until an Australian officer advised them that ‘it was not up to them to go on and take the next town.’

The Hindenburg Line battle

From 8 August 1918, the British Army was in the midst of an offensive to drive the Germans from their positions near the old Somme battlefield. By mid-September, the Germans were forced back to their heavily fortified defensive zone, the Siegfriedstellung, also called the Hindenburg Line. British and Australian troops, helped by two American divisions, were planning to concentrate an offensive to demoralise the enemy and destroy its defences, including wire and dugouts.

Monash designed the battle plan, and General Henry Rawlinson, the British Fourth Army commander, and Field Marshal Haig signed it off. The American 27th and 30th divisions would spearhead the operation. The main objective was to break through the line near St Quentin, where Germans were entrenched on the canal and below the Bellicourt tunnel. Four hours later, an Australian division would leapfrog over the Americans to complete the attack. This was a formidable task for any experienced army, and the mission, in hindsight, had little chance of succeeding.

After training with the Australians, the 27th, composed of New York guardsmen, and the 30th, a mixture of North and South Carolina and Tennessee guardsmen, entered the front trenches on the night of 25–26 September, relieving two British and one Australian division. The line assigned to the doughboys faced the outer defences of the Hindenburg system, west of the entrance to the Bellicourt tunnel. Prominent features of the outer line were positions situated on the high ground opposite the Quennemont Farm, the Gillemont Farm and the so-called Knoll.

Preliminary operation against the Hindenburg Line

For the Americans to achieve their objective on 29 September, they would have to undertake a preliminary operation two days before to occupy the outer defences, including the farms and the Knoll. If successful, this would become the jumping-off point for the attacks. In the preceding days, the British III Corps had failed to capture that ground after several attempts, and now the far less experienced Americans were tasked with the job.

At 5.30 am on 27 September, the 106th American Infantry advanced towards the objective. They held the position briefly until German machine-gun fire drove them back. But not all of the Americans returned. Many wounded still occupied portions of the trenches around the farms and the Knoll.

A conference convened the following day with Americans and Australians in attendance. First on the agenda was the idea of adjusting the artillery fire to a line closer to the Americans in order that troops might advance under its protection from the start. But, according to Brigadier General KK Knapp, in command of the artillery supporting the operation, that was impractical due to a lack of time. Changing the barrage table by bringing it further back would put Americans near the Knoll and the farms at risk.

Knapp was well liked and trusted by the American officers, and they felt he ‘made every effort to give our men all possible advantage of artillery protection’. The idea of postponing the operation was also suggested to Monash, and, according to one of his biographers, he thought it was the better solution. However, Rawlinson overruled him. The Fourth Army commander said that a delay would mean changing the arrangements on other fronts, where troops were set to attack the next day.

Main operation against the Hindenburg Line

On the morning of 29 September, the Americans jumped off into heavy fog and low visibility. South of the line, the 30th American Division encountered relatively little resistance. By early afternoon, the 8th Brigade of the 5th Australian Division passed through the 120th American Infantry and, after mopping up in and around Bellicourt, continued attacking towards the east. The 120th was ordered into support positions, but some of its men lost contact with their regiment and fought with the Australians. Brigadier General HA Goddard, an Australian liaison officer, said the Americans ‘were like lost sheep, not knowing where to go or when to go’. That afternoon, mixed American and Australian units were unable to make any significant advances. The flanks were reinforced and the men dug in for the night.

To the north, the 27th American Division would run into trouble. The New Yorkers started their attack an hour earlier, at 4.50 am, with infantry advancing towards the jump-off point that they had failed to reach during the preliminary attack. Early reports received at division headquarters indicated that the 107th Infantry and 108th were ‘going well’. At 8.10, Americans were reported to have crossed the Hindenburg Line and be on their way to the tunnel, but an hour later the situation turned dismal.

Regimental messages indicated heavy doughboy casualties from machine-gun fire at Gillemont Farm. Reports from the 3rd Australian Division confirmed that many ‘Americans were leaderless near Gillemont trench and Willow trench.’

Portions of the 108th American Infantry managed to cross the main Hindenburg Line south of Bony at 8.00 am—a remarkable achievement against enormous odds—but the regiment couldn’t go beyond the line until joined by the 3rd Australian Division. Together, they captured Quennemont Farm at a heavy cost. German troops appeared from underground passages of the tunnel and surprised the Australians and Americans.

Casualties filled the battlefield. ‘They’d just became figures going down,’ remembered one New Yorker, ‘like pins in a bowling alley.’ Gunner Armitage also witnessed the carnage. From his artillery position, he saw doughboys fail to clear out German dugouts and machine-gun nests before going on to the second line of defence.

When darkness fell on 29 September, both American and Australian divisions halted in front of the Hindenburg Line, which was breeched over the next two days.

Conclusion

Monash had much to say about the Americans: they ‘showed a fine spirit, a keen desire to learn, magnificent individual bravery, and splendid comradeship’. But he heavily criticised their mopping-up skills. ‘American Infantry had either not been sufficiently tutored in this important matter,’ Monash wrote, ‘or the need of it had not penetrated their understanding.’

Of course, Monash wasn’t on the battlefield, meaning that his observations were gained second hand. In fact, the American soldiers had indeed mopped up, but encountered an enemy in great numbers who counterattacked with the skill and determination of an experienced army.

If the Americans were guilty of stalling the operation, Monash was partly to blame, his biographers write. One suggests that, in preparing for this offensive, ‘Monash was not at his best … His plan for capturing the Hindenburg Line was deeply flawed.’

Some of his own men supported that critique. ‘As individuals, the Americans were not to be blamed,’ recalled one Australian officer, ‘but their behaviour under fire showed clearly that in modern warfare, it was of little avail to launch an attack with men untrained in war, even though the bravery of the individual may not be questioned.’ Major General CH Brand, an Australian adviser to the 27th Division, thought the task undertaken by the Americans ‘would have sorely tried any veteran division’.

Simply put, it was unwise of Monash to charge the Americans with spearheading an operation of this nature. He should have placed the doughboys in reserve, rather than having them jump off into an operation that had little chance of success.

Despite heavy criticism of the doughboys, Monash summed up the Australian and American battlefield relationship in glowing terms: ‘The contingent of them who joined us acquitted themselves most gallantly and were ever after received by the Australians as blood brothers.’

This post is an excerpt from ANZUS at 70: the past, present and future of the alliance [3], published by ASPI with support from the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia and edited by Patrick Walters.



Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/anzus-at-70-blood-brothers-american-and-australian-soldiers-in-1918/

URLs in this post:

[1] wrote in his diary: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C282653

[2] served with Haig’s troops: https://www.oupress.com/books/9779367/borrowed-soldiers

[3] ANZUS at 70: the past, present and future of the alliance: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/anzus-70-past-present-and-future-alliance

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