Writer Historian Producer

I left Paris at 8am, hit the Perhiperque, the Paris ring road and headed north up the A1. A stop in Epernay to visit the Mercier  champagne house then on to our first stop, Mont St Quentin – a very special place in Australian military history.

2 Division Memorial, Mont St Quentin

By late August 1918, the AIF was exhausted and its fighting ranks decimated and only their spirit was driving them on.  For the three previous weeks, the five Divisions had advanced 25 kilometres from their start line at Le Hamel near Villers Bretonneux with the Canadians to the south and the British across the Somme to the north along with Australian units to protect this flank. This aggressive vanguard had forced the Germans back to their defensive line to the north of the Somme and Peronne.  Monash believed his Australian Corps was invincible and wanted a great victory even though tanks and artillery were in short supply. Pushing on, he first secured the bridges across the Somme near Clery, though some had been blown by the retreating Germans. Having total faith in his AIF and wanting to prove and confirm their offensive capacity, he sought permission of General Rawlinson to attack Mont St Quentin with three Divisions; the 3rd Division attacking Bouchavesnes-Bergen to the north, the 5th to take Peronne to the south and the 2nd to drive the Germans from their defensive high ground positions on Mont St Quentin.  General Rawlinson’s response was cynical and arrogant. “So you think you are going to take Mont St Quentin with three battalions. What presumption. However I don’t think I ought to stop you. So go ahead and try –and I wish you good luck.”

The Australians attacked at 5am, yelling as they ran uphill against the guns of the German elite 2nd Prussian Guards. The Germans initially fell back, allowing the Australians to take the summit. Though they were pushed back down the hill later, news of the success reached Rawlinson as he ate his breakfast well in the rear. He was dumbstruck. General Haig was amazed. Rawlinson later said to Monash, “You have altered the whole course of the war” and later stated that it was “the finest feat of the war."  In four days of fighting, eight Victoria Crosses were awarded, the most of any battle. 

Battle honours of the 2nd Division

Today on Mont St Quentin is a large plinth on which stands a reflective sculptured digger, his head bowed as if in contemplation of his lost mates who fell on that chalk scattered slope. It replaced the earlier sculpture of a digger bayoneting a German eagle at his feet, a sculpture found offensive by the Germans in the Second World War and removed.  Yet the attack on Mont St Quentin still holds a special place in the history of the AIF.  Fortunately, the end of the war was near with the final Australian infantry action at Montbrehain just four weeks later.

Will Davies


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