Heroes of Hamel
The Australians and Americans
whose WWI victory changed modern warfare
Vintage Books (Penguin Random House Australia) 2016
Paperback 323pp RRP: $24.99
Reviewer: Neville Taylor, December 2018
When John Monash officially took command of the Australian Corps on 1st June 1918, he wasted no time in planning to eliminate the salient in German hands at Le Hamel. With over 160,000 troops at his disposal, and the backing of his superior, General Sir Henry Rawlinson, Commander of the British 4th Army, Monash intended to use an integrated attack using tanks, artillery and aircraft to achieve his aim, prior to subsequent assaults upon a reeling German army. A very detailed operational plan consisting of 136 elements was prepared with a view to the battle being on 4th July and having the very short duration of 90 minutes.
With one third of his Corps being British and 1,000 non-combatant American engineers, Monash asked for elements of the first US infantry to arrive in Europe to be embedded in the Australian battalions for their first ‘blooding’, cognisant that the battle would be on America’s Independence Day.
It is at this point that the author introduces some of the Hamel heroes with brief biographies of their civilian and military lives to that point. Their battlefield exploits are elaborated upon in the chapters describing the actual battles and the military awards they received. The text concludes with their return to their home countries and their post-war lives. Those specifically mentioned are:
Sergeant-Major Ned Searle, Military Medal of 15 Bn AIF
Lance Corporal Jack Axford, VC of 16 Bn AIF
Corporal Thomas Pope, Medal of Honour (US), DCM (Br), Medal Militaire and Croix de Guerre (Fr); 131st Infantry Regiment (US)
[The first US soldier to receive the Medal of Honour in the First World until, in 2015, President Barak Obama posthumously awarded Henry Johnson the Medal for action in May 1918]
Corporal Jake Allex, Medal of Honour (won at Chipilly Ridge in the Battle of Amiens on 8th August); 131st Infantry Regiment (US)
Colonel Joseph Sanborn, DSO (Br), DSC (US), Legion d’Honneur and Croix de Guerre with Palm (Fr) and the Belgian Order of Leopold; Commander 131st Infantry Regiment (US)
Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash; Commander of the Australian Corps.
With the only maps provided being of the Somme 1918 and an inset of the Battlefront as at 3:10am July 4, 1918, the prelude to, execution of the 93-minute battle and post-battle actions are described in detail (including the actions of those mentioned above). [The reaction of General Pershing, Commander-in-Chief of the American Expeditionary Force, on learning of US troop involvement in the battle and his life-long inability to subsequently acknowledge this is highlighted.] The subsequent and expected German counter-attack was repelled.
Monash was eager to have the Canadians fight beside his Australians, and they were to play a major role in the August 8 Battle of Amiens. The German commander acknowledged it was ‘the black day of the German Army’. A failure by the British 58 Division to secure Chipilly Ridge saw Colonel Sanborn personally lead his men to capture most of the Ridge on August 9 before being reinforced by men of Australia’s 13 Brigade. [Pershing never mentioned Australia’s part in the action.] On August 12, King George V presented orders and decorations to US troops and their leaders at Molliens Chateau before moving to Monash’s headquarters at Chateau Bertangles to knight Monash.
August 27 saw Monash attack the German front and pursue them and by September 3 had Bouchavesnes Ridge, Mont St Quentin and Péronne. On September 18, with the US 27th and 30th Division (which included the 131st and 132nd Regiments) as part of his Corps, Monash successfully struck at the Hindenberg Outpost Line. This was quickly followed on September 29 with the eventual breakthrough of the main Hindenburg Line at the Bellicourt Tunnel with a force of 200,000 men, 200 tanks and 1000 artillery pieces under command.
Heroes of Hamel is just about that – the Australian, British, Canadian and American troops who were part of the Australian Corps under Monash’s command and not the detailed tactics of the battles in the last 100 days. Wisely, a very narrow sampling has been made, so these few men became ‘characters’ we are able to visualize with clarity. It describes the beginnings of a unique Aussie-US relationship that has persisted through to today – encapsulated by the Australian comment ‘You’ll do us, Yanks, but you’re a bit rough!’ becoming Colonel Sanborn’s 131st Infantry slogan
This is a well-researched and easy-to-read account with a pleasant absence of military jargon. It includes an Order of Battle of the Australian, American and British units involved at Hamel, comprehensive Notes, Bibliography and a short Index. High quality photographs of the heroes mentioned, major players in the narrative and the battlefield are included.
The RUSI VIC would like to thank the publishers for their kindness in providing a review copy.