Dernancourt/Ancre (World War 1, 27 March 1918 to 30 April 1918)

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About This Campaign

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Before the Battle

The Russians had surrendered on the Eastern Front in November 1917, following the Bolshevik revolution.  The Germans were thus able to transfer 35 divisions to the Western Front.  Having built up a great army, on 21 March 1918 the Germans launched the strongest offensive of the war, named Kaiserschlacht (Emperor’s Strike).  This was a fully fledged attempt to win the war on the battlefield, and consisted of a series of attacks against the vital communications centres of Amiens on the Somme and Hazebrouck in Flanders.

The Somme phase of the operation was called "Operation Michael" and in its early stages it swept all before it.  Storm troopers aremd with flamethrowers sub-machine guns and hand grenades attacked on a narrow front to punch holes in the Allied defences and then flood through to rear areas.

On the Somme the Germans broke through the British front and forced the British into retreat.  The Australian Corps was rushed in to plug the gap, and the Australians reassured the French civilians, “Fini retreat, Madame, beaucoup Australiens ici” (The retreat is over, Madam, there are many Australians here).  The 4th and 3rd Divisions were fed into the line by brigade rather than by division, in order to quickly plug gaps opening in the collapsing British line.  The 4th Brigade held the line at Hebuterne, and the 10th and 11th Brigades at Morlancourt.  The 9th Bde stopped the Germans before Villers Bretonneux, but the hardest fighting fell on the 12th and 13th Brigades on the railway embankment at Dernancourt.  This was the strongest attack made against Australian troops in the War.  The brigades held firm and counter-attacked effectively, and the Germans’ greatest offensive was stopped.

The 4th Division’s battles just before 2nd Dernancourt on 5 April 1918 were:

            Hebuterne, 27 March-5 April 1918, 4th Brigade; and

            1st Dernancourt, 28 March 1918, 12th and 13th Brigades.

The Battlefield

The battlefield is in the shape of an amphitheatre facing the 'stage' of the railway embankment with the town behind, where the Gerrmans assembled.  It is described looking towards the railway embankment with the town beyond, from the centre of the amphitheatre. The Dernancourt communal cemetery is on the right, forward of the embankment.

The attacking enemy was XXIII Reserve Corps.  On the half left,  the 79th Reserve Division.  To the front, 50th Reserve Division, with 230th Reserve Infantry Regiment in the assault.  To the half-right, 13th Division. 

The Australians were outnumbered by about five to one.  The 47th Battalion of the 12th Brigade was dug in to repel the 50th Reserve Division assault on the centre front.  To the  left, the 48th Battalion was dug in to repel the 79th Reserve Division assault.  To the right rear, the 52nd Battalion of the 13th Brigade was dug in to repel the 13th Division assault.  To the rear, HQ 12th Brigade and the other two Battalions of the Brigade; the 45th and 46th.  To their right rear, HQ 13th Brigade and the other three Battalions of the Brigade; the 49th, 50th and 51st.

Battle Joined

On the morning of 5 April 1918, a dense mist restricted visibility to 180 metres.  The German bombardment descended at 7:00 am.  Three German divisions attacked in line, with a division pitched at each of the 47th (Qld, Tas) and 48th (WA, SA) Battalions.  In the mist, the Australian signal flares could not be seen, and therefore the artillery bombardment that could have shattered the assault was not fired.

The German 261st and 262nd Reserve Infantry Regiments had little success against the 48th Battalion.  This was a mighty feat of arms; for one battalion to stop two whole regiments, with another regiment in reserve.  The most vulnerable sector of the defensive line however was that held by the 47th Battalion opposite Dernancourt.  Of necessity, it was only thinly held by widely spaced platoons.  The first two attacks by the 230th Reserve Infantry Regiment against the 47th Battalion’s positions on the railway embankment were repulsed, but the third swarmed over the embankment on both sides.  Due to folds in the ground, the mist, and smoke from the German bombardment, the penetration was not observed, and the Germans were able to pour through the gap in their hundreds.  The first news of this was when men of the 47th Battalion reported that their right company had been wiped out.

When the Germans gained the 47th Battalion’s forward positions, they were able to enfilade the 52nd (Tas, SA, WA) Battalion, and make their vulnerable positions untenable.  They also got behind the 48th Battalion in strength, and the Australian front line had to withdraw to avoid capture.  Some Australians were holding out, and others had been sent forward to reinforce the front line.  The situation was confusing.

The 47th, 48th and 52nd Battalions were then told that the 49th (Qld) Battalion would counter-attack, and that they should support it by fire and conform to its movements.  The counter-attack commenced at 5:15 pm, with the 45th (NSW) Battalion on the 49th Battalion’s left.  The soldiers knew that the 4th Division was fighting with its back to the wall, and Charles Bean described this counter-attack as “one of the finest ever carried out by Australian troops”.

Many of the counter-attackers were killed on leaving their trenches, and those who crossed the crest of the hill were met by machine gun fire ,which one officer described as the heaviest he had ever known.  They kept steadily on however until they were about 90 metres from their objective, when they charged with fixed bayonets.  After hand-to-hand fighting, the enemy retreated in disorder, leaving behind prisoners and machine guns.  Superior fighting qualities had told, and by 6:30 pm the Germans were in full flight.  The counter-attack did not recapture the original positions down on the railway, but did recover the support lines.  A German regimental history said “The enemy’s defence was so strong that a further advance was not to be thought of”.

The assault against the two brigades of the 4th Division at Dernancourt had been the strongest ever met by Australian troops, and given the necessarily dispersed defensive positions, was one of the most difficult to resist.  Yet the Australians held, and the Germans were left with the bitter frustration that their strike against Amiens had failed.  On 7 April the 12th Brigade was relieved and marched out.  The Commanding Officer of the 48th Battalion noted, “It rained during the march, but the men marched well and sang most of the journey”.

The Australians suffered 1,259 casualties at Dernancourt, and were awarded the Battle Honour ‘Ancre 1918’.

Original Narrative by LtCol Peter Morrissey - used with permission

 

An electrifying account of the battle is given in "Backs to the Wall" by Captain George Mitchell, MC, DCM a colourful South Australian who had transferred from the 10th Battlion to the 48th after Gallipoli.  He was commisioned after distinguishing himself at Bullecourt.  Some excerpts are quoted in the stories section of this campaign page.

 

Also noteworthy is the story of the 'Hero of Dernancourt' Sergeant McDougal of the 47th and later the 48th Battalions who singlehandedly, on two occasions wrought such fearful toll on the attackers that their assault was broken. "The prompt action of this non-commissioned officer saved the line and enabled the enemy's advance to be stopped".

 

 

Compiled by Steve Larkins July 2015

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Stories

Hero of Dernancourt - Victoria Cross and Military Medal

'For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty when the enemy attacked our line, and his first wave succeeded in gaining an entrance. Sergeant McDougall, who was at a post in a flank company, realized the situation, and at once charged the enemy's second wave single handed with rifle and bayonet killing seven and capturing a machine gun which they had. This he turned on to them, firing from the hip, causing many casualties and routing the wave. He then turned his attention to those who had entered, until his ammunition ran out, all the time firing at close quarters, when he seized a bayonet and charged again, killing three men and one enemy officer, who was just about to kill one of our officers. He used a Lewis gun on the enemy, killing many, and enabling us to capture 33 prisoners. The prompt action of this non-commissioned officer saved the line and enabled the enemy's advance to be stopped.'
Source: 'Commonwealth Gazette' No. 150
Date: 24 September 1918
Military Medal

'For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty at DERNANCOURT South West of ALBERT on 5th April 1918 during heavy enemy attack, he took a Lewis Gun to a very exposed position where he could enfilade enemy at close quarters up to 30 yards. he maintained his gun until ti was pierced by a bullet, then crawled 300 yards, got another gun and returned to his post in "No Man's Land" where he was responsible for many dead. Later during our counter-attack he organised a platoon after the officer was killed and led them in the attack. He is absolutely fearless and his contempt of danger is amazing as right throughout his conduct has been of a similar high standard.'
Source: 'Commonwealth Gazette' No. 185
Date: 27 November 1918
Victoria Cross

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Into the Line

George Mitchell in "Backs to the Wall", a personal narrative published in 1937, describes the sense of hopelessness in the face of the German offensive.......

"Back in the relief trenches, dug-outs had been cut in the bank, the roof of ours leaked all night but we slept well. Next day more rain and shellfire, some copies of the Daily Mail arrived. ‘Iron Australians’, we read. ‘The Australians have stopped numerous attacks in front of Albert. It is expected, however, that the enemy will enter Amiens tonight’.

One did not require to think hard to see that the paper was preparing the nation for utter collapse. A feeling of gloom seemed to pervade all ranks. For our own capacity we never had a moment of doubt. But of what use would be our efforts if others let Jerry through. The harder we fought, the more certain would be our annihilation. Bitter were our thoughts.

At that time none of us expected to live long, and we had a feeling that over our bodies the enemy would march to complete victory. Our lives not sufficient price to stave this off. The blood and thunder of 1915, 1916 and 1917 passed in review before us. All those – our mates – who went west then. The finest of mates, the best of men, all for nothing. Perhaps they were lucky to go then, they were spared the coming debacle. When our flanking troops would ebb and we would be ringed with fire and steel, we too must die, and in dying look upon the shame of utter defeat.

How those men who had gone west would have laughed at anyone who prophesied our defeat..."


George Mitchell, MC, DCM, "Backs to the Wall", 1937

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The Australian line breaks.......

George Mitchell again

"From the right rear, a new sound – insignificant to the untrained ear – but it was the slow, irregular tack-tack-tack of a German heavy machine gun. Sent information to Imlay, his return note was just a terse comment, ‘Hold your position’. So the line was broken somewhere!

At 1.15pm a bunch of men suddenly burst over the hill, some were wounded, some fell as they ran, I went out to meet them. Asked one man what had happened, he pointed to his face, rags of flesh were all that was left of his lower jaw.

Questioned others – 47th men, “Fritz swamped the 52nd, then pushed artillery into the gap and firing directly into our line, blew us to pieces.” “You are being surrounded, you will be captured if you don’t get back.”

Then came the last survivors of the front line garrison, bitterly they fought, as though their lives were already forfeit, stopping to swap shots with their pursuers. They fired and moved in a desperate heroic gesture, hard-faced, they passed into security beyond my trench. The world had fallen, the Australian line had been broken, not even pride was left. Tears of grief ran down my face."

George Mitchell, MC, DCM, "Backs to the Wall", 1937

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.............then holds fast

George Mitchell continues...

"Suddenly as the raising of a curtain, the fog lifted. My eyes bulged as I saw at the railway crossing 1000 yards away, lines and masses of enemy – men and guns. The sight of the pack mass of men, wagons and guns made my mouth water. What a target for our guns! Immediately fired two green flares, that was our SOS, our barrage came down. Two eighteen pounders, all that was left with ammunition, or un-hit by German shells. A saga could be written of our gunners that day.

Went over to investigate the sound of rifle fire from my right, there was a party of the 47th battalion solemnly desperate, making a stand on my flank. Advancing grey-green hordes in front, I stood by the young sergeant-in-charge and said “Get to blazes out of this, it is death here.” But there was a job to do, and this was virtually all that was left of the gallant and brave 47th battalion, all but wiped out. Told him, “Hold this position, if you can”.

Left this gallant, doomed group, with a heavy heart. My platoon was blazing away at the multitude of targets. I spaced three of my precious men across the gap between, shortly after a salvo of enormous black shrapnel burst over them, we went across and all were dead. Went to the flank of the 47th party, most of them finished also. Futile and hopeless!

Tears were still running down my face, rage and injured pride. Sent an NCO across to the 47th, he did not return. I went over myself. Wiped out! Every man lay face down and silent behind his silent gun, every man and every weapon faced the closing enemy. Even in that moment, I felt a thrill of pride and pity."

George Mitchell, MC, DCM, "Backs to the Wall", 1937

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Counter attack

George Mitchell .. the culminating point

‘Backs to the Wall!’ Backs to hell, and old ‘Nick’ reaching out with his pitchfork. We could not hear our own rifles above the din, only knew by the recoil that we had fired. I could feel the sidelong glances from the men, and the unspoken thought, ‘How are you going to get us out of this mess?’ ‘Poor blighters, my job is to keep you here till you are done for, not get you out.’


On three sides, they closed in, only the way to company headquarters was open. Suddenly a runner dived in and I read the message, ‘Retire immediately.’ Down the bank once more and out on the lower plain, futile bullets pecked the ground as I trudged. What did it matter? Only a question of today, tomorrow, or the next day!


To my delighted eyes, there stretched a well-sited, newly dug trench lined with capable looking Australians. Eager questions assailed me ‘Where is he, when is he coming?’ ‘Massing over the hill’ I replied, ‘here in about twenty minutes.’ ‘We’ve got him now, we’ve got him!’

Sorted out my platoon and led them to the extreme left where there was a gap. A roar of small-arm fire came from the right, a 13th brigade battalion, the 49th, swept forward into the gap. We watched as they swung along with irresistible momentum, the ranks thinned as they went, here and there groups shot and stabbed. Ahead of them ran field grey figures, the gap is closed by good Australian bayonets! No further attack came from Fritz.

Down came their gunfire on us, the worst I ever experienced. Big shells punched the rocking earth with appalling fury, smoke rolled in clouds, had a bad attack of wind-up, and the taste of death was in my mouth. If I live through this, I thought as I lay in a heap, I will never be any good anymore. Ten shells a second, I calculated, landed on our hundred yards of front. Slowly the fire died away, the 2nd division came up and relieved us, we assembled our weary few and marched back."

George Mitchell, MC, DCM, "Backs to the Wall", 1937

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Showing 5 of 5 stories

Names

Showing 8 people of interest from campaign

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LAUGHTON, Griffin Inglis

Service number 2749
Corporal
46th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 1889

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GIRVAN, William John

Service number 322
Corporal
26th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 1893

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WARD, Leslie Norman

Service number 1671
Lieutenant
48th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 12 Apr 1893

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WHITEHORN, Edgar Douglas (Edward)

Service number S7509
Sergeant
9 Mechanical Transport Regiment
Australian Military Forces (AMF) - WW2
Born 16 Jul 1893

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STAKER, Hedley Alfred Lawrence

Service number 2683
Bombardier
24th Field Artillery (Howitzer) Brigade
AIF WW1
Born 23 Feb 1894

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ELLEM, Vyvian Eric

Service number 6497
Private
15th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 1898

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CROSSLAND, Edward

Service number 2139
Private
47th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born Oct 1883

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BARNES, Clifford Herbert

Service number 13
Sergeant
54th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 30 Apr 1884