The operation to take Mont St Quentin, led by the formidable General John Monash, is seen as one the finest victories of the AIF in the First World War.
It began on the night of 31 August with the 2nd Australian Division crossing the Somme River and attacking Mont St Quentin at 5 am from the northwest which was not expected by the Germans. By 7 am 1 September the troops had captured the village of Mont St Quentin and the slope and the summit of the hill.
The Germans regrouped and launched a counter-attack with fierce fighting and heavy losses to both sides during the first of September. Outnumbered, the Australians were forced back to the summit of Mont St Quentin. With reinforcements, the Australians retook the area at the cost of 3,000 casualties. After continued heavy fighting the Australians established a stronghold on the area and forced the complete withdrawal of the Germans from the adjacent town of Péronne.
The significance of this victory to the Australian forces was recalled by Captain W.J. Denny in his report of the battle: “There is no doubt that the whole system of the enemy’s defences on the British front was rudely shaken by this important tactical success”.
According to Major A.C. Fidge (Australian Army) writing in 2003, Monash had devised a high-risk plan for the attack. He had planned for the 2nd Division to cross a series of marshes and launch a frontal assault but this attempt failed. After the initial setback he demonstrated his ability to think and react quickly by “manoeuvring his divisions in the only free manoeurvre battle of any consequence undertaken by the Australians on the Western Front”.
According to Captain W.J. Denny who fought in the battle, the Germans never conceived it was possible that this “great natural fortress… would in a few hours not only fall, but that the whole garrison would be killed or captured”.
The calibre and skill of the Australian troops was well articulated by the French Special Correspondent of “Le Journal”:
“It is required a forest-trapper or a hunter versed in the art of ambush and bush-craft – and the Australians, bold seekers after adventure, are these – to venture to attack on a stormy night a strong position like Mont St. Quentin. At the back of their barbed wire defences the German machine-gunners thought themselves impregnable and immune from capture. Their sentries watched behind their parapets. The citadel, with its three rows of trenches, stood like a dark shadow on the banks of the Somme. Only a few hours were necessary for the Anzacs to conquer this impregnable mountain, and of the garrison of 3,000 who defended it, more than one third are today lamenting in the prisoners’ cage behind the line."
A German account of the battle was provided to Corporal A.H. Edwards of “B” Company 17th Battalion by a prisoner while he and the prisoner were lying wounded in a lorry conveying them to Daours. According to Corporal Edwards, the German’s regiment was “one of the finest regiments we had been against – all big men, six feet, and very neatly dressed, officers very haughty in manner, and could never understand how defeat took place”. The German prisoner repaid Corporal Edwards compliment in kind by saying that he had “never met any men to come up to the Australians for initiative. The French are next, but they lack the dash of the Australians”.
The German’s luck in the Battle of Mont St Quentin was out: not only was he wounded by his own men’s machine gun fire and taken prisoner, he had been due to go on leave to Berlin on the 1st of September.
The first-hand accounts of the Battle of Mont St Quentin that this article has drawn on are held by State Library of NSW.