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'Some Fine Australian Shows'

by Hamilton Fyfe

 

My Impressions of the Great Offensive

 


A good show " — that is the usual term applied by the Army to any successful fighting. The phrase illustrates our persistent refusal to admit that we take anything very seriously. The Germans speak of their successes as "unforgettable triumphs." The French speak, of "glorious victories." We say "a good show."


The Australians have had several good shows during the past three months. The first effect of their being put into the line during the critical times at the beginning of the offensive was seen in the relieving of the German pressure towards Amiens. Enemy battalions were pushing in on Villers-Bretonneaux. Carey's force was doing its best to hold them, but needed help. That help was given by the Australians and by one of our finest cavalry divisions. The Germans were thrown back. A month later there was another attack on Villers-Bretonneaux. This time the Germans in large force got into the little town and drove us out. The attacking troops included the Prussian Guard Division, composed of assault troops, and a division fresh from the Russian front. It was evident the enemy meant business. At first it looked as if he had done a good stroke.


Beneath Moving Tanks


It was in this battle that he first used Tanks ; they helped him a good deal. They were bigger Tanks than ours, but not so fast or so handily turned. They looked like huge turtles, and their six machine-guns — two in front, two at the back, one on each side — spat out bullets with vicious energy. They carried a small field-gun as well, chiefly for use in case of an encounter with other Tanks, such as occurred before the Villers-Bretonneaux episode was over.


Our men stayed in their trenches in spite of the threatening aspect of these monster travelling forts. Some of them let the Tanks actually pass over them. An officer of the Middlesex Regiment related next day how he had this alarming experience : When he saw the Tank approaching, he calculated that if he took his men out of their shelter they would certainly be shot down. So he decided to stay where he was. As the Tank came up they fired volleys at it, the officer joining in with his revolver; but it took no notice. On it rolled, with its ungainly motion, and lumbered right across the trench. Yet no one was any the worse.


Next day, when our Tanks had been in motion, we captured a German, who said he had gone through the same experience in a shell-hole. He was so unnerved that he fainted, and when he came round to consciousness he found that another Tank was passing over him. But he did not faint again. "One can get use to anything," he said, with a wan smile.


The position, when dark closed in on April 24th, was that the enemy held Villers-Bretonneaux and some ground westward of it. This was dangerous, for it gave them high ground and a good starting-place for a further advance towards Amiens. One of the Australian generals proposed an immediate counterattack. His plan was to form an arrow-head by sending two columns—one from the north, moving south-eastwards ; the other from the south, to work northeastwards. These would join hands in front of the town, and cut off all the Germans who were in it.


An immediate effort was found to be out of the question, but orders were given for the counter- attack in the form suggested to be made that night. .The chief part in this was allotted to Australian troops. It was the third anniversary of their landing on Anzac Beach, a date which will for ever be known in Australia as Anzac Day. No better occasion for a "good show" could be desired. No better show than the Australians gave has been seen during the offensive. It was a clever tactical operation, boldly and steadily carried out.


An Anzac Day Event


The attacking force started at 10 p.m. The night was overcast and rainy. There was no preliminary bombardment. The idea was to take the Germans by surprise. and it came off. They did not expect a counter-attack. They were not in good shape to receive one. Counter-attacks succeed best, so recent experience has proved, when they are made at once before the enemy has had time to pull himself together after his hard work.


There was some stiff fighting, though. At the start the Australians went at it with the bayonet, but as soon as the Germans got their machine-guns going they had to advance more cautiously. They kept on pushing ahead, however, and by daylight had got within five hundred yards or so of the point where they were to meet the other attacking force.


This had not encountered such serious opposition, but it had suffered more heavily. It reached the rendezvous long before the northern column had fought its way through, and its aim was fully realised. The town was retaken, and not far from a thousand prisoners with it. They came up out of cellars, where they had taken refuge, and surrendered readily, asking for something to eat. They said our gunners had interfered with their food supply. They certainly were very hungry.


Some German Prisoners


While the two Australian columns were encircling the town, English troops attacked it directly from the west. The Berkshires and the Northamptons were prominent in this, fighting. Both had a fair proportion of new and young soldiers in their ranks. Though fresh to warfare, they stood their ground well. All their officers spoke highly of them. But, as I said before, it was the Australians who' had the principal role in the operation. They took most of the prisoners. I saw several hundreds at one of their divisional headquarters next morning.


Lying on the grass before the French Chateau, they were smoking cigarettes which their captors had given them, after they had had a square meal. They were enjoying the sunshine and the - freedom from their usual duties and discipline, when, all of a sudden, I saw them jump and stand to attention with the rigidity of statues. A sergeant, who had been made prisoner, had been told to assemble them and march them off under escort with fixed bayonets. He barked out words of command, and the German soldiers felt that discipline had pursued them; they looked fifty per cent, less cheerful than before.


Going away, I met more on the road. They were white-faced and looked shaken. I asked what accounted for the difference between their appearance and the carefree aspect of the others. " We had an accident on the way," an Australian officer told me. " Two of the Boche shells burst among us, and knocked out thirty of the prisoners. It was a nasty-thing to happen. Poor devils, I felt sorry for them — killed most of them, the rest badly wounded. You'll meet them on stretchers farther back."


Not quite a month afterwards, on May 10th, the Australians did an equally effective piece of work, though on a smaller scale. They closed in upon the hamlet of  Ville, on the Ancre, killed a great many Germans, and took four hundred prisoners. The operation was skilfully planned and executed with that tough vigour for which the Australians are famous.


Surrender — to a Piano


The scheme was similar to that which succeeded so well at Villers-Bretonneaux. Two bodies attacked—one from the north, across the river, which they had to wade with the water up to their waists ; the other from the south, along a spur of high ground, from which they rushed the village in the hollow. The action moved according to timetable. The two bodies joined half an hour after it had begun. Hundreds of the enemy were hemmed in. Some fought, some surrendered — none got away. One of the surrenders was amusing. Some Australians, hunting for hidden Germans, found a piano in a cottage. One of them sat down and began to play. He had not played long before a cellar-flap was pushed up, and a sergeant, with several men, came up. They could not endure the torture of hearing the piano so maltreated, so the other Australians said.


Along with these well-directed blows I must mention the one the New Zealanders delivered at the beginning of April near Hebuterne. There was a ridge which we wanted. The enemy were known to be in large force on the ridge and below it, but it was suspected that after their rapid advance they were rather mixed up. A plan was made for a sudden spring. At two o'clock in the afternoon the New Zealanders attacked, and in seven minutes they had done the trick — the ridge was ours, and not the ridge only, but nearly three hundred prisoners and a hundred machine-guns. The Germans were in a confused state. They were trying to sort out the units which had got muddled up together. Catching them thus disorganised, our troops rounded up prisoners without much difficulty, after they had made their unexpected and irresistible rush. It was that which carried the operation to success.


It is because their commanders have initiative, and are encouraged to be enterprising, and because the men respond so gladly when they are called upon for an effort, that the Australians put up so many "good shows."