Breaking the Hindenburg line – and other moments that turned the tide of WWI

In the early months of 1918, there was little indication that the end of WWI might be around the corner. But several key battles would play out that year and begin to change the course of history. Battles at towns like Villers-Bretonneux, Le Hamel and Amiens. These battles helped the Allies seize momentum – and Australia's troops cement a national reputation as a force to be reckoned with.

A statue of Australian war hero Harold "Pompey" Elliott, standing under blue skies at Ballarat, Victoria, where he spent much of his childhood.

The war of attrition has its cost

By the beginning of 1917, the German army was feeling the sting of several years of unrelenting combat. With men and artillery limited, it needed to adapt its strategy.

It had already prepared a solution.

The answer was counter-intuitive, but strategically brilliant. Germany would withdraw to a new line of defence, conceding ground, but freeing up troops and artillery in the process.

This new 'last line of defence' stretched from Arras to Laffaux, France. It consisted of three trench systems, heavily fortified and aggressively defended. There were steel-reinforced concrete dugouts. Ruthless sections of barbed wire, up to 91 metres deep. The Germans called this new line Siegfriedstellung (Siegried's position). But to the Allies, it was the Hindenburg Line, named for Paul Von Hindenburg – the man behind the idea.

The German army evacuated the towns in the area they'd conceded. They then set to destroying them so that they were inhospitable. Telephone lines were cut. Buildings were burned. Bridges destroyed. Wells contaminated. Elaborate booby traps were placed throughout the towns, ready to wreak havoc on unsuspecting Allied troops.

Breaking the Hindenburg line would deal a massive advantage to the Allies. It was a tantalising prospect. But early attempts to push through it resulted in heavy numbers of casualties and no real success. Yet.

The first Villers-Bretonneux battle

The quiet town of Villers-Bretonneux lies nestled in northern France, surrounded by lush, green pastures. Unassuming though it may seem, this sleepy village has seen more than its fair share of conflict.

During WWI, the nearby town of Amiens, France was a vital railway junction, highly sought-after by the German army. If the Germans could capture Villers-Bretonneux, they would be within artillery range of Amiens. So in 1918, Villers-Bretonneux was ravaged by not one, but two significant battles in the space of weeks.

In early April, 1918, German troops successfully captured the town. Things were looking dire for the Allies as the subsequent capture of Amiens loomed – but a swift counter-attack prevented Germany from advancing any further. Villers-Bretonneux was reclaimed by the British 8th Division, but the conflict was far from over.

Just a few weeks later, German troops retaliated again with mustard gas and artillery, taking over 1,000 casualties. They successfully seized Villers-Bretonneux, placing Amiens in jeopardy once again. But a daring surprise attack by two Australian Brigades, early in the morning on the 25th of April, would reclaim the town against all odds.

On the anniversary of Gallipoli – the second battle of Villers-Bretonneux

Leaving under the cover of darkness, the Australian 13th – under General Thomas Glasgow – and 15th brigades – under General Harold “Pompey” Elliott – surrounded the town. The terrain was unfamiliar. It was dark. And there was no preceding artillery fire to rely upon – after all, that would alert the German troops to their presence!

Somebody spotted them. Gunfire from a nearby wood claimed plenty of casualties early in proceedings. But two Australian soldiers took matters into their own hands.

Sergeant Charlie Stokes and Lieutenant Clifford Sadlier rushed at the gunners with grenades. Sadlier was wounded in the process, but his impact was felt. The operation was a success – Villers-Bretonneux was reclaimed.

Over in 93 minutes – the battle of Hamel

By the end of April, Germany's wave of offensives was coming to a close, leaving the Allies room to launch some of their own. One such attack took place in the town of Le Hamel, France, just 3km away from Villers-Bretonneux, ideally positioned between two hills. This town was another vital stepping-stone to Amiens, and currently held by German troops. This made it the perfect target for the Allies.

Planned by General Sir John Monash, the operation was a standout success. While large numbers of casualties were sustained, the use of plentiful artillery support and diversionary tactics saw the combined Australian, British and US force capture the village. Slowly but surely, the Allied forces were gaining momentum.

Though nobody could know that the war was just months from its end.

The tide turns – the battle of Amiens

The Allies were beginning to feel momentum behind them, helped by the arrival of fresh US troops. If they could free up the railway lines that supplied Amiens from German fire, then they would hold the key to the Western Front.

Based on plans submitted by Monash, the attack featured a staggering 580 Allied tanks and relied heavily upon the concept of surprise. As with Hamel, there would be no preceding artillery fire. Australian and Canadian troops would fight side-by-side.

The attack began at 4:20am on the 8th of August. German troops were caught unawares, so much so that it took five minutes for them to return fire. The Allies advanced quickly, and over the next few days, pushed deep into German territory. The attack was a resounding success – and finally, Germany was placed on the defensive.

Breaking the Hindenburg line

Deep and intimidating, this 140km stretch of trenches, concrete and wire had proven unbreakable in 1917. But this was 1918. It was a different year – and suddenly, a very different war.

On the 18th of September, Monash lead a preliminary attack on the line. Launched at 5:20am, Allied troops managed to push through and take some 4,300 German prisoners. But it wasn't quite enough to be sustainable.

Success wasn't far away.

A renewed attack on the 29th of September was costly. There were heavy casualties inflicted upon both the combined Australian/US and German forces.

But after four days, the line was broken. The German troops were forced to retreat. And just over a month later, Germany would make the request to start armistice negotiations.

Finally, the end was in sight.

Image: a statue of Harold Edward "Pompey" Elliott, Ballarat, VIC. Elliott was instrumental in planning the successful Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux.

From Wikimedia Commons; author: Mattinbgn

Available under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.