For the Tank Corps the Battle of Hamel was one of the most important 90 minutes of the First World War. Fought on the morning of the 4th July 1918 it saw the debut of the capable Mark V, restored the faith of Australian forces in the tank and taught the entire Army valuable lessons about how best to use them in the attack.
By early July the Western Front had stabilised after the German Spring Offensives had been defeated. The Allies intended to take the offensive themselves, but weren’t quite ready. A shortage of infantry manpower meant that when they did the British Expeditionary Force would need to rely more on tanks for offensive power. This posed a problem. The Australian Corps didn’t trust them.
At Bullecourt in April 1917 an Australian attack supported by tanks had gone badly wrong. The tanks had broken down or been destroyed by German artillery, and, without artillery support of their own the Australians had suffered heavy casualties. They had refused to work with tanks since.
As one of the largest and most capable Corps in the BEF, the Australians would play a vital role in any Allied offensive. Commanders needed to convince them of the tank’s value. It was hoped a small, carefully planned operation would do this. It would also serve as a rehearsal for larger attacks in the future.
The attack was intended to capture the village of Hamel, Vaire Wood and German defences linking them, including Pear Trench, Kidney Trench and the Wolfsburg. These defences were fairly weak, and were manned by German units who were understrength and suffering from poor morale.
The Australian infantry would attack in two waves, the first wave would advance to the ‘Ten Minute Halt’ Line, just past the German front line. The second wave would then continue to the final objective, the Blue Line.
The infantry would be supported by massive artillery firepower, over 600 guns on a front of just 4 miles. Two thirds of them would be used to destroy German artillery in the rear, with the rest assigned to protect the advancing infantry with a creeping barrage. There would be 60 tanks, all the new, more mobile Mark V. They would follow behind the infantry, who would themselves ‘hug’ the barrage as they advanced.
In preparation for the battle tanks and infantry trained together, learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and forming personal bonds. Strict secrecy was maintained, including using aircraft to mask the noise of the tanks moving up.
The attack began at 3:10am. Heavy guns hit the German artillery, and the infantry and tanks began their advance, protected by the creeping barrage. The RAF had bombed German rear areas in the run up to the attack, and they now provided direct support to infantry and tanks as they advanced. A novel use of aircraft was to drop supplies onto newly captured positions by parachute. Four Supply Tanks were also assigned this job.
The Australians and the tanks advanced steadily, reaching their objectives almost exactly on schedule. After two hours, the battle was all but over. The Australians had achieved all their objectives at what was, by First World War standards, very low cost, 1380 killed, wounded or missing.
This was extraordinary. In First World War battles the attacker could normally expect to take heavier casualties than the defender, but this was both less than the German losses, at around 2000, and even fewer than the 1605 Germans taken prisoner.
The tanks had played an important role, but the weakness of the German opposition in the face of such an overwhelming artillery and infantry force meant that even without them Australian attacks had been successful.
The most costly objective was Pear Trench, which was well sited on a reverse slope. To make matters worse the infantry had to attack unsupported. The tanks assigned to help them had got lost, but more significantly, the artillery barrage had missed the position entirely.
Learning the Lessons
Hamel hadn’t been perfect. It was learned that tanks were better placed advancing ahead of the infantry, as this maximised their shock effect on the Germans. Their armour would protect them if they got too close to the British barrage. Future attacks would also be launched later in the morning, improving visibility.
However the battle had been a stunning success, due to the careful and detailed planning, cooperation between different arms and, ultimately, the determination of the troops carrying out the attack.
The Australians gained faith in the tank, and would happily cooperate with them in future attacks. The lessons of Hamel were identified and spread across the BEF in a training pamphlet named S.S.218. They were fed into the planning for the much larger Battle of Amiens. Launched on the 8th August, this began the Allied drive to victory. Hamel was a small battle that had a big impact.