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The Battle of Épehy was a World War I battle fought on 18 September 1918, involving the British Fourth Army (under the command of General Henry Rawlinson) against Germanmarker outpost positions in front of the Hindenburg Line.

Prelude

Field Marshal Douglas Haig was not eager to carry out any offensives until the assault on the Hindenburg Line itself, influenced by mounting Britishmarker losses from previous battles that year - over 600,000 casualties since March, 180,000 of those in the past six weeks. Rawlinson was kept reined in and advised by Haig to ensure his men were well rested for the eventual attack on the Line; however, when news arrived of the British Third Army's victory at the Battle of Havrincourt, Haig's mind was changed. On the day following the success at Havrincourt, 13 September, Haig approved Rawlinson's plan to clear German outpost positions on the high ground before the Hindenburg Line, and preparations began.

The battle

Very few tanks could be provided for the attack, so artillery would have to be relied upon to prepare the way, but in the interests of surprise they would not be able to provide a preliminary bombardment. The 1,488 guns would instead fire concentration shots at the operation's zero hour and support the infantry with a creeping barrage. 300 machine guns were also made available. All three corps of the Fourth Army were to take part, with V Corps of the Third Army on their left flank and on their right the French First Army (under Marie Debeny). The objective consisted of a fortified zone roughly deep and long, supported by subsidiary trenches and strongpoints. The German Second and Eighteenth Armies were defending the area.

On 18 September at 5.20am the attack opened and the troops advanced. The promised French assistance did not arrive, resulting in limited success for IX Corps on that flank. On the left flank, III Corps also found difficulty when attacking the fortifications erected at "the Knoll", Quennemont and Gillemont farms, which were held determinedly by German troops. The story was a different one in the centre of the advance, however, where General John Monash's two Australian divisions achieved complete and dramatic success. These two divisions, the 1st and 4th, had a strength of some 6,800 men and in the course of the day captured 4,243 prisoners, 76 guns, 300 machine guns and 30 trench mortars. They took all their objectives and advanced to a distance of about three miles (5 km), on a four mile (6 km) front. The Australian casualties were 1,260 officers and men (265 Killed, 1057 Wounded, 2 Captured). It should be pointed out, that this battle also saw the first mutiny of Australian forces, when 119 men of the Australian 1st Battalion refused to conduct an attack to help the neighbouring British unit. Rather than face charges of desertion in the face of the enemy (which carries the death penalty), they were charged with being AWOL (with all bar one soldier having their charges dropped after the armistice).

The attack closed as a Allied victory, with 11,750 prisoners and 100 guns being taken.

Aftermath

Although Épehy was not a massive success, it signalled an unmistakable message that the Germans were weakening and it encouraged the Allies to take further action with haste (with the offensive continuing in the Battle of St. Quentin Canal), before the Germans could consolidate their positions. However, the failure of the British III Corp to take their last objective (the outpost villages) would mean that the American forces involved in the next battle (the Battle of St. Quentin Canal) would face a difficult task due to a hurried attack prior to the battle.

Sometime after this battle, Rawlinson reported to Haig that German officers were saying frankly that "their men no longer wanted to face Australian soldiers", a consequence of their results at Épehy.

See also

References

Published References
  • A. G. Butler (1940). Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services 1914–1918.
  • Les Carlyon (2006). The Great War. ISBN 978-1-4050-3761-7 ISBN 1-4050-3761-X


Notes

  1. - The British and Australian official histories both state an Australian strength of 6,800 infantry. However Major-General Sir Archibald Montgomery's The Story of the Fourth Army, written apparently with full access to the British Army's documents states different figures; 5,902 Australian infantry engaged, 1,700 prisoners taken, 87 guns captured and casualties of 1,022 men. The former figure has been used in this article, but the difference should be noted. C.E.W. Bean's Volume VI – The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Allied Offensive, 1918 lists 5822 infantry engaged, but uses the figure of 6800 total soldiers (as the later figure includes the various battalion and brigade headquarters staff).



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