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German attacks March - July 1918

March 21, 1918 - At dawn, the Germans unleash Operation Michael, an offensive with 3 German armies in the Arras - St-Quentin-La Fére sector of the Somme. The British troops between Arras and St Quentin are smothered by storms of gas and artillery shells. Almost immediately the British lose the gains from 1916 - 1918. The Germans capture Pozières, Mouquet Farm, Thiepval and Albert

March 23, 1918 - Australian 3rd and 4th Divisions are ordered to proceed to Amiens to strengthen the retreating British 5th Army.

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Movement of Australian troops March 1918

March 26, 1918 - The 4th Brigade of the Australian 4th Division closes the gap at Hébuterne about 30 kilometres north east of Amiens. Another two brigades of the Australian 4th Division, 12th and 13th, are rushed to a new crises near Albert. Due to a mistake, the British Division protecting Albert was withdrawn. After a 27 kilometre march through the night they reached villages north west of Albert only to hear that familiar places such as Pozières, Thiepval and Mouquet Farm and Albert had been captured.

March 28, 1918 - The British 1st Cavalry Division manages to halt the German advance in front of the town of Hamel and Villers-Bretonneux, just 16 kilometres east of the strategic town of Amiens. Its vital road and rail junctions were a major objective of the Germans.

Awards

Sergeant Stanley Robert McDougall, 47th Battalion, 12th Brigade, 4th Division - Victoria Cross

April 4, 1918 - Germans attack with 15 Divisions towards Amiens at dawn. The first battle of Villers-Bretonneux commences. The 9th Brigade of the Australian 3rd Division and the British 18th Division, which were holding the northern sector, are eventually driven back to the outskirts of Villers-Bretonneux. Adjacent German attacks capture both Hamel ( north ) and Hangard Wood ( south of Villers-Bretonneux )

April 5, 1918 - A counter attack by the 36th Battalion of the Australian 3rd Division at dawn halts the German advance beyond Villers-Bretonneux. The hard fought action costs the 9th Brigade ( Australian 3rd Division ) 660 casualties but prevents further advances towards Amiens.

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Battle of Dernancourt

Battle of Dernancourt involved the Australian 12th and 13th Brigades ( 4th Division ) on the railway embankment and cuttings in Dernancourt, just south of Albert . The under strength Australian Brigades ( numbering about 4,000 ) faced 4 German Divisions totalling about 25,000. Situated on the western side of the Ancre River valley, the Australians formed a defensive line at the railway embankment, from which they held back German attacks. The Australian 48th Battalion soon found itself outflanked by German to its rear. The 48th was ordered to hold at all costs but by midday was facing annihilation and the senior officer ordered a withdrawal. Much like the actions at Bullecourt the previous year, the Australian battalion withdrew successfully and in order. This action costs 12th and 13th Brigades ( 4th Division ) 1,100 casualties.


Dernancourt diorama at the Australian War Memorial


Dernancourt diorama at the Australian War Memorial

The Australian 4th Division is relieved by the Australian 2nd Division arriving from Messines.

Awards

Lieutenant Percy Valentine Storkey, 19 Battalion, 5th Brigade, 2nd Division - Victoria Cross

April 8, 1918 - By this time the Australian 1st Division was just moving into the Amiens area from Messines to provide support, but Field Marshal Haig orders the troop to re-embark and move north to cover Hazebrouck  .

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Australian 1st Division relocates again

April 9, 1918 - Germans launch another attack ( George I ) south of Armentières, held by two under strength Portuguese divisions. The Portuguese fled in panic in face of the German attack.

April 10, 1918 - Messines positions abandoned. The Germans reach Ploegsteert Wood and continue towards Hazebrouck.

April 11, 1918 - Field Marshall Haig issues an order of the day that concludes :

" Every position must be held to the last man; there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight to the end. The safety of our Homes and the Freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each of us at this critical moment ".

April 12, 1918 - Australian 1st Division after being redeployed from Amiens reaches Hazebrouck to stop the German advance.

April 21, 1918 - Australians defending Villers-Bretonneux had been relieved by British 8th Division troops from Villers-Bretonneux to Hangard. Red Baron is brought down by combined Australian and Canadian gunfire a few 100 metres north of Corbie.


Red Baron crash site north of Corbie

April 24, 1918 - Germans capture Villers-Bretonneux from the British using tanks and infantry. Germans also capture objectives beyond Villers-Bretonneux including Abbey Wood and Hangard village. The second battle of Villers-Bretonneux commences.


Villers - Bretonneux

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Battlefield location

By the 18th of April 1918 the signs of a coming attack were unmistakable. The Germans attacked with mustard gas in the woods and gullies behind the town. Australian troops were relieved by troops from the British 8th Division as previously arranged, from Villers-Bretonneux to the flank of the French at Hangard in the south. On April 21, German deserters revealed that German attack preparations were nearing completion. They revealed that the attack would commence early on April 24, with the first two to three hours consisting of gas shelling. British aerial observations revealed German troops massing in trenches less than  two kilometres south of Villers-Bretonneux in Hangard Wood.

On the night of April 22-23, British and Australian artillery shelled German mustering areas. At dawn the infantry was standing ready but no attack eventuated, most of the activity on this day was in air as planes from both sides criss-crossed the battlefield, bombing, strafing and engaging in dogfights. It was during one of these dogfights that the German "Red Baron" was shot down over Australian lines, north of Villers-Bretonneux at Corbie. The strongest evidence points to Australian sergeant, Cedric Popkin of the 24th Machine-Gun Company, 4th Division as firing the actual bullet that killed Baron Manfred von Richthofen. On the afternoon of April 23, heavy shelling, mainly mustard gas, fell on the area just beyond Villers-Bretonneux, just as the German deserters had detailed earlier.

At dawn on the 24th of April the Germans attacked with 13 tanks at two points, at Villers-Bretonneux and a kilometre further south. Wherever they attacked the Germans broke through immediately. The British troops defending the area mostly fell back before strong German attacks. The majority of these British troops were composed of boys merely 18 and 19 who had  yet to fire a shot in the war. Unlike the Australians, they had received no preparation in the "nursery area" and were far from ready for battle. The Germans took over 2,400 prisoners during the engagement. Before the sector commander, Lieutenant General R.H. Butler of III Corps, had even heard of the attack, Villers-Bretonneux and Abbey Wood beyond it had been captured, along with Hangard village and Wood. South west of Hangard the German advance reached the intersection between the Avre and Luce rivers.


British Mark IV Tank at the Australian War Memorial

The most effective counter attack mounted against this German attack was with British tanks which engaged in the first tank versus tank battle in history, when 3 British Mark IV's fought three German A7V's. Even though the battle was even the Germans were the first to withdraw their machines from the battle. The British now employed light weight Whippet tanks to drive back the German infantry on the Villers-Bretonneux plateau.

The Australian 15th Brigade under Brigadier General H.E. Elliot was supposed to be the divisional reserve but Elliot was not happy being in reserve or allowing under strength troops to guard Villers-Bretonneux. He was initially prevented from counter attacking the Germans initial assault, but by mid-afternoon was informed that his Brigade would counter attack from the north, while the Australian 13th Brigade, under Brigade General T.W. Glasgow completing the pincher movement from the south. The Australian 13th Brigade, borrowed from the Australian 4th Division, was hurrying down from the north of the Somme River.

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Australian counter attack

After arguing with senior commanders the counter attack commenced at 10.00 pm. The attack from the north swept around the town while the southern attack by the 13th Brigade was also successful but could not find the 15th east of the town and had to pull back slightly, leaving a gap, through which ran the rail cutting south of the town. After dawn, the town was cleared by Australians entering from the east and the British from the north and west. The capture of Villers-Bretonneux was not considered complete until April 27 when the Australian 60th Battalion straightened the Australian line beyond the town.

On April 26th the Moroccan Division, perhaps the best in the French Army, attempted to recapture Hangard and Hangard Wood by advancing through Australian lines in daylight. The advance was stopped with heavy losses, as was the Australian attack on May 3rd on Monument Wood, which only recaptured part of the wood..


Artillery shells at the Australian War Memorial

Losses

Australian = 1,080
British = 9.849
Moroccan Division = 4,500
German = 8,000

Brigadier General Grogan VC, who saw the action, described the successful counter attack by night across unknown and difficult ground, and at short notice as "perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war". The Allied Supreme Commander, Marshal Foch, referred to the "altogether astonishing valiance" of the Australians, ( most likely meaning valour )..

Awards

Lieutenant Clifford William King Sadlier, 51st Battalion, 13th Brigade, 4th Division - Victoria Cross

Cemeteries

Villers-Bretonneux

The Villers-Bretonneux cemetery contains 779 Australians, 47 of whom are unidentified. The cemetery also contains 1,089 British, 267 Canadians, 4 South Africans and 2 New Zealanders.

Adelaide

Adelaide cemetery begun  June 1918 and contains 519 Australians ( 4 unknown ) out of a total of 864 graves. It is located on the right side of Amiens Road just beyond the railway crossing at the western end of Villers-Bretonneux. All here were killed between March and September 1918. The unknown soldier was exhumed in 1993 and reinterned within the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial.


Grave of Unknown Australian Soldier now in Canberra

The inscription on the gravestone reads :

"The remains of an unknown Australian soldier lay in this grave for 75 years. On 2nd of November 1993 they were exhumed and now rest in the tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra"


Adelaide Cemetery looking towards road

Many of Australian dead in this cemetery were killed in the street fighting in Villers-Bretonneux on Anzac Day 1918.


Cross of sacrifice in Adelaide Cemetery

Memorials

Australian National Memorial

The memorial is located a few kilometres north of Villers-Bretonneux on the D23. It commemorates the 10,982 Australians who died in France and have no known grave. It is also the site of the Villers-Bretonneux cemetery mentioned above.

The memorial was inaugurated in 1938.

Victoria School


Victoria School

Located in Villers-Bretonneux is the Victoria School which has the above dedication.


Playground at Victoria School

Anzac Museum


Anzac Museum - above Victoria School

The Anzac museum is above the Victoria School at 9 rue Victoria. It was opened in 1975 and houses an extensive range of artefacts and Australian memorabilia from all aspects of the War. There is no charge to enter the museum, however a donation is appreciated.


April 27, 1918 - Villers-Bretonneu finally secured by Australian, never to be lost to Germans again.

May 1, 1918 - Allied forces on the Western Front had decreased  to 173 divisions, while the Germans had grown to 203. Of the Allied Divisions, 103 were French, 52 were British and Imperial forces, 12 Belgian, 2 Italian and 4 American. There were 57 Allied divisions in reserve while the Germans had 64. Much now depended on the Americans.

Early May, 1918 - Australian 3rd Division advanced the front by a mile and gained the heights to the east of Villers-Bretonneux. This only results in 15 killed and 80 wounded.

May 19, 1918 - Australian 6th Brigade, 2nd Division attack Ville-sur-Ancre north of Morlancourt to clear Germans from the town and secure the high ground to the south of the town. The 22nd Battalion was to capture the ground while the 21st, 23rd and 24th were to take the town. The 22nd Battalion was to capture 2 sunken roads known as "Big Caterpillar" and "Little Caterpillar". The attack commenced at 2am. The 22nd Battalion suffered huge casualties, including the loss of all its officers. Sergeant William Ruthven took command of the battalion. He not only lead the remaining men, attacked and captured the objectives and provided inspired leadership for the duration of the action. For his efforts he received the Victoria Cross. By the end of the battle the Australian had captured all their objectives. The battle resulted in 418 casualties for the Australians and about 800 for the Germans.

Awards

Sergeant William Ruthven, 22nd Battalion, 6th Brigade, 2nd Division - Victoria Cross


Field Artillery at the Australian War Memorial

May 27, 1918 - Germans attack on the Aisne River. In three days they drive 50 kilometres towards Paris as far as the Marne River just 80 kilometres from Paris.

May 31, 1918 - Australian General Monash succeeds General William Birdwood as commander of the Australian Corps. General Birdwood was promoted to command the 5th Army.

June 10, 1918 - Australian undertake first action as a Corps. The objective was to capture the German front line defences at Morlancourt and Sailly Laurette. The attack was a success and all objectives were captured with heavy casualties being inflicted on the enemy. Australian losses were about 400 men.

Awards

Corporal Phillip Davey, 10th Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 1st Division - Victoria Cross

July 4, 1918 - Battle of Le Hamel . The objective was to dislodge the Germans from a position where they overlooked the British lines and to also secure a point from which the Allies could take the initiative.


Le Hamel

General Monash believed that :

"...the role of the infantry was not to expend itself upon heroic physical effort, not to wither away under merciless machine gun fire, not to impale itself on hostile bayonets, but on the contrary, to advance under the maximum array of mechanical resources in the form of guns, machine guns, tanks, mortars and aeroplanes."

For the attack Monash was given the British 5th Tank Brigade which comprised 60 brand new Mark V tanks and 4 carrier tanks. Monash's plan included the use of these tanks in close support of the infantry. His plans also called for something new - re-supply from the air. Ten companies of American troops were attached by platoons to the Australian battalions for experience. Monash could only allot 7,500 men to the capture of Hamel and proposed to use 4 brigades, one from each of the Australian 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th Divisions. The aim was to give all Australian divisions experience with tanks.

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Australian attack at Hamel

The attack commenced without the usual artillery bombardment.. The battle lasted about 93 minutes, Monash had planned on 90 minutes. Quickly, Vare Wood fell to the 4th Brigade and Le Hamel to the 11th Brigade. The Australians and Americans lost about 900 men while the Germans lost about 1,800.

On the same day, by way of diversion, the Australian 15th Brigade made an advance beyond Ville. Casualties from both actions :

Australian = 1,400

There had been no other Allied offensives since the previous autumn. The victory at le Hamel provided a much needed spark to the Allies. When the French President of the Allied War Committee, George Clemenceau visited the headquarters of the Australian 4th Division near Corbie, he said :

"When the Australians came to France the French people expected a great deal of you. We knew that you would fight a real fight, but we did not know from the beginning you would astonish the whole continent. I shall go back tomorrow and say to my countrymen, ' I have seen the Australians. I have looked in their faces. I know that these men will fight alongside us again until the cause for which we are all fighting is safe."

Awards

Corporal Thomas Leslie Axford, 16th Battalion, 4th Brigade, 4th Division - Victoria Cross

Corporal Walter Ernest Brown, 20th Battalion, 5th Brigade, 2nd Division - Victoria Cross

Memorials

Australian Corps Memorial Park


Australian Corps Memorial Park

The Australian Corps Memorial Park contains remains of the trenches here are the final objective for the attack of the 4th of July, 1918 and the starting point for the attacks of the 8th of August 1918.


Wall at Australian Corps Memorial Park


Old trench lines at the Australian Corps Memorial Park


Old trench lines at the Australian Corps Memorial Park


Trench remains at Le Hamel


Final objective of Australian attack on Le Hamel


July 14, 1918 - As expected the Germans attack both sides of Rhiems.

Awards

Lieutenant Albert Chalmers Borella, 26th Battalion, 7th Brigade, 2nd Division - Victoria Cross

Private Henry Dalziel, 15th Battalion, 4th Brigade, 4th Division - Victoria Cross 

July 18,1918 - French Marshal Foch launches a stunning counter attack against the Germans around Rhiems. The attack is made by 13 French and 4 US divisions and is covered by 2,100 guns and follows 325 French tanks.

July 28 - 29, 1918 - Australian 1st Division is victorious at Merris. The Australian 5th Division becomes active between Morlancourt and Sailly-le-Sec. Australian 1st Division now ordered south to strengthen the Australian Corps.


Gas mortar at the Australian War Memorial

August 8, 1918 - Marshal Foch wanted a double thrust with the British along the line of the Somme River for two main reasons, it was suitable for tanks and the Germans in the vicinity had been considerably weakened by Australian "peaceful penetration". The attack was to use 430 British tanks which would lead a three stage advance. To achieve maximum surprise there was no preliminary bombardment.

The "Battle of Amiens" commenced at 4.20am. The Australian 2nd and 3rd Divisions had a front of about 3,600 metres. The Australian 4th and 5th stood ready to leapfrog the Australian 2nd and 3rd Divisions as the Battle commenced. With no prior bombardment the Germans were taken totally by surprise. By 7.30am the German lines were thoroughly broken that much of the field artillery had been overrun and captured. While the Australian 2nd and 3rd Divisions dug in to consolidate the ground they had won the Australian 4th and 5th Divisions leapfrogged them and at 8.20am began the second phase of the attack. In this new "open warfare" stage the Australians excelled, capturing Bayonvillers without a fight and by 11am the Australian 59th Battalion had captured Harbonniers. By the end of the day the Allies had punched a hole 20 kilometres wide and 11 kilometres deep in the German lines. The break through had driven them eastwards towards Perrone and Mont St Quentin. The Allied victory described as a "Black Day" for the German forces by German commanders. Between August 7 - 14 1918, the 5 Australian Divisions suffered a total of 6,491 casualties, which represented 20% of their strength upon entering the battle. 

Awards

Private Robert Matthew Beatham, 8th Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 1st Division - Victoria Cross

Lieutenant Alfred Edward Gaby, 28th Battalion, 7th Brigade, 2nd Division - Victoria Cross


German field artillery captured during battle now at the
Australian War Memorial

August 11, 1918 - General Monash is knighted by King George V at Field Marshal Haig's headquarters at Bertangles.

Awards

Private Percy Clyde Statton, 40th Battalion, 10th Brigade, 3rd Division - Victoria Cross

Lieutenant William Donovan Joynt, 8th Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 1st Division - Victoria Cross

Lieutenant Lawrence Dominic McCarthy, 16th Battalion, 4th Brigade, 4th Division - Victoria Cross

August 24, 1918 - Australian 4th Division is replaced in the Line by French Division and goes into reserve.

Awards

Lance Corporal Bernard Sidney Gordon, 41st Battalion, 11th Brigade, 3rd Division - Victoria Cross

August 29, 1918 - German resistance begins to stiffen around Clery, 3 kilometres north west of Peronne.

August 30, 1918 - Australian 3rd Division commences attack of the "Battle of Mont St Quentin". 


Mont St Quentin

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Battlefield location

General Monash's objective was to render the line of the Somme River useless to the Germans as a defensive position and hasten their retreat to the Hindenburg Line. To achieve this called for an attack on the key position of the whole line of defence, on a hill called Mont St Quentin. Monash knew that his troops were under strength and badly in need of rest, but by now he considered them "invincible".

The attack was on the key positions in the German line, a dominating hill known as Mont St Quentin, 1.5 kilometres from Peronne. The hill was less than 100 metres high but heavily guarded especially along the northern and westerly approaches. The Australian 5th Division objectives were the Peronne Bridges and Peronne, while the Australian 2nd Divisions was the bridgehead at Halle then Mont St Quentin and finally the Australian 3rd Division was to capture the high ground north east of Clery, then Bouchavesnes spur. Facing the Australian Divisions at Mont St Quentin was the 2nd Prussian Guards, an elite German formation, who had orders to hold the hill "to the death".

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Australian attack plan for Mont St Quentin

The barrage commenced at 5am but much of the Australian's fighting reputation proceeded them with the enemy taking panic. The 5th Brigade of the Australian 2nd Division opened the attack, comprising only 70 officers and 1,250 other ranks it was less than one third of its normal strength. The 2nd Division battalions to assault Mont St Quentin were the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th all from NSW. The 17th battalion started along the Clery-Peronne road as the Germans retreated to more defensible ground. Within a short time they had captured, with only 550 men and 220 in support, what British generals consider "impregnable". However, the 5th Brigade could not hold all of its gains and part of the 2nd Prussian Guards Division drove back scattered troops from the summit of Mont St Quentin.


Relic of Mon St Quentin at the Australian War Memorial

On the left of the attack by the Australian 2nd Division, the Australian 3rd Division attacking Bouchavesnes Spur had not successfully captured its objectives, this meant that earlier gains were threatened by German flanking moves. General Monash ordered that "Casualties no longer matter" and "We must get Bouchavesnes Spur and protect Rosenthal's left". The Spur was taken and the Mont St Quentin assault was protected. On September 1, the 6th Australian Brigade, passing through the 5th Brigade seized in a second attempt the summit of Mont St Quentin while the Australian 14th Brigade ( 5th Division ) captured woods north of Peronne and took the main part of the town. The following day ( September 2nd, 1918 ) the Australian 7th Brigade ( 2nd Division ) drove beyond the Mont and the Australian 15th Brigade ( 5th Division ) seized the rest of Peronne.


Mont St Quentin diorama at the Australian War Memorial

The result was that three weakened Australian Divisions were able to defeat five German Divisions. The action saw its fair share of heroics, with eight VC's awarded, and losses, with 20% of attacking forces becoming casualties. The battle was a true infantry victory achieved without the use of tanks or creeping artillery barrage.

Losses

Australian 2nd Division 84 Officers, 1,286 others
Australian 3rd Division 43 Officers, 544 others
Australian 5th Division 44 Officers, 1,026 others
Germans 3,500 casualties and 2,600 prisoners

Awards

Corporal Alexander Henry Buckley, 54th Battalion, 14th Brigade, 5th Division - Victoria Cross

Private George Cartwright, 33rd Battalion, 9th Brigade, 3rd Division - Victoria Cross

Private William Matthew Currey, 53rd Battalion, 14th Brigade, 5th Division - Victoria Cross

Sergeant Albert David Lowerson, 21st Battalion, 6th Brigade, 2nd Division - Victoria Cross

Private Robert Mactier, 23rd Battalion, 6th Brigade, 2nd Division - Victoria Cross

Lieutenant Edgar Thomas Towner, 2nd Machine Gun Battalion, 2nd Division - Victoria Cross

Corporal Arthur Charles Hall, 54th Battalion, 14th Brigade, 5th Division - Victoria Cross

Temporary Corporal Lawrence Carthage Weathers, 43rd Battalion, 11th Brigade, 3rd Division - Victoria Cross  

Memorials

Australian 2nd Division


Australian 2nd Division Memorial

The original 2nd Division memorial depicted a digger bayoneting a German eagle was erected on this site in 1925. It was removed by Germans during 1940. The current 2nd Division memorial dates from 1971. The memorial is on the side of N17 Bapaume-Perrone road in the village of Mont St Quentin.


Copy of original figure on 2nd Division Memorial


Australian 2nd Division Memorial


Australian 2nd Division Memorial

Museums

Historical de la Grand Guerre


Historical de la Grand Guerre - Peronne

Through the eyes of the three main protagonists, France, Germany and Great Britain, the museum explains the war, its origins and its consequences. It offers a cultural vision of the first world-wide conflict as it was lived by soldiers and civilians. The museum has an extensive collection of exhibits and information that is well worth a visit and is located in the town of Peronne just south of the Australian 2nd Divisional memorial.


September 18, 1918 - Le Verguier captured by the Australians. The Australian 1st Division attacked with 2,854 infantry and the 4th Division with 3,048. This represented about one sixth of their original strengths. Both the 1st and 4th Australian Divisions are withdrawn from the Line, they are not to see action in the war again.

Awards

Sergeant Maurice Vincent Buckley, 13th Battalion, 4th Brigade, 4th Division - Victoria Cross

Private James Park Woods, 48th Battalion, 12 Brigade, 4th Division - Victoria Cross

September 1918 - Australian Corps pushed into Aisne sector and was victorious at Epehy, Bellicourt, Navroy, Gillemont Farm, Joncourt, Estrées.


Captured Amiens Gun now at the Australian War Memorial

September 26,1918 - Australian attacks on villages of Bellicourt and Bony commence. The fighting lasted a week after which the Australian 1st and 5th Divisions are withdrawn from the Line, they are not to see action in the war again.

Awards

Major Blair Anderson Wark, 32nd Battalion, 8th Brigade, 5th Division - Victoria Cross

Private John Ryan, 55th Battalion, 14th Brigade, 5th Division - Victoria Cross

Lieutenant John Maxwell, 18th Battalion, 5th Brigade, 2nd Division - Victoria Cross

October 5, 1918 - The Australian 2nd Division captures Montbrehain, a position beyond the Hindenburg Line. This was the last action that the Australian were to undertake in the war. They were now rested having been in continuous action since March 27, 1918.

Awards

Lieutenant George Mawby Ingram, 24th Battalion, 6th Brigade, 2nd Division - Victoria Cross

Early November, 1918 - Australians marching towards front to re-join battle lines.

11 November, 1918 - At 11am the War ends.