The spearhead of the attack was entrusted to two of the most powerful and experienced corps in the BEF: the Canadian and Australian Corps. Both were large, well-equipped and battle-hardened formations with a growing reputation for professionalism, ruthlessness and above all success. It had been the Canadian Corps that had taken Vimy Ridge in April 1917, successfully storming one of the most formidable positions on the Western Front in little over three hours. Although the Australians never enjoyed success on the scale of Vimy, they prided themselves on their effectiveness and aggression, specializing in large trench raids that they called – somewhat misleadingly – ‘peaceful penetration’. The Australians had also recently conducted the Battle of Hamel on 4 July, a beautifully crafted combined ‘all-arms’ operation that took just over ninety minutes to overrun the village of Le Hamel and surrounding woodland with minimal casualties. These formations, as was rapidly becoming clear, were the ‘shock armies’ of the BEF. They were also semi-independent formations with powerful political support back home. Haig could not boss the Canadians or Australians around in the way that he was used to doing with British divisions.
As well as containing large numbers of well-rested, highly motivated and well-equipped troops, the Dominion corps were led by two of the most promising commanders in the British Empire: Sir Arthur Currie and Sir John Monash. In many ways they were typical of their homelands, being men who could only have found success and fame in the freer air of the Dominions. There was no way Arthur Currie, a teacher and failed financier, would have risen to Lieutenant-General had he joined the regular British Army. Likewise, the Australian, Sir John Monash, came from a family of Polish Jews and he had originally been a civil engineer when he joined the North Melbourne Militia before the war. Both men possessed fierce, inquisitive minds, eagerly devouring military knowledge because they knew the lives of their men depended on it. They understood and valued firepower and logistics and also recognized the importance of patience and preparation. Currie’s motto was a characteristic ‘neglect nothing’, while Monash described his theory of war as how ‘to advance under the maximum possible protection of the maximum possible array of mechanical resources, in the form of guns, machine-guns, tanks, mortars and aeroplanes’. The theory of war that emerged from the Dominion corps may not have been subtle; it may not have been as innovative as the tactical changes ushered in by the German Army, but it worked. And it worked at a tolerable cost in lives.
23 February 2014
1918: Canadian and Australian Shock Troops
From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle 872-892: