Confidence in the Australian soldiers was credited with settling citizens – and some Allied soldiers – fleeing in the face of the German offensive of 1918.
Author Ross McMullin, a 1986 Harold White Fellow and biographer of ‘Pompey’ Elliott, in a 2002 lecture described the scenes that faced Australians rushed to counter what would be the final onslaught from Berlin.
‘What they found was much of the British retreating in disarray, and the pitiful sight of French civilians whose homes had been in the path of the German advance in terrified retreat as well, struggling along with whatever possessions they could gather or carry in the sudden crisis, typically the elderly, or women (because the French men were away in the army), often with a crying child clinging to mother’s skirts.
‘The situation transformed by the arrival of the Australians, like Pompey and his men, confident, unflustered by the dismay all around them, ready to do the business and stop the Germans. All these dismayed soldiers and civilians going one way, and a smaller number of Australians, undeterred, defiant, outwardly relaxed yet inwardly fiercely determined, going the other way towards the enemy.
‘Far too many Australians today know nothing at all about this. And they should know … because here we have some of the great moments of our history. Many of these retreating civilians recognise the Australian uniform, and they become exultant.
‘They start raving about ‘les Australiens merveilleux’ (the marvellous Australians) and many of them actually turn around and go back to their homes because they are so confident the AIF will stop the Germans.
‘Some of the finest national declarations in Australia’s entire history are to be found here, like the reassuring words of some of these diggers to the distraught French women: “Fini retreat madame, beaucoup Australiens ici”. (No more retreat madame, many Australians are here.) That’s got to be one of the all-time great national statements … It has also been recorded that at this critical time an ecstatic old Frenchman says “Pas necessaire maintenant—vous les tiendrez, vous les tiendrez”, and a nearby digger asks someone for a translation; when this digger is told that the Frenchman was saying “No need to leave now, you’ll hold them, you’ll hold them’, this digger says “Well, we’ll just have to make sure the old bloke isn’t disappointed”.
Pte. E. J. Hatton writing from France, 02.05.18: During the latter part of the journey we learnt, through observation, of some of the misery war was creating. Refugees, carrying as much of their worldly possessions as possible were pushing along the roads with little carts, perambulators, etc., loaded up. The Hun invasion, although not actually as far as their own area, was sufficiently far advanced to cause alarm, and to urge them to get a move on. We put in a little over three weeks in this sector, leaving there the night before last.
Our casualties were fairly heavy, considering that we were only holding the line, but I believe that we can reasonably console ourselves that Fritz fared even worse, for our artillery gave him a pretty rough time.
Despite all his claims of captures of hundreds of guns during his advance, he must be fairly well assured that there are thousands more for him to contend with. The sector we occupied had been the scene of very heavy fighting just before we took it over, and the scores of dead still lying about gave evidence of its results. I was very sorry to hear of Bob Burcher’s death. A sniper, it is said, got him.
Everyone seems to admit the ‘Aussies’’ are remarkably good fighters, showing plenty of initiative and dash. The ‘Aussie’’ rightly thinks so too, in fact, he has rather an exalted opinion of himself. He has various ways of illustrating his contention, and a not uncommon way is to originate a few ‘furfies’. One yarn related a few days ago was that General Foch required 20 divisions of Tommies on a certain front, and advised Haig to that effect. The latter replied that he couldn’t send the Tommies, but that one division of Australians was available. ‘Ah, that’s better,’ said Foch, and the Aussies subsequently pushed off. – M.C., Maryborough WB&B Historical Society, Letters from the Front Line.
On March 26 as the Germans broke through on the Somme, General John Monash was asked to help occupy the line between Arras and Albert. Heading through scenes of ‘unbelievable confusion’, with wild-eyed British soldiers and refugees heading for the coast, he made a long, ragged journey to find the remains of the British 7th Corps at Montigny.
In a legendary scene, he found the 7th Commander Lt General Walter Congreve and a brigadier poring over maps by candlelight. As Monash walked in about midnight, Congreve exclaimed: ‘Thank heavens – the Australians at last.’
The rapid withdrawal of the British had left a gap of about 16km in the Western Front.
Author Grantlee Keiza, in his biography Monash – the Soldier who Shaped Australia, describes the arrival of Australian soldiers in London buses. ‘Despite their fatigue, the men march on, 108 paces to the minute, to meet the Germans. Their heads are erect and they march with the “swing and precision of a Royal review parade”. The whole responsibility of ending the German onslaught has fallen to them … A week of hard fighting followed before the wheels fell of the German steamroller.’