Montbrehain - Australia's final farewell to the First World War


Montbrehain? Where?


I have to freely admit that Montbrehain wasn't known to me before I came across a memorial to Lieutenant William Emlyn Hardwick M.C. at Brecon Cemetery in Brecknockshire (For more on this memorial click here and the memorial to his nephew here).



Memorial of William Emlyn Hardwick
William Emlyn Hardwick


But after some tacit reading and research, I realised that for more many Australians, particularly those who fought at Montbrehain, that it was symbolic. A place seen by many as the last Australian engagement on the Western Front of the First World War. An ending if you like before the end.


Montbrehain is a small village in northern department of Aisne in France. On the 3rd October 1918, it was taken by three battalions of the Sherwood Foresters of the 46th Division but could not be held. So two days later, the Aussies sent in their best. The 24th had been in action at Beaurevoir where Lieutenant George Morby Ingram M.M. won a Victoria Cross on the 3rd with the 24th Battalion A.I.F..


Montbrehain sat on the Beaurevoir trench line system. It was seen as another pivotal point to take.


The 21st and 24th Battalion Australian Infantry with the 2nd Pioneer Battalion, Australian Imperial Force then took their positions as part of the 6th Brigade. The Pioneers were ordered to be infantry support due to a deficiency in the attack on Montbrehain - they had trained as infantry but had been more used to road-making and trench-making duties. Montbrehain was their first and only use in infantry. The last Aussie infantry action on the Western Front. Weeks before the Armistice.


The 22nd and 23rd Battalions of the A.I.F. held defensive positions around the village but the 21st and 24th were the primary assault force.


At 6:05 in the morning of the 5th October 1918, they lined up to advance with the usual barrage, artillery support, machine gun support and a few British tanks. The advance took place, the Germans defended hard and put up a counter attack before the position was consolidated by the Australians. By the evening of the 5th, the 21st and 24th Battalions were awaiting relief by American forces. Casualties were relatively high for this attack. Gas was used, the German forces put up a dominant defence but as had happened across the rest of the Western Front and then of course, there was the usual problems of the creeping barrage which could run too fast/too slow/badly aimed...


Thirty officers and 400 other ranks became casualties at Montbrehain. Officer casualties were high—10 had been killed. One company lost most of its officers, and the three company commanders of the 24th battalion were killed or wounded. It was a high price to pay.

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/the-great-war/the-great-war-the-capture-of-montbrehain-1918

The last shots by Peter Burness October 6, 2018


Seen in isolation, the taking of Montbrehain was seen as a massive coup for the Australian forces - pushing back the Germans from the Hindenburg line, and the Beaurevoir trench line and into advanced territory. But strangely, it appears that for many, Montbrehain was seen as just another of the last phases of the Great War. They had been depleted, these Aussie forces, had been ordered to merged, but owing to that strong belief of'mate-ship' which ran through these volunteers, they remained and fought one last battle at Montbrehain.


For men who had begun their fight at Gallipoli, they had seen more than most, through the Somme being the 21st being the first Aussie battalion to land on the Western Front, the Ypres Salient, through Passchendaele and then 1918, until Montbrehain.


Now back to Lieutenant William Emlyn Hardwick M.C. whose memorial lies at Brecon Cemetery. The significance of Montbrehain was clarified to me by this memorium notice set below. From Brecon in Mid-Wales to Mooroopna, Victoria in Australia. It was clear that it was about one single day that united men. And a single tribute from a friend, a comrade, and to use his words - 'their pal'.


A tribute to the memory of Lieut William Emlyn Hardwick M.C.; also Capt J. Sullivan M.C., M.M., and Lieut S.J. Bennie, gallant soldiers of the 21st Battalion killed in action at Montbrehain on the 5th October 1918 the last Australian engagement in France
They died the noblest death that men may
Fighting for God and right and liberty
And such death is immortality.
Inserted by their pal 'Baz'. Mooroopna

The Age, Melbourne 4th October 1919 page 8


I don't know who Baz was. I know that Mooroopna is in Victoria, Australia. And I know that the 21st were of the Victorian region. But I leave you to decide the relationship between these men. Was he there that day? That 5th October 1915 when at 6:05 in the morning, these men advanced once more.


Lieutenant William Emlyn Hardwick M.C. and Bar, Mentioned in Despatches 21st Battalion A.I.F.

killed on 5th October 1918 buried at Tincourt New British Cemetery, Somme, France*


Captain James Sullivan M.C. and Bar, M.M. 21st Battalion A.I.F.

killed on 5th October 1918 buried at Bellicourt British Cemetery, Aisne, France


Lieutenant Stanley James Bennie 21st Battalion A.I.F.

killed on 5th October 1918 buried at Tincourt New British Cemetery, Somme, France*


*Both Hardwick and Bennie were initially buried at Ramicourt.


A random look at the 'in memoriam' notices commemorating that day illustrates the signficance - 5th October 1918. A mere four weeks or so until the Armistice and the cessation of the war. And yes - every day is significant to someone. But this seemed like something more. That this for many Aussies was their final farewell to war. The last pull towards something more. And to those who survived past that date - a resounding lucky thought that 'I made it'. Whilst for many of their friends, their comrades, their companions - the Battle of Montbrehain was their end. So near and yet so far...


And then the first anniversary for those survivors - so close to their ending; a goodbye to the warfare, fighting, camraderie, structure, noise. But just one short year later. And a reminder, maybe just an opportunity to remember those who didn't make it through the last engagement. That Montbrehain was their final stop.


And amongst those memorium notices in the Australian papers around 5th October 1919 were these:


Rayner - killed in action somewhere in France 5th October after 3 years active service (Footscray)

This was Private George Rayner, 2nd Pioneer Battalion killed in action 5th October 1918 commemorated on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial, Somme, France.


Sergeant G. Griffith D.C.M. 2579 21st Battalion AIF killed in action 5th October 1918

This was Sergeant George Arthur Griffith D.C.M. 21st Battalion A.I.F. who was killed in action 5th October 1918 and is buried at Ramicourt British Cemetery, Aisne, France.


Sergeant Leslie William Lyons 24th Battalion fell in France on his birthday 5th October 1918 age 23 after 3 and half years service - brother of P.E. Lyons died of wounds 27th September 1917. "Jack returned and Charlie O.A.S. Brothers united. Egypt. Gallipoli and France"

This was Sergeant Leslie William Lyons 24th Battalion A.I.F. who was killed in action 5th October 1918 and is buried in Calvaire Cemetery, Montbrehain, Aisne, France. His brother Private Patrick Edward Lyons is buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery in Belgium after he died on 27th September 1917.


Harold Hellier killed in action 5th October 1918 Montbrehain - "the last day of the war"

This was Harold Maximilian Hellier 24th Battalion A.I.F. who was killed in action 5th October 1918 and is buried in Calvaire Cemetery, Montbrehain, France.


Alexander Roberts 24th Battalion AIF 4435 killed in action France 5th October 1918 age 21

This was Private Alexander Henderson Roberts 24th Battalion A.I.F. who was killed in action 5th October 1918 and is buried in Bellicourt British Cemetery, Aisne, France.


Private J.C. Savage - Jack killed in action Montbrehain 5th October 1918

This was Private John Clarence Savage 21st Battalion A.I.F. who was killed in action 5th October 1918 and is buried in Ramicourt British Cemetery, Aisne, France.


Lieut Hamilton MM and bar, killed in action at Montbrehain October 5 1918

This was Second Lieutenant Frank Gordon Hamilton M.M. and Bar 2nd Battalion Australian Machine Gun Corps who was killed in action 5th October 1918 and is commemorated on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial, Somme, France.


Private Robert Gardiner 21st Batt AIF killed in action in France Octber 5th 1918

This was Private Robert Henry Gardiner 21st Battalion A.I.F. who was killed in action 5th October 1918 and is buried in Bellicourt British Cemetery, Aisne, France.


Corporal E. L. Ford killed in action at Mont St Quentin 5th October 1918

This was Corporal Ernest Leslie Ford D.C.M. 24th Battalion A.I.F. who was killed in action 5th October 1918 and is buried in Calvaire Cemetery, Montbrehain, France.


Warrant Officer R. W. Thomas killed in action October 3rd 1918 at Montbrehain

This was Company Sergeant Major Rees William Thomas M.M. 21st Battalion A.I.F. who was killed in action 5th October 1918 and is buried in Ramicourt British Cemetery, Aisne, France.


Captain John Harry Fletcher 24th Batt 3 and half years service 'our dear Harry'

This was Captain John Harry Fletcher 24th Battalion A.I.F. who was killed in action 5th October 1918 and is buried in Calvaire Cemetery, Montbrehain, France. Our dear Harry...


Captain Louis C. Roth M.C. Second Pioneer Batt, late 33nd Batt died at Lincourt October 6th 1918

This was Captain Louis Carl Roth M.C. 2nd Australian Pioneers A.I.F. who died of wounds 6th October 1918 and is buried in Tincourt New British Cemetery, Somme, France.


Reginald Craig 21st Batt killed in action October 5th 1918

This was Private Reginald Atchison Craig 21st Battalion A.I.F. killed in action 5th October 1918 and is buried in Ramicourt British Cemetery, Aisne, France.


Sergeant W. Montgomery killed in action October 5th 1918

This was Sergeant William Montgomery 21st Battalion A.I.F. who died of wounds received on 5th October 1918 and is buried in Tincourt New British Cemetery, Somme, France.


Private Alex P. Missen, D Company 24th Batt killed at Montbrehain 5th October 1918

This was Private Alexander Peter Missen 24th Battalion A.I.F. who was killed in action 5th October 1918 and is buried in Calvaire Cemetery, Montbrehain, France.


Albert Victor Berner killed in action France 5th October 1918

This was Private Albert Victor Berner 21st Battalion A.I.F. killed in action 5th October 1918 and is buried in Ramicourt British Cemetery, Aisne, France.


Private Charlie Henry Linford, 2nd Pioneer Batt killed in action Montbrehain 5th October 1918 No 3880

This was Private Charles Henry Linford 2nd Australian Pioneers killed in action 5th October 1918 and is commemorated on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial, Somme, France. Charlie. He was 21.


Maurice Edwin Kay killed in action October 5 1918

This was Private Maurice Edwin Kay 21st Battalion A.I.F. killed in action 5th October 1918 and is buried in Ramicourt British Cemetery, Aisne, France.


Private Alan Brownell Mackay 24th Batt (late 13th Light Horse) killed in action Montbrehain 5th October 1918 (inserted by his comrades)
Colin Leslie Mackay MM 24th Batt (late 13th Light Horse) killed in action Mont St Quentin 18th September 1918

This was Private Alan Brownell Mackay 24th Battalion A.I.F. who was killed in action 5th October 1918 and is buried in Calvaire Cemetery, Montbrehain, France. His brother Private Colin Leslie Mackay who was also in the 24th Battalion A.I.F. was killed on the 1st September 1918 and was eventually interred in Peronne Communal Cemetery Extension on the Somme, in France. The end of the war was cruel to the Mackay family. For one brother to lose another at close quarters. It seems unbearably cruel.


"In loving memory of my true friends, Captains Harry Fletcher and Austin Mahony, MC 24th Batt who were killed at the Battle of Montbrehain, 5th October 1918, the last day's fighting of the A.I.F.
Sleep on heroic souls, rest peacefully
You have not lost, but conquered in the strife
You've shown us duty's path and through death
To glorious life.
Lieutenant Leslie V. Starr, 24th Batt, abroad"

The Argus Melbourne 6th October 1919 page 1

This was Captain John Harry Fletcher 24th Battalion A.I.F. who was killed in action 5th October 1918 and is buried in Calvaire Cemetery, Montbrehain, France. Along side him Captain John Austin Mahony 24th Battalion A.I.F. died of his wounds on the 9th October 1918. Lieutenant Leslie Victor Starr survived the war and was honourably discharged back in Australia in January 1920. How often did Leslie's thoughts turn to his friends? Lost on the last day. His true friends. His words. Not mine.


Private James Cantwell 21st Batt KIA at Montbrehain 5th October 1918
"In distant France he is lying
Killed by a bursting shell
He was buried by his comrades
The boys who loved him well
He fought life's battle bravely
And always stood the test
Remembered by his loved ones
As one of Australia's best"

The Argus Melbourne 6th October 1919 page 1

This was Private James Joseph Cantwell 21st Battalion A.I.F. killed in action 5th October 1918 and is buried in Ramicourt British Cemetery, Aisne, France. Killed by a bursting shell.


These words are the final goodbyes. War's Last Goodbyes. A goodbye to their men. And a goodbye to a war which had cost Australia their volunteers, their individuals, their boys.



Montbrehain - the final enagement


Montbrehain was the last infantry action on the Western Front for the Australians. The Aussies took 400 prisoners of war that day. The 5th October 1918. But they suffered 430 casualties. Maybe Montbrehain was seen as just another day on the Western Front. A necessary advance. Another part of the story of the Western Front.


But just as I had never heard of Montbrehain. It seems that others might not. But for a proud Anzac nation for me Montbrehain seems as significant as Gallipoli, as Anzac Cove, as the Windmill - because for many of those digger men had served since the beginning... All volunteers. Not conscripts here. Volunteers who had come thousands of miles. To serve. To fight. To play their own part. But for those who died on the fields around Montbrehain and the casualty clearing stations, their ending had stopped just short of surviving.


For is there an unluckiness, an irony is dying in the last action of the war? Or should it just be more significant? Seen as more tragic? Are their lives worth more because of their deaths?


Think on that as we remember one last one. In this case, remembering one of three original men which began this piece, men remembered by Baz at Mooroopna. Lieutenant Stanley James Bennie.


Lieut Stanley J. Bennie 21st Batt KIA Montbrehain 5th October 1918
"Although a year has passed away
Since our great sorrow fell
Yet in our hearts we mourn the loss
Of him we loved so well
Your picture hangs upon the wall
Your face we love to see
And in the hearts of those who loved you
It ever dear shall be"

The Argus Melbourne 6th October 1919 page 1


Montbrehain - the final goodbye to war. In true Aussie style. Remember Montbrehain. For I shall.


On the 13th October 1918, the 21st Battalion was officially disbanded. The end had ended.


Beyond that somewhere in Australia, like so many other homes, a prized picture of a hero sat in the front room, whilst the clock ticked on, the picture faded and time moved us all along.