Battle of Épehy
The Battle of Épehy was a battle of the First World War fought on 18 September 1918, involving the British Fourth Army under the command of General Henry Rawlinson against German outpost positions in front of the Hindenburg Line. The village of Épehy was captured on 18 September by the 12th (Eastern) Division.
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front, was not eager to carry out any offensives, until the assault on the Hindenburg Line, influenced by mounting British losses from previous battles that year, over 600,000 casualties since March, 180,000 of them 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. 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.
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 zero hour and support the infantry with a creeping barrage and 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 Debeney). The objective consisted of a fortified zone roughly 3 miles (4.8 km) deep and 20 miles (32 km) long, supported by subsidiary trenches and strong points. The German 2nd Army and 18th Army defended the area.
On 18 September at 5.20 am, 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 Guillemont farms, which were held determinedly by German troops, the village was however captured by the British 12th Eastern Division [7th Norfolk, 9th Essex and 1st Cambridge]. In the centre, General John Monash's two Australian divisions achieved complete and dramatic success. The 1st Australian Division and the 4th Australian Division, 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 thirty trench mortars. They took all their objectives and advanced to a distance of about 3 miles (4.8 km) on a 4 miles (6.4 km) front. The Australian casualties were 1,260 officers and men (265 killed, 1,057 wounded, 2 captured). The attack closed as an Allied victory, with 11,750 prisoners and 100 guns captured.
However, during the battle, all but one member of "D" Company of the 1st Australian Battalion refused to take part in an attack to help a neighbouring British unit. The protest was against the battalion being sent back into combat when it had been about to be relieved. On 21 September 119 members of the company were subsequently imprisoned for desertion; this was the AIF's largest incidence of "combat refusal" during the war and formed part of a general weakening in the force's discipline due to the stresses of prolonged combat. The charges of desertion in the face of the enemy (a crime that could mean execution by firing squad in WWI) were reduced to the lesser crime of being AWOL. All bar one soldier had their charges dropped after the armistice in November.
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 the Battle of St. Quentin Canal, before the Germans could consolidate their positions. The failure of the III Corps to take their last objective - the outpost villages, would mean that the American forces would face a difficult task due to a hurried attack prior to the battle. The Deelish Valley Cemetery holds the grave sites of around 158 soldiers from the 12th (Eastern) Division who died during this battle, the nearby cemetery of Épehy Wood Farm Cemetery also holds the graves of men who died in this battle and the previous battles around this area.
Media related to Battle of Épehy at Wikimedia Commons
- ^ – The British and Australian official histories both state an Australian strength of 6,800 infantry. Major-General Sir Archibald Montgomery's The Story of the Fourth Army, written apparently with access to British Army 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: Volume VI – The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Allied Offensive, 1918 lists 5,822 infantry engaged but uses the figure of 6,800 soldiers (as the later figure includes the various battalion and brigade headquarters staff).
-  The Long, Long Trail – The Battles of the Hindenburg Line
- C.E.W. Bean, Volume VI – The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Allied Offensive, 1918 (1st edition, 1942), pages 905 and 928 lists the following German divisions facing the III and Australian Corps: 5th Bavarian, 1st Reserve, 119th, 38th, 185th and 121st division. NOTE: That this list is incomplete, as it does not include the forces facing the British V Corps, the British IX Corps, or the French forces.
- A. G. Butler, page 723
- Map WO 153/312 V Corps (Third Army) shows dispositions from Moislains to Ronssoy
-  Military History Encyclopedia on the Web – Battle of Epéhy
- Stanley, Peter (2010). Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny and Murder and the Australian Imperial Force. Sydney: Pier 9. p. 209. ISBN 9781741964806.
- "Executed WW1 soldiers to be given pardons". The Guardian. 16 August 2006.
- "Call to rethink cases of French WWI 'coward' soldiers". BBC. 1 October 2013.
- 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
- Michael Duffy (2001). "Battles: The Battle of Epehy, 1918". Archived from the original on 29 December 2005. Retrieved 2 February 2006.
- Terraine, John (1978). To Win A War: 1918 The Year Of Victory. Cassell & Co. ISBN 0-304-35321-3.
- Chris Baker. "British Order of Battle: The Battles of the Hindenburg Line". Retrieved 2 February 2006.