Australians on the Western Front: Building bridges on a road to Allied victory

GRAND DESIGNS: Australian engineers rebuild a crossing over the Somme swamps near Cléry on September 2, 1918, to keep communications open and transport moving after the capture of Péronne. Picture: AWM E03143
GRAND DESIGNS: Australian engineers rebuild a crossing over the Somme swamps near Cléry on September 2, 1918, to keep communications open and transport moving after the capture of Péronne. Picture: AWM E03143

The Australian Corps’ success at Mont Saint-Quentin and Péronne would have been impossible without the skill of engineers and pioneers constructing and repairing crossings over the Somme River.

Lieutenant General Sir John Monash wrote in 1919 that numerous crossings had been systematically destroyed by the German Army in August 1918 as it was driven back along the Somme valley.

“(They were) as systematically repaired by my indefatigable engineer and pioneer services, as fast as the ground passed under our control.”

On the Western Front in France and Belgium between 1916 and 1918, the demand for field engineering works – constructing and maintaining bridges and culverts, locks and roads, water transport, deep dugouts and battle stations – was insatiable.

Australian pioneer battalions, which contained a large number of tradesmen, constructed trenches, restored communications, repaired shell holes in roads and tested water quality in village wells. Occasionally, pioneers served as front line infantry.

Australia’s official historian Charles Bean repeatedly praised the work of engineers and pioneers.

British war correspondent Philip Gibbs wrote that the speed in which the Australians moved their field artillery forward to fire on the enemy from close range was a feature of the capture of Mont Saint-Quentin.  “This was largely due to the work of their engineers at the river crossings.”

Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Annand, Commanding Officer of the 2nd Australian Pioneer Battalion, said the pioneers also destroyed 18 mines located on roads and crossings that they were clearing leading to Péronne.

They repaired Cléry bridge over the Somme despite German barrages that raised geysers from the marshes.

It wasn’t all work – in his 1918 diary, Lt. Col. Annand said a swimming carnival in the Somme near Blangy-Tronville on August 21 was a great success, with Olympian Cecil Healy giving a demonstration to the troops.

In September, Annand’s horse won the first heat of the ‘Herbecourt Flutter Flat Race’ at a 2nd Division sports day.

But later in the Battle of Montbrehain on October 5, Annand’s pioneers were used as infantry in the assault on the village, suffering more than a hundred casualties.

Charles Bean said the strain was intense on engineers and pioneers in extending the plank roads and railways in the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917.

For the Battle of Messines, Bean said Australians dug a new system of defences in 18 strenuous days, a task “as dangerous as a battle.”