Australian 5th Division (World War I)

From Academic Kids

This article is part of the
Anzac series.
Military History

Australia | New Zealand

Expeditionary Forces



ANZAC | I Anzac | II Anzac
Australian | Desert Mounted


Aus 1st | 2nd | 3rd | 4th | 5th
NZ & Aus | New Zealand
Anzac Mounted | Aus Mounted

The Australian 5th Division was formed in February 1916, during the First World War as part of the expansion of the Australian Imperial Force infantry brigades. In addition to the existing 8th Brigade were added the new 14th and 15th Brigades (spawned from the battalions of the 1st and 2nd Brigades respectively). From Egypt the division was sent to France.

After the war ended and the AIF was demobilised, the 5th Division name was revived and assigned to an Australian Citizens Military Forces (reserve) unit.



8th Brigade 
14th Brigade (New South Wales) 
  • 53rd Battalion
  • 54th Battalion
  • 55th Battalion
  • 56th Battalion
15th Brigade (Victoria) 
  • 57th Battalion (New South Wales)
  • 58th Battalion
  • 59th Battalion
  • 60th Battalion

Unit history


On formation in February 1916, the 5th Division joined II Anzac Corps. When the more experienced I Anzac Corps embarked for France at the end of the month, they took most of the available artillery pieces and trained artillery personnel, leaving the II Anzac divisions to train new artillery batteries from scratch, a process that would take three months. Major-General the Honorable J.W. M'Cay, formerly commander of the Australian 2nd Infantry Brigade, assumed command of the division on March 22.

The first "test" for the division was a training march of 40 miles from the Anzac camp at Tel el Kebir to the Suez Canal defences which were being maintained in expectation of a Turkish attack. M'Cay objected to the undertaking but nevertheless imposed strict march discipline on his men. Taking three days over soft sand and in extreme heat, the brigades suffered severely and the march was completed in disarray.

The 5th Division began arriving in France in July, the last of the four Australian divisions from Egypt to do so. At this time the Battle of the Somme was underway and going badly for the British. The three Australian divisions of I Anzac, which had been acclimatising on the quiet sector near Armentières, had been dispatched to the Somme as reinforcements and so the 5th Division took their place at Armentières on July 12.


53rd Battalion, Fromelles, 1916
53rd Battalion, Fromelles, 1916

The result of this move was that the 5th Division, the most inexperienced of the Australian divisions in France, would be the first to see major action in the Battle of Fromelles, a week after going in to the trenches. As the Germans had been reinforcing their Somme front with troops from the north, the British planned a "demonstration" to try and pin these troops to the front. The attack was masterminded by Lieutenant-General Richard Haking, commander of the British XI Corps, which adjoined II Anzac Corps to the south. The aim was to reduce the slight German salient known as the "Sugar Loaf", north west of the German-held town of Fromelles. The 5th Division happened to be the unit facing the northern flank of the salient.

By the time the attack was ready to be launched, its purpose as a preliminary diversion to the main action at the Somme had passed, yet Haking and his army commander, General Sir Charles Monro, were keen to go ahead. At 6pm on July 19, after 11 hours of preliminary bombardment, the 5th Division and British 61st Division attacked. The Australian 8th and 14th Brigades, attacking north of the salient, occupied the German trenches but became isolated and out-flanked. They were forced to withdraw, through withering German enfilades, by morning. The 15th Brigade and the British 184th Brigade were cut to pieces while attempting to cross no man's land. The 8th and 14th Brigades were forced to withdraw, through withering German enfilades, the following morning. The failure was compounded when the 61st Division asked the 15th Brigade to join in a renewed attempt at 9pm, but cancelled without informing the Australians. Consequently half of the Australian 58th Battalion made another futile, solo effort to capture the salient.

In one night of fighting, the 5th Division had lost 5,533 men including 400 prisoners. Two battalions, the 60th and the 32nd each suffered more than 700 casualties, or more than 90% of their fighting strength. The attack had completely failed as a diversion when its limited nature became obvious to the German defenders. The perceived "failure" of the British 61st Division poisoned relations between the AIF divisions and the British. In its communiqués, the British GHQ passed the Battle of Fromelles off as "some important raids".

It would be many months before the Australian 5th Division was serviceable again. In October, the 5th Division joined the other Australian divisions in holding the line on the Somme in dreadful winter conditions.

Hindenburg Line, 1917

In January 1917, Major-General Talbot Hobbs assumed command of the 5th Division. When the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line began on February 24, the division joined the pursuit, skirmishing with the German screen covering the withdrawal. On March 17 the 30th Battalion attacked towards Bapaume, the objective of the previous year's Somme offensive, and found the town abandoned, a smoking ruin. The 15th Brigade advanced south of Bapaume until, having lost touch with the British Fourth Army units on its flank, was ordered to halt. By March 24 the headlong advance had ended and a period of cautious approach to the Hindenburg defences began. On April 2 the 14th Brigade captured the villages of Doignies and Louverval before the 5th Division was relieved by the Australian 1st Division.

When General Allenby's British Third Army launched the Battle of Arras on April 9, the Australian divisions -- part of General Gough's British Fifth Army since the Somme fighting -- were called on to participate in an attempt to break the German flank on the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt. The 5th Division at this time was part of I Anzac under General Birdwood. It avoided the first of the fighting but was thrown in to the closing stages of the Second Battle of Bullecourt which had begun on May 3. The division was mainly responsible for holding on against German counter-attacks.

After the Bullecourt fighting subsided on May 17, the 5th Division, along with the rest of I Anzac, was withdrawn for a long rest.

Third Battle of Ypres

The 5th Division took over from the 1st Division following the Battle of Menin Road on September 20, which was the start of a phase of "bite-and-hold" limited-objective attacks in the Third Battle of Ypres. The next step was taken on September 26 in the Battle of Polygon Wood with two Australian divisions (4th and 5th) attacking in the centre of seven divisions.

The previous day (September 25) a German counter-attack had driven in the neighbouring brigade of the British X Corps however the attack was ordered to proceed despite the Australian 15th Brigade's flank being exposed. Attacking with an open flank, the 15th Brigade, supported by two battalions of the 8th Brigade, reached its objectives, and captured some of X Corps' objectives as well. The 14th Brigade, attacking on the left, captured Polygon Wood. In keeping with current policy, the attacking divisions were immediately relieved and the 5th Division was spared involvement in most of the worst fighting that followed as the British line edged towards Passchendaele.

German Spring Offensive, 1918

The 5th Division returned to action in late March as the German Spring offensive, launched on March 21, began to threaten the vital rail hub of Amiens. On April 4 the 15th Brigade, which had been guarding crossings of the River Somme, moved to hold Hill 104 north of the town of Villers-Bretonneux, a place that was to become famous in Anzac legend. By mid-April a renewed German push for Amiens was evident and the entire 5th Division was put in to the line astride the Somme.

When the attack came on April 24, the 15th Brigade was back in reserve west of Villers-Bretonneux, which was defended by the British III Corps. The German assault, for the first time spearheaded by tanks, succeeded in capturing the town and neighbouring woods. III Corps was lent the 15th Brigade and the 13th Brigade (from the Australian 4th Division) to mount a counter-attack. Attacking after 10pm that night, the two brigades encircled the town, the 15th from the north and the 13th from the south, and after dawn the town itself was recaptured. This victory marked the end of the German advance towards Amiens.

In the period leading up to the final Allied offensive, Australian divisions used Peaceful Penetration to continual harass their German opposition. On the night of July 29, units of the 5th Division raided the German defences near Morlancourt, capturing 128 prisoners, 36 machine guns and two trench systems.

Hundred Days, 1918

When the "Hundred Days" campaign began with the Battle of Amiens on August 8, the Australian Corps attacked from between Villers-Bretonneux and Hamel. The 5th Division was to follow up the initial attack of the 2nd Division, passing through to take Harbonnieres, an advance of two miles. On the following day, the 5th Division, which had meant to be relieved by the 1st Division, continued the advance with the 15th Brigade supporting the neighbouring advance made by the Canadian Corps and the 8th Brigade taking Vauvillers.

In late August the 5th Division followed the German retreat to the Somme near Pérrone. On August 31, while the 2nd Division attacked Mont St Quentin, the 5th Division stood ready to exploit any opportunity to cross the Somme and take Pérrone. On September 1 the 14th Brigade captured the woods north and followed up by taking the main part of the town. The 15th Brigade captured the rest of the town the following day.

By the time the Australian Corps reached the Hindenburg Line on September 19, the 5th Division was one of only two Australian divisions fit for action, the other being the 3rd. The 15th Brigade's 60th Battalion had already been disbanded to keep other battalions up to strength. For the attack on the Hindenburg Line to be made on September 29, the corps was reinforced by the American 27th and 30th Divisions. The 5th Division followed up the initial attack made by the American 30th Division and by October 1 the first two Hindenburg Line trench systems had been captured.

The 5th Division was relieved by the 2nd Division and, when on October 5 the Australian Corps handed over its line to the U.S. II Corps, the division was withdrawn to the coast for a rest that would last until the end of the war.


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