The Last Battle

Fletcher (left) and Mahony (right) pictured with a third officer.
Fletcher (left) and Mahony (right) pictured with a third officer.

John Austin Mahony, a Catholic public servant from the Lands Department and John Harry Fletcher, an Anglican primary school teacher from Princes Hill Primary in Carlton, were the best of mates. We have this on the authority of Australia's official war historian, Charles Bean, who knew them both and mentions them in his account of the battle of Montbrehain. Bean states that they were friends from "Tech. teaching days", which, if true, means that Fletcher had been a teacher before he became a public servant. In any case, their war records appear to support Bean's contention that they enlisted together and made sure that they served together as well. Both records reveal a parallel service. For instance, they both enlisted in Melbourne on 8 March 1915 and both arrived in Gallipoli on 30th March.

Mahony was awarded a Military Cross in 1916 - something Fletcher never achieved, but otherwise their army careers continued to march in lock step. By October 5 1918 they were both serving as Captains in the 24th Battalion, each commanding a company and leading it into action in the battle of Montbrehain. This was to be the last battle, at least for the AIF. Men would still die, shells might strike behind the lines, the Spanish Flu would claim victims and the wounded of earlier battles would die for months and years to come, but this was the last infantry battle - the last time they would have to go over the top.

The objective was of no great strategic significance; objectives rarely are in a war of attrition. The Hindenburg Line had been breached a few days earlier, now they were fighting for territory beyond that line. It was something of a novelty, in fact, to be fighting for a village that was relatively intact, rather than a heap of ruins. The Germans were demoralised but still willing to fight and no decisive strategic blow would ever be dealt on the Western Front. The grim war of attrition would continue until events elsewhere, ultimately a revolution in Germany, would deliver victory.

The AIF had been in almost continuous action since it took part in the victory of the Schwarzetag (Battle of Amiens) on 8 August. They had stormed Mont St Quentin at the beginning of September, three Victorian teachers earning Military Crosses for their actions during the assault. They had helped break through the Hindenburg Line at the end of that same month. They had in each case taken the objectives expected of them, but one of the lessons they had learned, in the early battle of Pozieres, was not to advance further than those objectives beyond the support of the all-important artillery.

No amount of experience, however - no amount of competence - could avoid casualties in this sort of warfare. The 100 Days offensive had taken its toll on the AIF. It remained an effective fighting force, but a battered and bruised one. The Allied Command wanted to keep using it. Billy Hughes was just as insistent that the diggers be given a rest. Ultimately, a compromise was reached. There would be one last battle - one last piece of ground would be secured. Two Victorian battalions, the 24th and the 21st, were detailed to clear the Germans from the village of Montbrehain. It took them one day to do so, at a cost of 500 casualties.

Two of those casualties fell in the early stages of the battle as the company led by John Fletcher ran into fierce resistance. First Lieutenant John Foster Gear, who had been a student teacher before the war, was mown down by machine gun fire. Then Captain Fletcher himself was killed by a shell from a German field gun. It was probably in this deadly phase of the battle that two other Victorian public servants, James Dixon Rowlands of the Agriculture Department and Kevin Thomas Knight of Treasury (both of who were serving with the 24th) were killed, but we can't know for certain as they were only privates and are not mentioned in Bean's account of the battle. Fletcher's mate, Mahony was probably not aware of his death as he was leading the other company of the battalion in an attack from a different direction. This was more successful, albeit hindered by the village's civilian inhabitants, whose enthusiasm at being liberated got in the way of the advance. Mahony was attempting to direct the final stages of the clearing of the village when he was shot through the temple. He would die of wounds five days later.

One other Victorian teacher, Private Robert John Neave of the 21st Battalion, was killed that day and three others, Corporal Allen Lancelot Martin of the 24th, Sergeant Thomas Andrew McMaster and Lieutenant George Francis Vernon Grenness (both of the 21st), were wounded.

To have fallen on the last day, in the last battle - and in what was ultimately a pointless battle - somehow compounds the familiar tragedy of death in war. For Mahony and Fletcher, who had seen the war together step by step from the beaches of Gallipoli, this is especially the case. You can read on Mahony's National Archive record (search for his name on this site and follow the link) a touching letter written by his mother to the French General Pau pleading for him (as a fellow Catholic) to use his influence to have her one remaining son returned home early. The combination of pride and grief is both evident and powerful. (The letter is on pages 26-27 of the record).