13 November, 2011
By Max Uechtritz
History hails the capture of Mont St. Quentin by the Australians as “the finest single feat” of WW1 and Charles Bean writes of it as “the most brilliant achievement of the AIF”.
It turned the tide of the war and, by definition, helped alter the course of history.
Yet the man who spearheaded the assault – and was singled out as most responsible by Australian commander Lt. General Sir John Monash – has slipped virtually unknown into history.
The Australian War Memorial does not even possess a photograph of Brigadier General Edward Fowell Martin CB, CMG, DSO.
Yet this was a soldier who’d won his Distinguished Service Order (DSO) – the battle honour second only to the VC - in the horrendous fields of Pozieres and had all three of his decorations personally presented to him by King George V.
Now – thanks to the the Lost Diggers project – Sunday Night can provide images of Brig. General Martin to the AWM, along with important historical documents and letters, including a handwritten congratulatory missive from British Commander General Birdwood.
Through Sunday Night, delighted grandchildren and other descendants have learned that the self-effacing gentleman – who insisted on being called simply “Mr Martin” - has not been forgotten by the French people who owe him so much.
They were stunned to learn that the town of Vignacourt went as far as naming a street after him.
Sunday Night also has discovered in the Thuillier Collection the only known photographs of Australians celebrating Armistice Day 1918 – and one of the most important post war commemorations on the Western Front, held a few days later at Vignacourt cemetery.
From one Thuillier image, we’ve identified General Martin standing ready to respond on behalf of Australia as the Senator of the Somme and Vignacourt Mayor hails the Australians as “the bravest of the brave” and directs the children of Vignacourt to forever tend the graves of the fallen Allies.
We even have General Martin’s handwritten letter home describing the Armistice celebrations and subsequent service. His words and descriptions in official records of those momentous days can be illustrated step by step by the wonderful series of Thuillier photographs.
These include the diggers, with brass band and honour party, gathering in Vignacourt square, the raising on the church spire of Australian and French flags, fevered celebrations by diggers and townsfolk then the sombre march by soldiers and civilians from the town to the cemetery and the moving service as children mark the graves with flowers. We know the anthems and tunes played by the band and we see Mayor Paul Thuillier-Buridard delivering his historic speech of gratitude.
We even have the full text of the Mayor’s speech, which I discovered after an exhaustive online search, in a February 1919 edition of the Queanbeyan Age. It had been sent home in a letter from Vignacourt by Major Jack Austin Chapman.
Then, on our recent trip back to France, we also found the text of General Martin’s speech – in a box in the dusty attic archives of the Vignacourt Mairie or town hall.
Edward Martin is not widely known outside of history aficionados. He should be.
With no fanfare after the war, “Mr Martin” slipped into life as an accountant with West Australian Newspapers then was appointed Sergeant-at-Arms of the WA Legislative Assembly.
Through genealogy websites and the White Pages elimination calls, I finally tracked his granddaughter Beverley Crouch and great grandson Geoff Crouch at Wagga Wagga. They linked us to the general’s grandson Dudley Martin Scott. Though Martin himself was unassuming, the family has a trove of original documents – including from the Palace for his many awards – his small replica medals and letters and a few photos. Prized mementos include Martin’s inscribed field glasses used first at Gallipoli and his ceremonial swagger stick.
But the family – despite watching our original Lost Diggers stories – had no inkling of the role Brig. General Martin played at Vignacourt nor that he and those momentous scenes had been captured by the lens of the French photographer.
Bev Crouch told us of the family disappointment at how, for some inexplicable reason, their grandfather’s name is missing from prominent books on WW1 including the wonderful tome “The Great War” by Les Carlyon.
AWM historian Peter Burness – the man who originally alerted us to the existence of the Thuillier collection - agrees that Martin’s absence from even the national photographic records is “an oddity” and is excited to finally be getting some images.
Burness describes the series of Thuillier photos of Diggers on Armistice Day then at the cemetery commemoration as truly historic and unique.
There’s one last thing Martin’s descendants want – to locate his original war medals and the uniform he wore later in life and featured in a family photograph. They’d like to donate the medals to the war memorial with the photos, letters and documents.
They are appealing to anyone who might have information, possibly the family of Martin’s second wife Mrs Evelyn Haslam, daughter of Major General Sir Samuel Hughes.
Watch the full story on Channel 7 this Sunday at 6:30.
(All extracts below are in identical form to the original telegrams and documents).
Extract from congratulatory message from LIEUT-GEN, SIR JOHN MONASH to the Major General C. Rosenthal, Commanding the 2nd Australian Division after the capture of Mont St. Quentin:
''“While all troops and services have contributed to these great successes, no-one will begrudge the singling out of BRIGADIER GENERAL MARTIN and the 5th Australian Infantry Brigade for special praise.
“The capture of MONT ST.QUENTIN has evoked a chorus of praise throughout the press of the world, as the finest single feat of the war, and this high encomium is richly deserved.”''
Telegram from 4th ARMY COMMANDER GENERAL RAWLINSON to AUSTRALIAN CORPS COMMANDER GEN. SIR JOHN MONASH.
“The capture of MONT ST.QUENTIN by the 2nd Division is a feat of arms worthy of the highest praise. The natural strength of the position is immense, and the tactical value of it in reference to the PERONNE and the whole system of the SOMME defences cannot be over estimated. I am filled with admiration at the gallantry and the surpassing daring of the 2nd Division in winning this important fortress, and I congratulate them with all my heart.”
Newspaper article: Royalty in Pyjamas: ''“A cold August morning in 1918. Buckingham Palace. It is 5.30AM. His Majesty the King, dressing gown flung over pyjamas, is sitting at the telephone. He is speaking on a line connected across the Channel with the Western Front. (Supreme Allied Commander) Marshal Foch is at the other end. His Majesty is congratulating a division of Australian troops who have just achieved the “impossible”. Mont St. Quentin has been taken!
The man responsible for this previously untold Royal incident of the War was Brigadier General E . F. Martin, who with a suddenly and brilliantly conceived plan, stormed and took an enemy stronghold thought to have been impregnable.”''
From “The Story of the 17th Battalion”: ''Re then Major Martin … “Possessed of a reserved manner and a retiring disposition, he was accustomed to weighing carefully every problem, a trait doubtless developed in the prosecution of his profession as an accountant. But once he had decided a course of action he held to that course with characteristic stubbornness.
“One night at the Battle of Pozieres, he received an instruction to carry out what was thought to be a minor operation, but after thoroughly reconnoitring the position and satisfying himself that its execution that night would result in a disproportionate number of casualties, he, with great moral courage, told the Brigadier of his views. Subsequently when the Brigadier Commander himself reconnoitred the position in daylight he upheld Martin’s contention.
‘Throughout his command, from February 1916 to May 1918, he zealously maintained the welfare of the men under his command, never committing them to tasks without adequate preparation and support.”''
Historical view of Mont Saint Quentin Battle: Extract from John Laffin Memorial Lecture by Ross St. Claire:
In August 1926 former Australian Corps Chief of Staff, General Sir Cyril Brudenell White, wrote to another famous Australian general, Sir Harry Chauvel. In his letter White rated his top four achievements of the AIF during the Allied offensives of August to October 1918. He listed the capture of Mont St.Quentin and Peronne in late August and early September as one and two respectively. The Australian Corps at the time was part of the British Expeditionary Force’s (BEF) Fourth Army. It’s commander was General Lord Henry Rawlinson. He went so far as to state that the Australian victories were “the finest single feat of the war”  The Australian Official Historian, Charles Bean, wrote “The capture of Mont St.Quentin and Peronne is held by many Australian soldiers to be the most brilliant achievement of the A.I.F.”
Such high praise puts Mont St.Quentin and Peronne before Lone Pine, Pozieres, Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Messines, Villers-Bretonneux, Hamel and Amiens.
The Australian Corps was commanded by the famous General Sir John Monash. Bean wrote that: “within the Australian experience on the Western Front it was the only important fight in which quick, free manoeuvre played a decisive part. It furnishes a complete answer to the comment that Monash was merely a composer of set pieces. But Monash himself realised that it was also largely a soldier’s battle”.
Extract from letter from Brigadier General Martin 19-1-18 – a week after Armistice.“We had a bit of fun in small way … and I narrowly escaped being kissed in front of all the troops by all the maidens of the village, it really was due to the fact that I was on horseback that saved me.”