Villers-Bretonneux occupies a strategic position on a ridge that overlooks the eastern approach to the city of Amiens and for this reason was the focus of fierce fighting in the Spring of 1918. During the course of the three weeks, Australian troops of the 3rd Division first repelled a German attack then later, after the town subsequently fell to a further German attack, two Australian Brigades from different Divisions co-operated to conduct a stunning night counter-attack, retaking the town and halting the German advance which threatened Amiens.
It is for this reason that Villers-Bretonneux is the site of Australia's National Memorial to the Missing in France.
In late March 1918 German General Ludendorff launched three major assaults. The first and largest phase was codenamed “MICHAEL” and was directed against the British Third and Fifth armies in the Somme battlefield area north and south of Peronne on 21 March. Using a total of 71 Divisions in three armies he achieved complete surprise and achieved a rapid German breakthrough in the south where the British army was well spread out. (Reference: Coates – An Atlas of Australia’s Wars page 75 see inset on image.)
The German offensive known as ‘Operation Michael’ commenced on 21st March 1918. In less than a week the German armies had recaptured all of the ground in France that had been taken by the British over the previous eighteen months. At this time, the Germans were within one mile of Villers-Bretonneux and threatening the vital railhead at Amiens.
The main German target of MICHAEL was the capture of Amiens which was a vital railway junction through which British and French reserves were moved around behind the frontline. It also connected the Channel ports of Calais, Bolougne and Le Treport with Paris. If Amiens was captured neither the Allied armies nor their massive reserves of artillery ammunition and guns could be moved easily, quickly and in quantity to threatened areas.
Villers-Bretonneux marked the most westerly point reached by the German army, during the offensive.
In response to this offensive, four of the five AIF Divisions were rushed south and allocated by Brigade to fill gaps in the collapsing Allied line.
Australians were in action at Villers Bretonneux twice within three weeks in April 1918. Both actions were attempts to stem the German advance on Amiens during the "Operation Michael" offensive of the spring of 1918.
The 9th Brigade (NSW), 3rd Division, was in action early on the 5th April and repelled an initial German advance in a a meeting engagement to the east of the town.
On the evening of the 24th/25th April, the 13th (Outer States) Brigade of the 4th Division and the 15th (Vic) Brigade of the 5th Division were rushed into a night counter-attack to recapture the town, the loss of which threatened Amiens itself.
1st VB 4th/ 5th April 1918 - Australian 9th Brigade
After their initial successes into other parts of the Allied front stalled, a renewed German attack aimed at capturing Amiens commenced on the 3rd of April 1918. By the morning of the 4th April 1918 the Germans had reached a point just east of Villers-Bretonneux. This was the southern pincer of a German movement that extended to Dernancourt in the north, where a similarly intense assault on an even large scale was taking place.
However, they were driven back by spirited counter-attacks by 36th Battalion and 35th Battalions of the 9th Australian Infantry Brigade commanded by Brigadier Rosenthal, which was aided by British infantry and cavalry units in the area.
The battle was fought as a meeting engagement in open country, a totally different scenario to the trench warfare that typified earlier fighting.
By the morning of 5 April the German attack had been driven back to where it had started and German operations were then suspended for a week. Fighting continued in the area for two weeks or so, and troop dispositions changed continually as the offensive ebbed and flowed elsewhere along the Front.
2nd VB 24/5th April - 13th and 15th Brigades (from the 4th and 5th Divisions respectively)
The second operation by the Australians at Villers-Bretonneux was the highly successful counter-attack by the 13th and 15th Brigades on the night of 24/25 April 1918 – known colloquially as "Our Other ANZAC Day".
On 17/18 Apr the German effort to capture Amiens was renewed as they attacked with mustard gas – which put more than a thousand Australians and other reserves out of action – and was more serious than earlier assaults, although a failure. A further German attempt was made early on 24 April when they attacked again, this time with tanks. The German attack broke through 8th British Division mainly made up of young reinforcements recently arrived from England.
The Germans use of tanks led to the first ever tank versus tank battle when three British Mark IV tanks engaged three of the huge German A7V tanks near Cachy (approx 3 km south-west of Villers-Bretonneux) which forced the British tanks to withdraw (this was the first German use of tanks). One of the damaged German tanks (named Mephistopheles) was later captured by the Australians and sent back to Australia. It is now on display (www.qm.qld.gov.au) in the Museum of Queensland in Brisbane and is the only surviving example of a First World War German tank in the world.
During the remainder of the morning of 24 April the Germans captured Villers-Bretonneux, Bois D’Aquenne west of Villers-Bretonneux, Monument Wood and Hangard Wood to the south.
The 13th and 15th Brigades were rushed in to plug the gap and ordered to attack at 10:00pm.
The 15th Brigade (/explore/units/584) was deployed for the attack along the Fouilloy-Cachy road facing south east on the north of the town, commanded by the legendary Brigadier Harold 'Pompey' Elliot. (/explore/people/242100)
The 13th Brigade (/explore/units/474) was deployed along the southern extremity of Bois d’Aquenne, next to the Cachy to Fouilloy road, facing towards Monument Wood. Its commander was Brigadier Glasgow.
Conduct of the Battle
The orders for the attack were received at 8pm on the night of April 24th 1918, for an attack to commence two hours later, which meant that there was no time to reconnoitre the area. The fact that they were able to do this in such a short space of time is testament to the very high standards of training and discipline now evident across the AIF.
Another map of the attack showing the envelopment of the village of Villers Bretonneux by the 15th Brigade (top) and the 13th (lower), with British regiments on the southern flank
The 13th Brigade deployed to the south of Villers-Bretonneux, while the 15th Brigade deployed on the northern outskirts of the town. The plan called for the attackers to bypass the town and link up on the far side. Half of the 13th Brigade were new reinforcements and had not been in action before, but despite this, the Diggers swept through the German lines at bayonet point in the face of concentrated machine gun fire.
The German fire was lethal, but the attack never faltered. On the southern flank, lines of barbed wire were reached, but the attack continued as men forced their way through in a desperate bid to get at the enemy. After the battle, the bodies of Australians were found heaped amongst the barbed wire.
German troops were pursued across the Hangard Wood to Villers-Bretonneux road in disarray, whilst the 13th Brigade halted on the road and dug in. The 15th Brigade encountered less enemy opposition and halted along the Hamel to Villers-Bretonneux road, to the east of the town. A defensive line was consolidated south of the Roman road, beyond the aerodrome, which cut off the German garrison in Villers-Bretonneux.
The town of Villers-Bretonneux itself was attacked by two British units, with heavy losses. A later attack cleared the town, which remained in Allied hands for the remainder of the war.
South Australian involvement at Villers Bretonneux was largely through the 50th Battalion which was part of the 13th Brigade. Large numbers of South Australians also served in the 52nd Battalion. The 50th Battalion attacked south of the town. It suffered its highest losses of the war in this engagement and the bodies of many of the men killed were never recovered, lost in the scrubby woods through which they attacked. Many of the men whose remains were recovered, are buried in the nearby Adelaide Cemetery (/explore/cemeteries/26), which is a good position from which to observe the Cachy road running north which formed the Start line and FUP - forming up place - for the attack.
The 15th Brigade, drawn from Victoria, had suffered grieviously at Fromelles nearly two years before. It had retained the same Commander, Brigadier "Pompey" Elliot who commanded it throughout the remainder of the war. Walter Downing, whose eye witness accounts can be read in the 'stories' section, was in the 57th Battalion of the 15th Brigade. His account is a visceral 'no holds barred' account of hand to hand fighting and the confusion of a night action.
(C) Steve Larkins Dec 2013