Centenary of the First Battle of Villers-Bretonneux, France
Following the defeat of Tsarist Russia in early 1918 and an end to fighting on the Eastern Front, German forces transferred significant manpower and equipment to the Western Front in what became known as the German Spring Offensive.
Operation Michael, part of that Spring Offensive, began in March 1918 and was aimed at the depleted British forces along the Somme River. On 21 March the German army advanced towards Amiens, pushing the British line back towards the town of Villers-Bretonneux.
In response to these advances, the 9th Australian Infantry Brigade, consisting of four infantry battalions, had been detached from the 3rd Australian Division and sent south from Belgium to assist the British Fifth Army and the French First Army. The fear was that if the Germans could capture Villers-Bretonneux and reach the edge of the plateau, Amiens, a strategically important road and rail-junction, would be within range of their artillery. The Australian units were to help hold back the German advance north of the Somme at Dernancourt and Morlancourt.
On 30 March the Germans attacked around Le Hamel and succeeded in making gains around Hangard Wood. On 4 April they renewed their drive towards Villers-Bretonneux and captured Hamel, which gave them a footing on the strategically vital “Hill 104”, close to the eastern outskirts of Villers-Bretonneux. The line from north to south was held by British and Australian troops of the 14th (Light) Division, the 35th Australian Battalion and the 18th (Eastern) Division. The line west of Le Hamel was reinforced by the arrival of the 15th Australian Brigade.
In the same afternoon, the Germans resumed their push on the 18th Division in the south and Villers-Bretonneux appeared ready to fall as they came within 400 metres of the town. Colonel Henry Goddard of the 35th Australian Battalion, in command of the sector, ordered a surprise late afternoon counter-attack by the 36th Australian Battalion with 1,000 men and supported by a company from the 35th Australian Battalion, and his reserve, the 6th Battalion London Regiment.
The surprise late afternoon attack, when the Germans were so close to success restored the situation and with flanking movements from the 33rd and 34th Battalions, helped consolidate the British gains. German attempts to break through the lines of protection continued until the night of 5 April but they never succeeded in penetrating the defences and the German advance on Amiens was halted. There would be further fighting around the village during the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux later in the month.
The averting of danger away from Villers-Bretonneux on this occasion influenced the remainder of the spring campaign and much credit was given to the 3rd Cavalry Division and the 9th Australian Infantry Brigade. Colonel Benson of the 6th London, himself a participant, reported the following:
“The counter-attack of the 36th Battalion, AIF, was got under way very rapidly and efficiently …The greatest credit is due to the O.C. of the 36th …. Who organised and launched the counter-attack, and to his battalion for the spirited way in which it was carried out. This officer undoubtedly retrieved a very awkward situation. “
The 9th Brigade lost 30 officers and 635 men in this battle.
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Gammage, W., The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War, Penguin Books, 1974
R. Kearney and S. Cleary, Valour & Violets South Australia in the Great War
Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2018