Centenary of the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux
April 25th, a day seared in the minds of all Australians. Traditionally associated with the landings at Gallipoli in 1915, it was also a day that marked the turning point of the 1st World War three years later on the Western Front in France. April would prove pivotal to the outcome of the war, and the tiny village of Villers Bretonneux and the Australian forces took centre stage.
Operation Michael, the German offensive of late March 1918, was designed to drive the allied forces into the Channel. Amiens, the strategically important logistic hub for the allies, was the prize. The Germans assessed that if they could get their artillery within range of Amiens they could cause such disruption to the allies resupply chain that their positions in France would be untenable.
To achieve their aim, the Germans needed to take the village of Villers Bretonneux and, more importantly, Hill 104 to its west. A peaceful, picturesque village of about 5,000 residents 19km east of Amiens and surrounded by farmlands, Villers Bretonneux was a town where everyone could draw, at the very least, a loose connection with everyone else. That was until the war.
In late March the Australian divisions had been ordered south to halt the German offensive in a series of seven blocking battles commencing with Hébuterne on 25 March, then Dernancourt on the 28th. Morlancourt followed between 28 and 30 March.
The first battle for Villers Bretonneux commenced on 30 March with a German artillery barrage and assault that saw thousands of British troops withdraw to the west, observed by some Australians as ‘…the wilting flower of England’s Fifth Army … doing a marathon for home and mother, pursued by the beastly Bosche…’
As the German artillery began shelling Australian positions in Gentelles, two miles southwest of Villers Bretonneux, the commander of the Australian 9th Brigade, Brigadier Charles Rosenthal, convened an orders group of his battalion commanders in the local church square. He announced that the Germans had taken Aubercourt, less than two miles east of Villers Bretonneux, and the brigade was to be prepared to counter attack should the enemy reach the town. As the British front line crumbled Rosenthal pre-empted the capture of Villers Bretonneux and ordered the Commanding Officer 33rd Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Morsehead, to take Aubercourt and restore a line north to Marcelcave.
Linking up with the British 12th Lancers, Morsehead’s battalion, with no artillery support, managed to drive the Germans, vastly superior in number, from Hangard and Lancer Wood, west of Aubercourt. Although they failed to take back Aubincourt itself, they were able to establish a solid defensive line just east of Lancer Wood. Over the next four days the Germans would probe and shell and eventually launch an all out assault on Villers Bretonneux but by 9:30am on 4 April, the Allies (read the Australians) had stabilised the line and fought off the attackers.
Commander of Australia’s 3rd Division, MAJGEN Monash, was able to write home, ‘We have stood firm, the road to Amiens is closed, and we … and the New Zealanders further north, steadied up the whole British line’.
Between 5 and 23 April, Australian troops fought a series of engagements at Dernancourt, along the River Lys, Hangard Wood and the Somme. According to Charles Bean, ‘The great German spring offensive of 1918 ended with the British line in the Somme region entirely held by Australian troops. Indeed, Anzac divisions and their detached brigades were then holding almost exactly half of the 34 miles of British front between Arras and Luce.’
The second battle of Villers Bretonneux commenced with an artillery barrage on the night of 23 April, with an estimated 1,000 shells an hour, directed at the village. Earlier in the month the Germans had spared many of the buildings in the town, presumably for their own use, but now their focus was on preparing the way for their infantry to move into position to seize the objective. By 4.00am on 24 April, 60,000 German soldiers were in position, ready to attack. The five German divisions were each supported by between two and four new tanks fresh off the production line – 13 tanks in all. Not a lot by today’s standards but in the days of trench warfare, a significant asset.
As dawn broke ‘…550 heavy guns and 40 mortars of the German artillery, lined up in scattered groups, side by side … with gun-teams stripped to the waist [and] relief teams standing by each gun in order to keep up a continuous service of the guns go at it…’ It was not enough to simply fire high explosive ammunition. The barrage included ‘all kinds of gas shells’ fired at both front line troops and the allied artillery in depth. At 7:00am the infantry advance commenced and the barrage rolled forward 300 metres at a time.
Fearing the worst (another British withdrawal) Brigadier Pompey Elliott, commander of the Australian 15th Brigade, ordered patrols to be sent out to see how far the Germans had advanced. For the remainder of the morning Pompey would agitate, unsuccessfully, for orders to allow him to counter-attack. As the area into which he wished to throw his brigade is within the line on the map belonging to the British 8th Division, no orders were forthcoming. Supported by tanks the Germans surged forward.
To the north, the Australian 14th Brigade was able to hold its line despite ferocious attacks by the enemy infantry and artillery causing the Germans to return to their starting positions. To their south however the British line crumbled and German troops poured through. Entering the village, the Germans began clearing hoses one by one. From the top of Hill 104, to the west of the village, an Australian artillery observer saw the German troops in the village, while all around the remnants of the 8th Division’s reserve brigade, the 25th, were falling back.
By 9:30am Villers Bretonneux was in German hands.
Having staked his career on holding the town, General Rawlinson, Commander of 4th Army, ordered Villers Bretonneux to be re-taken by nightfall – an admirable intention but with little communications due to the artillery barrage and an Army in various states of disarray, an aspiration at best.
At 10:00am Pompey Elliott finally received the orders he had been waiting for – to counter-attack the German forces. One of his first edicts was to issue an order of his own: ‘All British troops to be rallied and reformed, as our troops march through them, by selected officers and on any hesitation to be shot’. Such was his contempt for the conviction of some British troops to fight. He would later be directed to rescind the order!
By 7:00pm orders were issued for an assault to commence at 10:00pm. It was to be a pincer assault by the Australian 13th Brigade from the south and 15th Brigade from the north. But the planning had been rushed and there were genuine fears the assault may flounder and be an unmitigated disaster. At the time Charles Bean recorded in his diary ‘One cannot help but think of our 13th Bde going over, as they may be doing now. I don’t believe they have a chance. No one worth anything to left or right. 5000 yards to go through the enemy, another Brigade to meet in the dark (15th)… I scarcely think it will come off – surely. … thoroughly depressed…feeling certain that this hurried attack would fail hopelessly.’
Although the 13th Brigade stepped off on time, the 15th was late. The next hours were confusing at best, with the sounds of battle, artillery and rifle fire, screams and yells ringing through the night.
On 24/25 April 1918 at Villers-Bretonneux, France, Lieutenant Sadlier’s platoon had to advance through a wood where a strong enemy machine-gun post was causing casualties and preventing the advance. Although he was himself wounded, Lieutenant Sadlier at once collected his bombing section and led them against the machine-guns, killing the crews and capturing two of the guns. By this time his party were all casualties and alone he attacked a third enemy machine-gun with his revolver, killing the crew and taking the gun. In doing so, he was again wounded. The very gallant conduct of this officer was the means of clearing the flank, and allowing the battalion to move forward, thereby saving a most critical situation. His coolness and utter disregard of danger inspired all.
Were it not for the battle hardened Australian divisions, by then regarded by both sides as the best troops in the war, Amiens would almost certainly have fallen to the German advance, denying the Allies their most significant logistics base. It was the beginning of the end of Germany’s war efforts and further confirmation of the courage, determination, resilience and skill of the Australian soldier.
Peter Fitzsimons – Victory at Villers Bretonneux