Remembering Villers-Bretonneux: April 1918
25 Apr 2018|

In the spring of 1929 a group of British army officers made a study tour of the 1918 Somme battlefields from Villers-Bretonneux, astride the main road westward to Amiens, and then out to the east to the old Hindenburg Line and the Sambre-Oise canal. This was the direction of the British Army’s rapid advance until the Armistice in November 1918 brought the war to an end.

For many of those young officers, the Great War had been their baptism of fire. Much of the terrain had barely changed in the intervening decade. Of the six battles covered in their training manual, three focused on actions where Australian troops were heavily engaged. The operations at the village of Villers-Bretonneux on 24–25 April, and at Mont St Quentin on 31 August, in which the AIF played the leading role, were singled out for special attention.

When the German army launched its great offensive on 21 March 1918, the five Australian divisions on the Western Front were in Flanders, 100 kilometres north of the main assault. In the following days, as the British Army retreated and tried desperately to stem the tide, the Australians were rushed down to bolster the Somme front—the scene of bitter fighting for the AIF in 1916.

With General Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army in disarray, the AIF’s 3rd and 4th Divisions had seen days of heavy fighting by early April, helping thwart the German lunge westward towards Amiens. They played a key role in stabilising a new front line between Albert and the Somme River near Sailly-le-Sec. It was around this time, at the village of Heilly, that Charles Bean, the official Australian military historian, records a 3rd Division infantryman laconically telling a French villager: ‘Fini retreat madame—beaucoup Australiens ici.’

By late April, around 100,000 Australian troops had been hurriedly dispatched from Flanders to counter the main German advance. They held key points in the line almost as far south as Villers-Bretonneux, which was then held by the much-depleted British 8th Division.

But on the morning of 24 April, four divisions of the German Second Army made yet another determined push towards the high ground of Villers-Bretonneux, already the scene of heavy combat early that month. The waves of assault troops were supported by tanks, the first direct combat action between German and British armoured units in World War I. By midday Villers-Bretonneux had fallen.

The location of the town, the last real impediment to a direct advance on Amiens, 25 kilometres to the west, dictated an immediate counterattack that night, spearheaded by the Australian 13th and 15th Brigades. The 15th Brigade, commanded by one of the AIF’s most famous brigadiers, Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott, would attack from the north, with the 13th Brigade, commanded by William Glasgow, on the southern flank along the old front line. The British 8th Division was in support. The assault, on a 4,000‑yard front, began with an artillery barrage at 10 pm.

The 15th Brigade’s advance to the higher ground on the northwest of Villers-Bretonneux was headed by the 59th and 60th Battalions. Around midnight according to the official historian of the AIF’s Fifth Division, all hell broke loose:

A wild and terrible yell from hundreds of throats split the midnight air, and the whole line broke into a rapid run and surged irresistibly forwards, bayonets gleaming thirstily in the moonlight. A storm of enemy machine gun and rifle fire was poured into the oncoming ranks but checked them not at all. A hundred enemy flares lit up the terrible scene in vivid light, in which the Germans read too well their fate … It was the third anniversary of the Gallipoli landing, and the payment of odd debts due to the Turk was to be made today to his esteemed ally and brother, the German.

The counterattack succeeded at the cost of nearly 1,500 casualties for the two Australian brigades, with the 13th having the toughest fight with just over 1,000 men killed and wounded. More than 900 Germans were taken prisoner. Villers-Bretonneux had been recaptured less than 24 hours after being overrun by the Germans and Amiens was no longer in danger.

The battle marked the end of the British Army’s defeats on the Somme front. Only three months later the great Allied offensive that began on 8 August with Australian and Canadian troops in the vanguard would begin just to the east of Villers-Bretonneux.

The Germans’ last big push to win the war petered out on the rolling hills astride the Somme river valley. From its beginning on 21 March to the end of April, German casualties were estimated at 50,000 dead and 250,000 wounded. British Army casualties (including the Dominion troops) in the same period were around 28,000 dead with 240,000 wounded.

In a letter home written a week after the battle, John Monash, soon to take command of a newly created Australian Corps consisting of all five AIF divisions, summed up:

In my opinion this counter-attack at night is the finest thing yet done in the war by Australians or any other troops … The British public is at last beginning to sit up and take notice, and from an attitude of cold and rather critical patronage towards Australians, and vague allusion to their ‘slack discipline’.

A century later a popular myth continues to flourish that the Australians in France in 1918 single-handedly turned the tide of the German advance on the Somme front, changing the course of the war. Summing up in his official history 80 years ago, Charles Bean offered this assessment:

It has frequently been claimed that the Australian divisions stopped the advancing Germans in their previously victorious progress towards Amiens and also towards Hazebrouck … if this claim means that the Germans continued to advance until they came up against Australian troops hurriedly brought to the rescue, and that these were the troops that first held up the enemy on the line on which the offensive ended, it is not literally true of any important sector of the Somme front.

This isn’t to question the genuine achievement and fighting prowess of the AIF in 1918. In his long dispatch on the great German offensive written in July 1918, Douglas Haig observed that the night operation at Villers-Bretonneux by the Australians, undertaken at short notice, was ‘an enterprise of great daring’, and a ‘well-conceived and brilliantly executed operation’.

The 13th Australian Brigade, in particular, showed great skill and resolution in their attack, making their way through belts of wire running diagonally to their line of advance, across very difficult country which they had no opportunity to reconnoitre beforehand.

Fighting alongside the Australians at the battle of Villers-Bretonneux was a young British army captain, Hubert Essame, who would also serve in World War II under Bernard Montgomery, ending up as a major-general. In his book on the 1918 Western Front battles, Essame singled out the Australians for special praise. ‘In an inferno of bursting shells and machinegun fire, these superb troops recaptured the town in one of the most sanguinary actions of the war.’

Essame, who was wounded in the Anzac-eve battle for Villers-Bretonneux, gave this evaluation of the men of the AIF: ‘All who fought in it gave the palm for the best infantry of the war on either side to the Australians.’