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Villers-Bretonneux in 1918

 
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BerichtGeplaatst: 29 Apr 2008 7:55    Onderwerp: Villers-Bretonneux in 1918 Reageer met quote

Australia's gallant contribution to the turning of the war

By Peter Burness

Posted Fri Apr 25, 2008 7:43am AEST

Villers-Bretonneux, France, 29 April 1918.


The small French manufacturing town of Villers-Bretonneux held no particular significance to Australia until the last year of the First World War. Although it stood behind the front line during 1916-17 and only a few kilometres from the small villages where the troops were then often billeted, few diggers would have spent time there. The town would soon become important because it was on the main road and rail line along the direct German approach to Amiens.

Australians knew Amiens well and sometimes took leave there. It was a large and ancient city and a vital communications hub for the British and adjoining French armies. The British war correspondent Phillip Gibbs had observed the diggers there about the time of the First Battle of the Somme.

"I liked the look of them. They were as hard as steel, and finely tempered. Among them were boys of more delicate fibre, and sensitive, if one might judge by their clean-cut features and wistful eyes ... They pushed open the doors of any restaurant in Amiens and sat down to table next to British officers, not abashed, and ordered anything that pleased their taste, and wine in plenty."

At the beginning of 1918 the five Australian divisions, recently formed into the Australian Corps under General Sir William Birdwood, were further north, mostly in Flanders, 100 kilometres from Amiens. Only months earlier they had been fighting in the disastrous Third Battle of Ypres, where they suffered casualties on a scale greater than anything experienced before. At home, the recent defeat of a second referendum proposing the introduction of conscription meant that the AIF would remain an all-volunteer force. However, enlistments could not keep pace with the losses.

German offensive

It was the great German offensive, begun on 21 March and directed against the British Third and Fifth Armies, that brought the Australians back to the Somme. With the allies being forced back almost to within sight of Amiens, the diggers were needed in the region of Villers-Bretonneux. The first to go were the 3rd and 4th Divisions. Captain Cyril Longmore later wrote, "The next three days and nights were a succession of railway journeys, route marches, and bus rides, about which no one who took part can have more than a confused recollection." The 5th Division soon followed, and later the 2nd and 1st Divisions.

In these desperate times, the Australians were used as a commander would use his reserves, with brigades being detached and rushed to fill any developing gaps in the line. For the men of the 3rd Division under Major General Sir John Monash, it was their first time on the Somme. The veteran 1st Division no sooner arrived in the area than it was turned around, put back on trains, and returned to Flanders, where trouble was also developing. By the end of these early weeks of confusion, however, most of the Australians were soon roughly strung out in a line from near Albert to Villers-Bretonneux. They were quickly in contact with the advancing enemy.

Up until this time the German offensive had been successful. But now their lines of communications were stretched, tired troops needed to be rested and had to hand over to less experienced ones, and they had been unable to bring up all of their powerful artillery that had played such an important part in their initial breakthrough. They were losing momentum. On 4 April the enemy attacked at Villers-Bretonneux but they were held and then pushed back in what was described as a "spectacular charge" by the 36th Battalion.

Next day the Germans attacked the northern part of the Australian area at Hebuterne and Dernancourt, near Albert. Again they were repulsed. Still, there were few who thought they would not strike again. Over the past few weeks the Australians had seen British troops falling back in disorder, while others British troops, tired and depleted, had bravely held out against local German thrusts. None drew the diggers' admiration more than the cavalrymen fighting mounted and on foot. However, the fresh reinforcements that were arriving were young and raw, which even their own British officers had to admit.

Finally on 24 April, at 4.45 am on a dull and misty morning, heavy German artillery fire descended on the British troops who were now occupying the line in front of Villers- Bretonneux. Behind the town Australians met young soldiers withdrawing who told them the Germans were advancing with flame-throwers and with tanks. Amiens, now a dull, deserted and shell-damaged city, was under direct and serious threat.

Counter attack

Most of the German thrust fell on the southern side of Villers-Bretonneux: Major General JJ Talbot Hobb's 5th Australian Division was not far away on the plateau to the north. By not conforming to a withdrawal - that is, by not joining in the withdrawal - the division would play its own vital role in the battle, and its 15th Brigade would have a very active part.

The Germans fought through to the Amiens side of Villers-Bretonneux, which was being pounded by artillery fire. It was essential that the allies mount a quick and powerful counter attack before the enemy could consolidate. However only the Australian 13th Brigade (4th Division) and 15th Brigade (5th Division), which were in reserve, and some British battalions were available. The 15th Brigade was already close by and had been sending out its own patrols, but the 13th Brigade was resting more than ten kilometres away at Querrieu. It received orders mid-morning to move towards the fighting. Although the 13th had suffered at Dernancourt three weeks earlier, it headed off "brimming with confidence".

The quickly prepared plan was for the 15th Brigade to attack on the north of the town and the 13th on the south, in a pincer movement. British troops would be alongside and would also follow through in the gap between the Australians. Artillery support was available, but there could be no preliminary bombardment or creeping barrage.

The two Australian brigades were each under the most redoubtable leaders of the AIF: Brigadier Generals William Glasgow and HE "Pompey" Elliott. Both were tough, courageous and battle-wise. Within a few months Glasgow would rise to the command of the 1st Australian Division.

Within the platoons there was hasty discussion of orders and the issuing of grenades and extra bandoliers of rifle ammunition. Then they began to move up to their starting positions in the dim light. At the appointed time of 10pm, the supporting artillery opened fire, but the infantry were not ready. German flares fizzed into the sky, falling in red, white, green, and golden bunches, and their artillery began to retaliate. Heavy fire fell on the town, bringing down roofs and walls and setting buildings on fire. Glasgow's men eventually moved off from their start positions with bayonets fixed, and more than an hour later Elliott's did too. Each group was met by heavy machine-gun fire. Sergeant W.H. Downing later recalled:

"The moon sunk behind clouds. There were houses burning in the town throwing a sinister light on the scene. It was past midnight. Men muttered, 'It's Anzac Day.' It seemed there was nothing to do but go straight forward and die hard."

The Australian advance rolled forward, often straight into the face of machine-guns. To the south the men were finding their way over unfamiliar ground in the darkness. On the north, dashing forward, some in the 57th Battalion began yelling. Despite all of the noise, they could be heard on the other side of the town. Downing remembered, "The yelling rose high and passed to the 58th and 60th Battalions. Baying like hell-hounds, they also charged."

The Australians' blood was up; ignoring their own losses, they assaulted with bayonets and grenades. Lewis guns also did great damage. Later a wounded digger would remember the enemy's fire: "It was all machine-gun bullets that day." Another soldier wrote:

"One saw running forms in the dark, and the flashes of rifles, then the evil pyre in the town flickered and showed to their killers the white faces of Germans lurking in shell holes, or flinging away their arms and trying to escape."

It was in such fighting that Lieutenant Clifford Sadlier of the 51st Battalion won the Victoria Cross that night. He and his sergeant, Charlies Stokes, carrying their own bags of grenades ("bombs"), boldly led their platoon against enemy posts. There were heavy casualties. At one point Sadlier attacked a machine-gun position alone with his revolver. His citation says, "His coolness and utter disregard of danger inspired all." Only after being wounded a second time during the attack did he retire.

Grey-clad clusters of dead

The fighting went on throughout the night, and the Australians eventually got to the other side of Villers-Bretonneux. Now came the task of mopping up and clearing the town. Early in the morning some tanks assisted. For a while the gap between the brigades allowed some Germans to escape along the railway, which was protected by a deep cutting. But they had been driven off, leaving the ground to the Australian and British troops. Many Germans were killed and many others who were trapped had surrendered.

The British would soon follow up near Cachy. At one point two German NCOs came forward under a white flag, demanding that the British surrender or suffer a heavy artillery attack. The message was passed to the Australians and Glasgow was advised by telephone. "Tell them to go to hell," he bluntly responded, and the two Germans were marched off to join the other prisoners. Next day the French would recapture more ground to the south. The enemy had lost their chance to reach Amiens. They would not try again.

The Australians lost about 1,500 men in the action, killed or wounded. Later an officer from the 4th Division looked over the battleground. He wrote:

"All about us lay the dead, pitifully boyish-looking Tommies who had been driven out of Villers. Among them were the equipments of our 13th and 15th Brigade men who had died in the recapture ... and had been buried. The price to the enemy was shown in the grey-clad clusters of [their] dead."

In the following weeks the Australians consolidated. A month later there were major changes to the Australian Corps and Lieutenant General Sir John Monash was promoted to the command. And from a front line established roughly to the east of Villers-Bretonneux, the Australians would take part in a series of advances in the months ahead that would contribute to ending the war.

Australia's connection to Villers-Bretonneux extended beyond the battles and the diggers' continuing presence in the area. After the war, the high ground to the north of the town was selected as the site of the Australian National Memorial. The government held a competition for its design. A key requirement was that the 11,000 names of all those "missing" in France be easily accessible. The winning entry was from William Lucas of Melbourne, whose design was finally approved in 1929.

Unfortunately work on the memorial was postponed because of the Great Depression and in the mid-1930s the government decided to proceed on something less expensive. In the end the British architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens, already famous for other major war memorials, produced a worthy concept. The memorial was finally dedicated on 22 July 1938.

In recent decades Villers-Bretonneux has taken on a fresh significance. International travel has become easier and many Australians now attend annual Anzac Day services at the Australian National Memorial. On these solemn occasions they not only commemorate the 46,000 Australians lost on the Western Front during the First World War but also remember a decisive battle on this ground on the same day in 1918.

Written by Peter Burness, a senior curator at the Australian War Memorial, for Wartime. Wartime is the official magazine of the Australian War Memorial.

c http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/04/25/2227208.htm
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