Australian troops overcame massive odds Villers-Bretonneux to achieve a significant WWI victory.It seemed to be another disaster in the making, a counter-attack launched at short notice at night across unfamiliar ground against an entrenched enemy force armed to the teeth with machine guns.
Yet Australian troops overcame these odds to achieve one of the truly significant victories of their four years of war on the Western Front.
This was at Villers-Bretonneux, a town in north-western France seized by German forces at the high point of their 1918 Spring Offensive, then speedily recaptured by Australian troops in some of the most brutal fighting of a savage war.
Villers-Bretonneux is now home to the main Australian Memorial of the Western Front – since the victory there was, after all, a notable triumph and achieved at modest cost by Great War standards. It also happened on the third anniversary of Anzac Day, in 1918.
This impressive stone memorial stemmed from a design competition open only to veterans and families. It was built in 1936 and 1937 and opened in 1938, just in time for the next great war.
The Australian National Memorial displays the names of almost 11,000 Australians killed in France who have no known grave.
Close by is the new Sir John Monash visitor interpretive centre, explaining Australia’s role in the events of 1918, certainly the only time when Australian forces have contributed significantly to victory against the main enemy on the main battleground in a global conflict.
It was officially opened on Tuesday, the eve of the centenary of the battle this Anzac Day.
It is also due to host the main Australian commemoration marking 100 years since Armistice Day on November 11.
The Aussie victory at Villers-Bretonneux was all the more notable as it followed appalling losses in fighting in the battle of Passchendaele in Belgium the previous year.
By the time the five battered Australian divisions withdrew from the line in November 1917, they had suffered 38,000 casualties, including 12,000 dead, and there were doubts they could ever again be a significant fighting force. Yet they did recover.
Following Passchendaele, the Australians had been recuperating and rebuilding in the relatively quiet area around Messines in French Flanders when the Germans launched their offensive on March 21.
This proved devastating. Supported by massed artillery fire and poison gas, German shock troops overwhelmed thinly spread British forces in days, pushing them steadily back from territory seized at such enormous cost during the previous three years.
But this was really Germany’s last throw of the dice – to try and win the war before American troops arrived by using forces released from the Eastern Front after Russia withdrew from the fighting.
The front was quickly in crisis and Australian troops marched south to plug gaps in the defences. For the Germans, capturing Villers-Bretonneux would open the way to Amiens, an important road and rail hub.
The town was fought over for much of April but finally fell to a strong German attack on a weak British division at dawn on April 24.
That attack involved four infantry divisions, massed artillery fire, poison gas and Germany’s first use of tanks.
They couldn’t be allowed to stay and a counter-attack, involving some British but mostly Australian troops, was organised, so hurriedly that official correspondent Charles Bean believed it would fail disastrously.
Yet it succeeded so spectacularly that British Brigadier General George Grogan VC described it as perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war.
Two Australian units – the 13th Brigade of the 4th Division and the 15th Brigade of the 5th division – were set the main task of retaking Villers-Bretonneux, now well defended by large numbers of entrenched German troops with machine guns.
They kicked off at 10pm and, battling intense enemy fire, encircled the town in a pincer movement. They then set about clearing after dawn on April 25. The attack was so ferocious that initially few German prisoners were taken.
Australian War Memorial senior historian Ashley Ekins said this was ruthless and bloody battle, fought with rifle, bayonet and bombs up close and personal, with no quarter given.
In his official history, Bean quotes some of the participants as follows: “With a ferocious roar and the cry of ‘into the bastards boys’ we were down on them before the Boche realised what had happened.
“The Boche was at our mercy. They screamed for mercy but there were too many machine-guns about to show them any consideration as we were moving forward.
“Each man was in his glee and old scores were wiped out two or three times over.”
Bean wrote that later, as the men tired of killing, prisoners came back in droves.
This victory wasn’t achieved without significant casualties – 1464 dead and wounded – but it established the Australians as a premier fighting force on the Western Front.
Allied commanders heaped praise on the diggers and historian Joan Beaumont said that with such accolades Villers-Bretonneux rapidly assumed a central place in Australian memories of the war in France.
“More than nine decades later it remains a, possibly the, dominant (Australian) site of commemoration of the Western Front, overshadowing even Pozieres and Fromelles,” she wrote in her history of Australians in the Great War “Broken Nation.”
Australian Associated Press