At 4.45am on a misty 24th April 1918 an intense artillery bombardment including gas shells fell on Villers-Bretonneux extending six miles south of Hangard into the French sector. [Maps courtesy of Australians on the Western Front.] The village and its front was held by the British 8th Division, a particularly good British division but which had lost half of its 10,000 infantry in the March offensive. To the north and rear of the town Brig-Gen. Elliott’s 15th Brigade was in divisional reserve, with the 14th Brigade manning the front to the north of the village. If the village was lost Elliott had already primed his 59th & 60th Battalions for the counter-attack. By 8.35am the 56th Battalion in reserve of its 14th Brigade on Hill 104 could see the village and that the Germans were holding it and now advancing north i.e. around the front of the 14th Brigade, but the position was secured through both the 56th Battalion and a battery of British field artillery firing at point blank range. At about noon the 8th Division began their counter-attacks, the first of which was delivered by three heavy – one ‘male’ and two ‘female’ – tanks. Heading for the vulnerable Cachy Switch Trench the tanks soon came across at a distance of 300 yards a German tank with two waves of infantry approaching, and two more tanks on either side. The machine-gun carrying ‘female’ tanks were no match and after being fired upon retired leaving tank commander Lieut. Mitchell in his ‘male’ tank carrying two six-pounder guns to fight what would become the first tank duel. Mitchell took the risk of stopping to give the gunner a better platform and at once hit the opposing tank three times causing the crew to abandon and flee (photograph above of the disabled German tank ‘Mephisto’). Seeing this and to his surprise the two other tanks turned and made off. As Mitchell retired after being hit by artillery shell he was passed by seven light ‘Whippet’ tanks speedily coming in to action to clear up the situation in front of Cachy, causing havoc to the German battalions forming up in the open. At 9.30am and as soon as General Rawlinson had learnt of the loss of Villers-Bretonneux he ordered the nearest Australian reserve brigade, the 13th billeted at Querrieu north of the Somme, to march south at once to the III Corps to assist in the recapture of Villers-Bretonneux, which as he put it was ‘imperative to the security of Amiens’.
At 10pm on the 24th April 1918 the British artillery opened on the village of Villers-Bretonneux as the two brigades of the AIF, the 15th Brigade to the north and the 13th Brigade to the south, prepared to counter-attack and to encircle and then regain the village. For the 51st Battalion of the 13th Brigade they had to pass a wood on their left which had supposedly been cleared by the British earlier in the day but flares were soon in the air and German machine-guns enfilading their advance. Pressing on to their objective at Monument Wood would have been futile at this stage so the local decision was taken by Lieut. Sadlier (photograph below) to attack the wood and bomb the guns out. His attack for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross was extraordinarily bold taking the German machine-gunners by surprise and with the Western Australians fighting wildly in the dark and amongst the trees. By this audacious attack all the machine guns along the edge of the wood were eventually silenced and a great danger was removed from the flank of the advancing brigade. As the 13th Brigade advanced they had to now negotiate the diagonally running wire entanglements that had been erected to stop the Germans, who by now had positioned their outposts on the other side of the wire. By morning the wire was lined by the dead of the 52nd and 51st Battalions. Some 500 yards beyond lay a stronger line of defenders but once having engaged with their Lewis guns the Australian line rushed yelling and shouting and the Germans, newly arrived from the eastern front and not used to this ferocity, turned and ran as the 52nd chased the fleeing parties into the dark between the Monument and Hangard Woods. The 51st on the left, whose progress had been hindered earlier by the fire from the woods plus the railway embankment that ran to the south of the village, reached a quarry in which several British wounded who had lain there since the previous morning were found, along with a German tank lying on its side. Although short by between a quarter and a mile from their objective, they had still pushed forward a mile and in a position to squeeze out the Germans in the village if the 15th Brigade to the north were able reach its objective.
The progress of the attacking battalions of the 15th Brigade to the assembly position was slow on account of the dark and gas lying on the low ground. Lieut-Col. Marshall of the 60th Battalion took the decision to wait until the attacking companies of the 59th and the supporting 57th Battalions had arrived. As a result the brigade did not advance until midnight, two hours after the allotted time. The first part of the advance proceeded well in silence, and when a flare was fired the men would remain motionless. Once seen a machine-gun began to open up firing high and erratically at which point the order was given to charge and with it unleashed with a ferocious roar the infantry that with their rifle and bayonet gave no quarter to the enemy machine-gunners. This half hour would rank as one of the wildest experiences of the Australian infantry during the war. The main fighting was on the right where the brigade brushed the village, while to the north and on the plateau the Germans were manning the old British reserve trench that had been dug by the AIF 5th Division. The 60th and 59th having passed the north of the village continued rushing south-eastwards pursuing the fleeing enemy and killing those that remained in their shell-holes, until the objective of the old Roman road on the right and the Villers-Bretonneux-Hamel road was reached, and with what turned out to be relatively few casualties.
By 4am on the 25th April, the third anniversary of the Anzac Landing, the 15th and 13th Brigades had established themselves in a position around the village, albeit not fully surrounded, to make the enemy holding and reinforcing of the village difficult. However the Germans had yet to be forced out as the attack by two battalions of the British 8th Division allotted with the task of attacking where the Germans most expected it had suffered heavy losses in their failed attempt. As daylight came sniper fire increased from the houses in the village. The task of clearing now fell to the 57th Battalion. Every now again a machine-gun opened on them from one of the houses, a Lewis gun would pour fire on it from the front while other men made their way round and bombed from the rear, and finding themselves surrounded the Germans surrendered. This process repeated itself as the troops advanced. By the time the main street was reached 300 prisoners had been taken. Some of the scattered German parties fought stubbornly, while 200 were seen retiring across the open country south of the railway towards Monument Wood. At 10am a gap of 500 yards still existed either side of the railway, but due to the machine-guns at the Monument and Hangard Wood sweeping the plateau during the day it would not be until the early hours of the next morning that the gap would eventually be closed.
As daylight broke on the 26th April the Australians of the 13th Brigade looked on with admiration and astonishment as the Moroccan Division advanced en-masse across the plateau to take Hangard Wood, but faced with a storm of machine-gun fire from the Wood and the Monument they were cut down, the suicidal attack costing the division some 3,500 casualties. The task of securing the position north of Villers-Bretonneux by improving the connection between the 15th and 14th Brigades was undertaken by the left company of the 60th Battalion, eliminating the re-entrant through a series of rushes that resulted in the Germans retiring. Although the straightening operation had been a success it actually cost the 60th Battalion more casualties than the main attack. The line was thus complete and lay upon its objective.
The Villers-Bretonneux operation cost the 13th Brigade the most with 1,009 casualties compared to the 455 in the 15th Brigade. The 51st Battalion alone lost 365 officers and men, mainly as result of having to skirt the Bois l’Abbe and in passing the wire near the Cachy Switch. However the Australians had 2,473 casualties in total, many on account of the gassing during the German bombardment. In all the British, including the Australians, had approximately 12,000 casualties, while the Germans on are estimated to have lost 8,000 men.
The counter-attack at Villers-Bretonneux brought great fame to the Australian infantry, and although falling short of its complete objectives had rescued the Allies from a dangerous situation. This was a very bloody operation, which did flout some of the rules for this type of operation, but was cited as one of the most impressive operations of its kind on the Western Front. For the Germans the attack on Villers-Bretonneux was in fact just a feint designed to keep the French from reinforcing the hard pressed British in Flanders, but once the limitations of their intentions had been realised it just became a costly and counter-productive waste of men, similar in reverse to the Fromelles attack that the 15th Brigade were victims of two years previous.
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FIRST WORLD WAR TIMELINE