Ville-sur-Ancre was essential to the German for the defence of Morlancourt and the battle to seize control was very much a 22nd Battalion battle, as it was the only complete unit involved in the attack. Never before had the 22nd Battalion attacked over so large a frontage (1,500 yards) with so few men, with 15 to 20 yards separating each man in the same wave on the JOT. Zero hour was set for 2am on the morning of 19th May 1918 when an intense creeping barrage fell on the German line. The attackers followed so closely upon the barrage that they effectively surprised and captured the occupants of the enemy outpost line who were not able to put up much resistance. However in the ‘Big Caterpillar’ sunken lane (photograph above right) the resistance was serious and heavy hand to hand fighting took place. By the time the sunken road had been reached the attackers had suffered heavy casualties. In front the defenders were numerous and capable of a strenuous resistance, plus the men were being sniped at from the rear. Sgt Ruthven seeing Capt. Hunter his company commander severely wounded and the seriousness of the situation took control as follows:
“As the leading wave approached its objective it was subjected to heavy fire from an enemy machine-gun at close range. Without hesitation he at once sprang out, threw a bomb which landed beside the post, and rushed the position, bayoneting one of the crew and capturing the gun. He then encountered some of the enemy coming out of a shelter. He wounded two, captured six others in the same position, and handed them over to an escort from the leading wave, which had now reached the objective. Sgt. Ruthven then reorganised the men in his vicinity and established a post in the second objective. Observing enemy movement in a sunken road nearby, he, without hesitation and armed only with a revolver, went over the open alone and rushed the position, shooting two enemy who refused to come out of their dug-outs. He then single-handed mopped up this post and captured the whole of the garrison, amounting in all to thirty-two, and kept them until assistance arrived to escort them back to our lines. During the remainder of the day this gallant non-commissioned officer set a splendid example of leadership, moving up and down his position under fire, supervising consolidation and encouraging his men. Throughout the whole operation he showed the most magnificent courage and determination, inspiring everyone by his fine fighting spirit, his remarkable courage, and his dashing action.”
For this action William ‘Rusty’ Ruthven (photograph right) was awarded the Victoria Cross (citation above), the first to be awarded to any member of the 6th Brigade, and he would remain the only recipient for the 22nd Battalion during the war. Twenty-seven other members of the Battalion would also be awarded medals during this battle.
The entire operation was a success. Over 200 prisoners were captured by the 22nd Battalion alone during the battle, plus many machine-guns of which many ended up back in Australia at the AWM museum. However casualties amongst the Battalion’s 523 officers and other ranks that took part in the attack were heavy with 30 men killed or missing in action including 2nd Lieut. Bowden, and of the 165 men wounded Major Dooley, MC, Capt. Hunter, Lieut. Southwell and Lieut. Bourke were all incapacitated from further service in France.
The following message was sent by Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig: “Congratulations 2nd Australian Division on complete success of operations carried out yesterday morning which resulted in the capture of Ville-sur-Ancre as well as other gains”.
Published as ‘news’ 100 years on to the day, follow the 22nd Battalion on the project website and via Facebook and Twitter
FIRST WORLD WAR TIMELINE