The 22nd Battalion left Querrieu at 3.30pm on 9th May 1918 and relieved the 39th Battalion in the front line before Ville-sur-Ancre and Morlancourt, arriving at 1.50am on the following morning. There was some hostile shelling during the relief, with the 35th Battalion (9th Brigade) on the right and the 24th Battalion (6th Brigade) on the left.
For the Australian Imperial Force the 15,083 losses between 21st March and 7th May 1918 during the German Spring Offensive resulted in the need for re-organisation, something that was dreaded by all, and particularly for the men of the 36th, 47th and 52nd Battalions that were earmarked for disbandment over the coming weeks. For the British, the stream of reinforcements through conscription increased from a trickle to a flood, but mainly with the use of boy soldiers under the age of 19, many of whom were good but still lacked the hardening process and thus thrown headlong straight into some of the hardest fighting of the war.
Artillery during the day was followed by a dense rolling barrage behind which attacking waves from the 35th and 34th Battalions followed closely towards the enemy trenches in front of Morlancourt, often catching the young German garrison cowering on the floor. Both lines of the enemy trench were captured on a front of ¾ mile and 153 prisoners, 10 machine guns and three trench mortars taken at the cost of only some 100 casualties, mostly minor. At this point even such minor successes were encouraging to all the Allied troops, and conversely discouraging to the enemy.
At 2am the 48th Battalion moved into position for the attack at Monument Wood but just as they were about to advance they were spotted and flares shot into the air to illuminate the area. A short and weak barrage at zero hour, followed by ferocious machine-gun fire and frenetic throwing of stick bombs in the area of the wire caused many casualties and the attack failed. Once the fighting had ended stretcher-bearers went out to recover the wounded under the supervision of a young German officer that had climbed out of his trench. Lieut. GD Mitchell, MC, (photograph above right) of the 48th did the same and they made arrangements for a formal armistice allowing the Australians to bury their dead in No-Man’s Land and bring back the wounded. At the end both officers saluted and returned to the trenches. With this unsuccessful effort the Second Battle of the Somme, which for most of the British Army had ended of 5th April, closed on the French and British forces in front of Amiens.
The northern most Australian division on the Somme, the 2nd Division (including the 22nd Battalion) was relieved by the British 18th (Eastern) Division and moved into reserve, ready to counter-attack should the Germans breakthrough in the sector. The Australian Corps held its now shortened line with three divisions – the 4th Division in front of Villers-Bretonneux, the 5th Division astride the river Somme, and the 3rd Division to a point half a mile south of the Ancre between Ville-sur-Ancre and Morlancourt.
On 25th April the Fourth German Army in Flanders attacked Mount Kemmel and captured it. However, with the German offensive stalled because of logistical problems, exposed flanks, the counterattacks by British, French and Anzac forces which had slowed and stopped the German advance, Ludendorff ended Georgette on the 29th April. Hazebrouck remained in Allied hands and as the British abandoned the comparatively worthless territory they had captured at vast cost the previous year in the Third Battle of Ypres thus freeing several divisions to face the German attackers, the newly occupied land was now a vulnerable salient under fire from the British on three sides. As with Operation Michael, losses were roughly equal on both sides with approximately 110,000 men wounded or killed.
The AIF 4th Division arrived at Villers-Bretonneux with the 4th Brigade, itself having just been relieved from Hebuterne, relieving the 15th Brigade in the 1,200 yard sector north of the Roman road. The 12th Brigade relieved the Australian 13th Brigade plus the 8th British & Moroccan Divisions south of the road on a front of 2,500 yards to the south-west corner of Monument Wood.
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. After a furious bombardment the enemy were seen gathering for a counter-attack, but the machine guns of the 25th Company, the captured German machine-guns, Lewis guns and the artillery caused the enemy to scatter and the threat faded.
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. However there was now confusion as the right battalion, the 57th, had been given orders to move on to what was the old British front line. With senior command not yet available, local commanding officers Capt.’s Peacock and Morgan decided to push on to what was now the old British out-post line, but there was no sign of the 13th Brigade on their right and unbeknown to them they were about 1,500 yards past the farthest point reached by the 13th Brigade attacking the Monument. Their northern flank was about 700 yards ahead of the 59th, and with the Germans beginning to out-flank them the decision was made to abandon the attempt to cross the Roman road so they withdrew to the captured trench-line in the rear of the 59th.
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. To the south the 13th Brigade were approached by three white-flagged Germans carrying messages that they were surrounded on three sides and should surrender forthwith to avoid destruction. By now the Germans in the wood to the rear had been cleared and the response to the Germans was short and less than courteous! As it turned out, and confirmed by the three whippets which went on one of their fast reconnaissance behind enemy line, this was just a bluff, but for the Australian troops digging in this added to their anxiety particularly as a tremendous bombardment began to fall on them at 7am for an hour. 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.
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. Within five minutes the German barrage started to fall on the assembly positions and at 10.10pm with all battalions in position the attack commenced. 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. To the centre and right better progress was made, but in one incident they ran into a party from the 2nd Devon and 1st Worcester who unaware of the counter-attack thought that they were being attacked by Germans from the rear. 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. However the objective at Monument Wood was becoming less achievable as the attack moved forward with the Germans to the left and rear in the village, and the 7th Bedford’s on the right not in contact with a flanking company so a decision was made to establish a defensive line on the high ground behind the quarry. 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.