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.
At 4.45am and under a mist an intense German artillery bombardment including gas shells fell on Villers-Bretonneux extending six miles south of Hangard into the French sector. This was not a resumption of the Michael offensive but a localised attack to put pressure on Amiens and create a diversion to the offensive that was taking place in Flanders. The village and its front was held by the 8th British Division, a particularly good British division but which had lost half of its 10,000 infantry in the March offensive. Reinforcements now coming from England included many young fresh-faced soldiers, and in some cases the battalions were more than half manned by boys under the age of nineteen. To the north and rear of the town Brig-Gen. Elliott’s 15th Brigade were 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. Around 8am patrols from the two 15th Brigade battalions came across both wounded and non-wounded British troops that the Germans had been attacking with tanks. By 8.35am the 14th Brigade’s 56th Battalion in reserve on Hill 104 could see the village and that the Germans were now holding it and 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 tanks, one ‘male’ and two ‘female’. Heading for the vulnerable Cachy Switch Trench the tanks soon came across at a distance of 300 yards a German tank approaching with two waves of infantry, 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 with the leading German tank, manoeuvring to bring first one gun into action and then the other. Eventually 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. German artillery and their remaining tanks fired at the whippets putting four out of action, but by now the contemplated attack by the Germans had been foiled. As for the British, the only counter-attack carried out with success by the infantry was by 2nd Royal Berkshire in front of the 14th Brigade’s position on Hill 104. 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 Brigade billeted at Querrieu north of the Somme, to march south at once to III Corps to assist in the recapture of Villers-Bretonneux, which as he put it was ‘imperative to the security of Amiens’.
In the skies above the Somme there was much activity with Manfred von Richthofen, the ‘Red Baron’ and his red squadron again involved. While chasing a British scout over the Australian sector von Richthofen was himself dived by Canadian airman Captain Roy Brown who thought he saw the Red Baron collapse under his fire. Brown broke off but noticed the scout and von Richtohfen fly on for about a mile, flying low along the valley and now a target for the many Lewis gunners and riflemen on the ground. As the two planes rose to clear the hill to the east of Corbie, von Richthofen swerved and crashed. There is still debate whether it was Capt. Brown or an Australian gunner that was responsible for von Richthofen being killed. Regarded in high respect by the Allied air officers von Richthofen was given a full military burial with officers from No.3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps acting as pallbearers and the guard of honour from other ranks of the squadron firing a salute (photograph above). Von Richthofen was originally buried in the cemetery in the village of Bertangles before being moved to the German Military Cemetery at Fricourt in 1920, and five years later was he brought back to Germany by his family.
The Australian sector at Strazeele was shelled heavily, and though the German guns had yet to be accurately registered the village and the railway station were wrecked. At 10am the Germans attempted to attack up the valley between Merris and Meteren but were met with a deluge of fire from the 4th and 1st Battalions. The 1st Brigade estimated that they had caused between 1,500 – 2,000 casualties whereas the 3rd Battalion to their south estimated that at the railway embankment their Lewis and machine-gunners had accounted for 700 casualties. By contrast the casualties in the AIF 1st Division were few.
However strain was being felt on the entire British front, with seven divisions needing withdrawal and rest after four weeks of the offensive, and being severely understrength were vulnerable if the German attack was continued. To assist in this situation General Foch agreed to send French divisions north to bolster the defence. To the south the German artillery drenched the village of Villers-Bretonneux with 12,000 gas shells, repeating the exercise the following day causing the defending battalions to lose a considerable amount of their men. A captured German confirmed that this gas bombardment was as a prelude to a coming attack on the village.
At daylight battalions of the AIF 1st Division began to take over forward positions around Strazeele, having passed refugees with laden carts on the roads heading west, then entering into empty villages and abandoned houses. Six miles of the army’s emergency front line was being held by the 7th, 8th, 3rd & 4th Battalions from south to north, with their outposts behind hedges, in back-gardens, or orchards of farmhouses and cottages. Farmhouses became prime targets for the artillery of both sides, being reduced to ashes by incendiary shells within a matter of days. At dusk it was evident that most of the troops previously ahead of the Australians would have withdrawn to their rear before the next morning.