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France 1918: Defence of Amiens
Villers-Bretonneux, Adelaide Cemetery
24 April 1918 – A very critical period
Adelaide Cemetery is on the outskirts of Villers-Bretonneux, on the left of the N29 when you are travelling from Amiens. The cemetery is up an incline along a narrow grass path with trees to the right and emerging views of large fields and woods to the left. The size of the place, with more than 950 headstones, comes as a bit of a shock. Apart from the noise of an occasional train in the cutting beyond the cemetery, it is a peaceful place with, according to one battlefield guide, ‘a most delightful and varied array of plants’. On 24 April 1918 this area was a battlefield.
Between 21 March and 5 April 1918, the German Army mounted a great spring offensive which drove British forces westward towards Amiens. By comparison with the last three years of so-called ‘trench warfare’ the action was now fast moving as the Germans swept across the old Somme battlefield of 1916 and the broad uplands to the south of the Somme towards Villers-Bretonneux. They nearly captured the town on 4 April but were prevented by a combination of weariness and aggressive attack by Australian and British troops. Three weeks later, on 24 April 1918, the Germans finally broke into Villers-Bretonneux, seized the town, and began to advance westward into the country to the north and south of Adelaide Cemetery.
As the enemy attack developed early that morning, Brigadier ‘Pompey’ Elliot of the 15th Brigade AIF, in reserve to the north-east of Villers-Bretonneux, sent out two patrols from the 59th Battalion under Lieutenants John Christian, of Northcote, Victoria, and Roy Callander, of Numukah, Victoria. They worked their way to the railway bridge across the Fouilloy-Cachy road, the D523, visible across the fields to the west beyond Adelaide Cemetery. There they found a young British artillery officer, Lieutenant A Butler, in command of two field guns. The Australian orders were to move on to the outskirts of Villers-Bretonneux, see what was happening, and report back to General Elliott. No Germans were encountered but British stragglers were everywhere and after reporting back, Christian and Callander were ordered to return and help hold the position near the railway bridge at all costs. Their men now dug short defensive lines in the fields just over the railway track beyond Adelaide Cemetery where they encouraged British soldiers, retreating out of Villers-Bretonneux, to join them. It was a critical moment. Beyond these positions and Butler’s gun there was little to hold an enemy force determined to move along the road towards Amiens.
Soon the Germans were upon them. A German tank advanced along the railway line and German soldiers poured out of the town and moved quickly south-west of Adelaide Cemetery over the open country towards the woods, the Bois d’Aquenne and the Bois L’Abbé (Aquenne Wood and the Abbot’s Wood). Lieutenant Christian, as senior lieutenant now in charge of the Australian line, was taking casualties from German machine gun fire from both the tank and other positions. He decided to move his men back about 50 metres to the British line which had been established by Lieutenant Colonel Hill, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment, who welcomed the Australians:
I had considerable difficulty in holding a line … There were no trenches of any sort and the Germans got round my right flank and fired into us from behind with a machine gun. Just as things were looking very blue a very cheery subaltern of your people (AIF) turned up with a patrol. His name was Christian. He and his men helped us to stop the Germans who attempted to rush us just after C turned up.
Lieutenant Colonel Hill, quoted in Charles Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Main German Offensive, 1918, Volume V, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Sydney, 1941, p.546
There the little force held on all day providing what Charles Bean described as ‘one element of certainty in an otherwise vague position’.
That day, 24 April 1918, the Germans occupied Villers-Bretonneux but west of the town towards Amiens they made little headway. Indeed, standing in Adelaide Cemetery surrounded by the graves of so many Australian, British and Canadian soldiers and airmen, one can say that this was as far as the German Army ever advanced towards Amiens since it had, briefly, held that city in 1914. After the war the Touring Clubs of France and Belgium erected a number of markers, known as ‘Demarcation Stones’, all along the old Western Front to show the limit of the German advance. One stands on the road leading east out of Villers-Bretonneux, the N29, just before the road sign indicating the town boundary. The location of each stone was agreed to by the French General Staff and on each of them in France is the inscription ‘Here the Invader was brought to a standstill, 1918’.
At Villers-Bretonneux, the ‘Demarcation Stone’ stone seems to be in the wrong place. It might be more accurately located on the road out to the west towards Amiens where that small force of Australian and British soldiers under Lieutenant-Colonel Hill and Lieutenant John Christian fought all day long on 24 April 1918 to ensure that the Germans moved no further. The British colonel was certainly grateful to this ‘very cheery’ Australian officer recommending him for the award of the Military Cross for his bravery that day:
At a very critical period of the action at Villers-Bretonneux on 24 April 1918, this officer arrived with a patrol of 16 other ranks and reported to me in the firing line. At the time I had very few men with me and the enemy were attempting to debouch from the western outskirts of the village. This officer at once placed his men at my disposal and himself showed the greatest coolness and gallantry in getting them into positions. He rendered me the greatest assistance throughout the day and finally volunteered himself to go back and report the situation as it appeared that none of [his] messages had got through. He got back successfully and made his report.
Recommendation for Military Cross, Lieutenant John Carlyle Christian, 59th Battalion AIF, internet version at http://www.awm.gov.au/cms_images/awm28/2/92/0004.pdf
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010