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France 1918: Defence of Amiens
Sailly–le–Sec, Third Australian Division Memorial
Fini retreat Madame – The Third Division arrives on the Somme
On the high country above Sailly–le–Sec, at the intersection of the D1 and the road that climbs northwards out of the village, is the Third Australian Division Memorial. The leading battalions of the division came to this land of deep, river valleys and broad sweeping uplands on the morning of 27 March 1918 marching up towards this spot from the village of Heilly in the valley of the Ancre just to the north. Their task was to occupy an old French defence line between the river Ancre in the north and the Somme in the south, roughly between the villages of Mericourt–L’Abbé and Sailly–le–Sec, and slightly to the east of these settlements:
The platoons of the right company of the 42nd [Battalion, Queensland] making their way round the steep folds of the northern side of the Somme, came upon the village of Sailly–le–Sec, clinging to the foot of a broad spur above the river flats … The Queenslanders at once dug in, making a series of posts up the open side of the spur above the village, and the reserve company was presently brought up to the village, and outposts of this company were stationed ahead on the flats.
Charles Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1918, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume V, p.182
As the Australians arrived, bullets from long distance reached them. The Germans, who were in the sixth day of a rapid advance that had begun on 21 March 1918, were firing at them from afar.
Called ‘Operation Michael’, this massive German attack had quickly breached the British lines near St Quentin to the east. Their plan was to push rapidly westwards, capture the city of Amiens and then cut off the British armies in the north from their French allies in the south. The Germans had initially swept all before them and the British began to retreat across the famous 1916 battlegrounds of the Somme.
To relieve the weary British, fresh divisions, including the Third Division, were rushed from the north to stem the German advance west of Albert. As the Australians reached the little Somme villages between 27 and 29 March they found French refugees everywhere. These people remembered the Australian battalions that had been billeted with them during the great British Somme offensive of July–November 1916 and in Heilly they welcomed them:
Women, who during the past night had seen the flashes of the enemy’s guns, like summer lightening on the horizon, coming closer to their homes, and for the first time had heard the swish and crash of enemy shells, now in a revulsion of pent–up feeling burst into tears and raised a thin cry of ‘Vive l’Australie’. An old priest raised his hands and blessed the passing men. Some who had left their homes turned back, and others, who had not left, stayed on.
Charles Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1918, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume V, p.177
As the diggers rested in Heilly, cleaning their rifles, Charles Bean records that one of them addressed an elderly French lady – ‘Fini retreat, Madame. Fini retreat – beacoup Australiens ici’!
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010