Australians on the Western Front 1914-1918

The Australian Remembrance Trail in France and Belgium

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Australian National Memorial – Villers‑Bretonneux, France

Visiting Villers-Bretonneux – Second battle of Villers-Bretonneux

Nothing seemed to stop them

Portrait painting: Brigadier General Harold Elliott

Brigadier General Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott, W B McInnes, [oil on canvas AWM ART03182] ... Enlarge: portrait painting

On 24 April 1918 the Germans had taken Villers–Bretonneux and were pushing out west of the town in the direction of Amiens. As soon as this grave news was relayed to British headquarters ‘orders showered down’, in Charles Bean’s words, to retake this vital position from whose commanding heights north of the town the spires of Amiens Cathedral were clearly visible. Along with some British battalions, the job of retaking Villers–Bretonneux was assigned to two Australian brigades of the 4th and 5th Divisions – the 13th, commanded by Brigadier–General William Glasgow, and the 15th, commanded by Brigadier–General Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott.

Both men were legends in the AIF. Bean described Glasgow as:

… transparent as his own Queensland sky, but rugged as the Queensland hills, he was slow and even shy in giving his opinion, but, when he spoke, his good sense, force of will, and honesty of purpose carried their way in councils of war.

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.571

Brigadier General (later Major General) Thomas Glasgow, (left), Lieutenant Athol Norrie and  Captain George Priestley, France, July 1918.

Brigadier–General (later Major General) Thomas Glasgow, (left), Lieutenant Athol Norrie and Captain George Priestley, France, July 1918. [AWM E02807] ... Enlarge photo

Glasgow was certainly capable of standing up to senior commanders. When instructed by the British general in charge of operations at Villers–Bretonneux to attack in daylight, Glasgow retorted:

If it was God Almighty who gave the order, we couldn’t do it in daylight. Here is all your artillery out of action and the enemy with all his guns in position.

Bean described Elliott as:

… an outstandingly strong, capable, and sympathetic leader; and in his directness and simplicity, and in a baffling streak of humility that shot through his seemingly absorbing vanity, there were elements of real greatness.

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.523

The plan to recapture Villers–Bretonneux was relatively simple, but difficult and dangerous. The Germans had been able to place a significant number of men and machine guns in the town and along the railway embankment to the south and west. Strong enemy elements had also established themselves in the woods to the west of the town. The Australian plan was for a surprise night attack, with no preliminary artillery bombardment. Two battalions (the 51st and 52nd Battalions, about 1,500 men) of the 13th Brigade, 4th Division, would attack to the south of Villers–Bretonneux towards the east. Three battalions (the 57th, 59th and 60th Battalions, about 2,400 men) of the 15th Brigade, 5th Division, would similarly attack from the north of the town towards the east and then swing south–east to the old Roman road heading out of Villers–Bretonneux. Thus would the Germans be encircled and trapped.

Painting: 'Night attack by 13th Brigade on Villers-Bretonneux'

Night attack by 13th Brigade on Villers–Bretonneux, Will Longstaff. [Oil on canvas AWM ART03028] ... Enlarge painting

The southern attack began at 10 pm. Captain Robert Forsyth, medical officer of the 52nd Battalion, recalled:

… an officer shouted ‘Still’. I could see a long single line of men standing motionless as far as I could see in either direction, and, as the light faded, the darkness in front started to tap, tap, tap, and bullets whistled round and the line shuffled forward with rifles at the ready like men strolling into fern after rabbits. The whistle of bullets became a swish and patter, and boys fell all round me, generally without a sound.

Forsyth, 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.582

Much of this ‘swish and patter’ was from enemy machine guns in the Bois d’Aquenne (Aquenne Wood) to their left. This obstacle was overcome in a most dramatic manner by Sergeant Charlie Stokes, and Lieutenant Clifford Sadlier, both of Subiaco, Western Australia, and the 51st Battalion, who realised that further advance meant annihilation for their unit unless the machine gunners were silenced. Together they assaulted the Germans with grenades and, although Sadlier was badly wounded, he and his men destroyed the enemy guns. Despite taking heavy casualties the two battalions swept on towards their objectives. One German officer later wrote:

They were magnificent. Nothing seemed to stop them. When our fire was heaviest, they just disappeared in shell holes and came up as soon as it slackened. When we used Verey lights they stood still and were hard to see.

Unnamed German officer, quoted in Neville Browning, Fix Bayonets: The Unit History of the 51st Battalion, Perth, 2000, p.157

A German machine gun crew killed during the strenuous fighting on the night of 24 April, Villers Bretonneux, Somme, France, April 1918.

A German machine gun crew killed during the strenuous fighting on the night of 24 April, Villers Bretonneux, Somme, France, April 1918. [AWM E02434] ... Enlarge photo

For his bravery sergeant Stokes was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and Lieutenant Sadlier the Victoria Cross. By dawn on 25 April, the 51st and 52nd Battalions had not quite achieved their objectives but they had broken through the German positions to the south of Villers–Brettoneux and established a fairly secure line.

The Australian National War Memorial and the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery as seen from the fields to the west.

The Australian National War Memorial and the Villers–Bretonneux Military Cemetery as seen from the fields to the west. [DVA] ... Enlarge photo

The northern attack battalions formed up in the dark along the Fouilloy–Cachy road to the west across the fields from the entrance to the Villers–Brettoneux Military Cemetery and the Australian National Memorial and did not begin their advance until an hour after the appointed time. The battalions then moved up out of the valley, and over the ground on which the cemetery and memorial now stand, through to the Villers–Bretonneux–Le Hamel road not far beyond the back of the memorial. Then the attack began in earnest. Sergeant Andrew Fynch, 59th Battalion, of Fitzroy, Victoria, recalled:

With a cheer we ‘hopped the bags’ began the attack … here the enemy got wind of us coming, and the night was turned to day by his numerous flares, and he opened a terrific machine gun barrage.

Fynch, 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.603

Looking towards the Fouilloy–Cachy road from the Australian National War Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux.

Looking towards the Fouilloy–Cachy road from the Australian National War Memorial, Villers–Bretonneux. [DVA] ... Enlarge photo

This was a vital, ferocious, do–or–die attack, and as long as the night advance lasted, no quarter was shown. Another Australian remembered:

These three men the first German machine gun crew were either bayoneted or shot. Here and there a Fritz would leap out of the trench or shell hole only to fall riddled with bullets and then to be bayoneted by the boys as they came up.

Unnamed soldier, 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.603

And so by the morning of 25 April 1918 the men of the AIF, with some assistance by British units, had virtually surrounded Villers–Bretonneux. It took the rest of that day and into 26 April to completely secure the town and to establish a new front line east of it. This, the Second Battle of Villers–Bretonneux, had been a remarkable achievement and a clear-cut success for the AIF. It marked the end of the great German offensive on the Somme which had begun so successfully on 21 March 1918 and, as the historian of the 5th Division concluded, ‘Thereafter, no German ever set foot in Villers–Bretonneux save as a prisoner of war.’