“Perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war – the successful counter-attack by night across unknown and difficult ground, at a few hours’ notice, by the Australian soldier”
Brigadier-General George Grogan, 23rd British Brigade
On 24 April 1918 the Germans succeeded in capturing the town of Villers-Bretonneux from the British 8th Division’s 25th and 23rd Brigades. The 8th Division was a good Division but had suffered terribly with the loss of 250 officers and nearly 5000 men in the March offensives. The Division was being reinforced by increasingly younger troops without experience, following the British Government’s decision to reduce the draft age to include those who were under nineteen. One Australian commented that he had seen,
“…companies of English children; pink faced, round cheeked, children flushed under the weight of their unaccustomed packs…and the strap hanging loosely on their rounded baby chins”.
British Commanders, such as General Sir Henry Rawlinson, recognised the folly of sending newly reinforced units into battle without a few weeks of ‘hardening’, but were constrained by strategic demands.
Despite the best efforts of the British, the Germans had been able to edge the British out of Villers-Bretonneux with the use of tanks and the capture of large numbers of British prisoners, placing themselves in a position to threaten the great rail-hub of Amiens.
Even before news of Villers-Bretonneux’s capture reached General Ferdinand Foch, the French General who was the Supreme Commander of all Allied Forces, bold plans had been formed for its recapture. General Rawlinson ordered the nearest Australian brigades to effect the recapture of Villers-Bretonneux and insisted that it must be retaken that very same night, before the Germans could entrench themselves further into defensive positions.
The job of retaking the town was assigned to two Australian brigades of the 4th and 5th Divisions, as well as elements of British infantry.
The Australians objective was to enclose the town entrapping or forcing the Germans to retreat while the British units would clear the town of those who remained. The 13th Brigade was commanded by the ‘determined’ Brigadier William Glasgow and the 15th by the ‘brilliant and tempestuous’ Brigadier Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott. Both men were strong capable leaders with enough experience of warfare on the Western Front to conceive effective plans of attack. In particular Glasgow had firmly objected to the planning a counter-attack in daylight which had originally been recommended to the Australians. Famously defending the advantages of a night time attack and highlighting the risk of a daytime assault he replied to the Canadian born British General William Heneker;
“If it was God Almighty who gave the order, we couldn’t do it in daylight, here is your artillery largely out of action and the enemy with all his guns in position”.
Elliott, who predicted the loss of Villers-Bretonneux, had kept a battalion in the rear prepared to recapture Villers-Bretonneux if needed. His forward thinking extended to having his staff and battalion commanders study a plan and models of the ground around Villers-Bretonneux, which had been constructed at his orders.
As the Australians advanced towards their objectives that evening British soldiers of the 23rd Brigade, reforming after their withdrawal from the town, yelled out them, “Jerry’s coming, Give ‘em hell, Aussie, they’ve knocked us rotten”
As the Australians advanced they started to receive fire to their flank from woods they believed to be clear of Germans. The rate of fire though was going to cripple the advance before it began. In an action involving a number of West Australian soldiers, Sergeant Stokes and Lieutenant Sadlier cleared the Germans from the woods using rifle grenades, Lewis guns and even the Germans own stick grenades. An action that allowed the attack to continue as planned.
According to Charles Bean, Australia’s Official War Historian, there was no holding back the attack. Bean reported that, the Australian Officers and N.C.O.’s during the next half hour showed all the capacity that was in them, in guiding and marshalling these men that had thrown off the restraints of civilisation and “were what the bayonet instructors of all armies aimed at producing by their tuition – primitive, savage men.”
The ferocity of the Australian assault was extremely effective and by early morning on 25 April, the third anniversary of the Anzac landing at Gallipoli, the two Australian Brigades had achieved the majority of their objectives. The irrepressible Brigadier ‘Pompey’ Elliott though wanted more and was according to Bean “as usual straining on the leash” to identify an opportunity in which the Australians could press ahead into German territory.
It took the remainder of the 25th and the 26th of April to completely secure the town and then establish a new front line to the east. So, while the Germans had taken the town on the 24th of April, the Australians in an inspired and daring assault had taken it right back the very next day.
Visitors to the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux can walk in the footsteps of the diggers who won this important battle, stand at the graves of the many Australians who died, and from April 2018 visit the Sir John Monash Centre to learn more about the role Australians played on the Western Front battlefields of the First World War.