One small village in France will forever remember the sacrifice of the young Australians who saved them from German occupation and potential destruction in 1918.
On 24 April, Villers-Bretonneux was captured by the Germans as they advanced towards the regional city of Amiens. If they achieved their goal and drove onto the French coast, splitting the British and French armies, the Allied cause might have been lost.
The fate of Amiens hung in the balance as two Australian brigades were given the task of retaking Villers-Bretonneux through a swift night-time counter attack. One brigade would assault from the south, while another would attack from the north.
The assault began at 10pm on 24 April. The 13th Brigade in the south were held up by German machine guns, before the Australians linked up east of the village. After dawn on 25 April Australian and British troops were involved in fierce fighting to clear the Germans from the village. Some Germans escaped Villers-Bretonneux through nearby woods.
Later on the morning of 25 April, three years to the day after the Anzacs landings at Gallipoli, French and Australian flags were raised over Villers-Bretonneux.
A British general later called the Australian attack “perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war”.
The Australian flag still flies over Villers-Bretonneux and a town hall plaque remembers the events of that night. Following the war, schoolchildren in Victoria Australia helped raise the funds to rebuild the village school, named Victoria School, and a plaque recalls the diggers’ sacrifice:
Twelve hundred Australian soldiers, the fathers and brothers of these children, gave their lives in the heroic recapture of this town from the invader on 24th April 1918 and are buried near this spot. May the memory of great sacrifices in a common cause keep France and Australia together forever in bonds of friendship and mutual esteem.
Another permanent reminder across a school building and above the blackboards are the words:“N’oublions jamais l’Australie” – “never forget Australia”.
The special relationship between the people of Villers-Bretonneux and Australia was highlighted once again after the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria. On learning of the destruction of the local Strathewen Primary School, the people of Villers-Bretonneux raised funds towards rebuilding the school. This gesture, nearly a century on from the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux, is testament to the enduring bonds between two great allies.