Writer Historian Producer

Why Villers Bretonneux is so important?

The Australian Memorial in the dawn light.
The Australian Memorial in the dawn light.

For many years now I have attended the Dawn Service, mainly at the Cenotaph in Martin Place in Sydney, but more recently at the Australian National Memorial at Villers Bretonneux in northern France.  I am forever asked why Villers Bretonneux is so important and why our National Memorial is situated on  Hill 104 between Villers Bretonneux and the small village of Fouilloy on the banks of the Somme.

It all goes back to the massive German offensive of March-April 1918.  At the time, the German Army had recently been boosted by 50 Divisions from the Eastern Front with the collapse of Russia and keen to strike before the growing impact of American troops then arriving in Europe. The Germans struck along the British line across a wide front of 64 kilometres (40 miles)between Arras and St Quentin on the 21st March 1918 in an operation code named Michael.
This offensive had immediate and devastating results with the British falling back, in places some 64 kilometres (40 miles).  At this time, the five Australian Divisions were in rest areas in the rear and were rushed into the line in an attempt to slowdown and halt the German advance.  The Australians suddenly found themselves in places like Hébuterne, Dernancourt, Morlancourt and on the heights above the Somme at Sailly-le Sec; some places unknown to them.

On the 4 April, the Australians helped to halt the German advance at Villers Bretonneux, but this small victory was brief. On the 17-18 April, the Germans drenched the town and the surrounding areas in gas causing 1000 Australian casualties. Then, on the 23 and dawn on the 24 April, the Germans stormed in with the aid of 14 tanks. The British had been using tanks since September 1916, but this was the first appearance of German tanks on the battlefield and they only ever built 21 tanks. This caused massive panic with the British troops holding the frontline and for a short while the Germans were able to push well into the town.  It was later that day that the first tank-on-tank engagement happened on the southern outskirts of the town with neither side claiming victory. But the British and Australian troops held the line.
The Germans were now running short of men and their supply lines were extended. However, the British and French were desperate to hold Villers Bretonneux as this was the last line of defence before the city of Amiens.  If Amiens fell, the Germans could virtually catch the train to Paris now only 120 kilometres away to the south.
Needing an aggressive counter attack, General Rawlinson called upon the Australian 5th Division to recapture Villers Bretonneux with little time to prepare. At 10.30pm on the night of the 24th-25th April, two brigades advanced each side of the village: the 13th under Brigadier-General Thomas Glasgow on the south side and the 15th Brigade under Brigadier-General Harold “Pompey” Elliot to the north, across the ground where the National Memorial now stands.
This gallant assault on the 4th anniversary of Anzac Day became one of the most celebrated exploits of the AIF in the Great War and in so doing, saved Amiens and potentially Paris. British General George Grogan VC later stated that this action was “perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war”.  It is for this reason that signs in both French and English across the area of the old battlefield simply state, “Never Forget Australia”.

The crowd waiting for the Dawn Service to start – April 2013
The crowd waiting for the Dawn Service to start – April 2013

Today, as the howling cold winds blow across Hill 104 and the Dawn Service crowd huddle and shiver, they must not forget the decisive and important battle of Villers Bretonneux, and the sacrifice of so many gallant diggers in not only this campaign, but across the whole of the Western Front.
And it was this spirit that was inherited by the men of the Second AIF; the men and women of all the services that followed them into battle in the Second World War. Though we might shiver in the cold blasts of the wind across the expanse of this exposed Somme hillside, lets not forget the men of the Great War, their pain and sacrifice and how this is remembered today.  
Lest we Forget.

Will Davies
4th May 2013

Will Davies


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