Sixteen kilometres to the east of Amiens, along the D 1029 towards Peronne, is the small town of Villers-Bretonneux. The town featured prominently in the German Spring Offensive of March 1918 because, by the beginning of April, the Germans had made enormous gains, pushing the British and French back across the 1916 Somme battlefields.
Areas that had up until then always been in Allied hands fell. The situation in Amiens was precarious and whilst the town was symbolic it was also a large logistics centre for the BEF who could not afford the loss of the extremely important railway network at Longeau — even today as you leave Amiens and pass over the railway bridge you can see that it is a mass of railway lines and depots.
Operation Michael, the first phase of the German offensive ground to a halt and a new offensive, Georgette, started on 9th April in Flanders. This did not mean, however that the Germans’ commander, Ludendorff, had given up all hope of reaching Amiens.
Villers-Bretonneux effectively marked a weak point in the Allied line for it was the junction between the British to the north and the French 1st Army to the south.
Villers-Bretonneux fell on 24 April 1918 but the Australian Corps managed to regain the town the following day. From then until 8th August when the Fourth Army sprang a surprise counter attack, the area became part of the familiar trench system stretching from the Atlantic coast to Switzerland.
The battles for Villers-Bretonneux marked the appearance of German tanks and also the British light tank the Whippet. For the first time ever, tank faced tank in battle. That 8th August four hundred tanks (including seventy-two Whippets) took part in the counter attack and with their help the Fourth Army made swift progress across the low lying countryside.
That day proved unique for it was the only time that the Australian Corps advanced (northern side) alongside the Canadian Corps (southern side of the railway). There are Canadian memorials at Marcelcave including one near the railway line where the 19th Canadians were joined by the 21st Australians to capture a machine-gun position.
Since 1918 there has been a close tie between Villers-Bretonneux and Melbourne, and the Victoria School museum can be found on Rue Victoria in the centre of the town.
There is a small plaque on the school housing the museum, showing that the building was given by children of the 1,200 Australians from Victoria, who died defending and recapturing the town.
From the crossroads in the town take the turning for Corbie, and high on the hill about three kilometres from Villers-Bretonneux you will find the Australian National Memorial with (If it is reasonably clear) a view to the west of Amiens.
You will find to the left of the green, a bronze relief map of the area showing the German spring offensive and the counter attack.
Services are held here (and in the town) on ANZAC day (25th April) commemorating the battles of April and August 1918.
As a foot note, the Australian Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux was unveiled by King George VI on 22 July 1938.
Within 14 months Europe was back at war and Villers-Bretonneux was to be held by the Germans for the best part of five years rather than the one night. It was from fighting at that time that created the bullet holes in the tower.
On 2 November 1993 at a special ceremony the remains of an unknown Australian soldier were brought to the Memorial and handed over to Australian officials. This soldier was taken home to Canberra where he now lies in the National War Memorial — as Australia’s unknown soldier.
The flag and hat used to cover his coffin are now in the School Museum.
His original grave at Grave 13 in Row M of Adelaide Cemetery, is now marked with a special headstone. This small cemetery should you wish to visit it, is back in Villers-Bretonneux on the Amiens Road.