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Webmatters : Villers-Bretonneux : The battle for Villers Bretonneux, April 1918
Rough map of area

Villers-Bretonneux

The town is captured

The situation around the town remained precarious and although a number of minor initiatives had been taken by both French and British commands the front line remained pretty much as it had been on the 5th April.

On the British right, III Corps held the line between Hangard (the junction with the French), Villers-Bretonneux itself and then as far as the crossroads south of the Bois de Vaire. The Australian Corps then held the line from there up to the Somme. Of great importance was the fact that the 5th Australian Division were given orders to retake the town should it be lost. As things turned out a fortuitous decision.

By mid April the Allies were noting German preparations on the Amiens front and in the early hours of the 17th April the town and immediate area were drenched with a mixture of phosgene and mustard gas. The gas attack was repeated that evening and again the following morning. This suggested that the town would not be attacked (mustard gas lingers for a long period) and aerial combats along the Somme river hinted at Albert being a target.

On 21st April Manfred von Richtofen was brought down on the Somme ridge just outside Corbie — near the brickworks whose chimney can still be seen on the skyline today. A small information panel marks the spot.

Then prisoners captured in both French and British sectors began confirming that Stoßtruppen divisions had taken up the line and that Villers-Bretonneux would be attacked on the 23rd April.

That particular attack never materialised but more prisoners were now confirming the 24th April and went as far as saying that a unit of fifteen German tanks had been brought up to assist the infantry. Something up until then almost unheard of from the German side.

At 0345 hours on 24th April the German barrage opened up with gas and high explosive on the rear areas and connecting roads before finally turning its attention to the Allied front line. The shelling lasted until 0600 hours and was almost entirely aimed at the British holding Villers-Bretonneux.

During the night thirteen German tanks assembled around Marcelcave. Group I (three tanks) was to advance at 0550 hours north of the railway line and directly towards Villers-Bretonneux. Group II (six tanks) along the southern side of the railway and Group III (four tanks) had Cachy as their objective.

Accompanying the tanks were four Divisions of infantry, with three more in reserve whilst the Guards Ersatz Division would occupy the French (further south) at Hangard.

Rough Map: Villers-Bretonneux 24 April 18

Just as had happened on the opening day of Operation Michael the German troops were concealed by a thick fog. The sound of the tanks was masked by the bombardment and when they eventually loomed into the view of the British soldiers (many of whom were recently posted young recruits) the line broke.

Whilst the Germans did have anti tank rifles the British had never seen the need to create one as the Germans didn’t use tanks.

The tanks caused havoc and whilst they could not be everywhere the British front was forced to retire in order to maintain any cohesion along its support positions behind the town. By 0830 hours Villers-Bretonneux was in German hands.

About an hour later three British tanks would confronted one of the German tanks (from Group II) on the Cachy Road. Despite two of the British tanks being disabled the German tank had to be abandoned.

This first ever tank against tank battle is commemorated by a small plaque along the road leading into Villers-Bretonneux and it almost marks the high tide mark of the German advance against Amiens. Their infantry would never get further than the junction,

As the morning wore on more British tanks including the new light tanks (Whippets) of the 3rd Tank Battalion joined in the battle.

North of the town the 15th Australian Brigade under the command of Brigadier General Pompey Elliott had been preparing themselves over the previous days for a counter-attack in order to retake the town, should it fall. Their assistance was offered at 0900 hours and again an hour later. On both occasions it was declined with Lt. General Butler of III Corps implying his confidence in 8th Division’s ability to deal with the situation.

Unfortunately they weren’t, for it soon became clear that the Germans had firmly established their machine guns and any attempt to retake the town would be very costly. A daylight attack was deemed out of the question.

On the right flank Général Debeney proposed assistance from the French if the attempt to retake the town was put off until the 25th April but General Rawlinson felt that this would allow the Germans sufficient time to fortify their positions. If they did, the British didn’t have the resources to retake the town. And so, after much argument between the British and the Australians, a starting time of 2200 hours was agreed.

 

The plan and its execution

The Australian 5th Division was placed at the disposal of the British III Corps for the duration of the operation.

The 15th Australian Brigade would advance from the Cachy-Fouilloy Road across the north of the Villers-Bretonneux towards Monument Farm near the railway line on the far side of the town.

The Cachy-Fouilloy Road is not the one in front of the cemetery and memorial, it is the back road closer to Amiens that you can see from the terrace of the cemetery. Monument Farm is the farm on the right, coming out of Villers-Bretonneux, just before the Autoroute interchange, driving towards Crucifix Corner CWGC Cemetery.

The 13th Australian Brigade would assemble just north of Cachy village and advance eastwards through Villers-Bretonneux towards Monument Farm. On their right, the British 54th Brigade would assemble near Cachy and advance eastwards.

Although carried out at night there was a full moon (when it wasn’t obscured by clouds) which partially helped the troops find their way in the dark. Once battle was commenced the burning buildings in the town helped orientate the path of attack.

Rough Map: Villers-Bretonneux 25 April 18

The 54th Brigade (which was effectively a collection of battalions from three Brigades) managed to reach Hangard Wood but was shelled out of it. Soldiers from the 7th Bn Bedfordshire Regiment found themselves surrounded by the enemy but hung on until they made contact with the Australians moving up on their left.

The 13th Australian Brigade had found themselves under machine-gun fire as they assembled north of Cachy from a wood that was thought to have been cleared — but clearly hadn’t. This caused a slight delay in their attack which commenced at 2210 hours. The 52nd Bn on the right, 51st Bn on the left and the 50th Bn in support.

The constant fire from the German machine-guns from the Bois d’Aquenne forced the 51st Bn to send a platoon into it to take out the nine offending pieces.

Lieutenant Clifford Sadlier (51st Battalion) was awarded the Victoria Cross for this action.

Both of the leading battalions found themselves held up by the barbed wire but managed to get through it and the 52nd Bn found pockets of British soldiers still holding on to trenches not taken during the German attack. Continuing their advance the Australians made contact with the Bedford battalion bringing their own flank into line with the British.

The 51st Bn found that having crossed the German wire they now came under further machine-gun fire along the road into Villers-Bretonneux. Although they captured one they decided to leave the others and continued onwards.

Progress was made and the area of Monument farm was reached but with the northern flank still open a slight retirement was made to conform with the 52nd Bn on their right. Although not quite on their objective things were looking good — if the 15th Brigade succeeded in its attack.

 

The northern pincer

The 15th Brigade were late in getting to their starting positions, in part because the commanding officers had been holding a last minute conference and in part because they found some of the hollows still filled with gas.

At midnight, however, they began their attack with the 59th and 60th Battalions leading and the 57th Bn in support. Their first objective was the minor road that runs out of Villers-Bretonneux and up 500 metres, or so, behind the Australian Memorial. From there they would advance to the Hamel Road (there is now a roundabout at the junction).

Villers-Bretonneux

Looking southwards from the Australian War Memorial towards Villers-Bretonneux.
The back road can be located by the mound of chalk on the left of the photo.

Sweeping across the area south of the current CWGC cemetery they reached the first objective easily enough but from there they found the defenders more alert to what was happening. Sounding the charge the Australians drove all before them and reached the Hamel Road with surprisingly light losses by 0130 hours.

From there they tried to locate the old British front line as well as join up with the 13th Brigade — who were at least a kilometre behind them.

Although the Australians had reached the far side of the town it was still held by the Germans and the two British battalions assigned to mop up behind them had encountered solid resistance. It was also clear that because of the gap between the two Australian Brigades that Germans were being able to flee along the railway line. This was rectified at 0600 hours (25th April) by turning all available machine-guns onto the railway embankment.

At daybreak on the 25th April the 57th Bn and 2nd Bn Royal Berkshire Regiment resumed sweeping through the town. Although the Germans still held Monument Farm and its wood the town was back in Allied hands — on Anzac Day.

The Germans held out at Monument Wood until 14 July 1918 when the 26th Australian Battalion found that it was only very lightly held. One prize that was recovered was the German A7V tank No 506 Mephisto, which had taken part in the attack on 24th April. It had been disabled and abandoned.

The only surviving example of its kind, it can be seen on display in Australia.

 

8th August 1918

On the 18th July 1918 the French began the great counter-offensive that would lead to the Armistice in November. The British continued the pressure on the Germans with a joint offensive out of Amiens on 8th August — The Battle of Amiens.

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.