Battle Of Villers Brettoneaux



grandfather.jpgRight: My Grandfather: Pte Herbert Maxwell Graystone 60th Btn, AIF


 “Noublions Jamais L'Australie”

These are the words written above the entrance to every classroom in the Public school in Villers Brettoneaux, Northern France.
“Never Forget Australia”
Every man woman and child in Villers Brettoneaux know the details of the battle the 1st AIF fought and won there in April 1918. It cost many Australian live buts effectively halted the last throw of the dice for the German Army and any chance of capturing the strategic city of Amiens.Early in 1918, reinforced by 500,000 men from the Russian front the German General, Ludendorf smashed his way through flanders. His prime objective being the huge British supply base at Amiens.  Villlers Brettoneaux lay a few miles to the east.
On April 24th four German divisions aided by Tanks and mustard gas annihilated the British troops defending Villers Brettoneaux and dug themselves in. From the Allied Commander in Chief came an urgent order to General Rawlinson, commander of the British 4th Army at Amiens - 'You have 24hours only to retake Villers Brettoneaux. Rawlinson had the British 8th and 58th Divisions but considering they were comprised mostly of fresh untried reinforcements he was loathe to commit them. He turned instead to General Hobbs Commanding the 5th Australian Division.
They were by all accounts from Hobbs, spoiling for a fight and he eagerly accepted the task Rawlinson gave him – That is to push his two brigades, the 13th and 15th right around Villers Brtettoneaux in a pincers movement. This would cut off the German defenders in the town from Ludnedorfs main army and would make it easy for British troops to mop up the stragglers.
Actually most of the German troops were not in the town itself but on the high ground in the wood around it. If the Australians could defeat them here it would set the German advance reeling.
General Glasgow's 13th Brigade was to attack from the south west and simultaneously Brigadier Elliot's 15th was to sweep round on the north east and seize hold of the main road running east to Ludendorfs Army.
At 10pm 24th April Rawlinsons Artillery began shelling Villiers Bettoneaux and the Australians were given the signal to go. The 13th at once headed for the wood of Bois L'Abbey and ran smack into a conglomeration of trenches, barbed wire and machine gun nests. Having not much in the way of alternatives they began to hack their way through the wire advancing under murderous cross fire.
This they believed they had to do if they were to keep their appointment with their cobbers in the 15th brigade. The 51st Battalion alone lost 300 men on that wire before the got through and hurtled themselves at the German trenches.
Captain Harburn gave the order to his company when at last they breached the wire - Kill every German you see men we have no time to take prisoners - and God Bless You!
In a wild fighting mood at their losses on the wire the 51st Battalion needed no urging to spare any Huns. Methodically they cleared them out with rifle and bayonet and each and every group they came to as the continued advancing through the wood. One digger was embarrassed as he prodded a single captive over to his Platoon Commander - And apologized for his Sergeant had told him to save this one.
Both Australian Brigades were making for their rendezvous at Monument Wood completing their pincer movement. However by midnight the Germans had recovered from their initial surprise of the ferocious onslaught and their resistance stiffened. Their artillery opened up and casualties in the 13th reached 1000 before dawn on ANZAC day. They had to dig in and wait for their mates in the 15th.
All this time the 15th had been engaged in what the official Australian war history described as perhaps the wildest fighting in the experience of the Australian Infantry.
Running straight into murderous machine gun fire the three battalions - 57th 59th and 60th charged with bayonets and savage bloodthirsty yells.
They were among the Germans before they knew what hit them and they found it difficult to believe these Australians had actually braved the fire and made it.
They screamed surrender as the diggers bayonets lunged, but again not much notice was taken of that. "Some of our men" reported an intelligence officer on Brigadier Elliots staff, "never had such a feast with the bayonet before".
Inevitably however the men found that they could only take so much slaughter having overrun and bayoneted its way through three lines of German trenches they found themselves sickened by it and commenced taking prisoners.
So the 15th pressed on and by dawn had completed its portion of the pincer movement.
The British were then able to retake the town easily and with the aid of the Australians reestablished their allied line and protect Amiens. There is little doubt today that this very action directly contributed to the German capitulation later that year.
German battle losses were 8000. The battle was one of the AIFs greatest triumphs and had a direct effect on the outcome of the war.