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The battle for villers ­ bretonneux

and how it was nearly lost

Matt Walsh

Table of Content

Topic The British approach The Plan Training and Leadership Structure The Big Picture Background · The Western Front Operation Michael The Australians The first Battle of Villers- Bretonneux ( The Battle of the Avre) [4th April 1918] The second Battle of Villers- Bretonneux (24th -25th April 1918) The conduct of the Battle 15th Brigade The Villiers- Bretonneux Cross Cemeteries · The Australian National Memorial · Adelaide Cemetery · The Unknown Soldier The village of Villers-Bretonneux · The Victoria School · Restaurant Le Kangourou Awards received during the Battle An interview with Lt. Clifford Sadlier VC Map of Villers-Bretonneux area

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This booklet is an initiative of the Defence Reserves Association (NSW) Inc and the Military Police Association of Australia Inc. as part of their Schools Military History Program.

Written and compiled by Matt Walsh JP MLO ALGA (MCAE) Dip Bus & Corp Law (CPS) © 2008 Matt Walsh.

The British approach

An examination of the tactics and planning or lack of it by the British High Command in respect to the defence of Villers-Bretonneux and its ultimate recapture by the Australians on the 25th April 1918 is an indication of the inadequacy of the British Senior Officers (Command). It is apparent that they had not learnt anything from their shambles at Gallipoli. An examination of the plan or lack of planning by the British in regard to the Villers-Bretonneux would reveal the following:· · · · · The Plan In September 1916 the British introduced to the Western Front their secret weapon `The Tank'. British Training Programs British Officer selection procedures British Brigade organisation British Officers lack of comprehension of the `Big Picture' Deficiencies in the defence Plans for Villers- Bretonneux including flexibility

When developing their plan for the defence of Villers- Bretonneux they should have considered the suitability of the ground east of Villers-Bretonneux in that was highly suitable for use by tanks British and German. This should have included the knowledge that whilst the German version was inferior to the British in a cross country action, this would not be an impediment for the Germans as the terrain south of the Roman Road was ideal for tanks. It is interesting to note that the Germans at this time had twice as many tanks consisting of captured rebuilt and modified MkIV tanks as well as their own ATV tanks. It was also a failure by the British to recognise and plan for the use of field guns as anti armour weapons, whilst the Germans had realised the importance of this tactic and in April 1917 they used them against the Canadians at Vimy Ridge and again by Lt. General Otto Von Moser in the defence of the Hindenburg Line (Bullecourt - Reincort). The Germans perfected this technique and their gunners received specific training in the anti- armoured role, during the Battle of Cambrai (November 1917) the British lost 64 tanks to anti-armour fire. The British failed to recognise the effectiveness of field guns being used in an anti-armour role, thus permitting the Germans to capitalise on the use of tanks in overrunning front line trenches. -1Training- Leadership

The GOC 8th Division Major General William Heneker was a typical example of the British `Spit and Polish' approach. He required soldiers to salute him if they were within eyes range. This was more important to him than providing his men with training in combat skills. This approach to both training and leadership would appear to be the result of the British Officer Selection Program, which was based on `Social Standing' and which Public School you had attended. This resulted in junior officers being posted to front line units with no experience or leadership capabilities, particularly when under fire. Whereas the Australian junior officer had on most occasions started as a Private and worked their way up the ranks, and therefore were combat smart. Structure It appeared that the British were continually changing their Division/Brigade/Unit structure. This made it difficult to integrate the various units and develop an "Esprit de Corps", whereas the Australians retained the same infantry structure throughout the duration of the war. The Big Picture Whilst it would appear the GOC 8th Division did not have an overall counter penetration or attack plan. Brigadier General Harold" Pompey" Elliott of the 15th Australian Brigade could see the `big picture' and made counter attack plans should the inevitable occur and Villers Bretonneux fall. This plan included the timely and accurate information about the progress of the Battle, something the British had failed to do. Fortunately, we are aware of the result. The Australians recaptured Villers Bretonneux on the 25th April 1918.

-2Background

When one reads books relating to World War I, one will continually find references to the "Western Front" this reference is actually the German "Western Front" as their Eastern Front was in Russia. The "Western Front" was an irregular and multiple lines of trenches which ran a distance of 760 kilometres from the English Channel to the Swiss Border.

Map showing the German Western & Eastern Fronts

Western Front Eastern Front

Operation Michael The Germans commenced an offensive on the morning of 21st March 1918 between Arras and St. Quentin known as `Operation Michael' as a result of this offensive the Germans in less than a week had recaptured all the ground they had lost to the British in the previous (18) eighteen months. Paris was subject to shelling on the 23rd March 1918 and Peronne and Bapaume were retaken on the 24th March 1918 with Albert and Pozieres captured by the 26th March 1918. This then placed the Germans within (1) one mile of Villers- Bretonneux and within reach of the railhead at Amiens. The Australians By the 25th March 1918 the Australian 3rd, 4th and 5th Divisions moved to the Somme to halt the German advance.

-3The First Battle for Villers- Bretonneux

In 1918 Villers-Bretonneux was a town of 5,000 inhabitants and was virtually untouched by the war. On the 4th April 1918 the Germans commenced their offensive on Villers- Bretonneux and managed to reach the outskirts of the town. They were held back by the 9th Australian Brigade under the command of Brigadier General Rosenthal they were assisted by some British troops.

The 9th Brigade was made up of the following Infantry Battalions.

Villers- Bretonneux was saved for the time being. Operations by the 12th and 13th Brigades of the 4th Division continued in the surrounding areas.

This caused "Operation Michael to grind to a halt and it was cancelled.

-4The Second Battle of Villers- Bretonneux (24th 25th April 1918)

Things remained reasonably quite on the Somme until the 24th April 1918 when the Germans again launched an attack with Infantry supported by Tanks which resulted in the capture of Villers- Bretonneux and seriously threatened the town of Amiens. Troops of the 13th Brigade under the command of Brigadier General Glasgow

supported by the 15th Brigade under the command of Brigadier Elliott, which consisted of the following Infantry Battalions.

Conduct of the Battle The attack was commenced south of Villers-Bretonneux by the 13th Australian Infantry Brigade with its main objective to capture Monument Wood thus threatening the German Lines of withdrawal and the possible introduction of German reinforcement into Villers- Bretonneux. Even though approximately half (1/2) of 13th Brigade were new reinforcements and had never been in action before they quickly learnt from their more experienced mates and took on the Germans in their own lines with their bayonets disregarding the fact that they were being subject ot heavy machine gun fire. It was during this action that Lieutenant Clifford Sadlier won his Victoria Cross (VC) and Sergeant Stokes a Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). After the battle, the bodies of Australians were found heaped amongst the barbed wire.

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The 13th Brigade advanced towards the high ground reaching where the roads from Hangard and Dormart meet before heading towards Villers-Bretonneux. The Diggers continued towards Villers-Bretonneux mopping up any Germans they encountered. 15th Brigade On the northern flank the Battalions of the 15th Brigade under the Command of Brig. Pompey Elliott were ready to advance along the Fouilloy-Cashy Road this advance commenced at 11.45pm some (2) two hours after the advance by the 13th Brigade. The Brigade continued their advance to the Roman Road where the line was consolidated. This resulted in the German Garrison in Villers-Bretonneux being cut off. Whilst the British units were to provide support to the Australian offensive they were late in arriving. At 7.00am (3) three British Whippet Tanks appeared and assisted in clearing Bois d'Aquenne. The railway station at Villers-Bretonneux was captured by the British. The town was to remain in Allied hand for the remained of the war.

The Villers-Bretonneux Cross This wooden Cross was made by the men of the 51st Battalion and was erected by a party under the command of Lieutenant R.A. Wood. A Service dedicating the Cross was conducted by Chaplin Donald Blackwood. The Cross remained in Villers-Bretonneux until the 24th September 1933 when it was given to St. Anne's Church Ryde NSW for safekeeping. Because the Cross had been made by the men of the 51st Battalion a Western Australian Battalion, it was moved from Ryde to St. George's Cathedral Perth on Remembrance Day 1956 and where it still remains to-day. Its rededication was undertaken by Chaplin Donald Blackwood. - 6­

Cemeteries

There are (2) two cemeteries in Villers- Bretonneux, "The Villers ­ Bretonneux Military Cemetery in which stands the `Australian National Memorial" which was erected to Commemorate all the Australians Soldiers who fought in France and Belgium during World War I. There are the names of 10,770 Australian servicemen on the Memorial who died in the Battle Fields of the Somme in 1918. The Memorial is situated about 2km north of the Village on the East side of the road to Fouilloy.

The Australian National Memorial Villers- Bretonneux Military Cemetery

The other Cemetery is the Adelaide Military Cemetery a smaller one situated west of the village on the north side of the road from Amiens to St. Quentin. It was from this Cemetery that the remains of the "Unknown Australian Soldier" were exhumed and re-interned in the Australian War Memorial Canberra on Remembrance Day.

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The Village of Villers- Bretonneux The Village and its people have never forgotten the Australians. If you walk through the Village you will come across familiar names:- `The Rue de Melbourne and Rue de Adelaide ` and the `Victoria School'.

The Victoria School

Who could miss `Restaurant Le Kangourou".

-8-

Awards received during the Battle

Victoria Cross Lieutenant Cliff Sadlier VC

Distinguished Conduct Medal L/Cpl Cecil Burt DCM Pte Reg Helyar DCM Pte H.I .Passmore DCM Sgt Charles Stokes DCM

Interview with Lieutenant C.W.K. Sadlier V.C. in 1960's:

`Fritz had pushed us back from Villers-Bretonneux and orders came through that we were to counter-attack. I was a Lieutenant in charge of a platoon and second in charge of my Company. At 10 pm we were given two hours notice that we were to move into the town. We were to push forward over three miles of country we had never seen to join up with the 15th Brigade. The officers were given a ten-minute glimpse of a map of the area and then we were given our orders. My platoon was to cover the left flank of the Battalion. On the left was a thick wood, which unknown to us, sheltered as many Prussian Guards as we had Diggers in our whole Battalion. When Lieutenant Colonel Christie gave the order to advance we moved quickly into the open alongside the wood. Jerry waited until we were well into the open before let fly. We wondered what had struck us. Before we had gone 50 yards, 39 out of the 42 in my platoon were in mud either dead or wounded. I hit the deck and saw Charlie Stokes from another platoon was still alive and 2 bombardiers named Guthrie and Collins had also escaped the hail of fire. I knew that if we did not clean out the edge of that wood, the 51st Battalion would be sitting ducks. I gave brief instructions to the survivors and led a mad rush towards the wood. Just as I got to the timber, I felt a burning pain in my leg. I had got a machine gun bullet point blank through it. It did not give much trouble, so I kept going, hurling grenades and firing my pistol. I concentrated on one machine gun that seemed to be doing a lot of damage. Probably more by good luck than good management, I cleared out the post and took the gun. But another machine gun bullet smashed into my forearm, paralysing it. My revolver was empty and because of my limp arm, there was nothing else I could do, but to get out. By then the flank had been cleared enough for the rest of the Battalion to charge through. The counter attack was a success. I was bandaged up at a Regimental Aid Post and sent back to London, where I entered the South Kensington Hospital. Here my wounded arm was operated on by a clever man who joined the nerves and gave me back the use of my arm. It's a bit stiff, but I didn't ever think I would use it again. In July I was still recuperating at South Kensington when the rumour came through that I was going to be awarded the Distinguished Service Order. I said I'd believe it when I saw it. A few of the boys were playing bridge when a reporter came into the room and asked which one of us was Sadlier. I stood up and the reporter told me I had been awarded the Victoria Cross. It was the proudest moment of my life. -9-

Late in July 1918, I attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace where King George V pinned the Victoria Cross on me and read out the citation. The King went on to shake my right hand, but when he saw it was still in a sling, he took my left hand and shook it. The citation reads: `Clifford William Sadlier, Lieutenant 51st Battalion. For conspicuous bravery during a counterattack by his Battalion on strong enemy positions. Lieutenant Sadlier's platoon, which was on the left of the Battalion, had to advance through a wood, where a strong enemy machine gun post caused casualties and prevented the platoon from advancing. Though badly wounded, he at once collected his bombing section, led them against the machine guns and succeeded in killing the crew of four and taking the gun. In doing so, he was again wounded. The very gallant conduct of this officer was the means of clearing the flank and allowing the Battalion to move forward, thereby saving a most critical situation. His coolness and utter disregard of danger inspired all.'

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