What happened at Villers-Bretonneux a century ago was highly significant for the men of the Australian 15th Brigade, and their commander.
Pompey Elliott, with his brigade in reserve near the tactically vital town, became convinced of four things. He concluded that the Germans would make another attempt to attack the town, concluded that when they did the British would be driven out of it, concluded that his nearby brigade would be called on to recapture it, and concluded that his favourite manoeuvre — envelopment — would do the trick. All four conclusions eventually proved correct.
Early on 24 April Pompey became aware that the Germans were bombarding Villers-Bretonneux. He realised that the renewed enemy attack he had been expecting was under way. He acted decisively to implement his envelopment manoeuvre, but he was not allowed to carry it out because the British declared that their men would be handling the situation themselves.
It took around 14 hours, while the Germans were consolidating their positions in and around the town, before the British admitted that their men were unable to remove the enemy. Pompey’s 15th Brigade and another Australian brigade, the 13th Brigade under General Glasgow, were then authorised to undertake a counter-attack. Pompey’s brigade would advance around the north of Villers-Bret as one pincer, while Glasgow’s brigade would advance around the south of the town.
The plan was certainly audacious. Two independent spearheads were to be launched deep into German-held territory in the dark, with meagre artillery assistance and instructions to join up with each other. Glasgow’s brigade was unfamiliar with the ground, and would be going into action after marching eight miles that afternoon to get to the rear of the battle zone. And Pompey’s brigade would be undertaking a complicated manoeuvre involving three changes of direction in the dark.
It was an exceptionally risky enterprise, as many anxious insiders realised. Among them was Charles Bean, on the scene as usual when a significant AIF operation was in the offing. That night he felt very pessimistic, as his diary confirms: ‘’I don’t believe they have a chance … Went to bed thoroughly depressed … feeling certain that this hurried attack would fail hopelessly’’. Many of Pompey’s men agreed. One felt that the operation had not even ‘‘the remotest chance of success’’. To another, it seemed ‘‘an almost impossible proposition’’.
As for Pompey himself, what he wrote afterwards about that memorable day, 24 April, was this:
‘I submitted the plan for recapture of a town. I was told not to bother as the British corps concerned were doing it themselves and it was out of my area … [So] for 14 hours we delayed whilst the Bosche strengthened his position. [Eventually] I was solemnly handed over to the British corps concerned [together] with another Australian brigade — no means of communication with each other was provided — by this time it was pitch dark and raining, and we were launched and our meeting place fixed within the enemy’s lines — and we were left to find each other. Everyone expected the whole thing to fail, but something desperate had to be done.’
Things did not go according to plan. In the 15th Brigade a company proceeding to its forward position at the start point lost direction after being warned to make a detour to avoid a gassed area; after waiting in vain for this company to turn up, Pompey’s reorganised brigade eventually set off without it almost two hours late. They hurried forward in the dark to make up for lost time, silent and resolute, taut with anticipation, excitement, and dread — who would be the unlucky ones this time? Many were aware that it was past midnight, so it was now the third anniversary of the original Anzac Day, and they had an opportunity to commemorate it with a special exploit. They were ‘tugging and straining at the leash’, an officer noted. They pressed on up the slope to their first objective, where there was a brief pause while the leaders checked positioning and direction, and scouts were pushed out in front as a protective screen.
These scouts detected enemy soldiers close ahead, and the 15th Brigade line was adjusted accordingly, with some minor tweaks. But this movement was evidently detected, as German flares went up, and then an enemy machine-gun started firing. In response Captain Eric Young, a 23-year-old 59th Battalion officer from St Kilda, gave the order to charge. All the pent-up nervous energy that had accumulated during this long, suspense-filled day was unleashed, and Pompey Elliott’s men charged with an impromptu, uninhibited, terrifying yell. It wasn’t just the 59th. The 60th and 57th men joined in, as the whole line surged forward with exhilarating, irresistible momentum. There was a desperate hail of machine-gun and rifle fire from the Germans, but the raw spontaneous roar in the dark alarmed them, and their shooting was generally inaccurate (the Australians were charging up a slope, and much of the German fire sailed overhead). Many Germans were caught by surprise and overwhelmed, as Pompey’s men penetrated deep into enemy-held territory.
The 13th Brigade also had a difficult start as the southern pincer, but eventually progressed far enough to ensure the overall success of the daring counter-attack.
Pompey felt distinctly proud:
‘Birdwood and the French general said that nothing like it had been done in the war … Birdwood really tried to be nice to me yesterday when he came round about the splendid way my boys had behaved, but he rather looked as if [I’d] made him swallow a bit of green apple. I wore my old Australian jacket and looked as disreputable as I could too. It’s a joke on these spick and span soldiers to show them that Australians have a few brains sometimes.’
General Monash, who had nothing to do with the battle himself, declared that ‘this counter-attack, at night, without artillery support, is the finest thing yet done in the war, by Australians or any other troops’, and he wasn’t the only one to draw this conclusion immediately afterwards.
Villers-Bretonneux was the culmination of Australia’s important contribution in the climax of the greatest war there had ever been. The Germans’ immense offensive that began on 21 March 1918 had driven the British back 40 miles. For the British, this was the biggest crisis of the war. There was widespread anxiety that the war could be lost. The Australians were rushed to the rescue, and played a vital role plugging the gaps in the British defences.
This was our most significant moment in international affairs in our entire history. Australians were influencing the destiny of the world in 1918 more than any other year before or since, and yet this was straight after the worst year in Australian history since European settlement — Australia lost more casualties in 1917 than in any other year of this or any other war.
The German onslaught had imperilled the city of Amiens and its strategically crucial railway network, and Villers-Bretonneux was the key to Amiens. After the stunning counter-attack that recaptured Villers-Bret 100 years ago, Amiens was never threatened again.
Commemorating what happened at Gallipoli in 1915 is understandable. Remembering what happened at the Western Front in 1918 is fundamental.
Ross McMullin: rossmcmullin.com.au