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British Cavalry at Villers-Brettoneux,  April 1918.

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Date: 3/4/2002
Time: 10:05:06 PM
Remote Name: 198.142.166.115

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When the new year of 1918 dawned over the Western Front in France and Belgium, it had been a continuous battlefield for over three years. On each day of those three long years, hundreds and at times thousands of men had been killed or wounded. The Australian Diggers looked forward to 1918 with mixed feelings. With the capitulation and loss of Russia thirty five German divisions and two thousand artillery guns were freed to fight on the Western Front. Men were being trained, fed and equipped to fight in what they themselves often referred to as ‘the sausage machine’. Apart from the front line troops there were thousands of men employed in every conceivable capacity behind the lines from boot makers to butchers and from mechanics to tailors. There had also been some severe cracks in the morale of the Allied armies. The French Army had mutinied en masse, but had gradually been patched together again. The British Army had mutinied at Etaples, but their discipline was strong enough to prevent it from becoming serious. The British and French politicians had all lost faith in their own generals. The generals, however, had not lost faith in themselves and still believed in the theory that all they needed was more men and equipment, and bigger guns in order to break through the German line. Only one German general, Ludendorff, had begun to think that there may be some way of opening the door instead of trying to smash it down. The combatant nations of Europe were desperately short of recruits. Some British battalions were composed entirely of boys no older than eighteen or nineteen years old. Their civilian populations were being combed relentlessly for more recruits. Wounds counted for nothing, with a man having to be classified as crippled before he could be sure of exemption from being sent to the firing line. Those who were lesser wounded were patched up as quickly as possible and sent back to the front line. In such circumstances the Australian troops were eminent for their strength, vigour and high spirits. And, they were all volunteers. They wanted to be there. British officers looked down on the Australians for their lack of discipline and their free and easy manner towards their senior ranks. They were often called rough, uncontrollable, drunken, undisciplined and uncouth. But there was never any question about their fighting qualities. Under the command of their own officers they gave due respect to the men who earned it and those that fought with skill and fiery courage. As the war continued, the British reluctantly and slowly began to realise that the Australian Diggers were at their best when left to fight in their own way and style. When 1918 began, the Australians on the Western Front were being rested in a quiet sector, following their losses at Passchendaele late in 1917. In November 1917, a longstanding ambition of the Australian Government and the AIF had been achieved with the decision to form an Australian Corps of four divisions with one division in reserve. This resulted in the melding of the Australian divisions already in France into the most powerful instrument of warfare on the battlefields of the Western Front. During the bitter engagements of 1917, the Australians together with the New Zealand and Canadian divisions had established themselves as the finest front line fighting troops. As a result, they were frequently committed to a larger than normal share of the burden. Their successes in the battles of Messines and Passchendaele in 1917 had come about because of their outstanding superior leadership and the greater moral and physical strength of the troops themselves. While the corps of the AIF were being organised, there were indications that the Germans were preparing for a major offensive, steadily building up their strength with frontline troops released from the Russian front and concentrating their military abilities towards striking a massive blow on the Allies before the added strength of the Americans could back them up. When the massive blow of the German thrust finally fell the British and French Armies were faced with the greatest crisis of World War One. The British Third and Fifth Armies were stretched to their limits and their commanders had attempted to make up for the shortage of troops by a defence system consisting of a forward defence line, which was nothing more than a series of outposts which would give the alarm and fall back, and a defence line of strong points eighteen hundred metres apart connected by trenches and barbed wire entanglements. Behind this was a defence zone which was incomplete when the battle commenced. The idea was that the enemy would be allowed to enter the gaps between the strong points, be stopped by the barbed wire and then massacred by machine gun crossfire and artillery barrages from field gun batteries and heavy artillery. The concentration of German troops behind the lines was seen by scouting aircraft overhead and trench raids confirmed that many fresh German divisions had arrived at the front. After interrogating prisoners it was found that 21 March 1918 would be the day of the German attack and the British and Australians were ordered to stand to at 4.30 am of that morning. The Germans’ plans to move troops to the front were favoured by a dense fog, and throughout the night thirty seven German divisions were brought up to within less than three kilometres of the front line. At 4.45 am on 21 March, the German artillery batteries opened fire with their shells falling as far as thirty two kilometres behind the Allied lines blanketing the British forward and defence zones, artillery positions, headquarters and communications. Behind the lines the area was drenched with gas shells, the gas mingling with the fog and clinging close to the ground. Because of the fog, the British artillery observers could not see anything and therefore any attempt to reply to the German artillery barrages was almost useless. While the artillery shells were falling on the British, General Ludendorff’s new strategies were under way and instead of using mass infantry attacks, he deployed flying wedges of machine gunners, always being reinforced from the rear. These flying wedges cut their way through the barbed wire and wiped out the British front line of troops. This tactic then opened the way for the main advance, which began at different times along the front. Its success was due to the combination of massive artillery barrages which had smashed most of the British strong points, and the dense fog which continued for several more days after the offensive had commenced. In most cases the attacking Germans were well past the strong points before the defenders even knew that they had broken through. It was the same with the British field artillery batteries who found themselves being attacked at close quarters before they had had the opportunity to commence firing. By the end of the day, Ludendorff had committed sixty four entire German divisions to the battle. This was more than the total strength of the British Army in France. In a desperate resistance, coupled with the fact that no one knew for certain what was happening, the British lost thousands of men and were steadily forced backwards in what began to seem like the breakthrough that every commander had been searching for for so long. The line of the British 3rd Army held, but General Gough’s 5th Army was beaten so far back that it was only by a series of hurried withdrawals that he prevented his army from being completely encircled. Had this happened, it would have broken the British line to an extent that it might never have been repaired. This remarkable success was beyond Ludendorff’s expectations, and in order to take full advantage of it he changed his plans. He then decided on a three stage operation, designed to firstly separate the French and British armies, secondly to drive the British into the English Channel, and thirdly to defeat the French. He had originally planned to attack the British front with two armies, while holding one army in preparation to fend off any possible intervention by the French. The Australians were ready for action. They had heard the news of the British reverses, and waited in their billets in Belgian Flanders for the call that each of them knew must come. They also heard of the loss of Bapaume, Mouquet Farm, Peronne, Pozieres and other villages that were now just heaps of rubble and for which so much Australian blood had been shed on the Somme battlefields in the earlier fights of 1916 and 1917 to defeat the Germans. The Australians received their orders at last, and by 25 March 1918 the 3rd and 4th Divisions of the AIF were under way by train or bus as they journeyed south to the battle which was being described as ‘the worst crisis of the war.’ The 4th Brigade of the 4th Australian Division dug in at Hebuterne. The two other brigades, instead of being held in reserve, were rushed south to Albert where a British division had been withdrawn by mistake from the front. This brought a grave situation to an unnecessary and unexpected crisis. The first wave of the German attack smashed against Hebuterne on the morning of 27 March 1918. This was followed by a succession of determined attacks on the 4th Brigade’s defences. It was here that the Germans received the first check to their advance when instead of giving ground to the enemy, the Australians beat them off and began advancing into the German’s front. The other two brigades held a line from the western outskirts of Albert, across the Ancre River at Dernancourt and then across to the 5th British Army sector on the Somme River. Meanwhile Major-General John Monash’s 3rd Australian Division had detrained at Doullens and had been taken by motor buses along the old Roman highway to Bapaume, which now formed the Amiens to Albert road. Together with the rest of the Australian troops heading south, they were the only ones heading towards the Germans. On arrival at Corbie, Monash found that the whole British headquarters of five hundred men had cleared out of the town in the late afternoon in a great hurry and had left behind most of their papers and kit. He found some of them sitting in a dark building and the only ones who seemed to have their wits about them were the Corps commander, Lieutenant-General Congreve, VC, and his chief of staff officer. As Monash stepped into the room General Congreve said: “Thank heaven. The Australians at last. General (Monash), the position is very simple. My Corps at four o’clock today was holding the line from Bray to Albert when the line broke, and what is left of the three divisions in the line after four days of heavy fighting without food or sleep are falling back rapidly. German cavalry have been seen approaching Morlancourt and Buire. They are making straight for Amiens. What I want you to do is to get into the angle between the Ancre and the Somme as far east as possible and stop him.” Monash asked for, and was given, a small room and also the use of a telephone, and it was from this room that he worked all through the night making the necessary arrangements for the ensuing battle. During the night of 28 March he pushed his line of Australians out eighteen hundred metres eastwards until they were in actual contact with the enemy’s patrols. That afternoon the expected German attacks occurred with considerable force, the attack coming from the right or north, the centre and on the left or south. During the night Monash had positioned his artillery behind his line and the battle was a walk over for the Australians, the enemy being slaughtered both with artillery and machine gun fire. After an hour the whole attack had petered out and this was the then end of the German attempt to capture Amiens by direct approach. On the night of 29 March the 5th Australian Division arrived and linking up with the New Zealanders formed a strong united front line over a distance of twenty kilometres. The main disaster to the British front in this part arose through the failure of the British Fifth Army which held the line south of the Somme River. The Fifth Army had been practically pulverized into fragments and its commander, General Gough, had been sent home to England. The French immediately took over the defence of the line south of the Somme but moved slowly and for several days the situation on Monash’s right flank was very obscure. Ludendorff’s offensive was now beginning to lose its momentum even though a fresh attack was launched along a wide front on 30 March 1918 in an attempt to split the British 5th Army from the French 1st Army. On the extreme northern flank of the front, the Germans launched fresh divisions against the Australian 3rd Division. The Germans were beaten back, with one of their regimental histories describing the battle as ‘The worst miscarriage in its history.’ But the drive to separate the British and French armies continued, and the line was pushed in like a blunt wedge as the Germans fought their way towards Amiens. To hold them back, the British 12th Lancers and an Australian infantry battalion were ordered into the line. The infantry battalion was the 33rd Infantry Battalion and was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Leslie James Morshead, who had previously been held the rank of Major and had been second in command of the 2nd Infantry Battalion on Gallipoli. The combined force launched an aggressive counter attack and although it did not regain as much ground as was hoped for, it gave the Germans ‘a bloody nose.’ The French 1st Army’s counter offensive was beginning to get under way and it soon became clear that the impending German onslaught would eventually meet the same fate of all the other attempted breakthroughs. But Ludendorff’s armies had driven so close to Amiens, and its vital road and railway junctions, that they were not going to give up too easily. Ludendorff reorganised his lines of communication, stretched to their limit by ten days of effort, and had more guns and ammunition brought up to the front. On 4 April 1918 the Germans attacked with a total force of fifteen divisions on a front of thirty five kilometres, with two thirds of their effort directed towards the French and the remainder against the British 5th Army, which by then had readjusted its front line of defences. This attack was directed towards Amiens and the railways to the south of the town, and had this attack be successful, it was to be followed by a series of attacks between the Somme River and Arras. The 9th Infantry Brigade of the 3rd Australian Division covered Villers-Bretonneux, whose southern and northern flanks were held by two British divisions. The 9th Infantry Brigade seemed to be holding the enemy’s advance until the British 14th Division caved in and lost the town of Hamel. In mid-afternoon, the British 18th Division broke on the Australian’s southern flank and the whole line was forced to retire to the outskirts of Villers-Bretonneux. The fate of the 9th Infantry Brigade, comprising of the 33rd, 34th, 35th and 36th Infantry Battalions, the 9th Machine Gun Company and the 9th Light Trench Mortar Battery, appeared to be sealed as the Germans surged steadily closer to the ruins of the town. Suddenly the 36th Infantry Battalion stormed out of a hollow in which they had been waiting and with bayonets glinting in the declining sun, charged straight for the enemy. In a series of savage encounters with bullets, bayonets and bombs they were able to drive the enemy away from the town’s outskirts and back to their trenches, one and a half kilometres away. The 15th Australian Brigade was brought across the Somme to hold and restore the northern flank of the town and Villers-Bretonneux was saved. Major W. Le Roy Fry, Officer Commanding the 34th Infantry Battalion submitted the following report to Brigadier-General Charles Rosenthal, General Officer Commanding the 9th Infantry Brigade, which outlined the 34th Infantry Battalion’s operations at Villers-Bretonneux: Headquarters 34th Battalion 6/4/18 G.O.C. 9th Infantry Brigade. “I herewith beg to submit for your perusal report on operation by 34th Battalion from 12 noon 4/4/18 to 12 midnight 5/4/18. The 34th Battalion in accordance with Brigade Instructions moved up from the vicinity of CACHY to a line O.22.b. to C.29.b. to defend VILLERS-BRETONNEUX on the North and North East. While waiting in this position of readiness the Battalion was subjected to heavy shell fire – 4 Officers and 25 other ranks casualties including Lieutenant- Colonel Martin, Adjutant and Senior Company Commander. At 5.30 pm I received instructions from Lieutenant- Colonel Goddard through Lieutenant- Colonel Morshead to reinforce the line West of the Village. After reconnoitering the line it was arranged for the 33rd Battalion to close to the left and occupy the line from P.25.c.60.28 to P.31.a.82.20., the 34th Battalion taking over the line from O.31.a.82.20 to Railway Line inclusive at V.1.b.23.80. Elements of the 35th Battalion that had been holding line North of Railway moved to Southern side of Railway and joined 36th Battalion. At this time the Cavalry were holding North of the 33rd Battalion, 34th Battalion had two companies in front line, 1 in support, and 1 in reserve. The Queen’s Own and 6th London Rifle Regiments were holding line South of the 36th Battalion. The enemy had established a line on the high ground West of the Railway Bridge at V.I.b.60.70 with strong machine gun post at the Bridge from which he could enfilade the line North of the Railway and command approaches from the village. At 9 pm instructions were received that the 34th Battalion would attack and capture the Bridge and high ground West of Bridge and establish and hold a line 200 yards West of bridge the 36th 35th and 33rd Battalions moving their line forward to conform with the 34th Battalion. This operation was entirely successful and in addition to the objectives gained, 9 machine guns were captured, 1 Officer and 22 other ranks taken prisoners. Zero hour was set for 1 am 5/4/18. Preparatory to attack the 35th and 36th Battalions closed to the South and the 34th occupied line from road V.1.a.0.6. to P.31.c.80.65. Disposition:- D Coy. on Right from Road V.L.a.0.6. inclusive to Railway line inclusive. C Coy. Left from Railway inclusive to Road P.31.c.80.65 inclusive. A Coy. Support to D Coy. B Coy. Support to C Coy. The Battalion advanced at 1 am 5/4/18. D Coy on the Right experienced very little opposition until Bridge was reached when a party of the enemy endeavoured to outflank our Right. This party was wiped out, the Bridge taken and several Bosche disposed of. 6 machine guns were captured – 2 heavy and 4 light. C Coy on the left experienced strong opposition along the Railway line but succeeded in mopping up the enemy, and capturing 6 machine guns – 3 heavy, 3 light. A line was consolidated from V.1.c.00. to V.L.b.80.60 to P.32.c.17.30. The line moving forward increased the frontage of the 36th Battalion, so put A Coy into the line to fill the existing gap between D Coy South of Bridge and 36th Battalion. In the advance Lewis Gunners fired from their hips and the rapid fire seems to have completely upset the enemy. Names of Officers and other ranks who displayed conspicuous gallantry will be forwarded for your consideration later. Enemy captured 1 Officer 22 other ranks “ killed 1 “ 29 “ “ Machine Guns 5 Heavy captured 7 Light Maps 9 Our Casualties:- Killed 4 other ranks Wounded 1 Officer 17 other ranks 3 Machine Guns were brought out – 4 had their breeches removed by the enemy – and 5 guns were handed over to the relieving Battalion as they were being used in the defence of the Sector, plenty of ammunition being available.” W. Le Roy Fry Major Commanding 34th Battalion AIF D Company was under the command of Lieutenant James Bruce who was recommended for, and posthumously awarded, the Military Cross for his 'conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty’ during the enemy attack in the vicinity of Villers-Bretonneux on the night of April 4th 1918. Lieutenant Bruce led his platoon and rushed an advanced enemy machine gun position, killed the crew and captured the gun. He later rushed an enemy trench, captured ten more prisoners, killed the remainder of the garrison and captured two more machine guns. On seeing a party of the enemy moving round his flank, Lieutenant Bruce organised and led a party of his men and again succeeded in wiping out the approaching enemy. It was noted in his citation that ‘throughout the operation Lieutenant Bruce set a magnificent example of courage and coolness to his men, and his services were eminently valuable.' The following account and report of the 9th Infantry Brigade’s operations at Villers-Bretonneux was issued by Brigadier-General Charles Rosenthal, General Officer Commanding the 9th Infantry Brigade, to the General Officer Commanding the British 10th Division: Ninth Australian Infantry Brigade Brigade Headquarters 7th April 1918 Headquarters 10th Division D.H.35/170 I have to report as follows upon operations involving the employment of my Brigade on 4th and 5th instant. “At the commencement of operations on the 4th inst. the 9th Infantry Brigade was disposed in depth for the defence of VILLERS-BRETONNEUX as follows: 35th Infantry Battalion holding from T.2.d.7.3 to P.28.d.5.4 with three Companies in the line and one in reserve; 33rd Infantry Battalion in immediate support of 35th Infantry Battalion; 34th and 36th Infantry Battalions in Brigade Reserve in BOIS L’ ABBE. Brigade Headquarters was located at GENTELLES. The line had been taken over from 61st Division on the night 30/31st March. Eight Vickers guns had been placed at the disposal of the Commanding Officer 35th Infantry Battalion who elected to place four in the line whilst holding four in reserve in VILLERS-BRETONNEUX. The remaining eight machine guns of the 9th Australian Machine Gun Company were held in Brigade Reserve in BOIS L’ ABBE. The line was held by a series of posts unwired. The only communication, either laterally or from front to rear, was by runner; and this was impossible by day owing to the activity of enemy snipers and the fact that runners had no routes unobserved by hostile snipers. The Reserve Company had dug in a support line approximately 1,000 yards in rear of the front line. Information received from the front in the late evening of the 3rd instant disclosed much movement in the neighbourhood of MARCELCAVE and WARFUSEE-ABANCOURT, and enemy artillery had been particularly active with all calibres up to 5.9 on VILLERS-BRETONNEUX, CACHY, GENTELLES and BOIS L’ ABBE. At 5.30 am on 4th instant the enemy commenced to bomb our forward system heavily as well as VILLERS-BRETONNEUX, CACHY, and GENTELLES and other portions of the back area. At 6.30 am the enemy appeared through the mist to be massing in numerous small parties each about the size of a Platoon on the Western outskirts of WARFUSSE-ABANCOURT and at several other points opposite our front line. These were immediately dealt with by machine guns, Lewis Guns and rifles with deadly effect, very heavy casualties being inflicted upon the enemy who immediately retired slightly without persisting in the attack. This action was repeated three times at short intervals. At 7 am the enemy advanced opposite our whole front. Our S.O.S. signal was sent up and immediately responded to by an accurate barrage which was right on the dense masses of advancing enemy, cutting gaps in his formations. In addition to artillery fire the enemy was subjected to the maximum fire power of all units in the line, causing him enormous losses. When the enemy had advanced to a distance of 500 yards from our front line the 8th Battalion Rifle Brigade on our left fell back exposing our left flank. The enemy, taking advantage, attacked our left by advancing along the evacuated trench. This compelled the 35th Infantry Battalion’s left flank to fall back fighting to the support line covered by our machine guns which later established themselves in the support line. At this stage one of our machine guns was rushed and captured by the enemy, whilst one was destroyed by shellfire. The Buffs on our right swung back their left flank in conformity with our slight change of front. The enemy was now held up and heavy casualties inflicted on him. Two Companies of the 33rd Infantry Battalion were pushed up behind our left as this appeared to be the threatened flank, and eight more Vickers guns were ordered into the line, making a total of ten. The line was then firstly established from V.1.d.0.7 to V.1.b.9.6, thence North to P.20.c.0.0, thence West to P.25.d.0.3, and North to P.35.b.0.1 where touch was gained with the 1st Dragoon Guards which had come up on our left and stayed the enemy’s advance North of the WARFUSEE – ABANCOURT – VILLERS-BRETONNEUX Road. This filled the gap caused by the retirement of the 8th Battalion Rifle Brigade. The cavalry at once opened fire on the enemy with one Hotchkiss and three Vickers guns, causing the enemy to fall back towards WARFUSEE-ABANCOURT. The 33rd Infantry Battalion was ordered at 10.27 am to move forward to establish a position East of the aerodrome at P.25.d.80.25. This advance was immediately carried out, improving our line considerably. At 11.10 am the 34th Infantry Battalion was ordered to move from BOIS l’ ABBE to a position of readiness at O.29.a. and b. North of VILLERS-BRETONNEUX; whilst the 36th Infantry Battalion was ordered to move to O.35.c. and d. to the South. Both of these Battalions were placed at the disposal of Commanding Officer 35th Infantry Battalion for counter attack purposes. By 3.30 pm our line was firmly established, the enemy holding ground 300 yards to our front. The rain during the day had made the ground very muddy. The clean Lewis Guns of the 6th London Regiment were sent forward to our men. At 3.50 pm the 36th Infantry Battalion, which had moved to U.5.b., noticed troops of the units on our right retiring in disorder through our lines reporting that the enemy were advancing in thousands. Attempts made to rally them were unsuccessful. The situation appeared critical. By 5 pm the enemy had advanced to the road in U.6.a. and were firing at our artillery in U.5.a. and c. The Commanding Officer 36th Infantry Battalion, having then received orders, launched the whole of his Battalion, less one Company in Battalion Reserve, into a counter attack South of the VILLERS-BRETTONEUX – MARCELCAVE railway line at 5.15 pm. The Reserve Company of 35th Infantry Battalion was just at this moment counter attacking just North of the railway line and thus protected the left flank of the 36th Infantry Battalion. A party of the “Queens” which was reforming in U.5.d. decided to co-operate and assisted very materially. A party of the “Buffs” digging-in in U.5.b. declined to co-operate. The counter attacking troops were greeted by heavy machine gun fire from CHATEAU in U.8.a. and later from haystacks at about U.6.c. central. The Reserve Company was then thrown in and succeeded in filling a gap between two of the assaulting Companies. Three Companies of the 6th London Regiment arrived at this time. Two were pushed forward to further strengthen the line between the two assaulting Companies, whilst the third Company was moved forward into line on the right flank. Shortly after the line had been thus reorganised considerable bodies of the enemy commenced to form up at distances of from 500 to 700 yards in front of our line. These parties suffered very heavy casualties from our Lewis Guns and rifles. During the advance four enemy machine guns were captured and were utilised in consolidation. At 6 pm the situation on the left flank became obscure, and at 6.20 pm the 34th Infantry Battalion was ordered to establish a line getting into touch with 33rd Infantry Battalion on the right and cavalry on the left. This was carried out successfully by the 34th Infantry Battalion moving across the Eastern outskirts of VILLERS-BRETONNEUX in a South-Easterly direction in order to take up a line running from railway line at V.1.b.2.0 to P.31.a.8.2. The 33rd Infantry Battalion then held from P.31.a.8.2 to P.25.a.0.5, whilst the 36th Infantry Battalion together with the Queens and 6th London Regiment held from the railway line to the South as far as U.6.c. central. The cavalry were then holding the line North of 33rd Infantry Battalion. About this time the 17th Lancers arranged to advance to restore our line on the left in conjunction with 33rd Infantry Battalion, this action being carried out successfully. I am anxious to place on record my appreciation of the splendid work carried out by the cavalry (1st Dragoons and 17th Lancers) in protecting my Northern flank by vigorous offensive action. The timely co-operation of the Queens in the counter attack of the 36th Infantry Battalion was of the utmost assistance and was most helpful at a very critical moment. The 6th London Regiment proved particularly keen and willing to help in staying the enemy advance and was used to very good effect. A conservative estimate of the casualties inflicted on the enemy during the period under review is 4,000 on the 4th instant and 1,000 on the 5th instant. The system of holding Mobile Echelons of ammunition and tools at advanced transport lines worked admirably.


Last changed: March 04, 2002