Topic: BatzWF - Westn Front
First Battle of Villers-Bretonneux
France, 4 April 1918
First Villers-Bretonneux, a major action fought on 4 April 1918, after the Germans renewed their March offensive aiming for the road and rail junction centre of Amiens. An important gain won in the initial drive had been the advancement of the front-line to within a few kilometres of Villers-Bretonneux, a point on the plateau south of the Somme River from which it was possible to overlook the flats of the Somme, Avre and Noye and from where there was the prospect of bringing Amiens itself-barely sixteen kilometres away-under artillery fire. When the Germans struck again with fifteen divisions along a front of 34 kilometres, this sector of the line was accordingly a particular focus of attention.
In response to the previous perilous position at this point, the 9th Brigade of the 3rd Australian Division (under Brig.-General Charles Rosenthal) had been sent here on 29 March to prevent the Germans driving a wedge between the remnants of the British Fifth Army - now no more than a corps - and the French First Army to the south. An enemy thrust the next day against Hamel only five kilometres north-east of Villers-Bretonneux, had been repulsed, but valuable gains were made four kilometres south about Hangard village on the River Luce. A battalion of the 9th Brigade (the 33rd) had become involved in the fighting here, in conjunction with the British 12th Lancer Regiment, in what became known as ‘Lancer Wood'.
At the moment that the new German blow fell five days later, only one widely extended battalion (the 35th) of the Australian brigade was protecting the front of Villers-Bretonneux; the other three battalions lay in support behind the village. Two British divisions protected the flanks north and south, towards Hamel and Lancer Wood respectively, but both were tired after being engaged further south until recently relieved by the French. When the 18th Division on the south was attacked it held at first, but the 14th Division at Hamel did not; the Germans broke through here and captured the town. The Australian 35th Battalion was forced to swing back its left flank to avoid being enveloped. The situation on the northern edges of Villers-Bretonneux was restored by the 33rd Battalion acting in conjunction with British cavalry.
On the northern edge of the 14th Division's area, the situation was stabilised by the 15th Brigade of the 5th Australian Division under Brig.-General Harold Elliott. This was guarding the bridges across the Somme in rear of 3rd Australian Division and, as soon as fleeing British troops arrived in its lines, began organising a stopgap force west of Hamel. Later that afternoon, the brigade's two reserve battalions were sent across the Somme and took over the defence of vital high ground west of Hamel, thereby ensuring that the German advance got no further in that direction.
Meanwhile, a new German thrust an midafternoon drove hack part of' the 18th Division in the south and brought the enemy to the outskirts of Villers-Bretonneux. The fall of the village appeared certain at this juncture until the 9th Brigade's 36th Battalion, lying in wait just south of the township, launched an unexpected and spectacular bayonet charge at 5 p.m. Joined by a company of the 35th Battalion on its left and about 180 men from the British 7th Battalion of the Queen's (Royal West Surrey) Regiment on the right, and supported by the 6th London Battalion as a second wave, this assault line was first sighted by the Germans-themselves advancing in five waves from the Monument Wood-at a distance of about 400 metres as it crested a rise at a jog-trot. The enemy at first hesitated, then backed into the cover of the wood. Although the attackers lost heavily, they succeeded in driving the enemy back more than a kilometre to a line just north of Lancer Wood.
Shortly after the counter-attack ended, movement by British cavalry squadrons on the township's northern outskirts (in which the Australian 33rd and 34th battalions joined) helped advance that part of the line and the crisis was past. Villers-Bretonneux had been held, but at a cost to the 9th Brigade of 665 casualties.
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, pp. 139-141.
Additional References cited by Chris Coulthard-Clark:
C.E.W. Bean (1937) The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Main German Offensive, 1918, Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
Citation: The First Battle of Villers-Bretonneux, France, 4 April 1918, Outline