Australians on the Western Front: Daring night-time raid brutal but ‘brilliant’

RESPITE: Meal time at 5th Australian Machine Gun Battalion on Hill 104 at Villers-Bretonneux. The position was critical for the defence of Allied rail routes to the west at Amiens. Picture: AWM E02296

RESPITE: Meal time at 5th Australian Machine Gun Battalion on Hill 104 at Villers-Bretonneux. The position was critical for the defence of Allied rail routes to the west at Amiens. Picture: AWM E02296

At dawn on April 24, 1918, German troops captured the French village of Villers-Bretonneux.

If they advanced a little further and took Hill 104, where the Australian National Memorial now stands, German artillery would overlook Amiens, 16 kilometres west, and threaten this vital Allied rail hub.

After hours of unsuccessful British counter-attacks, hurried orders came from a British General for another counter-attack at 8pm.

Australian Brigadier General Thomas Glasgow resisted, saying: “If it was God Almighty who gave the order, we couldn't do it in daylight.”

Glasgow agreed to a surprise night attack at 10pm with his 13th Brigade – the 51st and 52nd Battalions with 1500 men – moving towards Villers-Bretonneux from the south-west.

Brigadier General Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott’s 15th Brigade – the 57th, 59th and 60th Battalions with 2400 men – attacked from the north at 11.45pm although he had seen the danger and wanted to move earlier in the day.

What ensued was a night of brutal hand-to-hand combat on the third anniversary of Anzac Day to clear German soldiers from the town and Aquenne Wood to its west.

Lieutenant Clifford Sadlier of the 51st was inspirational, boldly leading successful bombing attacks in the dark against enemy machine gun positions; at one point by himself and armed only with a revolver. He was wounded twice and later awarded a Victoria Cross.

INSPIRATIONAL: Lt Clifford Sadlier VC. The bold soldier lead bombing raids on enemy machine gun positions. Picture: AWM D00022

INSPIRATIONAL: Lt Clifford Sadlier VC. The bold soldier lead bombing raids on enemy machine gun positions. Picture: AWM D00022

By dawn on April 25, the 51st and 52nd had broken through the German positions south of the town.

Pompey Elliott’s men attacked from the north with an intimidating roar, using bayonets until daylight.

He wrote: “The loud yell uttered by the troops on being given the word to charge appeared to terrify the enemy … nearly all were killed by the throat jab, a bayonet thrust that is greatly favoured by our men.”

On April 26, within 48 hours of the German attack, the Australians had restored the front line near to its position prior to the battle.

It was a clear-cut success, of which British General Henry Rawlinson wrote: “The Australian counter-attack … succeeded beyond my expectations. The 15th and 13th Australian Brigades did brilliantly.”

No German set foot in Villers-Brettoneux again unless as a prisoner-of-war and the threat to Amiens was over.

Australian casualties were more than 2400 and the British lost 9500. German losses, including prisoners, reached about 10,000.

The Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux marked the end of Germany’s Spring Offensive on the Somme that had begun so successfully on March 21, 1918.