The fighting at Villers–Bretonneux had been a near run thing, but it was not the only crisis developing in the approaches to Amiens. No sooner had the rattle of rifle fire began echoing in the woods around Villers–Bretonneux, two and a half German divisions hit the 12th and 13th Brigades holding the railway embankment outside Dernancourt in what was probably the heaviest attack experienced by the AIF on the Western Front. Utilising the cover of a thick mist that had settled in the flats before dawn, German storm troops silently probed the Australian positions between the two brigades and succeeded in infiltrating the thin defensive screen set up along the railway embankment. They made their way towards a chalk quarry further up the hill, where the gunners of the 21st Machine–Gun Company were positioned to deal with any further German attacks developing in the area, but had received orders not to have their guns set up for fear of being observed and subject to bombardment. The gunners were captured without firing a shot: ‘The Germans had surrounded the chalk pit and had full command of the only entrance to it. We surrendered, there was no alternative. The Germans motioned us to move out of the pit, and on towards Dernancourt’.
With the key to the Australian defenced disabled, German troops assaulted the railway embankment and overran parts of the 12th Brigade’s positions, killing and capturing the defenders and causing troops on their flanks to withdraw to the main line of Australian defence further up the hillside. Striking for the Albert–Amiens Road, they came under sustained rifle and machine–gun fire from 45th Battalion occupying the main line of defence several hundred metres behind the railway embankment, and later that day, carried out a successful counter–attack that prevented the Germans from reaching the road. His position having been spared the brunt of the German assault, Sergeant Stan McDougall gave almost a repeat performance of his Victoria Cross action just days earlier by snatching up a Lewis gun, racing to an exposed position and pouring fire on assaulting German units as they spilled over the embankment. When a bullet pierced the gun’s cooling jacket, McDougall crawled 180m under intense fire to retrieve another gun which he got into action, then later led his platoon in a counter–attack where they helped to stop the Germans from advancing up the hill. For this latter action, McDougall was awarded the Military Medal (originally being recommended for a Distinguished Conduct Medal). An excerpt from his citation described him as ‘absolutely fearless’ and ‘his contempt of danger … amazing’.
Detail of the Lewis gun team depicted in the Dernancourt diorama, on display in the Australian War Memorial.
The attacks of 4–5 April marked the end of Operation Michael and concerted German efforts to capture Amiens. While German troops captured important ground that threatened the stability of the allied front, their attacks had been had been costly in men and materiel amid stiffening resistance from British and French formations. For the Australians, the 2nd and 5th Divisions still in the north were brought down to bolster British defences between Albert and the Lucre River. Between 5–7 April, as the line began to settle, Australia troops of the 5th and 6 thBrigades clashed with German troops over the possession of Monument, Lancer and Hangard Wood south of Villers–Bretonneux.
With Amiens now a forlorn hope, senior German commanders were able to keep momentum going by launching Operation Georgette further north against the British positions along the River Lys in Flanders on 9 April, seeking to capture the important railway junction at Hazebrouck. With the main assault hitting the poorly trained 2nd Portuguese Division around Neuve Chapelle, the line collapsed, causing German troops to spill through to the already–shattered British 40th Division and beyond.
Armentières, Fleurbaix and the positions the Australians had recently occupied at Messines were abandoned, bringing the Germans to within striking distance of Hazebrouck. No sooner had the 1st Australian Division arrived in Amiens to join the Australian Corps on the Somme, it was ordered to return to the north, taking up positions outside Strazeele where 1 and 2 Brigades repulsed wave after wave of German infantry throughout 13–14 April. According to one man of 3rd Battalion, it was like ‘firing into a haystack – one could not miss’. In the end, French troops arrived to bolster the allied defences, and after further attempts to try and penetrate further to the north at Kemmel, German forces were unable to exploit their breakthrough any further. Like Michael, Georgette had also failed.
Over the following weeks, the Australian divisions bolstered their defences in their respective sectors to thwart any further German progress. The 5th Australian Division was moved south of the Somme River, with the 15th Brigade at Blangy–Tronville to the west of Villers–Bretonneux and the 14th Brigade occupying positions on the ever–important Hill 104. Villers–Bretonneux was occupied by British troops of the 8th Division, which had suffered exceptionally heavy casualties during the fighting in March and had been replenished with recruits who had been rushed across the English Channel having received little to no real training. While the Germans lacked the manpower and resources to make one final thrust on Amiens, they attacked Villers–Bretonneux and the important high ground that led to the heights of Hill 104. With the town now reduced to rubble, it was deluged with gas and high explosive before Germans troops assaulted Villers–Bretonneux through a dense fog on the morning of 24 April. Their attack was spearheaded by thirteen A7V tanks, which clashed with British tanks on the outskirts of town and caused the young and inexperienced soldiers of the 8th Division to break. By mid–morning, the Germans held the southern end of Hill 104 and Villers–Bretonneux, and to the south, both Monument Farm and Hangard Wood.
The 5th Australian Division carried out a counter–attack the following day in what ultimately became a defining moment in the AIF’s battle experience on the Western Front. By the time the Australians arrived, however, British troops had borne the brunt of the German attack and the German units in and around Villers–Bretonneux were exhausted from the previous days’ fighting. In the early hours of 24–25 April 1918, on what was the third anniversary of the Gallipoli landing, the 13th and 15th Brigades advanced on Villers–Bretonneux in a pincer–like manoeuvre and assaulted the German positions with bayonets under the cover of a dense pre–dawn fog. Private Walter Downing of 57th Battalion described how ‘German flares of all kinds shot into the air’:
‘A snarl came from the throat of the mob, the fierce, low growl of tigers scenting blood. There was a howling as of demons as the 57th, fighting mad, drove through the wire… The wild cry rose to a voluminous, vengeful roar that was heard by the 13th Brigade on the far right of Villers–Bretonneux… They killed and killed. Bayonets passed with ease through grey–clad bodies, and were withdrawn with a sucking noise. The dozen English we had with us, mere boys, and without arms till they could find a rifle, were fighting with fists and boots, happy so long as they knew where to find the Australian put in charge of them.’
(Try and observe the bayonet technique in the lower-left of the painting. Technique training may vary at Kapooka these days, but the 13th Brigade was particularly adept at the 'throat jab' back then.)
By dawn, the two Australian brigades had linked up on the western edge of Villers–Bretonneux. Monument Wood remained in German hands, but the town had been saved a second time, and with that, Amiens was no longer under threat.
The AIF lost heavily in the battles of March and April 1918, suffering over 18,400 battle casualties, which included 3,500 dead across five already depleted infantry divisions. Amiens had been saved and the Germans were prevented from achieving any further breakthrough in the north of France, but the Australian Corps lacked manpower and was forced to disband battalions within three brigades to bring others up to fighting strength. While these losses had significant consequences for the Australians and their ability to withstand further losses in 1918, they had not been as severe as those within British formations that had borne the brunt of the German offensive. The British had suffered a staggering 255,000 casualties during Operation Michael and a further 82,000 during Georgette, with the certainty of much harder fighting in the months to come.
The series of actions fought by the AIF in France throughout March and April 1918 are little known in Australia today, perhaps a reflection of the disparate series of battalion and brigade actions they fought in support of British formations across a relatively wide front. Costly though these actions were, they helped blunt any further German attempt to achieve a decisive breakthrough. With their backs against the wall, Australian troops had contributed to the defence of Amiens, which in turn, allowed the British Army to prepare for its own counter–offensive less than four months later and the victory it achieved towards the close of the year.
Dr Aaron Pegram is a historian in the Military History Section at the Australian War Memorial.
Featured image: German prisoners arriving at a temporary POW camp near Amiens, viewed @ 1229, 16/03/18, https://historykey.com/black-day-german-army-august-8-1918/, sourced: longlongtrail.co.uk
First insert image: Detail of the Lewis gun team depicted in the Dernancourt diorama, on display in the Australian War Memorial, ART41021 ©AWM2018
Second insert image: William Longstaff's painting, Night Attack by 13th Brigade at Villers-Bretonneux, ©Australian War Memorial, ART03028