Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux
The Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux came during the period of the battle of Lys, 24–27 April 1918 but was launched against the British lines in front of Amiens. The German army built twenty-one tanks in the war and used fourteen A7V tanks in the attack, making it one of the biggest uses of German tanks in World War I. During the battle, the first tank-versus-tank battle in history occurred when a group of three advancing German A7V tanks met and engaged three British Mark IV tanks, two of which were female tanks armed with machine-guns. The two Mark IV females were damaged and forced to withdraw but the male tank armed with 6-pounder guns, hit and disabled the lead A7V, which was then abandoned by its crew. The Mark IV continued to fire on the two remaining German A7Vs, which withdrew. The "male" then advanced with the support of Whippet light tanks which had arrived, until disabled by artillery fire and abandoned by the crew. The German and British crews recovered their vehicles later in the day. A counter-attack by two Australian and one British brigade during the night of 24 April partly surrounded Villers-Bretonneux and on 25 April the town was recaptured. Australian, British and French troops restored the original front line by 27 April.[Note 1]
In late 1917 and early 1918, the end of the fighting on the Eastern Front allowed the Germans to transfer large numbers of manpower and equipment to the west. Buoyed by this, but concerned that the United States' entry into the war would negate their numerical advantage if they did not attack quickly, the German commander, Erich Ludendorff, determined the need for an offensive with the goal of utilising their temporary numerical advantage to punch through the frontline, and then advance north towards the sea. In March, the Germans launched their Spring Offensive, striking heavily against the British Third and Fifth Armies on the Somme. Heavily depleted due to the small numbers of reserves being sent from Britain at the time, and ill prepared to defend, the Third and Fifth Armies were forced back quickly as the Germans advanced under a heavy bombardment of high explosives and gas. As the Germans advanced steadily west, the vital railhead around Amiens came under threat and Paris began to feel the weight of German long range guns. As the Allies moved forces to bolster the position in front of Paris, the British defence stiffened and by the end of May the German advance through the Somme had been halted in front of Hamel. In preparation for a further attack, German railway construction companies were brought up and work undertaken to repair the damaged railways behind the lines.
In early April, the Germans renewed their efforts, launching the Battle of the Lys. During the initial attack, the Germans managed to advance their front towards Villers-Bretonneux, a town that was situated on the high ground to the south of the Somme River. Positioned on high ground that provided a line-of-sight for artillery observers to call down fire on Amiens, which was only 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) away, the town held significant strategic value. On 4 April, the Germans attempted to capture the town with 15 German divisions, but amidst heavy fighting, they had been repulsed by troops from British 1st Cavalry Division and Australian 9th Brigade during the First Battle of Villers-Bretonneux. After the first battle, the forces that had secured the town were replaced, and by late April the area around Villers-Bretonneux was largely held by the British 8th Division. Although it had been one of the best British divisions it had suffered badly in the German attacks of March losing 250 officers and about 4,700 other ranks, reducing its infantry by half. Reinforcements had been made from the latest draft in the United Kingdom; some units' replacements had been 18-year-olds with little training.
German Second Army attack
On 17/18 April, the Germans heavily bombarded the area behind Villers-Bretonneux with mustard gas, causing 1,000 casualties amongst the Australian troops there. A week later, on the evening of 23/24 April, a heavy artillery barrage was fired, using both mustard gas and high explosive rounds and the following morning the Germans launched their assault against the village with four divisions. The German infantry, with fourteen supporting tanks (one was unserviceable), broke through the 8th Division, making a three mile wide gap in the British lines. Villers-Bretonneux fell to the Germans, and the main strategic centre of Amiens was under threat. After the Germans took Villers-Bretonneux, the first ever engagement between opposing tanks took place. Three British Mark IV tanks from No. 1 Section, A Company, 1st Battalion, Tank Corps had been dispatched to the Cachy switch line at the first reports of German advance and were to hold it against the Germans. One was a "male" (the No. 1 Tank of the section) armed with two 6-pounder guns and machine guns, under the command of Lieutenant Frank Mitchell. It was crewed by only four of the normal crew of eight, as the others had been affected by gas. The other tanks were "females" armed only with 0.303 in (7.7 mm) machine guns, intended for use as anti-infantry support fire. All were advancing when they encountered a German A7V: "Nixe" of Abteilung III Imperial German Tank Force was commanded by 2nd Lieutenant Wilhelm Biltz.
Biltz's tank fired on the two "females", damaging them to the extent that it left holes in the hull leaving the crew exposed. Both retreated; their machine guns were unable to penetrate the armour on the German tank. Mitchell's "male" Mark IV continued to fire at the A7V while on the move to avoid German artillery fire and the cannon of the German tank. The movement meant Mitchell's gunner had difficulty in aiming the Mark IV's 6-pounders. The tanks continued to fire at each other on the move until the Mark IV stopped to allow the gunner a clear shot. He scored three hits (a total of six shell hits). The German heeled over on its side, possible as a result of crossing an incline at the wrong angle. The surviving German crew (out of 18 men), including Biltz, alighted from the vehicle. Mitchell's crew continued to fire at them as they fled on foot, killing nine.
The British tank was next faced by two more A7Vs, supported by infantry; Mitchell's tank fired several ranging shots on the German tanks and they retreated. Mitchell's tank continued to attack the German infantry present, firing case-shot at them. Following this, a group of seven of the new British Whippet medium tanks arrived. The Whippets attacked the German troops encountering some battalions "forming up in the open", doing much damage both with their machine guns and by running them down. Mitchell later remarked that when they returned their tracks were covered with blood. Only four of the seven Whippets returned, the rest were destroyed by artillery, though only five crew were killed.
Being the sole tank on the field, and slow moving, the Mark IV now became an obvious target for German artillery. Lieutenant Frank Mitchell's tank retreated, maneouvering to try to avoid the shells. A mortar round eventually disabled the tank's tracks. The crew left the disabled tank, escaping to a British-held trench, much to the surprise of the troops in it. Lt Biltz and his crew reboarded "Nixe" and withdrew. The tank was eventually broken up for spares in June 1918. Earlier in the day, another tank in the same group as Biltz, A7V No 506 "Mephisto", had fallen onto its side and was abandoned. The tank was captured by Australian troops when they counter-attacked a few days later.[Note 2]
Fourth Army counter-attack
About noon the 1st Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters had attempted a counter-attack. The British 25th Brigade was considered for an attack but this was cancelled. A tank with troops from the 2nd Royal Berkshire made a spontaneous attack from the north pushing the German line back about 150 yards. General Henry Rawlinson had responded even before he received orders from Marshal Foch to recapture the town. At 9:30 a.m. he ordered an immediate counter-attack by the Australian 13th Brigade under General Thomas William Glasgow and the 15th under General H.E. "Pompey" Elliott, both previously kept in reserve, though the 13th had suffered in heavy fighting at nearby Dernancourt. Rawlinson's plan was to use a pincer manoeuvre, the 15th Brigade attacking north of the town, the 13th to the south. British troops would support and the 2nd Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment, and the 22nd Durham Light Infantry would follow through in the gap between the Australians and "mop up" the town once it was isolated. Artillery support was available but since German positions were unknown and to avoid alerting the Germans, there was no preparatory barrage to soften up the German positions. Instead the artillery would bombard the town for the hour once the attack was underway and then move its line of fire back beyond the line held by the British before the German attack.
The attack took place on the night of 24/25 April 1918. The original time for the operation to start had been 8:00 p.m. but General Glasgow argued that it would still be light, with terrible consequences for his men. Glasgow argued that the operation should start at 10:00 p.m. and "zero hour" (the moment when the attack was to begin) was eventually made 10:00 p.m. The operation began with German machine gun nests taking some toll on the Australians. A number of charges against machine-gun posts helped the Australian advance; in particular, Lieutenant Clifford Sadlier of the 51st Battalion, was awarded the Victoria Cross after attacking with grenades. The two brigades swept around Villers-Bretonneux and the Germans retreated, for a while escaping the pocket along a railway cutting. The Australians eventually captured the German positions and pushed the German line back, leaving the German troops in Villers-Bretonneux surrounded. The British units attacked frontally and suffered at the German defences. By 25 April, the town had been recaptured and handed back to the villagers. The battle was a great success for the Australian troops, who had recaptured the town from forces that vastly outnumbered them and defeated the German attempt to capture Amiens. The village remained in Allied hands to the end of the war.
Fighting continued in Villers-Bretonneux and the vicinity for months after the counter-attack. The Australians spent Anzac Day clearing Germans out of the houses and fighting in the streets and the town was not completely secured until 27 April. On 26 April, a French Moroccan Division attack on Hangard Wood, south of the village was a costly failure. On 3 May, the Australian 12th Brigade attacked towards Monument Wood, to the east of Villers-Bretonneux. The attack failed with the assaulting battalion, the South Australians of the 48th, losing over 150 men in heavy fighting against German Jäger. The German offensive in the British sector had ended by late April. As the Germans turned their attention to the French sectors, throughout May and June, a lull followed on the Somme, during which the Australians in the sector consolidated on the momentum gained from their victory at Villers-Bretonneux, conducting a series of "peaceful penetration" operations that slowly advanced the front east.
As the German offensive came to a halt around the Marne, in early July, further fighting took place around Villers-Bretonneux, as part of diversionary moves by Australian forces, acting in support of an attack on Hamel. One Australian, Corporal Walter Brown, of the 20th Battalion, received the Victoria Cross for his actions during that action. Later in the month, the area around Villers-Bretonneux saw more fighting when two battalions from the 7th Brigade – the 25th and 26th Battalions – attacked around Monument Wood; for his actions during the assault and subsequent German counter-attack, Lieutenant Albert Borella of the 26th, later received the Victoria Cross. After the Anzac Day counter-attack, British and French commanders lavished praise upon the Australian soldiers who took part, Brigadier-General George Grogan, a witness, later wrote that it was "perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war", for troops to attack at night, across unfamiliar ground with only short notice, and no artillery preparation.
These factors had proved essential to the Australian success. Foch spoke of their "astonishing valiance [sic]..." and General Sir Henry Rawlinson attributed the safety of Amiens to the "...determination, tenacity and valour of the Australian Corps". After the battle the worst examples of looting by AIF soldiers of the war occurred. In Great Battles in Australian History, Jonathan King wrote that one culprit was Barney Hines, the "Souvenir King" of the AIF who was something of a celebrity for it. According to King, Hines raided a number of houses, looting alcohol and expensive clothes, which he then used to throw a party for his friends that ended abruptly when the Germans shelled the house, wounding Hines and several others. King also wrote that the Australians shared rations with French civilians in the town. Due to the coincidence of the day in which the counter-attack occurred, the battle holds a significant place in Australian military history, nevertheless it was a combined Allied effort.
The fighting around Villers-Bretonneux in April resulted in the following Allied casualties: the Australian brigades had taken 2,473 casualties, British casualties were 9,529 and French losses were c. 3,500. German losses were 8,000–10,400.
In the 1930s an impressively towering memorial was established at the top of the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery to honour the Australian soldiers who fell in France in the Great War. The cemetery is located between Villers-Bretonneux and Fouilloy on the hill (belonging to the latter but overlooking the former) from which the famous night attack was launched. Some 10 miles (16 km) east of Amiens and north of the straight main (Roman) road to St-Quentin, it rises gently to a plateau overlooking Amiens, the Somme Valley and the town from which it has its name. The cemetery contains 2,000 graves, of which 779 are Australian. A further ten Australian casualties of the battle are buried in the Villers-Bretonneux Communal Cemetery. The smaller Crucifix Corner British Military Cemetery just east of the town, in the shadow of a motorway embankment, contains the graves of British and French home and colonial (Moroccan) troops, the former including many Australians, who fell in the area in subsequent fighting which moved further to the east only on 8 August 1918 (but from then on rapidly). The victory gained at Villers-Bretonneux on the third anniversary of the Gallipoli landings is yearly commemorated by Australians. In 2008, to mark the battle's ninetieth anniversary, the Australian and New Zealand Anzac Day dawn service was held for the first time on the Fouilloy Hill, as well as the traditional one held on the Gallipoli Peninsula.
- German units engaged: I, II and III Sturmpanzerwagen Abteilungen, 228th Division, 4th Guard Division, 77th Reserve Division, 208th Division and Guard Ersatz Division. In reserve: 19th Division, 9th Bavarian Reserve Division and the Jäger Division. Allied divisions engaged: parts of the Australian 4th and 5th Divisions, parts of the British 58th, 8th, 18th Divisions, French 131st and Moroccan Divisions.
- Mephisto was later recovered by troops from the Australian 26th Battalion and after the war was taken back to Australia as a souvenir. It is the only surviving German World War I tank and is preserved at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane, Australia.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux.|
- AWM, Villers-Brettoneux
- Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux ww1westernfront.gov.au
- Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux historyofwar.org
- Villers-Bretonneux, 24 April 1918
- Mitchell's account; excerpt from "Everyman at War" (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
- Multimedia Presentation of Villers-Bretonneux