First Battle of Villers-Bretonneux
The First Battle of Villers-Bretonneux (30 March – 5 April 1918), was part of the wider First Battle of the Somme (1918), which took place amidst a strong German offensive on the Western Front in the final year of the war. Falling initially against the British troops in the Somme, throughout the month the German offensive had pushed the Allies back towards Paris. The capture of Villers-Bretonneux, being close to the strategic centre of Amiens, would have meant that the Germans could have used artillery there to shell the city. In late March, Australian troops were brought south from Belgium as reinforcements to help shore up the line and in early April the Germans launched an attack to capture the town. Heavy fighting followed which saw the Germans slowly gain the upper hand before a counter-attack by British and Australian troops late in the afternoon of 4 April broke up the attack.
In early 1918, following the capitulation of Tsarist Russia, the end of the fighting on the Eastern Front allowed the Germans to transfer a significant amount of manpower and equipment to the Western Front. With the general position for the Germans looking weak, the German commander, Erich Ludendorff, decided to go on the offensive. On 21 March 1918, "Operation Michael" was launched, and the attack was aimed at the weakest part of the British lines, along the Somme River. By 5 April, the Germans had gained 60 kilometres (37 mi) of British held territory. Two other operations were launched, one near Armentieres, one near Reims. All three operations were eventually halted by the Allies.
In late March 1918, the German army advanced towards the vital rail-head at Amiens, pushing the British line back towards the town of Villers-Bretonneux. In response to the Germans' early advances during the offensive, on 29 March the Australian 9th Brigade, consisting of four infantry battalions, had been detached from the 3rd Division and sent south from Belgium to help prevent a breach of the line in between the British Fifth Army and the French First Army that was positioned to the south.
On 30 March the Germans attacked around Hamel and although this was turned back, they succeeded in making gains around Hangard Wood. Five days later, the Germans renewed their drive towards Villers-Bretonneux. Part of the German attack fell on the centre and left of the French First Army under Debeny. The French line fell back, but a counter-attack regained much of the ground. From north to south the line was held by British and Australian troops of the 14th Division, the Australian 35th Battalion and the 18th Division. By 4 April the 14th Division, around Hamel, had fallen back under attack from the German 228th Division. The Australians held off the 9th Bavarian Reserve Division and the British 18th Division held off the German Guards Ersatz Division and 19th Divisions. The Allied forces were forced to pull back by the retreat of the British 14th Division, where the 41st Brigade had been pushed back for 500 yards (460 m) "in some disorder" and then retired to a ridge another 3,000 yards (2,700 m) back, which left the right flank of the 42nd Brigade uncovered.
The line west of Hamel was reinforced by the arrival of the Australian 15th Brigade. Nevertheless, in the afternoon the Germans resumed their efforts and pushed the 18th Division in the south, at which point Villers-Bretonneux appeared ready to fall. The Germans came within 440 yards (400 m) of the town but Col Goddard of the 35th Battalion, in command of the sector, ordered a surprise late afternoon counter-attack on 4 April, by the Australian 36th Battalion with c. 1000 men, supported by a company from the 35th Battalion and his reserve, the 6th Battalion London Regiment (City of London Rifles). Advancing by section rushes, they pushed the Germans back towards Monument Wood and then north of Lancer Wood and forced two German divisions to retreat from Villers-Bretonneux. Flanking movements by British cavalry and Australian infantry from the 33rd and 34th Battalions helped consolidate the Allied gains. Further fighting around the village took place later in the month during the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux. The attack on Villers-Bretonneux was the last significant German attack of Operation Michael (known by the British as the First Battle of the Somme, 1918). After the failure of the German forces to achieve their objectives, Ludendorff ended the offensive to avoid a battle of attrition.
The 9th Australian Brigade had 665 casualties from c. 2,250 men engaged. German casualties were not known but there were 498 losses in two of the regiments engaged. The 9th Australian Brigade recorded 4,000 dead German soldiers on their front and the 18th Division had "severe" losses and took 259 prisoners from the 9th Bavarian Reserve, Guards Ersatz and 19th divisions.
- Baldwin 1962, pp. 126–140.
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