100th Anniversary of Villers-Bretonneux

Speech delivered at 2018 Sunset Service by CPL Cheryl Inion.

100 years ago, on the eve of 24 April 1918,  in a well- planned and coordinated nighttime attack, the Australian 13th and 15th  brigades, commanded respectively by Brigadier General William Glasgow and Brigadier General Harold  Elliott, successfully led a British counter-attack to clear the French village Villers-Bretonneux,  of Germans.

The Germans had earlier taken Villers-Bretonneux and were advancing west toward Amiens. The counterattack involved some 3,900 men. Against enormous odds, the Australians retook the town exactly three years after the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli.

The successful counter-attack enabled the later retaking of the strategic French town of Amiens and proved to be a critical turning point of World War One in favour of the Allies.

Villers-Brettonneux did not fall into enemy hands for the rest of World War One.

Both Glasgow and Pompey Elliott were legends in the Australian Imperial Forces.

The Australian plan was to encircle and trap the Germans in a surprise night-time attack, without the use of preliminary artillery bombardment.  Charles Bean, the official World War One historian, wrote at the time:

The courage and purposefulness of the Australian battalions in mounting the night time attack were later described by a British General as…” perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war.”

Charles Bean, who was nearby when the attack happened, wrote in his diary: “I don’t believe they have a chance…went to bed thoroughly depressed…feeling certain that this hurried attack would fail hopelessly.”

Against such overwhelming odds, the sheer grit and determination of the Australians enabled the liberation of a strategic town and as a result significantly altered the course of the Great War in favour of the Allies.

The Australian troops involved in the Battle displayed tremendous bravery, but they also suffered terrible losses.  Some 2,400 Australians died in the battle to recapture the village of Villers-Bretonneux.

To this very day, all these years later, the people of Villers-Britonneux have an abiding sense of gratitude toward Australia and to the brave soldiers who liberated their town from the Germans on April 25 1918.  In 1919 when unveiling a memorial in honour of the Australian troops who died in the Battle, the town’s mayor stated the following:-

The first inhabitants of Villers-Bretonneux to re-establish themselves in the ruins of what was once a flourishing little town have,  by means of donations, shown a desire to thank the valorous Australian Armies, who with the spontaneous enthusiasm and characteristic dash of their race, in a few hours drove out an enemy ten times their number.   He went on to state, that the memorial tablet was …a gift which is but the least expression of gratitude, compared with the brilliant feat which was accomplished by the sons of Australia…Soldiers of Australia, whose brothers lie here in French soil, be assured that your memory will always be kept alive and that the burial places of your dead will always be respected and cared for.”

Image by Taylor Edwards Photography
Image by Taylor Edwards Photography

It is worth pausing to reflect on the consistency and clarity of descriptions, used by others when referencing the Australian soldier’s character and application in the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux. Such characteristics included a spontaneous enthusiasm, force of will, decisiveness and the ability to stand up to senior commanders.

Today, 100 years on, the role Australia played in 1918 is regarded as an important part of the history of Villers-Bretonneux and we should not wonder that such a strong bond has been forged.

The extreme high regard for Australian soldiers who fought is reflected in the graves of over 770 Australian soldiers as well as those of other British Empire soldiers located at the Australian War Memorial in France, located just outside Villers-Bretonneux.

The Australian flag still flies over Villers-Bretonneux and a town hall plaque remembers the events of that night of 24 April 1918.

Every year and now, an ANZAC Day Dawn Services in Villers-Bretonneux marks the anniversary of the battle.

Lest we forget.