So it's March of 1918, the World War I is still anybody's game. Well, not the Russian's; they were out of the running thanks to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which had kicked them in the jewels and come on their faces without so much as a "thanks for eating my dick" (or however you'd say that in German). But the Germans were still in it, and the French were still in it, and the British were still in it, and pretty soon the Americans were going to be in it, too, and the Germans were aware of that. The Americans were kind of a problem, actually, because even though the Germans had freed up 50 divisions of soldiers by riding Russia hard and putting it away wet, it was only a matter of time before the--fresh, nubile, etc--American soldiers and supplies allowed the Western allies to overwhelm the German line.
No problem, thought the Germans. We'll just win the war before the Yanks get here.
This was the thinking behind the Spring Offensive, which launched on March 21st, 18 days after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The Germans had to break through the Allied lines in France, outflank the British forces which held the Somme River and access to the English Channel, and then rout the British Army. If they could accomplish this, it was felt, they could force the French to seek terms for an armistice. It's a pretty good plan, right? I mean, there have been worse plans.
A key part of that plan was capturing Amiens, a major rail exchange and a vital link in the Allied supply line. Ten miles east of Amiens is the small village of Villers-Bretonneux (VI-yeh BREH-ton-nur). From the hilltop of Villers-Bretonneux, you can see the spires of the Amiens Cathedral.
Real pretty, ain't it? Real…shellable.
(And did they ever shell. Operation Michael, the main assault of the Spring Offensive, opened at 4 AM on March 21st with an artillery bombardment against the British Third Army. 1,100,000 shells were fired across an area of 150 miles in under five hours. It was the biggest barrage of the entire war. When the Germans scorch earth, they do not fuck around.)
I'd like to say that Villers-Bretonneux held out under siege under impossible odds and remained free thanks to the fighting pluck of the Entente and pure-hearted derring-do, but nope. It fell into German hands on April 24th. The Germans broke through the 8th Division, making a three mile wide gap in the British lines. British High Command was like "oh balls, balls balls balls balls balls balls, fuck the Americans, fuck the French, fuck the Germans twice before breakfast, can somebody hike up that fucking hill and retake that ratspit village before we are all punked to Betsy."
Were you aware that there were Australians in France?
There were Australians in France. And the Australian attack to recapture Villers-Bretonneux was quite possibly the greatest individual feat of the war.
The Australian 13th and 15th Brigades were led by Brigadier-Generals William Glasgow and Pompey Elliot, two unstoppable iron motherfuckers who could tear the arms off bears. Their superior officer--some British guy, of course--ordered them and their men into a suicidal daylight attack against the German position. Glasgow and Elliot decided to...not, do that. (Glasgow actually responded, "If it was God Almighty who gave the order, we couldn’t do it in daylight.") Instead, they launched a surprise attack in the dead of night, with no preparatory artillery fire (which would have softened up the German positions, but also given away the surprise).
The plan was relatively simple, but difficult and dangerous: they would encircle the town in a pincer formation and thereby trap the Germans, who greatly outnumbered them.
Captain Robert Forsyth, medical officer of the 52nd Battalion, recalled:
"I could see a long single line of men standing motionless as far as I could see in either direction, and, as the light faded, the darkness in front started to tap, tap, tap, and bullets whistled round and the line shuffled forward with rifles at the ready like men strolling into fern after rabbits. The whistle of bullets became a swish and patter, and boys fell all round me, generally without a sound."
Much of this ‘swish and patter’ was from enemy machine guns in the Aquenne Wood to their left. Further advance would mean annihilation for the entire Australian unit, if the German gunners couldn't be silenced. So two Australian soldiers--Lieutenant Clifford Sadlier and Sergeant Charlie Stokes--like the beautiful, crazy motherfuckers that they were, charged into the forest, and the German wall of gunfire, and assaulted the artillery nests with grenades.
And it worked. (Later, Stokes would be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, and Sadlier the Victoria's Cross.)
The Australian battalions swept onwards towards the town. One German officer later wrote:
"They were magnificent. Nothing seemed to stop them. When our fire was heaviest, they just disappeared in shell holes and came up as soon as it slackened. When we used Verey lights, they stood still and were hard to see."
The Australians then had to enter the village and fight from house to house. The battle was ferocious. One soldier wrote:
"The first German machine gun crew were either bayoneted or shot. Here and there a Fritz would leap out of the trench or shell hole only to fall riddled with bullets and then to be bayoneted by the boys as they came up."
It took the rest of the following day and into April 26th to recapture the town and force the Germans to withdraw.
Amiens was safe, and would remain so. The failure on the part of the Germans to take it would cause the entire Spring Offensive to grind to a halt. And as the historian of the 5th Division recorded, "No German ever again set foot in Villers-Bretonneux except as a prisoner of war."
1,200 Australians had died defending the village from a German army estimated to be as many as ten times their number. The population of Villers-Bretonneux was only 3,300.
Here's a view of what was left of the Villers-Bretonneux chapel, after the fighting was done.
A year later, the townspeople presented those Australians who were still stationed in their village with a plaque. The mayor of Villers-Bretonneux spoke of the bond between their little town and a far-away continent few of the French would ever see:
"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 chased away an enemy ten times their number … 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."
Hee, "the characteristic dash of their race."
The Australian flag is still flown over Villers-Bretonneux. It flies atop the Australian National Memorial, on which is listed the names of the 10,982 Australians killed in France who have no known grave. The main road that goes through town has been renamed the Rue de Melbourne. There is a restaurant in town called Restaurant le Kangarou. And the school--
The school is called Victoria College, named after this Victoria
Not that Victoria
(Okay, technically they're both named after that Victoria, but you know what I mean; it's in honor of Australia, not the British.)
But what's really cool about Victoria College is that it was rebuilt in the 1920s thanks to money raised by schoolchildren from Victoria. Australian children put aside their own money, penny by penny, to rebuild the school in Villers-Bretonneux after the war. Above every blackboard to this day are the words “N’oublions jamais l’Australie” – never forget Australia.
There's just a little bit more to this story.
In February of 2009, the state of Victoria was scoured by the Black Saturday bushfires. The fires spread across 1.1 million acres (4,500 square kilometers). Many buildings were burned to the ground, including the Strathewen Primary School.
And--here, let me just quote from the article:
"COIN by coin, the students in the small French village of Villers-Bretonneux have raised more than $20,000 to help rebuild a Victorian school razed in the Black Saturday bushfires.
The French students of Ecole Victoria, and three other local schools, knew little about the children they would be helping at Strathewen Primary School. They only knew that their great-grandparents had promised 91 years ago never to forget the 1200 Australian soldiers who died liberating their village from the Germans on April 24, 1918.
They also promised to remember every child in Victoria who donated a penny to help the village rebuild their school after Villers-Bretonneux was flattened in World War I.
This year, the Villers-Bretonneux students held a special fete to raise money for the children of Strathewen. Collection tins were emblazoned with the words, "N'Oublions Jamais l'Australie" -- Let us never forget Australia.
When The Australian [newspaper] travelled to Villers-Bretonneux for Anzac Day, the students of one grade 9-10 class had collected $240. With contributions from the community and one euro donated by the council for every resident in the village, the tally has come as a welcome surprise to Strathewen and its students.
Yesterday, when Strathewen Primary was given 13,000 euros ($21,100) from Ecole Victoria and the other schools of Villers-Bretonneux, a promise almost a century old was honoured."