The other Battle of the Somme

The anniversary of one of Britain's most calamitous military defeats is to pass unmarked – except in Australia. John Lichfield reports from a little bit of France that is forever Down Under
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The Independent Online

Ninety years ago this Easter weekend, the British Army suffered a terrible defeat on the Somme. Fifty German divisions advanced through thick, freezing fog and overran the partly finished British defences. More than 21,000 British soldiers were captured in the first 24 hours, including eight battalion commanders, one of the most calamitous days in Britain's military history.

There were no commemorations to mark the event: no speeches, or flags, or marching bands. The battles and the four months of fighting which followed are relatively little remembered. This was not the famous, or infamous, Battle of the Somme. That happened almost two years earlier from July to November 1916. The Easter Offensive of 1918 was a final, desperate throw of the dice by the German high command: an attempt to knock a supposedly demoralised British Army out of the war before American troops arrived in sufficient numbers to end four years of brutal stalemate on the Western Front.

The titanic, savage struggles which ended the Great War 90 years ago have not been pounded into popular memory in the way of the even more terrible battles of 1916 (Verdun, the Somme) and 1917 (Arras, Chemin des Dames, Passchendaele). The events of nine decades ago are still remembered with great reverence, however, in one country far, far away from the flat, dreary plains of the southern Somme. As the result of the battles of March-April 1918, there is one small town in northern France which remains forever Down Under.

After those first disastrous days on 21 and 22 March 1918, the British Army eventually recovered and slowed the German advance. Nonetheless, over the following month, the Germans made huge gains by First World War standards. On 24 April 1918, they captured, at the second attempt, the small town of Villers-Bretonneux, just to the east of Amiens. If the Germans could push a little to the west and capture the capital of Picardy, they could, in theory, roll up the Allied lines from the south and push the British armies back into the sea.

The stop-start German advance through the Somme was finally halted in a night-time battle in and around the town on 24-25 April. The counter-attack included more than 1,000 British troops but the real damage to the Germans was inflicted by about 3,000 Australians, some of whom had previously fought at Gallipoli in 1915 and in the 1916 battles of the Somme. The fighting also included the first tank versus tank battle in history.

Four months later, in early August 1918, the Allied armies began a general advance, starting with an offensive close to the line where the Australians had stopped the Germans east of Amiens. The offensive ended with the German surrender at the Belgian border three months later.

Villers-Bretonneux has gone down in Australian history, next only to the Gallipoli campaign, as the great symbol of Australian sacrifice and heroism in the First World War. To this day, the small Somme town (population 3,975) remains an honorary fragment of Australia.

Villers-Bretonneux is the only place in France whose official symbol is a kangaroo. A local sports club is called "the Koalas". The Victoria school in the town, rebuilt with Australian money in the 1930s, still has above each of its blackboards the inscription: "N'oublions jamais l'Australie" (Never forget Australia).

The town is also the site of Australia's national memorial to all the fighting on the Western Front, which is engraved with 11,000 names of Aussie soldiers, killed in 1916-18, whose bodies were never found.

In the week running up to 25 April this year – which is by coincidence Anzac Day – the Australian government, the town and the département of the Somme have organised a large programme of concerts, films, dawn services and commemorations in Villers-Bretonneux. Senior government figures from Canberra and thousands of Australians are expected to attend.

Did Australia "win" the First World War at Villers-Bretonneux, or at least prevent it from being lost? Not exactly, although some accounts have come close to making this claim. The mostly Australian counter-attack in Villers-Bretonneux was a pivotal moment in the battles of 1918 but not the only rearguard action of its kind. The German offensives raged on, to the north and the south, against the British and the French, deep into July.

All the same, the terrible battles of March and April 90 years ago deserve to be better remembered. So does the story of Australia, and New Zealand's, contribution to the fighting on the Western Front.

In the rest of the world – even to many younger Aussies – Australia's role in the First World War has come to be associated with cruel memories of the fruitless campaign in Gallipoli, in western Turkey from April to December 1915. Almost 80,000 Australian and New Zealand troops died on the Western Front in Belgium and France in 1916-18. This is seven times more than were killed in Turkey.

Bernard Vaquez of the Franco-Australian museum in Villers-Brettoneux, says: "Memories of the First World War are somewhat elastic in France. Younger people especially, don't take so much interest these days. The same is not true for Australians, it seems. It has always been very moving to me to see how much this town still means to a country so far away."

"In the course of last year, we had 6,000 Australian visitors, young and old, and not all of them wealthy by any means. We expect many more this year. For the events leading up to the 90th anniversary of the battle of Villers-Bretonneux on 25 April, every hotel for 80 kilometres around has been booked up with Australians for months."

"It seems a shame to me that the French, and the British, pay so little heed to this battle and, indeed, to all the fighting of the spring of 1918. We get few British visitors to the museum. They all go to the other Somme battlefield. This is understandable but these were, after all, the battles which prepared the way for the end of that terrible war."

Just how significant was the battle for Villers-Bretonneux?

The Somme battles of March and April 1918 began 90 years ago just east of the département of the Somme proper with the largest German offensive since Verdun in 1916: the so called Kaiserschlacht or "Kaiser's Battle". With the collapse of Russia and the Eastern Front in 1917, the Germans saw an opportunity to end the war before the huge resources of the United States could be mobilised. Fifty German divisions – around 500,000 men – were moved from east to west.

The Germans attacked on a broad front from Arras to Saint Quentin. In the southern part of the battlefield, aided by thick fog and inadequate British defences, the Germans made a complete breakthrough. "This was no longer the enthusiastic, band-of-brothers British Army of 1916," says Martin Middlebrook, author of The Kaiser's Battle, the classic book on the fighting of 21-22 March 1918. "This was a conscript army, in other words these were the men who had not volunteered in 1914-15. Many of them had already been through the misery of Passchendaele and Cambrai in 1917. If it had not been for the fog, things might have been different. But many of the British defenders, holding redoubts or strong points rather than continuous trench lines, found themselves cut off by the German advance. Some fought bravely. Others surrendered in droves."

In the next few days, defeat threatened to turn into a rout. The British Army eventually held back the grey tide, helped by Australian and New Zealand battalions deployed as "shock" troops. The official Australian history, written after the war, is scathing in places about the performance of some British soldiers. It describes French civilians fleeing in panic but then returning to their homes when they discovered that Australians were moving into the line.

"The villagers could be heard calling from one house to the other, 'Les Australiens'," the official history records. "A few minutes later ... they began unloading their carts, and the furniture was carried indoors again. An old man said to (an Australian soldier) "Pas necessaire maintenant-vous les tiendrez." ("We don't need to flee now. You will hold them.")

This is perhaps exaggerated. Many British battalions fought desperately to hold back the Germans. There is no doubt, however, that Australian and New Zealand troops played a leading part in blunting the German attack. The main German advance was, in fact, halted on 4 and 5 April, also at Villers-Bretonneux, by a mixture of British and Australian battalions.

Most historians now regard the successful German second attack on Villers-Bretonneux on 24 April as the last gasp of a Somme offensive which had already run out of steam. A celebrated battle cry issued by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig on 11 April – "With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight to the end" – is sometimes associated with the desperate fighting in the Somme. Mr Middlebrook points out that it was actually prompted by fears of a German drive to the sea in a second offensive much further north, around Ypres in Belgium, from 9 April.

"If there was ever any real threat of Britain being knocked out of the war it was up there. The sea was, after all, much closer," Mr Middlebrook said.

To Australia, the Villers-Bretonneux battle remains, nonetheless, the great symbol of Aussie tenacity and sacrifice on the Western Front. The Australian 13th and 15th brigades – about 3,000 men in total – counter-attacked in darkness, almost encircling the town and permitting its recapture the next day.

The diary of Captain Forsyth, an Australian medical officer, describes the attack.

"The lights [flares] died out and I plodded forward with a thin line of men about me into the dark ... 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."

The current Australian military attaché in Paris, Colonel Felix Skowronski, argues that the battle was important, both symbolically and strategically. "The Germans were trying to do what they did successfully in 1940, to separate the French and British armies and push the British back to the sea. The two battles in Villers-Bretonneux put an end to that.

"Gallipoli will always remain an important part of the Australian psyche but Australians are now also beginning to understand, more widely, the country's contribution to the fighting on the Western Front. Villers-Bretonneux is special because we maintain such close contact with the people for whom we fought, in the place where we fought. We maintain excellent relations with local people on all our former battlefields but Villers-Bretonneux has an enormously strong sense of attachment to Australia. VB is unique."