Day the Dig­gers beat the odds

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald

rit­ing about de­feats is an hon­ourable and nec­es­sary part of any war his­to­rian’s job, but it’s re­fresh­ing to read about a vic­tory. Vic­tory at Villers-Bre­ton­neux is the third in­stal­ment in Peter FitzSimons’s fine tril­ogy about the ex­pe­ri­ences of sol­diers on both sides in World War I.

Hav­ing pre­vi­ously writ­ten about Gal­lipoli and the twin bat­tles of Fromelles and Pozieres, FitzSimons now deals with what was ar­guably the An­zacs’ great­est tri­umph, the sec­ond bat­tle of Villers-Bre­ton­neux, a pic­turesque French town blighted by war.

As with the first two books this tril­ogy, and in­deed with most of his books for the past decade, FitzSimons has re­lied heav­ily on re­searchers, many of whom have worked with him, and with each other, for many years.

Pri­mary sources have been richly mined and many his­tor­i­cal stud­ies have proved in­valu­able, none more so than the work of renowned war correspondent and ed­i­tor of the 12-vol­ume of­fi­cial war his­tory, CEW Bean, par­tic­u­larly his di­aries and note­books.

This finely pro­duced book con­tains 44 de­tailed and maps, which are ex­tremely use­ful in help­ing read­ers ne­go­ti­ate the of­ten densely lay­ered text. The lat­ter is made more dif­fi­cult to de­ci­pher by the con­stant rep­e­ti­tion of the phrase “of course”. Edi­tors take note.

There are a num­ber of ex­cel­lent il­lus­tra­tions, in­clud­ing 37 high-qual­ity black-and-white pho­to­graphs. These range from a poignant photo of three messenger dogs and their han­dler and one of the ru­ined church of Villers-Bre­ton­neux to two por­traits of Ger­many’s most suc­cess­ful World War I fighter pi­lot, Man­fred von Richthofen, the so-called Red Baron, who is cred­ited with shoot­ing down 126 air­men in 80 air­craft. As FitzSimons notes, af­ter von Richthofen was killed on April 21, 1918, Al­lied sol­diers hon­oured him with a 14-man fir­ing party.

The most telling im­ages in this of­ten har­row- ing book are those of a group of An­zacs suf­fer­ing the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects of mus­tard gas; an­other of four lines of Ger­man pris­on­ers cap­tured by Aus­tralian troops; and, most mov­ingly, a con­tem­po­rary pic­ture of French chil­dren tend­ing the graves of fallen Aus­tralians at Ade­laide Ceme­tery in Villers-Bre­ton­neux.

Vic­tory at Villers-Bre­ton­neux is a work of sus­tained schol­ar­ship that places the two cru­cial bat­tles in his­tor­i­cal con­text. Not least, FitzSimons ex­plains that af­ter the over­throw of the pro­vi­sional gov­ern­ment and the Bol­she­vik vic­tory in Novem­ber 1917, Vladimir Lenin de­creed that Rus­sia was to play no more part in “this cap­i­tal­ist war”. As a re­sult, the Al­lies be­came acutely aware that Ger­many had a mil­lion troops to move from the East­ern to the Western Front, giv­ing it con­sid­er­able su­pe­ri­or­ity in man- power. How­ever, the US, hav­ing en­tered the war, was in the process of send­ing two mil­lion sol­diers to boost the Al­lied forces.

Real­is­ing its only hope was to strike first, on the morn­ing of March 21, 1918, the Ger­man high com­mand hurled two mil­lion troops across a 45-mile (72km) front with the aim of split­ting the Bri­tish and French forces. The pri­mary aim was to ad­vance to Villers-Bre­ton­neux, from which for al­most a fort­night the Ger­mans rained ar­tillery on the strate­gic city of Amiens, with its vi­tal rail­ways run­ning to the north­ern sec­tor of the Western Front. This was in or­der to throt­tle Al­lied sup­plies.

But then, an­swer­ing the call of the com­man­der of the Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force, Dou­glas Haig, to halt the Ger­man on­slaught, Aus­tralian troops man­aged not just to hold the line but, in an his­toric coun­ter­at­tack, to force many of the Kaiser’s top-line troops to flee and sur­ren­der. This great mil­i­tary vic­tory came three years af­ter the tragedy of Gal­lipoli.

It is truly re­mark­able that on Anzac Day 1918 an at­tack­ing force of no more than 6000 Aus­tralians over­came 10,000 Ger­man sol­diers hold­ing Villers-Bre­ton­neux. In­deed, on the evening of April 25, 1918, Bri­tish gen­eral Henry Rawl­in­son wrote in his di­ary: “The Aus­tralian counter-at­tack … suc­ceeded be­yond my ex­pec­ta­tions. We have, by dusk, re­cap­tured the whole of Villers-Bre­ton­neux ... The 15th and 13th Aus­tralian brigades did bril­liantly, es­pe­cially the for­mer, at­tack­ing round the north of the vil­lage. … The counter-at­tack was ex­ceed­ingly well car­ried out by the Aus­tralians.”

A Ger­man of­fi­cer later re­called: “Noth­ing seemed to stop the Aus­tralians. When our fire was heav­i­est, they just dis­ap­peared in shell holes and came up as soon as it slack­ened.”

“So ended hap­pily,” noted the Bri­tish com­man­der of the 23rd Brigade, Ge­orge Gro­gan, “what, at one time, threat­ened to be a se­ri­ous dis­as­ter to the Bri­tish lines in France, and which was only averted by Aus­tralian val­our and Aus­tralian arms.”

The mag­nif­i­cent vic­tory at Villers-Bre­ton­neux de­serves to be re­mem­bered and this ad­mirably well-con­structed book does just that.

is emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of his­tory and pol­i­tics at Grif­fith Univer­sity and au­thor of 39 books.

Aus­tralian cor­po­ral James Coull with messenger dogs near Viller­sBre­ton­neux in 1918

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.