Day the Diggers beat the odds
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