Mighty stand of Hunter’s own wins mission impossible in France

28/03/2019 Posted by admin

A hundred years ago, in France, the forces of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm were poised for their last huge effort to win the long war.

With battle-hardened divisions freed from the Eastern Front by the withdrawal of Russia from the war, the Germans planned to smash the Allied lines where troops, demoralised and bled white by the futile mud-soaked battles of late 1917, waited anxiously for the arrival of fresh reinforcements from the United States.

When the German hammer struck in March 1918, the depleted British forces collapsed and fell into a headlong rout and it seemed at first that the Kaiser might have his way at last.

This was the time when the Australians would win their greatest fame on the Western Front, hurled into the breach to hold the seemingly unstoppable German advance.

In early April at Villers-Bretonneux, outside the city of Amiens, the Australians made their stand, marching through a rabble of retreating English troops to establish and hold a new front line. Despite being massively outnumbered, the depleted Australian battalions – notably including the 35th (“Newcastle’s Own) and the 34th (“Maitland’s Own”) – stopped the Germans in their tracks and bought the Allies the time they needed to plug the gaping hole in their defences.

It was a remarkable double victory.

After the Australians – having saved Amiens from German occupation – were withdrawn and replaced by English troops in Villers-Bretonneux, the Germans attacked and took the village after all.

That was on April 24 and the Australians were sent back on the eve of Anzac Day to challenge the Germans once again. Without waiting for dawn, the Australians mounted an extraordinary night attack, driving the Germans out of the village at bayonet-point before they had to time to organise their defence.

This astonishing action was later described by British Brigadier-General George Grogan as “perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war”.

But victory came at a big price for the Australians. According to the Australian War Memorial, “Newcastle’s Own” 35th Battalion suffered 70 per cent casualties in these battles to stem the German advance.

The following excerpts from the book, The Hunter Region in The Great War, by Greg and Sylvia Ray, described how the historic action appeared to some of the men directly involved.

Ben Champion – just about to turn 21 – was at a training school behind the lines when the news broke:

The alarm bugle went and we doubled on to parade wondering what was the matter. The commanding officer was talking to the adjutant and anyone could see they were perturbed about something. He then told us that he had had rather alarming news and that we were to proceed back to our units immediately. Fritz had broken through on the Somme and all schools were to be closed as this looked very serious.

We were packed into fast lorries and rushed back in a couple of hours. Rejoining the Battalion, Colonel Stacey showed us Sir Douglas Haig’s order of the day: “We are again at a crisis in this war. The enemy has collected on this front every available division and is aiming at the complete destruction of the British Army.”

The official news through is that Fritz is right through Dernancourt and Albert. All the country we once took is gone back to his hands; just imagine the loss to us in dumps of material etc, besides men and guns!

On his way up to the line Champion was wounded by a shell and evacuated to hospital where his leg was amputated. For him, the war was over. After the war he settled in Newcastle, becoming well-known as a dentist and a leading figure in the city’s Local History Society.

According to military historian and war correspondent F. M. Cutlack, Australians were pulled from leave and from reserve to be thrown into the breach left by the collapse of the British 5th Army which had, “by the end of March, disappeared as a fighting force”. Cutlack continued:

Battalions coming back before the German divisions were ragged, mixed-up, had lost touch with their divisions, lost most of their officers, a supply of food and ammunition hardly existed, and they had no organised defence lines on which to retreat. The confusion was too vast for description.

The Australians had no illusions about their turn coming. The enemy was massing in front of the 35th for a blow down the main road to Amiens … in what the British openly believed would be a retreat from Villers.

When news of the German breakthrough came, Australian General R. L. Leane told the men: “There is no front line between us and the enemy. His position is not known. We start at midnight on a 20-mile march toward Albert. We do not even know that the road is clear or whether we can beat him to Albert. We must protect our own flanks and be prepared for anything”.

Former Newcastle apprentice Joseph Maxwell – who ended the war as one of Australia’s most highly decorated soldiers – described the critical days:

A wide gap had been blasted in the Allied line and the enemy had bounded forward a number of miles. At a moment’s notice we were bundled into a train and rushed south pell-mell. Four Australian divisions were raced south in a desperate effort to stem the vast grey tide of the enemy which threatened to engulf our armies and our hopes. It was the most dramatic train journey of our lives.

Every road was choked with refugees, villagers plodding south before that ever-advancing grey tide with its prelude of fire and smoke and destruction … At the sight of the returning Australian columns their faces lighted up. We were cheered, welcomed with wild Gallic enthusiasm. A number turned with us and marched back shouting ‘Vive l’Australien’ towards that ominous grey-black smoke cloud that advanced over hill and valley.

Maxwell wrote that the retreating British troops his unit passed were “utterly demoralised”.

Battalions were disorganised, companies were scattered like chaff, and men were wandering about aimlessly. Our orders were to round them up and attach them to our own companies.

There was no front line. All the organisation that had borne the brunt of the battering for four years had cracked up under this terrible blow … The only line we could find was a string of pot-holes that each held three or four men. Rain was lashing the whole countryside and it was pitch-dark.

At Villers-Bretonneux with the 35th Battalion was railway porter Sgt Cecil Wilfred Howard, who wrote:

We proceeded past the town on the outskirts and up a rise until we crossed a road leading to Abincourt from Villers-Bretonneux. We passed an aerodrome and came to a fairly large cemetery where we halted. Lights could be seen in Abincourt of motor vehicles moving about the streets. I was ordered to move forward, skirmish order, just before dawn and see how close I could get to the town. We had only proceeded about a quarter of a mile when in the early light we ran into machine-gun fire and I ordered “dig in as fast as you can”. I had 14 men, two lance corporals and two Lewis guns.

Howard set up posts about 400m apart in a wheat field and waited. Rumours of movement in the German lines added to the tension, which built for a few days before the storm broke over the Australian lines:

I doubled the sentries as it looked as though the big push would be resumed by the German Army, probably at daylight. It was raining lightly for a few days and we were wet, miserable and cold and we did not have any hot food coming up, only cold bully beef and biscuits and not much of that either.

I was not to know that, just after dusk when the mess orderlies went back for our rations and brought them up to us that night, 3rd April 1918, it was to be our last meal until about midday on the 6th.

April 3 and 4 passed, and Sgt Howard told his men to stand to just before dawn:

I had two Lewis light machine guns, one at each end of the trench, and I was in the centre of the post. We were stunned and amazed to see the thousands of German troops go marching into line on the outskirts of the village and they formed into companies of about 30 men in each line and began to advance en masse of about 300 men in each company and of Division strength. Each mass of men was aimed at each of our four outposts.

All we could see was wave after wave of troops marching down that long hill to crush us, and we only a hatful of forward posts with only the 9th Australian Brigade at our backs.

The sight was amazing to us who lived to tell the tale. Indescribable it was and awesome as we could not visualise any chance of survival – and a cemetery of all places behind my post of 17 soldiers.

Howard saw two nearby Australian posts overcome before his own was forced to withdraw, each man covering the other as they zig-zagged back to the cemetery at their rear. They found the newly consolidated Australian front line and joined in the fight to pin down the next German advance:

Soon it became apparent that the seemingly impossible had happened:

We formed a line again and all was quiet for a while. It seemed incredible to us that 3000 men of the 9th Australian Brigade had actually stopped 30,000 German troops in an offensive, but it proved right.

More brigades of our division who had been held in reserve were now coming forward on our left flank and down near the river. We were almost exhausted and starving. No food came up to us and we only had biscuits and very little water left. We were soaking wet and extremely cold. Our overcoats weighed a ton on our backs.

One of the keys to Australian success at Villers-Bretonneux was good leadership, and one of the acknowledged heroes of the action was Newcastle officer Captain Hugh Connell of the 35th Battalion.

A former schoolteacher and member of the pre-war militia, Connell had already won the Military Cross in 1917, and as the German hammer struck in 1918 he was awarded a bar to the medal for playing a key role in ensuring the Australians held, against all expectation.

According to official records, when the Germans threatened to outflank Australian positions, Connell “personally reconnoitred the ground and cleared up the position”.

“In the later attack by the enemy the same afternoon the troops on our right flank gave way, our own flank fell back, and for a time the position was very critical. Captain Connell gathered up what stragglers he could find and with these denied the enemy entrance to the eastern side of the town until counter-attack could be launched. His resolute courage and determination were a magnificent example to the troops and were responsible to a large degree for the successful defence of the town.”

A witness wrote that Connell, on the morning of April 4, went “from end to end of that thin line of men stretched from the aerodrome to the cemetery without any form of natural cover, giving a word of advice here, one of encouragement there, to men who had for hours held back massed formations of the enemy.”

After Villers-Bretonneux, Connell was promoted to major. Later in the war he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and when he returned to Australia he was elected to the NSW Parliament, representing Newcastle.

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