21 August, 2007
It's a four hour drive from Amsterdam to the Somme. We spent the weekend following the WWI Australian troops, from battle to battle.
What we discovered was - the Australians won WWI.
The old diggers were right.
In the First World War, on 24 April 1918, the small town of Villers-Bretonneux was the site of the world's first battle between two tank forces: three British Mark IVs against three German A7Vs. The Germans took the town, but that night and the next day it was recaptured by 4th and 5th Division of the AIF at a cost of over twelve hundred Australian lives. The people of Villers-Bretonneux remain indebted to Australia for this feat.
The town's mayor spoke of the Australian troops on 14 July 1919 when unveiling a memorial in their honour:
"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 drove out an enemy ten times their number...They offer a memorial tablet, a gift which is but the least expression of their gratitude, compared with the brilliant feat which was accomplished by the sons of Australia...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..."
The Australian War Memorial in France is located in Villers-Bretonneux and in front of it lie the graves of over 770 Australian soldiers, as well as those of other British Empire soldiers involved in the campaign.
The school in Villers-Bretonneux was rebuilt using donations from school children of Victoria, Australia (many of whom had relatives perish in the town's liberation), and above every blackboard is the inscription "N'oublions jamais l'Australie" (Never forget Australia).
The annual ANZAC Day ceremony is held at this village on Anzac Day, 25 April, each year. Traditionally, Australian commemorations have focussed on Gallipoli. However, the 2008 ANZAC Day commemoration focussed on the Western Front, and a special dawn service marking the 90th anniversary of the battle of 24/25 April 1918 was held on Anzac Day itself at Villers-Bretonneux.
By early 1916, recruiting in Australia had made it possible to replace the ANZAC losses. The AIF in Egypt was expanded to four divisions with a fifth being raised in Australia. The overseas divisions were organised into I ANZAC Corps (1st and 2nd Australian Divisions, and the New Zealand Division) and II ANZAC Corps (4th and 5th Australian Divisions).
Beginning in March the troops were moved to France, and by July and August were heavily involved on the Western Front. The 5th Division was the first to engage the Germans on 5 July 1916 in a small but bloody engagement at Fromelles in northern France. Shortly after, the 1st, 2nd and 4th Divisions became embroiled in the first Somme offensive, at Pozieres and Moquet Farm.
3rd Division now entered the war and went on to perform extremely well under pressure.
In the following year, 1917, the Australians were again heavily engaged, in March at Bapaume, in May and June at Bullecourt and Messines, and from September to November in the great battles of the Ypres offensive - Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Poelcapelle and Passchendaele.
In March and April 1918, the Australian Corps took a prominent part in preventing the capture of Amiens, Hazebrouck and Villers-Bretonneux, during the German 'Michael' offensive. During the final allied offensives of the war, it was engaged at Mont St Quentin and Albert, and in the penetration of the Hindenburg Line.
The AIF strength in France was maintained at some 117,000 men.
(source no longer online)
What you can't see in the photos is the bullet holes in the marble from the fighting in WWII when the fighting passed through the region again.
(the original images and website that this info comes from is no longer online so they have been replaced with new material. Ed)