Villers-Bretonneux and the ANZAC Day Dawn Service
Villers-Bretonneux is a small French town approximately 10 miles east of Amiens, with a population of around 4,000 people. This small town played a crucial part during World War One, being the last line of defence before the city of Amiens, which was a crucial allied base with supplies and transport links to the ports.
In 1918 the Germans launched a massive attack to try and finish World War One quickly. They forced back allied soldiers all over the western front, and tried to take the city of Amiens. On two separate occasions the town of Villers-Bretonneux was the scene of horrific last ditch fighting.
The First Battle of Villers-Bretonneux took place on 30 March to 5 April 1918, when German soldiers pushed British, Australian and French soldiers back to within 500 yards of Villers-Bretonneux, but an amazing counter attack by only 1000 men of the 26th Australian Battalion (led by Colonel J Milne) forced two German divisions to retreat away from Villers-Bretonneux.
The Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux took place on 24 to 27 April 1918. German soldiers with the help of tanks broke through Allied lines, and after the first ever tank vs tank battle, Villers-Bretonneux fell into the hands of the Germans on the morning of 24 April 1918, and they immediately started to push west towards the city of Amiens. The situation was absolutely crucial, as Allied troops performed spontaneous heroics to try and stop the German advance. However an organized counter attack was launched at 10pm on 24 April 1918, with two Australian units (13th & 15th Brigades) taking the lead. The 13th Brigade (aprrox 1,500 men of the 4th Division) would attack the south of Villers-Bretonneux, and the 15th Brigade (approx 2,400 men of the 5th Division) the north of the town in a pincer movement.
The fighting during the counter attack was ferocious, with the Australian soldiers having to charge directly at German machine gun posts. Lieutenant Clifford Sadlier from Melbourne won a VC by attacking a German machine gun post with grenades. Despite taking casualties, the Australians continued to move east and eventually surrounded the town, leaving the German soldiers inside Villers-Bretonneux cut off and surrounded. The town was re-taken on ANZAC Day, 25 April 1918.
Although over 2500 Australian soldiers were killed or wounded, it was a fantastic success, and they had stopped the German advance on Amiens, and had even pushed them backwards. Villers-Bretonneux marked the furthest west the Germans advanced to during 1918, and from this point onwards they were steadily pushed back towards Germany until the ceasefire in November 1918.
The people of Villers-Bretonneux were enormously thankful to the Australian soldiers who helped liberate their town, and strong bonds emerged between Villers-Bretonneux and Australia. The mayor of Villers-Bretonneux unveiled a memorial on 14 July 1919 and said
““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…”
News of the town also reached Victoria in Australia, where many of the killed soldiers had originally come from. After an appeal, the Australian school children of Victoria raised money to help rebuild the local school in Villers-Bretonneux, and still to this day, the school is called “Victoria School” and above every blackboard and in the playground there is a sign saying “Do Not Forget Australia”.
In 1938 a huge Australian memorial was built on the outskirts of Villers-Bretonneux to remember those Australians killed in the area between 1916 and 1918. The memorial lists 10,773 names of Australian soldiers with no known grave. Each year their memorial hosts an ANZAC Day dawn service, which is the largest dawn service outside of Australia, New Zealand and Turkey. Over 5,000 people attending each year, many of whom are the residents of Villers-Bretonneux, who are still genuinely thankful for what these soldiers did almost 100 years ago.
During our ANZAC Day tours, you will attend the ANZAC Day Dawn service at Villers-Bretonneux, and you will have time to visit the memorial. You will also visit the town centre, and visit Victoria School and see the “Don’t forget Australia sign”. We will also take you to Adelaide cemetery, where the unknown soldier of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra used to lie. Finally our professional WWI guides will tell you all about the battle, show you the areas it took place, and answer any questions you may have.
Click Here to visit our ANZAC Day tour page