Thursday, April 24, 2008

ANZAC's & Village of Villers-Bretonneux

At the small primary school in the French village of Villers-Bretonneux is an inscription which reads ''N'oublions jamais l'Australie'' (Never forget Australia).
''Many people may not remember what happened but no one will ever forget, not here, our nations are tied for life,'' says Frenchman Alain Martin, on a plateau surveying thousands of white headstones, many marking the graves of Australian soldiers, just outside the village.
On April 24-25, 1918, the village became the site of the world's first tank battle between the British Mark IV and the German AV7s.
But it was the heroics of Australian troops who won the day and were to forever to be remembered, with a dogged storming of the German trenches that eventually liberated Villers-Bretonneux.
The Australian push, led by a former bank clerk from Queensland, Brigadier-General Bill Glasgow, resulted in the loss of more than 1200 Diggers and for that the town vowed never to forget the sacrifice and to forever honour the men from a nation few locals knew anything about before the battle.
Most Australians know the Anzac legend as being that of the slaughter of Diggers in Gallipoli in western Turkey between April and December, 1915.
The tragic event epitomised the futility and brutality of World War I for Australia but also created a legend and ethos that today defines what it means to be Australian.
Three years later, almost to the day, another battle raged that perhaps only this year will gain the recognition and commemoration it deserves.
William Glasgow was as famous for his daring on various battlefields across the world as he was for being the man to defy the British military masters and, in the process, probably saving thousands of young lives.
At the very least, he saved his men. At the very most, he won a decisive battle that some historians have since claimed swung the war in the Allied favour.
The brigade fought many battles in the ensuing two years but it was at Villers-Bretonneux that it gained an almost mythic status.
The village had been captured from the British by the Germans with an attack using tanks for the first time. The British 8th Division believed the entire Allied line south would fall if the town was not recaptured and numerous attempts were made.
For the British, the village area represented one of its biggest defeats in military history, with 21,000 troops captured in the first 24 hours, including up to eight battalion commanders.
Thousands of others were slaughtered and the remaining troops were about to be pushed back across the Channel.
Then two Australian divisions, the other led by Brigadier-General Pompey Elliot, were moved into position. Glasgow inspected the proposed battle ground where his mainly Victoria-based troops would fight and die, before seeing British 8th Division commander General Heneker.
The men instantly clashed on the proposed tactics of where to begin the push and how.
''Tell us what you want us to do, sir, but you must let us do it our own way,'' Glasgow famously declared.
He also wanted to start the battle at night but the Briton preferred early evening despite the fact the Germans would see the soldiers amassing on their lines.
''If it was God Almighty who gave the order, we couldn't do it in daylight,'' Glasgow exploded at the British officer before they settled on a compromise of 10pm.
''The villagers could be heard calling from one house to another `Les Australiens' ,'' he recalls. ''A few minutes later . . . they began unloading their carts and their furniture was carried indoors again.
An old man said (to an Australian soldier), `pas necessaire maintenant vous les tiendrez' (we don't need to run; you will hold them).''
The fierce attack was a success and the flouting of the rules was later seen by historians as one of the most impressive operations of its kind that occurred on the Western Front.
''Without Glasgow's strength holding his point against the pressure of a hierarchy of commanders, the effort would have been futile.'' Bean claims.
''In the whole of history, we cannot find an army more marvellous in its bravery, and in the war there was none that contributed more nobly to the final triumph.''
French Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch added: ''Although our task was never easy, it was made less difficult by the patriotism and the passionate valour of the Australians, which served as an example to the whole world. That wonderful attack of yours at Villers-Bretonneux was the final proof, if any were needed.
''You saved Amiens. You saved France.
'Our gratitude will remain ever and always to Australia.''