by Evelyn McKechnie
One of the locations in the Great War Battlefields of the Western Front app is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Villers-Bretonneux Cemetery. It has a commanding vista with wonderful views over the French countryside.
There are 2,142 Commonwealth servicemen of the Great War buried or commemorated, 609 of those are unidentified. The cemetery also contains the graves of two New Zealand airmen of the Second World War. Of the 779 Australians buried, 47 are unidentified.
Villers-Bretonneux is where the German advance on Amiens was ended by the Australians on 24th April 1918. The cathedral city of Amiens was the main railway hub supplying the Allies with fresh supplies of troops and materials from the channel ports. The German intention was to capture the strategically important area of Amiens and split the allied armies, weakening them to a point where a combined counter-attack would not be possible.
The Germans had launched their Spring Offensive, ‘Operation Michael’ on 21st March 1918. It had been preceded by the most ferocious artillery bombardment the world had ever known up to that point in time. The British were in full retreat and the Germans made great advances, sweeping over all the old battlefields of the Somme that had cost so much blood in 1916.
By nightfall on the 24th April 1918, the Germans had captured Villers-Bretonneux. This brought Amiens into range for artillery shelling from Hill 104. It was imperative to the defence of Amiens that Villers-Bretonneux was recaptured and later that night two Australian brigades launched a successful counter-attack.
The ‘Hundred Days Offensive’ was the final period of the Great War during which a series of offensives was launched against Germany on the Western Front from 8th August to 11th November 1918. On the 8th August 1918, The Battle of Amiens commenced with the 2nd and 5th Australian Divisions advanced from its eastern outskirts of Villers-Bretonneux with British and Canadian troops
Such were the gains of the Allies that General Erich Ludendorff called it the ‘black day of the German Army’ when thousands of Germans were killed or captured.
There is one Victoria Cross Recipient, Lieutenant Jean Brillant VC, of the 22d Battalion Canadian Infantry who died 10th August 1918. His grave is: VIA B 20 (Note that VIA is near the cross – it is not Plot VI)
His citation reads:
“For most conspicuous bravery and outstanding devotion to duty when in charge of a company which he led in attack during two days with absolute fearlessness and extraordinary ability and initiative, the extent of the advance being twelve miles. On the first day of operations shortly after the attack had begun, his company’s left flank was held up by an enemy machine gun. Lt. Brillant rushed and captured the machine-gun, personally killing two of the enemy crew. Whilst doing this, he was wounded but refused to leave his command. Later on the same day, his company was held up by heavy machine-gun fire. He reconnoitered the ground personally, organised a party of two platoons and rushed straight for the machine-gun nest. Here 150 enemy and fifteen machine-guns were captured. Lt. Brillant personally killing five of the enemy, and being wounded a second time.
He had this wound dressed immediately, and again refused to leave his company. Subsequently this gallant officer detected a field gun firing on his men over open sights. He immediately organised and led a “rushing” party towards the gun. After progressing about 600 yards, he was again seriously wounded. In spite of this third wound, he continued to advance for some 200 yards more, when he fell unconscious from exhaustion and loss of blood. Lt. Brillant’s wonderful example throughout the day inspired his men with an enthusiasm and dash which largely contributed towards the success of the operations.”
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