The Somme – Villers-Bretonneux Part One: Villers-Bretonneux Demarcation Stone

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Surprise surprise!  We find ourselves back on the Somme, but not, this time, to explore the battlefields of 1916.  We are heading towards Villers-Bretonneux, where the Australian National Memorial, on what was once known simply as Hill 104, towers above all, some five miles away on the eastern horizon.

It’s about eleven miles from Amiens to Villers-Bretonneaux,…

…the old Roman road (traversing the lower half of the map – Amiens to the far left, Villers-Bretonneaux to the lower right, the River Somme snaking across the centre, the dead straight road in the top left quarter leading out of Amiens north east towards Albert and the battlefields of 1916 – do not forget that much of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, at least from a British perspective, took place along the River Ancre, further north, not the River Somme)…

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…passing land that, as we near our destination, saw the final act in the great German advance in the spring of 1918,…

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…and as the town comes into sight, so too does Adelaide Cemetery, at the far end of the rapeseed field, from where the body of the Australian Unknown Soldier was exhumed in November 1993 and reburied at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

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But we’re not stopping now, although we shall take a look around the cemetery in a later post.

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As we pass the cemetery entrance, this view looks back up the road we have just driven down from Amiens, the Bois l’Abbé on the left of the picture, beyond which, in the Bois de Blangy (see map), British tanks (Mark IVs and Whippets) awaited the Germans on the morning of 24th April 1918,…

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…but more about all that, again, in a later post.  Villers-Bretonneaux itself is not a big town, in fact I am pretty sure the population now is some way short of what it was during the Great War,…

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…and if you drive straight through to the eastern outskirts,…

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…you’ll find one of the ninety six French Demarcation Stones that were erected to mark the furthest advance west achieved by the Germans in 1918.

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All the info on Demarcation Stones can be found here, as I have no intention of rewriting it all!

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By early April 1918, the German spring advance on the Somme that had begun on 21st March was still pushing the retreating Allies west.  The Germans’ objective was the strategically important city of Amiens which, if they could take it, would potentially split the Allied armies in two.

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The First Battle of Villers-Bretonneaux on 4th April saw the Germans come perilously close to taking the town, only last-minute early evening British & Australian counterattacks preventing them from so doing.

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The Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneaux, on 24th April, saw the first ever encounter between tanks of both sides in the fields to the south, and this time the Germans took the town, driving the British back nearly two miles from their positions to the east of the town into the fields to the west, although they had still to take Hill 104, where the Australian National Memorial now stands, a mile or so to the north.  Once they did, or if they did, the views to the west would stretch as far as the spires of Amiens (remember our journey in, and from how far away the memorial was visible), giving their artillery, literally, a field day.

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As the Germans advanced it became clear to the British that the town needed to be retaken before the Germans took Hill 104 and by extension, the whole of the ridge.  Two Australian and two British brigades (the British consisting of the survivors of the previous days’ fighting) were moved hastily forward to counterattack.

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That night at 10.00 p.m., without any preliminary bombardment, and hoping for complete surprise, two battalions attacked south of the Roman road, where they had to deal with German machine guns positioned in the woods to the south west of the town, with three more battalions attacking to the north of the road.  As the men advancing to the north began to wheel south east towards the Roman road on the eastern side of the town, the defending Germans, realising that they were in danger of being surrounded if they remained in the town, began to withdraw.

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By noon on 25th April the net was closed, the last Germans in the town had been killed or captured, and work was already under way to establish a new front line on its eastern outskirts. The Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneaux was over.  It had been a resounding success for the Australians & British, and marked the end of the German offensive on the Somme.  Indeed on 8th August 1918, the opening day of what would become known as the Hundred Days Offensive, the Australians would attack from the eastern outskirts of Villers-Bretonneaux as the Allies advanced over seven miles in one day, one of the most successful operations of the Great War.  The Australians lost some 2,400 men killed, wounded or missing at Villers-Bretonneaux, the British close to 10,000, of whom many were captured during the German advance on 24th April.  German losses also amounted to about 10,000, including those taken prisoner when the town was surrounded.

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All of which begs on obvious, and pertinent, question.  Why, if we know, and it is documented, that the Germans captured the town on 24th April before being forced out the following day, is this Demarcation Stone placed to the east of the town, as opposed to slightly to the west?  Those who prefer the line of thought that suggests that the stones were positioned at points from where the Allies launched their final offensive in August 1918 might say it is in roughly the right place, but you can still make out the inscription ‘Ici fut repoussé l’envahisseur 1918’ (‘Here the invader was brought to a standstill’), despite the attempt to erase it, and the invader was definitely brought to a standstill to the west of the town.

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Although, after the war, Demarcation Stones were erected at Thennes, Moreuil and Grivesnes, all to the south and slightly west of Villers-Bretonneux, all three were destroyed during the Second World War, making, I think, the Villers-Bretonneux Demarcation Stone the furthest west in the whole of France (correct me if any of the stones in the Pas de Calais are further west) – even more so if it was in the correct place!

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Anyway, having dealt with that particular issue, our route now takes us back into Villers-Bretonneaux…

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…from where I suggest we head thataway.

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