The Somme: Villers-Bretonneux Part Three – Adelaide Cemetery

Adelaide Cemetery was begun in June 1918 by Australian units holding the line at Villers-Bretonneaux.

After the recapture of the town on 25th April 1918, fresh troops replaced the men involved in the battle, the front lines, now to the east of the town, stabilising over the next few days.  Soon, Australian reinforcements were manning the trenches from Villers-Bretonneaux north to the River Ancre, with French troops now installed in the positions to the south.

A lengthy pathway, necessary because at the time the cemetery was in use there was a quarry immediately on our right,…

…leads to the cemetery entrance,…

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…where, once inside, we find a slightly unusual layout,…

…the Cross of Sacrifice angled at 90° to us as we enter,…

…facing the Stone of Remembrance…

…in the cemetery’s south eastern corner.

The plaque on this weathered cross, left lying on the Stone of Remembrance, is inscribed thus; ‘Lest We Forget. St. Andrew’s Catholic College, Cairns, Australia’.

Adelaide Cemetery was begun somewhere around 9th or 10th June 1918 next to the site of an advanced dressing station*, and was used by the 2nd & 3rd Australian Divisions for just two months.

*My guess is that the A.D.S. was sited in the quarry.

Although the German offensive continued until June on other parts of the front, they were unable to achieve the decisive breakthrough that might have ended the war in their favour, and by August it was the Allies’ turn.  The Hundred Days Offensive would begin on 8th August 1918, and the site of Adelaide Cemetery would soon be left far behind the advancing Allied troops, although not before 42 men killed on that first day had been brought the few miles back to be buried here, and a further 29 over the next three days.  Another half-a-dozen men were buried here before mid-September, at which time the cemetery was closed.

Ninety men lay here at that time, all in the first five rows of the cemetery, now part of Plot I (see cemetery plan).

There is a small gap between Plot I (Row E in the left foreground) and the remaining plots, and as the headstones all face the other way,…

…we shall scoot off to the northern end of the cemetery, this view looking due south.  After the war the cemetery was greatly enlarged as bodies were brought here from small graveyards and from the battlefields surrounding Villers-Bretonneaux, all men who died between March & September 1918.  Plot II, on the left here, contains almost exclusively British burials, whilst Plot III, on the right, is made up almost entirely of Australians (the original Grave Registration Report Forms refer to the cemetery as Adelaide British Cemetery, the ‘British’ subsequently crossed out, as you can see below).

There are now 960 burials or commemorations in the cemetery, of which 266 are unidentified, although the regiments or nationalities of quite a number of these unidentified men has been established.

Plot III.  It was in this plot, in this cemetery, on 2nd November 1993, seventy five years after his death, that an unidentified Australian soldier was exhumed and transported to Australia, where he now lies in the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

And the highlighted headstone was once his, the replacement headstone now explaining all.  Pity I was unaware of this at the time of our visit, really.  Moving swiftly on…

…this photograph, left at the base of a headstone in Plot III Row S, shows Private Richard William Chandler, posing with his machine gun.  You will also find his name on the Graves Registration Report Form that you were just looking at.

I view photos like this with some trepidation.  Machine gunners were often given little mercy by opposing infantrymen, particularly if they had just mown down all your friends.  Pity poor Richard.

Plot III again, from the north west corner of the cemetery,…

…and panning left,…

…a look inside this small structure with its fabulous Australian rising sun inlaid above a map and brief history of the Great War on the Western Front (below), and where a seat allows your weary feet a rest.

Four special memorials to men ‘known’ or ‘believed to be buried in this cemetery’.

The cemetery is built, of course, on what was once the battlefield where the actions of 24th & 25th April 1918 took place, when the Germans succeeded in briefly taking Villers-Bretonneaux.

View from the north east corner, the road to Amiens in the distance.  The trees on the far side of the road hid the British tanks who took on their German counterparts during the battle, as we shall see next post.  You can also just see the railway line on the far right that runs past the northern cemetery boundary.

Next to the railway track, the remains of an enamel bowl and some railway detritus – or maybe a piece of a German A7V tank – it is a fact that at some point on 24th April one German tank made its way up the railway track several hundred yards to the west of where Adelaide Cemetery is now sited – so who knows (apart from tank experts).  But always take a look over the boundary wall.  Remember Dantzig Alley!

Unknown Durham Light Infantrymen, all killed on 25th April 1918.  These men may well have survived the German attack on 24th April, only to die during the recapture of the town the following day, the British involvement on the second day being mainly composed of survivors of the first day’s action.  Or perhaps they were cut off at some point on 24th, and died surrounded by hordes of attacking Germans.  Or maybe a single shell put paid to all their hopes and expectations.  We’ll most probably never know.  Whatever happened to them will remain another of the thousands, millions, of untold, tiny, yet tragic, incidents that make up a Great War.

British burials in Plot II Row H.  I do feel that the name of this cemetery is slightly unfortunate, in a way, as I had no idea there were any British burials here until my (clearly rubbish – see the Unknown Soldier earlier) pre-trip research, and the cemetery name rather suggests that this is solely an Australian burial ground –  then again, Toronto Avenue Cemetery, in Ploegsteert Wood, contains not a single Canadian, only Australian burials, and maybe there are other examples of which I am unaware.

Looking west, these fields, the scene of the German breakthrough on 24th April 1918, also the scene of the end of the first phase of their great offensive, when they were forced to retreat the following day. The Lys offensive in Flanders had been ongoing for some time, and the German offensive would continue for another three months elsewhere on the Western Front, but nowhere did they manage to push as far west as they had here.

And so, somewhere along the Amiens-St. Quentin road (built originally by the Romans, you won’t be surprised to hear), and quite likely in sight in this shot, I would think, is the place where the Demarcation Stone that we visited a couple of posts back should be positioned (yep, still banging on about it).

Anyway, time to make our way back to the car,…

…and time to leave Villers-Bretonneaux itself…

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…as we have one more cemetery, a little further south, to visit, before we complete our look around these battlefields.

Next: Tank v tank.

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