Today is the day before ANZAC day when I will march with my mates with whom I served in Vietnam. It’s also Villers Bretonneux Day – the day commemorating the liberation of this little village on the WW1 Western Front in 1918.
I have attended my second function held by a local organisation called ‘Friends of the 15th Brigade’ who I came across by accident just recently. They are an enthusiastic group of people who are all in some way connected to this famous WW1 unit. My grandfather (Walter Wilson) fought in the 57th Battalion, one of the four battalions making up the Brigade. He was a sergeant. The 15th Brigade was originally raised in Victoria in 1916 under the command of Brigadier General Harold (Pompei) Elliott. It was made up of four infantry battalions—the 57th, 58th, 59th and 60th Battalions.
Following it’s arrival in Europe, the brigade’s first major action was at Fromelles in July 1916 when they, along with the British 184th Infantry Brigade, were committed to attacking the German positions along the Laies River which were held by the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment. During the battle, two of the brigade’s battalions—the 59th and 60th—were involved in the assault while the other two were held back in reserve. Of the two assault battalions, the 60th suffered the heaviest casualties, losing 16 officers and 741 men, while the 59th suffered 695 casualties. The battle of Fromelles resulted in the Australian army receiving a total of 5,553 casualties in just 24 hours. This was the worst day in Australian military history. It decimated the forces and put the Australians out of action until more reinforcements could be sent from Australia to France.
For the next two and a half years the brigade saw service in the trenches along the Western Front in France and Flanders, taking part in actions at Bullecourt, Polygon Wood, Villers–Bretonneux and along the St Quentin Canal. The pincer movement to liberate Villers Bretonneux was a turning point in the war, as it deprived the German army of high ground from which they could attack the nearby city of Amiens and then move west to capture the channel ports.
The brigade’s final engagement came in early October 1918 when the Australians undertook operations to penetrate the German defences along the Hindenburg Line. By then, the t5th Brigades fighting days were over and the unit was demobilised in 1919. Sadly, Pompei Elliot took his own life after the war, unable to cope with the grief having so many of his men killed in action.
Today’s service was held under a tree in the grounds of the Shrine of Remembrance commemorating the actions of the 60th Battalion who fought their way directly into Villers Bretonneux while the other battalions of the brigade conducted the pincer movement. It was a quiet and moving service with a speech about the Brigade’s actions, the laying of a wreath and a bugler who played the Last Post and Reveille. It was nice to see a colour party of French descendants who sang heartily when the French national anthem was played.
I’m looking forward to attending more commemorative activities of this organisation.