Book Review: Victory at Villers-Brettoneux

Peter Fitzsimons has vividly recounted the saga of the Australian victory at Villers–Bretonneux in the early spring of 1918. Their victory saved Amiens, a vital rail and road junction for the supply of the British Army. A loss at Amiens would have enabled General Erich Ludendorff to drive a huge gap between the British and French armies.

During the 1917–8 winter both General Sir Douglas Haig and General Petain, were expecting a major German offensive during the spring. Since the 1917 Revolution took Russia out of the war, scores of German divisions had been slowly moving from east to west. The German Army on the Western Front for the first time since 1914 would considerably outnumber their opponents.

However, this advantage could not last long. American troops were already training in France. The Germans must strike early but where? Petain concluded it would be against the French divisions that blocked the road to Paris; Haig felt certain it would be launched against the British, hooking north to try to drive his army into the sea. Both w ere right and both were wrong.

Ludendorff assaulted the British but with an even more ambitious objective than Haig had anticipated. He meant to drive a massive wedge between the British right and the French left and take the vital rail and road junction of Amiens. While that battle was still in progress, another German army would strike toward Arras and the Channel much as Haig had anticipated.

As for the French, their turn would not come until July. Ludendorff’s great attack, involving literally millions of men, and known to the popular press of both sides as the KaIser’s Battle (der Kaiserschlacht) would at long last achieve a war of movement after years of stalemate trench warfare. However, despite an alarming 40–mile advance the Kaiser’s Battle ended in frustrating failure.

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Fitzsimons’ book primarily concerns Ludendorff’s assault toward Amiens, which brought the collapse of Gough’s seriously under–strength Fifth Army. After fierce fighting, Villers–Bretonneux fell, and soon German howitzers would be threatening Amiens and its rail network’. Haig sacked Gough in favour of Rawlinson, while Premier Clemenceau replaced the wavering Petain with the belligerent Foch. Haig, with the Australian General Monash’s wholehearted co–operation, sent Australian troops to save Amiens.

After meticulous preparation the Australians counter attacked in the moonlight on both sides of Villers–Bretonneaux and the pincer movement recaptured the town and killed or captured its invaders. Ludendorff’s ambitious attempt to drive Haig’s Northern wing into the sea fared no better.

Fitzsimons’ well–justified enthusiasm for the Australian heroic counter–attack might persuade his readers the war was all but won. In fact much hard fighting lay ahead. Despite his horrendous losses, Ludendorff could still mount an offensive against the French in July. Fitzsimons’ great strength is his ability to use a distinctive colloquial style, together with mining a rich seam of letters and diaries of both Allied and German participants, to persuade his readers they are sharing the experiences of ordinary Australian and German soldiers.

This is a cracking book. Despite its 700–odd pages I am now hungry for his earlier Fromelles and Pozieres.

Author: Peter Fitzsimons
Publisher: Penguin Random House Australia

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