Remarks of the Hon. Michael O’Brien MP, Member for Malvern, on the commemoration of the centenary of the liberation of Villers-Bretonneux
One hundred years ago, on 24th April 1918, the French village of Villers-Bretonneux was captured by the advancing German tank and infantry forces from tiring British defenders.
To the west of Villers-Bretonneux lay the city of Amien, now vulnerable.
At this critical time, the Great War, as it was known, was very much in the balance.
The charismatic Australian general, Harold “Pompey” Elliott, was in command of the 15th Australian Brigade. Pompey was already a legend among his men.
He had been wounded when the ANZACs stormed Gallipoli.
Inspired by his presence, 4 of the men under his command won the Victoria Cross at Lone Pine.
He had seen his troops all but wiped out in the disaster that was Frommelles, where 5,533 Australian soldiers died in just 24 hours of fighting – still the worst loss of life in our nation’s history.
Pompey was known for never asking his men to undertake a task he was not himself prepared to take on. For this, Pompey was loved by his troops.
Pompey anxiously sought permission to launch a counter-attack to retake Villers-Bretonneux, knowing that the more time the Germans had to entrench themselves, the harder they would be to dislodge.
After a delay of critical hours, the approval finally arrived. Pompey’s 15th Brigade was to attack from the north while the 13th Australian Brigade under William Glasgow would advance from the south.
With almost no artillery support and moving in the dead of night deep into enemy held territory, the mission to liberate Villers-Bretonneux was as dangerous as it was vital to the Allied efforts.
The noted Australian war correspondent Charles Bean, who had seen the valour of Australian troops, was still despondent, writing of the proposed counter-attack: “I don’t believe they have a chance”.
The odds were grim.
Despite machine gun fire, despite the Germans having the better positioning in the town and despite fierce fighting that led to 1200 Australian lives lost – Villers-Bretonneux was saved.
In the words of Sir John Monash, Australia’s greatest citizen-soldier, this achievement was “the finest thing yet done in the war, by Australians or any other troops”.
The Germans never again saw Villers-Bretonneux.
This pivotal battle on the Western Front had helped to shape the outcome of the Great War.
1,500 men from Malvern fought in the Great War. 183 of them made the ultimate sacrifice.
Today we remember these men and their families.
We do so in an area that was established under the War Service Homes Act of 1918 to provide allotments for our returned servicemen and their families.
We do so in an area named for the site of that important battle where the bonds between the people of Australia and France were strengthened in blood and sacrifice.
We do so in a state where, in 1927, our schoolchildren raised money for the rebuilding of the school in Villers-Bretonneux – a school that bears a plaque with the inscription “N’oublions jamais l’Australie” – Never Forget Australia.
And that is why we gather today to commemorate.
Lest we forget.
21 April, 2018