|Ray Jerrems, Our Genealogist, Historian||
This article follows on from the article in the Jerrems Journal of February 2009 about Jerrems men and relatives who served in the First World War.
In that article I spent a little time talking about Villers Bretonneux, a small town in France where the feats of the Australian troops in April 1918 (described in this article) in liberating the town are still recognised by the townspeople. Later in this article I also describe the Battle of Le Hamel where Americans took part with Australians for the first time.
In recent years Villers Bretonneux has gained a popularity with Australian tourists rivalling Gallipoli, and the Anzac day dawn service at the Memorial north of the town is very well patronised. A number of Journal readers have visited it, and it has a particular connection to the Jerrems relatives because my grandfather served there (and was awarded the Military Medal there) and another relative is buried there.
Famously for Australian visitors, the school and the town's community hall have displayed a sign that has become legendary in Australia: "Do Not Forget Australia". Also indicative are a "Melbourne Street" and an "Aussie Cafe" in the town.
Villers Brettoneaux is 16 km east of Amiens on the road to St Quentin (Amiens is 133 km due north of Paris).
Annual Dawn Service on Anzac Day
The Villers Bretonneux Military Cemetery was established in the early 1920s, and in 1938 King George VI opened a memorial in the grounds of the Cemetery to commemorate all Australian soldiers who fought in France and Belgium during the First World War.
For the last three years there has been a Dawn Service on 25th April (the day that Australians celebrate "Anzac Day") at the Memorial. Previously the only major overseas annual Anzac service has been held at Gallipoli, where about 8,000 Australian visitors assembled this year.
The Villers Bretonneux Dawn Service last year was attended by about 3,500 people waiting patiently for daybreak in freezing temperatures, with only a slightly smaller number this year despite the current economic downturn. Most of the people who attended were Australians, supplemented by the townspeople, with Australian and French dignitaries (including the Town Mayor) in the official party.
Many of the visitors at the Gallipoli and Villers Bretonneux services are young Australians whose relatives, perhaps great grandfathers or great great uncles, served (and possibly died) in the First World War.
But what actually was the Battle of Villers Bretonneux?
The Battle of Villers Bretonneux
The Jerrems relatives connection-William James Blamey
I did not mention William in my previous February 2009 article for the simple reason that I had not heard of him at that stage. His connection with Villers Bretonneux is that he is buried there in the Australian Military Cemetery in Plot III. C. 8, so this is an ideal time to tell you about him.
William was the great uncle of JJ reader Brian Harrison, being Brian's maternal grandmother's brother. His grandmother was Norah Harrison.
Born in Cornwall, William migrated to Australia and later enlisted at the age of 39 in June 1916 while working as a miner at Mt Morgan in Queensland. He went to France as a reinforcement for the 11th Machine Gun Company. After being transferred to the Third Machine Gun Battalion as a Vickers gunner he was wounded, gassed by a gas shell and suffered from shell shock. After he recovered from this in hospital, a month later (on 4th July 1918) he was killed by shellfire in the Battle of Le Hamel (also called Hamel). This was a very successful attack by the Australians, who suffered much lower casualties than usual, so one might say that he was particularly unlucky to be killed. Initially he was buried in the Le Hamel area but later his grave was relocated to Villers Bretonneux.
It is possible that William was earmarked for machine gun duty because he was fairly big in build for those days (5 foot 8 inches and over 11 stone) and had been a miner. These were ideal attributes for a Vickers gunner because (depending on the number of attachments) the gun itself weighed 25-30 pounds (11-13 kg), the stand weighed 40-50 pounds (18-23 kg) and an ammunition box holding 250 bullets on a belt (a 30 second supply) weighed 22 pounds (10kg). These had to be carried over broken ground as fast as possible to set the weapons up and replenish the ammunition.
Machine gun battalions (formed in 1918) had a strength of about 50 officers and 870 other ranks, equipped with 64 Vickers machine guns. My mathematics indicates that for each gun there were at least 13 men, two of whom carried the gun and stand and the rest presumably relayed the boxes of ammunition.
Above is a photograph of his original grave.
The second Jerrems connection -my grandfather
Coming back to the Battle of Villers Bretonneux, my grandfather (Edward Smith) was a stretcher bearer in the 13th Field Ambulance. He was awarded the Military Medal for gallantry occurring on the 21st April (when the night attack commenced) so he must have been just behind the first wave of Australia infantry attacking along the northern side of the town. The stretcher bearers would have had no shelter from natural features or from the usual shell holes and remains of old trenches left over from previous battles, so they would have risked being hit by the machine gun fire aimed at the Australian troops ahead of them, while attempting to tend the casualties out in the open.
My grandfather told me that his companions refused to move from a shelter they had found, waiting for the fighting to move further on, out of machine gun range. But he went out by himself simply because the cries of the wounded "would have sent me mad if I had stayed behind", he said. Probably wearing a great coat in the cold, he said that he later found bullet holes in his clothes!
The Last Post
I hope you have found this article to be informative. Incidentally I would be surprised if any UK or US readers had ever heard of the Battles of Villers Bretonneux or Le Hamel before reading about them in the Jerrems Journal.
In the broad scale of the war on the Western Front they were not a big deal, but (as I said earlier) they have become part of Australian folklore.
My grandfather (Edward Smith) and his brother
Past Editions of the Jerrems Journal ©
Back to Jerrems Home