The crucial first battle for the French village of Villers-Bretonneux

Lest we forget: World War I Diggers file in ghostly silhouette. Photos: Australian War Memorial
Lest we forget: World War I Diggers file in ghostly silhouette. Photos: Australian War Memorial

APRIL 25 each year means only one thing to most Australians – Anzac Day and the Gallipoli disaster in World War I. Many people, however, are apparently oblivious to the horrific but decisive Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux on April 25, 1918, in which Australians troops helped end World War I.

But almost as significant was the crucial, now almost totally forgotten, first battle for the French village of Villers-Bretonneux on April 4, 1918. That’s when 3000 crack German soldiers broke through the Allied frontline to advance on the village, proposing to rain down shells on the strategic hub of Amiens beyond.

SHELL SHOCK: A wounded WWI soldier, possibly Pte George Masters.

SHELL SHOCK: A wounded WWI soldier, possibly Pte George Masters.

As exhausted English troops retreated in panic, outnumbered men from Australia’s 35th (Newcastle’s Own) and the 36th battalions combined for a furious bayonet charge in the gloom. The extraordinary bold and bloody counter-attack by “madmen with flashing bayonets” routed the terrified enemy.    

Regrouping, the desperate Germans struck again 20 days later, breaking through the British lines to the south in the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux to capture the village this time. A three-mile wide (4.8 kilometre) gap opened in the British lines. Two Australian brigades counter-attacked to finally take back the village and defeat the ‘hun’. It was a tipping point in World War I.

Today, on the outside of the rebuilt school at the French village of Villers-Bretonneux are these words written in gratitude: “Do not forget Australia”. 

“I’ve found a lot of people though seem totally unaware of the vital battles around this French village which blunted the major German offensive. It’s very surprising and disappointing,” Peter Masters, of Newcastle, told Weekender.

“The first big battle meant the German enemy withdrew and a key part of it involved fighting by Australia’s 35th Battalion, also known as ‘Newcastle’s Own’, of which my grandfather Private George Stanley Masters belonged,” he said.

“And yet, it all seems forgotten today. I’m lucky to now have access to his 1917-1919 war diary with sketches. April marks the 100th anniversary of the Villers-Bretonneux battles and the beginning of the end of the slaughter.

“My injured grandfather went to hospital several times, lost mates, he was gassed, shot and shell shocked after once being blown up by an artillery shell. And he was just an ordinary soldier trying to survive,” he said.

“After he was gassed in 1917, he lay unconscious for four days and nights and given oxygen three times a day to keep him breathing.

“He was laid up in hospital for one month with a tube down his throat for three weeks. His insides were twisted in three places because of being blown up by a shell on the Somme front.

“There’s a well-known war photo of a wounded man in a first-aid station staring blankly ahead with ‘shell shock’ (pictured). I’ve been told by a relative that’s George, but I don’t know for sure,” Masters said. 

“George went over the top from the trenches into enemy fire 15 times, but he somehow survived the war. In April 1917, he married his cousin, Maud, in London.

“She followed him back to Australia in 1919 and they lived out their lives at Mayfield. There, George was totally incapacitated from a severe gun shot wound to the back, probably retreating after laying a guide tape in no-man’s land. He’d fought in some major battles of World War I, including Messines and Polygon Wood.

“George never worked again. He was in a lot of pain. He couldn’t get a war pension and the family lived by growing vegetables in their back garden. I remember seeing him when I was about three years old.

“He had a history of going AWL (Absent Without Leave). In his own hand in this diary he says he ‘saw too much’. He died at the age of 63 in 1958 and is buried in Sandgate Cemetery. Maud died in 1955 at aged 59 and is also buried there.” 

The war diary of his grandfather is written both in pencil and faded ink.

“His regimental number was 496, Private ‘B’ Company, 35th Battalion/9th Brigade/3rd Division AIF (Australian Imperial Force). He also fought with the 17th Battalion.

“George enlisted in Newcastle in December 1915 at the age of 21 years. He was a tough character. My dad reckoned he was once a pub bare-knuckle fighter, probably at a Mayfield pub.

“George’s diary belongs to a cousin In Melbourne but I have it on my laptop. I’ll drop in a few of his wartime quotes as we go,” Masters said.

“Like this, from 1917. ‘In the trenches at the Somme near (Bapaume). Up to our waists in mud and shells flying all about us and on Xmas day we had dried bread for dinner and tea with benzine (a volatile liquid derived from petroleum) in it.

“And dead all around us, treading on them and sitting on them. We are in a terrible state. I was in a dugout with water running over me and am wringing wet. We were 14 yards (12.8m) off Fritz (the enemy Germans). We could see them walking about all over.’

Much later, he was in detention and awaiting trial for being 25 days over his allocated furlough.

Then also comes a startling, matter-of-fact admission: “I am up for shooting prisoners and my charge was (only) for shooting at the enemy without King’s permission. But I got out of it alright (sic).”  

Grandson Peter then discovered an extract written by a Dutch journalist and referring to October 3, 1917, the day George was shot and gassed at Polygon Wood.

Describing the carnage, an Australian soldier wrote home: “The dead lay everywhere. The deeper one dug, the more bodies we exhumed. Hands and faces protruded from the slimy toppling walls of trenches. Knees, shoulders and buttocks poked from the foul morass”.

The Germans learned to fear Australians, because they were “reckless, ruthless and revengeful”. This same day, one Anzac Corps took all its objectives and 3900 prisoners. Another Anzac Corps was similarly successful, but took no prisoners.

“Here’s another of George’s entries: ‘On New Year’s eve night 1917 I got blown up. My two mates got killed and I got blown up in the air 20ft (6m), fell into a shell hole and only got a bruise in the small of the back and a little shock. On the Somme and went over 15 times. The last time I got lost and didn’t know whether I was in our trench or Fritz’s. The biggest fright I ever had. I slept in a broken tank all night and crawled in at daylight, about half mile, it took me 3 hours to crawl in’.

Now, Peter Masters and friend Michael Carmody are attempting to raise enough public awareness to erect a small local memorial after 100 years to commemorate the ‘forgotten’ Villers-Bretonneux battles and for the brave, unrecognised soldiers of Newcastle’s 35th battalion.

“With Anzac Day approaching, it’s an appropriate time to raise the subject. A small monument in their memory erected somewhere near the Anzac Walkway above Bar Beach would be great,” Masters said. 

“We need to see if more people can help. And if we fail, well, at least we can say we tried.”