Summary of Events
The 1/Sherwood Battalion moved on April 12th 1918, eventually going into the front line on April 19th, at VILLERS-BRETONNEUX. They were relieved on the evening of the 23rd and marched back to reserve billets in BLANGY TRONVILLE. At 3:45am on the 24th the Germans began a frontal assault, under cover of mist and smoke, and had successfully penetrated the Allied lines at VILLERS-BRETONNEUX by 9:30am. The 1/Sherwoods were immediately put under the temporary command of the 23rd Infantry Brigade and were ordered to launch a counter-offensive attack at 10am. Fighting continued until the night of the 27th when the 1/Sherwoods were relieved but the counter-offensive was successful and VILLERS-BRETONNEUX was recaptured with the Germans driven from all their positions. However the toll on the Battalion was heavy and 234 men were officially listed as Killed, Wounded or Missing.
Order of Battle
- 8th Division
- 18th (Eastern) Division
- 58th (2/1st London) Division
- 4th Australian Division
- 5th Australian Division
The Defensive Scheme
The 8th Division was flanked by the 5th Australian Division to their left and the 58th Division to their right, (North and South respectively on the map below).
Behind the front lines a permanent garrison was stationed in VILLERS-BRETONNEUX forming a reserve line extending South along the CACHY Switch. Additionally, two rear lines were formed using existing trench systems; namely the NICHOLAS-BLANGY line and TRONVILLE Switch (shown in brown), and the GLISY line (shown in green).
A comprehensive defensive scheme was issued by the Divisional commander to the Brigade commanders. The key point being the layered defensive lines and the requirement to launch an immediate counter-attack in response to any hostile action by the Germans.
The 1/Sherwoods went into the Front Lines, on the Southern divisional border, on the evening of April 19, 1918 and completed their move by 11:30pm. On the 20th, C Company captured two German prisoners from the German 93 R.I.R. One of them, a Serjeant-Major, stated that a German attack was planned for the early hours of the 23rd April, around 3am. The Battalion positions at 9am on April 21, 1918 were as shown below, (the 1/Sherwoods in yellow at the bottom right).
The reported German attack did not materialize and nothing else of operational note occurred during their time holding the front line. They were relieved by the 2nd West Yorks on the evening of the 23rd April, the last Company reaching the reserve billets at BLANGY TRONVILLE at 2am in the early hours of the 24th. Although they had a relatively quiet time at the front it is worth noting that 9 men and two Officers of the 1/Sherwoods were killed during these few days. Barely a taste of what was to come.
Elsewhere, a deserter and a German prisoner had both reported that an attack on the Allied lines was imminent and likely to be launched in the early hours of the 24th. And so it was that at 3:45am on April 24, 1918 the Divisional positions were as shown in the map below, the 1/Sherwoods having just reached the reserve billets in the rear.
At 3:45am an intense enemy barrage of H.E. and gas opened along the front and reserve lines. At 4am orders were issued to the reserve Battalions to man the reserve lines and by 6:30am the artillery barrage slackened off and smoke was put down by the enemy. The smoke combined with the heavy mist dropped visibility to 20 yards. Out of the mist and smoke came four enemy tanks, at around 7am, which quickly overran the front lines of the 2nd Middlesex and 2nd West Yorks (who had just relieved the 1/Sherwoods). Having no effective answer to the German tanks these front line units were all but decimated. As the surviving front line and 1st reserve men fell back, Germans troops attacked and quickly occupied the Northern edge of VILLERS-BRETONNEUX by 9am, and had progressed to the western edge by 9:30am.
Also at 9:30am, divisional orders were issued that the 23rd Infantry Brigade should launch a counter-attack while the 24th Infantry Brigade consolidated the reserve lines. The 23rd Infantry Brigade HQ requested the support of the reserve Battalion (the 1/Sherwoods) and from this point forward the 1/Sherwoods remained under their command. The counter-attack was launched at 10am, aided by three British tanks.
The counter-attack of the 1/Sherwoods was unsuccessful. They moved in artillery formation (strategically dispersed to avoid widespread casualties from the direct hit of a single shell) along the southern edge of the BOIS L’ABBE before turning north into the wood (approximately where the 2/Devons were dug in). Here they encountered strong resistance from the enemy but nevertheless pushed them back towards the eastern edge of the wood, back towards VILLERS-BRETONNEUX. At this point the Commanding Officer, Lt. Colonel R. F. Moore, MC, DSO was wounded which caused a breakdown in communications resulting in the 1/Sherwoods falling back and then digging in alongside a road running through the woods. Unfortunately, they were hit by a heavy German artillery barrage which caused many casualties. 31 men and one Officer were killed during the day.
* 7 young men, only 18 years old, recently arrived in France and formerly of the 5th Reserve Manchester Battalion were killed in this, their first action.
The Battalion positions at Noon on April 24, 1918 were as shown below.
The gap between the 2/Devons and the northern part of the allied front line remained open until nightfall, the gap ultimately closed through the support of an allied tank. However, during this time German troops had moved through the gap, into the BOIS D’ARQUENNE, and dug in with machine guns and Trench Mortars.
At 10pm on the evening of the 24th April a counter-attack commenced under the command of the 8th Division but comprised of three Brigades of men from other Divisions (13th Australian Infantry Brigade, 15th Australian Infantry Brigade and the 54th Infantry Brigade of the 18th Division). The 13th Australians to attack from the South and the 15th Australians to attack from the North. The 22nd Durham Light Infantry (D.L.I.) were tasked with mopping up resistance with the 15th Brigade in the North of VILLERS_BRETONNEUX, and the 2nd Northants with the 13th Brigade in the South, as the attack pressed forward.
Two men of the 51st Battalion of the 13th Australian Brigade won gallantry awards that night for their actions in the BOIS D’ARQUENNE through which they had to advance to get to the town. Their respective citations are provided below and give some indication of the kind of fighting that took place in the woods that night.
2253 Sergeant Charles Albert (Charlie) Stokes, DCM
During a counter-attack by his Battalion on strong enemy positions south of VILLERS-BRETONNEUX on the night of 24/25th April 1918, this N.C.O. did splendid work when the left flank of his company was held up by heavy enemy machine gun fire. Sgt. STOKES led a section of Bombers against the machine gun positions and succeeded in putting two of the guns out of action and killing the crews. All the section becoming casualties, and finding one other enemy machine gun remained in action, he went forward and using his rifle attacked it single-handed, killing or wounding the crew, and capturing the gun. The Company was able to continue the advance. His gallant conduct was carried out under terrific machine gun fire, and with utter disregard for his own personal safety. On returning to his platoon, he found his Platoon Commander had been wounded and he at once took command and led his men forward. His splendid courage and coolness under heavy fire were an excellent example to all.
Lieutenant Clifford William King Sadlier, VC
On 24/25 April 1918 at VILLERS-BRETONNEUX, Lieutenant Sadlier’s platoon had to advance through a wood where a strong enemy machine-gun post was causing casualties and preventing the advance. Although he was himself wounded, Lieutenant Sadlier at once collected his bombing section and led them against the machine-guns, killing the crews and capturing two of the guns. By this time his party were all casualties and alone he attacked a third enemy machine-gun with his revolver, killing the crew and taking the gun. In doing so, he was again wounded. The very gallant conduct of this officer was the means of clearing the flank, and allowing the battalion to move forward, thereby saving a most critical situation. His coolness and utter disregard of danger inspired all.
By 4am the attack had progressed but the 22nd D.L.I. had still not entered VILLERS-BRETONNEUX and so the 2nd Royal Berks were ordered to assist them which tipped the balance and by early afternoon 400 German prisoners were taken and 100 machine guns captured. The front line was established at the South East corner of the town and the 15th and 13th Australian Brigades linked up successfully (see map below).
Meanwhile the 1/Sherwoods along with the 2nd Middlesex and the 2nd West Yorks were tasked with clearing the remaining Germans from the BOIS D’ARQUENNE, ultimately capturing one Officer, 73 men and a number of machine guns and trench mortars. From the 1/Sherwoods, 17 men and one Officer lost their lives in fighting which must have mirrored that of the Australians.
On the evening of the 26th April the Commanding Officers of the 1/Sherwoods and the 1st Worcesters were brought to Divisional headquarters to receive orders to attack MONUMENT WOOD early the following day. However, when informed of the plan, both C.O.s reported that their units were too depleted and too exhausted to be capable of mounting a credible attack. Fortunately, the Divisional commander agreed, reported this situation to Corps HQ who duly cancelled the attack.
The 8th Division, including the 1/Sherwoods, were relieved from the lines on the evening of April 27, 1918 without further incident, although a handful of 1/Sherwoods still lost their lives due to the attritional nature of their situation.
The following men received the Military Medal for distinguished conduct during the operations at VILLERS-BRETONNEUX during the period of April 24 – 29, 1918.
Additionally, 2nd Lieutenant HARRY GREAVES was awarded the Military Cross.
History of the Great War, Military Operations France And Belgium 1918 Vol-II, BRIGADIER-GENERAL SIR JAMES E. EDMONDS.
Divisional Headquarters, 8th Division, Piece 1678/1-3: Headquarters Branches and Services: General Staff (1918 Jan – Jun).
The Divisional Narrative of events is provided below:
Divisional Headquarters, 8th Division, Piece 1682/1-4: Headquarters Branches and Services: Adjutant and Quarter-Master Gen (1917 Jul – 1918).
Second Battle of Villers-Bretonnuex, the ANZAC Portal.