One hundred years ago this week, on the 24th of April 1918, the Germans renewed their attack with their biggest use of tanks in the First World War. Their objective was the medieval French village of Villers-Bretonneux. One of the German tanks was called “Mephisto” after a demon in Germanic literary tradition, and the world’s first tank-on-tank battle ensued. By mid-morning the Germans had captured the village from its British defenders, while the Australians – who had fought so hard to keep the town just weeks before – were being rested.
The Australians were rushed back into action, and my family was in the thick of it. Regimental quartermaster sergeant Frank Barclay Lorrain established a walking wounded dressing station on the main road from Villers-Bretonneux. Once the fighting started, he was kept busy. So too was sapper Albert Cottier, the dispatch rider rushing instructions between command posts.
The Australia counter-attack was unsupported by artillery in an unconventional night advance against a vastly larger opposition. The Australian 13th Brigade moved from the south, and the 15th Brigade from the north. The first few hours of that night, and the early hours of the morning, were the most important in Australia’s military history. If the German advance wasn’t reversed, the war could be lost.
Sergeant Lindsay Malseed of the Australian Light Horse was attached to General Pompey Elliott’s 15th Brigade. You can see him sitting proudly on horseback in the family photo above. Throughout that night, Lindsay was constantly under heavy fire. He guided the attacking brigades back and forth over the ground called Monument Wood, as his life remained at the whim of fate with machine gun fire, high explosive shells, and shrapnel spewing death all around him.
Lindsay’s actions that night were recorded by his lieutenant Leonard Reid, who had earlier led a party including Lindsay in reconnoitering the battlefield. The account was signed off by Pompey himself.
“This N.C.O. repeatedly exhibited great coolness and initiative under heavy fire while in charge of patrols during the enemy attacks on the village and during our counter attack. On the night of 25th April he acted as guide for Infantry from the 13th Australian Infantry Brigade to fill the gap between the 15th Australian Infantry Brigade and the Brigade on their left. The journey from one flank of the Brigade to the other had to be performed in pitch darkness and over very rough ground, all the time exposed to very heavy fire.
The success of this movement was largely dependent on the coolness and judgement of this N.C.O., and his conduct is worthy of the highest commendation.”
Lindsay was awarded the Military Medal for gallantry. He also got a close up look at Mephisto in battle conditions. That’s the German tank that today is the rarest in the world, and a valued relic of the Queensland Museum.
By the end of the 25th of April 1918, Villers-Bretonneux was back in Australian hands. Germany never threatened the town again.
The school in Villers-Bretonneux was rebuilt using donations from school children of Victoria, the western district of which is home to Lindsay Malseed. Above every blackboard is the inscription, “N’oublions jamais l’Australie” (Let us never forget Australia).
The emotional and tangible ties between Villers-Bretonneux and Australia – the memorial, school, museum, plaques, street names, kangaroo motifs, annual Anzac Day commemoration – are akin to deep spiritual significance, and materialise the national importance of the battles there. They prove the promise of the townspeople never to forget the 1,200 Australians who died defending their town in April 1918. The Villers-Bretonneux mayor later presented a tablet, and stated what his townsfolk continue to think to this very day.
“The first inhabitants of Villers-Bretonneux to re-establish themselves in the ruins of what was once a flourishing little town have, by means of donations, shown a desire to thank the valorous Australian Armies, who with the spontaneous enthusiasm and characteristic dash of their race, in a few hours chased an enemy ten times their number … Soldiers of Australia, whose brothers lie here in French soil, be assured that your memory will always be kept alive, and that the burial places of your dead will always be respected and cared for.”
This month a new interpretation centre about Australia’s role in the Great War will open at Villers-Bretonneux. The Sir John Monash Centre – named after the great Australian general whose innovative strategies did more to end the war than most – tells Australia’s story of the Western Front in the words of those who served.
This Anzac Day on Wednesday the 25th of April, I’ll be remembering cousin Lindsay Malseed by wearing the Military Medal awarded to him for his pitch darkness heroism in that landmark battle precisely a century ago.