Light Horse at Villers-Bretonneux  100 years ago

 

By John Boyce RFD with maps and research by Doug Hunter OAM, RFD

Really? Australian Light Horse at the battle of Villers-Bretonneux in 1918?

 

Yes there were. …..and their military awards for that battle included a DCM, an MC, and 3 MMs.

 

Australia’s 13th Light Horse Regt were sent to the Western Front after Gallipoli and became the Corps Cavalry for GEN Gough’s Fifth Army and later the new Australian Corps under Monash. [1]  When the German Spring Offensive broke through on the Western Front in April 1918, this Regiment and its 399 horses had been in Belgium, but was rushed south with the rest of the Australian Corps and provided reconnaissance troops to each Australian Division. When 5th Division was committed to the breach at Villers-Bretonneux on 24th April 1918, BRIG Pompey Elliott’s 15th Brigade was on the northern side of the gap. Preparing to counter-attack, he was told to hold fast while the badly-mauled British 8th Division restored the situation – but they couldn’t and he knew it. What he could still do was set up a reporting centre at his Advanced Bde Headquarters to collate information for a later counterattack by the Australians. Now read on……..

 

The Lighthorse Troop attached to 5th Div was allocated to Elliott’s 15th Brigade on 24 April 1918 and immediately tasked with reconnaissance to confirm the Australian flanks and the location of any British units still nearby. The Officer Commanding, Lieutenant Reid, set up a patrol base 5 kilometres north-west of the village. In daylight, two patrols rode out. With so little other information available, they had to make a personal inspection of all the ground. One patrol (under Lance Corporal Lanagan) located the southern flank of 15th Brigade units, while the other moved from new British fallback positions 3 kilometres west of the village, forward to where there was uncertainty and confusion among scattered British outposts and remnants.

 

Throughout the afternoon of 24th April they combed and probed the battlefield for information, at times under heavy machine gun fire. Mounted patrols were halted at nightfall, but by then a much clearer picture had emerged, as the following accounts show:

 

The Chestnut Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery (in support for the impending counterattack) noted in its War Diary: “Rapidity with which attack orders were got out on 24 inst, made possible by use of well-trained cavalry (Aust Light Horse), who quickly located extent of enemy guns.”

 

Captain A. D. Ellis in ‘The Story of the 5th Australian Division’[2] records: ‘(Brigadier-)General Elliott was forced to chafe in comparative idleness….His Report Centre, however, was doing good work, and largely through its activities reliable information of the position came regularly to hand.

 

The counter-attack by the Australian 13th and 15th Brigades that night was a famous success. However, next morning on 25th April a gap still existed between the two Australian pincers either side of the village……and to the south-east was a German withdrawal corridor of uncertain size.

 

As the morning mist cleared, the Light Horse were again in action, this time to locate the new flanks and assess the gap. One patrol (Lance Corporal Lanagan again) found a Lieutenant Falconer’s platoon beyond the southern extremity of 57 Infantry Battalion’s right flank. The other patrol passed through the westerly British positions and the wood in front of them, into a large gap (it became clear that 13th Brigade were beyond, still some 2 kilometres further south-west). Another patrol (Lance Corporal Blomley) was sent out that afternoon to confirm the precise location of 15th Brigade’s southern flank (taking casualties while doing so). Each patrol successfully withdrew through the village itself, proving that organised German defence there was now lacking.

 

That night, the Lighthorse guided two fresh infantry companies (49 Battalion) more than 2 kilometres through insecure territory to help close the remaining gap between the Brigades. Sergeant Malseed’s Military Medal citation describes the way this was done “in pitch darkness over very rough ground, all the while exposed to very heavy fire”. Meanwhile, other Lighthorse sections were tasked to provide prisoner escort to the rear.

 

In conclusion, as historian Lieutenant Colonel Doug Hunter puts it [3]: “Without doubt the success of the counterattack owed something, perhaps a great deal, to the comprehensive intelligence gathered by small bands of horsemen who crossed and re-crossed the uncertain and inhospitable battlefield.”

 

Footnote: Next day, 26th April, with their job well done, the Lighthorse Troop reverted to Headquarters 5th Division’s control. The Regiment’s War Diary records “Nil (action). Dull day. Light rain.”

Awarded:  

Distinguished Conduct Medal for Lance Corporal F.E. Lanagan

Military Cross for Lieutenant L.V. Reid

Military Medal for Sergeant A. Hollis, Sergeant  R.L. Malseed, & Lance Corporal P.G.Blomley

Above: The 'dancing devil', unofficial badge of the 13th Australian Light Horse

 

 

Right: The 13 Light Horse in France at Braye, August 1918

Footnotes:

[1]Another Australian Light Horse unit also provided Corps Cavalry support on the Western Front: part of 4th LH Regiment and a Squadron from NZ Mounted Rifles became XXII Corps Mounted Regiment.

[2] A.D. Ellis ‘The Story of the Fifth Australian Division’ (Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1920)

[3] D.J. Hunter ‘My Corps Cavalry –A History of 13th Australian Light Horse Regiment 1915-1918’ (Slouch Hat Publications, 1999) p.75