Lt. Clifford William King Sadlier V.C.

24th - 25th April 918, at Villers-Bretonneux, France.

Citation: For conspicuous bravery during a counter-attack by his battalion on strong enemy positions. Lt Sadlier's platoon, which was on the left of the battalion, had to advance through a wood where a strong enemy machine-gun post caused casualties and prevented the platoon from advancing. Although himself wounded, he at once collected his bombing section, led them against the machine-guns, and succeeded in killing the crews and capturing two of the guns. By this time Lt Sadlier's party were all casualties, and he alone attacked a third enemy machine-gun with his revolver, killing the crew of four 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.
(London Gazette: 11th July 1918.)

The fighting around Villers-Bretonneux resulted in the award of four V.C's to the A.I.F. during the period April to August 1918. (See also Brown, W.E., Borella, A. C. and Gaby, A. E.) Sadlier's award coincided with the third anniversary of Anzac, and Gaby's with the first day of the great offensive which defeated Germany.

Sadlier's action occured in the second battle for Villers-Bretonneux. The Germans launched a concerted attack in this sector at dawn on 24th April and suddenly bore down out of the fog upon the line held by young British infantry. By the time news of the attack reached III Corps Headquarters, the enemy, led by tanks, had breached the line, and Villers-Bretonneux, Abbey Wood, and Hangard Wood and village had been lost. Counter-attacks were organized and went on all day, but without success. Towards evening, however, hurried orders were issue for another counter-attack using the 13th Australian Brigade on the south, and the 15th Brigade on the north. Both forces were to act as pincers, driving past either side of the town. A British brigade had the task of retaking Hangard Wood, and British troops would also mop up in the wake of the Australians.

On the 15th Brigade front, the 51st and 52nd Battalions were allotted for the advance, and Sadlier’s company commander, Captain W. R. (“Billy”) Harburn, M.C., told the men: “The Monument [ie. In Monument Wood] is your goal and nothing is to stop your getting there.”

The battalion was in position at 9.53 p.m. on the hurriedly-laid starting tapes, and seven minutes later the artillery opened fire on Villers-Bretonneux. At 10.05 the Germans answered with their artillery, whose shells fell sharply on the assembly area. The advance got under way nevertheless at 10.10 p.m. Previously, the troops has been told to ignore any noise in the wood on the left descending from the Cachy plateau, as British troops were working there clearing out small parties of the enemy.

Hardly has the advance begun, however, before flares went up from this area, and several machine-guns opened up on the attackers. Many of Harburn’s company were hit immediately; the rest went to ground. The flares died out, and the advance was resumed, only to be halted again by another batch of flares, and more bullets. It was now apparent that machine-guns had completely enfiladed the line here, although troops on the right had by now passed out of sight.

It was then that a sergeant of the adjacent platoon (C. A. Stokes, D.C.M.) came to Sadlier and asked what was to be done. Sadlier replied: “Carry out the order—go straight to our objective.”
“You can’t do it,” replied Stokes, “you’ll all be killed.”
“Well, what can we do?”
There was only one possible solution, a bombing attack on the guns. Sadlier organised this, and arranged for the gap in the line to be filled by men of the support company. Then, having located the nearest machine-gun, he directed a Lewis gun on to it, and gave the order to charge in with bombs.

 

His attack was extraordinarily bold [recorded the Official Historian], and the German gunners were obviously not expecting it. Before they recovered from their surprise, the Western Australians were in among the trees, fighting wildly in the dark, advancing through the fringe of the wood, firing and being fired at around bushes and trees, stumbling on unsuspected posts. Sadlier—and Stokes, who had secured a bag of bombs—were the leaders. To suppress the first German machine-gun they fired rifle grenades over the trees—lacking cup-containers, they had to rest the handles against their bayonets. The gun stopped firing and they rushed it.

In this scuffle Sadlier was shot in the thigh by a German who shouted “Kamerad” as he pulled the trigger. Sadlier killed him and passed on to the next post, and the next, where he was shot again and forced to the rear. Stokes and his few remaining men continued the job, and ultimately all the guns along the wood were silenced and the threat to the advancing brigade was removed.

Both Sadlier and Stoke were recommended for the Victoria Cross, but higher authority awarded only one for the action, presumably in recognition of the whole party’s gallant work. Stokes was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Thus, although running and hour late, the 15th Brigade got through and around the north of the now-burning town, and the 13th was similarly successful to the south. By dawn the gap in their lines had been closed, and Villers-Bretonneux had been retaken.

Clifford Sadlier was born at Camberwell (Victoria) and attended University High School, Melbourne. As a youth he went with his parents to Western Australia, where the family settled at Subiaco. Sadlier became a commercial traveller, and was so employed when he enlisted at Perth on 26th May 1915.

Sadlier was posted to the Australian Army Medical Corps and allotted as a reinforcement to 1st Australian General Hospital, with which he served at Heliopolis. In February 1916 he returned to Australia on nursing duty, and on 9th November he re-embarked, this time as a reinforcement to 51st Battalion. He joined the unit in France on 13th May 1917; was promoted to corporal a few days later and on 14th July 1917 was gazetted to a first appointment as a 2nd-lieutenant. Promotion to lieutenant came on 1st April 1918. 

Sadlier’s wounds in the Villers-Bretonneux fighting shortly afterwards meant the end of active service for him. On 24th August 1918, with the final offensive in full swing, he was invalided to Australiam and his A.I.F. appointment ended as from 4th March 1919.

Sadlier resumed residence in Western Australia, and for some years was State Secretary of the Returned Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen’s Imperial League of Australia. He resigned to enter private business, and was later an officer of the staff of the Repatriation Department at Perth. He went to London in 1956 for the V.C. Centenary celebrations, and resided in Busselton (Western Australia). He married Alice Edith Smart on 17th July 1936.

From then until 1949 he was a clerk in the Repatriation Department in Perth. When he was later invalided out of the public service, he moved to Busselton where he took great pleasure in gardening. He died there on April 28th 1964 and his ashes were interred at Karrakatta Cemetery Perth. In 1980 his widow donated his medal to St. George's Cathedral and it is on display in the soldier's chapel. The Clifford Sadlier Ward at the former repatriation General Hospital, Hollywood, in the Perth suburb on Nedlands is named in his honour.

Credit: They Dared Mightily - Published 1963 - Lionel Wigmore
© AWM D00022