Bullecourt (First) (World War 1, 11 April 1917 to 11 April 1917)

Normal bullecourt cross

About This Campaign

The British and Commonwealth forces mounted a major offensive around the city of Arras in April 1917, as part of a wider strategy to support a major French offensive.

The Australian Fourth Division, which included the  48th, 50th and 52nd  Battalions, all with large numbers of South Australians in their ranks,  was committed to an attack near the town of Bullecourt, one of a number of fortified villages in the vicinity that formed part of the German Hindenburg line of defences.

It is not for nothing that so many street names in Australia bear this name.  First and Second Bullecourt together were among the bloodiest campaigns in which Australian forces were engaged in France.

The first phase of the attack on the 11th April, became one of the debacles of Australian efforts on the Western Front.  The attacking troops assembled during the night, to be snowed upon while they waited for H Hour.

New tanks which were intended to support the attack and breach the daunting palisades of barbed wire, failed to meet even the lowest expectations.  Most did not even make it to the start line due to mechanical failure.  The rest were quickly put out of action.   This was to leave a lasting negative impression on the Australians of the utility of these new technical innovations. 

Troops from the 4th and 12th Brigades managed to break into the German line but as so often happened, the resulting salient was hemmed in on three sides by the Germans.  Supporting artillery fire for the Australians was withheld because of uncertainty as to how far they had breached the German line.  In due course they were forced out with more than 1100 Australians being cut off and taken prisoner, the greatest number in any single engagement of the war.

Killed in the attack was one of the AIF's most highly decorated officers at that time, Major Percy Black, DSO DCM of the 16th Battalion, killed by machine gun fire on the barbed wire in front of the German positions.

Bullecourt typified the worst of Australian experiences on the Western Front, according to renowned South Australian historian Dr Bill Gammage, "1917 was the year in which machines and mud crushed remorselessly the highest endeavours and the most noble aspirations (of the Allies)" ; and thus it was at Bullecourt

How the Battle came about

  • The intent was to hold the Germans in place so they could not reinforce further south – where the French were mounting the Nivelle offensive.

  • It was further to protect the right flank of the British 3rd Army as it attacked further north in the Arras to Cambrai area as part of the Arras Offensive.

  • General Gough, the 5th Army commander (included 1 Anzac Corps) wanted to be in on the success achieved by his two fellow army commanders to the north – Allenby (3rd Army) and Horne (1st Army) and to be able to send the cavalry through the breach to exploit the open ground beyond (the unrealised dream of all of the cavalry commanders on the Western Front).

What Preceded the Battle:

  • German Operation ‘Albericht’ – withdrawal to the Siegfried Stellung or Hindenberg Line. This was a complex line of defences consisting of deep dug outs and concrete emplacements (block houses and pillboxes) protected by deep belts of barbed wire. The obstacles channelled the attacker into pre – determined killing zones  which could be swept by artillery and machine gun fire from the dugouts and concrete emplacements.

  • Two main lines existed: OG (Old German) 1and OG2.  The Germans made extensive use of reverse slope positions (ie behind the crest of a hill or rise meaning the defenders could not be engaged with direct fire)  and machine guns firing in enfilade (from the side of anyone trying to attack the position so as to fire though the attackers formation) and along the belts of wire.

  • The Allied forces follow-up of the Germans to the Hindenberg Line was known as the “Outpost Villages “battles. 

  • The Australians, leading out of Bapaume, followed the Germans through the villages of Vaulx – Vraucourt, Morchies, Baumetz, Lagnicourt, Moeuvres, Noreuil, Doignies, Louverval, Boursies and Hermies (the outpost villages).

  • Meanwhile the Canadian Corps conducted a successful attack on the line at Vimy Ridge to the north; the first major defeat of the Germans.

  • General Gough was warned in the planning stage (which commenced on April 5) by Brigadier Brudenell White Chief of Staff 1 Anzac Corps that it would take eight days to cut the wire and he didn’t have sufficient artillery or time to do it.

  • General Gough was convinced by a junior officer of the Tank Corps (MAJ Watson) that the belts of wire could be broken down and flattened by the new wonder weapon – the tank – without the need for an artillery bombardment.

  • General Gough was a British cavalry officer and eager to make his mark as a successful commander as quickly as possible. The planning for this attack was rushed and not thought through in detail. He decided on the use of tanks for the attack the next day.

  • 12 tanks from No.11 Company, ‘D’ Battalion, Heavy Branch, Machine Gun Corps (security pseudonym for what was to become the Tank Corps) were tasked to lead the attack in front of the Australians and 62 (UK) Division.

Enemy Troops (at the start of the battle):

  • Army – commanded by Crown Prince Rupert of Bavaria.

  • XIV Reserve Corps (Gruppe Queant) with 27th (Wurttemberg) Division in this sector.

  • Its 120th Infantry Regiment (120IR) was in Bullecourt, 124IR was across the Australian line of assault and 123IR was around Queant.

Positioning of Allied Forces

  • From north to south:  62 (UK) Division (V (UK) Corps) / 4 (Aus) Division / 1 (Aus) Division (1 Anzac Corps).

  • The 1 Anzac Corps plan was for 4th (Aus) Division to attack with 12th Brigade (46 and 48 Battalions leading)  and 4 Brigade (14 and 16 Battalions leading, 13 and 15 Battalions in support) – across the ground on the right of the Central Road, breach OG1 and 2 and then move on to take Riencourt. 62 (UK) Division would be on the Australians’ left flank and would attack Bullecourt village itself then move on to attack Hendecourt. 

First Bullecourt 10 – 12 Apr 1917

  • The battle was characterised by rushed and incomplete planning

  • The tanks, which were to have cut the wire (without the need of artillery) did not arrive on time. There had been a poor practical appreciation of their use and speed. They were held up by snow and poor visibility.

  • It was discovered that the German barbed wire was intact  – Discovered and reported by Capt Albert Jacka VC MC Intelligence Officer of 14 Battalion. He found the Sunken Road near the railway embankment and captured a small German patrol. He went back and warned his commanders of the need for artillery fire to cut the wire.

  • The assembly for the attack began in freezing cold conditions, snowing.  The attacking lines of soldiers lay out in the snow in their assault formation near the Sunken Road waiting for the tanks.

  • The attack was eventually postponed until same time next day. Soldiers were exhausted and had to move back to their lines under fire.

  • “They straggled back like a crowd leaving a football match” – BRIG Elliott, Commander 15 Brigade. “Exhausted and dragging rifles along the ground by the sling. “Of what use would I be to fight tonight” – Pte Galwey – 47 Battalion.

  • Germans now knew that they were going to be assaulted. 4 (Aus) Division did not inform their neighbours - 62 (UK) Division -  that attack was postponed. They attacked Bullecourt village with an exposed right flank and suffered severe casualties.

  • Second assault on the 11th Apr – tanks again late and became targets as daylight approached. Murray and Jacka realised that the tanks wouldn’t reach the wire before German MG and artillery fire caused casualties among the infantry. Despite pleas up to the Army Commander they were told to attack and also that artillery support was denied.

  • The first tanks to arrive fired on the 46th Battalion by mistake.

  • Australians breached the OG1 (cutting through the wire by hand!) and were heading for OG2 when the Australian artillery came down on them.

  • Casualties were being caused by the German MG fire from the front and flanks, notably Bullecourt village. Sparks could be seen by the assaulting diggers as the bullets hit the barbed wire strands.

  • Germans used field guns firing over open sights at point blank range and also ‘K’ or Kern armour piercing bullets to destroy the tanks.

  • By the afternoon of the 12th, Australian troops had to withdraw back to their own lines because of lack of artillery support.

  • 3300 casualties including 1170 captured as POWs.  This was the worst instance of Australian soldiers being captured en masse.

German Counter Attack at Lagnicourt 15 Apr 1917

  • While the Australians were recovering, The Germans launched a counter attack against 1 (Aus) Division with 38 Division, 2nd Guards Reserve Division and 4th Ersatz Division.

  • They assaulted from the direction of Riencourt and Queant reached the 1st and 2nd AFA (Australian Field Artillery) Brigades’ gun lines around Lagnicourt.

  • 2 AFA abandoned four batteries of guns after removing the breech blocks and dial sights.

  • The 5th Brigade launched a counter attack which drove the Germans out.

  • 1 AFA lost 5 guns to damage in the action.

  • The Australians were severely shaken.

  • CAPT Newland, LT Pope and SGT Whittle were awarded VCs in this action.

 

The detailed description from original work developed by an esteemed friend and colleague, the late Lieutenant Colonel Peter Morrissey, used with permission.  Steve Larkins September 2014.

 

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Stories

The Fighting Leanes pay the price at Bullecourt

A sad result was in the 48th Bn from South Australia. This was commanded by LTCOL Ray Leane, his brother MAJ Ben Leane was 2IC and his cousin Allan was the Adjutant – thus the 48th was known in the AIF as “the Joan of Arc “ Bn – made of all Leanes!! Both Ben and Allan were killed in the Bullecourt battles. Ben is buried in Queant Military cemetery. Allan’s body was never found and he rests somewhere on the battlefield. He is commemorated on a plaque at the Villers - Bretonneux Memorial.

Lieutenant W.C. Sheldon wrote:


The enemy trenches were about 5 feet wide at bottom and 6 feet at top, with a depth of 6 feet. They have a fire step and are in first class order. The support line occupied by us had four dugout entrances, all of them being in the course of construction. No tunnels have been dug. Had the attack on the left of the village been successful, we should have had no difficulty in holding our position, and eventually in capturing the village.

Thanks to Neville Browning for sourcing this quote.

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Lieutenant Colonel R.L. Leane wrote:


‘My Battalion held the trenches for one hour and ten minutes after the rest had retired. No words of mine can express the pride and admiration I feel for those brave men. Officers and men alike did wonderful work and I feel that had troops come up on the left of Bullecourt and captured the trench we would still be in the position. The failure in my opinion was due to the tanks not carrying out their work and the failure of British troops to attack left of Bullecourt.’

Thanks to Neville Browning for sourcing this quote.

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George Mitchell - from "Backs to the Wall"

‘Back to the old front line,’ called Imlay, as a bloodied messenger raced in. I glanced around the trench as I swung my gun on shoulder. Bright mess tins lay about. There was half a loaf of bread with an open tin of jam beside it, and bloodstained equipment lying everywhere. The dead sergeant still lay massive on the parapet. Other dead lay limp on the trench floor. Wounded sprawled or sat with backs to the parapet, watching us with anxious eyes.

‘You are not going to leave us?’ asked one of me. I could not answer him, or meet his eyes as I joined the party moving down the sap. For some reason I felt the guilt of deserting them was mine alone.

Here was a tangle of dismembered limbs and dead men. The air was heavy with the reek of explosives. One man, with his foot blown off, leaned wearily back. He had a mills in his hand with the pin out. He would not be taken alive.

Our party – about sixty strong, with our two remaining officers – spread along the German front line, mean with ready bombs and bayonets on the flanks. No other Australian force was left in the Hindenburg Line.

Our shells still screamed about the parapet. When this fire died down the might of the German Army would fall again on our outflanked few. Between us and our line stretched masses of brown wire, and fifteen hundred yards of bullet and shell-swept level land, over which for a long time no messenger had lived in attempting to get across. Wounded men stood and sat silent on the upper steps of deep dugouts. I leaned on my gun, pondering the utter hopelessness of the position. A Fritz machine gun sat askew on the parapet. I was forming a project to bring it into action.

Word came from the left flank, punctuated by bomb bursts, ‘Enemy bombing back. We have run out of bombs’. All stores of German bombs had been used up by our men. An officers’ voice called clear, ‘Dump everything and get back.’ Discard my beautiful gun? They mightn’t give me another!

Our few unwounded climbed the parapet. Heavily I started to climb the steep trench wall where a shell had partly blown it in. I looked up to see Bill Davies standing on the top amid the bullets, with hand extended to help me up. A vast indifference settled on me, as I stood on the parapet. Three yards out a man lying over a strand of wire called, ‘Help me, mate.’ I put down my gun and tried to heave him into a shell hole. He screamed with pain as I heaved, so I stopped. ‘I can’t do anything for you, old chap’, I said, and hoping that I would be forgiven the lie, ‘I will send the bearers back.’ ‘Thank you’, he said. I picked up my gun and walked on. A shrapnel from the enemy flank churned the ground just in front, as I picked my way through the wire. A piece of shell fragment cut my puttee tape, and dropped the folds around my boot.

In complete indifference I trudged over the field, making the concession of holding the gun flat so as not to be too prominent. A man reaches a blasé stage after too much excitement. Once I thought of settling down and blazing defiance at the enemy with my last solitary magazine. But the thought of our wounded in the track of the bullets made me refrain.

Five-point-nines burst black on either hand, and futile bullets zipped about. They could no nothing to me. Silly cows to try. Someone ought to tell them…



George Mitchell's walk was witnessed by hundreds and passed into AIF Legend. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and later commissioned.

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Names

Showing 7 people of interest from campaign

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RAPP, Henry Thomas

Service number 3894A
Private
47th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born Jan 1894

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MCSHARRY, Terence Patrick

Service number Officer
Lieutenant Colonel
15th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 9 Aug 1884

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DALZIELL, Ernest Rewell

Service number 2650
Private
48th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 1898

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AHERN, William Henry

Service number 6457
Private
15th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 10 Apr 1898

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BOYLE, Patrick

Service number 5340
Private
15th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 26 Mar 1888

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CAMPBELL, Gerald

Service number 3231
Lieutenant
11th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born Aug 1887

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MUNRO, John Thomas

Service number 757
Private
15th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 26 Jul 1880