Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Spring 1917: A Terrible and Futile Struggle at Bullecourt

An  Australian 18-Pounder Firing at Bullecourt

By Peter Burness
Originally Presented in the Australian War Memorial's Magazine Wartime

Each year hundreds of Australians converge on the village of Bullecourt, France, located ten miles southeast of Arras, to join locals in wreath layings, speeches, and toasts that recall a long association. Bullecourt entered Australian history because of battles fought there by the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in April and May 1917.

Bullecourt is located in prime agricultural country in an ancient region where long-established small farming villages sit close together. Few of these villages have grown much in the past century and some had to be totally rebuilt after the destruction of the war. Between the villages lie unfenced rich fields of crops that have sustained the locals, and a wider community, for generations. When the Australians were there in 1917 they fought in the fields between the villages of Bullecourt, Riencourt, Hendecourt, and Quéant. War memorials recalling the Australian presence are now to be seen in Bullecourt village and in the adjoining fields. The most prominent is the bronze sculpture The Digger by Melbourne artist Peter Corlett, unveiled in 1993.

There are no large war cemeteries in the immediate vicinity, such as there are at the center of most battle sites. This is a reflection of the fighting in the area. There are cemeteries, but they stand a few kilometrers from the killing fields, which had remained a no-man’s-land throughout the war. Perhaps the most poignant is Quéant Road Cemetery near Buissy. Almost 1,000 graves are known to contain Australians, but for 700 the identity of the actual soldier is unknown.

For those who survived the fighting at Bullecourt, it was an experience of horror and devastation they could never forget. Their battalions had already endured the terrible 1916–17 winter, with the opposing armies facing each other across desolate fields of frozen mud. The Germans had used the time to build a great defensive line a few kilometers behind their front, which the Allies called the Hindenburg Line.

Early in 1917, once the weather had improved, the Germans staged a fighting withdrawal to their new line. For the Allied troops the sudden advance across open fields gave them a false hope that victory could soon be at hand. Their advance continued up to the Hindenburg Line.

Belief in an early victory was soon cast aside. As a part of a fresh British-French Arras Offensive, the Australian 4th Division was ordered to assault the Hindenburg Line to the right of Bullecourt village in the early morning of 11 April 1917. The enemy defenses consisted of deep trenches, dugouts, and pillboxes, protected by wide belts of barbed wire and cleverly sited machine guns. A feature of the attack was the provision of a dozen tanks to support the leading infantry from the 4th and 12th Brigades. 

The attack was a disaster. Despite their crews’ bravery, the tanks performed poorly and were soon burning wrecks. Fighting desperately, the Australian infantry managed to gain a brief hold on the German line but were driven out by fierce counterattacks.

Under heavy artillery shelling, machine gun fire, mortar and grenade exchanges, and even hand-to-hand fighting, the Australians suffered terrible casualties. They were finally forced to withdraw, while the British 62nd Division fighting alongside was also exposed and suffered losses. The Australian division lost 3,000 officers and men killed and wounded, and 1,170 became prisoners of war. The 4th Brigade suffered most, losing 2,339 men from a strength of 3,000!

An Exhausted Digger Sleeps in a Trench

A survivor from one of the 4th Brigade battalions later wrote:

A pitifully weak company was all that remained of the proud, strong unit that had marched that way a few days ago. The other battalions of the brigade cheered us as we marched. That night in Bapaume we sat through a picture-show. It was strange and unreal to watch slapstick comedies with minds not yet detuned from battle. A few days later we stood on parade while “Birdy” (General Birdwood) delivered some of his “usual”. Then he spoke of our losses. Officers – hard-faced, hard-swearing men broke down. From the silent other ranks came a deep feeling of warmth and sympathy, a feeling that endured as long as the flame-racked years, and beyond.

Despite this local repulse, the offensive continued and again, on 3 May, the Australians were made to attack over the same ground. Now the task was given to the 2nd Division. This time the planning was better. Proper artillery support was to be available and there would be no tanks operating with the Diggers. The Australians no longer trusted tanks. (Their faith in them would not be restored until the successful battle of Hamel in July the following year. By that time, a much improved version of the tank was available and employed in large numbers.)

The fighting over the next days was furious, with the Australians getting a grip on the Hindenburg Line and repelling wild counterattacks that sometimes included flamethrowers. The 1st Australian Division then took over and went into the fight. On 7 May British troops captured part of the ruins of Bullecourt village; on the same day the Australian 5th Division resting near Albert was told to prepare for action. The second battle, which was intended to engage one Australian division, had now drawn in three. The British 62nd Division was similarly replaced. Finally, the Germans gave Bullecourt away and on 20 May the fighting closed.

The Australian and British troops, fighting under frightful conditions, had captured a small part of the Hindenburg Line and held it, but this could not be exploited; there was to be no breakthrough. The offensive closed and the British turned their attention to the fighting in Flanders. The second battle of Bullecourt caused a further 7,000 Australian casualties, from which the AIF never fully recovered. The losses meant that plans for a sixth division were dropped and they contributed to another unsuccessful attempt at home to introduce conscription. The tired and depleted troops moved into rest areas for the longest break from fighting they had seen since arriving in France.

The battles of Bullecourt continue to interest historians. Deficiencies in command, from the senior British level to the Australian staff officers and operational commanders, and even the location of the attack, have been examined. In particular, some believe failure to cover the right flank left troops dangerously exposed to heavy enfilading fire. Under this fire, the 5th Brigade faltered on the first day of the second battle, leaving many of its dead hanging on the wire.

War Damaged Quéant on the Australian Right Flank

Bullecourt had again shown the bravery of Australian troops in attack, and added another hard-earned battle honor to the AIF’s list. The opposing soldiers, men of the 27th Württemberg Division, may well have been the toughest fighters the Australians encountered during the war. Still, the heavy losses, for so little gain, were part of the reason that 1917 was to be remembered as a year of disasters.

There would be further fighting by British divisions around Bullecourt, but the Australian troops did not come back. Their main areas of future operations were to be Flanders and the Somme. It is Australians of later generations who come to the place today to remember the sacrifice that took place during the terrible struggle of those fatal weeks of April and May 1917. 

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