By Aaron Pegram
One hundred years ago, on 11 April 1917, troops from 4th Australian Division conducted an attack on the German army’s elaborate Hindenburg Line defences between the villages of Bullecourt and Riencourt in France. Significant gains had been made elsewhere as part of the Battle of Arras, most notably the Canadian capture of Vimy Ridge on 9 April.
An attack at Bullecourt was thought to achieve a breakthrough where the Germans least expected. Two divisions, the British 62nd Division and 4th Australian Division, would attack either side of Bullecourt and eject the Germans from their positions. The attacking infantry would be supported by twelve British tanks instead of artillery. Still considered a new and innovative weapon, the tanks were to crush thick belts of barbed wire and deal with nearby strongpoints.
The tanks at Bullecourt were poorly armed, armoured and prone to mechanical problems. They failed to reach the rendezvous on time, delaying the attack for 24 hours. This news did not to reach the attacking battalions of the British 62nd Division whose men assaulted Bullecourt as planned. This so-called “dummy stunt”, cost the British more than 200 casualties and alerted the Germans a major attack was coming.
Repeating the plan for the previous day, the 4th Division attacked Bullecourt before dawn on 11 April. Of the twelve tanks supporting, just two made it to the German wire before they were destroyed. The rest were knocked out of action, suffered mechanical failure or encountered obstacles in No Man’s Land from which they could not recover. Completely unsupported, the infantry were left to fight their way into the German positions after advancing across a kilometre of exposed ground, in broad daylight, through a torrent of artillery and enfilading machine-gun fire.
Private Wilfred Gallwey of the 47th Battalion was held in reserve during the attack, holding a position that was being mercilessly shelled by German artillery. ‘This was my first experience in the front line and I can only describe it as hell. Every minute I expected to be blown out by my luck was in hand and I never got hurt. All round me men were falling and coal boxes [German 5.9 inch howitzer shells] dropped within ten feet of me giving me a severe shaking’.
Around 11am, German troops delivered a devastating series of counter-attacks as the beleaguered infantry faced mounting casualties and ever-diminishing supplies of ammunition in their close-quarters fight for the Hindenburg Line. Lance Corporal George Mitchell of the 48th Battalion described an encounter with ‘a big German in a steel helmet’ preparing to post a grenade into a nearby position. ‘I fired as he threw his bomb. In my haste I missed. Quickly I worked the bolt. But there were no more cartridges in the magazine … I shook my fist in sheer rage, and the Fritz grinned amiably back at me. For ten minute I waited. Up came his head. My bullet crashed into it and his last bomb went unthrown’.
Repeated requests for artillery support went unanswered, largely due to reports that the tanks had made a breakthrough and Australian infantry were spotted in Riencourt village (they were Germans). Unable to hold their gains any longer, the Australian infantry locked in a fierce fight for the Hindenburg Line were forced to withdraw. Machine-gun and artillery fire inflicted a heavy toll on those who stepped out into No Man’s Land, while hundreds of Australian troops left fighting in the German trenches fell victim to one last enemy counter-attack.
Lance Corporal Lancelot Davies of the 13th Battalion was tending the wounds of two men of his platoon when German troops overran their position. ‘I was suddenly surprised to hear a gruff voice demand “Come on Australia”. On looking up I beheld several Jerry bombers with bombs – of the “potato masher” type – each pointing a revolver. I was compelled to submit to the most humiliating experience of a lifetime – surrender! As the alternative meant death, and I was in a helpless position, one must naturally excuse my choice’.
The 4th Division suffered over 3,000 dead, missing and wounded in the fighting on 11 April 1917. 1,170 of them were taken prisoner, representing the largest capture of Australians in a single engagement during the First World War. Poor command and the inability of the tanks to properly support the infantry led to a deepening distrust of British command and unwillingness to work with tanks in future operations.
Australian troops remained in the Bullecourt sector, engaging the Germans in a second more protracted fight for the Hindenburg Line between 4 and 17 May. Drawing in troops from the 1st, 2nd and 5th Australian Divisions, this second engagement resulted in the eventual capture of the village at the cost of a further 7,000 Australian casualties. But what was it all for? No sooner was Bullecourt captured, the focus of operations shifted north into Belgium where the British sought to conduct a major offensive in the Ypres salient and achieve a breakthrough near Passchendaele.
Australian losses at Bullecourt were staggering, but the worst was still to come.
Aaron Pegram is a senior historian in the Military History Section at the Australian War Memorial.
H11990: A British aerial photograph of the German Hindenburg Line defences near Bullecourt before the attack on 11 April 1917. AWM H11990.
1.jpg: One of the destroyed British tanks that supported the 4th Australian Division in its costly and unsuccessful attack at Bullecourt on 11 April 1917. This German photograph was likely to have been taken between the two Bullecourt battles, however German troops later recaptured this portion of the Hindenburg Line during the German Spring Offensive in March 1918. Image courtesy of Drakegoodman/Flickr