Our Centenary Tour for the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Bullecourt: 11 April 2017.
Bullecourt: 1st Battle Bullecourt: 10-11 Apr 1917
After the German army had withdrawn to the Hindenburg Line in March 1917 the British and *Empire (* predominantly Australian, Canadian and NZ) forces launched a major offensive around Arras in early April 1917. This included the legendary Battle of Vimy by the Canadians for Vimy Ridge)
South of Arras, two divisions - the British 62nd and the Australian 4th Division were to attack from both sides of the village of Bullecourt and push the Germans back from their strongly fortified positions and into the reserve trenches. The attack was hastily planned and executed and was to use tanks for the first time. The initial attack was to take place on 10 April, however the tanks were delayed by bad weather and the attack was put off for 24 hours.
Despite strong protests from the Australian commanders, the attack went ahead on the morning of 11th April, however the tanks were unreliable and many broke down and the *limited artillery barrage (*a limited artillery barrage was decided upon to allow the tanks to overun the German defences) left much of the barbed wire in front of the German trenches intact. Besides this the aborted attack on the 10th had the Germans fully prepared for the attack. Also, most importantly, the German defenders quickly realised the tanks were lumbering sitting ducks and easy prey to armour piercing fire so the tanks were quickly neutralised.
Although some of the 4th Division got to some sections of German trenches, they had to quickly retreat with very heavy losses. Due to confusion over how far the Australians had advanced all supporting artillery fire was held back, with the Australians being surrounded and forced to retreat. The 4th Divisions two brigades that took part in the the attack, the 4th and 12th, took over 3,200 casualties with 1,170 Australians taken prisoner - the largest number of Australian prisoners captured in a single action during the war.
Second Battle Bullecourt: 10-17 May 1917
Following the First battle of Bullecourt, a second Battle took place starting on the 3rd May. Learning from the disaster of the first battle of Bullecourt, tanks were given a much reduced secondary role and artillery was given it's traditional prominent role to lay down a creeping barrage to cut the wire and shelter the advancing troops. In the leadup to the battle the general area around Bullecourt was totally destroyed by Allied shelling and the wire in front of the German defences was destroyed. A very bitter series of battles took place as the Germans were extremely well dug in but by May 17th the Allies had captured all their objectives.
In total, the two attacks on Bullecourt had resulted in over 10,000 casualties for the Australians with the Germans suffered a similar number of casualties. The only clear cut result of this dreadful set of battles was that the success of the second attack proved that the Hindenburg Line was not impregnable and also clearly showed the Allied commanders that whenever the Germans lost ground and had to retreat that they counter-attacked, resulting in heavy German casualties with them losing troops they could not afford to lose. From thereon whenever the Allies advanced and took German positions they meticulously planned for a German counter-attack, setting up extensive machine gun arcs of fire and also using artillery to the maximum by including them in all 'minute by minute' intelligence they required.
One of the most enduring legacies of these battles was the Australians - both senior staff and the fighting troops - deep distrust of using tanks in a primary role in battle. It was not until Monash's meticulously planned attack at the Battle of Hamel on July 4th 1917 using tanks and artillery with both Australian and American troops that the Australians started to trust the use of tanks in battle.
Here an interesting first hand account of the battle in an Australian soldiers letter home
The Australian Government: Australians on The Western Front: What happened at Bullecourt