Bullecourt: An Australian Disaster:
First Battle of Bullecourt 1917
Bullecourt was a heavily fortified village and area on the German indenburg Line. General Hubert Gough, chief of the British 5th Army (to which the four Australian divisions involved reported to) improvised a plan to attack the front between the two strong points of the Hindenburg Line in the villages of Bullecourt and Quéant. On 11 April 1917 the 4th Australian Division attacked in freezing conditions without artillery support (to supposedly avoid alerting the German Forces) but instead for the first time using tanks as part of the battle plan. It was a bloody disaster with most of the tanks not being serviceable and communication breakdowns and severe miscommunications and misunderstandings rife between British High Command and the divisions involved in the battle. The eleven tanks involved took no significant role in the fighting, and the attackers were soon decimated by German machine gun fire and heavy shelling. The Australians did manage to take two lines of German trenches, but were stopped by fierce German resistance.
Let down also by the failure of their own artillery to fire on the German counterattacks, the Australians, having held the enemy trenches for a few hours were driven back to their starting point with the loss of over 3000 men. The counter-attack was launched by the soldiers of the German 27th Wurttemberg Division who came out of deep underground shelters on the second line, fully protected and ready for action. The Australian retreat was carried out under the worst possible conditions - under heavy fire, the soldiers had to go back across no-man's land through the pile of bodies of their fallen mates. Those who remained in the German trenches were quickly rounded up, and only a small number of the Australian force succeeded in reaching the safety of the Allied lines. In the afternoon a spontaneous truce was observed for the soldiers to recover their wounded comrades and remove some of the dead. By the end of the day the horrific losses were realised: the Australian 4th Brigade had lost 2,229 soldiers out of 3,000 and 1,170 Australians had been taken prisoner, and all the battalions had been put out of action. First Bullecourt also remained the largest capture of Australian prisoners in war up until the fall of Singapore in 1942. Poorly planned by the British High Command and appallingly executed, the First Battle of Bullecourt was a terrible and costly disaster.
Second Battle of Bullecourt 1917
On the 3rd May the Australians of the 1st ANZAC launched a second assault at Bullecourt along with the British 62nd Division. The Second Battle of Bullecourt began at 3.45 a.m this time supported by artillery fire, with the Australians passing many of their comrades killed the month before and still lying in the mud of no-mans land. The 5th Brigade was then cut to pieces by machine guns and forced to withdraw before crossing the barbed wire bringing to a halt the men following behind them. The Second Battle of Bullecourt rapidly started to deteriorated into a terrible repeat of the first battle, however the main Australian attack was successful in capturing the same German trenches the Australian 4th Division had captured on 11 April.
The battle continued for two weeks, the Australians and British committing four more divisions with the Germans making numerous unsuccessful counterattacks. By 17 May the Germans gave up by ceasing their attempts to recover their lost ground. Of 150,000 men from both sides who fought at Second Bullecourt, some 18,000 British and Australians, and 11,000 Germans, were killed or wounded in battle. The Second Battle of Bullecourt inflicted 7,000 more losses on the Australians with very little to show for the effort except for the questionable capture of a small portion of the Hindenburg Line.
Bullecourt was now seared into the Australian fighting psyche - and with Australia as a country - as an unmitigated bloody disaster. It was also not until Monash's use of tanks at Le Hamel in 1918 that the Australians trusted the use of tanks in battle again. This also, more than any other battle in WW1 threw a huge strain on the Australian troops and Australian senior staff with their faith and distrust of the British High Command which lingered from then on until the end of the war.
Battle of Polygon Wood 1917: (3rd Battle of Ypres)
Polygon Wood is the location of the revered 5th Australian Division Memorial, set up high on the blood soaked ground of the butte itself. The Battle of Polygon Wood took place during the second stage of the Third battle of Ypres and was fought near Ypres in Belgium 26 September – 3 October 1917 by the Australian 5th Division (reinforced by the 4th Division) plus the British 5th and Second Army, in the area from the Menin Road to Polygon Wood and north to the area beyond St. Julien.
It is rated as one of the most successful Australian actions in WW1 with the use of a perfectly co-ordinated creeping artillery barrage as the main reason for its outstanding success, but again with a dreadful casualty rate with the 5th Australian Division suffering 5,471 dead and wounded in the period 26–28 September.
Battle of Passchendaele 1917(3rd Battle of Ypres)
The (two) Battles of Passchendale were part of a series of battles that were part of what is generally known as the Third Battle of Ypres. Other battles during the Third battle of Ypres were; Messines Ridge, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde and Poelcappelle. The two Battles of Passchendaele were horrific both with the weather and the immense slaughter of allied troops of which Australia, NZ and Canada took much of the brunt of the fighting. The battles were known as the battles of "mud and blood", with the worst rainfall in 30 years turning the swampy ground into a huge 'moonscape' of foul mud and water, with many thousands of soldiers killed as well as drowning in the mud and water filled shell craters. Thousands of men were posted as missing, and still remain today buried where they fell in the area where this terrible battle took place.
The Allies lost 310,000 men and the Germans 260,000. The English General Haig was severely criticised for planning this attack and the hopelessness of the action in the first place, and for failing to modify his plans as the attack progressed into chaos and a bloodbath for the Allied forces.
New Zealand: Worse Day in New Zealand History
The First Battle of Passchendaele 12 October 1917. Heavy rain and deep mud mud made movement difficult and little artillery could be brought close to the front. Allied troops were exhausted and morale had fallen. There were 13,000 Allied casualties, including 2,735 New Zealanders, 845 of whom had been killed or lay wounded and stranded in the mud of no-man's-land. In lives lost in a day, this was the worst day in New Zealand history.
Australia: Canada: New Zealand: Passchendaele
The Canadians then prepared for a series of attacks from 26 October – 10 November for the second Battle of Passchendaele. The Canadians relieved the II Anzac Corps on 18 October and found that the front line was mostly the same as that occupied by the 1st Canadian Division in April 1915. On 26 October, the 3rd Canadian Division captured its first objective, with the 4th Canadian Division also capturing its objectives but forced slowly to retire against German counter-attacks and communication failures between the Canadian and Australian units to the south.
The second stage began on 30 October, with the Canadians on the southern flank quickly capturing Crest Farm. Fighting continued until the final push on the morning of 6 November, with the 1st Canadian Division and the 2nd Canadian Division. In fewer than three hours, many units reached their final objectives and Passchendaele was captured. Further limited operations took place in November and early December plus some minor operations in the new year.
Battle of Le Hamel 1918
General Sir John Monash, Commander of the Australian Corps, planned for an attack to dislodge the German position on the high ground at Le Hamel where the granite memorial now stands. Monash was the first advocate in WW1 to use a fully co-ordinated attack incorporating artillery, aircraft, tanks and infantry and used his skill for meticulous planning and organisation to prepare the attack. He was supported by the British 4th Army commander Sir Henry Rawlinson commanding the 4th Australian Division and supported by the British 5th Tank Brigade, along with a small detachment of 1000 American troops in training. An interesting footnote is that Monash selected July 4 (Independence Day) as the date of the attack in honour of the Americans taking part in the action.
Monash prepared the Australians' offensive to be a total suprise attack, using a brilliant strategy to use aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps and the Australian Flying Corps to resupply the ground troops with ammunition dropped by parachute. The aircraft also bombed craters in the open ground ahead of the assaulting infantry to give them some cover in the craters as they advanced. They also flew continually during the night of 3rd July over the German trenches to cover the noise from the tanks as they moved up to the front for their attack. The attack was a total success, with all objectives taken by the Australian Corps by 04.35am, exactly 93 minutes from the start of the artillery smoke screen at 3.02am. German casualties numbered approx. 2,000, with another 1,600 taken prisoner. Australian casualties were about 1,400 of whom about 250 were killed.
By the end of the war Monash had won an outstanding reputation for his leadership through his intellect, personal magnetism, management and ingenuity. He also won the respect and loyalty of his troops, even though the official war historian Charles Bean tried to have him dismissed from his command by the then Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes through Beans blatant campaign against his Jewish ancestry. He was regarded with great respect by the British – a senior British officer described Monash as "a great bullock of a man ... though his manners were pleasant and his behaviour far from rough, I have seen few men who gave me such a sensation of force ... a fit leader for the wild men he commanded"
Battle of Mont St Quentin 31 August 1918
Mont St Quentin (Mount St Quentin) was one of the defining battles of the close of the war, and sometimes regarded as the finest achievement of the AIF. Organised by Monash who was keen to keep the pressure on the retreating Germans, the severely under-strength and battle weary 2nd Australian Division crossed the Somme River on the night of 31 August, and attacked the strategic German stronghold on top of Mont St Quentin at 5 am, from a suprise start point in the northwest. It was a difficult attack as it was an uphill fight for the troops and across open ground where they were terribly vulnerable to attack from the German positions on the summit of Mont St Quentin above. The battalions positioned to the right were told to "yell like bushrangers" to suprise the Germans (which they did!), while the centre and left battalions got a foothold on the hill and in Feuillaucourt.
To the Germans the attack came as a complete surprise. One German officer reported that it 'had all happened like lightning and before we had fired a shot we were taken unawares'. The Australians soon secured the top of Mont St Quentin and the fields below. It was a swift and sudden success. General Sir Henry Rawlinson remarked that this feat by the Australian troops under Monash's command "was the greatest of the war". However the Germans quickly regrouped and the Australians had a huge fight in their hands for the next two days to fend of German attacks, finally capturing Peronne at the bottom of the mount on 3 September. It was a costly action for the Australians however, with over 3000 killed and wounded in the battle. From here however, the Germans then had to fall back to their last line of defence - the Hindenburg Line. The end of the war was now imminent.
Battle of Montbrehain
The last action involving Australian infantry on the Western Front in the First World War. Following the breaking of the Hindenburg Line, the attack on Montbrehain on 5 October 1918 represented an attempt to breach the final elaborate system of German defences based on the Beaurevoir trench line system. Advancing on the early morning of 5 October the 6th Brigade AIF succeeded in occupying the village and in the process took 400 German prisoners. The action sadly however claimed 430 Australian casualties. Now exhausted, the AIF was withdrawn from the front line for a well deserved break. Within weeks however the war was over. While the battle itself is well covered in both contemporary and current accounts, many questions remain even today about why the battle was necessary and the planning that went into it beforehand.