Bullecourt 1917.
Precedent.

After the Battle of the Somme in November 1916 ended, the Germans retreated back to the strong Hindenburg line.
This would straiten, and thereby shorten, the line they had to defence. It soon became clear that it was not a premature measure. The allied command planned some new major attacks in 1917, in order to keep the pressure on the Germans.



General Nivelle

General Nivelle, replacing Joffre, proposed to attack the Germans in two Salients. In the north the attack would be in the salient created in the Battle of the Some, while in the south the fighting would concentrate around the Aisne (Chemin des Dames).

The British troops in Arras and the French Groupe des Armees du Nord (G.A.N.) between Peronne and Lassigny prepared for a great offensive in the area of the Aisne (Chemin des Dames).

Becouse of the German retreat Nivelle had to change his original plan. The offensive near Arras began first, later would an offensive near St. Quentin follow. The main French offensive was to be carried out by the Groupe des Armees de Rupture (G.A.R.), formerly Groupe des Armees Reserve, at the Aisne


General Gough

At the town of Queant the Hindenburg line connected to the Derocourt-Queant line.They formed a strong defence line.
General Gough’s 5th army would perform an attack in order to support the 3th army, which was hoping to break through at Arras. The German lines at Queant showed to be too strong. The attack was moved westwards, to the place of Bullecourt.

The first Battle for Bullecourt


Black – German frontline.
Blue – British frontline.
Green – The attack on 11 April.

10 April 1917 The offensive was supposed to commence on 9 april and was to be carried out by the British 62 Division (West Riding), west of Bullecourt. Their goal was to take Bullecourt and the Hindenburg line west of Bullecourt. More to the east, the 4th Australian Division was to attack the Hindenburg line. The aim of their charge was to capture a part of Bullecourt and the trenches east of the town. 25 Australian tanks were to support their advance.
The Australian soldiers arrived on 5 April and settled at the railway. In the days preceding the attack a heavy artillery bombardment was supposed to destroy the barbed wire.
Due to logistic problems there was not enough firepower to do so. The weather caused the roads near Bapaume to be like one big muddy ditch. Besides, during their retreat, the Germans had blown many parts of the road up with big mines. A few days before 9 April it became clear the barbed wire would not be destroyed on the planned date so the attack was moved to 12 April.


Bapaume, the end of 1916, the destructions by the Germans.
(Source: The Official History of Australia in the war 1914 – 1918 volume IV The A.I.F. in France, 1917 – C.E.W. Bean)


The field the Australians crossed on 11 April, seen from the German trech near the “digger”.


The railway where the headquarter was located in 1917.


The former railway.


The railway, in 1917.
(Source: The Official History of Australia in the war 1914 – 1918 Volume IV The A.I.F. in France 1917 – C.E.W. Bean)

On 9 April the Battle of Arras commenced. While the Canadians tried to take the ridge at Vimy, general Cough informed his men that the start of the attack would be on 04:45 in the morning, that following day.
The last preparations for the attack were made on the night of 9 to 10 April. White lines were pulled so the soldiers would be able to find their way in the dark. The battalions participating in the attack were preparing their self to go over the top


The OG line is still visible.

Because of the change of weather that night, it had began snowing, the attack was postponed for 25 hours. Besides, the tanks supporting the attack arrived late in the Noreuil valley. The tank crews would be too exhausted to participate in the charge.
The Australians managed to pull back to the railway without any losses. Unfortualy, the British faced more difficulties.
Because the order of retreat was not clear, some of the men went over the top and advanced in the direction of the German lines. When they discovered the Australians stayed in their trench, soon the retreat for the British troops was ordered. However, they suffered heavy casualties.


11 April.

 

11 April 1917

The attack was postponed to 11 April, 04:45. This time twelve tanks would advance together with the 46th battalion of the 12th brigade, the 14th battalion and the 16th battalion of the 4th brigade. six tanks would roll before the 46th battalion and another three tanks were attached to the 14th and the 16th battalion. The four tanks on the flanks were to change their direction after reaching the German barbed wire.
The tanks on the left flank, attached to the 46th battalion, would advance in the direction of Bullecourt and link up with the 62th division. After that, they were to capture the village. The two tanks on the right flank would advance westward to capture the strong Balcony trench and to destroy the barbed wire.
The rest of the tanks in the middle were to support the infantry and force a breakthrough. After that, they were to capture the small villages of Reincourt and Hendecourt.


Central road, seen from the railway.


The “Digger”, standing between OG1 and OG2.

The tanks on 11 April. In the night leading to the attack, the tanks were to move out of the Noreuil valley to take their positions in front of the battalions. One tank didn’t make it because of technical problems, and therefore only eleven tanks showed up. The captain Albert Jacka was ordered to lead the tanks to their positions.
Around 03:00 he realised the tanks would not be on their location by 04:45. His request to change the plans were declined by the headquarter.
At the start of the attack, only 3 tanks were in place. One got stuck in a muddy road and the other tanks were located behind the infantry.


A destroyed tank on the battlefield of Bullecourt.
(Source: The Official History of Australia in the war 1914 – 1918 Volume IV The A.I.F. in France 1917 – C.E.W. Bean.)

At 04:45 the tanks started rolling towards the hostile lines. Soon the first tanks got in trouble. One was destroyed by German artillery fire, near the railroad. Other tanks got stuck in the barbed wire. Due the fresh snow they were clearly visible for the Germans, making them an easy target.
The majority of the tanks was destroyed. A few tanks were lucky and managed to get a bit further, but none of them managed to reach their destination. While the headquarter was convinced two tanks were at Reincourt and Hendecourt, they were in fact not even near the two villages.
Lieutenant Skinners tank got stuck in one of the muddy roads. When it was pulled loose it moved to Bullecourt. With no British infantry in the village the tank lay under heavily German fire. A few of the crewmembers got injured. While retreating he drove in a crater. With the reverse being broken he and his crew had to abandon the tank. The men managed to find their way back to their trenches.
Tank No. 799 of Lieutenant Davies was captured by Lieutenant Scharbel’s machinegun group. Because of Scharbel’s heavily fire on the side of the tank, he managed to stop the tank. It was the first tank to be captured by German forces. Later, the tank got investigated. Thanks to the results German soldiers became equipped with armour penetrating bullets.




Explanation of the picture above:
(Source: The Official History of Australia in the war 1914 – 1918 Volume IV The A.I.F. in France 1917 – C.E.W. Bean.)

The infantry on 11 April. The attack by the two Australian didn’t go very well either and the Australians had many casualties. The aim of the 4th brigade was to capture the OG line east of the central road, and after that the town of Reincourt. The 4th brigade left their trenches at 04:45 but soon got in trouble because the barbed wire was still in tact on many places. They were soon discovered by the German machineguns.
Even though lost a lot men, they managed to capture the first and second German lines (OG1 and OG2) and they even managed take the communication trenches running towards Reincourt.
At that point the advance came to an halt because the troops ran out of ammunition and hand grenades. The Germans made several attempts to capture the OG lines via the Ostrich Avenue trench. This trench located near the Sic Cross Road, which was to play an important role in the upcoming battle in May. The goal of the 12th brigade was to capture the German lines west of the central road, and right of Bullecourt. The men on the left flank were to enter Bullecourt and to meet up with the men of the 62th British Division, after which they would take Bullecourt. The men of the 12th brigade got to they positions quickly. Because of the haste they made, some commands were misunderstood. It was the plan that the men would not

wait for the tanks to arrive, but move out of their trenches at 4:45. They men of the 12th brigade did not receive these orders, and waited for a tank to arrive. When at 5:00 they realized what had gone wrong, they went over the top, about thirty minuets late. It had become light, the Germans were warned and a heavy gunfire received them in no-man’s-land.
The 46th battalion didn’t manage to advance beyond OG 1 while the 48th battalion reached OG 2, though they suffered heavily casualties. Later in the morning, the Australians tried to consolidate the captured area and the reserves were sent up front. The headquarter was asked to bomb the flanks and the area from which German counterattacks came. The request was ignored because the headquarter was convinced there were already troops in Reincourt and the risk hitting friendly troops was considered too big. At that time, not one Australian or British soldier had set a foot in Reincourt.
The British headquarter was pleased with the attack. Especially Gough was very content with the results of the attack. The trust of the Australians in the British headquarter was low after the battles of Fromelles and Poziers. Mistakes like this one didn’t help the image of the headquatert at all.
At 10:00 the Germans started a heavy counterattack. The German 27th (Wurttenberg) Division attacked from Reincourt and managed to recapture the OG 1 and 2 trenches. 3000 Australians soldiers were killed or wounded, 1000 men were taken prisoner.


German shells
(Source: The Official History of Australia in the war 1914 – 1918 Volumr IV Thr A.I.F. in France. 1917 – C.E.W. Bean.)

The British troops of the 62nd Division didn’t have success either. They were to take the south-western part of Bullecourt, with the tanks as backup. After that, they were to meet up with the Australians. Messages came in of Australians in Bullecourt. The English could see this was not the case. Because of the absence of tanks en the stopping of the bombings, the commanders hesitated whether to continue the suicidal attack. If the English were to continue, many men would be killed. They decided not to push trough. Some patrols were sent out, but they did not manage to turn the tide.

 

The German counteroffensive of 15 April

On 13 April the 4th division was relieved of its duty’s by the 2nd division. General Gough had already made the plans to continue the offensive at Bullecourt. This time, the 5th and the 6th brigade of the 2nd division would give it a shot to try to take the Hindenburg line at bullecourt. The German general Moser of the XIV Reserve Cops planned that very same day a big counteroffensive in order to draw Brittish troops from arras.
The British were still regrouping from the attack on 11 April. His proposition was accepted by the German headquarter and it was decided that the attack would start on 15 April under the codename ‘Sturmbok’

At 04:00 on that 15 April the Germans attacked over wide front between Havrincourt and Noreuil. The 4th Ersatz division attacked south of the Bapaume/Cambrai road, north of the road the 38th division attacked. Opposite Langnicourt and Noreuil was the 3th garde division, including the Lehr regiment. The 2nd garde attacked the Australians.
In the south-west the Germans were soon stopped but north of Langnicourt and Noreuil they managed to break trough and captured a part of Lagnicourt.
In the afternoon, the German attacked became weaker, and the Australians reorganised. In a counterattack by the Allied forces pushed the Germans back.

The attack of 15 April had the effect that the Germans suffered 2000 casualties, while the Australians only lost the relative small amount of 1000 men. The counterattack did not have any influence on the operations near Arras and also preparations for the 2nd battle of Bullecourt went on as planned.


3 May.
The 2nd battle of Bullecourt 3 may 1917.


Australians at the front line.
On the left of the photo, Bullecourt is visible.
(Source: The Official History of Australia in the war 1914 – 1918 Volume IV The A.I.F. in France 1917 – C.E.W. Bean.)

The battle for Arras continued during April but the losses where high and there was little progress. The Fifth army did not engaged in any of the big attacks but they were involved in an attack planned for 3 May 1917. The attack would be on the same place the attack of 11 April had been, there were however some adoptions to the plan after the failure of the first charge. The attacked would be carried out by the 2nd Australian division, the 5th and the 6th brigade. The 7th brigade was held as reserve.
The 5th brigade was positioned right of the diagonal road, the 6th left of it. The 7th was placed near the old railroad. The lack of material to stop a German counterattack had been one of the biggest problems on 11 April. Therefore, this time the headquarter had made sure storehouses with ammunition were build near the railroad. For example, near Noreuil there is a road with the name Igri Corner.
The Germans noticed the productivity in the area and used a lot of shells to stop the construction. Many of the shells contained gas. In the night of 20 April over 3000 gas grenades were shot at the area.
To support the attack, more artillery was moved up to the front in order to destroy the barbed wire. This time, Bangalore torpedo’s were used to destroy the wire. The Australians had lost their confidence in the tanks after the failure of 11 April. Therefore, only the British troops trying to take Bullecourt itself were supported by tanks.


Igri corner, 1917


Igri Corner, now

The British 62th Divisian were to take Bullecourt itself, supported by 8 tanks of the 12th company. The goal of the Australians was to capture Reincourt and Hendecourt.
After the successful attack, the British and the Australians had to link up and advance to Hendecourt. This time, the men were to advanced in close ranks and not with gaps between the different divisions.

In the morning of 3 May the attack started at 03:45. Almost instantly the 5th brigade came under heavy machinegun fire from Reincourt. The attack came to an halt and some soldiers even returned to their trenches.
Brigade general Gellibrand realised that if the 5th brigade would failed, the whole operation would be doomed. Together with the men of the 7th brigade he advanced and pushed the men to continue fighting.
The 6th brigade found themselves in a slightly better position. The terrain on which they advanced lay lower and they were able to use the diagonal road. On the left side of the road, they managed to take parts of OG1 and OG2. On the right side, only OG1 was taken. Eventually, a part of the brigade managed to push through to the Six Cross road, but there they were stopped.
The group under command of Captain Maxfield lay on the left side of Six Cross road. It tried to stop the German counterattacks with all its force. Brigade general Gellibrand sent as many men as possible to Maxfield, but in the end the Captain was not able to hold the line. He is said to have pulled back to OG2, but has never been seen ever since. The British attack on Bullecourt did not go well after the first hours. The tanks managed to advance in the beginning but were later stopped by German fire. In the following days however, Bullecourt was captured piece by piece, very slowly. On 17 May Bullecourt had been entirely taken.
The amount of territory captured after the second attack was little. It was the part from the left part of Bullecourt to the diagonal road. During the second battle of Bullecourt, the Allied troops had defeated seven German counterattacks. The Lehr infantry regiment had been used on the counterattacks of 4, 6 and 15 May.


Six Cross road, in the direction of the railroad


Six Cross road.


Six Cross road, in the direction of Bullecourt.


Six Cross road in the direction of Reincourt.

Over 14.000 Allied soldiers were killed or injured in the battles for Bullecourt. The Australians lost 300 officers and 7000 soldiers of other ranks. The amount of territory was small, therefore, the Australians considered Bullecourt as another example of the failing British headquarter. Especially General Gough was considered guilty of the loss of human lives.


Bullecourt after the battle
(Source: The Official History of Australia in the war 1914 – 1918 Volume IV The A.I.F. in France 1917 – C.E.W. Bean


During the battles for Bullecourt, 5 Victoria crosses have been earned:
Captain J.C. Newland.
Sergeant J.W. Woods.
Lieutenant C. Pope.
Sergeant G.J.Howell.
Lieutenant R.V. Moon.


Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia

On 21 March the Australians in a trench near the forest of Vaulx saw a German airplane crashing. The pilot tried to reach the German trenches, but he was shot. When some Australian soldiers investigated, they discovered the pilot was none but Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia. He was flying an Albatros DI. For Flieger Abteilung Artillerie 258. The personal marks on his airplane were of the Leib-Husaren-Regiment 1 from Danzig (Langfuhr), his old unit.
His airplane was probably from Jasta 2, though this has not been proven for the serial number was painted. Possibibly, it was D410/16. Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia was the 2nd cousin of Wilhelm II and has been playing tennis on Wimbledon under the name of F. Karl.
During the 1912 Olympics he and his horse Gibson Boy earned a bronze medal at jumping.
Though it was forbidden for Friedrich Karl to fly over the frontline, he did it anyway on that 21 March. He was shot by Lieutenant Pickthorne. Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia died that same day in the hospital.


Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia


Prince Karl in his biplane.


His airplaine in Bapaume, 22 March 1917.


Sources:


Books:

Battleground Europe Bullecourt – Graham Keech

The Official History of Australia in the war 1914 – 1918 Volume IV The A.I.F. in France 1917 – C.E.W. Bean.

Guide to Australian Battlefields of the western front 1916-1918 – John Laffin.

Militargeschichtlicher Riesefuhrer – Markus Klauer.

 

Internet:

Digger History
Australian war memorial


Maps:
2507 O Serie Bleue Croisilles.


The field right of the central road.


Australians at an German dugout.

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