Western Front: Battle of Bullecourt, 11 April 1917
Australians in the second line of trenches before Riencourt, near Bullecourt, clean their rifles in readiness for an attack, May 1917. (Australian War Memorial E00454)
Bullecourt was the first Australian attack on the Hindenburg Line in April 1917. This action was part of a wider British offensive, known as the Battle of Arras, which began the capture of Vimy Ridge by the Canadian Corps between 9 and 12 April. At Bullecourt the Australian infantry attack was to be led by twelve British tanks in place of the usual preliminary bombardment to cut the enemy’s barbed wire defences. The assault was timed for 4.30 am on 10 April 1917 but, due to the non-arrival of the tanks, was postponed for 24 hours.
The next day, 11 April 1917, the 4th and 12th Brigade 1of the 4th Australian Division were back in position east of the village of Bullecourt. By 4.30 am, however, only three tanks had taken their positions in front of the 4th Brigade and none had reached the 12th Brigade. The 4th Brigade advanced but the 12th Brigade waited for their tanks before advancing at 5.15 am. These early tanks were slower than a walking man and their steel was thin. Accurate shooting by the German artillery meant none reached the wire before the infantry and only one tank reached the German trenches at all.
Three members of the Australian Field Artillery fire an 18-pounder gun in action at Noreuil Valley during the fight for Bullecourt, May 1917. (Australian War Memorial E00600)
Both the German front line and support trenches were captured, but the Australians were held up as they advanced towards Riencourt village, and all the tanks were knocked out by 7 am. Seeing German troops in motion at Riencourt, Lieutenant Colonel ‘Harry’ Murray fired the SOS signal for artillery support. The signal was repeated seventeen times during the morning, but there was no answering barrage. This was due to exaggerated reports of Australian success, mainly from the air and artillery observers, causing headquarters staff in the rear to believe that the advance was proceeding. Consequently, the guns were not allowed to fire. German machine guns freely swept the open ground, not only in front but also to the rear of the Australians.
As the morning wore on, the Australian position worsened. Grenades ran out and the attempt to link the trenches held by the 4th and 12th Brigades was abandoned. Gradually the Germans drove the Australians back, and at 11.30 am it was clear that the position could not be held. With German fire sweeping the escape route, Harry Murray told his men, ‘It is either capture or go into that’. Many tried, but Murray was among the few who returned.
At 12.30 pm, the last of the Australians withdrew, helped by the artillery, which had finally been allowed to fire in support. The 48th Battalion (South Australia and Western Australia) troops in the Hindenburg Line were commanded by Captain Allan Edwin Leane, a nephew of the unit’s Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Ray Leane. Many of this battalion’s leaders were from his family, and it became known as the ‘Joan of Arc’ Battalion (‘Made of all Leanes’ 2). Captain Allen Leane went missing near the wire and Private John Robert Knight later reported that he saw Leane dead in a shell hole with a bullet in his head. Leane’s body was never recovered and he is commemorated at the Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux.
The losses of the 4th Brigade on 11 April 1917 were the heaviest ever suffered in any one action by an Australian brigade: 2,339 casualties out of 3,000 men engaged. The 12th Brigade losses were 950. For more than a year afterwards few Australian soldiers had any faith in tanks.
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1. A brigade consisted of four infantry battalions with approximately 1,000 men in each battalion. Back to text
2. Joan of Arc, the famous French medieval woman warrior, was known as the ‘Maid of Orleans’ after the French city of her birth.