In early 1917, following heavy losses in the previous year’s fighting, the Germans withdrew their forces between Arras and Soissons to between 15 and 50 kilometres from the line they held when the Somme battles of 1916 drew to a close. In so doing they were able to shorten their front and occupy stronger defensive positions known as the Hindenburg Line.
The main withdrawal occurred between mid March and early April with the 2nd and 5th Australian Divisions initially pressing the German rearguards and capturing villages that formed the outposts of the Hindenburg Line, a task that was completed by the 1st and 4th Divisions by 9 April 1917.
On that day, the British launched the Battle of Arras, an offensive designed to support a major French assault a few days later on German positions further south along the famous Chemin des Dames. This attack failed but the great success of the British attack was the capture of Vimy Ridge, to the north of the town of Arras, by the Canadian Corps.
First Battle of Bullecourt
To support the offensive in the north, the British 5th Army was ordered to attack the Hindenburg line south of Arras at Bullecourt, a heavily fortified village that had been incorporated into the German defences. The 5th Army planned the attack using the 62nd British Division from V Corps, and the 4th Australian Division from 1 Anzac Corps.
The 4th and 12th Brigades of the 4th Division were to carry out the assault east of Bullecourt supported by 12 British tanks which would take the place of an artillery barrage in breaking down the German wire.
The attack took place on 11 April 1917 and was led by the tanks, all of which were soon burning wrecks. The Australians, however, seized part of the German first and second line of trenches, achieving what many thought was impossible to do without a protective artillery barrage.
The Australians were fighting without support and were cut off from reinforcements. Allied artillery was prevented from firing to disrupt German counter-attacks due to a mistaken belief that the Australians had reached deep into the Germans’ rear. By midday, almost eight hours after the attack began, the Australians were forced to withdraw.
A second attempt to seize the Hindenburg line at Bullecourt began on 3 May 1917. The attack coincided with a renewed British offensive around Arras, and a proposed French offensive, which never got off the ground, to the south.
The Australian 2nd Division and the British troops of the 62nd Division on their left managed to take part of the German line. Several hundred metres of line in the Australian area were held, but any attempts to take more were fiercely resisted. German attacks to dislodge the Australians the following morning resulted in some of the bloodiest trench fighting of the war. Australian reinforcements, firstly from the 1st Division and later from the 5th Division, fought off counter attacks while British troops managed to seize the eastern side of Bullecourt and link up with the Australians.
A final German counter attack on 15 May was defeated after which the Germans withdrew from the ruins of the town.
Battles of Bullecourt
- First World War on Western Front
- The first attacks on the Hindenburg Line – more than 10,000 Australian casualties
First Battle of Bullecourt
- 11 April 1917
- 4th and 12th Brigade of the 4th Australian Division
- Some 3,330 Australian casualties of which 1,170 were taken prisoner – largest number captured in single battle during WW1
- 774 British casualties
Second Battle of Bullecourt
- 3–17 May 1917
- 1st, 2nd and 5th Australian Divisions
- Some 7,000 Australian casualties
- 8,119 British casualties
- Two Victoria Crosses awarded:
- • First on 6 May 1917 to Corporal
- George ‘Snowy’ Howell VC MM of Enfield NSW
- • Second on 12 May to Lieutenant Rupert Vance ‘Mick’ Moon VC of Bacchus Marsh, Victoria
- Major Henry William ‘Harry’ Murray VC, CMG, DSO & Bar, DCM of Evandale Tasmania received a bar to his Distinguished Service Order for his actions on 11 April 1917
- Names of Australian soldiers declared missing during both battles are inscribed on the Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux.
- Those killed are buried in cemeteries around Bullecourt and
- commemorated at the Bullecourt Australian Memorial Park