In the winter months of 1917, the Germans had withdrawn their men to what was known as the Hindenburg Line. The Germans fully expected an Allied spring offensive and wanted to defend against it on land they knew and on which they had built formidable defences. As they withdrew their forces, British troops advanced into the old German lines. The British planned to attack German defences at Arras on April 9th but wanted a subsidiary attack to take place at the northwest end of the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt. It was believed by British senior army commanders that once they had broken through at Arras, retreating German forces would move towards Bullecourt and be effectively trapped. The attack on Bullecourt was planned for April 10th.
Bullecourt itself was an unremarkable French village but parts of the Hindenburg Line had been actually built into the village’s western, southern and eastern parts. The 62nd (West Riding) Division was ordered to attack the western side of the village. The 4th Australian Division, part of 1 Anzac Corps, was tasked with attacking the village’s eastern side. Tanks would support both attacks.
However, just days before the attack, senior officers in the 4th Australian Division started to express doubts that they would succeed. The next town to the east of Bullecourt was Quéant and it was feared that German fire from this town would inflict large casualties on the Australians as they advanced. Men such as Major-General White of 1 Anzac Corps wanted Quéant attacked at the same time. However, the promise of accurate artillery fire on the town reassured many, though the day for the attack on Bullecourt was delayed to April 12th when reconnaissance photos showed that artillery fire had not destroyed as much wire protecting the Hindenburg Line as had been hoped.
On April 9th, the 1st and 3rd Armies attacked the Germans at Arras and Vimy. The initial attacks were successful and spread of feeling of euphoria throughout senior British ranks. It was as a result of this success, that General Sir Hubert Gough, commander of the 5th Army, brought forward the date for the attack on Bullecourt to April 10th, as it had been in the initial planning.
Gough was taken by a plan constructed by Major Watson of the Royal Tank Corps. Watson believed that a large concentration of tanks could move up to the German positions at Bullecourt with infantry following in the rear of the tanks. He believed that the general confusion of battle would mean that the tanks could advance without an artillery barrage. Once at the German trenches, the tanks could cross and destroy the barbed wire, while the infantry followed on. Gough was taken by the idea but senior Australian commanders were not. Their two biggest concerns were the sheer lack of time they had to plan the attack and the fact that they did not believe that tanks could move en masse to the Hindenburg Line without being noticed by the Germans.
The plan was for twelve RTC tanks to advance to the east of Bullecourt with men from the 4th Australian Division following on behind. Once the tanks had breached the Hindenburg Line, the Australians would move into the village and take it while the 62nd (West Riding) Division attacked the village from the west. After Bullecourt, the Australians would move northeast to their next target, Riencourt.
The attack commenced at 04.30 on April 10th, despite a last minute attempt by the Australians to postpone it, as they feared that the plan was put together too quickly and made too many assumptions about the German positions in the Hindenburg Line.
The Australians fears proved correct even at the start of the attack. The attack was delayed for 30 minutes as the tanks got lost advancing to the front. Such a start to the attack did little to inspire confidence, especially as men from the 4th Australian Division were in very exposed positions. In fact when 05.00 arrived, the tanks were still not in place and the attack was postponed for 24 hours. The Australians had to get back into defensive positions before daybreak.
Gough ordered that the attack would be exactly as planned but on April 11th. Once again the tanks were late and not all of the twelve arrived because some had developed mechanical faults. Their approach had also been detected by the Germans. The attack started at 04.45, fifteen minutes late. The Australians attacked with just three tanks supporting them. However, the first two German trenches (code-named OG1 and OG2) were taken by 05.16, though none of the three tanks reached these objectives.
4th Brigade, 4th Australian Division, attacked German positions without any tank support. Their casualties were high mainly because they attacked across exposed land without any artillery support. This occurred because 4th Brigade had not started their attack until 05.15 as they were waiting for tanks that did not arrive. The artillery had been ordered to cease firing at 05.00. Confronted by German machine guns, 4th Brigade could not avoid heavy casualties. However, they too reached OG1 and OG2 and by 07.00 the Australians had captured nearly all of the Hindenburg Line that they had been assigned to.
Divisional Headquarters was jubilant at this success – but officers on the ground were far more concerned. They realised that they were very short of ammunition and that without any form of artillery support, the Germans could easily counter attack from Bullecourt, Riencourt and Quéant. The Australians asked for artillery support seventeen times to counter any German attack but a disastrous breakdown in communications at headquarters meant that they never received this when it was asked for.
At 10.00, the Germans counter-attacked. Short of ammunition, the situation for the Australians was desperate and at 10.20 they stated to pull back to their original start line. The Germans quickly put in place machine guns and the withdrawing Australians moving across open land suffered many casualties. Only when it became known that the Australians had withdrawn did the artillery bombardment start - at 11.00.
The attack cost the Australians 3000 men, including 1,142 captured. Of the tanks that took part, only one reached Bullecourt and out of a total of 103 men in the tank crews, 52 were killed or wounded. Later German reports commented that German troops at Bullecourt were scared when they first saw the Mark I and II tanks but that by the end of the ‘First Bullecourt’ they had realised that the new weapon was very vulnerable to attacks and were mechanically far from reliable.
Initially the 62nd (West Riding) Division was blamed for not helping out the Australians but their orders had been to advance on Bullecourt once the Australians had taken the village, as opposed to the Australians capturing OG1 and OG2. Many felt that the blame lay with Gough who latched onto a plan developed by a junior officer at the last minute which gave the Australians less than 24 hours to prepare for their attack. After the battle, it was accepted that Gough’s plan – to advance infantry behind tanks through a narrow sector, get to OG1 and then fan out east and west along the Hindenburg Line – was sound on paper but that the sheer lack of time to prepare was a fatal weakness. One of the consequences of ‘First Bullecourt’ was that some Australian senior commanders lost faith in the leadership of Gough.
The First Battle of Bullecourt was followed by a second that started on May 3rd. Lessons were learned from the first battle and less emphasis was placed on tanks and artillery was given a prominent role. In the week before May 3rd, the area around Bullecourt was reduced to rubble and the wire that protected the German trenches was destroyed. There were setbacks as the Germans were well dug in but by May 17th, the Allies had captured all they had set out to achieve. Rather than rely on tanks that frequently failed at First Bullecourt, the Australians used the tried and tested creeping barrage, which worked well.
In total, the two attacks on Bullecourt had resulted in 10,000 casualties for the Australians. The Germans suffered similar casualties. The success of the second attack had proved that the Hindenburg Line was not impregnable, as the Germans had tried to make out. One very important lesson was learned though. Whenever the Germans lost ground, they counter-attacked. This resulted in heavy German casualties – men they could ill afford to lose. Therefore, whenever the Allies took German positions they planned for a counter-attack and set up machine gun posts accordingly and gave artillery units the required intelligence they needed.