The first battle at Bullecourt was swiftly followed by a second. First Bullecourt had been badly marred by a series of fundamental errors – lack of preparation time, poor communications and a reliance on tanks. Second Bullecourt learned from these errors and though more Australians were lost at Second Bullecourt that First Bullecourt, this was more a result of the type of war fought in World War One as opposed to any major tactical errors.
The Australian’s 4th Division had taken large casualties at First Bullecourt and it was taken out of line for the second attack. They were replaced by the 1st Division that had been based a few miles to the south of Bullecourt.
The Germans launched a major offensive against the Australian positions on April 15th 1917. Four German divisions attacked along a six-mile line but they were repulsed by the 1st Division that had built good defensive positions.
General Nivelle launched his attack on Chemin des Dames on April 16th. It was a failure and caused so much unrest in the French Army that over 30,000 men mutinied. The failure of the Nivelle Offensive convinced senior British military commanders that any future attacks had to be constrained by limited and attainable objectives as opposed to grandiose plans as to ‘what might happen if we succeed’.
A large attack by Allied forces was planned along the whole of Vimy Ridge. The attack would involve 14 divisions from the First, Third and Fifth armies. On the extreme right of the attack was Bullecourt and what became known as ‘Second Bullecourt’ started on May 3rd.
In this second attack, the Australians were supported by the 62nd (West Riding) Division and they were to receive wholesale artillery support. In the week leading up to May 3rd, Bullecourt was reduced to rubble and a great deal of the wire protecting the German lines had been destroyed.
The 2nd Australian Division and 62nd Division were ordered to attack and capture OG1 and OG2. From these trenches, they were ordered to advance to the Fontaine-Moulin Sans Souci Road. From here, the 62nd were ordered to attack the village of Hendecourt while the 2nd Division was ordered to attack Riencourt; both were villages about 2000m northeast from Bullecourt. The 62nd attacked with tank support while the 2nd preferred to use the tried and tested creeping barrage provided by artillery. As both advanced from OG1 and OG2 to their respective targets, it was planned that both would join up as both villages were only 1000m apart.
The actual attack started at 03.45 and by 04.16 OG1 and OG2 had been captured. By 05.45, the Australians had reached the Fontaine-Moulin Sans Souci Road and were only 400m from Riencourt.
The 62nd Division managed to get into Bullecourt. Here they found that the rubble created by their own artillery gave the German defenders numerous places to hide and by 16.00 they had been driven out of the village. German records noted that eight tanks supporting the 62nd were destroyed and that the two that were left withdrew from the battlefield.
At 08.50 the Germans launched a counter-attack against the Australian positions. While the Australians had done well, officers on the ground believed that their manpower was too thinly spread over too large an area. With 62nd Division unable to offer support, a decision was taken to withdraw the Australians from their most advanced positions. This would be done under the cover of artillery fire. Unfortunately, the artillery cover landed 200m short of its target and dropped on the Australians. It took 30 minutes to get the survivors back to OG1 and OG2.
A night attack was made on Bullecourt but this failed. Another attack was ordered for 04.30 on May 4th. It was a temporary success but another German counter-attack pushed back the Allied force.
Another attack was planned for May 7th. While major gains were made around Bullecourt, the village as a complete whole was not captured and a German counter-attack was inevitable. This came on May 15th but any German gains were only temporary. On May 17th, the Australians made another attempt to capture Bullecourt but found that the Germans had withdrawn from their positions. The capture of the Bullecourt salient ensured that the Allied frontline was now complete.
The Australians lost 7,000 men at Second Bullecourt. When compared to the casualty rates at the Somme or Verdun, these losses seem small. However, tank warfare should have improved in the months after the Somme, as should have communication between those on the frontline and those in the rear. What happened at Bullecourt did a great deal to undermine Australian confidence in the senior army commanders in the British Army. However, the two battles did show that the Hindenburg Line was not impregnable, as the Germans had stated. The German losses at Bullecourt totalled 10,000, which meant that inexperienced reservists were pushed into future conflicts