Bullecourt is a village South East of Arras.
Lat: 50° 11′ 32″ N
Lon: 2° 55′ 42″E
It was well behind the front line and in German hands from 1914. During late 1916 and early 1917, the formidable construction known as the Siegfried Stellung (Hindenburg Line to the British) incorporated the village into the defensive system. German forces withdrew from the Somme area in March 1917 and Bullecourt became a front line location when the British Army advanced. By 2 April, the British Fifth Army had captured the chain of outposts of the Hindenburg Line system between Croisilles and Doignies.
Aerial view of Bullecourt, April 1917. AWM image J00276, with my thanks. Note the zigzag line of the main German trench system, and the dark areas (such as the arrowhead shape on the left) which are deep barbed wire belts protecting the trenches from British attack. The straight road heading south-ish (just left of the AWM watermark” is the D10E road seen on the map above.
By 8 April 1917 the two front lines were as shown above. The red marks the forward system of the Hindenburg Line, snaking around the “front “of Bullecourt; the dark blue is the British front..
An oblique aerial view of Bullecourt dating to 1918. AWM image A00664, with my thanks. The village is utterly destroyed, with just a few walls left standing after the devastating bombardments of spring 1917. As with all towns and villages in the zone of fighting, the work of reconstruction after the war was prodigious. Bullecourt is once again a quiet, rural village.
The aborted First Attack on Bullecourt, 10 April 1917
With the intention of assisting Third Army’s major offensive at Arras (this fighting being a few miles NW of Bullecourt and to begin on 9 April), Fifth Army (Gough) issued orders on 5 April for an attack on a 3500 yard front against Bullecourt. The British V Corps and 1 ANZAC (Birdwood) was to carry out the task, which included the second objective of the capture of Riencourt and Hendecourt, beyond Bullecourt. Gough wanted to start on 9 April at the same time as Third Army attacked, but inadequate artillery resources meant that it would take at least eight days to cut the enemy barbed wire. Time was of the essence, and this was too long.
An idea brought forward by “D” Tank Battalion caused Gough to reconsider and change plan. The attack front was now narrowed to 1500 yards (ignoring important learning from 1915 and 1916 regarding the breadth of attack frontages) and the battalion’s 12 tanks would lead, going through the wire before any artillery bombardment had taken place. The infantry would simply follow them through. Furthermore the tanks would be widely dispersed, in pairs (which was contrary to current thought amongst tank officers). Despite the tanks being 4 miles away at Mory, Gough ordered the attack to commence on 10 April. The infantry attack would now be carried out only by the 4th Australian Division (Holmes), and once it had cleared Bullecourt the British 62nd Division (Braithwaite) would come up on its left to capture Hendecourt. The Aussies would also fan out right to capture Riencourt. Ominously, despite some belief (among high command) that the Germans might be looking to evacuate the line, patrols reported that the Hindenburg trenches were strongly held and the wire only partly damaged by what little bombardment had taken place so far, although in some areas clear lanes had been cut.
No man’s land was 600 yards across (that is, the tanks and infantry had to cross 600 yards of fire-swept ground before even reaching the German trenches; perhaps 500 before they even met the enemy barbed wire defences).
Holmes issued orders for his 12th Brigade to attack on the left and 4th on the right, at 4.30am. Dawn was 1 hour and 48 minutes later, so this advance was to be made in the dark, under grey skies with flurries of snow, across snow covered ground. Bullecourt was doused with poison gas from mortars and projectors at 1am.
The tanks did not arrive. With six Australian assault battalions lying out in no man’s land in the snow, a desperate decision was taken to postpone the attack. It was found that the tanks were still an hour and a half from their start points (at best they could do 4mph; in reality, more like 1-2 mph). Incredibly, the imminent attack was not spotted by the Germans and the Australians were able to withdraw without serious loss although enemy artillery fire falling on the withdrawing 48th Battalion killed or wounded 21 men. Patrols from the British 62nd Division on the west of Bullecourt, which were not informed of the Australian decision, advanced as ordered and were cut down by machine gun fire as they approached the enemy wire in front of the crucifix. 162 men, mainly of the 2/7th West Yorkshires, became casualties.
The First Attack on Bullecourt, 11 April 1917
Despite the appalling mess made on 10 April, with only slight changes of plan the attack was ordered to take place 24 hours later. Patrols had now confirmed that some gaps did exist in the wire, and thus the Australian infantry was ordered to advance 15 minutes after the tanks had started, regardless of the tanks progress. But again, only four tanks of eleven (one was already out of action) arrived on time to deploy as ordered. Three of them were in the area of 4th Australian Brigade, as shown below:
Above: a sketch map from the Australian Official History, with my thanks.
Struggling forward, the tanks made little impact, although their appearance encouraged the German artillery to switch attention onto them, which perhaps assisted the Australian infantry to some extent. At 4.45am the infantry began their attack, overtaking the few tanks and finding them of no assistance in having breached the wire. Taking advantage of the gaps that had been cut by shellfire in the first wire defences, and finding some ways through the second set of wire, the 14th and 16th Battalions AIF (4th Brigade) got into the enemy trenches and fought with bomb and bayonet; they were joined there by elements of the 13th and 15th Battalions.
Next to them and possibly due to orders which were not clear, 46th Battalion AIF of 12th Brigade with 48th in support waited for the tanks to arrive before they advanced. Even by 5.10am only one had appeared, and orders were given for the infantry to go. With the British artillery by now having lifted, these two units met with heavy German fire.
Both brigades sustained heavy casualties but by 6.50am they were on their objectives in the Hindenburg Line, although elements of 46th and 48th had not reached theirs, mainly due to losses. A bombing party of 4th Battalion advanced 150 yards along the trenches toward Riencourt but in general the attack was held in the Hindenburg Line and few reinforcements could get through. Desperate calls for a renewed infantry barrage to assis a further advance were denied, as reports had been received that tanks and British troops were now in Bullecourt: these reports were false. The same news encouraged 62nd Division to advance into Bullecourt, but this soon proved an impossibility.
Encouraged by early reports, Gough ordered the 4th Cavalry Division (Kennedy) to begin to move: its Lucknow Brigade was to move first from its position west of Ecoust St Mein, with a view to advancing to Fontaine-les-Croisilles and Cherisy. An advanced party attampted to move foeward to cut the wire 3/4 mile east of Bullecourt but lost 20 men to machine gun fire. Eight men of the 17th Lancers were hit as the regiment moved up past Longatte, but could get no further.
With little artillery support the Australians faced a series of German counter attacks that developed from around 10am. Casualties and a dwindling supply of bombs led to the units of 4th Brigade gradually withdrawing; many men fell or were taken as POWs. 48th Battalion was surrounded and cut off, yet amazingly a remnant managed to withdraw under very heavy fire.
In this ill-planned, ill-managed affair the 4th Australian Brigade suffered 2258 men killed, wounded or missing out of some 3000 who went into action. 12th Brigade lost another 909. In all German casualties are believed to have amounted to 750.
On 13 April the battered 4th Australian Division was relieved by the 2nd.
Two days later the Germans launched an attack east of Bullecourt, aiming at Lagnicourt. It was repelled with heavy losses.
The Second Attack on Bullecourt, 3 May 1917
The Third Army’s offensive at Arras had slowed to become an attritional nightmare. Although Gough wished his Fifth Army to attack Bullecourt again, the operation had now become one to support Arras rather than take advantage of it. Several postponements occurred after initial orders were issued as early as 12 April: the second attack did not take place until 3 May. By this date, Sir Douglas Haig had already decided to close down the Arras operations: “Second Bullecourt” was now undertaken to pin down German reserves, keep his attention from the mutinous French Armies and in the hope that the enemy would abandon the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt. It turned into two weeks of fighting of the fiercest nature, win which six British and Australian divisions participated.
Above: a map from the British Official History. Crown Copyright.
Compared to the 11 April operation in which a single Australian division attacked, the second attempt was larger. The 1st Anzac Corps (Birdwood) remained in the same area, employed one division (2nd Australian) and would not use tanks again; the British V Corps also now joined in, used one division (62nd (West Riding)) and would use tanks. Both were ordered to reach and hold the Hindenburg Support trench on a front of some 4000 yards (which meant capturing Bullecourt); they would then advance to the Fontaine-Queant road; and even go beyond that to take Hendecourt and Riencourt. Much more and heavier artillery was now in place, as were large stocks of ammunition, and the bombardment of the targets began in earnest from 12 April. Bullecourt was all but flattened and the area became the completely devastated zone as seen in the image above. Nothing was left to chance in this set-piece operation, compared to the sketchy and urgent affair that had been the attack of 10-11 April. The infantry would advance behind a creeping barrage, supported by Stokes mortars; massed machine guns were employed.
Attacking in moonlight at 3.45am the 5th Australian Brigade on the right soon got into difficulties. Hit by devastating crossfire, the order was given to retire and the attacking units did so – but brigade HQ was not informed, success rockets were fired by a few men who did get through, and the situtaion was obscure for much of the time. On their left, 6th Brigade fared better, entering the Hindenburg Line first trenches, (although 22nd Battalion was hit by fire from the village and also fell back by 4.30am): it pressed on, with numbers falling, to the second objective. Some men of 24th Battalion reached the tramway seen on the map. On the brigade’s left, hand to hand fighting was now taking place in the trenches and ruins of Bullecourt. It was now clear to 6th Brigade HQ (Gellibrand) that a further advance to the distant objectives was not likely, and calls for a protective artillery barrage were finally answered at 7am. Meanwhile 25th Battalion, ordered to attack to assist the floundering 62nd Division, met with heavy fire and could make no headway.
62nd (West Riding) Division attacked using all three of its brigades, supported by ten tanks of “D” Battalion and with 22nd Brigade of 7th Division in reserve at Mory. It was the division’s first major engagement since arriving in France. Despite heavy fire and close-in fighting, the 2/5th West Yorkshire penetrated through to the northern outskirts of Bullecourt, but reinforcements could not reach them.On the left, the battalions of 186th and 187th Brigades met with mixed success, with some men getting as far forward as the factory (see map). Three tanks entered the village and others got through the Hindenburg Line NW of it, but were outpaced by the infantry and then found them falling back. Attempts to reinforce the parties that had advanced the furthest proved costly and fruitless, and by noon all except those at teh factory had been killed or captured. Orders were hurriedly sent to 22nd Brigade to assist, but it was not until 10.30pm that the 2nd HAC and 1st Royal Welsh Fusiliers came into action, and they very soon faced counter attacks. At 4am on 4 May a heavy German bombardment hit the 2nd Royal Warwickshire and 20th Manchesters while they formed up ready to advance.
For all the efforts of 3 May, only a small lodgement had been made in the enemy system, by 6th Australian Brigade.
I’ll be adding more to this page shortly.
Cemeteries and memorials today
There are no military cemeteries in the Bullecourt area. The nearest ones are in Ecoust St Mein.
This memorial is in the grounds of the village church. It commemorates the Australian and British soldiers who fell in the area in April-May 1917. The Aussie slouch hat is obvious: the symbols are those of the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th Divisions of the AIF and the British 58th, 62nd and 7th Divisions. The red, white and blue roundel is the mark of the organisation “Souvenir Francais”.
This memorial to “D” Battalion of the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps (tanks) is in the grounds of the village church. Below it is a portion of one of the tracks of tank 586, which under Lieutenant Clarkson was destroyed between Bullecourt and Riencourt. “D” Battalion was deployed at Bullecourt on 11 April and 3 May 1917.
This wonderful statue of the “Digger” in full front-line uniform and equipment is the centrepiece of the Bullecourt Memorial Park. This is a few hundred metres from the village centre along the road to Riencourt and is in the area of the Aussie attack in 1917. Unveiled on Anzac day in 1993, the statue is the work of sculptor Peter Corlett. It commemorates the 10,000 Australian soldiers killed or wounded in this area.
As with all Australian memorial sites in France, the park contains well presented information. Bullceourt can be seen in the distance.
A few more hundred metres on down the same road towards Riencourt is this little cross, “La Petite Croix”, erected in 1982 to commemorate the Australians who died in this area and who have no known grave. Attached are a number of unit and individual memorial plaques. It appears as “Mon.” on the map at the top of this page.
The fields across which the Australian Divisions attacked (advancing towards the camera: Bullecourt is off to the right) and where so many lost their lives. Peaceful farmland once again, these fields still contain the lost remains of many Australians. Their names are commemorated at the national memorial at Villers-Bretonneux; the British missing of Bullecourt are named at the Arras Memorial.
The Bullecourt WW1 Museum, opened in 2012, is based on the collection and life’s work of the late Jean and Denise Letaille. It is well worth a visit. There is a Facebook page for Friends of the Bullecourt Museum.
Good reference books regarding Bullecourt
British Official History, Military Operations, France & Flanders, 1917, volume 1
“The blood tub” by Jonathan Walker – at Amazon
“Bullecourt 1917: breaching the Hindenburg Line” by Paul Kendall – at Amazon
“Bullecourt” (Battleground Europe) by Graham Keech – at Amazon
Divisional, regimental and battalion histories.
GPS and travel notes
Download our GoogleEarth KMZ file here for locations of the memorials and museums in the area
Bullecourt is a small village with no accommodation. It has a small cafe-bar that provides limited possibilities for eating. The nearest selections of accommodation are in Arras, Cambrai and Bapaume.
See more places in Gazetteer of the Western Front