In any war of any consequence there are always areas of dispute and contention. Even the best of allies are known to have fallen out over some real, or imagined, failing in the way a particular action was conducted. The matter is liable to become even more contentious when an army of one nation is commanded by officers from another.
Such an event occurred on the Western Front in April/May 1917. The location was the village of Bullecourt and its environs, southeast of Arras on the Somme battlefield in Northern France. The antagonists were the 1st, 2nd , 4th and 5th Australian Divisions of the Australian Imperial Force's (AIF), 1 ANZAC Corps, and the commanders of the British Fifth Army of which the 1 ANZAC Corps was a part.
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief, British Expeditionary Force (BEF).
General Hubert de la Poer Gough, Commander British Fifth Army (BEF).
Generals William Riddell Birdwood and Cyril Brudenel Bingham White, commanders Australian Imperial Force, Major-Generals Harold Bridgwood 'Hooky' Walker, Nevil Maskelyne Smythe, William Holmes and The Honourable James Whiteside McCay commanders of the Australian 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th Divisions, AIF, respectively.
Major-Generals Thomas Herbert Shoubridge, Herbert Fanshaw and Walter Braithwaite commanders of the British 7th, 58th and 62nd Divisions respectively.
The officers and men of the Australian 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th Divisions, AIF.
The officers and men of the British 7th, 58th (2/1st London) and 62nd (2nd West Riding) Divisions, British Fifth Army, BEF.
Rationale, Objective and Planning
Since the 1916 Anglo-French Somme Offensive had failed to provide the much vaunted 'breakthrough' of the German defences on the Western Front, the minds of the Allied commanders turned to other possible ventures, including a British led attack in the Artois Sector (Arras in Northern France).
In December 1916, French General Robert Georges Nivelle replaced Joseph Jacques Césaire Joffre as the Commander-in-Chief of the French Army. General Neville immediately brought about changes in the planned British attack on the Germans in the Artois Sector. The British were asked to lengthen their lines in order to prioritise Nivelle's Grand Spring Offensive on the Aisne Sector. The British C-in-C of the BEF was pressured into compliance by the British Prime Minister - David Lloyd George - who, to ensure that proper support was given to Nivelle by the British, put Haig under direct French control for the duration of the Nivelle Offensive.
A sudden strategic volte face of the German High Command - in Operation Alberich, February/March 1917 - moved the German front line eastwards to what was to become the highly fortified Hindenburg Line. This forced Nivelle to review his plans. The British were asked to open the Nivelle offensive by staging diversionary attacks around the city of Arras.
The components of this strategy were for the British to launch attack on Vimy Ridge (First Army), Arras City (Third Army) and on the Bullecourt Sector (Fifth Army).
General Gough had been convinced that the newly arrived British tank (first used at Flers/Courcelette on the Somme in September 1916) was the new weapon that would open up a whole new means of warfare. As Gough had transferred much of Fifth Army's artillery to Third Army for the Arras Operation, he planned to use the tanks, in lieu of artillery, to support the troops by tearing down the extensive Hindenburg Line barbed wire defences and neutralising the many machine-gun nests. Fifth Army was allotted a company of tanks from the 1st Battalion of Heavy Machine Gun Corps Company: nominally, 24 Mark I and Mark II tanks (12 male, with two small mounted cannons, and 12 female, with machine guns). Unfortunately, only some of the tanks had armour plate and all were, inherently, mechanically unreliable. At the last minute, Gough was also convinced by tank experts that the tanks would make a preliminary artillery bombardment unnecessary: only supporting barrages by the Australian's own artillery would be required to support the advancing infantry.
The British attacks by First and Third British Armies around Arras began on 9 April 1917, five days before Nivelle's Offensive with five French Armies was due to begin. Some progress was achieved on parts of the Front (eg Vimy Ridge), but it did not go as far and as fast as was anticipated.
General Gough, as commander of the British Fifth Army had at his disposal the British II Corps (2nd,17th,18th and 63rd Divisions) and V Corps (7th,11th,19th, 58th, 62nd Divisions) and I ANZAC (1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th AIF Divs.).
General Gough, in consultation with Field Marshal Haig, decided to launch an attack on 10 April 1917 in the Bullecourt Sector to put additional pressure on the German defences along the new Hindenburg Line.
The First Battle Of Bullecourt
10 April 1917
General Gough decided to put the Australians in the van. Despite protestations by the Australian commanders about his unorthodox tactics (eg the over-riding reliance on the tanks and no preparatory bombardment), he decided to proceed with the attack on 10 April 1917 at 0430 hours. The main assault was to be led by the 4th Division of I ANZAC, supported by the British 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division, with the 12 tanks in the van to clear a passage through the heavy barbed wire defences and to deal with the machine-gun nests. In the midst of a blinding snowstorm, the tanks were delayed and were not in the line by zero hour. So the Australian commanders decided to postpone the attack until the tanks were ready. Unfortunately, the Australians did not inform their supporting British troops, and elements of the 62nd Division advanced, as scheduled, toward Hendecourt. They walked into a hail of machine gun and artillery fire; it was some while before they realised that the Australians had not moved forward. The 62nd subsequently withdrew having suffered many casualties.
The first disaster at Bullecourt was down to the Australians.
Nothing dismayed, Gough decided the operation would take place the next day despite the protestations of the Australian generals.
11 April 1917
On 11 April 1917, 11 of the tanks were in roughly in position at 0430 hours - zero hour. The Australian 4th Division's 12 Brigade decided to wait until all of its tanks were properly positioned. But the Australian 4 Brigade decided to press on regardless, without the tanks, along its planned line of advance to the right of Bullecourt village: a risky move since their left flank - where 12 Brigade was supposed to be - was vulnerable to enfilading fire. As planned, once again there was no preliminary bombardment to ensure a surprise element for the tanks. Nevertheless, despite heavy machine gun and artillery fire, 4 Brigade reached the first line of the German trenches and occupied them. They then moved off in the direction of the neighbouring village of Riencourt. At which point a well-sited German machine gun nest brought the brigade to a halt.
Meanwhile, 12 Brigade finally got the tanks organised by 0515 hours, and the 11 tanks set off with the men of 12 Brigade following them. But the speed of some of the tanks was so slow that the advancing infantry overtook them. The pattern of advance closely mirrored that of the 4 Brigade. After capturing the first line German trench, and part of the second,12 Brigade was halted by stiff opposition. Further advance depended on artillery support. None was forthcoming from the Australian artillery.
At 1000 hours the Germans counter-attacked with their usual fervour and efficacy. In two hours all of the first line trenches had been retaken; many of the Australian troops in the German second line trench were cut off.
As for the tanks, they had proved to be almost useless: all but one were either broken down, ditched or destroyed by artillery fire, leaving the advancing troops without a covering barrage at the critical points of the advance.
When it came to totalling up the casualties and reviewing the day's events, four facts stood out.
- Firstly, the British 62nd Division felt badly let down by the Australian commanders - Generals Birdwood, White, Walker, Smythe, Holmes and McCay - and their artillery.
- Secondly, the Australians' faith in the professional abilities of the British Senior commanders, Generals Haig and Gough, was seriously compromised.
- Thirdly, the Australian casualties were astronomical:12 Brigade had suffered 45% casualties (950 from 2,000) and 4 Brigade 78% (2,339 from 3,000), representing two-thirds of the strength of the whole of the 4th Division, and of whom over a thousand were taken prisoner. As a result, the Australian 4th Division was taken out of the line and remained so for four months until it was entirely rebuilt and retrained.
- Fourthly, the Australians, almost to a man, were completely disenchanted with the new British weapon - the tank - and refused for over a year to have anything to do with it. This may have had consequences that closely mirror those of the American Army on Omaha Beach at D-Day when the British special beach weapons (The Funnies) were similarly spurned. Subsequently, over the next year many Australian lives were lost that probably could have been saved.
The Second Battle Of Bullecourt
3 - 4 May 1917
Despite the disappointments of the First Battle of Bullecourt, the imperative for the attack on the Hindenburg Line remained on the agenda of the British Fifth Army and BEF GHQ. Therefore, more careful planning went into a second attempt, although important tactical weaknesses went unresolved. This time it was led by the 2nd Australian Division with, once again, the support of the misused British 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division. In preparation for the new attack, much of the area in and around Bullecourt village had been heavily shelled and was all in ruins.
It was accepted that the tanks would support the British 62nd Division, but the Australians insisted that they wanted nothing to do with them.
After sheltering in a sunken road, whilst a preparatory barrage raked the German defences, at 0345 hours 5 and 6 Brigades of the Australian 2nd Division, 'went over the top' towards the eastern edge of what was left of Bullecourt village. The British 62nd Division advanced towards the village itself. A creeping barrage gave the advancing troops cover.
The Australian 5 Brigade advanced as far as the first line of the barbed wire defences when they were hit by heavy machine gun fire from the front and side and brought to an abrupt halt. Thus checked some the troops started to drift back towards their own lines. Others tried to advance up the German trenches with a bit more success. But they were rigorously counter-attacked as the day went on. Obviously the Australian artillery had not destroyed all of the German defences. A second attempt by retiring troops rallied at the start line was similarly repulsed. 5 Brigade had never seriously threatened the German front line
The Australian 6 Brigade had more luck on the left of the 5th. The lie of the land gave them more cover, and they were able to surprise the Germans in their trenches. Some progress was made. The second line of the German defences was reached in some places. By late morning, lacking support on their left or right, 6 Brigade was ultimately forced to pull back by vigorous German counter attacks.
Meanwhile, the British 62nd Division approached the ruins of Bullecourt village from the left flank with mixed results. But the wire defences were penetrated and the far side of the village was reached. However, despite reinforcements, this position could not be held, and the 62nd Division were pushed back through the village having been reduced to only 100 men.
By the end of the day the Australians and British were both grimly hanging on to their limited gains awaiting their replacement. This came in the form of the Australian 1st Division and the British 7th Division.
Attempts at further advances by the new divisions were met by a determined German resistance with heavy machine gun fire from strong defence positions in the ruins of Bullecourt village. A sort of stalemate situation developed as both sides sought a way out of the costly impasse.
7 - 12 May 1917
At 0345 hours on 7 May 1917 the British 7th Division made another attempt, this time successful, to take Bullecourt village but, as usual, the German response was vigorous and the village changed hands several times over the next few days with heavy casualties on both sides.
On 12 May the Australian 5th Division gave the British 7th Division strong support, in particular capturing, or destroying, several troublesome machine gun positions and joining up with them in Bullecourt village, most of which was now in British hands.
13 - 17 May 1915
The British 58th Division took over from the 7th on 13 May 1917 on the left. On the right, the Australian 5th Division installed themselves in the former German positions. Only a small corner in the southwest of the village was in German hands.
Efforts by the Germans to oust the British from Bullecourt village on 15 May 1917 failed. At 0200 hours, on 17 May, the British dislodged the Germans from their final stronghold in the village.
The two month campaign for Bullecourt was over, with the Germans showing no evidence of an interest in a further offensive at this point of the front line. As to the strategic value of the success of the First and Second Battle of Bullecourt, there is little evidence of any great significance.
After the Second Battle of Bullecourt, which cost the Australians a further 7,500 casualties, little had changed in the attitude of the Australians to the venture.
The Australians' deep distrust of the competence of the British commanders of the BEF remained. It was much influenced by the dogged persistence of these commanders in the use of some of the methods in the Second Battle of Bullecourt that had to so clearly failed in the First. Somewhat suprisingly, this blame did not reflect to the same extent on the deficiencies of the Australians' own commanders, Birdwood, White, Walker, Smythe, Holmes and McCay. In particular, their collectively poor deployment of the Australians' own artillery had done much to make a poorly planned and conducted engagement an even greater disaster.
Serious Australian doubts about the efficacy of the tank as a weapon of infantry support were unchanged. This was despite the fact that the tanks attached to the British 62nd Division had succeeded in penetrating the German lines in the Second Battle of Bullecourt.
The Australians' wish to have the own Commanded-in-Chief became more pressing from both a political and a military viewpoint. But this was not to be realised until the appointment of General John Monash as General Officer Commanding the Australian Corps in July 1918.
Whilst unravelling the facts of this historic and corrosive row between the Australian troops and the British commanders on the Western Front, one can only be struck by the similarities of the Bullecourt situation and the screen plot of a famous Great War motion picture. The 1959 film was by Stanley Kubrick, and entitled Paths of Glory (based on the book of the same name written by Humphrey Cobb, published in 1935).
In both scenarios there is the much pressured senior commander (Nivelle = Haig) anxious to maintain 'an offensive spirit' and, faced with a flagging offensive, urging on an ambitious subordinate (Broulard = Gough), who has 'an eye on the big command' (Flanders). Added to this, is the specific promise of that big command if his (Broulard = Gough) troops succeed in the offensive. Also there is the very real anguish of the junior officers and troops who knew, from previous bitter experience, that the enemy was too strong and determined, and the attack would surely fail with almost unlimited casualties.
The scenarios of the film and what took place at Bullecourt are indeed very similar and it is difficult not to take the side of the troops, Australian and British, who were destined to see their comrades perish in this badly bungled operation. Bungled not only in concept, but also in execution, by both the British and Australian commanders, and almost all entirely due to the unwarranted confidence and sad incompetence of some, if not all, of these commanders.
Of course, there was no 'shot at dawn' scenario after Bullecourt as there was in the film. But it is highly unlikely the already angry Australian Government would have permitted it to take place even if there was.
Finally, two VCs were awarded at Bullecourt; both to infantrymen of the AIF:
6 May 1917: Corporal George Julian HOWELL, 1st Battalion, (New South Wales).
12 May 1917: Lieutenant Rupert Vance MOON, 58th Battalion, (Victoria).