On the evening of 9th April 1917 Major Watson of the HBMGC (forerunner to the Tank Corps) had proposed a method of attacking Bullecourt using his company of twelve tanks and General Gough (Commanding the Fifth Army) had seized it with enthusiasm.
Major Watson may well have been happy to have had his idea accepted so easily but he was now saddled with the task of putting everything into action. He dashed back to his HQ in Behagnies and made out his orders.
These were with his tank crews at Mory by 1830 hours and ninety minutes later the twelve machines were on the road towards Bullecourt.
By now the Australians had detailed off the 4th and 12th Brigades of 4th Division to carry out the attack.
On the right of a road running north from their positions on the Boisleux-Marquion railway embankment the 4th Brigade would advance with all four battalions. The 16th and 14th would take the Hindenburg Line and then the 13th and 15th would continue on to Riencourt.
On the left of this Central Road the 12th Brigade would attack with just two battalions, their task being for the 46th to take the German front line and the 48th to pass through and take the second before securing the left flank for the 4th Brigade advancing on Riencourt.
In preparation for the original pre-tank plans the 4th Brigade had discovered by patrolling that there was a sunken road leading from Bullecourt towards Quéant which was; up until they moved in, unoccupied. This brought them 350 metres closer to the Germans, but there remained at least that again to go and much of it filled with swathes of barbed wire.
The 12th Brigade had been required to dig assembly trenches and as night fell patrols were sent out to check the wire. In front of Bullecourt it was not only uncut but very dense,
The patrols from 4th Brigade were led by Captain Bert Jacka VC MC (In fact the first Australian recipient of the Victoria Cross in the war). He led his party right into the wire and found that although in places it was destroyed, in other places it remained woefully intact. If General Gough was hoping to find the Hindenburg Line deserted he was going to be disappointed, for there was plenty of evidence of machine guns, working parties and German patrols.
By late evening as the Australians were bringing forward their men from the villages behind the lines, news was coming in from Third Army (the driving force behind the Battle of Arras) that things had not gone quite as well as had at first been thought. In particular in the sector immediately adjacent to the Fifth Army.
Was it necessary, Lt General Birdwood asked at 2300 hours, for the planned attack to take place. If the Hindenburg Line to their left had not been breached, and with its evident strength in front, would it not be wiser to wait, rather than rush in. The plan goes ahead, was the reply, both then, and again forty five minutes later when a second protest was made to Gough’s Staff Officer.
Thus at 0025 hours on 10th April 1917, 4th Division received its orders – the attack would take place at 0430 hours. By then the tanks would be lined up in front of the infantry. The bombardment of the German positions would continue as normal until that time, when a heavy barrage would be put down on the flanks of the re-entrant allowing the tanks to advance.
Once the tanks had occupied the German front line they would signal the infantry to advance.
It can be seen that there was a misconception here as to what tanks can and cannot do. In fact whilst a tank can take ground, it cannot actually hold it, because it becomes vulnerable. It would be vividly shown at Cambrai in November 1917 that tanks and infantry needed to cooperate to obtain the best results.
At 0100 hours the German defences were subjected to a gas attack fired from Livens projectors a recent invention which hurled a gas cylinder into the enemy lines whereupon it exploded.
The night turned bleak. It was bitterly cold with a wind that cut through the men lying out in the snow since 0230 hours, waiting on the tanks. Of the machines there was no sound at all.
As Zero hour approached, nothing. Then finally as dawn began to rise the tanks could be heard near Noreuil; an hour away for the cumbersome beasts.
The crews had been advancing through the snow as best as they could but it had been impossible to see where they were going. Now they were there they were exhausted. The sun was about to rise and if the infantry remained where they were, the Germans would within the next few minutes find six battalions lying out in the open ground.
At 0500 hours the message went out: The stunt is off. Disposition as yesterday. Move. As the frozen Australians made their way back to their lines they were concealed from view by the snow. A weak German barrage caused a few casualties amongst the 48th Bn including its Second in Command, Major Ben Leane the brother of its commander. He is buried in Quéant Road Cemetery.
The reason that the Germans had commenced the bombardment was because in a mix up over the exact meaning of the numerous orders, the British 62nd Division, on the west of Bullecourt, believing that the Australians had in fact attacked as planned, sent out strong detachments from the 2/7th and 2/8th West Yorkshire Regiment in accordance with the initial instructions for the taking of Bullecourt.
Some managed to get into the German lines but they were on their own. Casualties were heavy and once it was realised that they would have to retire, some units had penetrated beyond recall and were killed or captured.
Needless to say, the staff of the 62nd Division were not happy with the lack of communication from the Australians who should have informed them immediately that their own attack looked doubtful, as opposed to half an hour later when they called it off.
Lt General Birdwood breathed a sigh of relief however. He had been concerned about the haste of the operation all along.
But Gough was not to be put off. They would do it all again 24 hours later, and once again Birdwood would let things happen rather than make a sufficiently forceful protest.