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Webmatters : First Bullecourt 1917, German counter attack
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Bullecourt April 1917

First Bullecourt

The German counter-attack

The German counter attacks

The Australians having reached their initial objectives within the Hindenburg Line had to hang on in the hope that they would be supplied with sufficient munitions and that somebody at High Command would realise that they desperately needed artillery support.

In OG1 an effort was made by the Australians of the 14th and 15th Bns to bomb their way through the line as far as the 12th Brigade on the far side of the Central Road. The small group of W├╝rttembergers of the 134 IR holding the section managed to fight off attacks from both sides despite themselves having been cut off by the Australians in OG2 behind them.

The Australians would later describe this W├╝rtemberg Regiment as amongst their most tenacious adversaries.

Then, around 0930 hours more German troops started to fight their way back down Ostrich Avenue and into Cross Trench G. For a moment Emu Alley was also retaken but the Australians managed to seize back the lost ground.

By now both Brigadier Generals Brand (4th) and Robertson (12th) had finally come to realise the truth of what was happening at the front. The news coming back was that with artillery support and enough grenades and ammunition the battalions could hold: Till the cows come home.

Unfortunately they could not convince the Artillery that they needed support. The Gunners remained steadfast in their conviction that Bullecourt was being taken. When the matter was referred to him Lt General Birdwood commanding I Anzac agreed with the Artillery Commander.

Worse still was the fact that not only did the 17th Lancers gallop up ready to charge the lines and received a severe mauling for their pains but also the 62nd (West Riding) Division on the west of Bullecourt had also been led to understand by the 12th Australian Division that Bullecourt was not resisting their attack.

Fortunately by the time that the 62nd Division were ready to attack the battle was over.

 

Observers then began reporting that Australians were retiring from Riencourt. Thankfully one Battery commander realised that these men were in fact advancing Germans and laid his fire on the area between them and the captured lines.


The Digger Monument at Bullecourt

The Digger Memorial

From 1000 hours onwards the Germans had been infiltrating men down Ostrich Avenue into the gap between the two Brigades. This movement had been accompanied by a heavy bombardment on the 12th Brigade in particular.

Without grenades the Australians were never going to be able to hold their positions. On the right the 4th Brigade’s battalions sent back two runners demanding artillery intervention and grenades.

The Germans were favoured with a seemingly endless supply of grenades and put the Australians under a hail of constant bombs, forcing them back one bay at a time down the trenches.

The only way for 4th Brigade to avoid capture was to retire and the order to do so was given. The outposts on either flank were told to hold the enemy as long as possible with their meagre supply of grenades whilst the others made a bid for escape via the cross trenches and out towards Central Road itself being swept by machine gun fire.

Nine officers and handfuls of men managed to make it back to the Australian lines out of the four battalions from 4th Brigade that had left them only seven hours earlier. By 1145 hours the Germans were back in the Hindenburg Line.

On the left the Germans had managed to work their way down OG1 from both directions towards the men of the 46th Bn. Launching a furious bombing attack the Germans struck the Australians who could only reply with their last six grenades before being driven out of OG1.

Out in front of them in OG2 the 48th Bn were totally oblivious as to what was happening around them. At 1120 hours Captain Allan Leane even noted : Situation Quiet.

Moments earlier his uncle Lt Colonel Leane had asked for a barrage on Bullecourt. The wrangle as to what was happening at the front was over and at 1145 hours the artillery finally opened fire on Bullecourt.

An hour later about 150 men from the 48th Bn were seen making their way out of the Hindenburg line. These men under Captain Leane had not realised that OG1 had been retaken by the Germans until it was almost too late. They had been very nearly surrounded and had fought their way back through to OG1 where they were caught by the Australian barrage falling on the German trenches.

The position was untenable and so the final survivors of the mornings assault made their way calmly back to their own front line. Many were wounded or killed, amongst them Captain Leane who died a prisoner of war on the 2nd May.

Throughout the afternoon Australian and German stretcher parties carried in the wounded whilst observing an uneasy ceasefire. That night not a shot was fired by either side allowing further wounded to crawl their way back to the railway line.

 

The Cost

In this one day of fighting, 12th Brigade suffered 950 casualties from the 2,000 men that went into action. On their right 4th Brigade lost 2,339 casualties out of 3,000. This represents about 66% of the entire Division, with over a thousand of them prisoners caught in the counter-attacks (the highest number of Australians ever captured in a single battle).

4th Division had been wiped out in one day, and it would take months for it to recover.

The damage done to the trust between the Australians and the British was just as bad. The feeling within the Australian ranks was that the attack had been ill-conceived and rushed through without any proper planning, relying on tanks to make up for the lack of artillery support.

The tank commanders had been incautiously ambitious, proposing an assault plan which had never been tested and for which by their own admission they were untrained. The basics of the plan were sound enough but inter-arm training was non-existent and the machines still too fallible.