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Webmatters : First Bullecourt 1917, the Germans at Lagnicourt
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Bullecourt April 1917

The Germans at Lagnicourt

15th April 1917

Despite the failure of his offensive General Sir Hubert Gough commanding the British Fifth Army was confident that a second attempt over the same ground using much the same means would be successful.

In order to concentrate as many troops as possible for the 11th April the 1st Australian Division covering the right flank of the Anzac Corps had been required to cover a frontage of some 11 kilometres from just south of Riencourt as far as the Canal du Nord (which was still under construction) near Havrincourt Wood.

It was only the fact that the Germans were themselves in the act of retiring to their newly constructed fortifications that Gough could have permitted such an extended front (in comparison, the 4th Division was concentrated on just 2.5 km).

The 1st Australian Division’s line was held in depth, that is with a meagre front line and units in reserve ready to riposte any attempted return to the offensive by the Germans. With such a wide front however some of the outposts were as much as 500 metres apart and held by perhaps just a dozen men who could not necessarily see the neighbouring post.

General Gough now had the battle worn 4th Australian Division relieved by their 2nd Division in preparation for his second tentative against Bullecourt. In order to try and persuade the Germans that an attack could come from anywhere along the front he ordered the 1st Division to close up with the German lines: to within a kilometre.

 

General Otto von Moser

On the opposite side of the line General Otto von Moser was from much the same mould. Having been offered an extra division on the 13th April he decided there and then that attack was the best means of defence.

He would attack the Australians before they were completely entrenched and whilst they were still demoralised from their beating on the 11th. Von Moser drew up his orders and these were forwarded to the units concerned on the 14th for an attack the following morning.

And so just before dawn on the 15th April numerous Australian sentries heard noises which sounded like troop movements within the German lines. It quickly became apparent that the Germans were advancing with four divisions on almost the entire front of the 1st Division and the right hand battalion of the 2nd Division in the trenches facing the Bullecourt battlefield.

On the right the 1st Australian Brigade held pretty much firm but on the left, 1500 metres north of Lagnicourt at the junction of the 12th Bn (1st Div) and the 17th Bn (2nd Div) the Germans managed to rupture the line.

Captain Vowles was commanding the soldiers of the 12th Bn on their extreme left and realised that the situation was dangerous. With no flares available to summon assistance he decided that in the face of superior forces that he would fall back towards Vaulx-Vraucourt.

The problem with this retirement was the that the forward batteries of the Australian artillery were all situated within the immediate area of his current position. The initial German infiltration had been carried out without a covering barrage – but once the German artillery did open up to support the advance, many a commander awoke to discover that the Germans were almost upon them.

All four batteries of 2nd Brigade had to be abandoned because the gunners had no small arms with them, (they been left behind in Bapaume to be brought forward at a later date). The three batteries of 1st Brigade became vulnerable in their turn and these were also dismantled and abandoned.

The right flank of the 2nd Division was held by the 17th Bn and its soldiers fell back in good order on a position held by their reserves under Captain Sheppard. The Germans were held.

 

A heroic dash

On the other side of the breach Captain Newland fought a steady retreat to the east of Lagnicourt as far as the Doignies Road (where Captain Cherry VC had gained his Victoria Cross during the taking of Lagnicourt).

Just after 0500 hours Newland found his position coming under fire from behind his position as Germans crept out of Lagnicourt and attempted to set up a machine gun.

Sergeant Whittle one of Newland’s party realised the danger and without a word charged across the ground, bombed the German crew and brought back the machine gun (an action for which he was awarded the VC).

The Germans managed to push on between Noreuil and Lagnicourt but they were becoming more and more surrounded by Australians, who, having weathered the initial attack were moving forward reserves and shelling the German advance from three sides. Von Moser’s grand counter attack had shot its bolt.

The Germans were hustled out of the valley and by 0830 hours many of the Australians were already back in their original positions and discovered rather to their surprise that most of the abandoned guns had been left unmolested and were recuperated intact.