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Webmatters : Second Bullecourt 3rd May 1917
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Bullecourt May 1917

Second Bullecourt

If General Sir Hubert Gough in Command of the British Fifth Army had had his way he would have made his second attempt on Bullecourt (third if one includes the fiasco of the 10th) within days of the destruction of the Australian 4th Division.

On his left, however, General Allenby’s Third Army had been brought to a halt whilst on the 16th April 1917, the French embarked on their offensive to reconquer the Chemin des Dames in Général Robert Nivelle’s supposed master plan.

Arras was being fought by the British as a lure to draw Germans away from the Aisne Valley. In fact the Germans were well aware of the French plans and had already moved numerous divisions in preparation to meet Nivelle’s offensive.

On the very first day of its offensive the French Army was so badly mauled by the appalling casualties and loss of confidence in its leader that it can be argued that it was never the same again.

Field Marshal Haig was confronted with the position that he was no longer the side show — he was the main event. Haig had his own plans for Ieper and the relief of the Belgian coast but for the moment agreed to pursue Arras as a gesture of solidarity.

As things turned out Allenby was unable to continue his offensive for some time and this gave the Fifth Army time to actually prepare for a second bite at Bullecourt. For its second attempt on the village the 2nd Australian Division would be used on the right and the Australians refused to be lumbered with tanks — they wanted an old fashioned artillery bombardment.

On the left of the village the British 62nd (West Riding) Division were still in place and would attack alongside the Australians (and they would have the tanks).

At Favreuil, in the rear area, soldiers practised their attacks over similar ground, whilst the artillery reduced Hendecourt and Riencourt to rubble.

Unfortunately the Australian Artillery was so tunnel visioned about what was in front that they overlooked the Quéant flank

The date of the attack by First, Third and Fifth Armies was set for: 3rd May 1917.

 

3rd May 1917 – 2nd Australian Division

The 5th Brigade were on the right of the Central Road and Brigadier General John Gellibrand’s 6th Brigade on the left.

Zero was set for 0345 hours.

This time there would be no gap between the two brigades and instead of being the feared death trap, the Central Road had been discovered to offer some protection especially from fire coming from the right.

5th Brigade

Fire from the right proved to be exactly the problem for 5th Brigade. Leading the attack the 17th and 19th Battalions managed to reach the wire but were raked by machine gun fire from both the German front line (called OG1) and the Balcony Trench situated in front of Quéant.

The officer who had conducted the recce the day before had reported the problem of exposure to machine gunners on the right of the Brigade and had been told to keep quiet – everything was in hand.

Second Bullecourt

Second Bullecourt

The situation became increasingly confused as the men bunched in front of the wire which was still littered with dead from 4th Brigade. Somewhere an officer shouted to the men to pull back and this is what happened. The assault on the right had finished before it had even begun.

In his Headquarters back in Noreuil Brigadier General Bob Smith had little idea as to what was going on or why, but it was obvious to Gellibrand in his HQ at the railway embankment, just behind his men, that 5th Brigade had stalled.

6th Brigade

Despite the advantage of a bombardment on Bullecourt and the attention given by the Australian Machine gunners to the village, the 22nd Bn suffered high casualties on the extreme left as they went forward.

In the righthand column the 24th Bn followed by the 23rd gained the front line (OG1) and then moved on towards the German Support line (OG2) which they took at 0420 hours. The timetable required them to move on immediately to the next objective: a German tramway near a position known as Six Cross Roads, but they could see that neither the 22nd Bn nor the 21st Bn had pushed forward on the left and worse, 5th Brigade could be seen retiring on the right.

 

Captain Maxfield's position

Captain Maxfield’s position was in the fields just short of Riencourt

 

The momentum had to be kept going and Captain Gordon Maxfield led a party out to Six Cross Roads. At 0524 hours, a minute earlier than scheduled he messaged back that they were in position and out on their own.

In an attempt to shore up his position Gellibrand now sent one of his own officers : Captain Walter Gilchrist, out to round up the men of 5th Brigade and lead them forward. Some 200 followed him back to the German lines – many didn’t.

 

62nd (West Riding) Division

The 62nd (West Riding) Division

The 62nd (West Riding) Division

The 185th Brigade had been allotted the task of taking Bullecourt village and were thus the men that the Australians were most anxious to see. On the right the 2/6th West Yorkshires were met by the same hail of fire that had brought the 22nd and 21st Australians to a halt.

On their immediate left however the 2/5th West Yorkshires had found the wire well cut and had not only gained OG1 but also pushed on through the village. Coming up in reserve, the 2/7th West Yorkshires was forced back by a hail of bullets and never managed to locate the whereabouts of the remnants of the 2/6th Bn.

On the left side of the village, units became confused as battalions attempting to move around uncut wire became intermingled. The 2/5th Duke of Wellington’s on the right of the 186th Brigade eventually managed to get into the village and made contact with the 2/5th West Yorkshires.

Profiting from the breach the two reserve battalions from 186th Brigade pushed through on the right and managed to set up a number of posts. One of these was out the far side of the village near a factory and thus only a thousand metres west of Captain Maxfield and his party of Australians – unfortunately neither could see the other.

The tanks available had been more productive than during the first battle, but for the most part managed to either outdistance the supporting infantry or found the said infantry already retreating. Reserves were sent forward but to no avail. By midday what progress had been made had been lost. The 2/5th West Yorkshires had been forced out of the village. Only a hundred men from 2/6th Bn returned to the trenches, the rest had been killed, wounded or captured.

By noon it was evident that the attack by the 62nd Division had failed and 7th Division were ordered up to the front to continue the assault. This was not going to happen immediately and it was 2230 hours before their first attempt to push men into Bullecourt was attempted – and repulsed.

The only success of the day had been the 6th Australian Brigade who were now grimly hanging on to their captured ground as the Germans pressed them from three sides.