The 1st and 2nd Battles of Bullecourt
Most of our ANZAC Day tours visit Bullecourt.
Bullecourt is a very small village (population approx 250) located in northern France, approximately 11 miles south west from the city of Arras. The town is associated with ANZAC history because of two battles fought here during April and May 1917. These battles were part of a much larger operation called the Battle of Arras.
The Battle of Arras (9 April to 16 May 1917) was a major Allied offensive, involving troops from Britain, Canada, Newfoundland and ANZAC Soldiers. The aim of the attack was to capture parts of the Hindenburg line which was on high ground facing the allies, and also divert German soldiers away from a new massive French attack (called the Nivelle Offensive) which was also going to take place at the same time approximately 50 miles further south. With this in mind, the allies attacked a broad area of land from Vimy Ridge in the North to Bullecourt in the South. ANZAC soldiers were asked to attack in the south and in particular, the village of Bullecourt.
The First Battle of Bullecourt took place on 10 and 11 April 1917. The plan involved the British 62nd division and the Australian 4th division. The battle plan was quite simple, the British would attack west of Bullecourt and head towards Hendecourt, and the Australians would attack east of Bullecourt and head towards Riencourt. Instead of a pre-battle bombardment, the Australians would follow tanks into battle.
On the morning of 11 April the 4th and 12th Brigade of the 4th Australian Division were in position east of the village of Bullecourt, but due to the weather and mechanical failures only a handful of tanks were in position to support. The attack went ahead anyway at 4.30am, and after some heroic fighting, the Australian soldiers broke through the German lines and were heading towards Riencourt. However by 7am the advance was halted and all the tanks were immobilized. The Australians could see Riencourt and could see the German army mobilizing reinforcements for a counter attack, so the Australians called for artillery support to clear the path in front of them. However reports from the air suggested the Australians had already reached Riencourt, so HQ did not want to bomb a village full of Australian soldiers. The request for artillery support was sent another 17 times, but ignored on every occasion. Eventually the Germans counter attacked, and despite another attempt to capture Riencourt, the Australian soldiers were forced to retreat to where they started. The losses of the 4th Brigade on 11 April 1917 were horrendous, out of the 3000 men who took part, there were 2,339 reported casualties. The 12th Brigade also reported losses of 950 of their 2000 men.
After the failure of the 1st Battle of Bullecourt, the British launched an intense bombardment of Bullecourt which flattened the village by mid April.
The Second Battle of Bullecourt took place from 3 to 17 May 1917. Again the battle plan was simple, on 3rd May the British 62 division would attack Bullecourt head on, and the Australian 2nd Division would attack south of the village. The attack commenced at 3.45am, and after some heroic fighting, some Australian soldiers used a sunken road for cover and captured part of the Hindenburg line, but the British had not made any progress in taking Bullecourt village. This meant the Australian’s who had advanced were protecting a narrow piece of land which jutted out into German positions, and were surrounded on three sides by the Germans, but bravely they held their new positions.
The battle raged for days, and it was on the 7th May after 4 days fighting the British 62 Division eventually took Bullecourt and pressure on the Australians lifted. The Australian 5th division replaced the Australian 1st Division, and they had to see off another large German counter attack on 15 May. The battle slowly came to an end on 17 May 1917, and although Bullecourt was in allied hands, Riencourt and Hendecourt still belonged to the Germans. All in all, the British 62 Division lost so many men it was devastated as a fighting unit, and the Australians lost over 7,000 men in what one historian called “small, tactically useless piece of ground”. To make matters worse, the French Nivelle Offensive had also largely failed.
After the war, Bullecourt was completely rebuilt, but in the early 1980s did not have any memorials to remember those who fought here. In 1981 a Bullecourt school teacher, Claude Durand raised funds for a memorial outside the church, a bronze ANZAC slouch hat and plaque. The Australians built a memorial park in 1992, and a fantastic statue of a digger was added in 1993. During our ANZAC Day tour, you will visit Bullecourt, see the slouch hat and digger memorials, and our professional WW1 guides will show you the battlefields and answer any questions you may have.
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