Bullecourt is one of the lesser known battlefields of the Western Front, yet it was a significant campaign for the Australian Imperial Force.
The Battles of Bullecourt, on 11 April 1917 and 3 May 1917, involved huge losses and invoked a sense of distrust between Australian troops and British commanders.
Some of the heaviest criticism came from General John Monash who wrote:
‘Our men are being put into the hottest fighting and are being sacrificed in hair-brained ventures, like Bullecourt and Passchendaele …’
In 1917, the village in northern France was heavily fortified by the Germans and absorbed into the Hindenburg Line, with machine guns, belts of barbed wire, and frontline trenches.
Australian commanders were apprehensive about the British level of planning for the attack, believing it would leave their men hemmed in and vulnerable on three sides. They were also concerned there was not enough ammunition for artillery, which was still an experimental technology.
The attack was planned for 10 April but the Australians did not proceed because their 12 tanks did not arrive on time.
Communication within the Allied forces broke down and the British 62nd Division began the attack as planned, but were not told until later that the Australians had been stood down. Nonetheless, the British managed to get through the first belt of entanglements and close to the Hindenburg Line.
The next day, the Australian troops were subjected to withering machine-gun fire, and nearly a third were killed or wounded.
They broke through the German line but at terrible cost, and they fought ferociously until – as suspected – they were hemmed in and forced to retreat.
In addition, the tanks failed to be a decisive breakthrough weapon and left many bitterly disappointed. Despite this, they had sown confusion and terror among many German defenders, with the German 124th Regiment record noting:
‘The men in the trench stood there, defenceless, not knowing how they could beat the monster back. It was completely impossible to attack it from the trench …’
Less than a month later, in the Second Battle of Bullecourt, the Australians and British fought alongside each other. They took the German trenches, despite counter-attacks and artillery bombardment.
The two battles had a significant impact on the Australian Imperial Force. The first left a toll of 3,000 killed and wounded, and 1,170 taken prisoner; while the second battle resulted in 7,000 casualties.
The losses were so severe that a planned 6th Division of the AIF materialised only briefly before it was broken up to supply reinforcements.
Visitors to Bullecourt today may be surprised by the atmosphere that still permeates the former battlefield. The Australian War Memorial guidebook describes Bullecourt as:
‘Unspoiled by urban sprawl or busy roads, so there is no traffic noise to intrude on the senses. Instead, Bullecourt has a timeless, even haunting quality because its silence and stillness, and the subtle reminders of 1917 that remain, let the past speak. Just listen as you walk.’
Visitors can also visit the Jean and Denise Letaille – Bullecourt 1917 Museum which features Australian, British and German artefacts.