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France 1917: Advance to the Hindenburg Line
Like men at a country fair – The occupation of Bapaume
From the Butte de Warlencourt and Warlencourt British Cemetery it is but a short drive along the D929 to the town of Bapaume. To drive this road from the hill east out of Albert is to traverse the old Somme battlefield of 1916 over ground in which thousands upon thousands of soldiers lie buried, some in marked graves and many simply in the fields and forests from which their remains were never recovered. Villages whose names were once well known throughout the British Empire and Commonwealth lie a few kilometres off the road – Flers, Mametz, Thiepval, Martinpuich, Contalmaison. The names of two villages – Pozières and Bapaume – define the direction of the journey of the men of the Australian Imperial Force across this battleground between July 1916 and March 1917.
By mid-March 1917, the German army’s withdrawal from the Somme to the newly created Hindenburg Line was in full swing. Australian units followed closely on the heels of the enemy along the main road and through villages to the left and right such as Grévilliers and Thilloy, inching closer and closer to Bapaume. As they advanced they could see ahead of them clear signs of German movement as heavy clouds of smoke rose from the enemy’s destruction of villages to the east of Bapaume and from Bapaume itself.
At night, Australian patrols went forward to make contact with the Germans and to try to discover just what enemy strength lay in front of them. These sorties were not without loss, as the German rearguard was alert to them. On the night of 15 March 1917, a patrol from the 57th Battalion (Victoria) was out in front of Beaulencourt, a village 4 km south of Bapaume. German machine-gunners hit eleven men in the patrol and killed Lance Corporal Brian Saltau, described by Charles Bean as ‘an active leader’. Saltau’s mate, Private George Allen, wrote that he was beside Saltau, close to the German barbed wire, when a machine-gun bullet hit Saltau in the neck. The patrol returned without the body and Lieutenant David Keyes sent them out again to bury Saltau, who was ‘held in great esteem by the men of the regiment’. Saltau’s grave was subsequently lost and his name is recorded among the missing on the walls of the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.
On the morning of 17 March 1917, the 30th Battalion (New South Wales) was getting close to Bapaume. About a kilometre ahead of them, over open ground to the west of the town, they could see the old ramparts covered with grass and trees but there was no-one defending them. The Germans had gone. The race to be the first British Empire soldier to enter Bapaume was on. Lieutenant Arthur White, 30th Battalion, won the race, just ahead of one of his men.
Bapaume had been the objective of the opening British attack of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916 and it had taken the British Expeditionary Force eight and a half months to cover the 19 km between Albert and Bapaume. British journalist Philip Gibbs was there:
I was with the Australians on that day when they swarmed into Bapaume, and they brought out trophies like men at a country fair … I remember an Australian colonel who came riding with a German beer-mug at his saddle … Next day, though shells were still bursting in the ruins, some Australian boys set up some painted scenery which they had found among the rubbish, and chalked up the name of the “Coo-ee Theater”.
Philip Gibbs, Now It Can Be Told, London, 1920,
Militarily Bapaume never ‘fell’ to the British, but propaganda made it seem that way. An official press release talked of entering the town fighting all the way. Looking back on events years later Charles Bean deplored this exaggeration but wrote of how the name ‘Bapaume’ had assumed a symbolic significance:
Staffs of corps and even of armies had tended to become engrossed in efforts to gain the few acres of mud which led up to it; and tens of thousands of the flower of the British nation devoted the last weeks of their lives to the all-absorbing endeavour ‘to reach Bapaume’.
Charles Bean, The AIF in France, 1917, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Vol 4, Sydney, 1935, p.144
On the news of the occupation of Bapaume, reporters descended on the town. They came in cars along the Albert–Bapaume road, across the devastated landscape of the Somme. On the road past the Butte de Warlencourt the Germans had blown a great crater and the 2nd Australian Pioneer Battalion was busy constructing a detour around it. Bapaume had been systematically destroyed by the Germans. As Charles Bean conceded, they were well within their rights to do so by all contemporary laws of war. However, the ruins, like those of Iper (Ypres) in Belgium and other French towns, were soon being used to paint the Germans in as lurid a light as possible:
There are many buildings in Bapaume that, seen a little way off, look curiously erect amid the neighbouring wreckage; but these are mere shells from which the cores have gone. The fine old monastic pile beside the wreck of the church is the only one whose splendid brickwork withstood in some measure the force of the bombs that burst within. Some day it might be capable of restoration.
For the rest, Bapaume is a bewildering scene of wreckage, and within its shattered walls one pondered less upon the pathos and tragedy of the lives of the townspeople that had been broken for ever than on the meaningless idiocy of it all.
The signs of the quiet life once lived here are so utterly swept away that, despite the outer shells of things that still stand mockingly real, but soon must fall, the mind is merely conscious of a sense of impotent wrath against those who wrought this abomination of waste; sorrow, compassion for the pitiful townsfolk, scattered abroad as indiscriminately as their old hearths, comes rather in the retrospect than in the actuality of witnessing the devastated scene.
‘Devastation and Some Emotions’, the Editor, The War Illustrated, March 1917,
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