Second Battle of Bullecourt
3–15 May 1917
The Second Battle of Bullecourt, fought between 3 and 15 May 1917, was a continuation of the British 1917 spring offensive north and south of Arras. The aim of these operations was to support a major attack further south by the French under General Robert Nivelle. As the British had at the opening of the Somme in 1916, Nivelle sought a breakthrough of the German lines followed by swift defeat of the enemy on French soil. The French attacked on 15 April 1917 but failed. However, both British and French leaders agreed to continue operations, one of which was a combined British and Australian attack on the Hindenburg Line around Bullecourt where the previous attempt to capture and hold sections of the German line had failed so disastrously on 11 April 1917.
The Australian infantry of the Second Division advanced east of Bullecourt village at 3.45 am on 3 May 1917. The left flank, close to Bullecourt, was pinned in the wire but the right and centre, partly sheltered by a half-sunken road, seized and cleared the first two lines of enemy trench. These Australians now advanced towards their second objective, the railway embankment near Riencourt village. Other Australians, further right, were stopped entering the Hindenburg Line trenches by deadly machine-gun fire at the wire entanglements. British forces also failed in their attempt to take Bullecourt itself though some troops seized part of the Hindenburg Line west of the village.
The Australians who had managed to get into the Hindenburg Line now seemed to be in untenable positions which projected out on a narrow front and were being attacked on both flanks. But they held on. Part of the Australian objective was captured after furious grenade battles in which trenches changed hands several times. The men in more isolated positions, however, were forced back. The half-sunken road provided some shelter between the old front line and the captured trenches, allowing reinforcements and vitally needed supplies to come forward. At dusk on 3 May, the Second Australian Division held most of its first objective.
On 3 May, only the Canadians in the north and the Australians in the south made any progress. On 4 May the French troops were unfit for their planned offensive but the British pushed on.
The Australians extended their narrow foothold in the Hindenburg Line until it was like a mushroom on its stalk, with the head deep in enemy territory connected by a single long communication track. At dawn on 6 May, after 18 hours of bombardment, the Germans launched their sixth general counter-attack. The Germans had almost reached the central road when Corporal George Julian Howell made an astonishing run along the top of the trenches bombarding the enemy with hand grenades as he ran. This, and the stubborn support of other Australians, caused the Germans to move back farther than their starting point. Howell survived to receive the Victoria Cross in person from King George V.
Part of Bullecourt was seized by the British on 7 May and ten days later all the ruins were in their hands. On 15 May the Australians fought off a final German counter-attack and the enemy decided to leave this piece of the Hindenburg Line to Australia. One Australian historian described the fighting at Bullecourt as the taking of a small, tactically useless village at a cost of more than 7,000 Australian casualties.
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010