Advance to the Hindenburg Line
The men of the Australian Imperial Force spent the winter of 1916–17, after the end of the Battle of the Somme, garrisoning the front line near the villages of Flers and Gueudecourt west of Bapaume. This ‘Somme Winter’ experience was miserable, cold, dangerous and monotonous. During this period the Germans began constructing a new line further east, which became known to the British as the ‘Hindenburg Line’ after the enemy commander in chief, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg. The Germans planned to have it ready in early 1917, and then they would withdraw to these new trenches. This move would straighten their front and eliminate two major bulges or ‘salients’ out into the Allied lines between Soissons in the south and Arras in the north. The new line would be straighter and shorter requiring fewer divisions to man it and allowing more men to be rested in rear areas. The general German plan for 1917 was defensive. They would hold fast on the Western Front but engage in unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic against British and Allied shipping which was bringing essential war material to Great Britain. They hoped that this strategy would bring the British to their knees within six months.
In late February 1917, the Germans began their withdrawal back to the Hindenburg Line. As these new fortifications were still not complete, they left strong rearguards across the countryside they were about to relinquish in order to hold up Allied troops as they followed the enemy. Between 24 February and 9 April 1917, the Australians fought a series of actions across the countryside west of Bapaume until they reached the Hindenburg Line.
On 24 February 1917, abandoned trenches indicated that the German withdrawal had started. Patrols quickly found that the enemy were retiring on most of the Australian front, leaving a thin screen of small posts and patrols. This situation had a magic effect on the morale of the Australians. In good spirits – but being careful of booby traps – they followed the withdrawal. Patrols pushed back the German screen as far as Warlencourt and to near Le Barque at the foot of the Bapaume heights, where stronger German posts held up the advance. On the night of 26 February, Australians seized the villages of Le Barque and Ligny-Thilloy and they soon had posts below Bapaume.
Early on 2 March, Australians occupied Malt Trench, on the heights north-west of Bapaume near Loupart Wood. Later, in a dugout in Loupart Wood, German orders for the retreat to the Hindenburg Line were discovered which suggested the main retirement would take place on 15 March with the German rearguard withdrawing on the 17th. By 7.45 am that day, Australian patrols were in the outskirts of the burning town of Bapaume. Moving through the smoking streets they emerged into the almost untouched green country beyond, exhilarated to have the trenches and the mud of the Somme behind them.
In order to delay the Allies’ approach to the Hindenburg Line, the Germans left a screen of strongly entrenched garrisons at almost every village. On 18 and 19 March the Australians captured Frimicourt, Lebucquitre and Velu villages. From there they could see the wide rusty-wire belts and white chalk parapets of the Hindenburg Line crowning some of the rises five kilometres away. The attempt to seize Noreuil on 20 March failed but Beaumetz and Morchies were captured on the 21st. German counter-attacks at Beaumetz on the 23rd and 24th were beaten off.
On 21 March, a German aircraft came down in front of the Australians and, as the pilot ran for his own lines, he was shot by an Australian and captured. The pilot, Prince Frederick Charles of Prussia, was carried to the aid-post. Before he died in hospital a few days later, he thanked the Australians and others concerned for their kindness and ‘good sportsmanship’. He too, was ‘a sport’, he said.
On 26 March 1917, the village of Lagnicourt fell in a very hard fight that cost 400 casualties. An even tougher fight for Noreuil ensued on 2 April that cost 600. On 9 April 1917, the last significant villages screening the Hindenburg Line were captured, three days after German unrestricted submarine warfare had caused the United States to declare war on Germany. The next Australian attack would be against the Hindenburg Line itself.
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010