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France 1917: Advance to the Hindenburg Line
Butte de Warlencourt
'That Miniature Gibraltar' – The Butte de Warlencourt
Shortly after leaving the village of Le Sars on the D929 Albert–Bapaume road is a sign: ‘Ligne de Front 20 December 1916’ (Front Line 20 December 1916). Placed here by the Historial de la Grand Guerre museum in Péronne, signs like this indicate the Circuit de Souvenir (Route of Remembrance) of the Somme battles of 1916.
Just beyond the sign to the right is another, which indicates the way up to the Butte de Warlencourt. From a carpark there are steps – a relic of Roman times – leading to the top of the Butte. A plaque indicates that the Butte today belongs to the British Western Front Association. In 1917 an American novelist, interestingly named Winston Churchill, toured the battlefields of France in order to provide an account of them for an American readership:
Description fails to do justice to the abomination of desolation of that vast battle–field in the rain … Beside the road only the blood–red soil betrayed the sites of powdered villages; and through it, in every direction, trenches had been cut. Between the trenches the earth was torn and tortured … On the hummocks were graves, graves marked by wooden crosses, others by broken rifles thrust in the ground. Presently, like the peak of some submerged land, we saw lifted out of that rolling waste the “Butt” of Warlencourt—the burial–mound of this modern Marathon. It is honeycombed with dugouts in which the Germans who clung to it found their graves … Everywhere along that road, which runs like an arrow across the battle–field to Albert, were graves.
Winston Churchill, A Traveller in Wartime, www.gutenberg.org/files/5398/5398.txt
In the last days of the Battle of the Somme in November 1916, the British assaulted the Butte in the hope of wresting it from the Germans. They were not successful, and it remained in enemy hands throughout the winter, rising above shell holes, mud–filled trenches and desolate countryside. Lieutenant Colonel Roland Bradford VC, Durham Light Infantry, had led his men against the Butte on 5 November 1916 and wrote of it as a place of ill–omen:
But the Butte de Warlencourt had become an obsession. Everybody wanted it. It loomed large in the minds of the soldiers in the forward area and they attributed many of their misfortunes to it. The newspaper correspondents talked about ‘that Miniature Gibraltar’. So it had to be taken. It seems that the attack was one of those tempting, and unfortunately at one period frequent, local operations which are so costly and which are rarely worthwhile.
Lieutenant Colonel Roland Bradford VC, 9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, report of arrack on the Butte de Warlencourt, 5 November 1916, Durham Light Infantry Museum and Art Centre
All winter the men of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) gazed at the Butte from their trench lines forward of Flers and Le Sars. Regular patrols in no–man’s–land had examined German positions hereabouts, looking forward to spring, when the offensive would supposedly begin again. On the night of 23 February 1917, Australian patrols near the Butte reported that much coughing and talking could be heard from the German lines, as well as the firing of rifle grenades and flares. Later in the night there was more firing of machine–guns and sniper fire, but all was obscured by dense fog. On the next night, a patrol forward from the line held by the 9th Battalion (Queensland) crept towards the village of La Barque, visible to the north–east of the Butte. They found the enemy frontline trench deserted, finding nothing more dangerous there than a black cat! A message telling of the empty trench went to headquarters in code and simple French—‘Bon, bon, très bon’.
Soon it was generally known that the Germans were retiring along a huge sector of front 120 km long from north of Arras to near Vailly in the south. The Germans were straightening their line and manning a newly constructed and more heavily defended position known as the Hindenburg Line. From late February to early April 1917 they fought a delaying rearguard action against British and Australian troops following them and attacking villages where the Germans decided to mount resistance. All of this was to allow time for the Hindenburg Line defences to be brought to as high a state of readiness as possible. In the centre of the British advance were the divisions of the AIF.
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010