Arras, Bullecourt & Loos (Lone Tree)
The British attack in Arras opened the Allied offensive in 1917. The Canadian Corps was charged with taking Vimy Ridge in order to safeguard the left flank of the main advance either side of the Arras, which was entrusted to General Sir Edmund Allenby’s Third Army. The German position was well defended, but the British had planned the offensive with care, profiting from the lessons of the Somme. Artillery support was increased to nearly 3,000 guns, a substantial proportion of which were "heavies," essential for destroying well-constructed strongpoints.
The British had trained their troops thoroughly in appropriate opening attack manoeuvres. On 9 April, the British troops went "over the top" and made good progress. The four divisions of the Canadian Corps struggled up Vimy Ridge, a honeycomb of defences that had frustrated previous French attacks with great bloodshed. After a bitter fight that cost them nearly 10,000 men, they won control of the position. Farther south, the British were similarly successful, and a few units advanced to a depth of 3 miles (4.8 km) on the first day.
The German command avoided an Allied breakthrough with its usual adroit handling of reserves, and the British advance then lost momentum. The original British plan had been to limit the battle once serious resistance was met, but British Field Marshall Douglas Haig prolonged the offensive to provide aid to the French, incurring heavy casualties for little gain.
Approx. Losses: British, 158,000 casualties; German, 130,000 casualties.
1st Battle 11th April 1917
The attack was launched on Bullecourt on 11 April 1917 by the 4th Australian and 62nd British Divisions. The plan of the Assault mirrored the day previous, the 62nd Divisions West Yorkshire battalions would only occupy the enemy’s positions after the Australians, with the assistance of the tanks, had taken the village itself and secured the western perimeter. The attack was hastily planned and mounted and resulted in disaster. Zero hour was set at 4.30am. Tanks that didn’t arrive the day previous, which were supposed to support the attacking Australian infantry, of which only 3 made it, either broke down or were quickly destroyed. Nevertheless, the Australian infantry managed to break into the German defences. Due to uncertainty as to how far
they had advanced, supporting artillery fire was withheld, and eventually the Australians were hemmed in and forced to retreat. The two brigades of the 4th Division that carried out the attack, the 4th and 12th, suffered over 3,300 casualties; 1,170 Australians were taken prisoner - the largest number captured in a single engagement during the war.
Loos (Lone Tree)
Battle of Loos, Sept 25th 1915, in particular here showing and describing the 2nd Brigade attack around the Lone Tree area. The original map I have overlaid is not completely accurate with the lay of the land today, so looks a little off but the position of the original Lone Tree and Trenches are approximately correct. I lined up the white marks on the aerial photo with the trenches on the map to get position. However...............................................................................1st Division
The 1st Division was one of the original Regular Army Divisions dispatched to France with the BEF in August 1914. Having taken part in the retreat from Mons it was heavily engaged in the Battle of the Aisne and then during the 1st Battle of Ypres.
The casualty rate was such that by 1915 little was left of the original organisation and the Division was transferred to Artois. In May 1915 it was again badly mauled during the Battle of Aubers Ridge.
Up until August 1915 the Division had been designated as a Guards Division but in that month the 1st Battalions of the Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards were posted to a new Guards Division and were replaced by two New Army battalions: 8th Royal Berkshire Regiment and the 10th Gloucestershire Regiment. Perhaps fortunately they also lost Major General Richard Haking who had called for a renewed effort at Aubers Ridge despite having just lost almost two thirds of his force in the space of the opening hour. His departure however meant that Major General Arthur Holland was given little time in which to acclimatise into his new command or area.
Its two Brigades would be advancing away from each other and a force under Lt Colonel E Green of 2nd Bn Royal Sussex Regiment would, at the opportune moment, advance to fill in the gap as the front widened.
On the right of the Division the 1st Bn Loyal North Lancashire Regiment were accompanied by the 2nd Bn King’s Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC) on their left. The only point of reference on their front was the Lone Tree, the stump of a cherry tree that had so far survived the artillery duels. It was situated slightly forward of the German trench and was used by them as a machine gun emplacement.
At 0550 hours the gas was released and almost immediately blew back into the British trenches catching the waiting soldiers unaware. It quickly became apparent that the first wave would need to be reinforced as men succumbed to the chlorine.
When the attack was launched slightly behind zero the Germans were alert and waiting for them. The bombardment had failed to cut the German wire and the machine guns at the Lone Tree and in Northern Sap brought the attack to a halt.
Two soldiers would be awarded the Victoria Cross for their work in bringing in the wounded whilst under fire. Private Henry Kenny of the Loyals carried six men back to safety before being wounded himself.
Private George Peachment of the KRRC was lying near the German front line when he spotted his OC, Captain Guy Dubs lying wounded. Crawling over to him, Peachment attempted to dress his wounds and when they came under further fire began pulling Dubs to shelter. At that moment he was killed by rifle fire. Peachment had only been with the regiment for a few months and was one of just eight, eighteen-year-olds to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
Guy Dubs survived the war but George Peachment’s body was never identified in the aftermath of the battle and he is commemorated on the Loos Memorial.
Having seen the first wave halted the 2nd Bn Royal Sussex Regiment (in support) went over the top earlier than planned. They too were stopped short of the German wire and despite being constantly rallied by Sergeant Harry Wells the Sussex could not get into the German front line.
Wells was killed along with the remnants of his platoon on his third attempt to get forward. He was awarded the Victoria Cross and is buried at Dud Corner Cemetery (Grave: V E 2).
In an attempt to break the German line the Brigade ordered forward the remaining company of the Sussex and the 1st Bn Northampton Regiment who had been held in reserve. About 0900 hours they began their advance across the open ground. The gas and smoke screen had gone and the wire was still as uncut as it had been at the commencement of the battle.
As troops began to fall back in disorder Captain Anketell-Read gathered up a party of sixty and established them in a position just to the south of the Lone Tree. Almost permanently out of cover as he encouraged the men and directed their fire he was eventually brought down. Like Harry Wells before him he was awarded the Victoria Cross and is buried at Dud Corner Cemetery(Grave: VII F 19).
2nd Brigade’s attack had stalled.
1st Brigade formed the left flank of IV Corps with that boundary running along the Vermelles – Hulluch Road. Their commander Brigadier Anthony Reddie had decided to use his New Army battalions in the first wave, placing the 10th Bn Gloucestershire Regiment on the right and the 8th Bn Royal Berkshire Regiment on their left.
In front of the former was the Bois Carré whilst in front of the latter was a small copse known as La Haie (French for Hedge and thus, incidentally, La Haie is French for The Hague). Neither wooded patch had been left unmarked by the shelling and both had been reduced to shattered scrub which offered little in the way of shelter.
The Gloucesters charged into the Bois Carré and although they suffered heavy casualties, soon had it, and the German front line secured. From there the advance towards the German support line was cut to pieces. Fortunately for them, once engaged, the Germans did not put up too great a fight and most retreated down the communications trenches. Casualties amongst the Gloucesters had been so bad that only sixty were available to continue the advance.
The Bedfords on the other hand had no difficulty traversing La Haie and gaining the enemy front line. By 0800 hours they had already crossed half the distance towards the La Bassée Road. At this point at Gun Trench the 1st Bn Cameron Highlanders (in support) came through and continued the advance to the main road. There they stopped though scouts were sent forward to reconnoitre Hulluch.
Noreuil April 1917
A description and annotated aerial picture outlining the Australian attack at Noreuil on 2nd April 1917. Based on details, accounts and map references within the Battalion and Brigade diaries..
In late February of 1917, the German Army in northern France retreated to the Hindenburg Line in order to shorten its line and thereby establish a more defensible position. British and dominion troops immediately followed-up this withdrawal. In order to delay their advance and provide time for the Hindenburg Line defences to be fully prepared and manned, the Germans fortified numerous villages and towns on the approaches to the Hindenburg Line and established rearguards in them. Noreuil was one of these villages. (©AWM)
The 13th Aust Brigade will on the morning of 2ndApril Capture Noreuil and the high ground NE of it.
The 52nd Battalion in front of Lagnicourt had to advance in a north-east direction for a few hundred yards on to the crest of the southern ridge, and then dig in and hold their line at all costs. Objective made good at 7.20am with few casualties. They couldn’t however connect with the battalions either side. Heavily shelled later in the day.
The 50th Battalion to attack the village form the South East. Clear the village and then Pivot to the right and push towards Brigade objective line. Advanced on time on the fall of the initial creeping barrage. It was slow and not thick enough. Eventually reached village and met but hostile MG fire. Continued advancing, firing from the hip which proved effective. Eventually enveloping the guns and overwhelming them with rifle grenades and bombs. RH Company held up by wire but eventually got through and took 0ver 30-40 prisoners. Left flank pressed forward through the village then pivoted towards the objective, the line formed successfully, and they moved forward again. Strong resistance with MG enfilading fore from the right flank. Despite this they pushed forward and secured a line 100yrds short of the objective line. Again, not in touch with 52nd battalion on right, Gaps were covered by reserve Company. Towards evening, it looked like enemy were preparing for counterattack but it did not materialise due to our SOS barrage.
The 51st Battalion will attack the village on the SW side and move through to the ground on the NE. On commencement of barrage troops moved forward on time. Enemy counter barrage was almost immediate, but too long inflicting few casualties. However, enemy MG’s came into action from both flanks, from Noreuil, Longatte but also the Noreuil/Longatte road ahead. 60 casualties before they even reached the road. The road was defensive and wired. Road was eventually reached and consolidated. Strongpoint on the left was made due to not making good the ground here with a bomb team, Lewis gun and Captured Maxim. A Vickers was also nearby, now securing this area. Main attack pushed on, RH Company pushing through NW fringe of the village, through sunken road junction where prisoners were taken. Objective line was now nearly reached, although some troops did reach it, however, the Company Commander decided to withdraw to a shallow trench and consolidate it. This due to our own barrage still hitting the objective line, machine gun and rifle fire from the little road running East out of the village causing numerous casualties, the objective line was down a slope in full view of the Hindenburg line, the troops didn’t have enough tools to dig in and the trench was in a good commanding position with both flanks finally in touch although the ground in front of the trench and around the sunken road was covered with dead. A good line established. Consolidation progressed but enemy shelling continued for several hours killing and wounding around 30 OR and putting 2 Lewis guns out of action. Shelling slackened and by 1.45pm had ceased. Telephone communications in the front line were established. Village was confirmed taken. Again, looked like enemy were amassing in front of RH battalion, SOS barrage dispersed the threat. Later it was reported that the enemy were again amassing on the high ground to the East of Noreuil. 2 Platoons from reserve were sent up to the Noreuil/Longatte road. Barrage again was called for and the threat dispersed. Consolidation continued through the night; a strong line was established. Patrols were sent out to the original objective line and 3 good posts established and secured.
The 51st Battalion suffered 239 casualties during the assault and subsequent defence of the village.
The 50th battalion suffered 96 killed, 165 wounded, 91 MIA (60 of which possible prisoners)
3rd Attack at Bullecourt
On the evening of 6th may 1917 the 20th Brigade took over the front line, the 8th battalion Devons retaining its position, while the 9th Devons and the Gordons came up into assembly positions further to the right to attack Bullecourt from the S.E. early on May 7th. In doing this the 9th had several casualties from shell fire, including Captain Symes wounded, but nevertheless, reached its place well before 3-45 a.m, ‘Zero hour’. In this attack the 9th formed the second wave, following close behind the Gordons and mopping up the first objective which was a trench along the sunken road which skirts the S.E. edge of Bullecourt. Captains Raffin and Fergusson led their men splendidly, and the two companies did their mopping-up most effectively. Meanwhile, despite stubborn opposition, the Gordons had reached the second objective, but were driven back by counter attacks and heavy shelling to a line some way short of the road running through from Ecoust to Hendecourt. On the right, bombers worked along London Trench and got in touch with the Australians, and, despite heavy German artillery, which shelled them furiously, the captured positions were retained. Later in the day the much-weakened leading Companies were assisted, however, during the night ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies of the 8th Btn took over the Blue Line from the 9th Btn, who withdrew to the railway embankment, leaving one Company in the Blue Line on the 8th's right . Meanwhile, the Borders had relieved the Gordons. The objective was to clear the portion of the village between Tower Trench and the road running through from S.E. to N .W. This area, known as the Red Rectangle, was to be attacked by ‘C’ Company of the 8th, under 2nd-Lieut. Holdsworth, which was to advance in alternate sections of bombers, riflemen and Lewis gunners. ‘D’ Company under 2nd-Lieut. Girvan was to extend to its left down Tower Trench, as ‘C’ Company advanced and kept touch, while a creeping barrage swept the Rectangle from North to South and East to West. Starting off at 11 o'clock (May 8th) the attack went well at first, four dugouts were cleared and their occupants disposed of. But as the attackers neared the Ecoust road, resistance stiffened. Showers of the particularly effective" egg" bombs were hurled at the Devon’s, snipers in houses behind picked off leaders, and several machine-guns were in action. A strong point on the left, just West of the road, gave special trouble, and the advance had to be pushed up the hill against superior numbers. 2nd–Lieut. Holdsworth was killed, and ‘C’ Company retired out of range of the egg-bombs. 2nd-Lieut. Drew rallied the men, and, responding to his encouragement, they advanced again, but as before met a resistance they could not overcome. After two hours the fighting died down, the only result being that ‘D’ Company established a post some way in front of their starting point. Weather conditions had been an obstacle and a steady drizzle made the ground slippery, the mud tended to put the Lewis guns out of action. For the rest of May 8th both sides held their ground. In the night ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies came up, relieving the Company of the 9th in the Blue Line, and a fresh attack was organized. ‘C’ Company was to advance down Tower Trench, a platoon of ‘A’ Company working along the road running N. W. as a flank guard through the village. The 20th Trench Mortar Battery brought two guns into action, which provided an effective and accurate barrage along the Ecoust road. When the attack started, at Noon on the 9th, the enemy promptly put down a barrage, they had evidently received reinforcements and the attack was checked at the road. Both Companies remaining officers were hit, and the men recoiled. ‘A’ Companies flanking party after advancing 200 yards, was also pushed back. C.S.M. Heal rallied the men for a second attempt, but this time the Germans counter-attacked and began pushing down Tower Trench. Here 2nd–Lieut. Marshall, whose platoon of ‘B’ Company formed Companies reserve, made a fine stand. All the Lewis guns were out of action, no rifle grenades were left but he got hold of a Vickers gun, and with this and rifle-fire kept the Germans at bay until help arrived. This took the shape of the rest of ‘B’ Company where Lieut. Drake had hurried forward on learning the situation, together with a company of the 9th, carrying bombs and rifle-grenades. Undeterred by the heavy fire, Lieut. Drake led his men across the open till he reached a sunken road entering Bullecourt from the S .E. and then pushed along that to the left. Direct support arrived from 2nd-Lieut.Marshall whom organized a fresh attack. He bombed his way down the Blue Line till he reached the Ecoust road, the bank of which he lined, posting bomber and Lewis guns to cover both his flanks. The enemy, already pressed on their left by the Border Regiment ,who had come to 2nd-Lieut. Marshall's aid, were caught between this attack and the British barrage and seeking the nearest way of escape, were driven out into the open, giving targets to machine-guns on the railway embankment. The final episode of the day was a counter-attack, about 4 p.m, by 2nd-Lieut. Marshall's party by three strong columns of bombers, they were decisively repulsed. The 8th had the satisfaction of having distinctly improved the position in Riencourt when they handed over, that evening, to the Gordons. They had to pay a heavy price. Besides Captain Clinton and 2nd-Lieut. Holdsworth, 2nd-Lieuts. Duncan, G. H. Smith and Cumming having been killed, 57 men were also killed or missing and six officers wounded, from 184 men. The 9th had escaped more lightly, having 2nd-Lieut. Sandoe and 22 men killed, 7 men missing, six officers, 2 wounded, with 94 men, 130 in all, as against 252 for the 8th. Their carrying party had done great service, and M.C.'s awarded to Captains Fergusson and 2nd-Lieut. Martin, and ten M.M.'s were some indication of their share in the fight. If the 8th and 9th could not claim to have finished off Bullecourt, the 91st Brigade was to carry on the work still further, they had well maintained the high traditions of their Regiment and of the Seventh Division.
Australians at Lagnicourt