Monday, 2 April 2007

Chapter 25: The Somme March to April 1917. First Battle of Bullecourt.

From 11th Battery, 4th F.A.B Brief History

In action throughout this time

18 March Left La Boisselle. Wagon lines between Le Sars and Le Barque at “La Coupe Goule” outside Bapaume

18 – 20 March La Coupe Goule

20 March Left La Coupe Goule

21 March Arrived Beugnatre (through Bapaume). Wagon Lines here.

2 April – 11 May Noreuil Valley

Photo of Noreuil Valley. May 1917. [AWM E00506]
“. . .moved forward to La Coupe Goule on March 14th.

Here we supported the attack on the Grevillers Line and on the enemy being driven from this position and retreating through Bapaume on March 17th we moved forward to the intersection of the railway and Bapaume road at Avesnes-les-Bapaume. Although this position was swept with machine gun fire on the first night, it was evident that this was only the work of a small enemy rearguard, for by the next morning, we were out of range, our infantry outposts being about 10 000 yds ahead, and then only in touch with scattered enemy machine gunners and snipers.

Photo of wagons passing through Bapaume. March 1917. [AWM E00594]
Photo of troops passing through Bapaume, showing burning ruins. 17 march 1917. [AWM E00371]
Photo of ruins of Bapaume. 19 March 1917. [AWM E00395]
Photo of Albert to Bapaume Rd, 1917. With railway live alongside. [AWM H02138]

On March 20th we went forward to Beugnatre and next day took over from the 12th battery in a position in rear of Vaulx Vraucourt. In this position we remained until April 2nd and then moved forward to Noreuil Valley, staying there until May 11th. While in this position we were subjected to very heavy shell fire. Moving from Noreuil to a position in rear of Lagnicourt and to the left of the main road we were again subjected to heavy fire, having many casualties and all the guns hit and out of action in one morning.

Photo of Vaulx - Noreuil Road May 1917. [AWM P02321.064]
From this position we moved about 500 yds to the right and remained there until April 28th.

On April 29th we left the WL at Beugnatre and moved back to Ovillers stayed there one night and next day moved to Aveluy where we camped until July 9th.”


Letter to sister, Maud Lade. April 18th 1917

Somewhere in France
April 18th 1917

Dear Maud,
Was pleased to get your letter dated 18th Feb. It is the latest mail we have had, and I was lucky in that there were only a few for the battery of that date, and I got a couple, one from Mrs Roberts of Cowwarr besides yours.
You mentioned having heard from Mother of my being in England so imagine she must have had the cable I sent from there, as there has not yet been time for me to have answers to letters I wrote.
We have had most awful weather this past month, and some good as well. It is a most peculiar climate this - one day is a perfect spring day (beautiful sunshine) and the next is driving snow blizzard followed by frost + rain.
I can tell you it hampers the troops too and gives the Germans a breathing space. They want it too, and will want a lot more which they won’t get a little later on in the summer. I expect you know all about the latest big fighting and our fine successes in France this past week or two. I have written several long letters to Will lately telling about our doings since the beginning of last month so I won’t repeat to you as I expect you will have the letters sent along in due course. If you don’t get them write and ask.
A chap by the name of Wood from Newcastle N.S.W. and now in the 15th Battery called to see me the other night.
He had received one of Eva's parcels sent through some league or other, and she had written a letter in which she gave my address, and asking him to look me up should he happen to be near our battery. She also gave her brothers' address but I don’t expect he will run across them as they are in the infantry.
I have not seen Perce Lade yet although I know he is not far away from us, but then we have very little time to go looking for people. As a matter of fact even when not actually on duty you don't want to be far away in case of a call out which will come at any hour of the day or night.
We are faring fairly well still in regard to rations and besides we have our canteen in good working order again so generally we do very well. Lately we have been buying flour custard-powder + jellies, and you should see the dishes we turn out. There are five of us mess together in a hut we built from old German iron out of a ruined village. We have also a German stove, and can generally get coal from along the old railway lines about. Last Sunday for dinner we had rather a decent pudding made by another chap and myself. (We take joint credit for its success). Instead of the usual currants and raisins which we couldn't get we put dryed figs cut up very fine with the suet and although I say it myself it was beyond reproach. Then we make pan-cakes, and instead of eggs we use the custard powder. For supper every night we manage to have custard and jelly + café au lait (coffee + milk). So all things considered we do very well. I had a fine parcel from Cornwell the other week and expect another shortly.
This evening I had a small parcel from Mrs Roberts - just a pair of socks and some cigarettes. The cigs. I gave away but the socks needless to say are very handy.
Despite the severe winter (the worst in Europe for many years they say) there is comparatively very little sickness among the troops especially Australian. A doctor was telling me the other day that there has been less sickness among the Aust. Regiments than any other single regiment in the British army with the sole exception of the Guards who have hardly been in the line. When you take into consideration that we have been in absolutely the worst part of the line on the whole front it says a lot for an Aus. Power of endurance. It was only when the worst of the winter was over that we had any decent accommodation in the shape of huts built for us. As I have told you before we just had to scratch for ourselves in the way of sleeping accommodation.
Must close now with love to all
Yours Percy
Tell Stephen I was glad to have his letter and will send him a card as soon as I can get somewhere to buy one.

Photo of soldiers gathering coal left by Germans on the Bapaume road. March 1917. [AWM E00364]

From Diary of Gunner Day:

13/3/17 Germans retired to within 1/2 a mile of Bapaume, so we moved our guns up to La Coupe Goul so that we would be in range of the Germans.

18/3/17 I am not too sure if this is the exact date because I am in a bit of a haze as regards to actual dates, during the next three weeks. Germans left Baupaume and we went in at 4 a.m. The 23rd battalion were the first I think, to enter; it is all in flames and nearly every house is mined or painted with tar and set fire to. Baupaume is a fair sized town (about the size of Ballarat or Bendigo) and is very old. All the fine trees along the main road have been destroyed by the germans and left there to rot. Trees that have taken years and years to grow.

There is also a fair sized sugar factory and a very large railway workshop. There was only one place left standing intact and that was the Town hall which our smart Red tape Staff (thinking they were smart and not smelling a rat) took for their H.Q. Every other building had been destroyed, also an Australian Comforts Fund Canteen had the window in the same building. After they had been there for about two weeks, UP went the whole building, and everyone inside.

I had just left the Canteen a few minutes before. It was a fine sight to see and a thorough job. The whole place was swept clean. From Baupaume we moved our guns to Beugnatre for four days, and then to Vaulx. All these places are small villages and are in ruins.

30/4/17 Went on to our Battery which is now at Noreuil, just on the left of Lagnicourt, where the germans broke through our lines, but we drove them back in four hours from the time they came through. I had to go on duty for nearly a month and we are very shorthanded. Reinforcements seem very scarce nowadays, so all the work drops on a few. Went up on Battalion work and came back from the trenches on the 2nd at 5 p.m. issued with new clothing as mine were in rags…. (Gunner Day was then hit by a bullet in early May at trenches near Bullecourt. He survived and returned to Australia from England on 11/9/17)

From John Laffin Guide to Australian Battlefields of the Western front 1916-18. Kangaroo Press and Australian War memorial, 1992, p. 77:

During the Battle of the Somme July – November 1916, Bapaume was the main British objective. However it was not reached and tremendous casualties, the onset of winter and stubborn German pressure brought the Somme campaign to an end. Following a strategic German withdrawal, the AIF 2nd Division occupied Bapaume from the west and southwest on 17 March 1917. Lieutenant A.C. White of the 30th battalion was the first to enter the town. He was followed by other soldiers, staff officers, war correspondents and official photographers. They found that the Germans had systematically destroyed the town and then set fire to much of it. The buildings around the main square including the town hall were the only ones in reasonably sound condition.

The cellars were searched and a mine was found in the town hall and removed. On the night of 25 March a second mine, better hidden and operated by a chemical fuse, exploded. Sleeping in the town hall were about thirty diggers, including those who ran the Australian Comforts Fund’s battlefield coffee stall, and two French parliamentary deputies. The rescuers, who dug through the rubble all that night and the next day, could save only six of the thirty.

Bapaume remained an AIF HQ for three months after its capture.

Photo of houses ruined in German withdrawal from Vaulx, March 1917 [AWM E00418]
Photo of field artillery preparing an 18 pounder site behind Vaulx, March 1917. [AWM E00430]

Noreuil (the first Battle of Bullecourt)

CEW Bean, Vol IV The AIF In France 1917. p207ff : The taking of the outpost villages

29 March 1917

“…a third attempt to seize Croisilles and Ecoust, made by the 7th British Division after bombardment by heavy howitzers, had failed…

“The I Anzac heavy artillery and the field artillery of the 2nd Australian division had assisted by firing upon Noreuil.” (p 207)

Photo of 18 pounder gun pit at Noreuil, May 1917. [AWM E00602]

2 April 1917

There was to be an offensive upon Arras, but it was separated from the Hindenburg Line by a chain of villages which had been broken at only one point, Lagnicourt. The date for the British offensive was set at April 1st (delayed April 2nd).

The I Anzac Corps was to take Noreuil.

“After the capture of Lagnicourt, the 2nd Australian Division was relieved by the 4th…The two artillery brigades of the 2nd, however, and the 12th (Army) Brigade of the Australian Field Artillery, remained in the line, the artillery of the 4th Division not yet being brought up.” (p 208)

“The field artillery would first muffle the German posts around the village [Noreuil], and then advance its barrage so as to keep ahead of the troops. On the barrage reaching the Bullecourt road, forty minutes from the start, it would remain there for twenty minutes while the troops lay in front of the road preparing for the final assault. The barrage would then again advance and the road would be seized.”

The battle was complicated and there were lots of losses, but eventually succeeded (the full battle is described in Bean Vol IV pp211-222)

April 2nd – 6th

“On April 2nd and 3rd, two brigades of the 2nd Australian Division and the 12th (Army) Brigade, A.F.A. – began to move into the depression leading to Noreuil , and on the 5th and 6th, advanced into positions hurriedly constructed by the engineers still farther down the side of the valley.”

CEW Bean, Vol IV The AIF in France 1917, p 261

Photo of Australians playing 'pitch and toss' in the support line of the sunken road near Noreuil, 20 April 1917. [AWM E00453]

From CEW Bean Official History Of Australia in the War of 1914-18. Vol IV The A.I.F. in France 1917 p 414

“Q” Group (and Div. Artillery under Lieut.-Col. R.L.R. Rabett – after May 10, Lieut.-Col. H.W. Lloyd)

4th Brigade.
10th Bty
11th Bty
12th Bty
104th How. Bty

5th Brigade
13th Bty
14th Bty
15th Bty
105th How Bty
12th (Army) Brigade
45th Bty (relieved on April 28 by 47th)
46th Bty

Located behind Noreuil in the Noreuil Valley

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