As part of the great Franco-British 1917 Spring offensive and in support of the main French attack at the Chemin des Dames, General Nivelle called for a British diversionary offensive on a 20 mile front to the east of Arras between Vimy in the north and Bullecourt in the south (see map below, courtesy of Australians on the Western Front 1914-1918). I Anzac Corps would be responsible for the far right or southern flank of the British offensive, immediately to the east of the small village of Bullecourt. Having only just arrived at the Hindenburg Line after pursuing the withdrawing German Army, the lack of available preparation time meant that there would not be enough time for the artillery to soften up the defensive positions or to dig a ‘jumping-off trench’. For the Australians this meant attacking over open ground at a re-entrant between German held Bullecourt and Queant with well entrenched enemy fire coming from in front, the left and from the right. Furthermore Australian commanders General Birdwood and White’s concerns were compounded that for the first time in the war their infantry would be going into battle with the new but so far unproven weapon of the Heavy Machine Gun Corps – the tank – which would be given the responsibility of clearing the way through the wire instead of waiting for an adequate bombardment by the artillery.
On 10th April 1917, one day after the start of the Arras Offensive, British Fifth Army Commanding Officer General Hubert Gough gave the order for the dawn attack to be conducted in the I Anzac Corps sector. At 4.15am the attacking battalions of the 12th and 4th Brigades were in position at their tapes and assembly positions, but there was no sign of the tanks that would be leading them. Lying out in the snow, the two Brigades would easily be seen between Bullecourt and Queant once dawn arrived. At 5am the message arrived that the ‘stunt is off’, and those men lying on the jumping-off tapes simply rose and walked back as Bean described ‘without formation like a crowd from a football match’.
At 4.45am on the following day, 11th April 1917, and with any remaining element of surprise now gone, the 4th Brigade on the right sector moved forward, the first waves having to cross 700 yards, and the supporting battalions 1,200 yards from the railway embankment. Half-way across the infantry crossed a gentle crest and into sight of the Hindenburg Line, overtaking the slow moving two remaining tanks (of the six that were promised) as they approached the wire. Having been alerted by the aborted attack of the previous day German flares began to illuminate the snow-covered battlefield, and German batteries in Bullecourt and Queant were firing from either side into the approaching Australians, with rifle and machine-gun fire sparking on the massed wire ahead. For the 12th Brigade on the left, only one tank passed over the jumping-off trench but it was severely delayed such that the leading 46th Battalion still lay there as the light of dawn started and the protective artillery bombardment stopped. This thirty minute delay was deadly to the attacking 46th with fierce fire coming from Bullecourt.
Despite the failure of the tanks, the AIF 4th Division took the hitherto impenetrable Hindenburg Line, but with the failure of its supporting artillery the German machine gunners had closed the path to the rear hindering the re-supply to the forward battalions fighting the German counterattacks and created a hazardous gauntlet which, following the now helpless nature of their situation the retreating men and wounded had to make to affect their escape. The six and a half battalions of the AIF 4th Division lost over 3,000 officers and men, of whom 28 officers and 1,142 men were captured, much the largest number of Australians taken by the enemy in a single battle. For the Germans this battle was regarded as a major success. Not only had they saved what would have been a grave position of having their flank turned on the Arras front, but morale which had been low was restored plus the confidence on how to defeat and defend against tanks was increased. For the British, instructors afterwards used Gough’s plan for First Bullecourt as an example of how an attack should not be undertaken, namely attempting a deep penetration on a narrow front, and that at the head of a deep re-entrant, plus over-reliance upon the untested tank to destroy the enemy wire instead of artillery.