“The [Second] Battle of Bullecourt occupies a unique place in the Battalion’s annals. For no other struggle had the preparations been so complete, the rehearsals so thorough, or the general organisation so apparently perfect. Yet within a few minutes of its commencement, the combat developed into a pell-mell of violent hand-to-hand struggles, where the 6th Brigade met the flower of the German Army, and beat it into quiescence.” Capt. E.Gorman, MC, ‘With the Twenty-Second’.
Learning from the defeat of the AIF 4th Division at the First Battle of Bullecourt on the 11th April, the Second Battle was well planned, rehearsed, resourced and well executed. Despite all of the preparations plus the resourcefulness and bravery of the Australian soldier, this however was always going to be a precarious operation given the nature of the Hindenburg Line defensive system that they were attacking, on top of which the Australians were to meet a foe that exuded similar traits of toughness and bravery. Zero hour was fixed for 3.45am on 3rd May 1917 with the AIF 5th Brigade to right, the 6th Brigade in the centre and the 185th Brigade of the British 62nd Division on the left. At zero hour the artillery opened up, bayonets previously sheathed to save reflecting in the moonlight fixed and the advance in waves began. Very little distance had been traversed across No-Man’s Land before a concentration of shells, minenwerfers and machine gun bullets fell upon the Battalion. Given the position of the 22nd on the left of the 6th Brigade it had the perilous task to advance at almost point blank range to the Germans garrisoning the eastern side of Bullecourt, thus causing many casualties. As Gorman later described in the History of the Twenty-Second Battalion, “the intensity of the machine gun fire was not equalled in any of the 22nd Battalion’s other experiences during the war”. Many of the Battalion fell in No-Man’s Land and at the German wire, including Capt. Hogarth (C Company, 2nd in Command of the 22nd Battalion, photograph left). For many of the others on the left they were pinned down by fierce rifle and machine-gun fire.
Within the first two hours the 6th Brigade had established itself in both the first (OG1) and second (OG2) systems of the Hindenburg Line and for some distance further forward. But on its left (British 62nd Division) the German positions were entirely maintained and on its right (5th Brigade) all but a portion of the first German trench was still in the enemy’s hands. With communication and the ability to act quickly and decisively key to success, Major-General Gellibrand had critically established his forward headquarters behind the railway embankment by the Central Road. Witnessing the withdrawal and failure of the 5th Brigade on the right and the precarious nature this would leave his right flank, Gellibrand called forward his Reserve and HQ Officers to lead reformed units of the 5th Brigade and to push on again.
At 8am the situation was most critical, as the Brigade was hemmed in and supplies limited. By midday some successes had been made on the flanks, but the Battalion was subject to more counter-attacks, with the supply of bombs diminishing. Throughout the day German counter-attack followed counter-attack, thirteen in all, with Capt. Kennedy and his handful from the 22nd involved in bomb fights in OG1, but the situation of ammunition became serious. One carrying party of thirty under Lieut. Filmer (photograph right) was reduced to just four when he led its remnant to the objective. Within a few minutes and looking over the trench Lieut. Filmer himself was shot and killed.
By evening the enemy, despite being hand-picked battalions with specialist training, had been beaten to a standstill. To help comprehend the dedication to duty and bravery of the men a glimpse into their extraordinary feat can be seen in the citations for the gallantry awards presented to the Lewis gunners, bombers, carriers, runners, signallers and leaders of the 22nd Battalion at Bullecourt.
The casualty rates during this battle were very high, and for the 22nd Battalion it was the worst day for fatalities in the entire war. No other battalion lost so heavily in the battle. Of the 21 officers and 618 other ranks that entered the battle, the 22nd Battalion had lost in 24 hours sixteen officers and 422 other ranks of whom over fifty percent were killed or missing – 165 killed or died of wounds according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records. Overall the 6th Brigade lost 58 officers and 1,422 other ranks.
That night the 1st Brigade relieved the 6th Brigade (22nd Battalion by the 3rd Battalion), and for the next 24 hours the Battalion rested by the railway embankment before moving in small parties to the sunken road between Noreuil and Longatte. Owing to the severity of the losses, the Battalion was now acting as a Company, with each Company as a Platoon, and then performed carrying parties to the front line.