29th March 1917: The 7th Division in the British Third Army to the left tried for a third time to take the villages of Croisilles and Ecoust in front of the Hindenburg Line but again failed.
26th March 1917: The British Fifth Army and the right of the Third which was to take part in the great Arras offensive were separated from the Hindenburg by a chain of villages. One such village was Lagnicourt and the 26th and 27th Battalions were tasked with attacking the village, supported by Elliott’s 15th Brigade on the right flank. The village was the first of this line to be taken but at a cost of 377 casualties. The Germans did not try to retake the village but heavily shelled the buildings and it was from a shell bursting in a sunken road that Capt. Cherry (photograph below left) of the 26th Battalion, who through his good work earlier in the day had been awarded the Victoria Cross, was killed. After the capture of Lagnicourt the AIF 2nd Division was relieved by the 4th which came into the line fresh from a month’s rest and training.
General Gough informed his corps commanders that the sector to be seized by the British Fifth Army during the attack on the Hindenburg Line and supporting the main Arras Offensive on their left would be at Bullecourt, with British V Corps attacking to the west of the village and I Anzac Corps to the east. With time short and the date for the offensive approaching the infantry would be attacking in the open since there would be no time to dig a trench system, and the artillery would have just enough time if they fired hard in the week leading up to the attack. Furthermore the line that they would be attacking lay between the German salients of Bullecourt and Queant giving the Australian commanders cause for concern facing fire from three sides.
24th March 1917: General Gough orders his corps commanders to bring forward all their heavy artillery as soon as the roads permit in preparation for the bombardment of the Hindenburg Line in April. This would be in preparation for a flanking attack as part of the great Arras Offensive now deep into its preparation scheduled for the 8th April
23rd March 1917: With Elliott’s 15th Brigade progressing faster than the rest of the front, the Germans – including a company of storm-troops – attempted to retake the village of Beaumetz but were beaten back. This attack was evidence of Ludendorff and Hindenburg’s plan to hit back hard at the following troops, and justified Haig’s precautionary and cautious approach of not over exposing his advancing armies.
21st March 1917: The 7th Brigade having relieved the 6th witnessed an aerial combat between four British and five German aeroplanes. A German plane came to ground in front of their posts, and several Queenslanders rushed forward shooting the pilot as he tried to run away. The pilot happened to be Prince Frederick Charles of Prussia (photograph right), and though carried to the aid post he died of his wounds in hospital a few days later.
20th March 1917: 6th Brigade’s Maj-Gen. Gellibrand working on his own initiative attempted to take Noreuil. The 21st and 23rd Battalions met with heavy resistance from machine guns in the surrounding villages supported by artillery. The first that Divisional HQ knew about it was when Gellibrand sent messages including falling back. To Generals Birdwood and Smythe the unexpected news of this engagement and the casualties suffered – which was eventually found to be more than twice as Gellibrand at first believed, totalling 13 Officers and 318 other ranks – came as a shock. As a result Gellibrand never regained the high opinion and confidence with General Birdwood which his vigour in previous stages of the pursuit had won.
Meanwhile, General Gough met with his two Corps commanders to lay out the plan to assist the Third Army with the infantry and not just artillery. Gough’s belief was that the German’s were occupying the Hindenburg Line merely as a rear-guard operation, and that the Line should be attacked on 8th April on a front of 3,000 – 4,000 yards, with the Cavalry exploiting the breach and meeting up with the Third’s cavalry coming through at Vimy. Twelve tanks were also allotted to Gough.
18th March 1917: The 6th (Gellibrand) and 15th (Elliott) Brigades were selected as the force to drive forward, supported by troops from the 13th Light Horse and a battery of field artillery. The advance columns would be advancing without the main body of troops behind them, therefore incurring increased risk as they approached the Hindenburg Line. In this new phase of open warfare the infantry progressed cautiously, uncomfortable crossing open countryside despite there being only few of the enemy around, and weighed down by their heavy packs. However spirits were raised as they were away from the trenches and mud of the Somme battlefields and winter was turning to spring. The infantry were also becoming practiced in the art of enveloping or surrounding a village before effecting its capture.
To the north at Messines, the British 2nd Army’s plan for the capture of the ridge was explained to General Godley who in turn briefed his II Anzac Corps Divisional commanders.
17th March 1917: Brigade Commanders Gellibrand (6th) and Smith (5th – and former 22nd Battalion commander) drew up plans for a simultaneous attack on the expected German rear guard, but by the time the advance the enemy had gone. Bapaume (photograph right), the objective for the great 1916 Somme offensive, was entered. As the Allies followed the Germans in a period of cautious open warfare against the German rear-guards, bitterness grew not just amongst the French but also in world opinion against the excesses of the German military in destroying everything in its wake for little military advantage.
15th March 1917: Vigorous patrolling continued with a view to ascertain the strength of enemy opposite the Brigades’s front. Aeroplanes active that day.
13th March 1917: The second large raid conducted by the AIF 3rd Division in the Messines area is a disaster and ends with Lieut. Taylor and 19 other ranks from the 11th Brigade being killed with another 45 wounded.
12th March 1917: Patrols from the 5th and 6th Brigades report that German front line RI, which had recently been heavily bombarded, was empty in expectation of an attack, though the 8th Brigade to the right was meeting with resistance. The 5th and 6th Brigades were now operating in almost entirely green countryside, raising the spirits of the men, as they moved to within 300 yards of the RII line.
11th March 1917: Aeroplanes on both sides very active. Four British planes brought to earth, with one German plane crashed in Loupart Wood.
10th March 1917: On the left of the 25th Battalion, the British II Corps attacked the German outpost in Grevillers Trench with 370 prisoners being taken.
5th March 1917: Heavy plumes of smoke rose from the town of Bapaume indicating that the Germans would be retreating further, while British airmen reported a greatly increased amount of train movement eastwards.
3rd March 1917: Expecting that the withdrawal of the German Divisions was in preparation for a major offensive in Flanders, any British Divisions that could be spared from the front-line should be withdrawn, and the AIF 1st Division was duly withdrawn and their frontage taken over by the AIF 2nd and 5th Divisions.
2nd March 1917: Three battalions of the 7th Brigade, with the 5th supporting on the right, attacked towards Malt Trench. Despite bombing attacks, artillery and counter-attacks the 2nd Division had established itself on the Loupart bastion and in position to create a ‘jumping off’ line for Gough’s intended assault on the next main German R.I. Line. The AIF 1st Division to the east had been digging in when came a series of counter-attacks, with the Germans penetrating behind the Australian lines. Both sides had men killed and captured, though the loses to the German attackers had been greater.
28th February 1917: By the morning of the 28th the villages of Thilloy, Ligny-Thilloy and Le Barque were within the AIF 1st Division’s line, which now lay in comparatively green country and a distance of some 500 – 800 yards from the German main position, Till Trench. On the right the 15th Brigade of the AIF 5th Division had cleared the enemy from Barley Trench to the German pivot point at Le Transloy. To the west the 7th Brigade made seven attacks to Malt Trench but all were bombed back with heavy loss on both sides. British Fifth Army commanding officer General Gough visited the area and seeing the importance of Malt Trench gave the order for the bombardment of the German wire to begin at once.
27th February 1917: Preceded by a program of smaller raids through January and February, the AIF 3rd Division conducted its first major raid at Houplines on the French/Belgium border outside of Armentieres. Carried out by a composite battalion of the 10th Brigade of 20 Officers and 804 other ranks, the large successful raid was preceded by a bombardment which included gas and smoke shells, a tactic that AIF 3rd Division Commanding Officer General Monash would use to great effect later in the war when commanding the AIF.
25th February 1917: Advancing under the partial cover of fog from the sporadic threat of enemy machine gun fire from harassing rear-parties, snipers in villages, and artillery, I Anzac Corps began occupying the forward and support positions abandoned by the Germans. The German rear-parties would fire then run, and this advance was the nearest approach to open warfare that most of the men had yet experienced. The dugout entrances in the support trenches had been systematically blown in and care had to be taken to avoid booby-traps left particularly under loose duck-boards. The German withdrawal appeared to pivot on the front being explored by I Anzac Corps as the 14th Brigade (5th Division) on the far right observed that the German trenches around Le Transloy had been fully garrisoned. To the Australian troops advancing the sight ahead of comparatively green valleys with buildings and trees would have been a welcome lift after the months of the grey and mud.
24th February 1917: Reports came in from British V Corps that the Germans had abandoned their forward trenches. I Anzac Corps along with British II Corps were ordered that night to probe and from their discoveries and prisoners taken it became apparent that the Germans had made a massive change in their strategic plans and what was being observed was the voluntary abandonment by the Germans of their great salient between Arras and Aisne. The German plan was thus for their naval campaign waged through submarines to force victory and for their land forces to hold out as long as possible. With the prospect of an Allied breakthrough on the Somme in 1916 a possibility, construction was started in September on a new 100 mile defensive line across the base of a great salient from Arras in the north to Soissons in the south, and it was to this location that the decision was made to fall back. The withdrawal decision would have two immediate effects: a shortening of the line saving a large number of divisions; secondly it would disrupt the Allied plans of attack and buy the submarines more time to have a decisive impact. The new line, being constructed in quiet surroundings and chosen for their defensive qualities would offer stronger and more comfortable shelter for the German troops in deep concrete shelters, protected by deep belts of wire entanglements.
The depth of the withdrawal to what would be known as the Hindenburg Line would vary between twelve miles near Bapaume to nearly thirty near Roye. In front of the line a 15 kilometre belt was laid bare of houses and trees for shelter, and the roads, railways, bridges and wells all rendered useless.
22nd February 1917: The 45th Battalion captured another length of trench along with thirty-two prisoners. Meanwhile in preparation for the impending British offensive that would be happening further north, General Birdwood ordered the withdrawal of the AIF 4th Division from the front-line to refresh and be ready to support a possible flanking attack by I Anzac Corps west of Bapaume northwards in the direction of Arras.
21st February 1917: Wireless messages intercepted by the British Fifth Army from the rear of the three German divisions facing it ‘to dismantle and be prepared to move with all material, and not to leave anything behind’.
16th February 1917: The weather turned warmer and the frost of the last month ended. Within days the communication trenches had returned to a quagmire hindering the supply of bombs to the front for further attacks.
15th February 1917: The I Anzac Corps is transferred from the British Fourth Army to the Fifth Army (formerly Reserve Army) under the command of General Sir Hubert Gough (photograph right). Meanwhile back in England and following the agreement by the Australian Government to form a 6th infantry division, the creation of a new brigade, the 16th, was begun consisting mostly of men having recovered from their wounds or sickness.
14th February 1917: Following the lessons learned by Nivelle’s French forces at Verdun, the new British drill of attack was formally authorised, though could not at this stage be practiced by the AIF as they were in the front line. This included placing specialists such as bombers and Lewis guns into the platoons to make them more self-sufficient.
11th February 1917: At midnight the 46th Battalion launched an assault covered by a shower of rifle-grenades and captured 150 yards of enemy trench. The small wearing down operations on the Somme were now in full swing, and three days later the 46th launch another attack and capture a further 25 yards.
10th February 1917: Raids of the AIF 1st Division against Bayonet Trench and the point of The Maze were repulsed by strong wire entanglements and stubborn German defence, despite signs witnessed along the front that morale within the German army was starting to weaken.
4th February 1917: The 13th Battalion was tasked in attacking Stormy Trench again. In order to meet the chief danger of the German counter-attack 12,000 bombs were carried forward to the ‘jumping-off’ position, plus 1,000 rifle grenades to combat the greater range of the enemy egg bombs. The field artillery was also to double its expenditure of shells. To avoid noise during assembly the men’s feet were muffled with sandbags. As with the previous attack good progress was made and the trench easily captured along with a number of deep dug-outs. The counter attack came and desperate bombing fights ensued, followed by a swift, heavy and accurate German barrage on the supporting and bomb-carrying troops. The success of the attack was largely due to Capt. Murray’s (photograph right) leadership on the right for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross, though the operation had cost the Australians about 350 casualties against the German losses of 250 including 100 missing.
1st February 1917: The 15th Battalion of the AIF 4th Division moving swiftly following a short barrage took the enemy by surprise and captured Cloudy Trench, a German salient north-east of Gueudecourt. However an insufficient defensive barrage resulted in a successful German counter-attack which forced the attackers back. In this action the 15th Battalion lost 144 officers and men, of whom 42 were missing. Meanwhile with the plan to take over more of the French line, the British Government asked for the formation of a 6th Australian infantry division, along with an additional New Zealand and more Canadian Divisions.
28th January 1917: General Legge falls ill with the flu and the opportunity is taken to relieve him of his command of the AIF 2nd Division, where upon he returned to Australia. Legge was replaced by Brig-Gen Smyth, VC.
22nd January 1917: A successful German raiding party on 36th Battalion AIF 3rd Division to the south of the Lys in Flanders leaves 11 Australian killed, 36 wounded and 4 taken prisoner. This was one of only two successful raids out of eight by the Germans against the AIF 3rd Division from the beginning of the New Year until 13th March.
18th January 1917: General McCay of the AIF 5th Division was relieved and became the GOC AIF depots on the Salisbury Plain in England and was replaced by Brig-Gen Hobbs.
17th January 1917: A heavy fall of snow fell which lasted in the bitter cold for exactly a month. Food was carried forward but water had to be melted from the ice in shell holes. However the cold was preferable to the mud. The ground was dry, trench walls ceased to fall in and men could move around and stamp their feet without creating a quagmire. It was also easier to bring food up to the front. At this time the number of cases of trench feet diminished. However, it also became more obvious which trenches were manned and posts garrisoned, this harassing fire became more precise. [Painting: ‘Christmas 1916’ by William Barnes Wollen – an Australian outpost at Fleurbaix.]
14th January 1917: The wet weather that had prevailed since October gave way to bitter frosts.
10th January 1917: General Rawlinson asked his Fourth Army Corps commanders to plan for a series of attacks to keep the enemy under strain.
2nd January 1917: To support Nivelle’s plan for the 1917 offensive, the British Fourth Army extended its front requiring I Anzac Corps to put all four of its divisions (1st, 2nd, 4th & 5th) into the front-line.