Before dawn the Germans mounted an attack on the whole front of the AIF 1st Division and the right company of the AIF 2nd Division in front of Lagnicourt. Due to the broad nature of the frontage, the Australians had to defend their isolated posts beating back the attackers by Lewis gun fire and by bombs when the attackers drew near to their positions. As with Bullecourt ammunition was becoming a major issue and messengers shot down as they attempted to make the journey back to the rear, often by German snipers that managed to encircle and then enfilade their positions. German infiltration also meant that the forward field artillery batteries were being threatened and orders were given to withdraw their breech blocks and dial sights and
retire. The guns of all four batteries of the 2nd Brigade were abandoned followed shortly by three batteries of the 1st Brigade. By 5.30am the Germans had penetrated a mile and a half behind what was the Australian forward positions at the start of the day. However with daylight the task of the defenders became easier and were able to pour relentless Lewis gun and rifle fire from the rear defensive positions into the now faltering Germans, now caught between the defensive barrage falling to their rear and the advancing Australians.
In defeating this attack the I Anzac Corps had suffered 1,010 casualties of which approximately 300 were taken prisoner. The Germans suffered 2,313 casualties, and despite having been temporarily in possession of 36 artillery pieces, 31 were back in Australian operation that afternoon (photograph showing one of the destroyed guns). The attack was a failure, particularly as the Germans threw four times the amount attackers against the thinly spread 4,000 Australians holding the line, and did not disrupt the preparations for the next Allied attack at Bullecourt. For the Allies it also demonstrated the virtues of defence in depth.
The village and the attack lay beyond the right flank of the 22nd Battalion but in range of the Lewis gunners, including L/Cpl 1187 Tourrier who estimated that his gun accounted for 40 Germans and became ‘the envy of the battalion gunners’. A party of one officer and eleven other ranks attempted a raid on one of the Battalion’s posts and were all killed, and for his work 2nd Lieut. F.Gawler received a Military Cross. Sentry 5111 Pte Winter was shot dead by the raiders, and Major JS Dooley, MC was wounded.
The First Battle of Bullecourt – click on link below to Combat Areas > AIF Divisions > Bullecourt for a more detailed account.
Troops of the AIF 4th Division assaulted the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt in what was a poorly planned and executed attack. Instead of relying on the customary artillery barrage to destroy the thick belts of barbed wire, British commander General Hubert Gough decided to employ 12 tanks to advance ahead of the infantry in order to retain the element of surprise. On 10th April almost all of the tanks failed to arrive at the rendezvous point. The attack was delayed until following day, giving the Germans full warning of an imminent assault. The 4th and 12th Brigades set off to attack the Hindenburg Line with little support from the tanks. The infantry covered over 1,000 yards of no-man’s land without artillery support, in full view of German machine-gun crews, but still managed to negotiate thick belts of barbed wire and gain partial possession of the Hindenburg Line. The Australians quickly expended all their ammunition while holding the line against German counter-attacks. Ordered to withdraw, they negotiated a no-man’s land swept with German artillery and machine-gun fire. The battle cost the 4th Division over 3,000 casualties, of which 1,170 were taken prisoner – the largest capture of Australian troops on the Western Front.
The Gloucester Castle was a steam ship requisitioned by the British for use as a hospital ship during the First World War, operating in the Mediterranean between Lemnos and Malta and taking the wounded back across the English Channel from the Western Front. On one such voyage from Le Havre to Southampton on 31st March 1917 when carrying 399 patients including 300 cot cases, she was torpedoed by German U-boat U-32 off the Isle of Wight. All the patients were evacuated by the attendant destroyers and other transports, but three unfortunately died during the transfer. Although badly damaged she was eventually towed into port.
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 of the 7th Brigade 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 right) 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.
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.
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.
Not long after the resumption of the German announcement of unrestricted submarine warfare against shipping deemed to be supporting the Allied war effort, after landing 1,000 wounded at Avonmouth in the Bristol Channel, the Asturias was attacked by German submarine off the south Devon coast and struck by a torpedo which blew off her stern, killing 35 of her crew. The Captain of U20 which sank the Asturias was Capitanleutnant Walther Schweiger, who two years before had been in command of the U-Boat which sank the Lusitania. She was able to be beached near Bolt Head but her damage was so extensive that she was declared a total loss. However her hulk was put to use as a floating ammunition store at Plymouth for the rest of the war.
AIF 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.
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.
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.