The forgotten battle of Bullecourt’s many heroes
AS THE sun rose across an idyllic snow-covered field in northern France on April 11, 1917, thousands of Australian Diggers calmly began walking toward the German enemy line some 2km away.
By the end of the day, that beautiful stretch of pristine fertile ground a short distance from the village of Bullecourt would be known as “the blood tub”.
The first Battle of Bullecourt was an unmitigated disaster that saw the might of the German army mow down 3300 Australians with a barrage of bullets and explosives in just a few hours. The Germans also took 1170 of the Australian soldiers as prisoners of war by day’s end.
The previous evening, British and Australian defence leaders ordered the Aussies – including 10 Bundaberg men from the
15th Battalion – to attack the German defence of the Hindenburg Line on the opposite side of the field.
The Aussie infantry moved forward, expecting to be protected by at least 12 British tanks.
But the behemoths of the battlefield were so slow that they did not get to there on time and when the tanks eventually crawled past the Aussie trenches, they were quickly destroyed by the enemy’s strong wall of field artillery.
That same arsenal of German weapons ripped the approaching Diggers to shreds. Charleville labourer John Edward Redmond was killed in action during the first Battle of Bullecourt.
He embarked from Brisbane on board HMAT A50 Itonus on December 30, 1915
Roma men David Alexander Murphy, John David Irwin, Marcel Firmin Varcin and William George Dray survived Bullecourt but succumbed to wounds or disease or were killed in action within 18 months of that fateful day.
“No doubt exceedingly important strategic objects lay behind the British (led) attack, but I have never been able to discover what they were,” German General Eric Ludendorff wrote shortly after the killer skirmish that barely impacted his own battalions.
Battle of Bullecourt expert Captain Andrew Craig said wave after wave of Diggers moved across that icy field, never faltering to follow in the footsteps of their mates despite the unrelenting mass of bodies falling before them.
On April 25, Charleville residents will remember the sacrifice of these soldiers during the Anzac Day dawn services.
That battle started on May 3, 1917, and by the time it ended two weeks later on May 17, 7482 Australians were dead.
Both Bullecourt battles accounted for the deaths of almost 11,000 Australians, about one sixth of the 62,000-plus Australian casualties in the First World War.
FORGOTTEN BATTLE: Australian prisoners captured at Bullecourt are escorted to the German rear on April 11, 1917.