Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 36
Jonathan Walker, The blood tub: General Gough and the battle of Bullecourt 1917, Spellmount, Staplehurst, Kent, UK, 2000, 224 pp., appendixes, maps, photographs, bibliography, index, softcover, rrp $54.95
Reviewed by: GRAEME BEVERIDGE, Executive Officer, Australian War Memorial
Bullecourt is perhaps the First World War battle that engendered the greatest distrust and contempt in Australian troops for their British commanders. Sandwiched between, and sometimes overshadowed by, two of the best-known Australian actions of the war - Pozières (July-August 1916) and Passchendaele (October 1917) - Bullecourt did not involve the level of casualties of these two, but it nevertheless resulted in huge losses for the Australian divisions involved. The one-day affair which was the First Battle of Bullecourt (11 April 1917) resulted in the 4th Division being essentially wiped out as a fighting force for months. This single day caused great bitterness among Australians towards General Hubert Gough and the newly-developed tank weapon, as a result of that general's willingness to throw resources into untried tactics against the Germans' Hindenberg Line - perhaps the strongest defensive position of the entire Western Front.
Walker tells the compelling story of how Gough, the brilliant but impetuous commander of the Fifth Army, allowed himself to be convinced that Mark I and II tanks could be used to clear a path for his attacking infantry, in lieu of the usual very heavy artillery barrage. Although these vehicles lacked armour-plating and were only meant for training, they were expected to proceed across no man's land and flatten the immense lines of barbed wire laid out in front of the enemy trenches. Despite the misgivings of Australian commanders, Gough insisted that the attack go ahead in this way. Even with evidence of the unreliability of the tanks, which failed to get within one mile of the jumping-off point by the time the attack was first scheduled, Gough immediately decided to reschedule the attack for the following morning!
In the event, only four of the eleven tanks were in position at start time, and these were so slow over the heavy going that they were passed by the soldiers on foot before reaching the German defences. The 4th and 12th Brigades of the 4th Australian Division, despite the failure of the tanks, showed remarkable courage and ability and achieved what most observers believed was impossible, by breaking into part of the enemy trenches. They were, however, forced out within hours by murderous machine gun and artillery fire from the defenders who, because of confusion and simple bad planning by the Australian artillery, were able to inflict enormous losses on the troops that reached and lodged in the Hindenberg Line.
The high degree of bitterness that resulted can be understood when the casualty rates of First Bullecourt are studied. The 12th Brigade went in 2,000 strong and suffered 950 casualties, while the 4th Brigade attacked with 3,000 and sustained 2,339 casualties! Even by the standards of the Western Front at this time, a loss rate of 66 per cent was remarkable. No wonder the 4th Division was withdrawn and took no further part in action for months. Included in the casualties were some 1,250 men who were captured, approximately a third of all Australians made prisoner during the war.
The author examines in great depth both this battle and Second Bullecourt, a more conventional but even more ferocious action that began on 3 May and lasted for more than a fortnight. He uses a wide range of source material, including official British, Australian, French, Canadian and German records, to build up an overall picture of the actions, day-by-day. His descriptions and explanations are made even more compelling by the frequent use of quotes from both official and private records. His quotes from diaries and other material from participants provide a strongly evocative account of the almost unbelievable conditions experienced by the troops.
Walker draws out factors not always considered by Australian readers. He is able to convincingly demonstrate that during both battles Australian artillery let the attacking infantry down (Charles Bean had forecast that this would happen). Two classic examples are given. During the few hours that was First Bullecourt, artillery headquarters continually refused requests for support due to confusion about the location of Australian troops. This allowed the German gunners and machine-guns to operate at will. When the artillery did finally open up, their fire landed directly on the Australian positions. Worse, the pre-battle fire plan had ignored the problem of very heavy machine-gun and battery concentrations in front of, and on each flank of, the attacking troops. Preliminary bombardments would have had at least some affect on these German defences.
Incredibly, in preparing for Second Bullecourt, the fire plan completely ignored one of the major factors in the failure of the first operation: the flanking machine-gun fire brought down from the neighbouring village of Quéant. In the event, the 5th Australian Brigade was heavily mauled by these guns when they veered off line and came into the view of the Quéant defenders. This part of the attack collapsed and the 5th Brigade withdrew without ever reaching the Hindenberg Line.
Walker is also able to demonstrate that Australian staff work was often poor. When the decision was taken to cancel the attack on 10 April, due to the non-arrival of the tanks, this information was not passed on to the neighbouring 62nd (West Riding) Division. British patrols were consequently sent into Bullecourt village which were quickly mauled by German machine gun fire. This so-called "Buckshee Battle" of 10 April cost the 62nd Division 162 men. Bitterness was, therefore, not only on the Australian side.
The author also reminds us that the main effort to take Bullecourt village was very much a British action; Australian units attacked to the east of the village across open fields. His detailed descriptions of British undertakings over the period of a fortnight, and in the face of ferocious German counter-attacks, demonstrate very clearly that these units fought with the same courage and tenacity as the Australians (and, incidentally, the German defenders, who fought for every inch of ground).
Walker's exploration of the backgrounds and relationships between senior British commanders, and of the intricacies of the British-French alliance, helps to explain why approaches were adopted which appear on the surface to be indefensible. Gough is the dashing ex-cavalryman, demanding that his subordinates demonstrate the "offensive spirit", always with an eye on the far horizon and the "big push", and desperate to capture Bullecourt to ensure that Haig's offer of command of the Flanders campaign is confirmed. Haig, also ex-cavalry, is determined that Flanders will proceed. He urges Gough to continue his attacks on Bullecourt to demonstrate to the French that British forces are continuing to apply pressure to the Germans and thereby retain French support for his plans. Pity the poor soldiers who, as a result, became casualties.
Jonathan Walker has produced a comprehensive and most readable account of one of the notable actions involving Australians during the First World War. For serious students, and those simply interested in this period, it is a great read.