German Withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line - the Outpost Villages
In February 1917 the Germans took the Allies by surprise by withdrawing from their front line to consolidate along the much stronger and straighter front along the Hindenberg Line. In doing so they sought to eliminate what is known in military parlance as "a salient". "Salients" are projections of the front line into enemy territory which leave the defender of the salient vulnerable to being outflanked and cut off, hence the German consolidation. However the speed of the process took the Allies by surprise. The Australian Divisions as part of the British 5th Army began a cautious follow up.
When withdrawing in this way the absolute imperative for the withdrawing force is to achieve a 'clean break' so the withdrawal can be conducted in an orderly manner and out of contact. This is achieved by good security and deception, concealing one's intent and then by imposing delay on the follow up force. Defended posts, booby traps and defensive artillery fire are all used to achieve delay. The Germans carried this out to very good effect.
1st Bullecourt took place towards the end of this period as the Allies closed up to the Hindenburg Line of which Bullecourt was a part. It is dealt with separately
As part of their retreat German forces had left behind fortified towns and isolated fortified positions to slow down the Allied advance.
Butte du Warlencourt - Second Division: 5th 6th and 7th Brigades.
Loupart Bastion and Malt Trench (www.ww1westernfront.gov.au)
The 27th Battalion was responsible for attacking one of these isolated fortified positions near Warlencourt. As a result on the night 2/3 March 1917 the 27th Battalion attacked the German Malt Trench near the Butte du Warlencourt, a terrain feature that gave significant advantage in terms of observation.
AWM - 27th battalion war diary outlines the course of events leading up to a major attack on 2 March. It is paraphrased here:
The 27th Battalion went into the line near Warlencourt on 27 February 1917, relieving the 24th Battalion (Victoria) as part of the follow up of the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line.
Its major operation there took place on 2 March which consisted of an attack towards a German defensive position (Malt Trench) and an attempt to link up with the 17th Battalion of the 5th Brigade on their right flank. The assault was flanked and 'turned' by the Germans but a 27th Battalion counterattack was organised and executed successfully by Captain Devonshire and led by Lieutenant Davies securing the Grevilliers line of some 500m of trench.
The sum total of casualties was significant:
3 officers, Lieutenants Botten (/explore/people/114945), Lucas (/explore/people/83885)and Caldwell (/explore/people/257035)were KIA and Captain Joyce MC severely wounded. 22 OR were killed and 95 wounded. Many of thse killed were interred in the Warlancourt British Cemetery (/explore/cemeteries/28)
The Battalion war diary reports 60 enemy killed and 29 PoW taken.
The Outpost Villages - Noreuil - Fourth Division, 4th 12th and 13th Brigades
South west of Bullecourt lies the small sleepy village of Noreuil. It lies in low ground and its approaches are marked by a series of 'sunken roads' which feature prominently in descriptions of the fighting there in early April as the Allies had closed up to it and its neighbouring villages. These were all so-called "Outpost Villages" which were fortified and defended positions prepared by the Germans on the approaches to the Hindenburg Line.
The 50th and 51st Battalions attacked Norueil on the 2nd April 1917, with the other Battalions (the 49th and 52nd) of the 13th Brigade in Reserve.
The battle on the 2nd of April was not only carried out in Noreuil, but other Divisions took part and it resulted in the capture of several villages. Noreuil is a village lying some miles north-east of Bapaume. In front and to the south of the village ran a low ridge almost east and west of the village of Queant is a valley – a dismantled railway track ran along this valley. On the north of the village and valley is a plateau running away to the north towards Bullecourt and the Hindenberg Line. Longatte is almost a mile to the west, slightly north of of Noreuil. Lagnicourt was less than a mile to the south-east of Noreuil, and just behind the ridge about three miles to the south-west lay Vaulx. Our outpost line through Lagnicourt on the east, along the reserve slope or crest of the ridge in front of Noreuil, around Longatte, and then north-west to Arras. The village of Noreuil formed a slight salient into our line.
The Germans were slowly falling back upon the Hindenberg Line, destroying villages, etc., as they went. They defended their line by a system of rearguards and outposts, comprised of their best troops. Most of Noreuil had been destroyed or mined. Its evacuation was forestalled, by our attack, for twelve days. The Germans defended Noreuil with the 119th and 120th Regiments (3rd Guard Division). The village was very strongly held on the western side and by fortified, sunken roads on the south and eastern side. The German line ran along the southern ridge. This was protected by a belt of wire which could not be seen from the top of the ridge owing to the convex slope. The supports were in the sunken roads to the north and west of the village.
The action at Noreuil earned Private Jorgen Jensen a VC for his action in capturing 60 or so German prisoners. However the attack took a particularly heavy toll of the Battalion's young officers, many of whom were veterans of the Gallipoli campaign where many had served in the ranks, being subsequently commissioned as a result of their performance under fire, and observed leadeship qualities.
Harold Armitage (/explore/people/243533)
Wilfred Bidstrup (/explore/people/242303)
Bill Hoggarth (/explore/people/290002)
Wilfrid Jose (/explore/people/173634)
Esson Rule (/explore/people/98366)
The 52nd Battalion in front of Lagnicourt had to advance in a north-east direction for a few hundred yards on to the crest of the southern ridge, and then dig in. This involved practically two waves of two platoons each (four lines). The other company (which was to sweep to the right of the village) formed one wave, with one platoon of the Reserve Company in support. (The platoon joined the company before the attack, that lasted five minutes, and was wiped out.) The frontage for the Battalion was between 600 and 800 yards. The remaining three platoons of the Reserve Company spread across the two thousand yards of front and held the line while the others were forming up.
The 51st battalion were to attack Noreuil directly in a north-east direction to their right to get in touch with the 50th in the village and their left to get in touch with the 2nd Gordons (who were to attack Longatte). I have forgotten the hour; it was 4:30 or 5:30 a.m. Anyway, it was dark. While the Battalion was waiting on the tapes, I saw Harold and we had a few minutes’ chat. He was very game. He had a presentiment that he would not come through. I remember him saying to be careful of the enemy protective barrage that was sure to descend on the outpost line. He was full of spirit and confident of victory.
At zero hour the guns flashed out and the German Very Lights and S.O.S. signals lit up the sky, making a pretty awe-inspiring sight. All the troops sprang up from the tapes and followed the barrage closely. The Germans were taken completely by surprise, and in the middle of the relief, so were about eight minutes getting their barrage going along the southern ridge. Once over the crest the German machine guns began to rattle out and their own troops came under a deadly fire. On the left of the Battalion the leading wave were mowed down by machine guns concealed in the houses and a piquet in the sunken road. Here the gallant Lieutenant Hoggarth fell. Also that equally gallant gentleman, Lieutenant Bidstrup. His body was found surrounded by a number of dead Germans.
By this time the 51st Battalion began to attack from the left and some of our own men had worked around to the right of the cemetery; thus, the Germans found themselves practically surrounded. With a cheer, both Battalions joined and swept into the village to victory. In the centre of the Battalion they had also suffered machine gun fire before entering the village and here also the gallant and lovable Lieutenant Jose fell.
The company on the right, although coming under fire, met with better luck. The machine gun situated on the sunken road leading from Lagnicourt to Noreuil was destroyed by the first shot from a trench mortar. Advancing over these positions the company was held up by the belt of wire. For a few moments the positions was critical; however, the wire was crossed with a rush. The company entered the valley and then swung to the right, but they had gone too far before wheeling, consequently losing touch with the 52nd Battalion just to the right of the road mentioned. Here Lance Corporal (then Private) Jensen won his V.C. by capturing about 60 Germans.
The boys on the left and the centre, together with the 51st Battalion, swept through the village, wheeled, and took up a position in the partially-dug trench on the high ground north-east of the village. They were in a trench with the Scottish, who took Longatte on the left, and their right rested about 50 to 100 yards from the edge of the valley. They had advanced about 2000 yards and were only 200 yards short of their final objective. The right company in the valley met with hard fighting right along it and when our second barrage opened, owing to it being a bit ragged, suffered heavy casualties. Here it lost touch with the left, too. Some of them reached their final objective but they were enfiladed from both flanks, from a sunken road on the ground about 200 yards in front of the other companies, and also from the sunken road in front of the 52nd Battalion on the southern ridge. They were also heavily attacked from the front. Some 300 Germans running from the village attacked them from the rear. Outflanked and surrounded the end came quickly and, after a short, unequal fight some 100 surrendered.
The Germans then turned their attention to the other two companies of the 51st in the trench. From the sunken road in front of them the Germans bombarded them with pineapple bombs (trench mortar) and enfiladed them with machine-guns from the sunken road on the southern ridge in front of the 52nd Battalion. They also bombarded up their trenches some way from where it ended on the north side of the valley. Losses were heavy in some places and the trench soon filled up with dead.
It was in this trench that your very gallant son was killed during the latter part of the morning on the 2nd of April, shot through the head while looking over the top of the trench to see what had become of the companies in the valley. His last words were “watch the right flank” just before he looked over the top. His poor men were heartstricken with grief, and I saw him lying in the trench that morning and heard the details. It was a terrible shock. He was buried beside Lieutenant Rule in a little quarry by the side of a road in the valley, and a cross erected. He had done splendid work that day and, if he had been spared would have been rewarded.
The Germans had suffered heavily while running away. The ground in front of the trench and around the sunken road was covered with dead. The gap so caused in the line was serious. The 52nd Battalion, who had dug in on the crest of the southern ridge, could not see or command the valley, thus leaving it open for the Germans to retake the village, envelop the Brigade or cause them to fall back, and possibly the Brigade on its left.
On receipt of a pigeon message from Harold, saying some Germans had been overlooked in the village and were causing trouble, the Colonel ordered one platoon from Reserve Company under Lieutenant Rule to move up to support the company in the valley, and the two remaining platoons to mop up the village. Going over the southern ridge this company had to pass through the enemy’s barrage, and consequently suffered casualties. On discovering the fate of the right company, this company was thrown into the gap and advanced up the valley without artillery support. Before going far it came under the same murderous fire, enfilade and frontal, also heavy shelling from the field guns, 5.9 inch. Within 200 yards of the sunken road these attacks were held up, and the company took up positions to cover the valley and protect the flank of the Battalion. The Germans, being so prevented from pursuing their attacks against the Battalion’s flank, devoted their attention to the newcomers.
Towards evening the enemy, under cover of a heavy bombardment, massed for a counter-attack along the whole front. But snow was falling and the enemy were plainly visible to the troops on the high ground. In answer to the S.O.S. signals our artillery played such havoc with them that the attack never developed. That night touch was gained with the 52nd battalion and the gap was closed. Next morning this company now 60 strong) appeared to again attack the sunken roads. However, it proved unnecessary as its patrols reported that the enemy had evacuated them and the positions were occupied without opposition, and quantities of material and several wounded prisoners were found there. Patrols followed up the remaining enemy who had fallen back on Queant and Bullecourt. The next night the whole line was advanced for a distance of 1900 yards.
Harry Seager, pp 94-97 'Hurcombe's Hungry Half Hundred'
A fulsome description of the battle is contained in the attached narrative; athe full letter by Major Harry Seager to Mr Armitage describing the circumstances of his son’s death at Noreuil on 2 April 1917.
Work in Progress - A book is currently in preparation about the battle for Noreuil by Adelaide journalist and author Andrew Faulkner