'The Winter Offensive' - Flers/Gueudecourt winter of 1916/17 (World War 1, 18 October 1916 to 23 February 1917)

About This Campaign

'The Winter Offensive' - Flers/Gueudecourt winter of 1916/17 

Following Pozières / Mouquet Farm, the Australian 1st, 2nd, 4th, and a reconstituted 5th Division, having recovered from Fromelles, were moved to Flanders; specifically in the sector around Ypres. The 3rd Division meanwhile was in the UK, training, yet to deploy to the Front.

On October 9 the men of the 2nd Division received word they would be moving back to the Somme as winter approached, to undertake 'Offensive Operations'. They found themselves moving into the line just east of Pozières on the British right flank where they were to form a key part of planned 'winter offensive' as the cold came early in 1916. 

The soldiers noted that the British line had advanced some 3km since September, but autumn rain had turned the place into a quagmire.  Much worse was to come - the coldest winter in living memory.

The 4th Army HQ (General Rawlinson) wanted 'offensive action' and the Australians were to provide it.

A simultaneous operation was to be conducted  On the left , north of Flers, was a salient projecting into the Allied line near Guedecourt.  That was assigned to the 1st Division.

With an imminent attack at Flers, the Second Division was to be the 'the spear' thrust into the enemy.  The men of the the 7th Brigade were to be its tip.

The 1st Division attack at Guedecourt set the tone, launching on the 5th November.  The 1st Brigade was to take it to the enemy. In fact the attack was conducted on a narrow front led by the 1st Battalion. The mud was appalling, trapping men and foiling the planned assembly in No-Man's Land.  It got worse quickly. The mud was horrendous, limiting their capacity to move across the battlefield in the face of enemy small arms and supporting fire.  When they got to the enemy parapet, they were exhausted.  Small groups of grimly determined men made it into some of the German positions and inflicted casualties, but repeating the theme of 1916, they couldn't hold their gains and were forced to retire.  Nothing had been gained for over 170 casualties.

Meanwhile, the 2nd Division, specifically the 7th Brigade, attacked at Flers.  Their objective was a complex of trenches called 'The Maze'.  It was a debacle.  Despite a determined assault into the teeth of a gale, they encountered much heavier opposition than anticipated.   Effective German machine gun fire killed large numbers of the attackers and pinned down much of the remaining force.  The mud clogged rifles frustrating attempts to generate sufficient firepower to allow an advance.  No ground gained for 819 casualties.

On November 14, the 19th, 25th and 26th Battalion attacked again at Flers.  They were more successful, capturing parts of their objective, but at a cost of 900 casualties.  A German counter attack three days later ejected them.  The survivors were numbed and exhausted, and considered the extent of their losses too great even if 'justified' by a victory, which at Flers, was nowhere in sight.  The wounded faced a gruelling trek through the mud to Aid Posts, still subjected to enemy artillery fire.

Indeed, an Australian Commander, Brigadier Glasfurd, Commander of the 12th Brigade, was wounded in the front line at Flers on 12 November.  He was evacuated by stretcher.  It took ten hours to traverse just 1.5km.  Brigadier Glasfurd succumbed to his wounds soon after arrival at the dressing station.

Another attack on the Maze was carried out on 17 November, by the 5th and 7th Brigades.  An almost identical result to that of 14 November ensued.  Australian troops gained the enemy position and held it for two days before a surprise German counter attack repelled the attackers and the enemy regained its positions.

As the Offensive petered out, the Australians were resigned to a long cold winter in the trenches in the Flers / Guedecourt area, during the coldest winter in 40 years.  The only upside was that the ground eventually froze solid.  This spurred a major effort, directed by Major General Brudnell-White, to improve the conditions of the troops in the front line.

Pioneers and Engineers were employed improving roads, light rail, construction of better dugouts and the issue of among other things, tens of thousands of sheepskin vests which feature in may photographs of this period.  The effects of constant damp and cold began to take their toll. Trench Foot became a huge medical issue, and the number of non-battle casualties rapidly escalated.

By the end of January, 'offensive operations ' resumed at the request of General Rawlinson, with the Australians conducting small scale raids.  The principal attack in this phase was conducted by the 13th Battalion at 'Stormy Trench' north of Guedecourt.  One of the Companies was led by Captain Harry Murray.

Murray's company loaded themselves up with as many hand grenades as they could possibly carry, with more in reserve.  The attack was conducted at night with the Australian artillery opening their account at 9:58pm.  The Australians followed closely behind their own barrage and were able to break into the German positions, taking more than 60 prisoners.

The Germans responded with their trademark counter-attack and the supporting artillery fire inflicted casualties among the attackers, stretcher bearers,  German Prisoners and the grenade re-supply parties.

Murray's company erected barriers in the trenches to block enemy parties.  They greeted the counter-attack with a flurry of hand grenades.  The Germans responded with their own.  His surviving bombers held on while Murray had rifle grenades fired beyond the attackers to block reinforcements while he brought in reinforcements of his own to rush the Germans trying to pull down the barricades.  Murray and the remainder of his men were able to hold out until relieved by the 16th Battalion that night.  The 13th Battalion sustained 233 casualties in the 'minor operation'.  Murray earned a Victoria Cross for his actions.

This phase of proceedings came to an end in late February, when the Germans began their extraction and withdrawal to the Hindenburg line;  a phase of operations that became known to the Australians as 'The Outpost Villages Battles'. 

See the related listing.

 

Steve Larkins 2013 updated Oct 23

 

Sources:

Carlyon, L. 'The Great War' Pan McMillan Australia, 2006, ISBN-13 978 1 4050 3799 0

Laffin, J.  'Western Front 1916-1917 The Price of Honour' Time Life Books Australia 1987 ISBN 0 949118214

AWM  - https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/E84320 accessed 19 Oct 23

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Stories

"....getting killed like flies.."

Guedecourt

Private W Lewis wrote:

‘Our officers gave the order, so we started. There were many who could not get out of the mud. I was one of them, so some of my cobbers gave me a hand and we got up on the parapet and had to stand there and scrape off the mud before we could go, not only me but everybody. While they were doing this, they were getting killed like flies. The fellow alongside of me got a bullet through his head.’


Private E Morrow wrote:


‘The road was sloppy, slippery mud and slush pitted with shell-holes filled to the level of the road with mud. We could only stagger and slide into them knee and thigh deep. Slimy, horrible mud! Ammunition limbers and G.S. wagons were lying beside the road shattered and broken. Dead mules and horses lay half covered with slush – a depressing sight calculated to make us curse the war with every carcass we passed. They died in harness as thousands of men did, but it was not of their own choosing or will.

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Private D.B. Harford wrote:

‘At six o’clock this morning I shot a Hun, an observer, at 400 yards. I happened to spot him with a pair of field glasses I had borrowed. He was all alone, looking through a pair of field glasses with his head and shoulders above the parapet (foolish fellow). My loophole was well hidden, a plate of steel (or iron, I am not certain which). About three eighths of an inch thick, set into the parapet, with a hole just big enough to put the rifle through. There was a big bush of giant nettles growing around the loophole, which added to its invisibility. Took careful but quick aim and pulled the trigger. He spread his arms out and fell backwards, throwing his glasses in the air as he fell. When I saw him fall a queer thrill shot through me, it was a different feeling to that which I had when I shot my first kangaroo, when I was a boy. For one instant I felt sick and faint, but the feeling soon passed and I was my normal self again and looking for more shots, which I did not get that day.’ 2

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Names

Showing 8 people of interest from campaign

PICKFORD, Horace

Service number 2882
Corporal
58th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 1890

HANDFORD, George Harold

Service number 4711
Private
25th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 26 Mar 1897

NOYCE, Ernest Clifford

Service number 5398
Private
16th Infantry Battalion (WW1)
AIF WW1
Born 1896

HEANE, James

Colonel
1st Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 29 Dec 1874

WATSON, Thomas Colin

Service number 4797
Private
20th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 31 Jan 1897

WILKINS, Gordon

Service number 2835
Lieutenant
18th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 23 Aug 1885

RYAN, Frank Allan Clifford

Service number 1330
Private
12th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 9 Sep 1894

HALL, Arthur James

Service number 2262
Lieutenant
13th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 28 Aug 1890

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