The Somme

by John Laherty

If you ever decide to go to Northern France, or indeed to drive anywhere in Europe, let me give you a tip – get an automatic. It’s a sobering experience mixing it with very large articulated trucks whilst you are sitting on the car’s left hand side, attempting to go clockwise (the wrong way!) around a roundabout following road signs, that might as well be written in Arabic for all the sense they make, with the wipers sweeping the windscreen (when you meant to use the indicators) whilst trying to select the correct gear with your right hand. It won’t save you from crashing but you can at least take away one distracting task by going auto! Another tip is to get a small diesel. The cost differential in Europe is about 20% cheaper and diesel goes further. With fuel running at 90 cents to 1 Euro (around A$1.90) per litre the extra cost of renting a diesel is recovered very quickly (and they go very well on the autobahns!). Another good idea is to learn the French directional equivalents. The important ones are: West – Ouest; East – Uest, Left – Gauche; Right – Ledroit, South – Sud; North – Nord. One that had me tossed for a little while was ‘Toutes Directions’ which they use at the roads leading onto the entrances to freeways to indicate you can join the freeway to travel in ‘all directions’.

The War Graves Commission provided me with copies of grandfather Bill’s army file and this tells us that he was killed on 9 May 1917 during the second battle of Bullecourt. This and the first battle in April were the bloodiest battles that the Australians participated in during WW1. The scale of the slaughter defies description. Jonathon Walker has written a booked titled, ‘The Blood Tub’ in which he provides a very detailed account of the battles and the errors made by all sides. It might help you if I provide a thumbnail sketch of the encounter.

Bill sailed on the MV ‘Nestor’ from Melbourne on 2nd October 1916 having volunteered at Ballarat in July. He was accepted on 27th September 1916 and assigned to ‘C’ Company, 21st Regiment, 8th Battalion, 1st AIF. The ‘Nestor’ docked at Plymouth on 16 November 1916 and his company was marched out to Fovent for training. On 15th February 1917, after three months ‘boot camp’ they were moved to Folkestone and proceeded overseas aboard the S.S ‘Victoria’ which docked two days later at Etaples, a little port on the northern French coast near Boulogne. A month later on 17th March he joined his battalion – they would have marched at least sixty miles to the front as the railway was reserved for munitions.

In April 1917 when the French General Nivelle was about to launch his attack on the Chemin de Dames, the allies were requested to break through the Hindenburg Line to recapture Arras. The Australian troops were under the command of the British General Gough. He was a career army officer who, like so many of his contemporaries, came from the English aristocracy and attended the various British Military Academies where they studied how to play polo, politics and how to conduct warfare in much the same way as they did during the Boer War. All the generals commanding the armies at this time, including the Germans, had no hesitation in ordering offensives in which literally thousands of lives were squandered. Success was measured, not in lives saved or lost but in ‘glorious victories’ which resulted in gains of 100 yards and if you showed the least reticence to commit troops to often suicidal attacks your career as an army officer would be in tatters and you would be sent home in disgrace. Gough was chosen to command the Fifth Army because he had a strong inclination for the offensive. You have probably seen the images of the total oblivion of whole parts of the French countryside, but you cannot comprehend the scale of the loss of life.

On 11th April at 4.45 a.m. in an abysmally planned attack the 4th Australian Division rushed, in a bitter wind mixed with hail and snow, to seize Bullecourt, Reincourt and, if possible, Hendecourt. Neither the artillery nor the tanks (this battle was the first time tanks had been used in battle), which were supposed to back up the attack, brought any effective support. Incredibly, the infantry, the cavalry, the artillery and the ‘Heavy Branch’, which commanded the tanks, were all commanded separately with very poor liaison between the commanders. If the infantry was under attack from an entrenched enemy artillery or machine gun post, they might send a runner to their commanding general and he in turn might ask the artillery or the Heavy Branch for support but these other commanders would usually make their own decisions about priority and would be unlikely to accept the advice of the other commanders without making their own assessments. When these guys were often based five miles behind the front with no radio in those days and the field telephone lines usually blown up, you can imagine how much support the infantry got when they made such requests!

Despite the inadequate preparation, the appalling weather, the independent behaviour of the artillery commanders and the failure of the tanks to get to the front on time (they got lost in the snow) courageously the Australians took some of the German lines but were forced back by fierce German resistance including withering machine gun enfilades from Riencourt, which was supposed to have been destroyed by the artillery. At 10 a.m. the German counter attack started and followed a heavy bombardment. Running out of ammunition and suffering enormous casualties the Australians, or what was left of them, retreated. By 2 p.m. it was all over. The 4th Division lost 4,170 men on that day alone, 1,170 prisoners and 3,000 killed.

From the end of April to the beginning of May, the artillery pounded the enemy positions continuously and the Germans responded with over 3,000 gas shells. The three villages were totally obliterated.

A second attack, which was supposed to be better co-ordinated, took place on May 3rd. The Australians were to seize Bullecourt and Reincourt with support from the British. Nearly 90,000 high explosive shells were shot on this single day. The 1st and 2nd Divisions of the AIF attacked and found in the barbed wire the corpses of those killed on April 11th although I should say that most of those killed never got to the wire and died of their wounds, sometimes days after being shot, lying in no-man’s land which was continually being blown up by bombs and artillery shells. Many corpses were buried by shelling only to be blown up again by successive shells. From May 5th the fifth Division AIF took over the attack, which included Bill’s 8th Battalion. Attacks followed counter attacks until May 17th when Bullecourt was taken by the Allies. This second battle cost the Australians 7,000 men. One of the significant factors contributing to the casualty rate was that the British artillery had again overlooked the need, or steadfastly refused, to take out the deadly German machine gun positions at Rheincourt! Bill was one of the 7,000 having spent less than eight weeks at the front.

In 1914 there were 18 farming families and 396 inhabitants of Bullecourt. Nothing was left after the ground was retaken. After the war the village was rebuilt along exactly the same lines as the original village and eight of the original farming families are still living there. They have a particularly strong affection for Australia.

As a footnote I should add that the thousands of allied troops lost during these months were sacrificed to gain a few hundred yards, which by the way, was lost back to the Germans the following year. It was all for nothing! If you read Jonathan’s book you can’t help but become angry about the whole sorry affair. His book also provides a graphic account of the fighting and the appalling conditions that the troops on both sides endured. He doesn’t lay blame on any one side, suggesting instead that incompetence was not the exclusive domain of the British.

Our first foray down the A1 from Lille was to Arras. This is a reasonable sized town, not much to see or do here. From there we had trouble finding a direct route to Bullecourt. As it’s not shown on many road maps. In fact to find it I had to use Microsoft Encarta and map longitude/latitude co-ordinates to locate it. By a process of finding the bigger towns and thence to the smaller villages along very narrow roads, using a fair amount of instinct and luck, we eventually rounded a corner and found ourselves in Bullecourt (pronounced boo-ye-coor. The French pronounce double ‘l’ as ‘y’ and the ‘t’ is silent). The village is about 300 metres from one end to the other. It has a hotel, named appropriately, ‘The Hotel Canberra’, a much grander name than the establishment, and a museum. Now this museum is not prominent. There’s a small sign pointing down one of the few cross streets in the centre of the village saying ‘Musee Militaire’ and almost the first farm house on the right in that street (they’re all like farm houses with barns that front the roadway) is the home of Messier Jean and Madame Denise Letaille. This man is a living treasure!

He has an amazing collection of artefacts. The first British tank used in battle (number 499) is there in twisted pieces. Artillery pieces, uniforms, helmets, pay books, photos, medals, personal papers, insignia, weapons, you name it he’s got it. Much of it turned up by farmers ploughing fields decades after the battles and a lot sent by people who have visited the museum and seen the loving care this man takes to preserve the memory of those who died in the battles for this village. We arrived unannounced at 6 p.m. and wandered in. He opened up his museum and made us feel very welcome giving us a personal guided tour and explaining everything we wanted to know. On the back of a large map of Australia hanging in the centre of the room is a list of the names of all the Australian casualties. He offered me a strong magnifying glass to read the exceptionally small print and after a few moments I found ‘W. Laherty’ which I quite expected but seemed to surprise Heather as I don’t think that she had sensed any personal connection up until this point. In fact, up until then, I think she wasn’t sure why we were there at all. When Heather gestured around the room and asked him, “Why do you do this?” he seemed perplexed by the question and replied, “We must remember. Lest we forget.”

After showing us his museum he asked where we were staying and we confessed to not having made any arrangements. He promptly offered to get in his little jeep like car and lead us to a local B & B. We accepted and we followed him to Mme Therlier’s B & B which was just down the road. She spoke no English and so he translated for us asking her if she would provide us with dinner, as there are no restaurants in the village. Within an hour we were seated in her beautiful dining room with a delicious veal escalope and potato meal with an excellent bottle of wine followed by desert. Our room was lovely and comfortable and breakfast in the morning was typically French, delicious bread sticks, yoghurt and coffee. The bill was 70 Euro, which had to be best deal of the trip.

The next day I went back to ask Mr Letaille if he could make sense of the notation from Bill’s army file that read, “Buried 1,800 yards S.E. of Saillesel 600 yards W. of Vaux Wood.” Unfortunately, despite his encyclopaedic knowledge he could not identify where this might be as the only present day places that could be identified as Saillesel and Vaux Wood are 15 kilometres apart! He puzzled over it for a time muttering ‘bizarre’ and then he invited me into his home whilst he called the local French War Graves office and confirmed that Bill is listed as having ‘No Known Grave’, something I already knew.

As I was leaving, I was very pleased to see the Order of Australia on his wall and a citation signed by Paul Keating.

It didn’t take long to look around the village, it being so small. There is a memorial with a slouch hat outside the church in the main street and a statue of an Aussie digger out near the six-cross roads, erected in 1992 by the Australian government as a tribute to the thousands killed there, the focus of the Australian attacks in May 1917.

After Bullecourt we travelled to Villers Bretoneux and the Australian Memorial. Here Bill’s name is carved into the wall with the names of the other 10,700 Australian servicemen who died on the Somme and who have no known grave. I must admit to being very impressed by the degree of care and respect shown with these memorials. There are hundreds of them all over northern France and every one we saw was absolutely immaculate. The gardens are lovingly tended, the lawns mowed; there are flags flying and flowers everywhere. The Australian memorial is particularly impressive with stone colonnades, beautiful gardens, statues, a tower, a wall of remembrance and 2,141 graves brought in from all over the country. Mostly Australian but there are a few Canadians and New Zealanders there too.

At Villers Bretoneux, a substantially bigger town, you will be surprised to find the signs announcing that you are entering the city with the town logo a stylised kangaroo. You will also find a plaque above the front door of the primary school that says, “Jamais Oublier Australie” – Never Forget Australia. An appeal to all subsequent generations of Picardians.

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