21st Battalion History
From the Butte to Bullecourt.
The Hun retirement was carried out inconsequence of the bad tactical position into which he was forced by the Somme offensive and to shorten his line. We had long known of the existence of the Hindenburg Line to which he fell back and consequently the withdrawal was not altogether a surprise, though at the time it was quickly and skilfully done. The weather and the state of the country in addition to the enemys "booby traps" made our pursuit very hard.
The first enemy movement took place on the night 24/25th February and was betrayed by the extremely long-range action of his artillery. The Battalion moved over the top and crawled through the mud to Gallwitz Trench only meeting resistance at one point where a fight ensued. Patrols sent out in the early morning fog located the enemy in Malt Trench and no artillery support being available, we stayed at Gallwitz Trench till relieved by the 28th Battalion, 7th Infantry Brigade on the night of the 26th. We moved back to Scotts Redoubt and Sussex Camp and on the 4th March went into Seven Elms near Martinpuich to relieve the 24th. The 7th March saw us in close support in Le Barque Switch and on the 10th we relieved the 22nd in the front line astride the Albert Bapaume road. At midnight on 12/13th a patrol after repeated attempts entered Warlencourt Trench and the Battalion moved forward to garrison the captured position. The same morning Grevillers was patrolled and occupied by 9.20 am. in spite of sniping and minewerfer opposition. The 5th Brigade relieved us on the night 14/15th and after only a days rest at Bazentin we were sent forward again and entered Bapaume on the heels of the first troops through the town (6th and 8th Brigades) on the 17th March. The 6th Brigade remained in the van with the 21st relieving the 23rd Battalion as advanced guard. We advanced in artillery formation without trouble through Beugnatre, our right Company gaining contact with the enemy at Vaulx-Vraucourt. By midnight our patrols had taken the village also with the rest of the Battalion entrenched between there and Beugnatre. Much enemy movement was observed next day but owing to the speed of the advance our artillery was not up in sufficient strength to properly deal with it.
Concentrating on the night 18/19th March we were ordered to attack Noreuil and Longatte in company with the 23rd Battalion. We had the left sector and advanced from Vaulx-Vraucourt at 4.15 am on the 19th. The less said about this show the better as the enemy were in much greater strength than we imagined and both Battalions were caught in the open under long range machine gun and artillery fire. We had no artillery support and after suffering heavy casualties had to be content with digging in 1000 yards short of the villages which were our objectives. Although we did not reach Longatte as carried out was an impossible affair and the unit can be proud of getting as far as it did and then not losing ground. The fact that the Australians never lost ground once captured and consolidated is one of the facts which Australian public has not up to the present fully realised the significance of.
The 26th Battalion relieved us on the same night and the Brigade was withdraw to Le Coupe Geule and on the 26th March the Division came back to its huts around Mametz until the 13th April. For the following fortnight we were in reserve in front of Vaulx-Vraucourt. The 4th Division having been badly cut to pieces after penetrating the Hindenburg line between Bullecourt and Queant. The 2nd Division was trained up for the job. On the night of the 30/31st April our preparations being complete we took over the front line at Riencourt from the 26th Battalion.
The plane of attack was as far as our Brigade was concerned, bold, to say the least of it. The fact that in the attack we were the only Brigade out of several Divisions to break and hold the Hindenburg line fully justified our Brigadiers (Gen. Gellibrand) daring dispositions. In the early hours of the 3rd May the whole Brigade formed up on tapes half way across No Mans Land which was 1000 yards wide. The 24th and 22nd Battalions formed the first four waves and the 23rd and 21st, the second four. Our left flank was just clear of the Bullecourt Village and the Brigade front was 800 yards. On the right was the 5th Brigade of our own Division, on the left the 62nd (English) Division whose sector included Bullecourt itself.
The first feature of the attack was the enemys barrage which opened at 3.30am, a quarter of an hour before ours. Nevertheless the Brigade went through to O.G.2; our battalion ended up in its proper place in the van on the left. As stated before, the troops on both flanks were thrown back which left the 6th Brigade in a very precarious position, especially as the Huns were fighting strongly with bombs from the flank and front and machine guns hidden in cellars in Bullecourt itself made movement over the top extremely dangerous. Added to this, the HE shelling, particularly on our communications and the railway embankment, which had been the old front line, was as intense as we have ever experienced.
The Hun counter attacked mainly with bombs from the flanks all day but with out success and at 5 am next morning a sadly depleted 6th Brigade was relieved by the 1st Brigade and went to the railway embankment for another twenty-four hours artillery Strafe. We were then relieved by the 3rd Brigade and moved to the Noreuil-Longatte Road. The situation gradually assumed normal aspect and on the 8th we moved to camp at Le Sars.
Bullecourt stands out clear in black and white as the 6th Infantry Brigade achievement. We have played our part in the great victories such as Poziers, Mont St. Quentin and Montbrehain to mention a few but in none has the calibre of our four Victorian battalions shown itself so superb on the day of conflict. It was a costly victory, but it set the seal on the 6th Brigade reputation as a fighting unit, which its reputation was justified right through till the Armistice was granted eighteen months later.
Our casualties during the operations recounted in this chapter were: -
Officers, 10 killed, 14 wounded, Total 24.
Other Ranks, 57 killed, 417 wounded, 60 missing,
VIII The Summer of 1917