Australians clean their rifles in the second line of  trenches near Bullecourt.
Australians clean their rifles in the second line of trenches near Bullecourt. Australian War Memorial (E00454)

Gympie's forgotten Battle of Bullecourt heroes

SPECIAL REPORT: How the Germans captured 1170 Diggers in just a few hours.

AS THE sun rose across an idyllic snow-covered field in northern France on April 11, 1917, thousands of Australian Diggers calmly began walking toward the German enemy line some 2km away.

By the end of the day, that beautiful stretch of pristine fertile ground a short distance from the village of Bullecourt would be known as "the blood tub".

The first Battle of Bullecourt was an unmitigated disaster that had the might of the German army mow down 3300 Australians with a barrage of bullets and explosives in just a few hours.

The Germans also took 1170 of the Australian soldiers as prisoners of war by day's end.

The previous evening, British and Australian defence leaders ordered the Aussies - including 10 Bundaberg men from the 15th Battalion - to attack the German defence of the Hindenburg Line on the opposite side of the field.

The Aussie infantry moved forward, expecting to be protected by at least 12 British tanks.

 

Three soldiers warm a mess tin of tea over a candle in the reserve line during the fighting near Bullecourt.
Three soldiers warm a mess tin of tea over a candle in the reserve line during the fighting near Bullecourt. Australian War Memorial (E00456)

But the behemoths of the battlefield were so slow that they did not get to there on time and when the tanks eventually crawled past the Aussie trenches, they were quickly destroyed by the enemy's strong wall of field artillery.

That same arsenal of German weapons ripped the approaching Diggers to shreds.

Gympie hairdresser and tobacconist William Campbell did not survive while Gympie-born Digger Michael Hogan died the next day of wounds sustained in the battle.

The died fighting alongside other men from our region including Eric Alexander Waldock, Bertram George Wooster, Frederick Treeby, George Charles Pinkerton, Alfred Hester, William Madden, Herbert George Davison and John Harrison.

All of these other men survived Bullecourt but succumbed to wounds or disease or were killed in action within 16 months of that fateful day.

"No doubt exceedingly important strategic objects lay behind the British (led) attack, but I have never been able to discover what they were," German General Eric Ludendorff wrote shortly after the killer skirmish that barely impacted his own battalions.

 

In the distance, across a flat landscape, smoke rises from a shell exploding at Bullecourt.
In the distance, across a flat landscape, smoke rises from a shell exploding at Bullecourt. Australian War Memorial (P02321.

Battle of Bullecourt expert Captain Andrew Craig said wave after wave of Diggers moved across that icy field, never faltering to follow in the footsteps of their mates despite the unrelenting mass of bodies falling before them.

"The Australians advanced over 2000m of pretty flat ground," the retired Royal Australian Navy officer told ARM Newsdesk.

"They walked up. There was no running or jumping.

"They just walked in to face the shells and bullets.

"It took a particular mindset just to keep at it.

"I think what held them together was their resilience, courage and mateship.

"You had to be able to have such confidence in your mates on either side and know that they were there to protect you the best they could and you were there to protect them the best you could and you just got on with it."

 

Members of the 2nd Division at a dump of frontline supplies near Iggery Corner, during the fight for Bullecourt.
Members of the 2nd Division at a dump of frontline supplies near Iggery Corner, during the fight for Bullecourt. Australian War Memorial (E00436)

Australia War Memorial senior historian Aaron Pegram said the Battle of Bullecourt was overshadowed by bigger and bloodier campaigns elsewhere including the Somme, Pozières and Passchendaele where more than 62,000 allied soldiers were killed.

"Bullecourt - with 3000-plus casualties in one unsuccessful assault - it is on its own staggering, but in the context of those other losses it's also a drop in the ocean," he said.

On April 25, Gympie residents will remember the sacrifice of these soldiers during the Anzac Day dawn services.

Our region will also commemorate the lives lost in the second Battle of Bullecourt.

That battle started on May 3, 1917, and by the time it ended two weeks later on May 17, 7482 Australians were dead.

Both Bullecourt battles accounted for the deaths of almost 11,000 Australians, about one sixth of the 62,000-plus Australian casualties in the First World War.

 

John Herbert Green served in the 15th Battalion (15th Reinforcement) during the First World War. Private Green was one of very few Australians to survive the first Battle of Bullecourt on April 11, 1917. He has descendants in Caboolture, Sunshine Coast, Warwick, Dalby and Toowoomba regions. HIs brothers Francis Green and James Green also served in WWI.
John Herbert Green served in the 15th Battalion (15th Reinforcement) during the First World War. Private Green was one of very few Australians to survive the first Battle of Bullecourt on April 11, 1917. He has descendants in Caboolture, Sunshine Coast, Warwick, Dalby and Toowoomba regions. HIs brothers Francis Green and James Green also served in WWI. Supplied

Soldier's life saved in the blink of an eye

IN A blink of an eye, John Herbert Green went from facing certain death at Australia's infamous "blood tub" to being one of the luckiest Diggers to emerge from the First World War.

The Australian Imperial Forces private was one of the few soldiers to survive the first Battle of Bullecourt on April 11, 1917.

In just a few hours, the Germans slaughtered 3300 of Green's comrades and took a further 1170 prisoners of war as the Australians tried to breakthrough the Hindenberg line near the village of Bullecourt in France.

The enemy shot Green in both legs.

Determined to survive, the 23-year-old coal worker crawled across the body-strewn battlefield, trying to get his comrades to pull him into their trenches.

But the soldiers battened down the hatches, turning their back on the young man for fear he would draw the attention of the enemy.

Eventually he collapsed and the Australians, believing him dead, left his body where he fell.

Twenty-four hours later, a group of Canadian soldiers stumbled across him.

He mustered enough strength to blink his eyes to get their attention and he was a saved.

It's a brave story often retold by the Darling Downs born and raised soldier's daughters, Mary McCarthy, 77, and Cathy Kelly, 87.

Mrs McCarthy, who lives on Bribie Island, and Mrs Kelly, a Sunshine Coast residents, are incredibly proud of their father who awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.

 

James Thomas Green served in the 11th Light Horse Regiment (A Squadron) during the First World War. He has descendants in Caboolture, Sunshine Coast, Warwick, Dalby and Toowoomba regions.  HIs brothers John Green and Francis Green also served in WWI.
James Thomas Green served in the 11th Light Horse Regiment (A Squadron) during the First World War. He has descendants in Caboolture, Sunshine Coast, Warwick, Dalby and Toowoomba regions. HIs brothers John Green and Francis Green also served in WWI. Supplied

 

Francis Peter Green served in the 12th Light Horse Regiment (7th Reinforcement) during the First World War. He has descendants in Caboolture, Sunshine Coast, Warwick, Dalby and Toowoomba regions. HIs brothers John Green and James Green also served in WWI.
Francis Peter Green served in the 12th Light Horse Regiment (7th Reinforcement) during the First World War. He has descendants in Caboolture, Sunshine Coast, Warwick, Dalby and Toowoomba regions. HIs brothers John Green and James Green also served in WWI. Supplied

They are also proud of their uncles, Francis Peter and James Thomas, who also enlisted in the AIF.

Francis served in the 12th Light Horse Regiment and James served in the 11th Light Horse Regiment and were decorated for their heroism in France.

Mrs McCarthy and Mrs Kelly said their father never spoke about the war and never complained about the ongoing pain from the bullet wounds in his legs.

Mrs Kelly said her father kept crawling until he could go no further because he did not want to be captured by the enemy.

"The Australians had put the white flag up and the Germans just kept shooting," Mrs Kelly said.

"He was determined to not become a prisoner a war."

Mrs McCarthy said her father was a kind and gentle man who was extremely protective of his daughters.

"I think his war experience made him protective of us," she said.

"I was proud of him."

 

Stretcher bearers of the 8th Battalion carry wounded soldiers back along the trenches during the fighting at Bullecourt.
Stretcher bearers of the 8th Battalion carry wounded soldiers back along the trenches during the fighting at Bullecourt. Australian War Memorial (E00440)

Gympie region 15th Australian Infantry Battalion soldiers who fought at the Battle of Bullecourt during the First World War:

Eric Alexander Waldock was a Gympie timber cutter who died of disease on July 2, 1918. He enlisted on February 1, 1916, and embarked from Brisbane on board HMAT A50 Itonus on August 8, 1916 at the age of 18.

Bertram George Wooster was a Widgie farmer who died from wounds on June 23, 1918. He enlisted on February 29, 1916 and embarked from Brisbane on board HMAT A50 Itonus on August 8, 1916 at the age of 18.

Frederick Treeby was a South Side teamster who was killed in action on September 27, 1917. He enlisted on November 25, 1915, and embarked from Brisbane on board HMAT A49 Seang Choon on September 19, 1916 at the age of 23.

George Charles Pinkerton grew up in Gympie and died of wounds on July 6, 1918. He enlisted on September 28, 1915 and embarked from Sydney on board HMAT A72 Beltana on May 13, 1916 at the age of 22.

Alfred Hester was a Gympie labourer who was killed in action on July 10, 1917. He enlisted on February 1, 1916 and embarked from Brisbane on board HMAT A50 Itonus on August 8, 1916 at the age of 25.

 

Australian servicemen bathe in shell holes after the fight for Bullecourt.
Australian servicemen bathe in shell holes after the fight for Bullecourt. Australian War Memorial (E03925)

William Campbell was a Gympie hairdresser and tobacconist who was killed in action on April 11, 1917. He enlisted on February 8, 1916, and embarked from Brisbane on board HMAT A49 Seang Choon on May 4, 1916 at the age of 30.

William Madden was a Gympie engine cleaner who returned to Australia on July 27, 1917. He enlisted on August 21, 1915, and embarked from Brisbane on board HMAT A48 Seang Bee on October 2, 1915 at the age of 21.

Herbert George Davison was a Deep Creek timber-getter who was killed in action on October 17, 1917. He enlisted on July 4, 1916, and embarked from Brisbane, on board HMAT A36 Boonah on October 21, 1916 at the age of 45.

John Harrison was an Ashford Hill miner who was killed in action on September 18, 1918. He enlisted on January 21, 1916 and embarked from Sydney on board HMAT SS Hawkes Bay on April 20, 1916 at the age of 21.

Michael Hogan was a Gympie-born Mount Morgan miner who died of wounds on April 12, 1917. He enlisted on January 31, 1916 and embarked from Brisbane on board HMAT A50 Itonus on August 8, 1916 at the age of 23.

Source: Australian War Memorial

- ARM NEWSDESK

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