This blog is following in the footsteps of Private Charles William Palmer, A.I.F., prisoner-of-war in World War 1. To start the story from the beginning please go to What is this Blog?
Having arrived in France on 13 March 1917, Private Charles William Palmer travelled from the port of Boulogne, through the huge military camp at Étaples, across to Albert by train and marched on to Bapaume. On 7 April he left Bapaume for the Front.
Just two days later on 9 April 1917 Charles was in the dugouts preparing to go into battle early the following day. The morning of the 10 April was to see an aborted attempt by the Australians to breach the German’s Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt.
Charles’s diary entry for 9 April 1917 reads:
“Spent a quite [sic]* day in our dugouts till [sic] 9pm when the whole company stood to for about half an hour when we where [sic] told to hold ourselves in readiness in Battle order for 3am for 10th when we where [sic] to hop over.”
I can’t help but wonder what Charles was thinking when he heard these orders. It would be his first engagement with the ‘enemy’. Unlike many of the first-timers at the Front Charles, at 39 years, was no teenager. I doubt he enlisted for the ‘adventure’ as so many of the young lads did. I sense a stoiscm in Charles when examining his diaries and I imagine few could read his feelings that evening.
A member of the 48th Battalion, Charles continues the story in his entry for the 10 April:
“3am snowing hard when we fell in moving off about 3.30 having reached our jumping off trench about ¾ of a mile distant we where [sic] placed out in extended order 46 Batt Leading 48th following up. I being in B Company was in the 2nd wave, moving off from the trench we went a few hundred yards. When Fritz opened fire being then some 600 yards from his trenches. His fire then became terrific, machine guns he must have had by the score, although there was few casualties it was considered to [sic] hot, when we where [sic] ordered to retire which we did. I am very sorry to say more like a disorderly crowd, our Officer’s pulled us up and made us go back in open order, having reached our Dugouts we rested the best we could, till [sic] stand to at 9pm when we got the order same as on the 9th inst.”
As his diary shows Charles believed that they were ordered to retire on the 10th due to excessive German gunfire. In fact, the main reason for aborting the action was that the tanks did not arrive. The tanks had been offered as a last minute solution to British command due to a lack of available artillery for the action. They did not arrive in time to provide the support needed, thus leaving the men without any supporting fire.
In the Unit War Diary of the 48th Battalion, written in the field by the Commanding Officer Lt Col. Raymond Leane, the retreat of the 10 April is documented as follows:
“The Battalions [46th and 48th] were to be in position to attack at 4.30am in conjunction with the tanks; all were in position to time but the tanks failed to appear and orders were given to retire at about 5.30am. This retirement had to be done in full view of the Bosch at close range. He opened a heavy barrage fire but the retirement was successfully carried with slight casualties under the circumstances. Major Leane was killed. 4 OR 17 OP wounded.”
Though the men were exhausted from this attempt and the same problem with the reliability of the tanks remained, British command’s General Gough ordered a repeat of the action the following morning, 11 April 1917.
The Germans were now on alert for an attack!
This day, 11 April 1917, was to be recorded in the history books as the First Battle of Bullecourt.
Our next experience as we follow in Charles’s footsteps will be to see the Bullecourt battlefields ourselves.
A.I.F. Unit War Diary. 48th Infantry Battalion. 23/65/18
* In the quotes I have used from Charles’s diary I use [sic] to indicate when an error in the text is part of the original, rather than typographical.