Bullecourt 1917

Bullecourt 1917


216 pages


In April and May 1917, the village of Bullecourt, near Arras, in the north of France, was the scene of one of the biggest bloodbaths of the First World War. The ground of the former battlefield still retains the bodies of hundreds of missing Australian, British and German soldiers...

The memory of the deadly combat would have remained buried as well were it not for the efforts of a couple of schoolteachers who took an interest in the ordeal of these soldiers in the 1980s.

For more than three decades, Claude and Colette Durand have gathered dozens of accounts of Australian veterans which now allow us to get a clearer picture of the horror that was the battle of Bullecourt. In the process, they formed a long-lasting bond with Australia about the sacrifice of these men who came from the ends of the earth.

But the book also shows the hidden face of the commemorative events that mark the centenary of World War 1, as the official tributes mask a shadier reality.

(The extended version is only available on tablets iPad)



Publié par
Date de parution 04 mai 2017
Nombre de visites sur la page 7
EAN13 9782919111398
Licence : Tous droits réservés
Langue English

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By the same author Les Noyés de la Deûle [la contre-enquête] Les Lumières de Lille, juin 2015
Book cover The «Digger», this statue remembers the memory of Australian soldiers at Bullecourt. (Gilles Durand collection)
Les Lumières de Lille Éditions Frédéric Lépinay 3, avenue Poincaré 59700 Marcq-en-Barœul
Tél. 03 20 659 507 contact@leslumieresdelille.com www.leslumieresdelille.com
Les Lumières de Lille sont adhérentes de l’Association des éditeurs du Nord et du Pas-de-Calais. Le conseil régional Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie soutient l’édition indépendante.
er La loi n° 92-597 du 1 juillet 1992 interdit les copies ou reproductions destinées à une autre utilisation que privée. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. © Les Lumières de Lille, avril 2017 ISBN 978-2-919111-45-9
To my father, Claude To my mother, Colette To my sister, Agnès
Of the many books written about the Great War, this one is unique. It was inspired by a French family as a tribute to the effort of the Australians involved in the two battles of Bullecourt. The first battle, cost 3,000 th Australian lives and was over by lunchtime on 11 April 1917. The second battle lasted a fortnight, involved many determined counter attacks by the German Army, cost a further 7,000 Australian casualties and finished when the German commander, Crown Prince Ruprecht decided that the position was not
worth further loss. He retired a few hundred metres and remained in new lines. Officially, 2,421 Australians killed at Bullecourt have no known grave. Many remain in the soil where they fell.
In the 1970’s Monsieur and Madame Durand were appointed schoolteachers to Bullecourt and neighbouring Hendecourt. They heard stories of the Australian sacrifice in the nearby fields. Monsieur Durand taught himself English, read theOfficial History of the War, Vol 4 Australian , Bullecourt and enthused others. Relics came in from the fields and the mayor of Bullecourt, Monsieur Letaille, joined by Madame Letaille established a museum.
Much help was given by the Australian Embassy. The Ambassador, Mr Rowland took a personal interest in the enthusiasm of the Durands and Letailles. Word spread and soon the Durands were receiving letters from relatives of some who were at Bullecourt. All were answered. A few visited; others asked for photographs. Madame Durand was soon cooking for travellers and later busloads of visitors who came for Anzac Day. Many Australians have lifelong memories of the hospitality offered at Hendecourt. Most who stayed a few days were driven to places of interest either locally or in Belgium.
In 1994 the Durands were rewarded for their work. They were awarded an honourary “Order of Australia,” a rare distinction for foreign nationals.
Marc Bastien, one of the local people who became interested in the battlefield began a search for the missing, eventually finding over twenty soldiers. The recovery of early November 1994 became the first Australian to be identified in more than 50 years. A year in planning, Sgt White’s reburial in the presence of his 80 years old daughter, an event respectfully covered by the media of France, Australia and the UK became the high point of remembrance work at Bullecourt. A hitherto unknown soldier, reunited with his family. The Letailles were now honoured. Age told on the searchers and finds dwindled but the Durands work of answering letters, meeting, hosting and driving visitors, organizing luncheons for tour groups and placing flowers in the nearby cemeteries continued.
In this book the reader will meet veterans of the battles, their relatives, gain an insight into lives froma different world, both now over and learn of the years of work of this remarkable family. The many initiatives which have become part of the remarkable work at Bullecourt are mentioned. A degree of disappointment emerges, initially referring to the restricted contact allowed to veterans who returned on th the 75 anniversary pilgrimage; The Durands were not permitted to meet a soldier they had been writing to, nor was there to be any absence from the official program irrespective of a digger’s hopes. Official ceremony becomes more extravagant and then more distant. There are examples of recent official indifference, even direct obstruction of efforts made to locate some of the missing. Friends in Australia have repeatedly tried to see the Durand family again recognized for a further 1/4 century of dedicated work remembering soldiers of the Great War. Following yet another rejection in November 2016, there seems little point in further effort.
Perhaps remembrance is best left to the ordinary person; to those who place poppies, photos and messages on graves or walls in France and Belgium, who write in the CWGC cemetery visitors’ books or who quietly research personal records or war diaries. Such folk are genuine and are rapidly rising in number, evidenced by the frequency of private tributes to be seen on the Western Front compared to two decades ago.
This book is genuine. The author quietly refers to “my father”. Writing it was to be a deeply personal st collaboration between father and son. Sadly Claude Durand died suddenly on 1 March 2016. Working alone, his son has completed the task and, incorporating anecdotes of his family’s forty years of work, privately remembered by thousands of Australians if not their government, has written an easily readable tribute particularly to “The Australians” but also to all who remember the debt owed to those who served or suffered because of the Great War.
Georges Cochrane
From the fields to the heart
At night, I could hear my father screaming and I didn’t know why. I learnt, much later, that he fought in France during the First World War. He never talked about it, until he died. ” John Williams has tears in his eyes when he tells my parents about his father, traumatized for life. My parents used to collect this kind of evidence. John William’s father was one of the tens of thousands of Australian people coming from the other half of the world to get involved in the War of 1914-1918 in the North of France. Since the mid-1970’s onward my father, Claude Durand, took a very close interest in the history of these soldiers from the Antipodes.
A battle remembered
It was a professional transfer that changed the whole destiny of my family. In 1972 my parents were appointed schoolteachers in Hendecourt-lez-Cagnicourt, a small village in Artois, 20 kilometres southeast from Arras. As natives of Charente Maritime, they did not really know the region and its history. However each week their pupils would bring to school small lead shrapnel pellets, metallic shards or brass shell fuzes and my parents began to get quite intrigued. I also often happened to spend whole afternoons in the fields with my friends, picking up relics and their morbid messages. My father becomes very interested in the local history of the First World War. He discovers that, in 1917, the trenches of the front line were crossing Bullecourt, the next village, two kilometres away, and that Hendecourt was a rear base for the German soldiers. No surprise then to find out that the earth still carries the remains of a war that took place more than 60 years ago.
In Bullecourt people remember Australian soldiers occupying the village, but nothing to recall the bloody battles that seemed to have taken place ther e. Historical curiosity led my father to renew interest in this episode of the Great War.
He contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which referred him to André Coilliot, the president of theSouvenir Français d’Arras, an association that deals with honouring the memory of soldiers who died for France. André Coilliot owns his own copy of theOfficial History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, written by Charles Bean. This book deals with the tragic story of Australian troops in the first World War giving many details, yet the war stories of this historian never were translated in French. This was the work that my father accomplished for the battles of Bullecourt. For a year, almost every evening, he immersed himself deep in the heart of the two battles that took place th rd th the 11 April, then from 3 to 17 May 1917. History is remembered. The sacrifice of the Australian soldiers resurfaces.
First commemorations
The idea of a memorial ceremony began. It was sent by mail to the Australian Embassy in Paris. To his great surprise my father eventually received a phone call from the ambassador himself, John R. Rowland supporting him through his project.
Thanks to this support my parents revived the memory of Bullecourt. They received help from Jean Letaille, mayor of the village, and from the Souvenir Français d’André Coilliot.
th In 1981, a monument was constructed next to the church. On the day of the unveiling, the 24 May, the ambassador John R. Rowland, emphasized his amazement during his speech: “I’ve been deeply touched, last year, to receive in the mail from Mr Durand, letting me know about their project of a memorial for the Australian soldiers who died at the battles of Bullecourt during the spring of 1917. I must say I was a bit surprised too: these fights took place more than 60 years ago – a very long time
to remember the memory of the Australian people who died in the field and woods around your village”. The ambassador foresaw that many descenda nts of the veterans would come and gather themselves in front of the memorial. He was right.
A friendship than began more than 30 years ago
The battle of Bullecourt marked the beginning of a close friendship between my parents and Australia. During more than 35 years this French-Australian relationship grew rich from hundreds of meetings: veterans at the beginning, then family or friends.
During the following years, two new memorials were constructed: a cross which is a tribute to those with unknown graves, and a statue representing a “d igger”, which is the name given to Australian soldiers. In 2011, the opening of a museum complete d the memory work that began some years before, thanks to my father.
His objective was to get people to feel the atrocities of this war in order to better denounce them. In the historical booklet he published more than 30 ye ars ago, he hoped that the records from the soldiers would “help everybody to understand that w e’d better live in peace instead of killing each other”. This message is still not very clear to everybody.
On the occasion of the centenary of the battle of Bullecourt, my father and I were to write a book in memory of the soldiers who died there, or who left a part of their soul in Bullecourt. This work was st due to begin in March 2016. My father died from a h eart attack on 1 March, just before the beginning of our collaboration. From using his archives this book is dedicated to my father.
1 Australia in the global conflict
When the First World War started, Australia was a y oung nation. The different British colonies composing this island continent hadjust joined together to form the Australian Commonw ealth. 1 However, the independence from the United Kingdom was quite relative: as a young dominion , in 1914, Australia gathered behind the “king and empir e” in order to fight the Axis composed of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Yet they could send only volunteers to the front. Regular army was not allowed to operate outside national territory.
The birth of Anzac Day
Still, this participation in the conflict was of great importance for this new country: it built the idea of th a nation. The date of the first Australian military intervention − the 25 April 1915 on Gallipoli, a th peninsula located in modern Turkey – became a national day in Australia, the equivalent of our 11 2 November . This commemoration was calledAnzac Day, in memory of theAustralian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac)which fought together during the war. After the Dardanelles, theAnzac troops were sent to the occidental front where tren ch fighting was escalating. By 1918, Australian human loss was considerable: about 60,000 men for a country of 5 million people at that time.
Some military terminology The army was called Anzac and included the Australian and New Zealand expeditionary force. This book will deal a lot with the activity of the infantry. In order for the reader to understand the different military terms used, the following glossary deals w ith the army in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). The first level of organisation is the division. Australia mobilized 5 divisions during First World War. Each divisionbetween 10 and 20,000 menincluded three brigades. Each brigadebetween 2,500 and 5,000 menconsisted of four battalions. Each battalionbetween 550 and 1,000 men led by 29 officerswas divided in four companies. The battalion was sometimes also called a regiment. Each companybetween 100 and 225 menorganised into four platoons of 30-60 soldiers was under the command of a lieutenant. In the artillery terminology is different: a batter y equals an infantry company and a brigade an infantry battalion
Why did these men come to fight, and many to die so far from home ? By 1914, although there were some migrants or descendants from other European countries and also Chinese miners came during the gold rush of the 1850’s most Australians traced their family back to the UK.
“Australia was still very much a country which called Britain the Mother Country because so many of our small population had close relatives there. Our government, laws, administration, currency and social behaviour reflected British origin.We traded mostly with the UK. When Britain went to war, it was natural for Australia to go to war too, to help the ‘Mother Country’”, explained Georges Cochrane, a retired Australian teacher who became interested in the history of theAnzacs. Yet the relationship with this “mother country” was sometimes a bit rebellious: some Australian soldiers took a particular enjoyment in not saluting British officers. 3 In the base camp at Étaples where British Empire so ldiers gathered , a young Australian soldier explained: “Quite often we came across drunk English soldiers picking a fight with us. They called us 4 5 Aussies or cow-boys because of our hats , or even worse, they called us convicts descendants. We didn’t belong to the same world. We couldn’t let them treat us that way and we gave them a good
lesson.” Australian soldiers had this reputation for being feisty and, it was said, would buy whisky in secret and bet during an old game calledtwo up. This was a game popular even with 6 convicts” which was played with two coins thrown into the a ir. The coins could land two heads, two tails or one of each.
Yet, amongst the local population, especially in Picardie, Australian soldiers left a nice impression, in spite of language barriers. Their relaxed attitude made them likeable. Families of Picardie can reproach them only one thing: they taught children how to smoke. TheseAussiesall were volunteers and often larrikins.
15 years old volunteers
The Australian expeditionary force, just as the others, was composed of men from all social grounds. If you wanted to enlist you just had to be 19 years old, 1.68 metre high and with an 87 centimetres chest size.
They were paid 6 shillings a day.One shilling was deferred or kept back and paid to the soldier when the war was over or to next of kin if he was killed. This pay represented about 75 % of the Australian average daily wage in 1914. Just to know how much this represented in daily life, 900 grams of bread cost ¼ shilling (3 pence), 12 eggs cost 1.5 shillings, and two litres of milk cost 6 pence. (There was a farthing or quarter of a penny, a half penny, 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound.)The Australian private soldiers wage was quite good compared to their British counterparts who received 1 shilling and 1 penny a day. You had to be a serge ant major in the British army to get paid 5 shillings or what the Australian private received.
Money was not the only reason whyAussieswould join the army. Georges Cochrane gave a list of other reasons: “Joining the army was seen as one way to see the world and have a good time. Those enlisting did not think of the danger of the war. It was also seen as a way to travel to UK and see family men had only heard of. If a man’s friends were joining up, he would want to go with them so that friends stayed together. Men enlisted also to get away from a number of family issues. Perhaps they did not get on with their father, were unhappily married or had money problems. Some soldiers enlisted under false names so that they could ‘disa ppear’. Women would hand any able bodied looking man in the street a white feather meaning that the man was seen as a coward for not going to fight.”
Protecting their family also was an important motiv ation in the recruits’ psyche. “Sgt White’s daughter, Myrle Prophet told me after his reburial in 1995 that her mother said that he went to fight the Germans so that his family would always be safe . If the Germans won, he did not know what 7 would happen in Australia”, Georges Cochrane recalls.
To enrol you had to be 19 years old but recruiters were not very concerned with that notion. William Purkis record, enrolled in Australian infantry, was edifying. “When I was 15 years and 5 months, I blackmailed my mother with the threat that I would enlist under another name, and she would never 8 know where I was because I knew I could pass the medical ”, he said. He first enlisted when he was 14 years and 10 months old with forged paper and signatures. “I was passed as fit. I did not even get into camp before I was sent home to my mother.” The second try was the good one. “My mother signed with much reluctance and with the remark that it would teach me a lesson, and that I would be glad to get back to home and mother.”
nd In the 2 Australian Division he was wounded at Bullecourt. William Purkis was then 16 years and 7 months old. “I was 17 years and 8 months when I was discharged: when the war finished I was still too young to enlist!” In the 1930’s, the young man entered show business, performing under the stage name Billy Williams. During Second World War, he played for America and Australian soldiers, to cheer them up. What a special life this little boy from Wagga Wagga, a country town 460 kilometres
from Sydney had.
A big battle
In spring 1917, some changing of positions were beg inning on the occidental front. It was in this context that the Bullecourt battles were about to begin. They were part of a larger attack on the Artois front around Arras. The objective was to break thro ugh the Hindenburg line just built by the Germans.
When these two battles began, in April and May 1917 , Australian troops had already lost a lot of men. First in Gallipoli where there were 8,700 deat hs in 1915. Then at Pozières, where fighting resulted in 23,300 casualties in two weeks, in July and August 1916. At Fromelles, 5, 533 soldiers th th th fell in 24 hours on 19 and 20 July 1916. The disaster of the first Bullecourt battle, on 11 April, nd rd th and the incompetence of the British general staff during the 2 battle, from 3 to 17 May, created a real distrust amongst Australian soldiers. Just as with their French homologues revolts broke out. Desertions increased. They had to wait for a year, until May 1918, for the high command to be given to an Australian general, John Monash, who was said to be more concerned with the fate of his men.
In the meantime, tension crossed the ocean. In Octo ber 1916, a first referendum was organized at home to create conscription. It was rejected by 72, 000 votes. In December 1917, a second referendum was even more strongly rejected by 96,00 0 votes. Typically only a small majority of soldiers were still in favour of conscription. Mails received by soldiers’ families sometimes showed the horror of the front and reduced the population’s support.
About 18,000 Australian and British soldiers died during the terrible fights around Bullecourt. The Germans lost about 8,000 men. We will never know th e exact number of deaths. Thousands of soldiers will probably never have a grave. Bullecourt remained one the least known of the major WW1 battles that Australian soldiers, but also British and German soldiers endured. This book is based on the sometimes unique stories gathered by my father in order to tell what these people endured on the battlefield and how their memory has been honoured … or neglected.
1 An independent state that remains a member of the British Empire and that does not hold a complete sovereignty in terms of diplomatic matters. 2 th The Australians have another national day,Australia Day, celebrated on the 26 of January, for the arrival of the first European ship in Sydney Harbour in 1788. 3 The camp could receive up to 100 000 men. There were 20 hospitals. 4 A nickname for an Australian. 5 The well-knownslouch hatwith a flexible brim. 6 Prisoners from UK who were sentenced to transportation to Australia, often for small offences. 7 Sgt White’s remains were found in 1994 in a field at Bullecourt. 8 A mail sent to my father at the beginning of year 1981.
2 An introduction to a foretold massacre
At the beginning of the 1980’s when my father began to write to the last Bullecourt Australian survivors, he soon was very shocked by the anger in their testimonies. Not only would the veterans tell of their sufferings but they would also express deep rage against the high command. Battles only left a feeling of discontent and traumatic memories . In my father’s mind it became essential to recount the sacrifice of these soldiers. The local population must know that the village not only was the scene of merciless fights but also the scene of dreadful strategic mistakes. In 1982, he published a little background to the battle and a collection of memories that remained undisclosed.
It was thanks to his writings, to the many letters he received and to the archives he collected that I was able to reconstruct the events that occurred at Bullecourt, a century ago. Three books also helped me with my work: two of them written in English,Bullecourt 1917 : Breaching the Hindenburg line, 1 from Paul Kendall andBullecourt (Arras), from Graham Keech . The third one is in French,Les Batailles de Bullecourt en 1917, from Philippe Duhamel.
A planned retreat
The history of this tragedy began in 1916. After th e huge human loss in the Battle of the Somme, Germany decided to build a reinforced defence line behind the front. The need for a workforce in order to construct this rampart was huge: 68,500 me n of which 50,000 were Russian prisoners, 12,000 were German workers and 3,000 were Belgian d aily labourers. Civilian inhabitants of the North also were forced into completing the workforce.
This fortified enemy line, called Hindenburg by the British, and Siegfried by the Germans, was running from Lens to Soissons on about 160 kilometres. There were two main lines of trenches with inbuilt refuges. The trenches were connected with tunnels allowing troops to move under cover. This fortific ation system was surrounding the village of Bullecourt, where a large German garrison was established. Before...