Australian history

100th anniversary of Bullecourt — the bloody battles Australians forgot

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A digger at Bullecourt (Image via @DavidWDoughty /

This month and next marks the 100-year anniversary of the Battles of Bullecourt — a place of unimaginable Australian sacrifice about which most now remember almost nothing, writes Dr Kim Sawyer.

BULLECOURT is almost unknown to most Australians; yet it is a place where there was as much Australian sacrifice as any other.

When Rupert Brooke wrote The Soldier and the immortal line of a corner of a foreign field that is for ever England, he could have been writing about that field in Northern France that is forever Australian. The field is still there, but there is now a Digger memorial to consecrate that which can never be so consecrated, except by those who fought there.

This month is the 100-year anniversary of the first of two battles just east of the Hauts-de-France commune of Bullecourt.

The first battle on 11 April claimed more than 3,000 Australian casualties, a loss rate of 66 per cent from the 4th Australian Division.

The second battle, over two weeks in May 1917, claimed a further 7,000 Australian casualties from the 1st, 2nd and 5th Divisions. The casualties included more than 1,100 captured — by far the most prisoners taken in a single World War 1 battle. 

1917 was a particularly brutal year on the Western Front for the Australian Imperial Force; 76,000 Australians became casualties at Bullecourt, Messines, Ypres and Passchendaele. Proportionately, those 1917 casualties would represent more than 300,000 of today’s male population; and most were aged under 30. Australia, as a nation, was brutalised.

War can never be benchmarked. But it has always been a curious fact that Australia is so fixated on Gallipoli that the Western Front has been subordinated. The German Western Front was a 760 kilometre narrow war zone from the English Channel near Ostend to Belfort on the Swiss border. The two Battles of Bullecourt were part of a more general offensive designed to breach the previously impenetrable Hindenburg Line.

Very little of the line was secured; very great cost was incurred. 

The Western Front was the theatre of war where Australians lost their innocence of war; where there was sacrifice disproportionately more than that of Gallipoli in terms of the numbers who fought, their casualties and the battles they fought. 

To read a diary entry of one who fought at Bullecourt elevates that sacrifice.

6 May, 1917:

'In and out of the firing line all the time running the gauntlet up and down the communication trenches. Awful lot of dead everywhere even for miles back. That night go back to well in an old ruined village for water. Get back and take it into the firing line. Second division and Tommies have a fly-at Bullecourt the earth aflame for miles with shells exploding.'

And then two days later:

'Rain, rain, rain, shells, and shells. At 3 o’clock blinding flash, a terrible explosion and I thought I had lost my arm. Go down a big German dugout and get dressed by the stretcher bearers. Leave the firing line-terrible getting along the communication trench, mud and slush and am very weak through loss of blood. Reach the dressing station after nearly being killed a dozen times. Get my arm dressed in splint and sling by regiment doctor and after a while go down to rear dressing station about 1½ miles back from track strewn with dead bodies, some blown to pieces.'

That '3 o’clock blinding flash' changed one life and the lives of the generations who followed. War is like that. One moment can determine a century of commemoration and reflection of the hypothetical of what might have been. War discriminates for those who fight and those who follow.

The Battles of Bullecourt in 1917, like those at Fromelles and Pozieres in 1916, changed our perception of war. Many who had sought adventure when they embarked on ships at Fremantle and other ports now understood the futility of losing 30 men to gain 30 yards. Many at home also understood; voluntary enlistment fell and the two conscription referendums of 1916 and 1917 were defeated. 

The perception was amplified by the tactical mistakes of those who commanded.

As the official war historian Charles Bean wrote:

'Bullecourt, more than any other battle, shook the confidence of Australian soldiers in the capacity of the British command; the errors, especially on April 10th and 11th, were obvious to almost everyone.'

Today, war is more precise and more clinical. But the template is still the same. Decisions are made for others to prosecute. Mistakes are made for others to pay for. Sacrifices are made for others to commemorate. The lessons of Bullecourt are the lessons of Iraq and Syria.

Dr Kim Sawyer is a senior fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. His principal research interests are in whistleblowing, regulation, finance and philosophy.

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