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Open Features: The Bloody Battle Of Bullecourt

Journalist David Hammond recalls a World War one battle in which many young men from the Yorkshire town of Huddersfield lost their lives.

A man phoned our news desk and asked: "Do you know that tomorrow is the anniversary of the battle of Bullecourt? The cream of young men from Huddersfield lost their lives that day.”

He rang off without giving a name or number, so when I was given the traditional editorial instruction – “See if there’s anything in it” – I was left with quite a bit of detective work to do.

My origins are on the opposite side of the Pennines, and I could tell you a bit about the doings of the 9th Bn, Manchester Regiment, or even whistle the regimental march.

But the history of the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment is not familiar territory to me. I must frankly admit that I had never even heard of Bullecourt. I decided, as a first step, to see if I could find out anything by a trip to Huddersfield Drill Hall.

There, the Adjutant showed me the huge 1914-18 memorial of the Regiment’s 5th Bn, with its long lists of many hundred names. Bullecourt was certainly among the battles listed there, along with more famous names like Thiepval, Arras, Ypres, Salient.

The next day I drove over to Halifax, to the old Wellesley Barracks, where the West Riding regimental headquarters occupy the one building still in Army use. Here, I was able to find information which vividly recalled the events in the French battlefields round the village of Bullecourt.

The Regimental Secretary, Lt-Col (ret) W Robins, told me that the telephone caller had been correct. The day I was visiting the headquarters, May 3, was, indeed, the 72nd anniversary of the 1917 battle fought near Bullecourt in the Arras area of northern France.

The 2/5th Bn of the Dukes, Lt-Col Robins explained, was one of several Territorial Army battalions involved in the encounter, and had suffered heavy casualties on that day. As this battalion had recruited mainly in Huddersfield and district, then no doubt many young men from the locality would have been killed or wounded.

The attack was made in waves, with other battalions and regiments involved, like the West Yorkshires (drawn from the Leeds area), the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, and the Yorks and Lancs (you can’t keep the Lancashire men out completely!)

The actual diaries made in the field at the time of the action are kept at Halifax – neatly typed up rather than handwritten as they would have been originally. So I was able to read through them, getting a fascinating glimpse of what took place on that fateful day in May. There was the highly-detailed account of the preparations for the attack, right down to the letters and numbers of the German trenches.

There was also a full list of the items of equipment to be carried by each soldier – rifle, grenades, sandbag, rations, and mat (to assist in getting over barbed wire).

So now, good reader, perhaps you would like to imagine with me that, instead of sleeping in your clean and comfortable bed on a May morning, you are one of the men from B Company of the 2/5th, getting up before dawn from your rough bunk in a muddy trench.

Maybe you joined the “Terriers” because your mates did, and it all seemed an exciting adventure. But now comes the crunch. You’re far from home and loved ones. You know today’s action will be bloody and violent. You are tense and fearful, knowing that the day ahead could quite possible be your last on this Earth.

The objective your officers have been given is “to capture the village of Bullecourt, and a portion of the Hindenburg line (a strongly held German position) to the west of it.”

By 3.30 am you are already up and kitted out. After a rum ration to warm you and provide a bit of Dutch courage, you set out, on the command, eight minutes before the scheduled zero hour of 3.45 am.

You have the grenades with you to “bomb” enemy trenches. Aircraft, you have been told, will drop flares to indicate when each objective has been achieved.

The going proves difficult, to say the least. You are scared to death when you meet “devastating machine-gun fire, and a terrific barrage of high explosive and shrapnel, opening up suddenly.”

Hidden concrete emplacements, you find, are protecting the enemy gun positions, making them very difficult to take. After seeing men fall at either side of you, you are one of the survivors who rally gallantly and press on into the Hindenburg line “through a tornado of bullets.”

At this point, your morale sags as you see one of your officers, Lt Walker, killed, as he is charging, rifle in hand, through the German wire. But your spirits rise a little when you see two enemy machine-guns captured, and their crews killed by grenades.

You are then one of a handful of men, led by Capt J Walker, Company Commander, who manage to push on, forcing a broken way towards the next enemy gun positions.

And now comes one of your worst ordeals. You are left to hold out for “three awful days and nights, with no water and only iron rations.” You are bombed and shelled almost continuously during this time.

On the second day the enemy tries to take you prisoner, but you and your mates manage to repulse the Germans. Then, on the third day, to add insult to injury, your position is blown in, not by the enemy, but by some of your own men – a mistake caused by poor communications between different groups.

With Capt Walker (“this very brave officer”), you are one of the few surviving wounded men who somehow contrive to fight your way back to the German outpost line in broad daylight, while fired at from every side.

After nine hours of stumbling, struggling progress, the officer manages to lead you home, “by a miracle.”

Despite all you have gone through, you and your mates are the lucky ones. You are soon hearing the stories of those who fared worse. Definitely dead are Capt and Adjutant T Bentley and Lt O Walker. Missing, believed killed, is 2nd Lt Jacobs.

Also missing are Capt G Glover, Lt G Ridley, MC, and 2nd Lts ET Sykes, Heaton, Darwent and Hutton. Wounded are Capt W Shaw and 2nd Lts A Fisher and Simmonds. Suffering from shell shock are Lt KC Leather and Capt J Walker.

Two non-commissioned officers and men have died, and 123 are missing. A total of 275 men have been wounded. It has certainly been a time to remember for you and the rest of the men of the 2/5th Bn, and not a happy one, either. Despite all the bravery, and the suffering, Bullecourt has not been captured.


Counting Cost of Campaign

The heroism shown by the Yorkshire soldiers during the fighting at Bullecourt was not forgotten.

When he came to write his book ‘The West Riding Territorials in the Great War’, Laurie Magnus wrote that, at the end of the action, “Bullecourt was still uncaptured, but its blood-soaked ridges and trenches had taught the Prussians the meaning of Yorkshire grit.”

Bullecourt was eventually taken on May 17. The 2/5th diary for that day states: “The 58th Division, on our right, attacked and captured the whole of Bullecourt.”

The sacrifice of lives in this battlefield does not seem to have had a significant effect on the war’s progress. Nor, indeed, does the whole of the campaign in the Arras sector, of which Bullecourt formed a part.

Lt-Col Robins said: “It is a sad fact about the Great War that the Germans would lose thousands of men defending a position, and the British would lose thousands of men trying to take it. Then, eventually, through higher orders, the position would simply be abandoned.”

Bullecourt, he said, had seen considerable losses for the Dukes, with around 400 casualties, though it seemed unclear just how many men had died. It was not just a sad time for people in the Huddersfield area, but for Skipton and Keighley, too, as many man from those towns had also been involved in the costly encounter.

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