On 3rd May 2017, a small group of us will meet up at the Church at Croisilles from about 3.30am onwards and then walk along the track road to Bullecourt from 4am following in the footsteps of my Grandfather, Jim Riley, who was serving with 2nd/5th King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, to arrive at the 187th Brigade, 62nd Division forming up position for 4.45am French Time(3.45am British time), which was Zero Hour for the battle, so we can remember the soldiers as they went into the battle.
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View towards the German Trenches from the 187th Brigade Forming Up position

The walk will then continue to Bullecourt and on to the Digger Memorial, where we will remember the Australians who fought during the battle and then retrace the route to Croisilles.

Anyone is very welcome to join us, at their own risk, for all or part of the walk. It is estimated that the whole walk will take about 3-4 hours. The walk is very flexible and at a leisurely pace to allow everyone to take in the atmosphere and remember those who fought here 100 years ago.

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Map of the walk route

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My Grandfather James William Riley, Private, 242748, 2nd/5th King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, wounded 3rd May 1917 during the Second Battle of Bullecourt
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The 62nd Division and the Second Battle of Bullecourt

Zero Hour was set for 03:45 British Time (04:45 French Time).

The objectives for the 62nd Division were to capture the Hindenburg Line to the East of Bullecourt and the village of Bullecourt. Once this had been achieved, the village of Hendecourt-lès-Cagnicourt, which lies to the north of Bullecourt, was to be captured. Finally, the Division was to form a defensive flank running from the west of Hendecourt-lès-Cagnicourt back to the German second-line trench. All three Brigades were to be used during the attack, with the 187th Brigade on the Left, the 186th Brigade in the centre, and the 185th Brigade on the right.

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62nd Division Map for the Second Battle of Bullecourt

The 2nd Australian Division, to the right of the 62nd Division, was to attack at 03:45 with the capture of the Hindenburg Line as its first objective. Its second objective was to capture the village of Riencourt-lès-Cagnicourt.

The German 49th Reserve Division and 27th Division held the Hindenburg Line in this sector.

At dusk on 3rd May 1917, the task of laying out the forming up tapes began on the Divisional front. Battalions not yet in the front line began their march to the forming up line. The moon was approaching its fullness and the early night was clear as the troops began to advance to the forming up line. However, at 02:00 the moon disappeared behind the horizon and the night became inky black. This hid the troops’ movements from the Germans. The troops had all reached their forming up positions by 03:30 and awaited Zero Hour.

It would appear that the Germans were aware of the impending attack, as a result of aerial reconnaissance and noting the changes in the pattern of British artillery activity. At 03:30 they started to lay down a heavy barrage in front of the Australian and British positions. This was initially directed on to the Australian and 185th Brigade’s front and gradually spread along the whole of the 62nd Division’s front.

At 03:45 the British creeping barrage began and the troops advanced into their first major action of the war. Immediately all the carefully rehearsed plans began to unravel. The weather had been dry during the past few days and this had baked the ground hard and dry. Consequently, the creeping barrage kicked up great clouds of dust into the air. This, combined with the smoke bombs and smoke from the guns, plus the fact that it was still dark, hid the objectives from the advancing infantry. Confusion reigned as soldiers lost their direction and battalions became mixed up.

185th Brigade
On the left flank of the Brigade, the 2nd/5th West Yorkshires found the wire well cut and were soon established in the German front line, south of Bullecourt. They then pushed on into the centre of the village an established two posts there.

On the right flank, the 2nd/6th West Yorkshires were met by heavy machine gun fire and suffered many casualties. The Battalion lost direction and drifted to the left, eventually overlapping the right of the 2nd/5th West Yorkshires.

Touch was lost for a time with the 2nd/6th West Yorkshires, but was temporarily re-established within the village near the church. A Company of the 2nd/7th West Yorkshires was sent forward in an attempt to find them. However, they suffered many casualties due to heavy machine gun fire. They had no choice other than to return to the cover of the Railway Embankment.

At mid-day, the surviving troops from both the 2nd/5th and 2nd/7th West Yorkshires were back on the Railway Line. There was still no contact with the 2nd/6th West Yorkshire Battalion.

186th Brigade
The Battalion on the right flank of the Brigade front, the 2nd/5th Duke of Wellingtons, found the wire well cut. They soon reached the German second line trench and made contact with th 2nd/5th West Yorkshires to their right. The 2nd/5th Duke of Wellingtons were then reinforced by the 2nd/8th West Yorkshires. Contact was maintained for several hours until it was broken due to heavy enfilade machine gun fire from both flanks.

However, on the left flank of the Brigade Front, the 2nd/6th Duke of Wellingtons were unable to advance as the wire remained uncut. The rear waves caught up with the leading troops and they all became mixed up. They were forced to take shelter in shell holes in front of the German wire. An attempt was made to cut the wire, but as soon as the troops came out in the open, they were subjected to machine gun fire from the north and bombing from the German troops.

By noon, the 2nd/5th Duke of Wellington and 2nd/8th West Yorkshire Battalions had been driven out of the German Trenches by bombing parties and had to shelter in shell holes.

Repeated attempts were made to advance during the day, however, none succeeded.

At mid-day, about 50 men from each of the attacking Battalions were sheltering in sunken road just in front of the forming up line.

187th Brigade
On the Brigade front, it was the left flanking Battalion, the 2nd/5th Yorks and Lancs, that found the wire well cut and reached the first and second lines without difficulty.

On the right, the 2nd/4th Yorks and Lancs found the wire to be insufficiently cut. Looking for a gap in the wire, they drifted to the left and became mixed up with the 2nd/5th Yorks and Lancs. There was now a gap between the 187th and 186th Brigades.

The 2nd/5th and 2nd/4th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry now advanced into the confusion. All the units became mixed up and momentum was lost The Commander of the 2nd/5th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, Lieutenant-Colonel W Watson, attempted to rally the troops and organise them to advance as a cohesive unit and capture the German trenches at about 04:20. Unfortunately he was killed as they tried to advance. All the other officers now became casualties and the attack became disorganised. The other ranks had not been trained to cope with such a situation.

At 08:45, a second attack was launched by Major O C S Watson of the 2nd/5th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. The attacking unit consisted of stragglers and carrying parties. Although they managed to reach the enemy wire, they were held up by machine gun fire and were forced to shelter in the shell holes opposite the German Trenches.

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View towards the German Trenches showing how open the ground is over which Major O C S Watson and his party advanced in full daylight

At mid-day, the surviving troops were either sheltering in the sunken road at U20.b, the German front line trench or in shell holes in the open ground between the sunken road from Croisilles to Bullecourt and the German front line trench.

Withdrawal to the British Front Line
Just after 17:00, the Divisional Headquarters issued orders for each Brigade to make every effort to reorganise their Battalions on the line of their original fronts and in their own sectors. Orders were also sent to the 7th Division to take over the 185th Brigade front as soon as possible. Withdrawal was effected at dusk. The 185th Brigade was relieved by the 22nd Brigade, 7th Division, with the exception of the 2nd/7th West Yorkshires, who remained and were placed under the command of the 7th Division.

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Sunset 3rd May 2007 looking from the German Trench position

The total number of casualties suffered by the 62nd Division on 3rd May 1917, is recorded in the Divisional History as 116 officers and 2,860 other ranks killed, wounded, or missing.

The 62nd Division were allotted 8 tanks from 12 Company, D Battalion, Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps, to assist them in the attack. The number of tanks used were insufficient to make any impact on the battle. As they advanced over flat, exposed ground, they were subject to heavy fire from armour-piercing bullets and shells. Some tanks managed to enter the village of Bullecourt, or cross the Hindenburg Line Trenches, and provided valuable assistance to the infantry by silencing machine guns and strong points. However, they either broke down, were put out of action or forced to retire.

The Australians
The 2nd Australian Division managed to capture and retain a section of the German first and second line trenches. They held onto these trenches despite heavy German counter attacks until they were relieved by the British 58th Division.

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Slouch Hat Memorial, Bullecourt